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Economy of Venezuela

Real GDP contracted 3.3% in 2009, indicating a decrease in government expenditures and private consumption as a result of a drop in oil prices. The economic contraction continued in 2010 when real GDP decreased by 3.5% during the period January-June 2010 compared with the same period of 2009. The Consumer Price Index increased by 27.9% from September 2009 until September 2010, following increases of 25.1% in 2009, 30.9% in 2008, and 22.5% in 2007.

All requests for foreign exchange at the official exchange rate must be approved by the National Exchange Control Administration (CADIVI), and the Central Bank (BCV) completes all legal purchase and sale of foreign currency. On January 11, 2010, the Venezuelan Government devalued the bolivar and established two official exchange rates, one of 2.6 bolivares=U.S. $1.00 (for certain prioritized transactions) and another of 4.3 bolivares=U.S. $1.00 (for other transactions). A legal alternative exchange market called the parallel or “permuta” market was abolished by the government in May 2010. A replacement market called the Transaction System for Foreign Exchange Denominated Securities (SITME) began to operate in June 2010. SITME is accessed through authorized Venezuelan financial institutions and operates by means of a bond-swap mechanism through the Central Bank. The SITME exchange rate has averaged 5.3 bolivares=U.S. $1.00 since transactions began. Any other foreign exchange transactions are not legally permitted, although a black market is reported to exist. Central Bank international reserves were U.S. $29.4 billion at the end of September 2010. On December 30, the government announced the elimination of the dual exchange rate system and unified the exchange rate at 4.3 bolivares per dollar.

The Venezuelan Government dominates the economy. The state oil company, PDVSA, controls the petroleum sector. Government companies control the electricity sector and important parts of the telecommunications and media sectors. In 2008, the government nationalized cement and steel producers, as well as select companies in the milk and meat distribution sectors. In 2009 it nationalized assets in the oil (including assets owned by U.S. oil services companies), chemicals, tourism, agribusiness (including a processed rice plant owned by a U.S. company), retail, and banking industries. In 2010, the government nationalized companies in the agricultural and construction sectors as well as U.S. assets in the petrochemical and packaging industries. A number of U.S. companies whose assets have been nationalized in Venezuela have chosen to pursue their claims through international arbitration. Threats of continuing nationalizations, as well as other threats to property rights and an uncertain macroeconomic environment characterized by high inflation and foreign exchange controls, have led to reduced space for the private sector and low levels of private investment.

There is considerable income inequality. The Gini coefficient was 0.39 in the second half of 2009. According to government statistics, the percentages of poor and extremely poor among Venezuelan households were 23.8% and 5.9%, respectively, in the second half of 2009.

Petroleum and Other Resources
Economic prospects remain mostly dependent on oil prices and the export of petroleum. The oil sector accounts for roughly 12% of GDP, 94% of export earnings, and more than half of the central government's ordinary revenues. Venezuela remains an important supplier of imported crude and refined petroleum products to the United States.

In the 1990s, the Government of Venezuela opened up much of the hydrocarbon sector to foreign investment, promoting multi-billion dollar investment in heavy oil production, reactivation of old fields, and investment in several petrochemical joint ventures. By the late 1990s almost 60 foreign companies representing 14 different countries participated in one or more aspects of Venezuela's oil sector. On November 13, 2001, under an enabling law authorized by the National Assembly, President Chavez enacted a new Hydrocarbons Law, which came into effect in January 2002. The new law provided that all oil production and distribution activities would be the domain of the Venezuelan state, with the exception of the joint ventures targeting extra-heavy crude oil production. Private investors cannot own 50% or more of the capital stock in joint ventures involved in upstream activities. The new law also provided that private investors could own up to 100% of the capital stock in downstream ventures. A Gaseous Hydrocarbons law promulgated earlier by the Chavez government also allowed substantial participation by private investors with respect to gas production ventures.

During the December 2002-February 2003 general strike, petroleum production and refining by PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, almost ceased. Despite the strike, these activities eventually were substantially restarted. Out of a total workforce of 45,000, over 20,000 PDVSA management and workers were subsequently dismissed because the government asserted they had abandoned their jobs during the strike. Current levels of production remain a subject of debate, with considerable difference between the levels cited by the Venezuelan Government and those cited by private sector and international observers.

In early 2005, the government informed companies with operating service contracts for mature fields that they must migrate the contracts to joint ventures that conform to the 2001 Hydrocarbons Law. The government threatened to seize fields operating under the services contracts on December 31, 2005 if oil companies did not sign transition agreements to migrate their contracts. All but three companies ultimately signed joint venture agreements with the government. One company was bought out by its partner, while the fields operated by two other companies were ultimately taken over by the government. These disputes were handled by negotiation. In early 2007, President Chavez announced that the Venezuelan Government would take a majority government share in the remaining foreign investments in the oil sector, including the four heavy-oil "strategic associations" in the Orinoco belt. Several international oil companies agreed to migrate their interests to joint ventures with majority government ownership. Two U.S. companies decided to pull out of Venezuela and have filed for international arbitration.

In May 2009, the National Assembly passed an oil services sector law reserving to the state all primary hydrocarbons activity. This legislation laid the foundation for the expropriation of nearly 80 oil services companies, including three U.S. firms. The National Assembly in June 2009 passed legislation to require private-sector petrochemicals producers to enter joint ventures with Petroquímica de Venezuela (Pequiven, the state chemicals company). This will affect many foreign companies operating in Venezuela.

In February 2010, the government announced winning consortia in the Carabobo bid round, allowing two private sector consortia to negotiate the formation of mixed companies to produce crude and to develop heavy oil upgraders in the Carabobo region of the Orinoco belt. This was the first new bid round in the oil sector conducted since President Chavez came to power in 1999.

Trade, Manufacturing, and Agriculture
Despite political tensions between the United States and Venezuela, the United States remains Venezuela's most important trading partner. In 2009, bilateral trade topped U.S. $37.4 billion. Venezuelan exports to the United States were U.S. $28.1 billion (accounting for at least 42% of total Venezuelan exports), and U.S. exports to Venezuela were $9.3 billion (or 24.2% of total Venezuelan imports). The U.S. is the single most important customer for Venezuelan oil. Venezuela shipped an average of 1.1 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum products per day to the U.S. in 2009, a figure which accounted for at least half of Venezuelan oil exports and 10.9 % of U.S. oil imports.

Manufacturing contributed an estimated 15.4% of GDP in real terms in 2009, according to the Central Bank of Venezuela. The manufacturing sector remained hindered by a marked lack of private investment and a highly overvalued official exchange rate that inhibits exports and makes it difficult to compete against imports. Venezuela manufactures and exports steel, aluminum, textiles, apparel, beverages, and foodstuffs. It produces cement, tires, paper, fertilizer, and assembles cars both for domestic and export markets.

Agriculture accounts for approximately 4% of GDP, 10% of the labor force, and at least one-fourth of Venezuela's land area. Venezuela exports cigarettes, fish (primarily domestically raised crab and shrimp), tropical fruits, cocoa, and manufactured products. The country is not self-sufficient in most areas of agriculture. Venezuela imports about two-thirds of its food needs. In 2009, U.S. firms exported $ $967 million worth of agricultural products, including wheat, corn, soybeans, soybean meal, cotton, animal fats, vegetable oils, fruits, nuts, dairy products, processed fruits and vegetables, and other items to make Venezuela one of the top two U.S. markets in South America. The United States supplies roughly one-quarter of Venezuela's food imports.

Labor and Infrastructure
Official unemployment statistics registered 6.6% unemployment at year-end 2009, although such statistics do not account for workers in the informal sector of the economy, which constitutes approximately half of the country’s total workforce. The public sector employs about 20% of the workforce. Only 12% of workers are unionized. Of those employed, a significant proportion work in the “informal” sector.

Labor unions allege the government repeatedly violates International Labor Organization (ILO) agreements on freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively. Specifically, the constitution and laws permit undue influence in the internal elections of unions. The government has told the ILO it will correct the problem; draft legislation remains pending in the National Assembly.

Venezuela has an extensive road system. With the exception of air service, transportation has failed to keep pace with the country's needs. Much of the infrastructure suffers from inadequate maintenance. Caracas has a modern subway but only one functioning rail line serves the rest of the country. Venezuela’s ports, recently nationalized, do not currently match the country’s status as a trader. Venezuela’s importers and exporters complain of delays and high costs.

GDP (2009): $326 billion.
Annual growth rate (2009): -3.3%.
GDP per capita (2009): $11,509.
Government expenditures (2009): 28% of GDP.
Natural resources: Petroleum, natural gas, coal, iron ore, gold, diamonds, bauxite, other minerals, hydroelectric power.
Petroleum industry (11.6% of 2009 GDP in constant 1997 dollars): Oil refining, petrochemicals.
Manufacturing (15.2% of 2009 GDP in constant 2007 dollars): Types--iron and steel products, paper products, aluminum, textiles, transport equipment, consumer products.
Agriculture (4% of GDP): Products--corn, sorghum, rice, bananas, vegetables, coffee, beef, pork, poultry, milk, eggs, fish.
Trade: Exports (2009)--$60.9 billion: petroleum ($57.6 billion), aluminum, steel, chemical products, iron ore, cigarettes, plastics, fish, cement, and paper products. Major markets (2005)--U.S. 57.5%, the Netherlands 5.2%, Mexico 4.5%, Colombia 4.5%. Imports (2009)--$38.5 billion: consumer goods, machinery and transport equipment, manufactured goods, construction materials. Major suppliers (Jan.-Oct. 2009)--U.S. 27.0%, Colombia 12.6%, China 10.2%, Brazil 8.2%.
Exchange rate (2010): Beginning January 2010, two official exchange rates were established--2.6 bolivares fuertes=U.S. $1 for some transactions, and 4.3 bolivares fuertes=U.S. $1 for other transactions. The exchange rate under the so-called SITME system, a bond-swap mechanism established under the supervision of the Central Bank in June 2010, averaged 5.3 bolivares fuertes=U.S. $1. On December 30, the dual exchange rate system was eliminated, and the exchange rate was unified at 4.3 bolivares per dollar.

Geography of Venezuela

Area: 912,050 sq. km. (352,143 sq. mi.); slightly more than twice the size of California. Cities: Capital --Caracas (metro. area pop. 3.2 million). Other major cities --Maracaibo, Valencia, Barquisimeto, Maracay, Merida, Ciudad Bolivar. Terrain: Andes Mountains and Maracaibo Lowlands in northwest; central plains; Guiana Highlands in southeast. Climate: Varies from tropical to temperate, depending on elevation.

Government of Venezuela

Constitutional Reforms
President Chavez also had campaigned for the election of a National Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. The National Constituent Assembly (ANC), consisting of 131 elected individuals, convened in August 1999 to begin rewriting the constitution. Venezuelans approved the ANC's draft in a national referendum on December 15, 1999. The political system described below is that defined by the 1999 constitution.

The president is elected by a plurality vote with direct and universal suffrage. The term of office is 6 years, and subsequent to a national referendum to amend the constitution on February 15, 2009, there are no term limits for elected officials. The president appoints the vice president. He decides the size and composition of the cabinet and makes appointments to it, in consultation with the National Assembly. Legislation can be initiated by the executive branch, the legislative branch (either a committee of the National Assembly or three members of the latter), the judicial branch, the citizen branch (public defender, prosecutor general, and comptroller general) or a public petition signed by no fewer than 0.1% of registered voters. The president can ask the National Assembly to reconsider portions of laws he finds objectionable, but a simple majority of the Assembly can override these objections.

The National Assembly is unicameral, consisting solely of the Chamber of Deputies. Deputies serve 5-year terms, and may be re-elected indefinitely. These legislative agents are elected by a combination of party list and single member constituencies. When the National Assembly is not in session, a delegated committee acts on matters relating to the executive and in oversight functions. In December 2005 pro-government parties took all 167 seats in the National Assembly after opposition parties boycotted the election over concerns with electoral conditions. When President Chavez created the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in 2007, the “Podemos” party, previously affiliated with the government, refused to join the new umbrella party. Consequently, Podemos, with its 7 seats, and another later breakaway group, the Ecological and Humanistic Front, with 5 seats, were the only caucuses in the National Assembly not affiliated with the government during the 2005-2010 National Assembly session.

The constitution designates three additional branches of the federal government--the judicial, citizen, and electoral branches.

The judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), which may meet either in specialized chambers (of which there are six) or in plenary session. The National Assembly appoints justices, who serve 12-year terms. Under the 1999 constitution, the TSJ was composed of 20 justices. The 1999 constitution was amended in 2004, and the number of justices was expanded by 12 to a total of 32. In December 2004, the National Assembly selected new judges to fill these new positions. The judicial branch also consists of lower courts, including district courts, municipal courts, and courts of first instance. In December 2010, the National Assembly selected 9 new judges to replace outgoing judges.

The citizens branch consists of three components--the prosecutor general ("fiscal general"), the "public defender," and the comptroller general. The holders of these offices, in addition to fulfilling their specific functions, also act collectively as the "Republican Moral Council" (RMC). The RMC challenges actions they believe are illegal before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, particularly those which violate the constitution. The leadership of the RMC rotates among the three officials for 1-year periods. The holders of the "citizen power" offices are selected for terms of 7 years by the National Assembly.

The "Electoral Power," otherwise known as the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral or CNE), is responsible for organizing elections at all levels. Its five members are also elected to 7-year terms by the National Assembly. In the event of a hung vote in the National Assembly, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice can be called on to appoint the members.

Political Turmoil
In July 2000, voters re-elected President Hugo Chavez of the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR). The election occurred under the new constitution in elections that the international community found to be generally free and fair. The MVR and the pro-Chavez Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) parties won 92 seats in the 165-member legislature. In April 2002, the country experienced a temporary alteration of constitutional order which included the temporary departure of Chavez from the presidency. When an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 persons participated in a march in downtown Caracas to demand President Chavez's resignation, gunfire broke out, resulting in as many as 18 deaths and more than 100 injuries on both sides. Military officers took President Chavez into custody, and business leader Pedro Carmona swore himself in as interim President. Less than 2 days later, military troops loyal to Chavez returned him to power. A national reconciliation process, with participation by the Organization of American States (OAS), the UN Development Program, and the Carter Center, was unsuccessful in stopping further conflict. Opposition leaders called a national work stoppage on December 2, 2002. Strikers protested the government and called for the resignation of President Chavez. The oil sector joined other sectors of the economy and effectively shut down all economic activity for a month. The OAS Permanent Council passed Resolution 833 on December 16, 2002, calling for a "constitutional, democratic, peaceful, and electoral solution" to the crisis in Venezuela. The strike formally ended in February 2003 as political opponents of Chavez changed tactics, focusing on a recall referendum to revoke the mandate of the president.

The Recall Referendum Process
For a recall to occur, the promoters must obtain signatures for 20% of all registered voters. Preparations for the recall were delayed by the lack of a quorum in the National Electoral Council (CNE). In September 2003, after an impasse in the National Assembly, the Supreme Court resolved the issue by naming a new CNE board of directors. After months of intense deliberations that included two conflicting signature drives overseen by the CNE, deep disagreements and occasional violence over the CNE’s disqualification of signatures on the petition, and the intervention of international electoral observers, the CNE certified that the opposition had obtained sufficient signatures to trigger the vote mechanism and set the date of the recall referendum for August 15, 2004. According to the CNE, President Chavez won 59% of the vote. His opponents immediately claimed electoral fraud. However, international electoral observation missions carried out by the Organization of American States and the Carter Center found no indication of systemic fraud.

From Referendum to Elections
In the wake of the referendum victory, pro-Chavez candidates continued to sweep other electoral contests. Chavez supporters won 20 out of the total 22 state governor positions up for election in October 2004. Chavez supporters also won a majority of the seats in the August 2005 municipal council elections. Pro-Chavez parties won all 167 seats in the December 2005 National Assembly elections, after most opposition candidates boycotted the elections over voter secrecy concerns. The final reports of the European Union (EU) and OAS observer missions to the 2005 legislative elections, which were marked by record-high abstention, noted high levels of distrust in electoral institutions. The reports made specific recommendations to increase transparency and help voters regain the confidence necessary for participation. Most recommendations were not implemented.

A New Term and New Administration
President Chavez was re-elected by an overwhelming majority (63%) in the December 3, 2006 presidential elections. He defeated Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales, whose Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) party formed an alliance with several significant opposition parties. Though international observers found no evidence of election fraud, they did note concerns over abuse of government resources used to support the Chavez campaign, voter intimidation tactics, and manipulation of the electoral registry.

In January 2007, President Chavez announced a renewed effort to implement his vision of "21st Century Socialism" in Venezuela. He asked the National Assembly to grant him special constitutional powers via an "enabling law" to rule by decree with respect to a broad range of issues. The all-“chavista” Assembly granted those powers, for a period of 18 months. Chavez used that authority to take major steps to nationalize the telecommunications and electricity sectors, as well as to finalize a majority government share in many oil projects, all sectors with significant foreign investments.

On August 15, 2007, President Chavez proposed a package of reforms to the 1999 constitution, including measures that allowed indefinite presidential re-election, a reorganization of the geographic boundaries of government, and a redefinition of private property. On December 2, 2007, the proposed reforms were narrowly defeated in a public referendum after student groups, traditional opposition leaders, and former Chavez allies urged Venezuelans to reject the package. The vote was the first electoral loss for President Chavez since he assumed office and was seen as a rebuke of his efforts to consolidate greater power in the executive office. President Chavez has since passed some of the changes defeated in the referendum by presidential decree or legislation. Indeed, Chavez organized a vote on a constitutional amendment to end term limits for all elected officials, which was approved on February 15, 2009.

Gubernatorial and mayoral elections were held nationwide in November 2008. These state and local elections were deemed largely free and fair, although electoral nongovernmental organizations noted some irregularities, such as prohibited election-day campaigning and extended polling hours in pro-government neighborhoods.

In the first months of 2009, the Chavez administration passed a series of new laws, including laws to centralize control over ports, roads, and airport; nationalize major industries; and strip the opposition mayor of Greater Caracas of authority and resources.

In legislative elections held on September 26, 2010, Chavez’ PSUV party won 98 seats, the opposition’s Democratic Unity Table (MUD) 65 seats, and the “third way” Patria Para Todos (PPT) party 2 seats. Debate continues over the national popular vote, with Chavez claiming the PSUV won a majority (by 100,000 votes) and the opposition claiming a 52% majority when all non-PSUV parties are counted together.

Following the September 26 elections, the PSUV moved quickly to accelerate implementation of President Chavez’ "Bolivarian Revolution" in advance of the January 5, 2011 convening of the new National Assembly. In addition to appointing nine Chavez loyalists to the TSJ, PSUV deputies approved a series of laws aimed at creating a “communal” state and economy; limiting internal rules for assembly debate; prohibiting party defections; and increasing government control over the independent media, Internet, banks, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It also approved a fourth “enabling law” granting President Chavez decree powers for 18 months, effectively marginalizing the legislative power of the newly-elected opposition deputies.

Principal Government Officials
President--Hugo CHAVEZ Frias
Vice President--Elias JAUA Milano
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Nicolas MADURO Moro
Minister of Defense--Carlos Jose MATA Figueroa
Ambassador to the United States--vacant
Ambassador to the Organization of American States--Roy CHADERTON Matos
Ambassador to the United Nations--Jorge VALERO Briceno

The Venezuelan embassy in the United States is located at 1099 30th St. NW, Washington, DC 20007 (tel. (202) 342-2214 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (202) 342-2214 end_of_the_skype_highlighting). In addition to Washington, DC, Venezuela maintains consulates in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Miami, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and Puerto Rico.

Type: Federal Republic.
Independence: July 5, 1811.
Constitution: December 30, 1999.
Branches: Executive--President (head of government and chief of state; 6-year term); Council of Ministers (cabinet, appointed by president). Legislative--unicameral Congress (5-year term). Judicial--32-member Supreme Court (elected by Congress; 12-year term). Electoral--National Electoral Council (elected by Congress; 7-year term). Citizen Power--Attorney General, Ombudsman, Comptroller General (elected by Congress; 7-year term).
Subdivisions: 23 states, one federal district (Caracas), and one federal dependency (72 islands).
Major political parties: United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Fifth Republic Movement or Movimiento V Republica (MVR), Democratic Action or Accion Democratica (AD), Christian Democrats or Comite Organizador Politico por Elecciones Independientes (COPEI), Homeland for All or Patria Para Todos (PPT), Movement to Socialism or Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), Radical Cause or La Causa Radical, First Justice or Primero Justicia, the National Convergence or Convergencia, For Social Democracy (Podemos), and Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT).
Suffrage: Universal, age 18 and over.

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History of Venezuela

At the time of Spanish discovery, the indigenous in Venezuela were mainly agriculturists and hunters living in groups along the coast, the Andean mountain range, and the Orinoco River. The first permanent Spanish settlement in South America--Nuevo Toledo--was established in Venezuela in 1522. Venezuela was a relatively neglected colony in the 1500s and 1600s as the Spaniards focused on extracting gold and silver from other areas of the Americas. Toward the end of the 18th century, the Venezuelans began to grow restive under colonial control. In 1821, after several unsuccessful uprisings, the country succeeded in achieving independence from Spain, under the leadership of its most famous son, Simon Bolivar. Venezuela, along with what are now Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador, was part of the Republic of Gran Colombia until 1830, when Venezuela separated and became a separate sovereign country. Much of Venezuela's 19th-century history was characterized by periods of political instability, dictatorial rule, and revolutionary turbulence. The first half of the 20th century was marked by periods of authoritarianism--including dictatorships from 1908-35 and from 1950-58. In addition, the Venezuelan economy shifted after the first World War from a primarily agricultural orientation to an economy centered on petroleum production and export. Since the overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958 and the military's withdrawal from direct involvement in national politics, Venezuela has enjoyed an unbroken tradition of civilian democratic rule. This earned Venezuela a reputation as one of the more stable democracies in Latin America. Until the 1998 elections, the Democratic Action (AD) and the Christian Democratic (COPEI) parties dominated the political environment at both the state and federal level. The Caracazo And Popular Dissatisfaction Venezuela's prevailing political calm came to an end in 1989, when Venezuela experienced riots in which more than 200 people were killed in Caracas. The so-called Caracazo was a response to an economic austerity program launched by then-President Carlos Andres Perez. Three years later, in February 1992, a group of army lieutenant colonels led by future President Hugo Chavez mounted an unsuccessful coup attempt, claiming that the events of 1989 showed that the political system no longer served the interests of the people. A second, equally unsuccessful coup attempt by other officers followed in November 1992. A year later, Congress impeached Perez on corruption charges. Deep popular dissatisfaction with the traditional political parties, income disparities, and economic difficulties were some of the major frustrations expressed by Venezuelans following Perez's impeachment. In December 1998, Hugo Chavez Frias won the presidency on a campaign for broad reform, constitutional change, and a crackdown on corruption.

People of Venezuela

An estimated 28 million people lived in Venezuela as of 2009. The population growth rate is 1.6% per year, and roughly 50% of Venezuelans are under the age of 25. According to the 2001 census, almost 90% of the population lives in urban areas. Metropolitan Caracas, the country's largest city, has an estimated 3.2 million inhabitants. Venezuela is proud of its tradition as a melting pot, and the majority of its citizens have a mixed racial heritage of Caucasian, African, and American Indian elements.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Venezuelan(s).
Population (Dec. 2009 est.): 28,385,627.
Annual population growth: 1.6%.
Religion: Roman Catholic 96%, Protestant 2%, other 2%.
Language: Spanish (official), numerous indigenous dialects.
Education: Years compulsory--9. Literacy--95%.
Health: Infant mortality rate (2008)--16 deaths/1,000 live births. Life expectancy (2007)--73.58 years.
Ethnic groups: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arab, German, African, Amerindian.


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