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Local News from Venezuela

By Sol Maria Castro

· CNE announces election date for governors and mayors Friday.

The National Electoral Council directorate will make a decision on the chronogram for the regional elections this Friday according to what Jorge Rodríguez informed this Wednesday. A technical evaluation presented this Wednesday states the elections for mayors and governors can be held between July 25 and August 1. Rodríguez informed the directorate approved the presence of national and international observers during the verification stage, one for each party interested (pro-government, opposition, OAS and Carter Center) at CNE headquarters and two in the external premises for each shift. Rodríguez also ratified the 30 day period to verify the petition for a presidential recall referendum started January 13, and so February 13 is the deadline for the CNE to give a response. The verification instruction manual for the Technical Commission to be used was also approved Wednesday.

· CD will organize march for January 23.

The umbrella opposition group Democratic Coordinator reiterated this Wednesday there will be a rally in Caracas on January 23 with the purpose of “defending the signatures” submitted to petition a presidential recall referendum. Miranda State Governor and CD coordinator, Enrique Mendoza indicated the 27 political organizations and 38 NGOs which comprise the CD will participate, thus denying rumors that there was a fracture in its unit. Mendoza asserted no opinion will deviate the group from the recall referendum objective.

· President Chávez to present State of the Nation Address today.

After failing for the second year to preside over the beginning of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice this Thursday morning, President Hugo Chávez will present his State of the Nation address at the National Assembly in the afternoon. The act scheduled at 3 o’clock, started an hour later when the President finally arrived. In the morning, the act also was delayed until Vice-President José Vicente Rangel arrived a half hour later.

· General Attorney asks INTERPOL to arrest four dissident military officers.

The General Attorney’s Office requested the International Police (INTERPOL) to arrest four military officers, National Guard General Felipe Rodríguez, Army Colonel Giuseppe Piliery, and Army Lieutenants José Colina and Germán Valera, who supposedly are in Florida pursuing political asylum in the United States. The four officers, who were part of the military officers who declared themselves in civil disobedience and camped out in Plaza Altamira over a year ago, have been accused of 39 terrorist acts, including the attacks with explosives against the Spanish and Colombian diplomatic sites in Caracas, and the murder of three soldiers and one companion.

· AN Comptroller’s Commission to investigate AN President.

The National Assembly Comptroller’s Commission decided to open an investigation against its President, MVR Francisco Ameliach, for receiving a salary without attending the AN as has been publicly shown. Ameliach who was re-elected as the President of the Assembly at the beginning of the legislative year, missed more than 80% of the sessions last year according to his own report of the year’s proceedings.

· Labor firing freeze decree renewed for eight more months.

The government decided to extend the duration of its firing freeze decree for the seventh time to September 30, taking it to 28 continuous months since it was first issued in April 2002. The decree, published in the Official Gazette (No. 37857) on January 14, will protect those workers in the private and public sectors who earn up to Bs. 633,600 a month starting January 16. When the firing freeze was first implemented, 1,420,385 Venezuelans were jobless; by November 2003, this figure was at 1,877,259. The government estimates the unemployment rate at 14% by the end of January while the National Statistics Institute estimates it at over 18%.

· The EMBI+ escalates because of the “little billion.”

The Emerging Markets Bond Index Plus used to quantify the risk factor the country represents to foreign investment began escalating as a result of the uncertainty the statements made by President Chávez on Sunday about intervening the Venezuelan Central Bank, BCV, generate. The index has reached 593 points, 50 points up in less than a week according to figures by the Ministry of Finances. During his weekly show, President Chávez compared the current situation at BCV to that of the former PDVSA, and gave it an ultimatum, because based on its Law and the Constitution, it refuses to grant him $1 billion from the international reserves to be invested in a new Seedtime Mission.

· Ministers approve request of $779 to BCV for Mission Seedtime.

The Minister of Agriculture and Lands Arnoldo Márquez handed over the Venezuelan Central Bank (BCV) a request for $1 billion to finance the 2004-2005 Agriculture Plan, approved on Wednesday by the Council of Ministers. The Minister explained that even though the Seedtime Mission amounts to $779 million as approved in the Council of Ministers, the request is for $1 billion “to invest it in increasing the number of sowed hectares.” Márquez said that the BCV directorate would have to decide on the financing mechanisms to be used to speed up the delivery of the money. The government hopes that the discussion on the issue in the bank will begin this week. President Hugo Chávez has claimed that the money should be received before the rainy season, at the end of April.

· President Chávez stops over at Cuba to render his report.

President Hugo Chávez made a stopover visit to Havana, Cuba on Wednesday on his way back home from the Special Summit of the Americas held in Monterrey, Mexico. He presumably met with President Fidel Castro, the only leader of the region who was not invited to the event. "It's a technical stop, and it should not last many hours," the Venezuelan embassy to Cuba said. Yet, the Cuban television station praised President Chávez’s performance in the Summit, and added the Venezuelan and Cuban heads of state “exchanged information and news during several hours at noon, and went over the cooperation agreement together” President Chávez was accompanied by several ministers and personalities of his country, among them the Ministers of Education, Health, and Communication, according to the televised report.

· Miami court dismisses case against President Chávez.

U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King dismissed the lawsuit presented by a Washington-based conservative legal group called Judicial Watch against President Hugo Chávez, saying the plaintiffs failed to serve their summons. Judicial Watch sued President Chávez and his Ambassador to India in January 2003 for $100 million in damages on behalf of a relative of a victim of September 11, based on allegations by Venezuelan Air Force Major Juan Diaz Castillo, a former Chavez’s pilot who defected to the U.S, who claimed President Chávez had ordered him to hand over $1 million to Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden, and pass it as humanitarian aid through the then Ambassador to India, William Márquez after the 9-11 attacks.

· Vice-president ruled out Venezuela will break relations with Chile.

Vice- President José Vicente Rangel ruled out Venezuela could make the decision of breaking diplomatic relations with Chile after both the presidents suggested the possibility. “Venezuela does not break relations with anybody; Venezuela is a peaceful country respectful of the international rights, respectful of the sovereignty of the states. It gives opinions, its points of view, but always respectful.” Vice-President Rangel is married to a Chilean, was once exiled in Chile, and is rumored to having plans to move there when he leaves office.

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