Friday, January 31, 2003

THE WEEK IN REVIEW: FROM VENEZUELA (part 2, this and that)
January 20-27, 2003

This past week was rather active and since I was not here it is difficult to piece together a solid narrative, as if it were possible with the amount of craziness that we are subjected every day. The best way is just to give you a few vignettes in no particular order of date or importance.

Jimmy Carter’s visit

Some people never seem to learn, but given a Nobel Prize they think that they should try again. Bless his heart at least he shook up things.

The previous week Carter had arrived to fish in the Orinoco as a guest of his good friend Cisneros, one of the three richest men in Venezuela. Chavez was furious enough to threaten Cisneros publicly in one of his now apocalyptic speeches. Carter refused to declare to the press saying that Monday he would be in Caracas for business and then he will speak. But everybody knew that he was going to do more than fish with Cisneros.

Monday came and Carter was supposed to visit Chavez, offer a proposal and then be the official guest for luncheon (or dinner, I forgot). Things must not have gone well, because the food scene was cancelled. Carter made his declarations and plainly said that he had offered Chavez his pick of different electoral scenarios and constitutional amendments. Chavez wants no election, now or ever. He was furious.

However this started the ball rolling because it was clear for everybody that the international community patience is running thin and Carter was the messenger. The message? “Chavez, you either fix this thing real quick by serious negotiations or you have to go to elections to bring in somebody that will”.

Marches, in general

In the central valley of Miranda State, Valles del Tuy, which have become Caracas Metropolitan areas (a fast rail for commuters is even under construction), the opposition organized a big march. Well, the local town halls in chavistas hands did not like the idea and the police actually helped some crazed chavistas to attack the opposition march. 1 death and a couple dozen injured. One of the mayors even proudly declared that “we, chavistas, are not going to yield back any territory” or such nonsense. Unfortunately the videos showed clearly the cooperation of the municipal police with the chavista hordes, and was able to identify one of the guys that was riding atop a jeep shooting at people. Considering the state of the judiciary there is little hope for prosecution.

If this type of situations seem to become routine here, it seems that the brazenness of this particular one has touched a chord.

Marches in particular, El 23 de Enero

January 23 1958 is a big date for us since a popular movement helped to overthrow Perez Jimenez, our last official dictator. The ancient system used to claim that date as the glorious foundation of the democracy. First Chavez tried to discredit it by saying that on that date the politicos pacted to exploit the people (Pacto de Punto Fijo, a famous agreement between political parties that insured that Venezuela entered for its longer historical period of peace and democracy, albeit a pseudo democracy). But the memory of the 23 de Enero seems too strong for Chavez to discredit it and last year he decided to try to co-opt it by chairing a rally to commemorate it. Unfortunately the opposition, true heirs of the 23, had their first big success when for the first time they outnumbered chavistas in the street. Of course Chavez said that the true democrats were in his march.

This year Chavez decided to try to regain some of the lost ground in the street. For two weeks gas has been hoarded, transport mobilized, civil servants told to attend, etc… For two full weeks! He did manage to gather around 100 000 people on Avenida Bolivar. And the psychological war of nerves made people afraid that that day he would try “something” so the opposition called for a “stay at home day” in Caracas while a few marches did take place in the provinces. Still, chavistas felt good. Not for long. This past weekend the opposition did a camp out on Caracas main highway. This thing organized within 24 hours had a total attendance estimated at around 600 000. Both of these numbers are calculated by a serious agency that measures the surface, the time the event lasted, camera surveys, how many people can you put per square meter, etc…

Chavistas are livid again, besides feeling ridiculous. Indeed, two weeks with all the official advantages cannot yield results as good as the opposition. This one is able to mobilize in Caracas alone, and way faster than the chavistas, way more people in way less time. Not to mention that chavistas dispose from funds to treat people they ferry from the provinces with food and drink when they come to their march to Caracas, and many with lump sum monies. Actually RCTV filmed people being ferried by plane from the provinces!!!!

This speaks volume about the real support for Chavez, at least that fervent militant support of days past. And you wonder why chavistas have stopped paying for polls long ago.

Oil industry

Government claims to be back to 1 200 K barrels. The oil strike claims that they are barely reaching 500 K, down from a potential 3 000 K. The government does not allow anyone in the militarized installations.

Meanwhile the pace of firing keeps up. 5 111 top management guys have been fired and Chavez claims “that this demonstrate that the oil industry was overstaffed”. Now firings in middle echelons are increasing. Note that the total payroll of PDVSA is around 40 000.

I know somebody in these high echelons. He has not been fired yet. But his office has been locked up, his two secretaries have been fired, and he is waiting for his name to appear in the newspaper anytime soon. He even confessed to us that he was sort of looking forward it since his “ex” colleagues wonder how come he has not been fired yet, what kind of deal he might have cut. Since his area was neither exploitation nor production we think that they just did not get around to it yet.

Of course, all of the failures of Chavez scalawags are blamed on “sabotage” from the striking workers who have been threatened to be sued and put in jail. Proofs are not forthcoming, in spite of a pro Chavez judiciary. I suppose that they are as incompetent at making up fake evidence as to run the oil industry.

But this is actually very, very damaging for the prospects of recovery. It is clear that Chavez people will not be able to reopen refineries to something close to 50% levels for at least a few more months. Meanwhile these fired workers will eventually have to look for jobs and they are rather good. The best will find jobs out of the country. And then, when, and if Chavez goes, whom will we get to restart everything?

Currency exchange controls

Last Wednesday, 22, unable to stop the hemorrhage of dollars from international reserves, the government recurred to one of the last tools of governments whose economic policies fail dramatically: currency exchange control. In this system the government fixes the exchange rate of the local money against, say, the US dollar. The government also decides who gets to exchange what and in which quantities. This is what left me without credit cards in Atlanta last week as all USD purchases were blocked. Of course there is a period of a few days during which nobody can buy a single dollar.

Of course the potential for corruption is awesome since it will become a matter of knowing who signs what to get importation licenses. In what is perhaps the most corrupt government in our history, one can imagine what the consequences will be on the economy.

This type of measure has been tried by past governments so Chavez in all fairness cannot be blamed for trying again, even though the clear story of failure is for all to see. The last time this was attempted PDVSA offered its business savvy and it computer brute force to install exchange control. This time this is not a solution for obvious reasons. After 4 days the government has decided to extend until February 5 the ban on purchases. Apparently they are unable to set up the system. And a recent rumor has that Chavez has opted for the system that allows maximum control on who gets what dollars, even though it is a system that does not allow for a slow recuperation of international reserves. The ideal system would include, for a few months maximum, a fixed rate by permit, and a free rate which is usually 10 to 20% higher than the official one. Thus the government does not need to provide for travel, luxury imports, etc and can make people that want these services overpay for their dollars. Chavez prefers a single rate where he can personally decide who gets what. Need I say more?

Gas distribution

It is basically in the hands of the military. Priority industries get to pay to jump ahead of the line. The price of gas has jumped even though the official price is fixed. If you do not like it you go back at the end of the line. If you complain, your priority papers are torn by the soldier monitoring. I know people that have experienced this. When you finally buy gas more often than not you cannot get a receipt.

I leave it to your imagination to decide where all the extra cash goes.

Food items

After the burp scene of two weeks ago people are trying to get rid of any reserve they might have. These reserves are low any way and production is not going very well. The result will be that rationing might come sooner than expected.

You can still go grocery shopping. Prices are already experiencing serious hikes. But you can fill up adequately your cart even though the choices are meager. For example items that have completely run out are soda pops and beer. Many are very rare, such as fresh milk (only powder milks is plentiful). Some are limited in the amount you can purchase such as corn flour and wheat flour.

Perspective?

I will write later on the referendum cancellation and other legal aspects taking place. These were just a few vignettes to illustrate where we stand this last week of January. But it should be clear that the government is on the offensive and does not care whether the economy totally collapses as long as it remains in charge.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

Venezuelan researchers call for international help
Political conflict is endangering human life, scientific endeavour and a rich environment.
from the journal Nature, Vol 421 No 6922, 30 January 2003

Venezuelan scientists wrote of their concern for Venezuela in the prestigious Nature Journal.
Daniel notes: I am taking the liberty to post this and I apologize if I offend anybody at Nature. It will be removed if requested.

Venezuela has entered 2003 deadlocked in a dangerous political confrontation and a general strike that has lasted two months so far. Scientific endeavour, like everything else, has been seriously disrupted by the crisis, partly because many researchers and post-graduate students support the strike, but more imminently because salaries, project funding and basic services such as gas, electricity, liquid nitrogen, transport and the Internet are no longer reliable. We find ourselves in a chaotic environment where it is next to impossible to fulfil national and international research commitments.

One notorious casualty is Intevep -- the R&D branch of the national oil company PDVSA -- which has practically come to a standstill and so is now earmarked for ‘major restructuring’ by the Ministry of Energy and Mining.

Our Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) and the national research universities have been prostrated by financial cuts starting last year. We hear many threats of government intervention.

The Association of Investigators of IVIC (AsoInIVIC) has been hosting assemblies and electronic debates in the past two months. We have sent out press releases in which we deplore the recent spread of politically motivated violence, including the killing of unarmed demonstrators by paramilitary groups.

A consultative referendum was legally scheduled for early February, but has been suspended by the Supreme Tribunal. A table of negotiation and agreements has been set up by the Organization of American States, chaired by its Secretary General, Dr César Gaviria: we have urged the 20 negotiators to support the consultative referendum.

We have also issued warnings against misuse of PDVSA’s equipment and infra-structure by uncertified personnel because accidents involving human lives and the environment have already occurred -- for example, 79 reported oil spills on Lake Maracaibo since the conflict began.

We at AsoInIVIC are struggling to preserve Venezuela’s science and its natural environment, which is rich in biodiversity. We ask the scientific community to help by exerting pressure, for example through learned societies and UNESCO; by raising funds to help us meet commitments abroad; by backing local groups, through environment agencies, in denouncing the ecological disasters; and by remaining patient while we return to normality.

C. Mendoza (president), J. A. Urbina (secretary general)
Association of Investigators of IVIC,
Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research,
PO Box 21827, Caracas 1020A, Venezuela

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

THE WEEK IN REVIEW: FROM VENEZUELA (part 1, a brief analysis)
January 20-27, 2003

A few things did happen while I was away this week. Trying to go back and make sense of all of it is pretty much a useless exercise. Being here 24/24 does not help much, so being away, I let you imagine.

But before describing some of this week events, and considering what has happened in the last two months, I think it is necessary to resume again and elaborate on the root nature of some of the problems that we face in Venezuela. This I hope will allow you to understand better recent events.

The judicial problem in Venezuela

This is for me the main problem that Venezuela is facing and what has allowed things to go so much out of hand. The Venezuelan judicial system has always been a source of trouble in Venezuela. Corrupt judges are not a novelty, nor an invention of South America, but in Venezuela this has become a fine art. Chavez, while writing his new constitution, managed to push through the constitutional assembly and before the new constitution was approved a revision decree of the judiciary that pretty much put into the hands of his cronies the power to appoint judges. Or at least to influence significantly the nominations to the important ones. This of course casts a shadow over the principles of judicial security of the citizen. Unfortunately this problem is aggravated by those that are supposed to bring evidence to the courts.

The new constitution created a 5 “power” scheme. One of these 5 powers, called “moral” power included the General Prosecutor for the country and the Nation Comptroller in charge to supervise the nation’s accounts and to investigate corruption cases. There again he appointed his cronies, pushing the audacity to appoint as general solicitor his Vice-President. The consequences have been terrible.

The Comptroller has not presented any dossier able to put behind bars any important corrupt official be it from the pre-Chavez or Chavez period. Sure, some minor things have made it to the courts but all of the important cases that have hit the front pages these past 4 years have not been bothered further than their names on the papers. Some even have been exonerated without showing clear reasons, nor pointing to another culprit. The comptroller rarely meets the press and when he does so always claims that cases “take a long time”. He has been in office since the last quarter of 2000.

The General Prosecutor is supposed to monitor the government record on justice and prosecution, and be the warrant that the people get a fair deal when they prosecute the state. The state also can use its services. And the GP is the only one that can instruct any trial against the president in office. The unfortunate personage that occupies this seat since the last quarter of 2000 is Isaias Rodriguez, and has claimed personal friendship with Chavez, and uttered his admiration many times. Obviously objectivity is hard to expect form him. The events of April 11 were to be investigated by his office. So far only half a dozen gun totters are awaiting trial, all from the government side. Incredibly, the GP office has shown such ineptitude that the guys had been released and had to be jailed again after public outcry. Of course one of them run away. And they are in a deluxe prison. Meanwhile the government claims for the head of some of the opposition leaders and although the GP office has not been able to put together a grand jury of sorts to try to jail a few people, its diligence there has been striking.

You might think that the GP attitude might be a political coincidence, but you would be wrong. Chavez has received several lawsuits, some for crime against humanity. None of them has yielded anything. But the Spanish courts this week have accepted such a lawsuit from a dual Venezuelan-Spanish citizen that was hurt on April 11. And all the injunctions (OAS and other international agencies) to protect the Venezuelan press have been ignored and the GP office has failed to prosecute the pointed offenders. And corruption cases that have made it to the GP office, well, they are stored somewhere, we think. I will stop the litany here, but I will mention that the GP has not been supportive of the installation of a “truth commission” to investigate April 11-13 events.

It is quite clear that seeking repair in the courts for governmental abuses is pretty much useless today.

The military problem

As the electoral fortunes of Chavez have been dropping, Chavez has tried to purge the army. He accidentally reached some of this goal after April 11 when he was able to dismiss many of the officers that showed support for the ephemeral Carmona government. To replace them he has brought shamelessly to the higher positions officers that did not meet the requirements to access such positions. What mattered was declared loyalty to the leader. This creates further tension in the army and yet more opportunity to purge. And to keep this new crop of officers happy money flows, either directly or by appointing pro Chavez generals to positions where they can control the flow of money and goods.

This corruption started during the early months of Chavez when he created the Bolivar 2000 plan which pretty much made the armed forces staff an emergency plan to solve some of the social problems that Chavez encountered. These problems have not been solved but the army seems to be there to stay.

In fact Chavez strategy is quite clear: as his support within the population dwindles dangerously he tries to replace it by making the army his main “political party”. As we have been seeing lately he might be pretty much from reaching his objective.

The oil problem

This is actually very simple. The state Oil Company, PDVSA, one of the main oil corporations in the world, is run sort of OK like a normal corporation. That is, parts of the profits have to be reinvested in the company. As Chavez is running out of money he wants to squeeze more and more from PDVSA. A little bit like the goose of the golden eggs. The management refuses to go along. With the general climate a strike becomes almost unavoidable.

The fact is that Chavez wants the oil money for his political project first, the country next. He clearly sees himself to have been entrusted with PDVSA to do as he sees fit. He has pushed hard through the OPEC to strengthen the cartel as he prefers to sell oil at high prices rather than produce more and refine it. He also uses cheap, discounted oil to foster Castro’s Cuba, and rumors are that Castro is reselling it at higher prices and not even paying back Venezuela. Full access to these accounts is restricted. This of course clashes even further with the corporation spirit that has ruled PDVSA until Chavez started to take over. And the question on how Chavez finances allies overseas, or his own assault troops are burning questions.

The media problem

This is the real problem for Chavez as all the other ones could be solved faster if it were not for the pesky press investigations. We can only thank the press and the media for the fact that we are not yet in an open dictatorship. Closing any media would create an international outcry and remove the thin veneer of pseudo democracy that Chavez wants people to see. So judicial procedures have started to try to shut up two of the private networks, “legally”.

Meanwhile Venezuela is the only country where journalist must don bulletproof vests for their routine work. Less routine work requires bodyguards, tear gas masks, etc…

The Chavez problem

I could go on and say more things, or repeat some of my previous posts. The point that should be clear to all is that Chavez is not a democrat. He has ceased to rule as a democrat since November 2001 when he signed the laws allowed by the fast track set up. In the past two months the actions of the army speak volumes. Chavez has publicly said that generals need to obey the “superior interests of the nation and the revolution against the rulings of corrupt judges”, he being the one that defines interest and corrupt. People have been arrested or searched without warrants. Merchandise has been seized and sold for profit by the people seizing it. The judiciary not only stays mute, but also goes ahead of Chavez wishes by, for example, canceling a consultative referendum.

Venezuelans today do not think they have doors to knock for redress, that no free elections are in sight, ever since the judicial has stuck at the current set up and Chavez will have a chance to name a new electoral board. This is why we are in the streets, we cannot wait for Chavez good will. He has none.

We are already under a military regime. Even if all the trappings are not yet apparent.

You may write your congressman.


Tuesday, January 28, 2003

THE WEEK IN REVIEW: FROM THE US of A
January 20-27, 2003

This last week I had to travel for business to the USA. There is an annual meeting for the Poultry Industry that I must attend. Thus, in spite of all the trouble that it would take I had to head up North. These troubles started early enough when a threat of Delta airlines forced me to run home at noon on Monday to catch the daily Atlanta flight as apparently there was a risk of cancellation on Tuesday, not to mention that they had not even called me to announce that the morning flight had become an afternoon flight. With a hastily made bag (I forgot several items such as my dress up belt and toothpaste) we had to try to find a cab with gas that would take us to the airport. The one we reserved failed to show up and by sheer luck we found one in front of our house that just stopped to inquire, seeing us with bags… We made it a few minutes late, registration was closed. But extensive bitching to Delta and reminding them that we had warned them of our delay due to their own shoddy work made them reopen registration. We took of.

I was sitting by the window. Caracas airport is actually on the shore, 900 meters lower, next to La Guaira, the second biggest harbor in Venezuela. When airplanes take off you are treated to a full view of the mountain range that collapsed 3 years ago, and to La Guaira. Well, the harbor that serves an area where 10 million people live had not a single ship on dock or at anchor. Except for a navy coast guard. In the past I have always seen at least 3-5 container ships bringing in the essential imports and maybe 2 or 3 waiting to get in. Just imagine Seattle or Boston without ships.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise since it gave us a free Tuesday to rest and shop before the trade show opened its doors on Wednesday. Good, because Wednesday as we were working the different stands that we had to visit we were informed that the Venezuelan government had installed a currency exchange control. For those of you that do not know this modality, in practical terms it means that if you travel overseas you can take a limited quantity of dollars with you, and that if you want to import anything you have to justify the need to the government. Otherwise, zero dollars, euros or whatnot. In real life terms it meant that our Venezuelan Credit Cards had ceased to function. That is, how am I going to pay for my hotel, food, aspirin, dress up belt, toothpaste, etc…

But we smelled a rat long ago and I had a few traveler’s checks with me and my little Teacher Credit Union ATM from my US years. Still, it was embarrassing to see our US and South American friends offering to pay for our hotels, etc… That they knew and understood what was going on did not diminish the embarrassment.

What was considerably more difficult was dealing with my providers of goods. Usually we come up to three people from my company so we can deal with several folks at the same time. But this year I came alone, after much hesitation. Though some close business partners came along, and alone, it was still a lonely set of meetings trying to explain that we were still in business, that we did not know what would happen in the long run, that we could not make any plans yet, etc... People were actually quite nice and grateful that at least we had sent someone to explain things, and offering business help when it will be appropriate. If Chavez give us a chance we might still recover.

However I heard more than once that many US business are now extremely reluctant to make any investment in Venezuela for the foreseeable future. If the reasons are obvious, the recent clincher was the shameful episode of the general carrying on the seizure of the Coca Cola distribution center (see “Gorillas in the Beer”). This image has gone around the world and has made such a great damage to Venezuelan reputation that I wonder at our possibilities of swift recovery assuming that Chavez were to leave tomorrow. And what could I tell to these people? I let you imagine all the embarrassing moments that myself and the few colleagues that made the trip went through at times.

What was more interesting was learning that the image of CNN has dropped a lot lately. Not only because the Venezuelan reporting among South Americans, but also for some of the Iraq approach. More and more people are not buying the news lines. The New York Times also seems to have some credibility problems of his own. And when I was in Baltimore my cab driver from Nigeria told me that the Washington Post was the one to read now. He seemed more informed than some of the people that I had met in Atlanta, including some South Americans that told me that we should just wait for Chavez term to expire. Incidentally I tried to contact someone on CNN but to no avail. I might try their web site now that I am back. What made me feel good was to see that BBC chose one of my comments posted there earlier for inclusion in a general assessment of the Venezuelan news. I even made it to the conclusion line of that article! I hate to say once more that the BBC seems more in touch with what is going on here.



Anyway, I reached the end of the show without too much trouble and could fly to Baltimore for two days of a well-deserved rest and change of scenery. Even though it was cold enough to freeze the local lakes. I did drink a lot of beer, something not to be found in Venezuela these days. Return was Monday in a plane carrying no more than 20% of its available seats. By the way, on the way to Atlanta the two days before the trade show it is very difficult to find a seat if one does not reserve by early December. This time, in spite of the cancellation threat by Delta, there were barely half of the seats taken. United has stopped its Venezuelan operations, American has cut down and I think that other companies are doing the same. And to add insult to injury, the American Embassy has indeed stopped emitting visas in Venezuela except for public officials on mission, and humanitarian reasons.

Well, I am back at home. We shall see.


VENEZUELANS OF THE WORLD

VENEZUELANS OF THE WORLD
Sunday 19, January 2003

The title today refers to the great march and rally that took place on this sunny Sunday afternoon. The opposition in its constant effort to demonstrate to the world its diversity did call for an original protest. This time they would appeal to the varied immigration that helped build the Venezuelan melting pot. Three large marches would be called from different points in Caracas to rally near Parque del Este. There a stand would welcome a representative from several of the communities that are represented in Venezuela, preferably an immigrant that many years ago set his or her roots in Venezuela. The variegated assembly included a woman shrink from Canada with a clear Anglo accent, a Portuguese builder who had a thick accent from Madeira, an Argentinean advertising executive etc… All of them were supposed to give a non political message which would end with the same phrase reflecting their hope for themselves and their children in Venezuela, this said in their native tongue.

It was indeed a very successful march, very colorful as the sea of Venezuelan flags was heavily dotted with foreign flags including a few Yankee ones, an occurrence unthinkable a few months ago. And do not think for a minute that it was only a white immigration that was feted, you could find a few flags from the Caribbean such as Haiti, or Trinidad. There was even an Israeli flag and speaker and an unveiled woman from Syria with her flag. The only strong speech was from the German representative who did not mince his words as to the “coincidences” between Germany in the early 30ies and Venezuela today. Overdone perhaps but chilling enough for some of the said coincidences.

We did start from my place but our march was delayed by another interesting and even astounding event. A group of cyclists decided to make ride across Caracas. That group included perhaps 30K cyclists or more. A subtle protest and support for the oil industry workers. When we reached the main avenue where we were supposed to catch the march starting from Plaza Las Americas, the ride arrived. They were able to fill both ways a large 4-lane avenue that stretches for 3-4 miles. In front of us packs of bikers passed for half an hour until the pedestrian march could get started. It was exhilarating! But this created havoc with the organized marches and pretty much everybody decided to go on their own to Parque del Este. It took us over an hour to trek there.

The sight on arrival was spectacular. The ambience extraordinary. The crowds cheered louder by the speaker. The positive energy that emanated is just indescribable. But of course there was a low point. The CNN envoy to Venezuela came to make his report. Well, somehow the crowd got wind of the guy climbing on the stand and started chanting in unison “CNN, di la verdad” which means “CNN tell the truth”. Now, the crowd in front was the targeted audience of CNN, the cosmopolitan middle classes of the world. I think it is time that CNN does damage control on the way they report the news. That very same night I saw the CNN report and you did not hear the crowds dishing CNN… As a side comment, while I was in Atlanta two days after I could not manage to reach somebody to say live the comment. Even the receptionist gave me that blank look, probably not even knowing where Venezuela is. But why bother, CNN is serving obviously some obscure interests. Even more, two employees of the US embassy in Venezuela that I met in the plane told me that the embassy staff tends to listen to the BBC. This witness may step down…

Thursday, January 23, 2003

eluniversal.com - Daily news and summary

Eight big lies told by the Chavista propaganda.
by Manuel Caballero
Special for El Universal
(this is an excerpt; please see the original article for full information)

European spheres see Venezuelan reality from the point of view sold by Mr. Chávez. For them we are racists and face a struggle between rich and poor; businessmen are fascists and the media are putschist; therefore, the nationalist government has not been able to fight corruption and work for the popular classes who put up with a minority’s outrages intended to destroy its peaceful and revolutionary project

1. There is a white minority against a dark majority who supports president Chávez in Venezuela.
False: Venezuela is one of the few countries in the world where there is no racial or religious hate.

2. There is a conflict between poor and rich in Venezuela.
False: It would be stupid to say that in Venezuela, like everywhere else, there are no classes opposing and struggling. But today the boundary is not between upper and lower classes but between the personalist authoritarism of Mr. Chávez’s government and the democratic collectivism of the opposition.

3. The popular classes are the support pillar for Hugo Chávez.
This is a half-truth: Chávez effectively got the majority of his votes in the big cities’ poorest sectors, mainly thanks to a frantic demagoguery. However, the answer to this propaganda assertion needs further elaboration.

4. The opposition to Chávez is putschist and fascist.
False: Denying this is not enough –it is certainly the biggest and at the same time the most shameless lie told by a government. It must not be forgotten that lieutenant-colonel Hugo Chávez Frías came to light politically in 1992 after having led two bloody military coups: if there is someone to be properly called putschist it would be him (who, by the way, took good care not to risk his neck).

5. Chávez’s government is civilian, legitimate, legal and stemming from popular sovereignty.
Another half-truth: Or, at this point, less (a lot) then that. Chávez was elected with the popular vote –nobody intends to deny that– the same way Hitler, Mussolini and Fujimori were. But the process of his delegitimization started at the beginning of his mandate: he had the rules of the game changed so that his term, originally a non-extendible five year period, would be lengthen to six years with an immediate re-election, and which everyday he threatens to stretch until 2021.

6. Chávez fights against corruption.
False: Chávez’s is one of the most corrupt governments Venezuela has had in its republican history.

7. There is freedom of speech in Venezuela.
Another half truth: In Chávez’s Venezuela, thanks to a long tradition dating from 1936, there is freedom to express one’s opinion, and I attest this. But there is no freedom to inform –no other Venezuelan regime has witnessed so many outrages against media, ranging from attacks on media headquarters to aggressions against reporters in the street.

8. Chavez’s is a nationalist government.
False: Like all fascisms, the Chavista regime exploits, ad nauseam, a blatant patriotism, focused on the idolatry of Liberator Simón Bolívar, whom it cites pell-mell to the same extent tyrant Juan Vicente Gómez used to in his day. But in fact, no one has strived more to give away Venezuelan interests to foreign capitals.

Friday, January 17, 2003

GORILLAS IN THE BEER
Friday 17, January 2003

Among the colorful personages that the Bolivarian pseudo-revolution has put on the front scene there is General Acosta Carles. This general of the National Guard has distinguished himself lately as one of the goonier characters within Chavez entourage. Gaining of course extensive credit from Chavez. He came to the fore by beating down a women’s protest rally at Valencia airport when Chavez was having some meeting there. They were locked outside while pro-Chavez people were allowed in to offer a nice landscape behind Chavez for the cameras. This general Acosta Carles was filmed pushing himself some women in a rather rude fashion to the point of hurting them, throwing one on the floor or something like that. Since then the said general has been one of the heroes of the oil strike piquet line crossers, so to speak. He was seen in particular commandeering gas trucks and hanging outside the passenger door in a triumphant gesture while the truck was taken from its rightful owners. Last week he was publicly congratulated during a Chavez speech. He stood up, arranged his crotch in front of the camera, planted himself legs spread, and knuckles on his hips, as defiant an attitude as possible. Acosta Carles cuts a dashing figure indeed. He must be at least 7 feet tall, very fair skinned. A hunk of sorts, until he acts and opens his mouth, then one is reminded more of an albino Gorilla.

Today Acosta Carles outdid himself. With the “paro” and the oil strike, obviously supplies are difficult to be supplied, and forgive the redundancy. There has been a concerted effort to provide the basic staples. But many non critical items such as beer or soda have been out of the shelves for a few weeks now. Chavez agents have been tried to demonstrate that there was hoarding and price speculation but without really any success. He fails to understand, or pretend he does not understand that production has stopped or is reduced to a minimal expression. He would rather see hoarding and price fixing, which of course is more politically convenient for him.

Well, Acosta Carles did strike today. This morning he took over the main Coca Cola depot in Valencia. He did not even wait for anyone to get the keys of the padlocks and just had his soldiers break them. No judicial order was shown. Of course he found the depots with some stuff, including bottled water. He said that the bottled water was an essential article that was hoarded. Incidentally, it is the brand that I purchase and I can vouch that I have been able to find it, not everyday, but often enough that I have had no problem in maintaining my supply. The brand is Nevada if anyone wants to check.

The general did not find beer, unfortunately. But he found “malta” this rather unique Venezuelan beverage which is a form of non alcoholic malt beer like beverage praised by young people, and cleverly marketed as a “nutritive” soda. “Malta” even comes in bottles that look strangely like beer bottles. Well, without paying for it the general had a bottle opened and drunk it in front of the camera, putting an appropriately needy look and then a satisfied one. And he gave a huge burp in front of the camera and started giggling like a spoiled brat. I will pass on the details of his comments for the cameras, his gross flirting, his narcissistic behavior, etc.. But he dropped this pearl “The public interest is above the private interest” without specifying who decided what public interest was or why was beer of public interest. Well, a case could be made for beer I suppose.

Meanwhile back outside a few people, including some of the management tried to oppose such abuse of authority. The National Guards had no qualms beating them up, throwing tear gas, etc… An image that has already made it to CNN is of a woman brutally thrown on the floor in a way that could have caused a concussion.

After a fun morning Acosta Carles decided to go for an afternoon media show at the expense of Polar, the main brewery in Venezuela. Same strategy. The management fought back and refused to let him in since he could not show a judicial order. He had the management thrown out to the street, the head manager (or the lawyer, I am not sure) actually falling hard and rolling on the side walk (“He threw himself down” commented the general). Unfortunately the loot was not too good, no beer. Luckily for him he did find a little bit of scarce corn flour so he made a big show. Too bad that one of the managers said later that they had only the equivalent of what they dispatched in three hours of a normal day. In other words, nothing. Anyone could have guessed that anyway since what was there would have filled up at most the shelves of 3-4 large grocery stores. Peanuts!

Anyway, the general might get his beer tomorrow since he announced that he was going now after “La Catira” in a very leery tone. “La Catira” is the marketing name of Polar main competition, “The Blonde”, a beer. ‘nuf said!

Back at the ranch Chavez was making his state of the union speech. He did not have much of a state to speak of so he took his time to attack the opposition as coup-mongers, extortionists, fascists, and what not. That is, all the people that have been on TV for the last few months. It is difficult to sit down to discuss issues with people that you call fascist in a formal ceremony at the National Assembly. But he said he would not mind to talk to the real civil opposition. I suppose he meant the ones that might disagree with him on only an issue or two. I wonder where they hide.

And while we are talking on gorillas. Three days ago a student protest was repressed brutally. A student had to be hospitalized. Well, an officer of the State Security Police (DISIP) came to pick the guy up at the hospital and forced the staff to let him go. The kid was released today, and had been beaten up and tortured. One wonder if they did that to scare people, and if they ceded to some pressure from somewhere. But the kid is still waiting for the charges. We could see his beaten up face while people carried him outside of the DISIP center where he was held.

I am afraid that we are under a military dictatorship, under cover. I have sensed that since Chavez sent the army to take over the oil industry. And the general said clearly that he was following Chavez orders and that these were the only ones he followed. Time to hit your public representative?

And tonight we are subjected to repetitions of the video of Acosta Carles burping.


SAN FELIPE AFTER 45 DAYS OF “PARO CIVICO”

SAN FELIPE AFTER 45 DAYS OF “PARO CIVICO”
Friday 17, January 2003

I came back to San Felipe on Sunday afternoon. It did feel a little bit weird after three weeks away. Perhaps somehow I expected some drastic change, as I had seen in Caracas when I went on the 20th of December. But no, on a sleepy Sunday afternoon it seemed that nothing at all had changed there.

Monday morning we did reopen production. Now it is not a question whether we want to join the general stoppage (“paro civico nacional” or “national civil stop” the official name of sorts). Some of the chavistas workers that were disgruntled when we closed for our annual holiday came back quite tamer. I think that from both sides we realize that this is not a game anymore. I did gather everybody and told them that we were still in business but that the situation was very critical, that our clients could go belly up, and without clients there was very little that we could do. However as producer of feed additives for life stock we should have at least some work and that for the next 3-4 months we should guarantee payroll. I really could not promise more than that…

Effectively we had enough work for three days. But Thursday at noon we realized that there was nothing left on the order board. Instead of having idle workers loitering around I sent all production force at home today and just kept administrative staff at work. I am afraid that for the next weeks I will have a lot of these shut up days. This actually reminds me of something that I did not report yet. Some foreign press reported the “paro” as a lock-out rather than a strike, trying of course to fit the rich versus poor model to Venezuela. Well, for a while the government was talking about having workers force their way in the manufacturing plants and other closed center of activities. Even last September there was talk on emitting a few decrees to validate these actions on some specious judicial grounds. Of course, nothing came to it and I have yet to see a mob of disgruntled workers trying to force they way in to work. Workers might be chavistas but they are not too ardent it seems.

San Felipe seems almost back to normal. I have not read the local papers so I cannot say what the mood is. But I am sure that the answer is that San Felipe is a provincial town and somewhat people feel a little bit alien to the Caracas agitation. Still, they have been a series of marches though this activity here is pretty much over.

Nevertheless there are changes in San Felipe. Activity is definitely down. If most stores are now open, we do not see people thronging them to catch up with pent-up shopping needs. I think that the economic crisis is already here and people are just shopping for minimum stuff. Local grocery stores are now open to their regular schedule, but the chain store that I go to follows the limited schedule of AM opening only. The banks of course work only 3 hours a day, which really upsets the government. However the lines outside of state workers paydays are more to the normal. It seems that people are realizing that the limited hours do not mean limited access to money. Else they have no more money to retrieve from their account. For you non-Venezuelan folks, checks are of little use here and most people function with cash. Considering the high insecurity and low incomes most people have only a saving accounts and they go on occasion to the bank to retrieve as little of money as they can get away with. The result? Permanent lines, with or without “paro”.

One thing is new since I left in December. Now we can see vendors of Venezuelan flags and some tight fashionable T-shirts with the flag colors. Witness to the reality that Yaracuy has been holding marches through December. This flag over the battle has been very interesting. Originally Chavez wrapped himself with the flag trying to project an image of true patriot, of Venezuelan values oriented guy. I remember the night he was first elected, chavistas displayed a humongous Venezuelan flag in front of the opera house where he was holding his first press conference, without even standing room. These days he did spoke willingly to all the press. Well, now the opposition has made the flag its emblem, the emblem of the resistance to Chavez attempt to impose a social model that is basically alien to the way we function as a society. Or dysfunction as some wags might have it.

Other things also are not quite the same. Some papers are not circulating in Yaracuy now, because of the shortage of paper to print. Even though the papers since early December have “special editions” that are not even a quarter of their prior volume, without advertisement, “paro” obliging, they cannot import paper. I suppose that they save their edition to Caracas and other main cities… When I stop by my newsstand I do not know which paper, if any, I will be able to get this day.

An advantage of living in a small state is that gas has not been such a problem as in Caracas. I was able to fill up on Tuesday. Yaracuy does not get more gas proportionally than other areas but we must consume less so it lasts longer. Yet, since Wednesday there is no more gas at all. I take this as an ill omen. Rumors are that the government is hoarding some through the army to make sure that they can ferry lots of people to Caracas on January 23 for a big rally they plan to show that they have street support. State TV has been having “convocation” calls for a few days already. One wonders why they need to prepare so long in advance to demonstrate support. After all the opposition has been calling almost daily rallies with 24 hours notice and manages to have a very respectable turnout every time.

But it was good to be back in San Felipe, escaping the heavy tension of Caracas. Unfortunately I am leaving tomorrow, back to Caracas. Already I wonder how I will manage to come back in 10 days…

Thursday, January 16, 2003

HOW TO DESTROY A COUNTRY
Wednesday 15, January 2003


This week seemed eerily like a déjà vu of sorts. Things keep slowly degrading and one is still amazed that somehow we have not yet reached the bottom. The bottom of course is civil war so we are in no hurry to get there.

So far this week we had other marches that ended up gassed or beaten up. The army again intervened independent police departments. Chavez proffered more menaces and insults. Yet… Something is different. For example the Washington Post and the New York Times have indicated that things started to soften in the opposition positions, going as far as to say that Chavez might be getting the upper hand. The upper hand of what? This is not what we feel here. The fact is that the opposition is starting to measure the side of the abyss that is waiting in front of us and is trying to catch its breath while it decides what to do. People that have been marching on and on are not going to go back home just like that.

My interpretation is that the opposition is realizing that Chavez has no qualms in destroying the country and they are wondering what to do about it. For example, the opposition needs to have means to fight and a destroyed country can only benefit Chavez. Thus my title today: I am going to try to describe briefly how Chavez has destroyed the country, long term and short term.

ECONOMICAL DESTRUCTION

The Bolivar has gone down from around 700 to the dollar one year ago to above 1700 today! In particular from 1403 to 1704 since January first. This is due to a total lack of confidence in the policies of Chavez and I will recall that the first wave of devaluation took place before the April 11 events. Then it had fallen from 700 to 900, that is 28%. The second wave was after April 11. So the intrinsic weakness of the Bolivar has come from Chavez policies. He received the currency at 500 +. The result of this is pretty much the end of commerce as importation decrease dramatically, supplies for production cannot be imported and cost too much for the local market. Exportations just cannot start like that. The spiral of inflation, jobless, bankruptcy starts.

Refusing to modify some of its economic policies seem now a calculated plan to break the spine of private business. By refusing to budge you promote flight of capital as people refuse to invest. Flight of capital means weakening of enterprises and their demise on the long term.

The governmental theory is to try to manage to blame the private sector for the country bankruptcy. It is aided in that by the lack of economic knowledge from most people, be it here or in the US for that matter. This might or might not succeed. But the fact is that Chavez only believes in small enterprise and stores and big multinationals. Anything in between, or local big capital, is regularly excoriated and sabotaged when possible. For example by promoting land grabbing schemes against productive farms. Or by removing tariff protection for industry sectors. Mind you, this is good when well planned as it forces industries to become competitive. But the government has used tariff manipulation to hit some sectors such as commerce by allowing illegal import and favoring street vending for example. This makes unavoidable a slow but sure a general disorganization of the productive and distributive apparatus, perhaps leading people to ask, plead, for state intervention.

The oil strike might be an unexpected blessing for Chavez. The numbers given by oil workers on strike show the following drops in the oil industry sectors: oil barrel production down by 87%, gas compression 70% (a minimum production had to be maintained for technical reasons), refinery production 94%. Only one of the 4 Venezuelan refineries is partially open, and it was supposed to shut down in part for maintenance so it might blow up any time soon. The government claims that things are much better but refuses to give verifiable numbers, nor to allow independent observation of the production sites which have been militarized. Why could this benefit the government? The PDVSA elite is pro business, western style. Too big of a counter power for Chavez, so he will be better off getting rid of them. If the economy is bankrupt anyway and he establishes authoritarian rule, he can manage with less than half of the income that he gets form PDVSA today. He will use the PDVSA strike the way Castro has been using the US blockade to justify his economic troubles. In such ways do dictators’ perverse minds work.

Finally there are discretionary powers of the executive that can be used to further wreak havoc with the private sector. One is the fixation of minimal wage. This is not a great tool has it also engages the government in the amounts to be paid to its own workers. Though they could be paid in junk bonds as many contractors have been paid in 2002. More useful is the right to establish labor freezes. That is, forbid firing of people for limited period of time. Yesterday Chavez labor secretary has prorogated the current freeze that came form last June until July 15, 2003! That is any worker that makes less than 3 times the minimum wage cannot get fired unless you go to a lengthy process with the labor inspectors. A difficult task at best. And since oil workers earn more than 3 times the minimum wage by collective conventions he can fire at will there, which is rather convenient these days. Since the strike began he has fired around 2000, that is 6 % of the oil work force, without breaking its will to strike so far. And adding all sorts of foreigners to the payroll he probably intends to lower morale rather than get results. Results would be difficult to get from people that do not speak Spanish and are not probably the best in the industry since they accept to work as scalawags in Venezuela.

But what does labor freeze means for a small business like mine? If it cannot meet payroll it will be obliged to close. Period. This is the only easy way to lower your personnel, by firing all or none. Layoffs are of course always a nasty business and quite often rather unjust. But should you sacrifice the jobs of the other workers because you cannot lay off in response to the markets? If you add to this a deepening crisis you can see that the pressure on small and medium business is quickly becoming unbearable. And it serves Chavez in his twisted mind as we will not be able to feed the opposition and will need to battle our workers, presumably.

It is clear that the economical suicide that a 45 days general strike might seem to the casual observer is actually a fight by small business to have a life. We, and I say “we” knowingly, recognize that Chavez policies are slowly but surely driving us out of business. So we are motivated to make a stand. It is that simple.

POLITICAL DESTRUCTION

This is pretty much straightforward. Concentrate all power in one hand and quickly nothing works. This all-in-one-hand might work at some level, but it always end up bad if you do not have adequate help.

Chavez’s constitution created a 4th power that included a fiscal comptroller of the nation, a general prosecutor and a people’s defender. The first one was meant as checking out that the accounts matched records and that corruption would be fought. The second one was to guarantee an independent prosecuting system that would allow people protection against abuses from the state. The third one was meant as an organization that would monitor that public service and public servants would fulfill their obligations by creating a specialized judicial branch.

Well, by naming three cronies he has managed to totally discredit the institutions. No corruption case is on trial, even from the pre Chavez corrupt officials that Chavez used as example to win the 98 election. The general prosecutor has yet to open any trial form April 11 events, and for many other events such as the press attacks that predate April 11 by months. The defender is the most pathetic of all openly defending chavistas, for example sending his subordinates to prevent arrests of the hoodlums that attack routinely anti Chavez rallies. So people have stopped looking for their supposed protectors knowing that they do not stand a chance in court system since prosecution will not take place. Period.

What is left? Well, the police since it is in the hands of city hall. Chavez does not like it at all and his underlings in the National assembly are trying to find a way around the constitution to create a “National Police” to supervise and diminish the autonomous polices. The Caracas Metropolitan Police is the main target since it is the main independent police force, and the one that provides security during the huge marches, in particular. It is also the one that tries to put some order into the high crime rates of Caracas. The next link will tell you of the recent second take over of the MP against court orders.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2658141.stm

All the riot control gear has been taken away “for investigation” as a consequence for the two people killed a few days ago. No judicial order was shown. The operation was done in the dark of the night. The high court ruling that invalidated the intervention of 2 months ago was ignored. The immediate result is that the mayor has announced that the MP cannot protect the marches anymore, cannot protect banks and bank money transfers, cannot protect at night bad neighborhoods since hoods have better weaponry than they do. Chavez’s people intention? To scare people away, to try to make sure that they do not go out anymore, be it a march or at night to plot against him.

To reinforce that image one can look at yesterday’s attack by chavistas, attack that I have not seen reported anywhere yet. In brief, a pacific march was attacked by a gang of chavistas that had tear gas etc… They attacked among other things the stand of two networks and try to set up one on fire. All live of course on TV. And all in front of the National Guard headquarters, without them sending a single soldier to try to re-establish order. A closed MacDonald was attacked by the way.

Clearly the idea is that you are defenseless and that only if you let Chavez do as he pleases you will get order back. Where have I heard this before?

This also makes real the threat Chavez pronounced about 3 weeks ago when he said that military that obeyed his orders to fight counter revolutionaries could disregard orders of the high court. High court has not responded and I wonder what it thinks of itself these days when the threat comes to fruition.

CHAVEZ ‘S AIMS?

Chavez has lost hearty grassroots support. His marches and rallies do not have the appeal of before even with the free distribution of money and booze (pictures have been widely shown of official vehicles shopping for cases of alcohol, confessions abound of people that complain that they were not paid their promised money). His economic debacle cannot bring people back to the original fervor, at least not for the foreseeable future. The next best thing is of course to scare the opposition away from the streets. How do you do that? You make them worry for food or jobs. You make them know that they will get no help if they are attacked. That no judge will be able to pull them out of jail, or soccer fields.

And all for what? To gain time. To see what can be done to outwit the opposition. To find a way to stay in power for good without an opposition that could best him someday.

Lately Chavez and his underlings have been reviving the “”Bolivarian Ideal” of a united Latin America, of course against the Yankee imperialism. Bolivar thought that Venezuela Colombia and Ecuador should be a single country. Chavez goes one step further, offering union to Peru and of course Bolivia. At Lula inauguration in Brasil he even offered to merge PDVSA with Petrobras. That is, selling the provider to the client, in a most anti economy self destructive piece of hubris.

It should be clear that the objective of Chavez is to make people happy the Chavez way. And meanwhile himself should enjoy all the riches of power. He has been doing good so far, gaining lots of weight, improving his wardrobe quite well, buying his own airbus which has probably more luxury inside than US Airforce 1 (no inside pictures have been revealed, a detail that says a lot).

I will leave you with a BBC link that gives you a few facts about Venezuela. It is quite complete for the non-Venezuelan data needs ;-)

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/1229345.stm



Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Miami DJs say they fooled Venezuelan Chief

MIAMI (AP) - Two radio show hosts who use jumbled recordings of Fidel Castro to trick callers into believing they're talking with the Cuban president say they have duped another victim - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Venezuelan officials said Tuesday they could not immediately verify the call, but a recording provided by the Cuban-American radio announcers contains a voice that sounds like Chavez.

The tape appears to have Chavez, who is struggling to end a month-old national strike by opponents, happily answering what he thought would be a friendly call Monday morning from Castro, one of his closest allies.

But on the other end of the line were WXDJ-FM disc jockeys Joe Ferrero and Enrique Santos, who ended the conversation by calling Chavez "terrorist" and "animal," along with a few expletives.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

THIS AND THAT
Sunday 12, January 2003

I drove back to San Felipe. Light traffic. More open gas stations than on December 20 but all with half a mile long lines. Still it seems that 3/4 remain closed or open intermittently. Caracas station on the Eastern side remain closed. The one closest from home where I went this morning for some oil told me that they have not had a gas delivery in over a month. We are punished it seems.


The march to Los Proceres was repeated with pretty much the same result: tear gas, injuries. At least this time the pro Chavez faction was kept away and perhaps that accounted for no victims. But yet again a journalist was hurt by plastic bullets shot by national guards. This time they had barred Los Proceres access with tanks, barbed wire, etc... The delicacy of the army. At least after some conflict they allowed a commission of 10 people proceed to the end of the avenue and deposit ceremony like a floral offering.


Chavez did his weekly show. Among a few gems he accused that the oil spills on Maracaibo lake, that cannot be dismissed as "normal" accidents, to be the act of saboteurs. As were the explosion of a couple of pipelines valves. This is important because those valves will serve as an excuse to explain why gas is not arriving to cities, in particular Caracas. So he will blame the incompetency of his scalawags on striking workers that have been denied access to facilities for now a month. Details, details... What is much more worrisome is that CNN transmitted this tidbit without mentioning that as usual Chavez did not bring any proof of his accusations. Why does CNN do that? Do they have the proofs in hand? Have they been told that they are going to get them? Why did they not add that information to their report? The way CNN (En Espanol) mentions this news is almost the same as backing Chavez. Of course they reported before the brutal repression of the march earlier and perhaps they tried to give balance. But it was so crude that one expects better from CNN.


Another gem was to threaten a second network from revocation of license. Just like that, because "everyone can see how they lie about everything". So we have a second media-fatwah.


More comic. He produced a worker that was supposedly dead as announced by a major paper. There was no clear evidence shown that the young "technician" was the alleged dead one. The supposed family has not come forward to confirm yet. However, Chavez in very familiar terms spoke with the young man making him talk about his job. Apparently he is a "refinery specialist" and he is happily restarting them around the country. Of course later in the days the striking oil workers said that 1) there is no such a job description as every refinery is unique and requires specialized staff and 2) neither the technician or Chavez had no idea of what they were talking about since they mentioned that the refinery of the discussion was supplied by tankers when in reality it is supplied by a pipe line (or reverse, I did not quite understand it myself). Was it a show? Did somebody die in that accident? More tomorrow.


On the way to San Felipe I stopped by a SAM's club like thing where I shop on occasion. Incredibly more than a third of the storage area / shelves were empty. The aisles were clear and the aisles ends were free of the usual promotional material. The refrigerated area of the fresh milk, yoghurt et al, was 95% empty. I was told to buy tooth paste and laundry detergent as they are items that will run out soon and the lack of importation of ingredients will make us face a scarcity for the next couple of months. Dirty laundry in perspective... At least there seems to be enough food items if not of the traditional ones.


Finally. El Universal had an excellent article written by a major political commentator to debunk some of the half backed constructs that have been sustaining the international image of Chavez, in particular with some sectors of the left in major Newspapers (such as the NYT that does not seem to see the light yet). I put the link below in case you want to try your hand at Spanish. Or to forward to people that might be interested.


http://www.eluniversal.com/2003/01/12/12106AA.shtml


An interesting detail, the pic is from a pro Chavez rally. This is really a good article and even if you cannot read it, pas it along to your local paper ;-)

Saturday, January 11, 2003

WAR ZONE
Saturday 11, January 2003

I decided to leave tomorrow instead, although I wish I could stay because there is an encore to the march that was shot at on the 3rd. The opposition after a few days of reflection decided to go to Los Proceres again. I wish I could go but I have too complex a situation at work on Monday.

This morning a friend who lives downtown Caracas took me for a sight tour of the battle field zones of this year. Last time I was there I was with him and a friend from San Francisco visiting exactly one year ago. I have not visited the downtown area in a year. My friend wanted me to dress appropriately before going downtown, a novelty regarding last year. That meant dark shoes (sneakers are robbed at a fast rate like the Bronx, which seems to look much better than downtown Caracas), dark shirt to look less “white”, sunglasses. I found this amusing but after today tour not that silly…

Well, it was quite a tour. Out of the subway at Capitolio we reached Bolivar square the heart of almost any city in Venezuela. On one side it has the main borough townhall, La Alcaldia de Caracas, in the hands of Bernal, the mayor do-it-all of Chavez (read: organizer of the downtown militia). At the opposite corner there is Caracas city hall of all boroughs, Alcaldia Mayor, that is held by Peña, former chief of staff of Chavez and now one of his fiercest critics and THE most favorite target of chavistas. Between the two town hall stands the “Esquina Caliente” or Hot Corner, a speakers corner of sorts for chavistas, literally under the shadow of La Alcaldia. We could see an interesting collection of posters and other appropriate palimpsests.

We walked to the Alcaldia Mayor. This building has been attacked several times by chavistas mobs that almost made it inside. The façade is bullet ridden, the famous stained glasses are all trashed. Townhall put some painting to make the whole thing look not too shabby and keep working inside.

We then walked around. The downtown area is now in a ruinous state. Two reasons account for this. The Alcaldia de Caracas who is responsible for upkeep has spent its revenues and moneys to organize its gangs of aggression to back up Chavez. And for all sort of corruption schemes one thinks. This of course leads to the second reasons of the general deterioration: the need to keep these hundreds of troops at hand in case of need for a “spontaneous” show of support and other actions such as shooting at buildings holding people perceived as unfriendly. This is conveniently achieved through a significant amount of ghost jobs that justify a whole bunch of this people on payroll. But this is only good for the regulars and head of squads. The “paid per action” folks need something to do during day time. Well, for this we have the “buhoneros” or street vendors. This in Venezuela is something like an institution as the informal commerce has been managing an eon fight with authorities over their wish to sell at street corners. Lenient governments tried to regulate this, without success. Stronger ones tried to clear up sidewalks, but the need of a constant surveillance of course ended up any success as the people in office worry about other activities that might garner them more votes. The fact of the matter is that as in any good capitalist system, this is a supply side phenomenon. That is, Venezuelans seem to like to shop in the street. Things are not necessarily cheaper but they seem so. And you can get all sort of contraband goods, forbidden items such as fireworks, pirated tapes, etc, etc…

But the buhoneros invasion under Bernal has reached unforeseen heights. One reason rumored around is that townhall benefits from it through two ways, the contraband that it lets flow through, and the racket that letting street vendors stay represent for corrupt officials. Another reason is that many buhoneros are just chavistas on payroll that dab in between gigs of “support”. I am not saying that there is no genuine support for Chavez, but TV has clearly shown that there is a structure behind these rallies: people in the background talking on wireless and shooting orders to a few, faces that reappear on screen regularly, etc… So a buhonero stand can consist on two partners, one on call. If you ask me, this is a form of exploitation of human work for the benefit of contraband dealers, dealers and people with political interests.

Most of downtown has become a huge open-air market. The lack of amenities, the need to secure their stands and to sleep in some of them to secure their merchandise, has lead to a complete degradation of sidewalks and an ever-present stench. Today this was particularly spectacular to see. We have entered the dry season so we do not have the benefit of the cleansing rains. And after December 31 street vendors go on “vacation” for a couple of weeks and it is the only time of the year to walk downtown. And La Alcaldia is not even bothering cleaning during this lull… It was awful. Sidewalks are broken, dirty and stained. Restoration efforts are doomed on some old houses as buhoneros set their stand in front. Regular stores have stopped maintaining their façade and lowering their appearance to the lowest common denominator. And buildings are not collapsing for bullet assaults, they just collapse because there is no maintenance. Even congress, an oasis of green and cleanliness is not able, or unwilling, to keep up its outside appearance. The North end is almost as damaged as the nearby buildings.

We did walk around. My friend showed me the different areas that were reached by the April 11 march. The places were shooting took places, where some of the people died. The vantage points that the press climbed to try to document, the streets from where the army charged, etc… He also showed me what has become El Silencio, an ambitious housing complex of the 40ies that used to be on Caracas postcards. It is not anymore. But it was interesting to visit that area and to realize that recovery is still possible, if long, if there ever is a will to make Caracas a real city again. I saw at the same time the degradation that brought Chavez to office, but I also saw that he has made it all worse.

Meanwhile back at the ranch.

A video amateur received by Globovision shows the KLM flight arrival of a group of foreign technicians, mainly from India and the Middle East. 7 of them in first class apparently. Naively they talked to the Venezuelan passengers asking whether they were happy that they were coming to move the tanker ships! Obviously they had no idea of what is going on here. They did not even know where Maracaibo was, the point where supposedly they have to move ships back and forth. At immigration they were shown through a side door to the baggage area without even showing passport and visa. Other passengers complained and apparently the Immigration supervisor laughed at their face and left. Outside word spread and a large spontaneous gathering of people dropping and picking passengers screamed their indignation. These foreign workers hired to save the fatherland managed with military escort to be taken who knows where.

And in town Chavez held a rally at the biggest indoor sporting arena. He made another fiery speech commandeering all networks signals. He had behind him three goons (and I mean it) in military draft, his company lately, I suppose to suggest a war state. They are his body guards that people rumor are Cubans and the government denies, yet they never let them talk just to see if indeed they have Cuban or Venezuelan accent, quite distinctive. The motive? A ceremony to swear in the “volunteers” that will substitute striking teachers and intervene closed schools. Universities were threatened as well. With the pitiful quality of Venezuelan education I wonder what the results will be with political hacks replacing the teachers. The interesting feature is that the private news were not allowed at the press area. Only the government TV and radio. I wonder if CNN was allowed or even tried to go. So we had to rely on the camera work of state network that was very careful to scan the same section to make sure to give an impression of full room. Maybe the room was full, but one could not verify it. Thus evolves the freedom of information.

However there was an interesting piece of news. A representative of the Democratic Coordination, the umbrella organization of the opposition, Timoteo Zambrano, and Carlos Ortega the CTV union leader on top of the opposition fight, left for the US this afternoon. They are to meet among other, the UN secretary, State department officials, AFLCIO leaders and other institutions that want to know what is really going on and how they can help. Return Wednesday.

And to close on a different note. On the ellipse in front of the White House, perhaps a couple of hundred or more Venezuelans did bang pans, wave flags, etc… In front of bemused passerby that probably never hard of Venezuela before. But this was no tropical rally, even with our colorful flag. The only warmth in the air came from the people.
Venezuela Crisis Complicates Iraq Situation
From page 2 of an article in the NYTimes, 11 January 2003:
"This is an incredibly important moment in Venezuelan history," a senior State Department official said. "Things are happening now that are going to affect Venezuela for decades: its energy relationship with the United States, the structure of PDVSA, the integrity and credibility of its democratic institutions — all of these things are at stake."
But many Latin American experts say the administration's efforts have been too little, too late. They contend that the Bush administration, distracted by Iraq, allowed Venezuela's problems to fester.
Others say the administration committed two blunders last year that have hurt its credibility with Mr. Chávez and other Latin American leaders: in April, by appearing to endorse an attempted coup against the Chávez government, and in December by briefly joining the opposition's call for early elections.
In addition, the State Department's Latin America desk has been leaderless through much of the strike. The last assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Otto J. Reich, was reassigned in November after his temporary appointment expired. The White House intends to nominate Roger F. Noriega, the representative to the Organization of American States, to replace him.
"There is no one at the wheel here," asserted Moisés Naím, the Venezuelan who is the editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
PEEKING AT THE ABYSS
Friday 10, January 2003

Today I decided to go back to San Felipe tomorrow. Although I do not want to reopen business for many reasons ranging from “will I have enough gas for deliveries” to “will it be safe to drive around?” I still need to reopen for as long as I can. To boost morale for the workers that might be afraid that they have no more jobs. For the sales department that have been working through the holidays giving consulting for our clients and preparing the work orders, etc… To avoid losing a sense of life, to stop sitting down in front of the TV and wait for the end, whichever it might be.

But of course I had to deal with some trivial matters before thinking lofty thoughts and one was to get my wireless phone fixed. Well, my company has all its agencies closed and they only reopened their main Caracas office this week. I had to stand in line for 4 hours (!). But it was actually fun as we started a discussion group anti Chavez. After 4 hours I was told that my phone could be fixed but there was no way to tell when considering the “situation”. Besides they had a promotion where they credit you twice your average monthly balance toward a new piece of equipment. All in all for an extra 10 bucks above the estimated repair price I got a new phone… If I bore you with this story is to point out that we can still with mundane matters, although it takes almost 5 hours, line and service included. Well, the little group parted the best friends in the world… I have to say that during all this chat nobody did proffer any misplaced word towards Chavez, something that surprised and pleased me.

Meanwhile back at the ranch Chavez was not having as much regards for his opposition. In what is possible one of his worst performances he went to San Carlos in Cojedes to commemorate Zamora, a sort of guerilla leader of the XIX century that played Robin Hood while improving his economic lot. Around 1 PM he commandeered all the networks and gave a truly awful speech. This speech was a stream of improprieties and total disregard of the constitutional state that himself had renovated supposedly with his 1999 constitution. This poor constitution has been violated so much by his father that one has got to have a Freudian outlook to the situation. But I digress. A few jewels:
1. He gave the order for the army to develop plans to seize food supplies if the owners keep them to themselves to starve the people. That perhaps they have stocks because nobody is buying or they have no gas for deliveries does not seem to be a factor. And of course he added that no indemnity would be paid to such criminals.
2. He named by name some people in a way that pretty much seemed a “fatwah”. Salman Rushdie now has company.
3. He told that we needed to replace the corrupt and criminal justices of the high court, forgetting that he had them named a couple of years ago. And no proof of corruption was offered.
4. He gave orders to prosecute the opposition leaders for crime against humanity or some such equivalent. The April 11 shootings have not been prosecuted yet and his followers have stonewalled the formation of a “truth commission”. We will see what moves faster in court.
5. Etc…

He cast the fight between “true patriots” and “traitors”. He exhorted people to “cure themselves from the venom planted in their breasts by the ‘golpista’ media”. Golpista are the people that apparently have been trying to oust him with a coup. It includes now anybody that differs from his views.

He concluded his speech giving away “247 ultra modern apartments that thanks to the revolutionary Bolivarian government subsidies will cost only 6 million Bs. (4000 USD) instead of the normal 12 million”. I kid you not.

I think Chavez his giving a new meaning to populism.

Meanwhile back at the “Real Life” ranch. Most shipping companies have decided not to send ships to Venezuela. One big order that we needed is postponed until who knows when. Banks closed more than yesterday, reaching more than 80 % banks closed for the day, and most grocery stores again. Mess at schools kept going on. The oil industry on strike reported yet new oil slicks, the government reported more “normalcy”. Somewhere some march was beaten up by some hoodlums.

The opposition leaders, in part understandably, raised the ante. This is starting to worry me because it looks that the opposition is blocking any possible compromise. Not that I think compromise seems possible at this point, but perhaps with their unjustified foreign bad press the opposition should make an extra effort. I have sensed that some people are starting to think that we should wait for the recall election in the second half of the year. I attribute that to them being afraid of the recent rhetoric. But they are fools probably. Chavez is on record now to say that he will not allow the non-binding referendum of February 2. He has sent some generals to say that they will not accept an unconstitutional referendum. Of course that the high court has not ruled yet on that does not seem to be a problem for them.

I asked my father if he thought we were peeking at the edge of the economical abyss. He calmly replied from his 78 years of experience and several Venezuelan crises that we had fallen in it already. I did not bother asking if we were looking at the edge of the political abyss.

But I do not want to close this on such an unfortunate mood. Today reports came from the Bush administration to get more involved through a “friendly countries” group to reinforce Gaviria. We will see.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A35622-2003Jan9.html

Though again the Washington Post fails to understand the real legal nature and constraints of the Venezuelan system of referendum and recall elections, but then again few people here understand them. In a previous posts I explained how the August recall election system is only a starting point and the recall election could not be held before December 2003 at the earliest.

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?

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

RETURN TO CLASSES BUT NO GREEN PASTURES
Tuesday 7, January 2003

Today supposedly classes were supposed to start again. In Venezuela we celebrate Epiphany on January 6. It is a minor holiday compared to Christmas and New Year. However it is very nice since it allows people to slow down slowly after the excesses of the prior month. Something still to look forward. This is why in Venezuela many business close for up to a month between December and January. With so many holidays why fight it?

So return to classes it was. But a failed return. As far as I can tell the large majority of schools refuse to reopen. A few that tried to reopen were forced to close because parents did not want to be forced to send their kids. Many did not show up anyway since they could not go because of gas shortages. The government that had tried to make a point out of reopening the schools was quite frantic trying to prove that schools had reopened and that all was back to normal. A heavy propaganda campaign took place before trying to blame the opposition on jeopardizing the future of the fatherland by blocking education. Of course they forgot to mention that there was no guarantee that schools could be decently provisioned (public schools by law must provide lunch), that schools would be safe (with recent shooting and tear gas attacks this is not a small concern), etc…

To mark his point Chavez did another “cadena”, this primitive right of Venezuelan presidents to commandeer all the media for messages of supposedly national interest. A Chavez visibly shaken, visibly drugged, did one of his worse fire and brimstone speeches. He threatened to put to jail all of the traitors, all the bankers that are threatening to close, the teachers that remained on strike, the oil workers, etc… A big Gulag in perspective. He also threatened again the media, which probably means that pretty soon we will be gratified with nightly attacks on the media as it happened a month ago.

The scenery for all that was a public school that did reopen, in front of all the students. One wonders how such a violent speech that lasted over an hour contributes to the education of these children. And some teachers invited to talk shows said that the school was not that full as many students did not show up. So officials dragged students from other schools to fill in the gaps. Uniforms from other schools were seen apparently. Potemkine schools students.

But it gets better. While these took place an airplane (or helicopter, I did not get that quite clearly) was flying above Maracaibo lake and filming several important oil slicks that have appeared since the government has been trying to force the reopening of the oil fields. The images were really scary and depressing. The ecological damage is great. But the military were pissed off at that plane and closed the airport so the guys had to try to find landing somewhere else. Which is good because otherwise their film might have been seized. This is where we are now, the government advancing all sorts of numbers to prove that it is regaining control of the oil industry but there is no way to verify that. Not even CNN, assuming it would want to do so….

In Monagas, an Eastern state which account for more than 30% of the oil resources, another news steam was trying to inquire about another reported oil slick, which had been filmed form the air. These images show clearly a small river of oil flowing through inhabited areas. Well, when the chavista workers realized what they were looking for the journalists had to run away as they threw stones and tried to destroy their cameras. The National Guard watched and did not intervene. Did CNN show that?

Today the “war room” of the opposition reported all sorts of incidents in the installations that the government is try to reactivate. On one side you hear neighbors complaining of explosions and smoke. On the other the officials stonewalling, and of course not allowing any independent observer inside. And even less publishing verifiable numbers. We also had today a “cadena” from the oil minister announcing that it was a good time to break up PDVSA the oil monopoly, in particular to take out the gas sector, a long cherished goal of Chavez, but always opposed by the industry. As it turns out, there is quite a scandal about some gas concessions given without international bidding. You can draw your own conclusions.

But was really seems to freak the government is the latest moves of the opposition. A tax boycott is now openly discussed and today’s march was to our IRS version. Thousands of people were tearing tax forms in front of the building while directors and the finance minister was threatening with jail for up to 6 months people that would not pay taxes. And here we go for a second Gulag. Combine this with the bank worker union who is threatening to call for a 48 hours strike that will pretty much make it impossible for the government to pay public workers.

Of course since the shootings of last Friday the opposition is scaling up the ante. Chavez has refused point blank to celebrate the referendum of February 2. Gaviria looks more pitiful than ever. I think somebody should tell him that the government side of the negotiation table is making a fool of him ad perhaps it would be time that he made a stronger stand. But can he? Do the OAS members really want to intervene in Venezuela? I am afraid that the Americas is rather afraid of what is going on here. The only one that seems to have a clue is Toledo from Peru. Then again he had to deal with Fujimori.

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