Thursday, January 09, 2003


WHAT IS ONE TO THINK?
Thursday 9, January 2003


For the last three days I really did not know what to write about the recent developments. I think that I will start first we a few notes, in no particular order of priority.

BANKS
As a public service banks cannot easily close. What makes things even more complicated is that half of the banking system in Venezuela is into the hands of foreign banks. And bankers are by nature very conservative and civil protests from whichever side are anathema. Yet… The initial compromise from the second week of November was to open to the public from 9 to 12. Enough for people to manage their accounts, not enough really to do the deals. But the banks knew that few people were into deals. This week, after the holiday’s lull, the banking unions decided to join the “paro”. If workers do not show up, bankers cannot open. This conveniently allow banks to keep up the fiction that they are open (and thus protected from governmental action) while effectively shutting up. The problem of course is that the umbrella union cannot control effectively the different banks and the foreign banks really do not want to close.

The result for today is a mixed bag. I did not leave home today at all so I cannot bear witness. But from what I heard and saw on TV between 50 and 70% of foreign bank agencies were closed while it reached more than 90% for Venezuelan banks. Indications seem to point to a strengthening of the bank strike tomorrow. We shall see.

A consequence of this is that main grocery stores did not open today, and will not tomorrow. Due to a long tradition of bank fraud, when you want to pay by check here the store calls the bank to check out for funds. If you have them the bank blocks them for 1 week to give a chance to the store to cash the check. Obviously stores are not willing to accept checks if the banks are not open. Since grocery stores have been opening 7AM to 1 PM, it was an easy step to close.

Thus today if you want to get cash you better have an account in a state owned bank. If you want food you better go to a Mom and Pop store downtown Caracas, or live in poorer areas where nobody today dares to say that they might be against Chavez. More about this later.

COMMERCE

Few stores have bothered reopen. Anti Chavez people will not bother shopping much anyway. And with the talked about tax boycott many think that the 16% sales tax is something easy to hit Chavez with: boycott shopping.

And soon stores will have less merchandise available. Shipping to Venezuela seems to dive. Orders for new products, which translate into imports, are not coming through. Today I heard something about shipping companies canceling their planned shipping to Venezuela, in part due to the perceived insecurity in the service they can expect when ships reach our harbors.

OIL INDUSTRY

This is getting really out of hand.

The environment minister came today on state TV (they never seem to want to risk embarrassing questions from the private media journalist). She said that the “recent accidents” are actually quite normal and are not “disasters”. No word on how she plans to deal with them. No talk on inspections. And the now usual blame on striking workers as saboteurs. Forgetting to mention that this week accidents happened two weeks after striking workers have been barred access. Details, details. I have never seen even Republican officials being so cynical on the environment. Monday there was talk that the natural gas, which is released in the atmosphere, is reaching dangerous levels. Normally no process can be undertaken if more than 2 % of the natural gas involved risks getting off directly. Well, apparently it is reaching high two-digit percentile. But complaints from neighboring areas cannot be hidden anymore as people report all sorts of respiratory problems, etc…

At El Palito, the huge refinery near Puerto Cabello, is one of the objectives of the government. 3 weeks ago when I drove by it was totally shut down. All the managers have been fired and a new team named. The names and qualifications have not been released. Rumor has that the new director is a cousin of Chavez, but so many rumors are flowing free… The fact is that a huge explosion was filmed, huge nasty black smoke, big flames. The administration said it was a “normal” thing to happen when you restart a refinery. Yet, no activity from that area has been observed today suggesting another story. And of course no camera crew has been allowed in.

Today we can talk about human rights abuse. There are reports of sacking of housing for oil workers that are provided in some areas. Oil field schools were forced to open in spite of the obvious dangers. When teachers refused to go along they were dismissed. Today’s protest activities were meant to the people to go to the doors of the principal refineries, main offices etc… Well, in the Chaguaramos office building the opposition was dispersed by a handful of chavistas shooting 40 caliber guns. These are army-designated guns, not your personal defense thing. How did the guns found their way into pro Chavez hoodlums? Of course, the police and National Guard paid lip service to protection. As seen on TV. In the general gas distribution center of Yagua, next to Valencia, the rally had to be called off when a hidden camera in a car driving by early filmed a couple of hundred pro-chavez hoodlums armed with sticks, stones, and even stone throwing devices. People were beaten up in Paraguana, Maracaibo, etc…

Meanwhile Chavez keeps paying scalawags, refuses access to the press or any security agency such as insurance companies, has militarized the installations with orders to the army to start up things, such as he did with the striking tankers that the Navy had to take over late December. Damage will result and any hope that Venezuela will reach a decent oil production any time soon is already dashed. This is tacitly recognized by the US announcements that they have crossed off Venezuela as a supplier for the time being. So yes, production has restarted, a little. The question is how much will Chavez manage to produce, and when.

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

There is a paradox of sorts. In spite of the oil strike and the long line at gas stations there is still enough public transportation. But this is not a paradox. With the end of most major productive activity, there is a decrease in general road transport. Thus the rate of gas utilization goes down and there is less need. So the reserves are lasting longer than expected, and a couple of gas tankers are able to make a difference. Of course this is only the lull before the real scarcity of gas. And let us add for the anecdotal part of the history that most bus drivers and taxi drivers are or were chavistas. This to gain access to credits. These drivers still have their ID cards and are allowed to get gas ahead of the line or at Fuerte Tiuna or other military bases. Again since the lower classes use public transportation it allows to create a false sense of things under control by the government. Of course this will only last for a little while and it seems that some of the public transportation unions are sensing that and might be thinking about switching sides. Monday we will know more about that.

Caracas subway is another story. To begin with the subway is good for both sides. Chavez needs to pretend “normalcy”. The opposition needs an efficient system to carry its hundred of thousand of marchers. But this might be changing. Many CAMETRO officers (the Caracas Subway) have said that the government is using the subway system to privilege their own, such as free access to the subway. There is more and more grumbling at the base even though the trade union of the system is a pro Chavez union. Today there was a big meeting that went on in spite of an attempt by the union to stop it. Subway on strike soon?

Last but not least. Last Sunday in his fiery speech Chavez announced that gas was almost OK in Caracas. This last few days there is a perception that indeed things are easing some in Caracas. Until tonight one of the main representatives of the striking oil industry said that first day of the year Caracas was privileged in preparation for the speech, and that the situation in the country side has worsened. Chavez is going to a public activity in Cojedes, a small state, to show “normalcy”. The same guy said that yesterday 15 trucks of gas were sent to that state to make the lines disappear for at least a couple of days… The message is clear.

PRODUCTION SECTOR

How can production start with all that I have mentioned above? Only the industries that produce the very basic food items have reopened, least they would be seized of course, and least they will be accused of starving the people. Assuming they would do that of course, after all you do not want to kill your customers.

EDUCATION

Here we reach the domain of subjectivity. This week has seen a series of melees in front of schools. Everything went on, from teachers wanting to close or open, parents bringing their children and other demanding the right not to bring them, and of course political activists of all sorts. The fact remains that the schools that do manage to open are at best half full, and private schools that open have actually near zero attendance.

Let’s go by parts.

Private schools in Venezuela have always been under the watchful eye of every government, perhaps as a permanent embarrassment since private schools for the last 25 years have consistently rated well above public schools. Menaces and attempts at bigger control have been the norm even as a majority of government officials, including this one, put their children in private schools. So private schools just announced that they will open but will not demand teachers to attend and will not take sanctions on missing students. Voila. The results are for all to see. The atmosphere is more of a day care center than an school, for the few that actually get a few students.

Public schools are another matter and the governmental pressure is enormous, threats, etc.. Even “cadenas” are made by the secretary of education appealing on moral grounds, the superior interest of students and other nonsense considering that many students just cannot make it to school.

IT ALL DEPENDS ON WHERE YOU ARE.

To conclude this already long post, I trust that you are already sensing that the “paro” experience depends a lot on where you live. If your public school is an area considered as chavista chances are that you can drop there your kid and go back home if your business is stop. Or go to work if you are chavista and you have a job to go to. Constant supply of food items will always depend on your sector, etc…

This hints to the pressure from each side, even if for obvious reasons the means of the government to put pressure are much bigger than the opposition. This was sadly illustrated by “cacerolazos” in the Western supposed pro Chavez side of Caracas. This pan banging tradition of South American protesting governmental misdeeds is the big thing these days. But there is a difference between Eastern and Western side of the city. In the East people go down the street, sometimes in some form of fair. In the West the cacerolazos are not as intense than in the East but they are already large, as large as they were in the East a year ago. But people cannot go down the street to bang their pans. The few areas were this has been attempted were quickly surrounded by hoodlums that on a couple of occasions shot people. So when a big cacerolazo takes place after some particular distasteful happening, the news show people banging from their balconies in the West, and from the street in the East. Very sad. But still, some Western areas have been taken over by anti Chavez, such as the Plaza Madariaga or La Candelaria. This last one two weeks ago was witness of an intense scene that ended up in a street battle. But Chavez folks have not managed to regain control there.

Meanwhile we keep seeing amazingly badly informed articles in the foreign press, when not blatantly pro Chavez. What is one to think? Maybe Chavez is right and this last two months has been a dream, just a mega production from the media opposing him. Do I smell Oscar?

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