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Chavez Blasts US Travel Warning, Plays Down Venezuela Violence

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reacted angrily to a US State Department travel warning pointing to the "pervasiveness" of violent crime in Venezuela. However, the president's comments neglect both the facts and the seriousness of Venezuela's precarious position.

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Speaking from Cuba, where he is receiving treatment following the recent removal of a cancerous tumour in his pelvis, Chavez criticized the travel warning issued by the US State Department that says Venezuela has one of the top five highest murder rates in the world. The State Department cites statistics from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV), an NGO that says 2011 was Venezuela's most violent year ever with 19,336 murders.

The Venezuelan president responded on Tuesday, stating, "Where would there be greater lack of public security on the streets? In Venezuela or in the United States? Let's look at the figures," reports the Associated Press.

On the same day as Chavez's comments, Venezuelan Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami announced that more than 89,000 police officers will soon enroll in the state university dedicated to training the security forces, the Experimental Security University (UNES). This is part of Venezuela's ongoing efforts to expand the National Bolivarian Police (PNB), a new police force created in 2009 in order to better confront rising crime rates.

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Chavez's indignance is, to say the least, misplaced. A recent report from the·Metropolitan Observatory on Citizen Security (OMSC) echoed the OVV's conclusion that 2011 was Venezuela's most violent year on record, though it provided a more conservative number of just under 19,000 homicides, equating to a muder rate of 66 per 100,000 inhabitants.

In the capital Caracas, the 2011 murder rate stands at 108 per 100,000, according to the OMSC. In comparison, the most violent city in the US last year, New Orleans, registered a murder rate of roughly 57 per 100,000 inhabitants.

While Venezuela saw violence rise steadily over the last decade, homicides have gone down in the US. Based on FBI figures, the national per capita murder rate currently stands at 4.8 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, less than half the numbers registered two decades ago (9.8 per 100,000).

Chavez's comparisons are also senseless because Venezuela faces a far more uncertain future in terms of public security. Chavez's challenger in this year's presidential elections, Henrique Capriles Radonski, has a poor record on security issues: while serving as governor of Miranda, the state became one of the most violent in the country. If Capriles is to win, there are also fears that leftist armed groups could rise to prominence, possibly becoming an insurgency.

The ongoing plans to expand the PNB may be the government's best bet at stemming the violence, although it is difficult to measure the full effectiveness of the force. The PNB director has said that murders have dropped by as much as 60 percent in the Caracas neighborhoods where the police units are active, but he is arguably under pressure to spin good results. The PNB are not scheduled to fully replace the local and state police forces until some time next year.

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