Thursday, July 31, 2003

Recall Election, not California style
July 31, 2003

Today July 31 somehow marks the end of a cycle. On August 19 Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president, will reach the half mark of his 6 years term. According to the new 1999 constitution, the opposition will be allowed to call for a recall election, or in Spanish, Referendum Revocatorio. Considering what the thread of Venezuelan history has been these last years one can expect to see many a heady day in the near future.

As luck as it, California is going through a traumatic recall election of its own. It will be interesting, on occasion, to compare the political behavior of both entities. But before starting this occasional series of reports, today it would be good to just review the legal technicalities behind the Revocatorio.

According to Article 72 of the constitution, any elected official can be recalled after the following requirements are met:
* The official has reached the half mark of his/her term.
* 20% or more of the registered voters of the particular electoral district (the whole of Venezuela for Chavez) must sign a petition that is addressed to the Electoral Council (CNE).
* If the valid signatures do indeed reach the 20% mark, the CNE has to call for a referendum within 30 to 60 days (this period is not quite clear yet).

If these requirements are fulfilled, the CNE calls for the election. For the official to be recalled the following requirement will have to be met:
* At least 25% of the electorate must vote.
* The numbers of “yes” votes must be equal or larger than the votes the elected official received at the previous election.

A complete information page is available, but in Spanish.

Which are the numbers for Chavez?
* 20% of the electorate means that 2.500.000 people must sign for the Revocatorio, which in practical terms means that about 3.000.000 people must sign up to make sure that 2.500.000 signatures are valid (people sign twice, people not registered to vote sign anyway, etc...)
* Chavez was elected with 3.757.773 votes in 2000, thus the minimum number of needed Yes votes (without forgetting that the No votes must be lower).
* And of course 3.125.000 people must cast a vote.

Completing these requirements normally should be a difficult task and the new Constitution meant it, since making recall elections too easy would create political instability. However, what is surprising is that the signatures have been collected already, and more than 4.000.000 of them. What is even more noteworthy is the attitude of the Chavez officials that are clearly running scared. Among their multiple strategies to forestall an election that all polls show as unwinnable today, one is to say that signatures can be collected only after August 19 (thus invalidating the ones from El Firmazo). Another one is that people should go personally to the CNE to sign to make sure signatures are valid. Imagine a 2.500.000 people line up…… Scarier are threats of posting paid thugs at the entrances of popular districts to make sure that people stay home on election day, or some other type of convenient violence. It should make for a few interesting observations for the next few weeks. Keep tuned.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

July 24, 2003

One privileges that Venezuelan rulers have enjoyed since the beginning of the television age is the “cadena”. That is, for supposedly important reasons the President can commandeer the entire broadcast signals, TV and Radio, for a discretionary amount of time to communicate some important message to the Nation. This could go from military parade on National holidays, to declarations on the sate of the economy or the reception of foreign dignitaries. Chavez has used and abused this privilege with the flimsy excuse that the private media sabotage the transmission of his message for the betterment of the people. [Chavez and the media ]

But what happened the other day was perhaps a little bit too much.

Last Friday there was the swearing in of the newly “elected” (euphemism for mostly named) directory of Chavez ruling party. Well, this apparently deserved a cadena, just as if George W. Bush would force all the TV and radio signals of the US for an hour to transmit the swearing in ceremony of the Republican committee that would organize his re-election effort. Although this particular case was rather inappropriate, it was not the worst offense of the sort from Chavez. Unfortunately it coincided with a natural disaster at rush hour in Caracas, disaster that the TV networks could not transmit because of this political act taking place.

Due to particularly heavy rains, and possibly a blocked drainage canal, a stream of water erupted on the main thoroughfare in Caracas, pushing and piling up around a hundred cars, and even drowning one of the car drivers that could not manage to leave his car. … A freak accident by all standards, drowning inside your car in a city highway.

The controversy was huge since the networks and radio could not report and thus not fulfill their mission of information to make people avoid the area. Without mentioning help in warning the rescue crews. Eventually the “cadena” seems to have been interrupted, but the controversy has not stopped, with the information minister lamely stating a few misrepresentations that have been quickly debunked. The same official also said that once the media duly report the governmental generated information, cadenas would cease. Imagine that!

The statistics, so far this year, show more than 100 cadenas since January with more than half of them by Chavez himself, for a total of broadcasting time passing the 100 hours! And as usual there is no compensation for the media loss of advertisement revenue.

So goes the freedom of information in Venezuela, still going on but every day increasingly menaced, either cutting media airtime, or their revenues. Eventually one or two will go bankrupt and, after that, the other ones might behave more to the wishes of Chavez. Or so chavistas would seem to hope.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

A series since June 15
July 22, 2003

In this comedy of errors that the Petarazo has been, one would think that the Chavez administration would have tried to dampen the atmosphere. Well, no.

The ministry of public works took over the reconstruction of the Metropolitan Police that was destroyed by the rioting chavistas. And of course it needed to be re-inaugurated (by the way the construction was rather fast by government standards).

A ceremony of sorts, with the appropriately ferried crowds gave us the Vice “giving” the police station to the National Guard so it will be able to ensure the order that supposedly the Police could not do. I have this image of soldiers with long weapons, trellis combinations, darkened face perhaps, going uphill in the worst slums pursuing some robber. Discreet, efficient. Another high point was the ineffable William Lara, last years president of the National Assembly, declaring without a hint of self-consciousness that finally the people of Petare will not be subjected anymore to the abuses of the Metropolitana Police, to the continuos violations of basic human rights that this one seems to have perpetrated on Petare’s denizens for eons. Unnoticed for these years? Mr. Lara, could you explain us why as the president of the National Assembly you did not sponsor a bill to eliminate such an evil body? Or did you have to reach El Petarazo to realize the horror of the Metropolitana? And was the Petare police brigade the only one committing such atrocities?

Sometimes one wonders what is worse, the insults to our moral standards or to our intelligence.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

July 20, 2003

I have been away from posting for three weeks. I guess I needed a change after the political intensity of June and an unexpected short trip provided the excuse for a long break. I was fortunate to be sent on business to Brazil in spite of the currency exchange controls. With some left over travelers checks, a few dollars from the black market, and there I went. Just making sure to pay the hotel in full upon arrival in case I get mugged in the street. It is when one travels without a credit card that one realizes how these little bit of plastic are no luxury anymore. But in the Bolivarian Republic, one has to get used to many things.

It was my first time ever in Brazil, and even though it was a single one day affair in Sao Paulo, I could not let pass the chance to visit Rio for a long week end. It was quite an edifying experience to visit Rio coming from today’s Venezuela.

I know, I know, it is not fair to compare Rio with Caracas, or with anything else for that matter. But is it so? After all, many Venezuelans, including myself, say that the Latin American country closest in spirit and people to Venezuela is Brazil, even though we do not speak the same language. After all we come from that same mix of Native, African and Iberian. Our colonial histories do bear comparison. We both drink plenty of fruit juices, eat black beans and get drunk on sugar cane derived spirits. Thus, although our modern histories are quite different we are supposed to share comparable roots. But Brazil is way ahead from Venezuela, at least just based on what I saw. Not to mention that Venezuela these days seems to look back to its XIX century…

I was mostly in glitzy Ipanema. But the contrast was more vivid outside of the obvious displays of wealth of the area. To begin with, when you walk the streets of Ipanema you only need to lift your eyes to see a hill covered with a favelas. At the end of Ipanema, at the foot of its own famous twin monoliths, there is a precariously hanging favela: Vidigal. Yet all meet on the beach without any problem, and without the pests that we find in most Venezuelan beaches: street vendors every where, cars on side walks, trash everywhere, loud groups that think the beach is theirs, etc…

Other details were telling. Even in Margarita Island our most “pro tourism” area, you will not sense the relative security I felt at night walking in Ipanema or Copacabana. All the luxury condominiums on the beachfronts have open balconies, and no iron bars, even on the second floors. In Venezuela it is not infrequent to see buildings of 15 stories with protection bars at every single floor. And I saw, at night, peeking from below into the apartments of the beachfront several apartments with large libraries. A library in a beach front apartment? This strange observation made me understand how come that within 6 blocks of the Vizconde de Piraja avenue I found three very well appointed bookstores.

The last straw was the “hippie market” on Sundays in General Osorio’s square. This very handsome square on Sundays becomes one of the best, and most complete artisan market that I have seen. Clean, organized, no haggling, with neat, and appetizing, food stands at the corners only. Prejudice might make one thing that it should not be as neat as one is observing, in particular when one thinks at the buhoneros stands all over downtown Caracas, with the pervading smell of pee in the air. Even if I were to pick the best buhoneros in Venezuela I do not think I would be able to put together something as nice as a single quarter of the “hippie market”.

Definitely, Ipanema breathes a sense of education and self respect. Even if it is only a tiny spec of Brazil, it remains that Brazil has been able to produce such a spec.

What happened to us in Venezuela? Where did we go wrong? Why is it that in Venezuela we cannot on our own respect a little bit our surroundings? Respect even ourselves? Why do we put up with so much trash, abuse, neglect, and chaos?

This short trip did give me some insight in Venezuela recent unfortunate history. Somehow we have made conformity, neglect, abuse, and anarchy “virtues”; and these “virtues” are now enslaving us.