Hugo Chávez: This Year’s Challenges and Opportunities


All 167 seats of the Venezuelan National Assembly will be in play this coming September, and the current 141-seat controlling stake of ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) appears to be at risk. Amid growing internal economic upheaval and violent street protests, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s embattled president, is facing a sharp decline in his personal popularity and the possibility of a significant gain by the opposition in the upcoming legislative elections. Chávez has continued to use his soapbox to concoct fiery speeches, earning him additional enemies and alienating his friends due to his pugnacious style of rule and confrontational habits.

Leadership: Consolidation and Corruption

Shuffling his cabinet in recent weeks, Chávez has tightened his circle of advisers to an unprecedented degree in a very short span of time. As his strategy to restore public faith in his government’s qualifications and to continue to serve his fellow Venezuelans oscillates, his recent call to further consolidate power among his supporters in the country has prompted concern among those in the international community who refused to acknowledge any claims to his worthiness. Some are troubled by what they see as a trend towards burgeoning autocracy in the country. Following a local banking scandal in early December, in which his brother Arne was implicated as a major player, Science and Technology Minister Jesse Chacon resigned from his post. He had been a close confidant of Chávez for years. The president reacted on national television by saying, “Jesse asked me if it would be best if he resigned, and I told him I thought it would.” Chávez’s reaction was part of a campaign meant to reassure Venezuelans that he is taking a principled stand regarding the scandal which involves other high-level officials of his administration.

A number of days ago, Chávez’s Vice President-and-Defense Minister-in-one, Ramon Carrizalez, also resigned, though he was careful to explain the move as a personal choice rather than one resulting from some disagreement with Chávez’s modus operandi. The subsequent resignation of Carrizalez’s wife, Environment Minister Yubiri Ortega, has prompted more suspicion, depending on whether one is a Chavista or one of those waiting for the opportunity to criticize Chávez’s style of governance. Carlos Machado, an agricultural expert at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración in Caracas explains, “one gets the impression that [Chávez] is working with a very small group of advisers, several of whom are now holding two or more positions at once.” For example, the country’s newly-appointed Vice President, Elias Jaua, will continue to hold his position of Agriculture Minister while assuming his new post. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jaua is known throughout Venezuela as one of Chávez’s most radically leftist protégés.

Rather than responding to fears of an increase in the centralization of power, President Chávez has done nothing to disabuse interpretations that the reshuffling of his cabinet is a bold move by what many see as an increasingly stressed leader. The losers in this act of game theory will have the greater incentive to make trouble for Chávez during the approaching September elections, because their instincts tell them that the old behemoth is ready to be slaughtered.

Possibly to influence September’s turnout, Chávez announced a redistricting effort in 7 of the country’s 23 states, including the major cities of Caracas and Maracaibo. There has been a vociferous backlash to this decision among his foes, who accused Chávez’s National Electoral Council of gerrymandering in the states of Amazonas, Lara, Barinas, Carabobo, Miranda, Táchira, and Zulia. Council President Tibisay Lucena denied this, claiming that the boundary lines were redrawn to reflect population changes. However, it is suspicious that the states affected by the redistricting were those in which opposition leaders had been able to make gains in 2008’s gubernatorial and mayoral elections. While Chávez has asserted, “We have an obligation to win this battle, and that means we must work very hard,” these recent actions make it appear as though he also ascribes to the expression “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Crackdown on Media Freedom: Is It For Real?

Chávez has long been a fan of the media spotlight, appearing on the government channel’s own broadcast, Aló Presidente, for a few hours every week. In-your-face and unapologetic, he has used his television program to lodge official threats, the most recent of which was a call for the mobilization of troops along the Venezuelan-Colombian border. The seemingly capricious and public nature of his decision-making process forces an impromptu follow-through that can often be rushed, muddled, and lacking in specifics.

Convinced he is going to be assassinated, or at least heaved out of office, Chávez, as a preemptive move, is cracking down on opposition media outlets as September’s National Assembly elections approach. In January, he ordered the temporary closure of RCTV International, a private media outlet that is openly critical of his policies. Amid claims that its corporate property, RCTV, was illegally denied a renewal of its free, over-the-air broadcast license in 2007 based on its participation in the 2002 attempted coup against the Chávez government, the network was forced to move to satellite and cable broadcasts, rebranding itself as RCTV International. The fact that RCTV’s international cable distribution headquarters is located in Miami is seen by some as an attempt by the network to avoid Chávez’s increasingly tough-minded broadcasting laws. However, Venezuelan authorities have ruled that since most of the station’s programs are domestic in nature, the facility still falls under the jurisdiction of Caracas’ agencies.

An RCTV International spokesman responded on January 23 to the most recent shut-down, saying “[The measure] is meant to silence the voice of protest of the Venezuelan people in the face of the failure of the government’s administration.”

Distracting from Domestic Problems

The outrage over charges that the government is restricting media freedoms is distracting some Venezuelans and outside observers from the bigger issue at hand: the content of the prohibited programming. The TV channels which have been forced to halt broadcasting, while primarily a source for nationally-revered soap operas and baseball games, were also feral in their criticism of the Chávez administration and his alleged ineffectual responses to the nation’s economic upheaval.

COHA recently covered the Venezuelan currency devaluation – the latest manifestation of Caracas’ questionable ability to respond to a growing problem of economic instability. Rather than deal with the mounting pile of financial problems and attempt to recover the fumbles lost on a string of initiatives on key issues, Chávez is reduced to unevenly distributing the burden of electricity and water rationing throughout the country in order to concentrate power (both electrical and political) in Caracas.

The rolling brownouts and electricity rationing have drawn anger from his supporters in the nation’s capital, and in a purely political, last-ditch effort to appease them, Chávez called temporary freezing of the rationing, but only in Caracas. Other regions of the country stand to lose access to vital resources as Chávez’s concessions are now being doled out to a diminishing base of support without a consequential political dividend. The electricity problems, to a major degree, stem from water shortages across the country. Venezuela today is facing the worst natural drought in nearly a century, made even more serious by the fact that the country relies on hydroelectricity for 70% of its power needs. It is difficult for observers, both within and outside Venezuela, to face up to the fact that one of the leading oil-producing countries in the world does not have an adequate infrastructure in place to manage the supply of domestic power in its own cities.

Also meant to be an indication of his great concern for the Venezuelan people, Chávez has been prepared to punish companies for disobeying the new devaluation laws that prevent suppliers from raising consumer prices. His Institute for the Defense of People’s Access to Goods and Services already has sanctioned 73% of the businesses for pricing violations since inspections began on January 11, 2010. Terming the practice of easing-up of retail prices, “speculation,” he is trying to mobilize the public against businesses who disregard his devaluation measures. Chávez has publicly lashed out at these businesses, stating the aforementioned demand that, “I want the national guard in the streets, with the people, to fight speculation.” Making enemies of business owners, those most likely to help spur economic recovery, will only increase opposition to the president in the long run from a prominent sector of society.

The Venezuelan president’s recent musings over his affinity for Karl Marx and Jesus Christ have also done little in the way of attracting new support for overdue economic reforms. In an attempt to guilt Catholics into approval of new fiscal policy, he stated, “Let’s put the brakes on this consumerist, capitalist insanity, that leads us to lose our spiritual values.” By forging a connection between his socialist policy and recent doctrines of the Church, Chávez is attempting to boost his popularity by emulating the pastoral findings of several recent Popes who have described capitalism as a “vulgar” desecration of the human condition.

Opportunities for Reconciliation

Hugo Chávez has less than 7 months left before next September’s legislative elections to find his stride and regain the momentum of his earlier meteoric rise as a popular leader. After a catastrophic January, Chávez needs to have something besides a prolongation of 2009’s mistakes on his agenda to maintain the PSUV’s dominance in the National Assembly, which could turn out to be a very spirited fight. For example, viewers were stunned when, during coverage of a baseball game, the bearers of a sign that read “Three strikes – crime, water, and lights, Mr. President, you struck out!” were arrested on live television. The image of Chávez as a repressive leader is beginning to encroach on that of the head of a great revolution, a jokester, and a stand-up comedian rather than a Pinochet-type dictator. On the contrary, Chávez has been a barker rather than a biter, and his human rights record has never been sullied. So, what do we have here? In order to inspire the Venezuelan people to return to his fold, he must return to the principles of democracy, not only in appearance but in reality, as well. That may mean that he would do well to break bread with the ideologues at RCTV, if only to steal their thunder.

The ominous atmosphere surrounding Venezuela’s current political environment is pushing the Chávez government to a precipice. Further restrictions on civil liberties and the demonization of business sector leaders and perceived antagonists to be found in neighboring countries only momentarily distracts the public from issues pertaining to the nagging trouble spots in the country’s domestic infrastructure that are eroding Chávez’s legitimacy from the inside. Contradictions resulting from Chávez’s policies will hurt him in restoring the faith of his people.

The president must make a sincere and public effort to dialogue with local leaders on resolving economic and infrastructure impasses. Grassroots support for the Bolivarian revolution remains its most powerful ally, and Chávez’s ability to reconnect with his natural political base through progressive, rather than imprudent and misguided public policy, is the ideal route for the revival of his public image and strengthening the relevance of his social and political projects.

28 thoughts on “Hugo Chávez: This Year’s Challenges and Opportunities

  • February 19, 2010 at 6:49 pm
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    There's so much wrong with this analysis that it's hard to know where to start. I what way does COHA contribute to Latin America scholarship by publishing an obviously google-researched piece which quotes only opposition sources and merely parrots the corporate media media spin, all done in a snide, superior manner that the intern-author has not yet earned the right to use.

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    • February 19, 2010 at 7:34 pm
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      Oh noes! Corporate media spin! Lighten up, Francis. Chavez is spinning downhill because of forces outside of his control and because of his own national mismanagement. The only place people still seem to swallow his empty rhetoric is in dim-witted academia and ill-educated "students" of Latin America.

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      • February 19, 2010 at 9:17 pm
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        On which planet do the people making these comments live? As an Ecuadoean who expects her country to follow Venezuela's horrible situation (electricity, food, medicines, rationings, a president that talks about himself on his radio talk (not about the country or about policies), never mentioning how he intends to solvethe people's problems, I think the article falls short ot the miserable reality that the Venezuelan people are facng right now. Ask what th few tourists allow to enter the country see and hear. It sounds like Venezuela is about to become anoher Cuba.

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    • February 25, 2010 at 11:03 pm
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      Mr. Kaufman, I am truly curious. What is it you like about a dictator who strips his country of freedom, enriches his buddies, and drives the entire economy into a ditch? (You may want to read the latest report about Chavez from the OAS.) I really do not understand.

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  • February 19, 2010 at 7:37 pm
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    I must agree with Chuck Kaufman. This so-called analysis is largely an unthoughtful re-issue of the regular stream of criticism that comes out of the US Embassy about Chavez (or Evo Morales or Daniel Ortega and any other elected president in the region who is to the left of Atilla the Hun. I have heard no comments from COHA about the remarkable concentration of power by newly-elected President Matinelli in Panama, nor about the extreme concentration of presidential power in the hands of Oscar Arias in Costa Rica. Of course those two are intimate allies of the US and take their cues from the Embassy on everything.

    This is not eh first time COHA, which I have respected greatly for more than 30 years, has stumbled badly in dealing wtih Chavez. Have you been infiltrated by some people from State? Let's get back to the kind of scholarship we have come to expect from COHA.

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    • February 19, 2010 at 9:18 pm
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      On which planet do the people making these comments live? As an Ecuadoean who expects her country to follow Venezuela's horrible situation (electricity, food, medicines, rationings, a president that talks about himself on his radio talk (not about the country or about policies), never mentioning how he intends to solvethe people's problems, I think the article falls short ot the miserable reality that the Venezuelan people are facng right now. Ask what th few tourists allow to enter the country see and hear. It sounds like Venezuela is about to become anoher Cuba.

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    • February 20, 2010 at 12:01 am
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      You are wrong, my friend. Probably you are not living in Venezuela – and have a basic need met. Venezuela is in a dire situation. But a new day is dawning and our democracy will not be lost.

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    • February 20, 2010 at 12:03 am
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      You are wrong, Morris. Probably you are not living in Venezuela – and have your basic needs met. Venezuela is in a dire situation. But a new day is dawning and our democracy will not be lost.

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  • February 19, 2010 at 8:42 pm
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    Uhmm….yes. Hugo Chavez is unfairly being singled out and the real threat in the hemisphere is that terrible, terrible Oscar Arias and his tiny Central American republic! I would challenge the rev. Fred Morris or Chuck Kaufman to live under a leader who, looming larger than life and repeatedly stating that he would like to remain in power for twenty years, slowly envelops an entire political society under his stifling, albeit not heavy-handed embrace. Chavez is not a murderer. However, he is a buffoon who has proven incapable of addressing serious socioeconomic issues in Venezuela. He has dredged up the old ills of caudillismo and personalism long after most thought them dead and buried. I am amazed at people still defending caudillos in an age when we should be stressing a decentralization of power and strengthening checks and balances in Latin American governments, not encouraging blowhard windbags.

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    • February 19, 2010 at 9:18 pm
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      On which planet do the people making these comments live? As an Ecuadoean who expects her country to follow Venezuela's horrible situation (electricity, food, medicines, rationings, a president that talks about himself on his radio talk (not about the country or about policies), never mentioning how he intends to solvethe people's problems, I think the article falls short ot the miserable reality that the Venezuelan people are facng right now. Ask what th few tourists allow to enter the country see and hear. It sounds like Venezuela is about to become anoher Cuba.

      Reply
  • February 19, 2010 at 9:54 pm
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    Some orthographic correction: "Instítuto de Estudias Superiores de Administracíon" should be "Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración". I would suggest a native Spanish speaker with good orthographic skills proof reads anything written in Spanish before releasing.

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  • February 19, 2010 at 10:13 pm
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    I believe COHA came short in describing how horribly missmanaged is Venezuela, after 11 years under this virtual dictatorship. After 11 years of Chavez, and 950 billion dollars wasted, Venezuela has no services, not enough electricity, not enough water, not enough food, no agriculture, no production of any kind, crime a its highest levels, corruption, disaster in health, education, etc. Except for the badly managed Oil Industry that it´s also in its worst period ever. Please!!! Those who defend Chavez should go to Venezuela and live there. So you learn first hand what is to live under this autoritarian clown…

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    • February 20, 2010 at 12:34 am
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      Good for you, Odra. Well said.

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  • February 19, 2010 at 11:55 pm
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    A very sound, objective analysis by COHA (at long last regarding Chavez). Congratulations!

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  • February 19, 2010 at 8:58 pm
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    The author writes "Venezuela’s embattled president, is facing a sharp decline in his personal popularity and the possibility of a significant gain by the opposition in the upcoming legislative elections. "

    Below is a recent poll th eauthor should easily have found on Venezuela Analysis.

    "Merida, January 3rd, 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – According to a study carried out by the Venezuelan Institute of Data Analysis (IVAD), Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s approval has dropped slightly, to 60.3%, from 62.4% last October.

    In May 2008 an IVAD poll said Chavez had an approval rating of 68.8%, and in October last year, 62.4%. IVAD polls tend to reflect greater support for the president than polls by opposition polling agencies."

    A useful article would have looked a various polls and acessed their likely bias (and track records).

    This article starts with a dubious assumptioin which is then used to support others that are even more dubious – among them that the business class must be appeased by the Chavez government.

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    • February 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm
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      Except that people are figuring out that a new corrupt business class has emerged around those benefitting from Chavez's government, even his own supporters aren't blind to it.

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    • March 4, 2010 at 9:08 pm
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      PRESIDENT CHAVEZ IS A BONA FIDE HERO OF THE POOR. I KNOW WHAT BEING POOR IS ALL ABOUT. BORN AND RAISED IN RACIST SOUTH TEXAS IN THE FORTIES, IN A TWO ROOM SHACK, AND DELIVERED BY A MIDWIFE – THERE WAS NO FREE HOSPITAL CARE IN MY ERA, AS THERE IS NOW WHERE EVEN ILLEGAL ALIENS ENJOY THE COMFORT OF A FREE HOSPITAL ROOM AND MEDICAL CARE – I LEARNED THE HARSH REALITIES OF POVERTY IN MY NATIVE TEXAS, AND IN THE 3rd WORLD, AS AN INFANTRY U.S. MARINE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA IN THE 60'S, AND FROM 1981 TO 1987, AS A COMBAT PHOTOGRAPHER – UPI, NEWSWEEK, DALLAS MORNING NEWS – AMONG OTHER NEWS PRINT MEDIAS, I ALSO LEARNED THAT THE CONDESCENDING TO THEIR GRINGO MASTERS i.e. NATIVE LATIN AMERICAN OLIGARCHS, ARE THE ONES AND ONLY ONES TO BLAME FOR THE INJUSTICES AGAINST THE POOR OF LATIN AMERICA, AND THE HUGE POVERTY THAT THE POOR FOLKS EXIST IN. THANKS TO THE GREAT HUGO CHAVEZ, HE AND HIS OIL WEALTH COUNTRY, THEY HAVE CHANGED THE LIVES OF MILLIONS OF POOR FOLKS IN A POSITIVE MANNER. BUT THERE STILL MANY FOLKS THAT ARE STILL SUFFERING BECAUSE OF FASCIST MORONS LIKE THE WRITER OF THIS POST THAT I AM REPLYING TO, AND NEO-NAZI THUGS LIKE MICHELETTI IN HONDURAS, THOSE PIMPS PRESIDENTS IN COLOMBIA, COSTA RICA, HONDURAS, AND PANAMA. I PAID MY DUES TO MY COUNTRY BY BEING EXPOSED TO CHEMICALS WHILE IN COMBAT WITH MARINES, AND AS RESULT I LOST MY LEFT EAR AND HAVE SUFFERED INTERNAL ILLNESSES FOR THE LAST FORTY YEARS BECAUSE OF THE CHEMICALS I WAS EXPOSED TO. I EARNED THE RIGHT TO CRITIZE MY COUNTRY, UNLIKE THIS IMMIGRANT WOMAN FROM EQUADOR, WHO IS A "VENDIDA". I'LL END MY COMMENT BY STATING: "VIVA HUGO",

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  • February 20, 2010 at 11:45 am
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    Remember that COHA has usually looked the other way on its analysis of undemocratic governments as long as they were anti-American! So Cuba has gotten the silk glove even though it is a dictatorship whose people have suffered human rights and economic hardships since 1960. The fact that Cuba is the model for Chavez should interest any student of Latin America.

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  • February 20, 2010 at 3:50 pm
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    Having grown up after World War II in Western Germany, I wanted to know, what fascism had done to our people and to the world, after having studied our respective history I am still ashamed, especially of that part of our history. But after having studied the exploitation of Latin and Central American resources and people during the last sixty years and observing what is going on by now I have the impression that the US imperialism is still much more dangerous for the entire world than Nazi-Germany could have ever been. Additionally, after having read this article my impression is the stuff of COHA has been infiltrated by those imperialistic interests too.
    You seem to join the corporate medias being so successful in demonization of leaders like Hugo Chavez, who is surrounded by agents of USAID, NED and DAI related to the CIA.
    Why don't you visit Venezuela and speak to the people? Why don't visit http://centrodealerta.org/documentos_desclasifica… at least?

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    • February 21, 2010 at 2:53 pm
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      I agree with you, but, the reality is that Venezuela was second, Cuba was already there with its 344 doctors and they coordinated with the Cubans who have trained Venezuelans for these kinds of emergencies. On everything else, I agree.

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  • February 20, 2010 at 4:15 pm
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    Has anybody of your stuff ever tried to go into the shoes of poor people having no opportunity of healthcare and education, but living in a country with great resources?
    Is it your perception of democracy when a small group of privileged people define their policy?
    Did you study the healthcare and education and alphabetization so that they can improve their living?
    Yes, Santiago Ybarra is right : "The fact that Cuba is the model for Chavez should interest any student of Latin America. " You really all should study the Cuban model, not by your home-made medias, but in Cuba. Please, go and see at the very place!
    However, the US government knows, why they don't allow common US Americans to travel to Cuba. They would not find there, what they had expected. I do know from my own experience, because our German medias are sychron to your's.

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  • February 20, 2010 at 4:30 pm
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    Has anybody of your stuff ever tried to go into the shoes of poor people having no opportunity of healthcare and education, but living in a country with great resources?
    Yes, Santiago Ybarra is right: "The fact that Cuba is the model for Chavez should interest any student of Latin America." Not only students should study the Cuban model, but also the COHA stuff. However, as long as common US people are not allowed to travel to Cuba and to see themselves what is going on there US medias can feel free to ly about the circumstances there.
    Only agents of USAID or DAI in order to fulfill the so called "Democracy Program" by subverting the so called dictaturship gaining to overthrow the "Castro regime" seem to be allowed to visit Cuba.

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  • February 20, 2010 at 7:49 pm
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    And by the way: enough of the dependency theory. I think it is quite reductionist, short-minded and very ignorant to continue coming up with political analyses based on these outdated theoretical categories. We need better and more creative approaches, so our ideas are truly productive and have a real impact on the public opinion.

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  • February 20, 2010 at 10:20 pm
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    My suggestion is that if you want to write about public opinion in Venezuela, or in your home town or anywhere for that matter, then, you should look at opinion polls and election results..
    This article failed to do that.

    And yes, Josie, COHA does seem to be becoming increasingly reactionary.

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  • February 20, 2010 at 11:02 pm
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    So the Venezuelan government claims Chavez has 60% support? I find that very hard to believe, considering the statistics dept. of every major Latin American government is full of sycophants who don't want to be the bearers of bad news lest they find their jobs endangered. And venezuelanalysis is hardly an objective source for news on Latin American affairs. If COHA is becoming reactionary, well I'd say it's about time.

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  • February 21, 2010 at 3:39 am
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    Latinobarometro's 2009 report found 45% support for Chavez three months before the IVAD poll. According to Latonmbarometro the low point for approval of Chavez came in 2003 (when it hit 35%) . In 2004, the year of the recal referendum it hit 43%. In 2006, year of his relection, it hit 65%. Election results, of course, depend not just on having supporters but getting them out to vote.

    The are no objectives sources of news, but it is possible to look up and evaluate evidence.
    People who throw out allegations of "dictatorship" and draw dweeping conclusions about public opinion without bothering to cite evidence do not deserve to be taken seriously.

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  • February 21, 2010 at 2:49 pm
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    I am disappointed with your quality control, recently COHA had to remove an article because of inexactitudes and now you publish and distribute an article that seems like a press release from the National Endowment for Democracy? I welcome critical thinking and fair critique of a government policies but the language used here is not professional or the level one expects in a policy related piece. If I want to read this kind of analysis I would turn on Fox News.This could have been said, with better editing in quite a different way. It would not have swayed my rejection of the distorted analysis but it certainly would tempered my remarks.

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    • February 22, 2010 at 3:52 pm
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      COHA is under no obligation to pander to your narrow view of how the world works. I believe the famous anarchist motto "neither gods nor masters" applies in this situation. Hugo Chavez is not a god, nor is he COHA's master. If that sounds too much like FOX news for you, I suggest you get your news elsewhere.

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