With the excuse of bringing an end to large estates and idle lands, Cojedes’ governor Jhonny Yánez Rangel started expropriating lands, inspiring other governors to do the same. Chávez issued a decree on land reorganization, claiming that these weren’t hostile takeovers but inspections due to ownership mistakes, thus encouraging squatting, while the National Institute of Land and the Agriculture Ministry cracked down on private property. La Marqueseña is remembered as an icon in that rapacious fight against farms and estates, but properties of Polar in Barinas, Heinz in Maturín and Sideroca in Zulia all felt the blow.
Metropolitan mayor Juan Barreto expropriated 91 buildings in Caracas. Chávez chose to say that there couldn’t be a revolution without radically transforming land ownership, but no squatter was granted ownership of the occupied land, just a permit to exploit it. Billions promised for agricultural development were left infertile in who knows whose accounts.
With MVR’s simple majority, the National Assembly appointed 17 new TSJ justices and 32 deputies, including Francisco Carrasquero –who didn’t resign from his post in the CNE– and Luis Velásquez Alvaray, who would take the Revolution to the highest court. Ivan Rincón and Omar Mora squabbled over who would chair the TSJ and, a day after their appointment, Mora and Velásquez suspended judges for their political ideology, with vague procedural excuses. The goal? Beat justice down! I’ll sum it up like this: the Constitutional Chamber nullified the Plenary Chamber’s firm ruling on the events of April 11, 2002. Since then, it has wielded disproportionate power in service of the Administration.
And in Parliament
Nicolás Maduro became chairman of the AN with the votes of MVR and Manuel Rosales’ Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT). The Chamber approved the Ley Resorte – also known as the gag law – which, according to Chávez, was meant to put an end to the “media dictatorship.” They also approved the TSJ law and the reform of the Criminal Code.
Various human rights organizations denounced the impact that these unconstitutional laws would have on free speech, but all of those attempts were unsuccessful. The BCV law was also amended to allow the Executive Branch to manage monetary reserves at leisure, granting it control over the Development Fund (Fonden) already merged with the Macroeconomic Stabilization Fund (FEM).
The existence of a conspiracy to kill him became Chávez’s leitmotif. The only change in his 2005 version was the responsibility of U.S. President George Bush with the sole purpose of invading Venezuela and taking over its natural resources (does it ring a bell?). This obsession prompted him to suspend the military parade on June 24th. But then he travelled as he saw fit, visiting a dozen countries, with a noteworthy visit to Peru to assume the temporary presidency of the Andean Community of Nations, and he gave a million dollars to “settle accounts,” as he took some time in every stage to declare his anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist vocation, as well as to insult Bush. He founded Telesur and signed various agreements with oil at the core of his offer of “integration”. He also spoke at the UN General Assembly, asking for Security Council reforms.
Crisis with Colombia
Diplomatic, political and commercial, the crisis started with the kidnapping of Rodrigo Granda, FARC’s “top diplomat,” in Caracas. President Álvaro Uribe denied that the Colombian police had been operating in Venezuelan territory, but Chávez suspended all projects with Colombia. With his constant statements blaming the U.S. for masterminding Granda’s abduction, Chávez fueled the conflict, and State Secretary Condoleezza Rice became the preferred target of his attacks. Several nations offered their bona fides to end the conflict, but Chávez only accepted Cuba’s involvement. With Uribe’s visit, Chávez declared the issue resolved. Later, both would meet with Lula Da Silva and Rodríguez Zapatero to sign the Declaration of Ciudad Guayana.
Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez was appointed head of PDVSA, violating the company’s rules that would later be changed. Throughout the year, there were rumors of a potential sale of Citgo and PDVSA Services, but the most frequent news reflected output drops, workplace accidents, lack of investment and a huge operational deficit, consequence of laying off key staff. The lack of credibility of output figures became more evident when compared to the dollars that PDVSA and BCV had to sell by law: the company kept millions from those sales. In an interview, José Guerra, the former manager of economic research at BCV, showed the disparity in official figures: either they didn’t produce what they reported, or they didn’t sell the dollars they should’ve sold. Rafael Ramírez appeared before the AN to allegedly be questioned about this mess of missing or incorrect data, but it was merely a show planned by MVR to support one of their own.
All in red
Jorge Rodríguez was appointed CNE chairman, while Sobella Mejías and Oscar Battaglini remained in their posts. The TSJ appointed Óscar León Uzcátegui and Tibisay Lucena as CNE board members. The abstention in local elections held on August 7 surpassed 70%. The opposition failed to agree on the pertinence of running in parliamentary elections, because the CNE didn’t offer the minimal conditions to guarantee the secret vote, and even with OAS and the European Union as mediators, when the government didn’t meet all of their demands, they withdrew from the race.
With a 75% abstention, the National Assembly became the forum of MVR and its allied parties, with full power to legislate on their ideological project. Don’t forget that the TSJ ruled it was legal to allow two candidates of MVR-allied parties to run for ‘nominal’ and ‘list’ posts, (the famous “Morochas”) violating the system of proportional representation of political parties.
Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz accused Cecilia Sosa, Alan Brewer Carías and José Gregorio Velásquez of allegedly drafting Carmona’s decree. In Barrio Kennedy, three students of the Santa María University were murdered and others were injured when they were ambushed by 26 police agents (from DIM, CICPC and Policaracas) who were trying to avenge a comrade. It was so bad that Chávez was forced to issue a statement. Let’s also remember the assault by Metropolitan Police on Chacao Police headquarters under the command of Eduardo Semtei. The news about death squads in Portuguesa, Aragua and Guárico helped worsen the human rights situation and although the AN’s Interior Policy Committee established that Guárico governor Eduardo Manuitt was responsible, Nicolás Maduro rejected the argument, saying that it was inspired by political enmities. Prosecutor general Isaías Rodríguez paid dearly for his mistake of accusing Carlos Ayala Corao, former IACHR chairman, because that raised an alarm for many organizations and figures both within the country and abroad. Heavy rains left people injured, dead and homeless, as well as damaged roads in several states of the country. In Vargas, structures that were restored after the disaster of 1999 collapsed, showing their technical fragility. Resources were embezzled and social aid was politicized.
Gastón Parra was appointed head of BCV, while Nelson Merentes became Finance Minister, after Tobías Nóbrega announced that the bolívar had depreciated to Bs. 2,150 per dollar. The Executive Branch got a hold on several billion dollars after the BCV law was amended, and oil revenues financed greater levels of public spending. The gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 9.3%; inflation was at 14.36%, with a considerable boost in imports volumes. The black market dollar closed at Bs. 2,655.