Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been handed a narrow loss in a controversial referendum on dozens of proposed changes to the constitution. Chavez had backed sixty-nine measures, including eliminating presidential term limits, creating forms of communal property, and cutting the workday from eight hours to six. But in a turnout of more than ten million people, 51 percent voted against the proposals versus 49 percent in favor. Addressing supporters in Caracas, Chavez conceded defeat by referencing his failed attempt to overthrow Venezuela’s government in 1992.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: “I congratulate my adversaries for their victory. We are made for a long battle. One can say here, now something that came from my soul fifteen years, ten months, less one day. It was noon on the 4th of February, 1992. For now, we couldn’t do it.”
Turnout was lower than expected at 55 percent. It was Chavez’s first electoral loss since winning the presidency seven years ago. Tensions with the Bush administration increased in the lead-up to the vote. On Saturday, Chavez threatened to cut oil supplies to the US over what he called ongoing political interference in Venezuelan affairs.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: “What I said yesterday was the ratification of a firm decision that we have made. If the government of the United States tried, once again, to intervene or tried to destabilize the government, we would not send any more oil to the United States.”
Last week, the Venezuelan government said it had obtained a secret CIA document plotting a destabilization campaign ahead of the referendum.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s political party has won a sweeping victory in parliamentary elections with more than 60 percent of the vote. Opposition parties are calling foul, alleging widespread fraud. The Communist Party says it will challenge the results based on some 100,000 alleged violations.
The Washington Post is reporting the CIA has used the headquarters of Jordan’s spy agency as a secret holding cell for prisoners captured abroad. At least a dozen non-Jordanian nationals have been held and interrogated at the General Intelligence Department over the past seven years. The Jordanian spy center was used to hide prisoners before they were sent to Guantanamo Bay or secret prisons around the world. Jordanian officials are said to have carried out the interrogations despite widespread allegations of torture. A report from a UN special investigator recently concluded torture is “routine” at the center amidst “total impunity for torture and ill-treatment” countrywide.
This news from Guantanamo Bay. A military judge has barred defense attorneys for a twenty-one-year-old Canadian prisoner from revealing the identity of prosecution witnesses testifying against him. Omar Ahmed Khadr is likely to be the first Guantanamo prisoner to go to trial. He has been in US custody since he was fifteen years old. Khadr’s military-appointed defense lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, said, “Instead of a presumption of innocence and of a public trial, we start with a presumption of guilt and of a secret trial.”
In environmental news, Australia has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, pledging to meet a global target on reducing emissions of greenhouse gas. It was the first official move for new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, coming right after he was sworn in. Rudd’s party beat the Bush administration-backed Prime Minister John Howard last week. Australia’s signature leaves the US as the only industrialized country not to have ratified Kyoto. Rudd has appointed the former lead singer for Midnight Oil, Peter Garrett, to the environment minister post. Midnight Oil was long an outspoken band known for its progressive views.
News of Australia’s ratification was met with applause at the opening of a global environmental summit in Bali. Thousands of government officials and environmental campaigners are gathered there for talks aimed at reviving the fifteen-year-old Kyoto deal.
Events were held around the world Saturday to mark the annual UN World AIDS Day. Here in New York, activists gathered to read the names of people who have died of the disease. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela staged a fundraising and awareness concert attended by some 50,000 people.
Nelson Mandela: “Tonight, we want to urge all of you to make a personal commitment to stop the spread of this disease. Together, we have the power to change the course of destiny. Yes, big ambitious plans are needed to deal with the pandemic.”
Government health officials in this country are now estimating the number of Americans infected with HIV each year is 50 percent higher than previously thought. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are up to 60,000 infections each year, up from the 40,000 figure seen over the last decade.
In Israel, the Supreme Court has OKed an ongoing cutoff of fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip. The cuts have been imposed since October in what Israel calls a response to Palestinian rocket attacks on nearby Israeli towns. Palestinians and aid groups have condemned the move as a violation of international humanitarian law. On Sunday, Gaza’s local fuel authority refused a delivery from Israel that was just one-fourth of its needs. The authority said accepting such low supplies would have amounted to endorsing collective punishment. Most gas stations in Gaza are reportedly closed. Hospital patients are at risk as fuel supplies for generators run low. Several patients have died in recent weeks awaiting Israeli approval to leave Gaza for urgent medical care. Palestinian bus driver Nabil Rajab said Israel is deliberately targeting Gaza’s innocent.
Nabil Rajab: “I believe that all of this is a conspiracy against the Palestinians. We do not want to be a victim of Israel. I came to buy fuel, and there isn’t any. How are we going to live? I am a bus driver, and it is the only thing that is still going on. Today our income is stopped. What are we
going to do?”
Israel is also preparing to cut Gaza’s electricity, but the Supreme Court has ordered a delay pending a challenge from several human rights groups.
Meanwhile at the UN, the Bush administration has pulled a diplomatic about-face on a resolution endorsing last week’s Israeli-Palestinian agreement in Annapolis. On Friday, the US withdrew the measure just one day after introducing it to the Security Council. Israeli officials say they had privately objected to the White House over concerns it could have granted the United Nations a role in future negotiations. The Annapolis agreement effectively removed the involvement of the UN, European Union and Russia. It foresees the US as the “sole judge” and arbiter of implementing the road map.
In Darfur, the UN’s top humanitarian official is warning of an ongoing crisis. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes says he saw a mixed picture on a four-day visit.
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes: “The picture is very mixed in different parts of Darfur. There may be areas of Darfur where the situation is improving, and there are other areas of Darfur where there has been recent violence and where the situation may be less good. And that’s the point I was making. And also the point I was making is that when we asked the IDP whether it’s safe for them to return, most of them — and this includes the ones I saw yesterday — say, 'No, it is not safe for us to return.' So that’s a very important part of that discussion.”
The Bush administration has asserted it has the right to kidnap foreign nationals wanted for crimes in the United States. In a statement to the Court of Appeal in London, a senior US government lawyer said American law allows for the kidnapping of British citizens. The statement was made in an extradition case of a British entrepreneur wanted in the US for tax evasion and bank fraud.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers have reached a deal that would raise fuel-economy standards in cars. Automakers will have to raise fuel efficiency by 40 percent: thirty-five miles a gallon by the year 2020. The current average is 27.5 miles per gallon, the same it’s been since 1984. In a major concession to the auto industry, the target will be considered an average rather than as absolute requirement. That means light trucks, including SUVs, could have lower standards so long as the combined average meets the thirty-five miles per gallon target.
The New York Times is reporting business groups are intensifying lobbying in Washington to beat the clock on the Bush administration’s departure in just over a year. Lobbyists say they hope to lock in policies and deals ahead of what they expect to be a less-business-friendly administration when President Bush leaves office. Lobbyists are pushing for new rules in health, safety, labor and the economy. Business groups want to weaken regulations granting workers time off for family needs and medical problems. Electric power companies are pushing for rolling back pollution-control requirements. Lobbyists are also pouring money into Democratic coffers in attempts to build new ties.
Here in New York, a new study says children exposed to the World Trade Center dust hold a higher risk of developing respiratory problems. Health Department figures show dust-exposed children were twice as likely to develop asthma as their peers. More than 1,500 children — half the total tracked — developed a new or worsening respiratory problem.
The radio host Don Imus returns to the airwaves today for the first time since his departure eight months ago. Imus was forced off of WFAN and MSNBC after he referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” Imus will now broadcast on radio stations owned by Citadel Broadcast Corporation around the country. It will be simulcast on television on the cable channel RFD-TV, owned by the Rural Media Group.
And in Jena, Louisiana, attorneys for the jailed black teen Mychal Bell say he is close to reaching a plea deal that would avoid a second trial. The seventeen-year-old Bell has already served nearly a year in prison for a schoolyard fight in which Bell and five others were charged with beating up a white student. Bell and the others came to be known as the Jena Six. The fight occurred several months after white students hung nooses from a tree under which black students had sat. An all-white jury convicted Bell of aggravated second-degree battery. Bell was set free on bail in September after an appeals court found he had been improperly tried as an adult. But weeks later, the same judge who wrongly tried him sentenced him to eighteen months in prison on charges pending from another case before the fight occurred. The case of the Jena Six has triggered one of the nation’s largest civil rights protests in years. Bell is scheduled to go on trial this coming Thursday.