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Archive for January, 2008

With more than 1300 recorded bird species within its boundaries, Venezuela promises some of the best bird watching in South America. Its flora and fauna are spectacular too, but rapid growth in the bird-watching industry has taken many by surprise.

turpialOne species that you won’t have a hard time sighting is the Turpial, Venezuela’s national bird.

The Turpial is one of about 25 or so species of “New World Orioles,” but don’t let the name fool you. This South American beauty has more in common with a hawk than the bright orange Orioles we are accustomed to seeing in the U.S.

During March and September, the birds breed in a most unruly fashion, steeling the nests of other birds as a part of their reproductive ritual. Violent attacks against native nesters are common, and can even end in the Turpial ingesting the eggs of young hatchlings occupying their newly coveted home. It’s no wonder they have come to be known as the “nest pirates” of the Caribbean.

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By now you’ve probably heard it said that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez likes nothing more than to “snub” the United States whenever possible.

What you may not have heard is that, most of the time, his policy initiatives are considered genuine attempts at fostering economic development for Venezuela and other countries in the region.

One such effort, the ALBA Bank, is being launched in Venezuela this weekend with government representatives from Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba. The ALBA Bank could begin with as much as $1.5 billion in capital to fund social programs and regional economic development, according to Venezuelan officials.

The bank is being inaugurated as part of the activities of the sixth summit of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas). It was also announced today that ALBA will include a cultural fund used to promote the production of books, movies, and fine arts in the member countries. The cultural fund will help preserve the popular and folk cultures that are unique to each country.

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Venezuela is known for its baseball players as well as its benevolence, both of which are featured in a New York Times article about Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins.

Santana is a legendary pitcher and, according to the Times, “the most coveted player on the trade market.” But it is in his hometown of Tovar, nestled in the Venezuelan Andes, that Santana is most revered.

Santana 1Santana has put his fame and fortune to good use in Tovar, sponsoring a toy drive for needy children and setting up a foundation to benefit the local hospital. He also bought a new fire truck for the town, and had it shipped there — no small feat considering the truck was made in Minnesota.

The two-time winner of the Cy Young award also throws an annual celebration in his hometown called “El Cy Youngazo.” Each November, Santana’s friends, family, and supporters gather to celebrate his success and his special place in the community.

Johan’s proud yet humble father, Jesus, told the Times: “I’m the same man I was before Johan got famous — I still enjoy hanging out with my friends and playing ball.” Now that’s a sports icon we can get behind!

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Today, Venezuelans celebrate the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of the notorious dictator General Marcos Pérez Jiménez. The Caracas newspaper El Universal reports that marches and rallies will be held, and the National Assembly is holding a special session to promote historical awareness.

In honor of the event, we provide the following analysis of the significance of the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship—and what happened afterward—in Venezuela.

pj 2On January 23rd, 1958, the authoritarian regime of Pérez Jiménez was rejected by citizens who rioted in the streets in protest of his attempt to remain in office through electoral fraud.

The overthrow of Pérez Jiménez was a rare instance of cross-class consensus in Venezuela. The Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coroníl has written that the mass movement was “a crystallization of collective discontent… against [his] increasingly arbitrary and personal rule.”

According to Dr. Coroníl, the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez quickly became Venezuela’s “origin myth of democracy.” Venezuela has since been known for having strong democratic traditions. However, scholars say that in the decades following the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship, democratic institutions were slowly eroded under a system known as “Punto Fijo,” which allowed two parties to share power with little debate in society.

When Hugo Chávez was elected as an outsider candidate in 1998, Venezuelan democracy was rejuvenated. The win may have come as a surprise to some of the old political elites, but, to the poor majority, it was a natural extension of popular frustrations with the crumbling system.

US-Venezuela relations flourished under Pérez Jiménez, for the despotic leader courted foreign investors. American industrialists proved willing to cooperate with his regime and ignore the abuses of his secret police.

In fact, ties between Pérez Jiménez and foreign business interests were so strong that in 1954, the US military awarded Venezuela’s last dictator the Legion of Merit.

Pérez Jiménez spent the years after his overthrow languishing in a mansion in Spain. When he died in 2001, a New York Times obituary stated that the dictator had been “feared and hated inside his country and mocked elsewhere as the prototype of the Latin American military despot.”

PJ 3In the United States, though, Pérez Jiménez was honored for his “virulent anti-Communism and his tolerant attitude toward foreign oil companies.” He was even nominated to be Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1955.

As Venezuelans celebrate 50 years of democracy, all of this would seem to suggest that the current president, Hugo Chavez, is better off for his bad reputation among Bush administration officials and a handful of profiteering multinational corporations.

Of course, Chavez remains a polemic political figure, and his role in Venezuela and throughout the Latin American region is frequently a topic of debate in the U.S. media.

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At a glance, Latin American literature can seem dominated by magical realism, the genre synonymous with Gabriel García Márquez and his momentous novel, 100 Years of Solutide. Venezuela never had its major author of the Latin “boom” period, but that doesn’t mean the country lacks literary traditions worthy of export.

gonzalezOne of Venezuela’s many under-appreciated authors, Adriano González León (pictured here), passed away earlier this month. He was best known for his book, País Portátil (Portable Country), which was published in 1968 and made into a feature film in 1979.

The tale of one rural family, País Portatil narrates the political and economic crisis of the 1960s in Venezuela. The struggle of each generation to overcome obstacles and stand up for their rights is an underlying theme – no surprise, for González is known for railing against the dictatorship of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez.

País Portátil is the best-known work by Adriano González León, but he hated the thought that his long career would be defined by only that book. González also wrote Viejo (Old Man), a novel that came out in 1995 and made an impression on at least one reader; Gabriel García Márquez once commented that he wished he had written it.

Others have called González’s writing “a different way of looking at the world” by combining poetry and prose in a unique style. He also used memory as a literary device to “create a dialogue between the present and the past.”

Like Latin American writers of his generation, González had a cross-over career as a politician; he served as Cultural Attache to the Venezuelan Embassy in Spain during the 1990s.

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The Caracas-based newspaper El Universal reports today that Colombian refugees in Venezuela will soon be eligible for micro-financing loans through a new program run jointly by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the government-run Banco del Pueblo Soberano (Sovereign Bank of the People).

William Spindler of the UNHCR announced the signing of the new micro-financing agreement last Friday. He explained that it gives low-interest loans to Colombian refugees and asylum seekers in the border states of Zulia, Táchira and Apure in order to promote self-employment projects in agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, and commerce.

The loans total about quarter of a million dollars, and are distributed among some 10,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers as well as 200,000 unregistered Colombians. Not only will beneficiaries receive start-up capital, they will also be eligible for training courses in business management, accounting, and other areas. The aim of the program is to stimulate economic development along the border of Venezuela and Colombia.

refugee idThis is not the first pro-refugee initiative undertaken by UNHCR and the government of Venezuela. Last February, Venezuela began issuing refugee identification cards to Colombians displaced by violence. The state of Apure alone received 2,800 requests for such cards, which gave children the right to attend school. Last summer, UNHCR opened two new offices on the Venezuelan border.

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ind menVenezuela’s new Minister of Telecommunications, Socorro Hernández, pledged to support the expansion of an innovative project that is putting Indigenous-produced content onto public radio in Venezuela. The Bolivarian News Agency (ABN) reports today that Hernández responded to a request for assistance from The Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, which is headed by Nicia Maldonado. The program in question is a co-project with Venezuelan National Radio (RNV).

Indigenous groups in six towns across the country have already begun to participate by creating and producing content that is broadcast locally in their native tongues. Infrastructure from the Telecommunications Ministry will help grant three more communities access to the airwaves.

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