TIME Venezuela

Venezuela’s New Opposition Leader Jesús Torrealba Takes on the Chavistas

Venezuelan Opposition Alliance Executive Secretary Jesus Torrealba speaks during a interview at his office in Caracas, Venezuela, Oct. 7, 2014.
Venezuelan Opposition Alliance Executive Secretary Jesus Torrealba speaks during a interview at his office in Caracas, Venezuela, Oct. 7, 2014. Fernando Llano—AP

Venezuela's opposition has tried and failed to beat Hugo Chavez's political descendants. Will a new leader make a difference?

In October 1958, the heads of the major political parties in Venezuela met at Punto Fijo, the Caracas home of former president Rafael Caldera. At the summit the political brokers agreed to share power between themselves—no matter who actually won future elections. For the next 40 years, Venezuela was essentially governed by a pair of conservative parties in what became called the puntofijismo. The left was sidelined and the poor largely ignored. The country, though, was prosperous and stable—up to a point.

Hugo Chávez came on the scene soon after the economy fell apart, partly thanks to a prolonged slump in oil prices that took a serious toll on Venezuela, a major crude producer. He campaigned for the presidency in the late 1990s, promising to end the puntofijismo and give a voice to the poor. “I am a product of history,” Chávez liked to say. He tirelessly toured the country’s less wealthy areas and went on to win the 1998 election in a landslide, redefining Venezuelan politics.

A decade and a half later, however, Chávez is dead and his successor Nicolás Maduro’s popularity is waning. One recent poll put Maduro’s approval ratings in the thirties, thanks in part to Venezuela’s annual inflation of more than 60%, shortages of the most basic consumer products and one of the world’s highest murder rates.

Yet, despite the widespread discontent, the country’s opposition still struggles to gain ground, limited in part by its perceived links to a failed old guard. Enter Jesús Torrealba, affectionately known as Chuo, a new executive-secretary of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable), the umbrella group which represents political parties opposed to the government. Torrealba was chosen in part because he is able to engage with the country’s poor—something the elite members of the anti-Chávez opposition have repeatedly failed to do. “I’m from the barrio,” he told TIME, adding that he has seen the failures of the socialist government first hand. “Those of us who were poor have stayed poor; those in the middle classes have become poor.” His job is to direct the disparate opposition and help pick the eventual presidential candidate that will take on Maduro in the coming years.

Torrealba is a former Communist Party member, community leader and a presenter of the TV show “Radar of the Barrios,” a program where h gave the poor a chance to voice their anger. He is aiming to attract people like bread vendor Ernesto López, who wears a Chávez t-shirt in the Caracas slum of 23 de enero. López demonstrates the long odds Torrealba will face—there is little chance the 60-year-old will vote for the opposition, even though López, like many in his neighborhood, isn’t happy with Maduro’s performance. “At least we don’t have the dictatorship of puntofijismo,” López said. “They wanted to rob Venezuela’s riches for themselves and we don’t want to return to that.”

Torrealba insists he does not want to go back in time to the days of conservative rule. “A return to the past is neither desirable nor possible,” he said. Torrealba is hoping to make electoral headway for the Venezuelan opposition in National Assembly elections late next year. A good showing in that vote would pressure the government and bolster a potential recall referendum against Maduro in 2016. If not, the opposition would have to wait until 2019 for the next presidential election. “It’s embarrassing that in 21st century Venezuela, we’re debating communism versus capitalism, as if the Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen, as if the Soviet Union hadn’t gone through perestroika,” said Torrealba.

Torrealba, 56, was born in Catia, a poor sector in the west of Caracas. He worked as a journalist and teacher as well in activism and, in line with his working class credentials, is more gruff in dress and character than many of his colleagues in the MUD. He wants to take advantage of Venezuela’s natural resources, including the world’s largest oil reserves. Chávez hoped to channel oil wealth to the poor by launching welfare programs—however, critics say much of the money was largely squandered through inefficiency, incompetence and corruption. “We should be looking to construct a Venezuela that has a quality of life similar to the Nordic countries, though with a Caribbean twist,” he said, giving a nod to prosperous Norway, which avoided the “oil curse”—where countries with bountiful natural resources tend to underperform economically—that has befallen so many oil-rich nations.

Henrique Capriles, who twice lost presidential elections against Chávez and Maduro over the last two years, understood that he had to shed his wealthy image in order to attract those who were disaffected by Chávez and Maduro. Despite his family’s wealth, on the campaign trail Capriles would wear a tracksuit, ride into the country’s slums on his motorbike and play basketball with the locals. “I’m not the candidate of the old establishment,” he told TIME in February 2012, before winning opposition primaries. He lost to Maduro by less than a quarter of a million votes in April last year. He still considers himself the opposition’s leader and may well go on to be the MUD’s presidential candidate again.

But Torrealba will have his work cut out. Silvana Lezama, 20 years old and studying communications at the leafy Monteávila University in Caracas, took part in anti-government protests earlier this year, but isn’t impressed by the opposition’s new leader. “We need a leader that motivates us and I don’t feel motivated at all by Torrealba,” she said. Luis Vicente León, a local political analyst, added: “It’s a tough challenge but Torrealba is capable.” Few protesters were interested in the MUD-led opposition that was personified by characters like Capriles and López. They just wanted a change, with little notion of how it would come about. Torrealba must tap into both the energy of protesters and the disaffected poor—and convince them that the days of puntofijismo are long gone.

TIME France

Carlos the Jackal Will Be Put on Trial for a 1974 Grenade Attack in Paris

FRANCE-VENEZUELA-TRIAL-CARLOS
Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, right, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, arrives at the Criminal Court of the Palais de Justice in Paris on Dec. 9, 2013 Bertrand Guay—AFP/Getty Images

The convicted terrorist is already serving two life sentences for a series of killings in France in the 1980s

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, nicknamed Carlos the Jackal, is to be tried for a 1974 grenade attack in Paris that killed two people and injured 34, the Guardian reports.

The notorious Marxist terrorist from Venezuela, who was convicted of a series of attacks on French civilians in the 1980s, is already serving two life sentences in a French prison for several high-profile murders. One sentence, handed down in 1997, is for the murder of a civilian and two policemen.

The other, announced in 2011, is for organizing a series of attacks in the 1980s on two French passenger trains, a train station in Marseille, and a Libyan magazine office in Paris. The attacks killed 11 people in total and injured about 150.

Ramírez has denied involvement in the attacks.

On Friday, a source told the Guardian that a French judge was planning to send Ramírez, 64, to a special court in the French capital, where he will get a third trial, this time on charges related to a 1974 grenade attack at a Parisian drugstore.

[Guardian]

TIME Venezuela

Long Sentences Given in Miss Venezuela’s Slaying

Monica Spear
In this photo released by Miss Universe, Monica Spear, Miss Venezuela 2005, poses for a portrait ahead of the Miss Universe competition in Bangkok on May 23, 2005 Darren Decker—AP

The beauty queen and her husband were killed while attempting to resist a highway robbery

(CARACAS, VENEZUELA) — Three men who confessed to killing a former Miss Venezuela and her husband in a crime that shocked a nation increasingly accustomed to violence have each been sentenced to more than 20 years in jail.

The sentences were handed down Tuesday by a court in Valencia, near where Monica Spear and husband Thomas Henry Berry were slain in January when they resisted a robbery attempt while they were stranded on a lonely stretch of highway. Five more defendants remain on trial, Venezuela’s Supreme Court said.

Oil-rich Venezuela has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, and President Nicolas Maduro has said combatting violent crime is one of his top priorities.

Spear was a 2004 Miss Venezuela and popular soap opera actress.

TIME Venezuela

Venezuela’s Maduro Courts Chavez Faithful With Government Shake-Up

President Nicolas Maduro talks during a meeting with ministers at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Sept. 3, 2014.
President Nicolás Maduro talks during a meeting with ministers at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Sept. 3, 2014. Reuters

With the opposition posing little threat for now, Nicolás Maduro's real challenge is keeping the left—particularly supporters of the late Hugo Chávez—united behind his leadership

“Our Chávez who art in heaven, the earth, the sea and we delegates,” began María Estrella Uribe, a red-clad supporter of Hugo Chávez at the lectern of a Socialist party convention in Caracas earlier this month.“Hallowed be thy name… Lead us not into the temptation of capitalism, deliver us from evil and oligarchy.”

The latter part of the prayer to the former Venezuelan President was answered just a few days later, when Rafael Ramírez, the country’s oil minister minister and vice president responsible for the economy, was sidelined. A longtime lieutenant of Chávez, Ramírez had lately begun pushing to overhaul the struggling Venezuelan economy. In June, on his way back from an Opec meeting in Vienna, he took a detour to London to meet investors. His aim? To re-establish “communication with financial markets.” He wanted to refinance the country’s debt by tapping the international markets and talked publicly about raising the price of heavily-subsidized gas (the government loses out on some $12.5 billion a year to ensure that Venezuelans pay no more than a couple of cents per liter at the pump).

But he was pushed aside by Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, who, ever since he won a Presidential election last April, has struggled to get a grip on spiraling inflation and shortages of basic goods such as flour and shampoo. The crisis has knocked Maduro’s popularity—his approval ratings languish in the mid-thirties—and even fanned speculation in some quarters about the possibility of a default (the government insists it will honor its obligations down to last dollar).

Maduro announced Ramírez’s departure from the oil portfolio on Sept. 2, moving him to the foreign ministry in a televised speech billed as the great sacudón or shake-up. “We must begin a new stage in the revolution,” Maduro said, naming Chávez’s cousin, Asdrúbal, as the country’s new oil chief. Rodolfo Marco Torres, who participated in Hugo Chávez’s failed 1992 coup attempt against the then government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez, took over as the new vice president for the economy. Ramírez also lost his post as the head of the national oil company.

The reshuffle signaled another lurch to the left for Maduro as the souring economy takes its toll on ordinary Venezuelans. Ramírez’s move out of oil ministry also underscored the President’s main challenge—maintaining the support of the thousands of Venezuelans who backed Chávez. The opposition—divided as it is between a radical flank led by the still-imprisoned Leopoldo López and a more moderate faction spearheaded Henrique Capriles—poses little threat, at least for now. February saw the biggest anti-government protests in Venezuela in over a decade as students took to the streets. But the momentum behind that movement has waned. “The students have other priorities,” says Carlos Romero, a Venezuelan political analyst, “to finish their studies, to look for a job or to go abroad.”

Maduro’s real problem is keeping the left united behind his leadership, a challenge that is apparent in the Caracas slum of 23 de Enero—a well known bastion of the left and the place where Chávez and his co-conspirators planned the 1992 coup attempt. “Things are going from bad to worse,” says Winifer López, 20, a nurse who lives in the slum. “I always supported Chávez. He was wonderful for this country. But what on earth made him leave Maduro in charge?”

For Romero, the government reshuffle is a signal that “Maduro believes that a radical path would mean he will have more support from Chavistas [supporters of the late leader].”

“He does not like to be seen as a reformist, rather as a true believer of socialist ideas, of the legacy of Chávez,” Romero adds. “In order to maintain his popularity he has to be more radical to project him as a strong leader. That is why he moved Ramírez.”

TIME Venezuela

Venezuelan President Announces Mandatory Fingerprinting at Grocery Stores

People stand at the checkout line at a supermarket in Caracas
People stand at the checkout line at a supermarket in Caracas on Aug. 21, 2014. Carlos Garcia Rawlins—Reuters

The measure is meant to end food shortages

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced Wednesday that the country will introduce a mandatory fingerprinting system in supermarkets. He asserted that the plan will keep people from buying too much of any single item. The president did not say when the measure would go into effect, the Associated Press reports.

The Socialist Venezuelan government has struggled with food shortages for over a year. Basic cooking items like oil and flour are scarce. The administration says that the shortages are a result of companies speculating and people smuggling food out of the country.

Critics argue that the new system—which was tried on a voluntary basis in government-run grocery stores this spring—is equivalent to rationing food.

[AP]

TIME Venezuela

Armed Forces Push Residents Out of ‘World’s Tallest Slum’

As part of a governmental initiative, squatters are being removed from their residences by armed forces.

On Tuesday, Venezuelan armed forces began the process of forcing out residents at the Tower of David, the nation’s tallest slum, the government’s “Great Housing Mission.”

The 45-story building, originally built to be a high-rise bank, was never completed and abandoned, then taken over by people in need of shelter.

Prior to the start of the evacuation, the slum acted as home to over 3,000 squatters, many of whom have resisted their removal. The building is also home to businesses including a beauty salon, multiple bodegas, and an unlicensed dentist.

TIME Money

And the World’s Most Expensive City for Expats Is…

Caracas, Venezuela
View of Central Caracas. Getty Images

Down and out in Paris and London? Try spending a year in the world's biggest cost sinks, Venezuela, Angola or South Sudan

A new ranking of the world’s most expensive cities for expats knocked the usual candidates — New York, Tokyo and London — off of the list. The true epicenters of sticker shock were Venezuela, Angola and South Sudan.

Global staffing firm ECA International surveyed prices in 440 cities, focusing on items that expats were most likely to buy on a daily basis, including groceries, clothing and bar tabs. The cities that topped the list tended to fall in one of two areas: Wealthy swathes of Scandinavia and economies coming apart at the seams.

Caracas, Venezuela topped the list after runaway inflation hurdled the city from 32nd place to 1st in one year. Surveyors found price levels 40% above the second costliest city: Oslo, Norway. Luanda, Angola came in third partly due to import tariffs that have hiked the price for a half-liter tub of vanilla ice cream to $31. Rounding out the list was Juba, South Sudan, where a 90 kilometer drive along one of the only continuous roads to the outside world can take upwards of 24 hours to navigate, according to the World Bank.

The list offers a stark reminder that outside of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, the real sticker shock tends to hit the people who can least afford it.

Global Rank 2014 Country City
1 Venezuela Caracas
2 Norway Oslo
3 Angola Luanda
4 Switzerland Zurich
5 Switzerland Geneva
6 Norway Stavanger
7 Switzerland Bern
8 Switzerland Basel
9 South Sudan Juba
10 Denmark Copenhagen

Source: ECA International

 

TIME Venezuela

Venezuelan Capital Hit By Fresh Wave of Riots

Anti-government demonstrators marked Easter Sunday by burning effigies of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas

A fresh bout of violence broke out on Sunday in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, the BBC reports.

Demonstrators opposed to the government of President Nicolas Maduro were beaten back by police with water cannons and tear gas after launching petrol bombs in the district of Chacao. Other masked protestors burned effigies of the president in a day of demonstrations entitled “Rally for Democracy.”

The demonstrations began in February when protestors demanded action against Venezuela’s high rates of crime and food shortages, and spiraling inflation rate. Over 40 people have died in the continuing violence, with hundreds arrested. Supporters of the president have also been protesting, with tens of thousands of people dressed in red taking to the streets. But many within the opposition movement have vowed to keep demonstrating until Maduro leaves power.

“We’re staying in the street until we get our country back,” 22-year-old student leader Djamil Jassir told the BBC.

[BBC]

 

TIME Venezuela

Venezuela Arrests One Mayor and Imprisons Another in a Widening Crackdown

VENEZUELA-POLITICS-OPPOSITION-PROTEST
Venezuelan opposition students take part in a protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on March 19, 2014. JUAN BARRETO—AFP/Getty Images

Intelligence agents arrested the mayor of San Cristobal, a city of 250,000 near the Colombian border, for aiding a "civil rebellion"

Venezuelan intelligence agents arrested the mayor of San Cristobal on Wednesday, while another opposition mayor was sentenced to 10 months in jail for dereliction of duties.

According to Reuters, both mayors stand accused of allowing protesters to barricade city streets, and in the case of the arrested mayor, supporting “irrational violence.”

At least 31 people have died in clashes between protesters demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro and police trying to reestablish control over opposition strongholds.

[Reuters]

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