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21 August, 2010

Security Update: Venezuela

Boz (of Blogging by Boz) is perhaps my favorite Latin American hand publishing on the internet. This week he turned my attention to the violence that is wracking Venezuela. Writes Boz:

"Boz". Bloggings by Boz. 20 August 2010.
El Nacional reports that a government report from the National Institute for Statistics shows 19,133 people were assassinated in Venezuela in 2009. That is a rate of 75 per 100,000, higher than previously reported and one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere.

To compare, Colombia's murder rate is around 35 per 100,000, Brazil's is about 22 per 100k and Mexico's is about 14 per 100k. So Venezuela is facing a murder rate that is more than double Colombia's and more than five times Mexico's. It's not a surprise that the Chavez government, in power for over a decade, wants to censor that record of failure.

Update: Via Southern Pulse, that same INE report says that Caracas had somewhere between 200-220 murders per 100,000 in 2009. That number would make it more dangerous than Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Columbia and Mexico are often heralded as prime examples of "hollow" or "failing" states. That Venezuela, a country more prone to violence than either of these, is never given such a label is a credit to Mr. Chavez. As Boz notes, foreign outlets are so engrossed with the political antics of the President that they have completely missed the underlying structural problems that threaten the country's stability.

President Chavez's most recent actions may change this. The Economist reports:

The Economist. 19 August 2010.
In 1998, before Mr Chávez became president, there were 4,550 murders nationwide, a figure that had remained broadly constant for several years. Had it stayed there, more than 70,000 of those who met violent deaths in the past decade would still be alive today. But the numbers have risen inexorably, and in 2009, says Mr Briceño-León, the total was 19,113.

When he revealed the level of violence during a televised debate on CNN’s Spanish-language channel earlier this month, he was greeted with raucous laughter by Andrés Izarra, Mr Chávez’s former information minister. Mr Izarra, who used to work for CNN and now runs a rival, Telesur, for the Venezuelan government, accused the channel of “journalistic pornography”. But he did not produce any alternative figures.
One of Venezuela’s main newspapers, El Nacional, responded to Mr Izarra’s guffaws by devoting much of its front page to a photograph, taken last December, of bodies in the Caracas morgue.

The authorities announced that they would prosecute the paper for contravening a law protecting children and young people from violent images. Even so, four other newspapers reproduced the photograph. The country’s chief detective said the picture had been taken in 2006, and conditions had improved since then. But with the media barred from the morgue, the point was hard to prove.

Mr Chávez speaks on television and radio for hours on end, several times a week. But for years he has said little or nothing about rising crime. The strategy of ignoring the issue worked politically. In opinion polls, a majority did not hold him directly responsible. As the violence mounts, that seems to be changing. “People are beginning to blame the president,” says Saúl Cabrera of Consultores 21, a pollster. In one of its polls, taken in early June, 55% of respondents held Mr Chávez directly responsible for their most urgent problems, with crime at the top of the list. 

To judge by the reaction of official spokesmen this week, Mr Chávez’s people are well aware of the potential damage this might do in the election. The courts, which are controlled by the government, barred El Nacional from publishing any information about violence and then barred all print media from publishing any photos about the subject for a month.

El Nacional's  response to the ban caught the government by surprise. The newspaper's front page once again carried a story about violent crime. However, the picture that accompanied the story was a bit different:




It seems that Mr. Chavez has reached the limits of government censorship.

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