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As Cuba And U.S. Mend Ties Will Venezuela Follow Their Lead?

By Jim Wyss, Miami Herald (TNS)

BOGOTA — For years, Venezuela has called Cuba its political role-model and ideological godfather, adopting many of its socialist policies and its anti-imperialist rhetoric. Now that Cuba and the U.S. seem bent on mending ties, however, Caracas may have trouble adapting, analyst said.

Wednesday’s laundry-list of economic reforms, which include more trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, along with restoring full diplomatic ties, make many of Maduro’s fiery speeches ring hollow, said Jesus Seguias a Caracas-based political analyst and pollster with DatinCorp.

“Nicolas Maduro is facing an enormous dilemma,” he said. “How is he going to justify his anti-imperialist politics when his principal ally has become an ally of the empire?”

He said the Maduro administration will be forced to change its rhetoric or risk being an increasingly isolated voice in the region.

Wednesday’s announcement won plaudits from across the hemisphere, including Maduro who said it may have been the “most important decision” of President Barack Obama’s presidency. The Union of South American Nations, Unasur, offered to help the United States improve ties in the region.

But the rapprochement comes at a time when Venezuela needs an enemy. The country’s socialist economic policies have featured falling growth, record-high inflation and shortages of everything from cooking oil to toilet paper. Maduro has blamed the problems on his political foes and the United States — and not his socialist policies that include Draconian price and currency controls, and expropriations.

Tanking fuel prices are also gutting the national budget, threatening popular health and housing projects that are key to the government’s waning support.

The crisis is casting a shadow over Venezuela’s PetroCaribe aid program, which sends hundreds of thousands of barrels of highly subsidized oil to allies in the Caribbean and Central America.

Cuba alone gets 100,000 barrels a day from Venezuela — a vital lifeline for the Cuban regime that pays for the fuel in kind by sending doctors and military advisers to Venezuela. Venezuela’s economic collapse was likely on Cuba’s mind as it pursued talks with the U.S., analysts said.

“Given the economic disaster in Venezuela today any rational person dependent on Venezuelan financial support would have to be looking at other options,” said Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

But Venezuela may have hope yet. Even as the United States pursues closer ties with Venezuela, Obama has a bill on his desk that would impose targeted sanctions on Venezuelan authorities who helped crack down on anti-government protests earlier this year.

The sanctions won’t touch the general population, as they’re largely aimed at denying visas and freezing assets of government officials. But the Maduro spin machine is likely to hype up their impact, Arnson said.

“The sanctions on Venezuela will serve the exact same function” as the embargo on Cuba, she predicted. “It’s a way of deflecting attention from the failure of the government and onto the U.S.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Some In Congress Balk As White House Plows Ahead With Cuba Policy

By Jim Wyss, Miami Herald (TNS)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Even before President Barack Obama announced sweeping changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba on Wednesday, his congressional opponents were vowing to undermine any attempt at rapprochement.

With Republicans in control of the House and Senate next year, opposition to reforms could be stiff, but it’s unclear how much Congress can push back against the White House.

Congress does control the purse strings and might use its power to deny funding to build an eventual embassy in Havana, or withhold financing from sections of the State Department tasked with normalizing relations with the island.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), for one, said he would use his role as the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee to block the reforms, calling them a “a terrible setback for the hopes of all oppressed people around the globe.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., went further and said Obama may have broken several laws by acting unilaterally, including the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Trading with the Enemy Act.

“The White House attempts to normalize relationships with Cuba without the approval of Congress may be in direct violation of Helms-Burton that specifically states that all political prisoners must be released and free and fair elections must be held before establishing a diplomatic relationship,” she said in a statement. “This misguided action by President Obama will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental freedoms, and disregard democratic principles.”

Senior administration officials insist that Obama was well within his rights to make the reforms via executive decree.

Along with seeking full diplomatic ties, the changes will expand the types of goods that can be exported to the island — including material for residential construction, agricultural machinery and much-needed telecommunications equipment. In addition, U.S. companies will be allowed to do business with Cuban companies not on the island; remittances to Cuba will be increased from $500 to $2,000 per quarter; and financial institutions will be allowed to set up branches in Cuba.

But there are still barriers in place. Despite increasing commercial ties, trade with state enterprises, for example, remains prohibited. And while there are 12 broad categories of people who can now legally visit the island, U.S. law prohibits general tourism.

“We are basically doing everything we can within the statutory limitations to facilitate travel to Cuba,” said a senior administration official who was speaking on background.

For the most part, Obama has gone about as far as he can before bumping into the restrictions imposed by the Helms-Burton embargo law, said Gary Clyde Hufbauer with the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the co-author of the book Economic Normalization with Cuba: A Roadmap for US Policymakers.

Obama’s actions would likely be limited to marginal changes, like further relaxing travel restrictions, or raising the $160 per-diem that business executives are restricted to on the island. He could also direct the Federal Aviation Administration to begin certifying Cuban panes to ease travel back and forth.

“But to be honest, he may be near the end of his string” on potential reforms, Hufbauer said.

“If Obama really wanted to be gutsy he could argue that Helms-Burton is an unconstitutional infringement on presidential power,” he said. “But that would be a poke in the eye to Congress.”

The Helms-Burton legal framework continues to be a roadblock for U.S.-Cuba relations, said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

“There continue to be limits of large scale trade and investment. But Obama has ample authority to bypass restrictions when it would serve U.S. interests,” he said in an email from Cuba. “It is reasonable to expect more trade, more communication and more cooperation between the two countries. Short of repealing the embargo legislation, if the U.S. decides to remove Cuba from the list of states that support terrorism that would also have important implications for more U.S. financing in Cuba.”

While Florida lawmakers are bound to fight to keep the embargo in place, they will increasingly see pressure from business and other moderate lawmakers, analysts said.

“The level of opposition among most Republicans towards the policy shift is probably not as defined as it once was as the perceived threat by Cuba toward the U.S. has faded,” the Eurasia Group, a U.S. analytical firm, wrote to its subscribers Wednesday. “But those GOP lawmakers representing the Cuban community will remain implacably opposed to any move to normalize relations with Cuba as long as the Castro brothers remain in power.”

Cuban leader Raul Castro acknowledged that Obama’s hands are tied. But on Wednesday, he asked the U.S. leader to keep using his executive powers to chisel away at the embargo.

“I call on the government of the United States to remove the obstacles that block or restrict the ties between our countries,” he said.

But Congress could do its own pushing back. Besides starving initiatives of funding, it could also simply complicate things. By reducing the number of people who approve visits to Cuba, it could create a bureaucratic backlog, Hufbauer said.

But in some ways the embargo may already be mortally wounded, said Peter Schechter the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.

“For all practical purposes what President Obama has done today is end 55 years of sanction policies,” he said. “We can say that we have arrived at the beginning of the end of the sanctions regime for Cuba.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

In Venezuela, Cheap Gasoline Prices Stir Debate

By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald

BOGOTA — When Venezuela recently announced it was considering raising the price of the world’s cheapest gasoline, it didn’t spark a rush to the pumps. Such threats have come and gone in the past and still it’s cheaper to buy a gallon of gas than a bottle of water.

Even as fuel subsidies cost the country an estimated $12-$15 billion a year and have spawned powerful smuggling rings, the administration has been reluctant to budge.

At the root of the inaction is the political cost for an administration that has seen its approval rates plummet and told its followers that cheap gas is a birthright in a country with the world’s largest oil reserves.

There are also fears that increasing prices might spark a repeat of the 1989 Caracazo riots, which were brought on, in part, by fuel and transportation hikes, said Victor Alvarez, a researcher and economist at the Centro Internacional Miranda think-tank.

In reality, however, the subsidies are benefiting smugglers and the car-owning middle class even as they deprive the needy of resources, he said.

“What’s truly anti-populist and reactionary is to maintain a subsidy that is hurting the poor,” he said during a conference Thursday titled “Gasoline prices: the need and consequences of an adjustment” broadcast by the Ultimas Noticias newspaper.

Gasoline costs roughly five cents a gallon in Venezuela. A vehicle that might cost $60 to fill in the United States could be tanked in the South American nation for less than a dollar. By that calculation, a family that fills its car once a week benefits from subsidies of more than $3,000 a year, Alvarez said, even as “the people who really need it are those Venezuelans who have to walk — not families with three, four, or five cars.”

The debate comes as the administration is trying to deal with its subsidy problem amid a flailing economy. The socialist administration has price controls on a wide array of products, which has spawned widespread smuggling. The government estimates that from 40 to 50 percent of all goods are spirited into neighboring Colombia where they can fetch five times more money.

That’s led to hoarding, speculation, and shortages of even basic goods. It’s also contributed to the country’s punishing 62 percent inflation rate.

On Thursday, the government said that since it stepped up its efforts to crack down on contraband less than three weeks ago, it had seized 641 tons of food, 308 tons of cement and iron re-bar, and more than 100 gallons of fuel.

And more controls are in the works. The government plans to set up cameras along the border and roll out thumb-print scanners at grocery stores by November to cut down on hoarding. The plans for biometric control have raised hackles and drawn charges that the socialist administration wants to instate Cuba-style rationing.

Venezuela’s gasoline prices haven’t budged in 17 years, but rumors about an imminent increase are frequent. The latest round of speculation began early this month when the head of the state-run PDVSA oil company Rafael Ramirez, said the president was considering a “national debate” about raising prices.

“We’re the country that consumes more gas per capita in the world and we have the cheapest prices on the planet,” he said at the time. But Ramirez also assured the nation that prices would not match international levels.

With National Assembly elections slated for next year and Maduro’s approval rating already in the dumps, some believe the gas hike isn’t imminent.

“The government is unlikely to undertake politically difficult policy measures, including a gasoline price hike, given its fears over associated political costs,” Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, wrote in Thursday’s edition of the Inter-American Dialogue‘s “Latin America Energy Advisor.”

Photo via WikiCommons

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U.S. Imposes Travel Restrictions On Venezuelan Officials

By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald

BOGOTA, Colombia — The U.S. State Department Wednesday imposed travel and visa restrictions on Venezuelan government officials accused of human rights violations during widespread protests that have left more than 40 dead.

“With this step we underscore our commitment to holding accountable individuals who commit human rights abuses,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said in a statement. “While we will not publicly identify these individuals because of visa record confidentiality, our message is clear: Those who commit such abuses will not be welcome in the United States.”

The move comes amid deteriorating bilateral relations and just days after the nations engaged in a diplomatic tug-of-war over Venezuelan Gen. Hugo Carvajal, who is wanted in the United States on drug charges. Carvajal, the former head of Venezuela’s military intelligence, was detained in Aruba for four days at the request of the United States. But the island nation, under pressure from Venezuela, ultimately sent him home rather than wait for an official U.S. extradition request.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) called Wednesday’s sanctions “long overdue” but said they need to be tougher.

“Not only should we deny visas to (President Nicolas) Maduro’s cronies but we should also expand those visa restrictions to immediate family members of human rights violators and freeze their assets and property in the U.S.,” she said in a statement. “Only by hitting the thugs of the Maduro regime in their pocketbooks will there be a real opportunity to help foster a new era in Venezuela.”

U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been on the rocks for years, and the two have not had ambassadors since 2010. But tensions have been escalating since student-led protests spread nationwide in February. Hundreds have been injured and at least 42 died — on both sides of the political divide — amid a government crackdown.

Civil rights groups have denounced the government’s heavy-handed tactics, including the jailing of opposition political figures. In May, the House of Representatives approved a sanctions bill, but it stalled in the Senate despite having bipartisan support.

There was no immediate response from the Venezuelan government, but in the past the administration has accused the United States of working with Venezuela’s opposition to overthrow Maduro.

“We emphasize the action we are announcing today is specific and targeted, directed at individuals responsible for human rights violations and not at the Venezuelan nation or its people,” Harf said.

AFP Photo

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Venezuela Opposition Leaders Call For U.S. Sanctions Amid Simmering Political, Economic Crises

By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald

BOGOTA, Colombia — The United States has a moral “obligation” to impose sanctions against Venezuelan leaders accused of violating human rights and other crimes, opposition figures said Friday.

During a forum in Doral, Fla., about the future of the South American nation hosted by El Nuevo Herald and the Association of Venezuelan Journalists Abroad, government critics said a sanctions bill that passed the House in May is necessary to ratchet up pressure against the Nicolas Maduro administration that is straining beneath one of the worst political and economic crises in decades.

“The United States, which has been a promoter of international conventions,” against financial crimes and human rights violations “has the obligation to be coherent and defend them,” said Beatrice Rangel, a former Cabinet minister during the Carlos Andres Perez administration and the executive director of ALMA consulting.

Horacio Medina, the head of the Miami branch of the opposition coalition known as the MUD, went further, saying the U.S. government hasn’t had a coherent policy toward Latin America since the Alliance for Progress under the John F. Kennedy administration.

“Regardless of whether you agree with the targeted sanctions that are being considered, the only thing I would ask the government is that ‘For the love of God, sit down and design a policy for Latin America,'” he said to applause from the audience.

The debate comes as some are asking the United States to take a stronger stance against Venezuela amid student protest that began in February and led to at least 42 deaths, mass arrests, and the detention of key political figures.

The House of Representatives passed a bill in May targeting individuals who committed or ordered violence, human rights violations, or illicit arrests and prosecutions during the protests. The bill also targets those who knowingly “assisted, sponsored, or provided significant financial, material, or technological support” in the commission of the violence and arrests. Punishment would include blocking assets in the United States and denying or revoking visas.

The White House and State Department contend the sanctions are premature and play into Maduro’s hand — allowing him to blame the country’s troubles on the U.S. rather than his own failed policies.

Earlier this month, however, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told members of the Latino community that he backs the bill, raising hopes that it may become law.

Friday’s debate also comes as Venezuela’s opposition remains deeply divided and has been unable to translate its passion on the street to victory at the polls.

Among the participants at Friday’s forum was Carlos Vecchio, the national coordinator of the Voluntad Popular political party, who is facing criminal charges for his role in the February demonstrations. His party’s leader, Leopoldo Lopez, has been jailed for five months awaiting trial on similar charges. On Friday, his wife and family said the government is denying them their constitutional right to visit him.

Vecchio insisted that the opposition needs to work with “pro-democracy” factions within the ruling party to find a constitutional way out of the crisis before the next presidential election in 2019.

“This fight is not between the people,” he said. “The fight in Venezuela is between the people who are suffering — both government supporters and the opposition — and the corrupt elite who are in power, they’re practically a kleptocracy.”

What began as student protests over soaring violence and a faltering economy — featuring the hemisphere’s highest inflation and sporadic shortages of basic goods — turned into national demonstrations that paralyzed large swaths of the country.

The protests have largely died down but the political fallout continues. Maduro and others have said the protests were cover for a U.S.-backed coup attempt and have accused several prominent opposition figures of plotting assassination.

AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez

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Venezuela’s Troubled Times: Maduro’s First Year In Power

By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald

BOGOTA, Colombia — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro often says he never wanted the country’s top job. Instead, the 51-year-old former union organizer and transportation worker says he’s simply following the orders of the late President Hugo Chavez, who asked him to carry on the Bolivarian Revolution.

The last 12 months prove how tall El Comandante’s order was.

Since taking office April 19, 2013, Maduro has faced a tanking economy, soaring crime, food shortages, deadly protests, and questions about the contested election that brought him to power. His embattled administration also says it’s the victim of Middle Eastern terrorists, Chinese mercenaries and shadowy conspiracies launched from the United States, Panama and Colombia.

What is clear is that Maduro’s tenure has been troubled from the start. Chavez’s death from an undisclosed form of cancer March 5, 2013, triggered snap elections that pushed his hand-picked successor and longtime foreign minister into an intense campaign.

Maduro won with just a 1.5 percent margin in a race that the opposition contends was rigged. The ensuing protests left at least 11 dead and drove speculation that Maduro — who never graduated college and is often derided as the bus driver he once was — didn’t have the mettle to hold the reins of Latin America’s fifth-largest economy. And that was all before he put on the presidential sash.

“Maduro never enjoyed a honeymoon period because his legitimacy and the legitimacy of his victory have always been in question,” said Edgar Gutierrez, a Caracas-based political consultant. Most leaders, even those who win tight races, enjoy a post-victory bump in the polls that gives them leeway to roll out reforms, he said.

Instead, Maduro has been on “precarious political ground” from day one, he added.

But even as Maduro inherited Chavez’s problems — namely, the second-highest murder rate in the world after Honduras, and the region’s highest annual inflation rate at 57 percent — he has remained Chavez’s most loyal ally. He often works from the hillside crypt where his former boss is buried and he says he relies on El Comandante’s guidance from beyond the grave to navigate the nation’s troubled waters.

His first months in office had all of Chavez hallmarks: He doubled down on the populist social policies, or “missions,” that were Chavez’s trademark, and savaged his rivals as “coup mongers” and “fascists.”

“Instead of trying to reconcile with the part of the country that didn’t vote for him to expand his political base, he started governing for the 25 to 30 percent that were his most ardent followers,” said Carmen Beatriz Fernandez, a political analyst with DataStrategia in Caracas. “It was rule by an extremist for extremists and that has led to national polarization.”

Maduro claims it’s the opposition that’s on the fringe. Since taking office, his administration has denounced what it says are more than a dozen assassination attempts and hundreds of acts of sabotage. During the protests that have roiled the nation since February, officials said they captured a Chinese “mercenary” and a “Middle Eastern terrorist” who were working for the opposition and plotting mayhem. Former U.S. diplomats have been accused of planning Maduro’s murder. The government rarely provides proof of the allegations.

Maduro also blames the “oligarchy” and business elite for the “economic warfare” he says is driving inflation and producing shortages of everything from flour, chicken and toilet paper despite Venezuela’s boasting the world’s largest oil reserves.

During his 14 years in power, Chavez had the charisma and political savvy to pin the country’s problems on his foes, said Agustín Blanco Munoz, a historian at Caracas’ Central University who interviewed the deceased leader on several occasions. But Maduro simply doesn’t have the chops to play that role, he said.

“This is a Chavez government without the liveliness and clarity of Chavez,” Blanco said. “And the continuation of Chávez without Chavez isn’t producing the best results for the country.”

But Maduro has confounded those who underestimate him. In the run-up to a key municipal race last December, he essentially declared a national fire-sale, forcing retailers to slash prices and capping company profits at 30 percent. The “fair prices” law spurred a shopping frenzy as Venezuelans lunged for televisions and stereos at steep discounts.

When it was time to hit the polls a few weeks later, voters seemed grateful. Despite predictions of a government rout, the ruling PSUV party and its allies won 76 percent of the mayoral races.

The economic move “was like a sugar rush that helped Maduro win” the race, said Gutierrez, the political analyst. “But after the rush comes the crash. And that’s led us to where we are today.”

The Venezuela of “today” is mired in street demonstrations since February that have left at least 41 dead on both sides of the political divide and more than than 500 injured. The opposition says it’s simply exercising its right to peacefully protest the government’s failing policies. Maduro claims the demonstrations are a thinly veiled coup attempt backed from abroad. He has ousted U.S. and Panamanian diplomats in response.

The government also has seized on the protests to isolate some of its most strident critics. Over the last two months, the administration has jailed Leopoldo Lopez, the head of the Voluntad Popular party, and two opposition mayors. The government also stripped opposition Deputy Maria Corina Machado of her seat.

That has left more moderate members of the opposition in “peace talks” with the administration, begining last week. The negotiators have vowed to free their jailed and exiled comrades, but it’s not clear the government will give ground.

Blanco, the historian, says Chavez, and now Maduro, have been effective in dividing and weakening the opposition.

“Yes, there are problems, but this administration will continue in power because, fundamentally, there’s not an opposition that can defeat them,” he said.

“Maduro has military support, the power of petroleum and the support of the ‘social army,’” Blanco said, referring to the millions who benefit from government programs like free housing, health care and education. “And of course, he has Cuba’s political support — and advisers there have a proven track record of being able to hold onto power during the worst of times.”

Others aren’t convinced that Maduro is invulnerable.

“The main variable affecting Maduro’s longevity will be the government’s ability to improve the economy, since the catalyst for any future transition will not be the opposition but rather discontent spilling over into chavismo’s base,” Risa Grais-Targow, with the New York-based analytical firm Eurasia Group, wrote in a letter to clients.

Although Maduro says new economic reforms are coming as soon as next week, it’s unclear how effective they will be at squelching inflation and reviving productivity. “As a result, the economic outlook will likely remain challenging, which implies that the potential for discontent to rise will remain high,” Grais-Targow wrote.

Some in the opposition believe they can stop Maduro’s ascent during the 2015 legislative race or, perhaps, during a 2016 recall.

But Maduro has proved his critics wrong in the past.

“This year has been a powerful demonstration that (the opposition) can’t defeat us through protests, violence, elections or an economic war,” Maduro recently told a crowd. “They will not come back.”

AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez

Venezuela Factions Agree To Formal Talks To End Months’ Long Crisis

By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald

BOGOTA, Colombia — In what might be the first step toward ending Venezuela’s two-month-long political crisis, the government and opposition leaders agreed Tuesday to begin formal peace talks that will be mediated by the Vatican and the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador.

The agreement came after the two sides held an “exploratory meeting”’ earlier in the day to lay the groundwork for negotiations.

As he left the meeting, Vice President Jorge Arreaza said the talks would “touch on every issue that’s of interest to the country” and “lead toward justice and peace.”

Arreaza said the date of the first meeting would be set this week.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the executive director of the coalition of opposition parties known as the MUD, said both sides had agreed to televise their first formal meeting.

“This process has to take place in front of the world and Venezuela,” he said.

Even at this preliminary stage, however, some opposition voices were warning against capitulation.

Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of metropolitan Caracas, told Union radio that he was skeptical of the government’s intentions.

“For me, it’s one thing to engage in dialogue and it’s another to surrender,” he said.

Former opposition Deputy María Corina Machado, who has been at the vanguard of some protests, said talks shouldn’t take place unless all demonstrators were freed.

Since the anti-government protests began in earnest Feb. 12, the administration has arrested two opposition mayors and Leopoldo Lopez, the head of the Voluntad Popular political party. More than 2,285 protesters have also been temporarily detained and 192 are still in jail, according to government figures.

“We cannot have dialogue with students detained, mayors detained and (Lopez) detained, and while there’s repression,” Machado wrote on Twitter. “Students and the forces that are driving the protests have to be a part of the discussion.”

In the past, the MUD has called for the release of all “political prisoners” as a precondition to talks. But it’s unclear if those demands are still on the table.

What began as student-led protests in early February over soaring crime and a faltering economy have evolved into a nationwide demonstration that has left at least 39 dead on both sides of the political divide. President Nicolas Maduro, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, has accused the United States and other governments of using the protests as cover to try to topple his socialist administration.

Aveledo said the plight of students would remain at the center of the agenda, and that negotiators would seek solutions “within the framework of the constitution.”

“The best antidote to violence is respect for the constitution,” he said.

Along with Aveledo, Lara State Gov. Henri Falcon and Omar Barboza, a leader of the Un Nuevo Tiempo political party, represented the opposition at Tuesday’s meeting.

On the government’s side were Maduro, Arreaza, first lady Cilia Flores, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua and Jorge Rodríguez, the mayor of Libertador, part of Greater Caracas.

Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate who is often seen as the standard bearer for the opposition, said the talks did not mean “giving up principles.”

“The people have every right to protest against the thousands of problems that don’t have solutions in our country,” he wrote on Twitter. “No one can take away that right.”

On Tuesday, Organization of American States Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza urged the opposition to negotiate.

“If they have preconditions, they should go to the dialogue and say they want this or that,” Insulza told the Miami Herald. “And then we can talk about other things, but they should not refuse going because that will be a mistake.”

AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez 

Venezuela Factions Agree To ‘Exploratory Meeting’ Aimed At Ending Crisis

By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald

BOGOTA, Colombia — Venezuela’s coalition of opposition parties on Tuesday said it had agreed to an “exploratory meeting” with the government that might lead to formal talks aimed at ending the country’s two-month-long political crisis.

In a statement, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the executive director of the coalition known as the MUD, said his group had been informed that the government was willing to discuss their agenda and had agreed to mediation by a third party.

“In that context, we agree to … an exploratory meeting with the aim of establishing the conditions for a public dialogue with a date and hour to be determined,” Aveledo said.

The statement comes as foreign ministers of the Union of South American Nations, or Unasur, have been trying to bring both parties to the table. If the meeting does take place, it might help bring an end to anti-government protests that have left at least 39 dead on both sides of the political divide and paralyzed parts of the country.

On Monday, President Nicolas Maduro announced that he would be meeting with the MUD on Tuesday. But the opposition said that, while it favored dialogue, it needed guarantees to negotiate, including a fixed agenda, and that the meeting be mediated and televised. In prior days, the opposition had also called for the release of all “political prisoners” before sitting down at the table. It’s unclear if that condition still stands.

Since the protests began in earnest Feb. 12, the government has arrested three opposition mayors and Leopoldo Lopez, the head of the Voluntad Popular political party. More than 2,285 protesters have also been temporarily detained and 192 are still in jail, according to government figures.

While the MUD does represent an important portion of the opposition, it doesn’t speak for all of it. And it’s likely that some factions will not join the talks.

Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of metropolitan Caracas, told Union radio Tuesday that he was skeptical of the government’s intentions.

“For me, it’s one thing to engage in dialogue, and it’s another to surrender,” he said. “What does the government want? The surrender of the democratic alternative, or to open a path toward living in harmony?”

What began as student-led protests in early February to decry soaring crime and a failing economy evolved into a nationwide demonstration that has rattled the year-old Maduro administration. Maduro has accused the United States and other governments of using the protests in hopes of toppling his socialist government.

AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez

Venezuela Rolls Out New Plan To Keep Shelves Stocked

By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald

BOGOTA, Colombia — Call it fingerprints for food. In the latest effort to keep shelves stocked in Venezuela, the government on Tuesday will begin registering the biometric information of customers who use state-run grocery stores.

President Nicolas Maduro says the measure will prevent hoarding and help keep price-controlled food from being resold for a profit on the black market. Food Minister Felix Osorio said those who sign up for the program by registering their fingerprints will be eligible for discounts and prizes.

But critics warn that the scheme — which is not mandatory for the moment — will be one more way for the state to keep tabs on the population, or may be a precursor to rationing.

The initiative, called the Superior System for Secure Supplies, comes amid a raft of economic measures rolled out amid anti-government protests that have dragged on for almost two months leaving at least 39 dead on both sides of the political divide.

On Friday, the government enacted a law giving tenants of more than 20 years the right to purchase the home they’re living in. The government will set the “fair price” in these enforced sales.

Also last week, the government inaugurated a mechanism to buy and sell dollars called Sicad 2. While the administration is keeping the official exchange rate at 6.3 bolivares to the dollar, the new system, which in theory is free-floating, was selling bolivares at 49.80 to the dollar Monday.

Sicad 2 is only designed to cover about eight percent of the nation’s demand for dollars, but the implied 690 percent devaluation is expected to exacerbate already record-high inflation and has administration opponents on the offensive.

“This is a government that attacks the people not only with weapons but with the worst tax: inflation,” Luis Florido, a national officer of the Voluntad Popular opposition party, said Monday. “The government is creating economic (chaos) for the people of Venezuela.”

Even so, economists had been calling for flexibility in the currency system, saying it will ease the country’s budget burden and may help tame the black-market dollar, which is trading at about 67 bolivares — down from about 80 just a few weeks ago.

Signs of Venezuela’s economic malaise abound. Inflation is running at 57 percent — the region’s highest — and shortages of basic food items have spawned hoarding and speculation.

On a recent weekend, the line to get into the Bicentenario supermarket in central Caracas wrapped around the sides of a massive atrium and then curled in a tight concentric circle as more than 800 people shuffled along waiting for a chance to buy mundane items, such as rice and toilet paper.

Deep inside the jostling sea, Eugenia Crespo, 33, thought the snarled line at the state-run store might be a good sign.

“Usually when there’s no line, it means they don’t have anything,” she said.

Crespo would end up waiting three hours to get inside (the lines at the registers to get out also took more than an hour), but by the time it was her turn to scour the shelves what she was looking for was gone.

“There was no chicken, no beef, no butter,” she said after the ordeal. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”

Both Sicad 2 and the food program are aimed at alleviating those shortages — and the lines.

At the root of the problem is not enough foreign currency in a country that imports about 75 percent of all goods. Sicad 2, in theory, gives importers a chance to buy dollars.

But the auction is far from transparent. The government is not saying how many dollars are being issued in the market and on Monday the U.S. based Eurasia Group said there were signs that authorities were restricting dollar sales and keeping the bolivar artificially high.

“We continue to believe that the government will likely impose restrictions that limit its effectiveness,” Eurasia said in a statement. “The government remains internally divided over the direction of foreign exchange policy and is prone to ad-hoc policy measures, which suggests that the window for Sicad 2 to have an impact on scarcity, inflation and the parallel rate may be relatively small.”

The impact of the shopping cards also remains to be seen. Last year, in the state of Zulia, the governor tried to implement a rationing system at state-run stores but aborted the plan amid a backlash. This time the roll-out has been more muted. And Maduro says the program will deliver results.

“Once we get started,” he said, “we’re going to take food contraband to zero.”

AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez