By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – President Hugo Chávez announced a reshuffle of his ministerial Cabinet, although in reality the changes amounted to something more like a restructuring of the old team. It looked a bit like musical chairs played by people who already knew each other rather well.
In the absence of new names in top posts, the principal innovation was the nomination of six vice presidents including the incumbent, Ramón Carrizález, who also took on the defense portfolio.
Planning and Development Minister Jorge Giordano, who’s become a regular feature in government line-ups over the years, similarly went up the pecking order to take overall charge of “economic-financial” affairs.
However, while this might have looked like Giordani was being made some sort of super-minister or overlord in the economic sphere, this wasn’t actually the case.
Science, Technology and Intermediate Industries Minister Jesse Chácón – another more than familiar face as well as a former comrade-in-arms of the president – was given a vice presidential brief to handle “economic-productive” matters.
Just where this duality at the top left Finance Minister Alí Rodríguez Araque wasn’t immediately clear. Apparently, he kept his job, and is to join Carrizález, Giordani and Procurator General Gladys Gutiérrez on a new committee charged with shaking up “administrative processes.”
The impression that the president was consolidating rather than shaking up his government gained strength from a decision that Energy and Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez – now also a veep – would also take on “territorial development.”
Time was when Chávez talked about reorganizing the internal structure of the country on the basis of a new division into “national territories” – an idea that predictably prompted howls of protests from the existing 22 states.
Each of these new territories was supposedly to have its own vice president. Chávez also raised the idea of each state and Greater Caracas getting a vice president of its own.
This last idea has already been put into practice when Chávez parachuted in Jacqueline Faría by decree as a new “head of government” in the capital over the head of elected Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a leading figure in the Opposition.
Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro also moved up a titular notch, apparently retaining his old job while being put in charge of “political development” – the exact meaning of which wasn’t at all clear.
The sixth vice president was Luis Reyes, who was made minister of the presidential office. This new post appeared to be something along the lines of a chief-of-staff.
Amid all this, the immediate question was which of these multiple vice presidents would succeed Chávez in the top slot where anything to happen to him. The president, who’s prone to claiming that his enemies are out to assassinate him, apparently had nothing to say about his thinking on this potentially important point.
Further down the chain of command, erstwhile Libertador Municipal Mayor Freddy Bernal – once a key figure in the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in the capital – was nominated Cabinet Secretary.
In parallel with all this, Chávez said that the new Cabinet would be accompanied by a Presidential Council headed by himself. He didn’t say who else would be on this new body, but the decision seemed be in line with suggestions that his aim was to keep his top people in their places by moving them around.
Chávez insisted that what he was about was “much more than a restructuring.” It was an exercise in “the spirit of renovation” because for all sorts of reasons things had been getting “flaccid” and routine.
“We’re going to fill ourselves with a renewing spirit of spiritual strengthening,” the president intoned. And then he re-launched himself just one more time at the wicked ways of Washington.
The problem this time was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She had questioned why Venezuela was spending so much money on weaponry, and asking what it was up to in the region. Chávez had the answer, and it went like this:
“The Empire has re-launched anew a warlike offensive against South America,” he declared. “Is it that Señora Clinton knows how much the United States spends on armaments, on under-cover operations, on financing destabilizing government? The United States and Colombia are the campsites of arming in Latin America. It’s the same empire that places obstacles, tells lies.”
Chávez went on to announce that Venezuela would be sending an airplane to Guatemala loaded with rice, milk and beans. “Thanks to the revolution we have a reserve of food," he said.
Elsewhere, however, Richard Canán, a deputy minister at the Agriculture and Land Ministery – where Elías Juao apparently stayed at the top – was worrying about sinister people smuggling rice into Colombia. Before that, it had been coffee.
Canáne said the government would be taking measures to stop this, and indicated he had his eye on small companies. The National Guard and the National Silos Superintendents Office were both on the case, he warned.
The minister echoed earlier arguments that food processors and vendors – who argue that official price controls stymie efficiency and lead to shortages – should regard the government not as a foe but as a friend.
The government, he said, had put into effect several measures such as subsidies on gasoline and fertilizers to strengthen agroindustry and special credits carrying low interest rates of just three percent.