Monday, February 24, 2003

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL AGAINST CHAVEZ
Monday 24, February 2003
(published February 21)

Dear New York Times, after a few weeks of standing on the fence seems to have decided against Chavez. From the articles of Juan Forero, who has the strike went on seemed going more to Chavez side, one could have assumed that the New York Times was rather blind to the reality. But it seems that they are finally seeing the light. Actually, Mr. Forero seems to have been sent to Bolivia and other hot spots and a new guy is writing for Venezuela.

Anyway, here is the full text of the editorial. I did not put it earlier because I wanted to relate last week events first. I think the editorial looks even better at this late date.

-----------------------------------

February 21, 2003
Vengeance in Venezuela

Americans have a twofold interest in Venezuela's resolution of its current political problems peacefully and constitutionally. The country sits atop the largest petroleum fields outside the Middle East, with most of its oil exports going to the United States. A nationwide strike has sharply lowered those exports in recent months. Venezuela may also be the most fragile of Latin America's growing number of troubled democracies. A turn toward authoritarianism of the left or right could have damaging ripple effects across the region.

Regrettably, President Hugo Chavez, instead of working to heal his badly divided country, seems determined to provoke new and dangerous tensions. Less than two days after government and opposition representatives promised to step back from their confrontation, two of the country's most visible opposition leaders face charges of rebellion, sabotage and a series of other crimes growing out of their leadership of a now faltering national strike.

Carlos Fernandez, who leads Venezuela's most important business federation, was arrested early yesterday. Carlos Ortega, the head of the country's main union alliance, has gone into hiding. The vindictive charges against them could undo the modest progress recently made toward a peaceful, constitutional resolution of Venezuela's long-running political crisis.

The strike led by Mr. Fernandez and Mr. Ortega aimed at forcing Mr. Chavez from power. The right way to determine Venezuela's political future is through democratic elections. The Constitution devised by Mr. Chavez permits a recall vote this August. Between now and then, all sides should work to calm the inflamed political atmosphere. That seemed possible as recently as Tuesday, when government and opposition representatives issued a joint declaration pledging efforts to promote reconciliation and mutual understanding. Then came the two arrest orders.

Mr. Chavez's opponents were already alarmed by the kidnapping and murder of four anti-Chavez demonstrators, whose bodies were found earlier this week. Police investigators now suggest that the killings were not politically motivated, but the victims' relatives disagree.

It's easy to see why. Earlier this month Mr. Chavez proclaimed this the "year of the revolutionary offensive." He vowed to take retribution against his many enemies, especially the strike leaders. Days later he introduced currency controls, and ominously warned that they could be used as a financial weapon against opposition businessmen. The state oil company has permanently dismissed thousands of striking workers.

These steps threaten to overwhelm the compromise proposals put forth by Jimmy Carter after a mediation mission last month. His ideas drew positive responses from both sides and encouragement from Washington. The centerpiece of the package was a recall vote or new elections after August. Preliminary steps called for the opposition to end its strike and for the government to refrain from reprisals. That remains good advice. Unfortunately, Mr. Chavez, having all but vanquished the strike, no longer seems to be listening.



Sunday, February 23, 2003

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY… (part 3)
And the ridiculous
Sunday 23, February 2003

THE UGLY: 6 deaths and a few wounded

The events in the two preceding posts were framed by deaths. Actually while I was writing the previous posts, there were only the 4 deaths of early this week, but last night the circle was closed.

Not all the details are in yet and this is why I have been postponing writing on these deaths, or rather murders. So I will be brief least I have to rewrite everything alter. The facts that are known are damning by themselves.

The week starts with 5 deaths.

Plaza Altamira has been hosting since October a few dissident military. I personally think that their action is non-productive now, and that they missed a golden opportunity to retire as heroes in November. Nevertheless, I must concede that it is admirable to have been able to live on a public square for now 4 months for ones’ convictions. Close to 200 hundred military have declared dissidence, from generals to plain soldiers. One general that dared leave Plaza Altamira for some protest action was arrested and is know in house arrest while some trumped charges are brought to trial (the real charges from April 11 have already been dismissed). And three soldiers probably bored have tried to make use of their free time, probably with some of the female public that hangs around Altamira.

These three soldiers were found dead. The way they died indicates that it was some kind of execution since they were tied up and showed signs of torture. And two of their female friends were found, one death, one badly injured and probably left there as dead. This unfortunate woman was taken to a hospital where a Bolivarian circles had managed to get rooms for their activities (In a hospital, you may ask?).

Bolivarian circles are a chavista organization initially created to organize neighborhoods to try to have people solve their own problems. But like all good intentions, the real intentions came behind as a nursery to recruit the violent fringes of chavista sympathizers, and neighborhood surveillance of people that might be only lukewarm chavistas. A little bit like the CDR in Cuba. However, I must quickly add this last function is only present in some popular areas, the main functions being to recruit the more violent members of society and fill pro Chavez marches. If truth is to be told, some circles do actually some significant social work in some areas. The circle at the hospital does not seem to have been one of the social worker one…

As soon as the news of the incorporation of the woman to the hospital was known, this Bolivarian circle tried to kidnap her. A big mess arose as doctors tried to stop the aggression. The county police (Pro Chavez in this district) was called and had to put down the riot, with somebody from the circle being killed. They took a few people to jail, but one of them was very soon released: he is the significant other of a “Pasionaria” of sorts, Lina Ron. She is a famous agitator in downtown Caracas that has been linked to many of the worst riots that have happened this last year. The woman just drove in, one suppose made a few calls, and zipped out with her Beau. No comments are needed.

Official reaction? The soldiers were killed as a consequence of some lover quarrel. Notwithstanding that this does not explain the way they were executed and that two of the women were also killed or almost killed (the survivor one has brain damage), the surprise was the speed with which the Venezuelan equivalent of the FBI reached the conclusion. This is the same police Corp that has not emitted an official accusation yet for the December 6 killer at Altamira that was caught with the smoking gun in hand, and that Chavez has publicly questioned his guilt, claiming that they “might” have been another shooter…

Interesting to observe how fast the police moves according to the interests of the government.

The week ends with a metropolitan police killed in a trap.

Last night the Metro Police (“working for” an anti Chavez mayor) was attending a call in La Campiña. Apparently it was a set up and a gang of likely pro Chavez folks tried to shoot them down pretending that they were aggressed by the police. This is incidentally the police that has been intervened by the army and that has had its entire anti riot gear confiscated, as well as its heavy equipment. It is rather unlikely that these policemen are going to look for trouble when they are under armed!

Anyway, something must have gone wrong because the police retreated, picked up its wounded and one of their men dead. Witness abound as to the aggression of the other side. Not only they have removed significant weaponry from the police force that ensures the safety of the population, but they are trying to kill them to scare them into quitting, one supposes.

What does Chavez says of all this?

Really, it does not matter. I put below the Reuter communiqué of this afternoon, but there is nothing new except that now he is insulting foreign countries (the communiqué cannot convey the vulgar and sarcastic tone of Chavez in his weekly program). He does not address the killings of this week, nor the obvious abuse of power, pretending that the judicial system is truly independent. However he also renewed his menace of closing the networks, which Reuters does not mention. Of course, he wants to shut up the networks! They were there to film all the botched operations that were planned this week! He cannot be happy when the networks have just to stand and film right in front incompetence, abuse of authority, hideous crimes, riot scenes, ambushes, etc… Who needs investigative reporting in Venezuela these days?

The Chavez administration is turning into one ridiculous soap opera.

Venezuela's Chavez Tells World to Back Off
By REUTERS
(I clipped less significant part)

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned the world to stop meddling in the affairs of his troubled South American nation on Sunday, as police locked up a prominent strike leader on ``civil rebellion'' charges.

The populist president accused the United States and Spain of siding with his enemies, warned Colombia he might break off diplomatic relations, and reprimanded the chief mediator [Gaviria] in tortuous peace talks for stepping ``out of line.''

``I ask all of the countries of this continent and of the world ... are you going (to) stop this meddling?'' Chavez asked angrily, during his state-sponsored television show 'Alo Presidente.' ``This is a sovereign nation.''

The tongue-lashing followed a recent flurry of diplomatic communiqués expressing concern over Carlos Fernandez, a strike leader and prominent businessman who was yanked out of a Caracas steakhouse on Thursday at gunpoint by police.

A judge placed the silver-haired executive under house arrest on Sunday to await trial for charges of civil rebellion and criminal instigation, which could land him up to 26 years in prison. He spearheaded a two-month nationwide shutdown by oil workers and industry in a failed bid to force elections.

Chavez carped that the same international worry by diplomats over Fernandez wasn't shown when he was briefly ousted in a 48-hour coup last year. He said some countries, including Spain and the United States, applauded the putsch.

``It's worth remembering that the Spanish ambassador was here, in this room, applauding the coup. So the Spanish government is going (to) keep commenting?'' Chavez asked.

``We say the same thing to the government in Washington. Stop making mistakes ... A spokesman comes out there saying he's worried. No! This is a Venezuelan matter.''

PEACE HOPES WANE

Venezuela's crisis has drawn the international spotlight with leaders afraid the world's No. 5 supplier of oil could slide into civil war as Chavez allies and enemies face off.

Hailed by supporters as a champion of the poor, the paratrooper-turned-president has pledged to crack down on enemies of his self-styled ``revolution.'' Foes call him an ignorant dictator looking to impose Cuban-style communism.

Chavez crushed an oil walkout by firing 13,000 dissident workers, and laughed off the two-month-old strike which hurt the private sector and was meekly abandoned in early February.

He won an arrest warrant for another strike leader, union boss Carlos Ortega, and threatens to lock up a group of media moguls he dubs the ``Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.''

The United States, Spain and four other countries have dispatched diplomats to the negotiating table in a bid to defuse tensions fueling the crisis. But the talks have so far proven fruitless, and Chavez on Sunday seemed to push away members of the six-nation group.

Chavez reserved his most severe criticism for Cesar Gaviria, who is the chief mediator in talks to end the political deadlock. Gaviria, a former Colombian president, is the head of the Organization of American States.

``Mr. Gaviria, this is a sovereign nation, sir. You were president of a country. Don't step out of line,'' Chavez said.





THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY… (part 2)
And the ridiculous

Saturday 22, February 2003

THE BAD: Carlos Fernandez is arrested, Carlos Ortega goes into hiding

The success of El Firmazo was a given since February 2. The government was planning something to counteract and make sure that people would speak of something else than the few million people that signed up against it. So they waited and waited for the “official” results. The opposition announced them for Wednesday might and the government struck on Wednesday night at midnight by arresting the president of the Business Federation, FEDECAMARAS, Carlos Fernandez.

Or was it an arrest? They intercepted Carlos Fernandez when he was leaving a steak house shortly after midnight. No arrest warrant was shown. Several guys from the DISIP, the state security police came in cabs and unidentified vehicles. They collared Mr. Fernandez and his chauffeur and pushed them in Mr. Fernandez car, speeding away fast with car and chauffeur. Mr. Fernandez chauffeur is also probably his bodyguard, a requirement this days in Venezuela for some public figures but not enough protection it seems.

The impression of kidnapping was confirmed through the night. His lawyers and some friends tried to go to where Mr. Fernandez was held, not only without success, but even to be pushed away by a “spontaneous” group of chavistas that came to the site. Even a representative from a tribunal was denied access and only early in the morning Mr. Fernandez was allowed to contact his wife.

Incidentally like the head of the major trade Union Carlos Ortega were absent form the ceremony of El Firmazo.

Thursday we learned that a judge indeed had emitted an arrest warrant. But that judge was until recently a lawyer who as it turned out was counsel to the only people that have been indicted so far for the April 11 events, people associated with the pro Chavez groups. There are serious questions as to the qualifications of that lawyer to be a judge, not to mention the obvious conflict of interest.

If this was not bad enough during the day we were treated to deplorable, and ridiculous, displays. Mr. Fernandez was taken to the high court in Caracas with an escort that would have been large to protect a serial killer. Not to mention that he was handcuffed although he was neatly dressed in suit and tie and he certainly could not escape as he is one of the most known faces in the country these days.

But it was going to get worse. Chavez spent his Thursday and Friday gloating on the event. Inane comments went from “I went to bed with a smile” to quoting a famous Bolivar line during the independence war when he wrote his decree of “war to death”: “Españoles y Canarios”. These lines were addressed by Bolivar to the Spaniards and people coming from the Canary Islands, which although from Spain were in large amounts to be treated separately. The intention was to threaten anyone that sided with them of immediate death. Well, Mr. Fernandez happens to be a native of Spain even though he came very young to Venezuela and he is way more Venezuelan than Spaniard. This is in Venezuelan political language intended to humiliate Mr. Fernandez. However, when dirty tricks are needed Chavez is not afraid to use them.

Meanwhile Carlos Ortega went into hiding since another warrant for his arrest was emitted. Apparently the police failed to find him. Not to mention that Mr. Ortega has sent his family outside of Venezuela 3 weeks ago, and has limited his appearances himself.

Thus, we have our first political prisoner and our first underground resistant fighter. Meanwhile thanks to our XXI century the TV is able to show all of this, but for how long….

I will finish this note with a few excerpts from the wires. I have not edited them, just clipped repeated information. The first one mentions some of the incendiary words of Chavez. No comments needed. The second wire is from Reuters with similar material.


Chavez Seeks Prison for Two Dissidents
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez demanded 20-year prison terms Friday for two prominent opponents who directed a nationwide strike that devastated Venezuela's oil-based economy.

Carlos Fernandez, head of Venezuela's largest business chamber, and Carlos Ortega, leader of its biggest labor confederation, are charged with treason and other crimes for the two-month strike, which cost more than $4 billion.

Fernandez was arrested by secret police Wednesday and hauled into court Friday. Ortega went into hiding when a judge issued an arrest warrant.

``These oligarchs believed that they were untouchable. There are no untouchables in Venezuela. A criminal is a criminal,'' Chavez thundered during a ceremony handing land titles to peasants in Trujillo state.

He demanded a 20-year term for Fernandez, president of Fedecamaras, and for Ortega, of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation, for allegedly sabotaging the oil industry, inciting civil disobedience ``and trampling the human rights of the Venezuelan people.''

Oil is Venezuela's strategic industry, and its exports were the fifth-largest in the world before the strike began Dec. 2. The strike ended Feb. 4, but Chavez's government is battling a continuing walkout in the oil industry.

Citing nationwide hardship caused by gasoline shortages, Chavez condemned Fernandez and Ortega as ``terrorists'' who failed to topple his government -- both during a brief April coup and this winter.

Fernandez's case was transferred Friday from a judge who had acted as defense attorney for Chavez supporters accused of shooting at opposition marchers before the April coup. A second judge was to decide Saturday if Fernandez should remain in custody pending trial.

The tempestuous Chavez also had a message for foreign critics of Fernandez's arrest. The United States, Organization of American States and other entities voiced concern that Venezuela's crisis is escalating.

``I want to remind all the governments of the world that Venezuela is a sovereign country! We are nobody's colony!'' Chavez shouted.



Gloating Chavez Defends Arrest of Strike Boss
By REUTERS


CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez on Friday railed against international criticism over the arrest of one of his opponents who was detained for leading a strike against the leftist leader.

A squadron of plainclothes police on Friday hustled a grim-faced Carlos Fernandez into the attorney general's office, where he faces civil rebellion and treason charges for spearheading the two-month strike that battered the economy of the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

His arrest late Wednesday at gunpoint drew fire from international organizations and the United States, which said it feared the move would undermine negotiations to end the bitter political feud over the president's rule.

``We are nobody's colony,'' Chavez roared at a crowd of supporters in western Trujillo state. ``We have our own institutions, our own constitution ... and we will not accept meddling in Venezuela's domestic affairs.''

DISIP state security police on Friday were still holding Fernandez, a silver-haired trucking executive who leads the Fedecamaras business chamber. He was not formally charged.

Armed officers snatched Fernandez from outside a Caracas restaurant around midnight Wednesday after a judge ordered him and another strike leader, union boss Carlos Ortega, arrested. Ortega, a fierce Chavez critic, has gone into hiding.

Opponents of the populist president, who they accuse of trampling over democracy, have slammed the arrest as illegal and urged the international community to prevent what they fear will descend into a political witch hunt.

They say the judge's decision was politically motivated although the attorney general, a staunch Chavez ally, rejected their claims. The president has repeatedly demanded judges jail his critics.

``Carlos Fernandez is a political prisoner,'' said Fedecamaras vice president Albis Munoz.


Saturday, February 22, 2003

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY…
And the ridiculous

Friday 21, February 2003

Events this week have been a little bit crazy. It is difficult to try to make sense of all of it. While I was thinking on how to make my regular post I was reminded of the title of this famous western, to which I could not help but add the ridiculous addendum. I will not even try to give the chronological sequence of events, just describe the three scenes that justified the title. The ridiculous will show through occasionally.

THE GOOD: FROM EL FIRMAZO TO EL EXITAZO

The big sign up of February 2 (see Vignettes From El Firmazo) was rather successful and thus implied a certain delay in publishing the results. Of course, it is easier to count plain votes than to verify that all the people that have signed are registered voters, if they signed in the appropriate electoral district, etc… The first batch of signatures verified was the petition to support oil strike workers, signatures that were given to the negotiating team during the big rally in support of PDVSA (see A Feel good Moment). Less legal verification was required there, and since these signatures were collected in only a few states, it was easier to process everything.

Wednesday night the opposition organizations that collected these signatures made an official announcement with a nice simple ceremony. The results were, in my opinion, quite spectacular. Why? Well, the collection of signatures requires more involvement and motivation than just going to vote, where everything is organized for you, and machines count the votes. Here, people had to sacrifice part of a Sunday on something that might end up meaningless. Some had to sacrifice all of their Sunday to volunteer at the sign up stands. And to add more difficulty people did not benefit from the normal and convenient facilities of the electoral processes, that is, guarded schools, trained folks, army provided security, etc… Many had to set up a stand in the street, chavistas attacked some of these stands, etc… And let us not forget that you are stamping your name against a regime that in the future might use this act of freedom of expression against you.

Of course there is no point in going through all the results. The link to Sumate, the group in charge of verifying the signatures or Proveo for a quick summary, both in Spanish, will do. But the presentation is not that impacting so I will allow myself to try to convey the magnitude of what was achieved. One important comment. The numbers are for the signatures that have been screened by Sumate and that supposedly should withstand the screening of the electoral commission. So, even if one assumes that 20% will be invalidated one can see that the results are still impressive.

Chavez recall election. (For August 2003 at the latest for Carter proposal, and in the constitution). Note: delivery of some of the forms was problematic and some areas in Venezuela did not receive the recall election forms.

Votes that Chavez obtained in 2000 re-election 3.758 (60 % of voters with nearly 50% abstention!)
Valid signatures required for a recall election 2.293 (20 % of registered voters)
Total signatures gathered 3.236 (28 % of registered voters)

Astoundingly, the gathered signatures are 86 % of the votes obtained by Chavez at the height of his popularity, after a 6 months campaign. This time, the signatures were gathered in what was barely a couple of weeks of “campaign” with all sorts of troubles due to the strike effect and the government obstacles. It is no wonder that Chavez does not want to go to elections, this time not only he will not be favored by a large abstention like in 2002, but the radicalization of the electorate could bring about a rout.

Not impressed enough yet? Consider that in 7 states out of 24 more people signed than went to vote in 2000! What was counted there was the “hard” vote against Chavez, and a large movement away from him even in his strongholds.

Amendment of the constitution. This is to shorten the presidential term to 4 years and force a new election for president and national assembly. In this case, Chavez would be allowed to run again whereas if he were to lose the recall election he would be barred to run again at the next presidential election. The forms did make it to all the signature centers.

Valid signatures required for a constitutional referendum 1.795 (15 % of registered voters)
Total signatures gathered 3.668 (31 % of registered voters)
But there is a twist here, a few hundred signatures had been registered since the amendment was already in the works since mid 2002. If these signatures are added, we reach 4.426 (37 %).

The striking fact here is that this measure as a fall back option if the recall election were to be legally challenged (some government lawyers claim that signatures cannot be collected before August ) collected almost as many votes as what Chavez got in 2000. If forms had been delivered in a timely fashion for the recall petition, and circumstances had been less adverse there would have been more signatures collected than Chavez votes in 2000. The message is clear.

Now, for a reference point think about your country, think about what it would take to bring out 30% of the electorate in a single day to sign to kick out your head of state. In the US for example it takes a whole year of primaries, conventions and campaign to get a meager 50+ % of people that bother to vote.

Other results. There are more than enough signatures to ask for a revocation of the fast track enabling law of 2000 that was the trigger to the present situation. And there was enough signatures to ask for a recall election of 21 chavistas assembly folks, in many cases more signatures than the number of vote they actually got! Thus, a recall election is almost certain to remove from office more than the 4 that are needed to have Chavez lose his majority at the National Assembly. He used to have a 2/3 majority but he has been slowly but surely losing support to the point of having a very slender majority left.

El Firmazo has truly been El Exitazo, "The Big Success"

As it turns out this event in the middle of the week was to be the turning element. I will start with the “bad” in my next post.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

5 MYTHS ABOUT CHAVEZ
Wednesday 19, February 2003

Today fortunately I need not write much. Primero Justicia , perhaps the most dynamic political party these days in Venezuela has put in its web site, in good English their analysis about the myths that surround Chavez and that are vented in the foreign press. It is a good and well-documented indictment of what Chavez is all about these days. Without further ado I invite you to visit their web site, in particular the site were they address the 5 myths about the benevolent rule and intentions of Chavez.

Sunday, February 16, 2003

MICHAEL ROWAN TOP TEN Part 2

In a follow up to the previous article (see previous post below), Michael Rowan points lucidly to some of the shortcomings of the opposition that explains in part why this one has not been able to oust Chavez yet. Here he suggests some of the things that should be done. Again, I do not agree with all what he says, but he is pretty much to the point. This time I added some comments at the end. Again, thanks for Mr. Rowan for sending me his article, and I hope he will forgive me to comment directly.


TEN UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
By Michael Rowan for el Universal [publication Spanish text 18 Feb 03]

Last week’s column ‘Ten Times Wrong’ noted the common mistakes of the international news media about the Venezuela story and Chavez. This week’s column is devoted to ten questions the opposition needs to answer if it is to be taken seriously by the world:

One, what is your government program? Be specific. Did you arrive at the program democratically? Did you have a convention where elected delegates nationally voted in favor of the program?

Two, what is your solution to poverty? Where are the details of the War Against Poverty you plan to wage? How do you plan to provide the Tools for Wealth – titles to housing, credit, training -- to the poor?

Three, what is your solution to systemic corruption? Do you plan to eradicate the monopoly power and secrecy that has corrupted Venezuelan governments from time immemorial? Specifically, how are you going to do that?

Four, how will you find a leader to win an election that stands for what you want to do in the nation? Will you have a primary election? Will losers abide by the decision of the majority?

Five, what are your plans for the oil industry? Do you believe in the expansion or price strategy? Opening the business to Venezuelans and the world, or closing the business for the state only? Using oil for wealth creation of the nation {liberty}, or wealth distribution by the state {rents}?

Six, do you want an economy owned and operated by the state or the nation? If the nation, what mechanisms will you use to ‘nationalize’ wealth creation, liberty, and economic opportunity?

Seven, do you believe in inclusiveness or exclusiveness? If inclusiveness, what are your plans to include Chavistas in political and economic alliances for common cause?

Eight, what are your plans to build the nation? How are you going to attract global and national partners for investment, job-creation, and diversification?

Nine, how do you plan to protect citizens against state despotism? What are your specific, concrete plans for individual Bill of Rights, judicial reform, independent prosecutors, and checks-and-balances in the executive, legislative, and judicial powers?

Ten, are you a departure from the past or are you part of the past? Systemically, the Fifth Republic [since 1998 by Chavez fiat!] is an exaggerated extension of the deficiencies of the Fourth Republic [the ever vilipended system pre Chavez!]. If you are different, how are you different?

Chavez is not what he appears to be to the world, true. But, dear opposition, who are you?

------------------------------------------
My comments:

ONE and TWO: this is very true. The opposition needs to be more programmatic than just kicking out Chavez. Of course, considering that the opposition goes from far left to far right, establishing a common program would be difficult. Nevertheless, they should give the impression that they are trying.

THREE could be a powerful weapon, but how to use it when the judicial system has all but collapsed?

SIX: I think that Rowan is a little bit unfair here. The opposition is clearly against the program of state control that Chavez is expanding. Its position is clearly against that, but politically it might not be wise to be too open about it while the chavistas realize on their own that the Chavez program will lead nowhere.

SEVEN: he is dead on there!

EIGHT: he is not dead on there. I think that this is best left when there will be a certainty that we are going toward fair election. Then the national debate between Chavez and the opposition can take place along these points.

Nevertheless, the ending of Mr. Rowan is quite clear "dear opposition, who are you?".


TWO TOP TEN FROM MICHAEL ROWAN

Michael Rowan writes for the Venezuela English language newspaper, the Daily Journal. Unfortunately that paper does not have a web page otherwise I would have posted the link long ago. He did write a couple of interesting columns recently and he was nice enough to provide the text directly to me so I would not have to scan or retype the article to post it here.

The first column points to 10 things that the world media writes or thinks when covering Venezuela. I do not quite agree with all he says but it is pretty much to the point and I post it below without comments.

---------------------------------------------------------

TEN TIMES WRONG
By Michael Rowan for El Universal [publication 11 Feb 03, Spanish text]

Many in the world media have made ten fundamental mistakes about the Venezuelan story. These are:

One, Chavez is waging a revolution against poverty. It’s all talk. Poverty has increased by 20% or more in the last four years, and precisely because of Chavez’ policies.

Two, Chavez is out to eliminate corruption. Just the opposite is the fact. The systemic incentives for corruption -- monopoly and secrecy -- have skyrocketed under Chavez. Immense amounts of public spending are not accounted for. The president has openly pledged to punish political enemies through the [currency] exchange system – a virtual announcement of planned corruption.

Three, Chavez is fighting an oligarchy. Truth is, Chavez is the oligarchy. Read the dictionary definition of the term.

Four, Chavez is president of all the people of Venezuela. No, he does not govern to unify Venezuela but to divide it with class warfare. There are millions of people the president does not represent and who he wants to drive out of the country.

Five, Chavez is a democrat. No he is not. He was democratically elected, just as Hitler was. But at heart he is an autocrat like Castro.

Six, there was a coup on April 11th waged by terrorists. False. There was a coup on April 12th waged by a few dozen idiots who hijacked a genuine and spontaneous public outrage by millions of peaceful demonstrators.

Seven, the media are leading the effort to remove Chavez from office. In fact, the media are following the effort by millions of Venezuelans to do so. The messenger is not the message. Take away the media, and the opposition to Chavez would not diminish by one iota.

Eight, Chavez is the victim of racism – a small group of rich white men want to cashier the dark-skinned president. This assertion is the height of cynicism. If only people of color were to vote in an election, Chavez would lose.

Nine, PDVSA will recover from the attack on knowledge, technology, finance and organizational culture it has been developing for 25 years. No it will not. The PDVSA of 2002 is gone, whether it can recover is doubtful.

Ten, Chavez is a leftist like Lula of Brazil or Gutierrez of Ecuador. No he is not. Like Castro, the president is obsessed with accumulating power, not using it for any purpose on the left, center or right.

International journalists must not take the words of the most calculating spin-doctor in Latin America literally. Look into the facts to find the truth.

[ Michael Rowan can be contacted at mrowan@cantv.net]

Saturday, February 15, 2003

VIAGRA DID NOT STOP

Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. In the Tal Cual newspaper, Friday edition

My translation of the news blurb

VIAGRA did not stop

Data from the national survey of pharmaceutical sales indicated that Viagra
was the medicine most sold through December, in Venezuela, which reveals
that men with erectile dysfunction did spend their leisure time well during
the general work stoppage. The sales of Viagra were higher than those of
Atamel, one of the medicine of widest usage among the population [ a form
of Tylenol, favored medicine against fever and pain because of the presence
of Dengue in Venezuela].


These results do not surprise: studies confirm that Venezuela is the third
country in world consumption per capita of Viagra, and the first one in the
Americas, doubling the US numbers and above Brazil and Mexico. To date
more than 6 million of the blue pills have been consumed.


-----------


The same paper reveals two other items.
32 % of the oil industry workers have been fired.
The imported gasoline has been shown to contain significant amounts of
compounds normally not found in gasoline such as cyclopenta hexadiene.
This would explain consistent reports of toxicity through downtown areas of
Caracas, weird allergy cases, etc... One wonders what weird deals does
Chavez people make to get gasoline. And not even in adequate amounts
judging from the permanent lines at the gas stations...

Oh well....

Thursday, February 13, 2003

STRAIGHT AHEAD TOWARDS DOOM
Thursday February 13 (and previous days)

The wrath of Chavez did not wait long and was magnified out of all proportion with El Firmazo (The huge petition drive of last Sunday 2, see Vignettes from El Firmazo, February 8). Again, I will list in no particular order some of the hysterics that we were subjected to these past days. I used the term hysterics on purpose since even the governmental actions published this week reflect the chavista hysteria.

It is still very important to realize one thing as you read the following. Chavez and his cronies must have felt personally insulted at the lines formed in popular districts to support El Firmazo. There is no other explanation for their reactions. They already knew that they had gone down in polls, but El Firmazo must have rubbed their face in their own mess.

CADENAS AND MORE CADENAS

Since early last week we have been given two cadenas daily. A “Cadena” is the name we give to the government action of “chaining” all the networks signals, including radio signal, to simultaneously broadcast its message. This _right_ of the government was established in the 60ies to allow the government to send its message and make sure that everybody knew about it. The messages were supposed to be of national interests, from big economical declarations to commentaries on natural disasters.

Chavez has abused of this right. It started during the electoral campaigns for the new constitution when he freely used private TV time when the opposition had to pay for its allotted time. There has been no way to go against it since this would require a new law, something the Chavez controlled assembly is not likely to do.

Well this week we got several “cadenas” some of them retransmitted at noon, after having been premiered in some prime time evening slot the previous day. Describing a Chavez cadena is impossible, in particular these days. It is basically a stream of vituperations against the opposition, complemented by menaces and populist give away to its remaining followers. For example in one “cadena” Chavez, duly dressed in Mao jacket, was distributing land to some peasants somewhere that have been exploited since immemorial times. He forgot to say that he is not handing down private property but usage right, pre kholkhoze set up one would assume. The crowds seemed pleased. Another cadena was for Chavez to explain personally the modalities of the incoming currency exchange. He took the opportunity to announce that people that had plotted against the economical well being of the country will be brought to justice as terrorist. He said that properly dressed up in perfect business attire to assuage international finance one would think. I wonder who outside is going to trust his economical plan and invest here.

Cadenas are staged in such a way as to forbid access by private media that have to transmit the state TV signal. This way chavistas can make sure that the cameras will film from the right angle to create an aura of popular support, and to make sure that people in the background are not clearly identified. This because it has been widely reported and sometimes shown that some of the fill folks are soldiers dressed in civilian clothes, or the usual hanger on that are ferried to any Chavez show. The government would like us to believe that attendance is “spontaneous”.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH

Cadena are only a form of attack to the freedom of speech since you do not get the right to question and verify the presidential declarations. But this is not enough. These past two weeks the governmental minions have been visiting 5 private networks to issue summons. According to the law the networks have two weeks to present their defense as to why they have not fulfilled their public obligations. All networks have declared that the charges are trumped up and that if they were serious the state TV should be the first one to be shut. Details, details! Nevertheless, they prepared their dossier. While preparing a careful campaign in case the government would dare shutting up a network.

Undaunted, Chavez announced to the diplomatic Corp New Year reception (an indirect way to recognize the strike that Chavez has always denied) that within a few days “one, or possibly two networks will be sanctioned” and that the ambassadors “should tell the truth” about the corrupt and fascist networks that we have in Venezuela. Some ambassadors looked ill at ease learning that no matter what defense the networks would give they were already sure to be sanctioned. Some probably were aware that the networks defense had not even been introduced at that point.

Meanwhile the equipment of a couple of radio stations has already been confiscated on some “tax evasion” charges.

And to make sure that things move at a fast pace Chavez people at the national assembly have been pushing a “Law of Contents” aimed at regulating what can be said, and at what time, by private networks. As usual the aim of protecting kids from violence and sex is brandished as a lame excuse to control the amount of information that the networks can offer. Fortunately in a rare display of strength the opposition has used all the rules in the book to slow down discussion (filibuster it is call in the US Senate). The only question is will the law make it in time to justify the sanctions already written and ready for publication…

I DO NOT GIVE A DAMM ABOUT YOUR FIRMAZO

Chavez has announced that he did not recognize the petition drive. His minions have been questioning the methods of recollection and timing. One in his eagerness said that “we should go out and collect more signatures than they did to kick out from office their own representatives”. Easily an anchor woman retorted that since so many signatures were going to be collected why not go all the way and just go for a general election… The stupidity of some chavistas is truly astounding… (not that stupidity is lacking on the other side, mind you!).

BUT I WILL CONFISCATE THE SIGNATURES

The municipal assault squad of Petare township (in chavista hands) tried to intervene one of the buildings where the signatures are sorted and stored prior publication. The excuse? The civil engineer of town hall thought that the activity in front of the building hid an illegal bingo and she thought it fit to call the assault squad of police to go an investigate. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction… Of course, no search warrant was exhibited. Nevertheless, the people inside reacted swiftly and were not afraid to take on the goons that the woman took along. Furthermore, some of the female staff tried to have a fist fight with the official who had to be whisked away on one of the motor bikes… The neighbors came out “en masse” and the assault cops had to leave.

So, if the signatures are worthless, what was that woman inspecting there? Checking the area set up to decide how they could assault better the spot when the time comes?

JUST BECAUSE YOU DARED CHALLENGE ME IN MY TURF

The highlight of the week was perhaps the words of one of the chavista political hacks. He declared that the people that were hurt in Catia got what they deserved “How did they dare collect signatures in our turf?” The cue here is that chavistas are starting to close areas to press access, and opposition influence. Catia and downtown Caracas are the primary target. Violence is now prevalent around Bolivar square as chavistas hordes (this is as charitable an adjective one could use) tried once more to take over Caracas Metropolitan town hall, and once again were repelled. Unfortunately this time the cameras did an excellent work to film everything and display how the “spontaneous” attack was organized by people that now are proven to be the regular squad leaders.

AND YOU WILL GET NEITHER SIGNATURES NOR DOLLARS

Yet the greatest moment was Chavez cadena announcing the exchange control measure. This is so complicated to set up that it has been already three weeks that we cannot buy a single dollar. What Chavez announced was actually the general outline, pretending that it was the final set up. I suppose that the FMI and other organisms could not be made to wait any longer. We still have to wait a few more days to see how we will be able to get foreign currency. However we have been told that credit cards will not work for foreign currency. Goodbye Amazon!

The measures are actually punitive and are designed to make sure that only Chavez allies get dollars at the preferred rates. Black market dollars will be forbidden (which was not done in the past) so that the business that still want to work at an unfavorable exchange rate will be punished. Translation: whoever needs dollars and is not with me, I will bankrupt. This, I am sure, will do wonders for the investment climate in Venezuela. Somehow, I do not see that foreign investment is this administration goal. And the price control measures included are going to work wonders.

There is always the Kafka detail to be found. Apparently if you want to do a business trip you will have to register at some central agency and after a lengthy process, that could last up to 45 days, you might be allowed to purchase up to 300 dollars a day. Still, you will need to return the unspent dollars and show your airplane flight coupons to prove that you indeed traveled. 6 business trips will be allowed. Others, well you will be on your own as of currency needs. And of course make sure that you plan ahead.

This is where we stand as the government seems to get ready for its final bid to take over once and for all. It is definitely time to call your congressperson and report on Venezuela. I am understanding everyday better why South Africans were the main sponsors of economical boycott even though they were the ones suffering the most. O tempora, o mores.


TODAY IN EL UNIVERSAL

I was particularly struck today with the contents of one of Venezuela two main papers. I will give just some snippets of what you could read in today’s issue.

Front Page

The news is “11 917 fired in PDVSA”. This out of 37 942 workers on payroll December 1. {How can the government aspire at restarting the company when the best and brightest are out?}

Dental work will be limited to fillings. No more crowns for a while, not only because dollars might not be available but because prices will double and salaries will not {dentist assume that people will not be able to afford crowns}.

CIA: political violence likely to increase in Venezuela

220 products will have their price fixed.

Electoral council threatens to ignore decisions from the high court. {This would seem unthinkable in the US or Europe, but since the high court here made such an obviously political decision, why be surprised?}

And others such as the Oscar nominations. {Unreal}.

Inside

Many articles are about the proposed code of information content, using children schedule to determine what goes on TV. In other words a way to stop private networks to inform most of the day. In particular on riots against Chavez since they will not be able to show “violence”.

Other snippets relate the legal fights between the government and the companies that had their storehouses seized early in January (the burping general). Apparently, the consumer protection office was supposed to give them the proceeds of the merchandise taken and sold. The monies have not been paid, and, in addition, when the companies were allowed back into their warehouses a few days later, a lot of items were missing.

Travel agencies are closing, apparently credit cards will not be valid anymore outside Venezuela and people are likely to stop travel for a while.

Because the Metropolitan Police has been intervened by Chavez, it has lost its muscle, that is, its anti riot gear and specialized weaponry against crime have been taken away “for investigation”. The consequences is that Caracas has reached its higher murder rate for the week end in a year (the army is supposed to supply the police while the conflict lasts). Another consequence is that the Ateneo, Caracas downtown cultural center, cannot be supervised anymore by the Metro Police. The result? The cashier has been attacked 6 times in three weeks. In addition, some of the light and sound equipment of the main concert hall has been stolen. By the way, some of the seized weapon have been offered for sale recently in the parallel market, “stolen” from the army safe deposit…

And I pass on sports events that are going to be cancelled, and other “trivial” stuff consequence of the crisis on us.

It is a little bit unsettling to read the papers these days, and I am not talking of Iraq.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

LIFE AFTER “EL PARO”
Wednesday February 12, 2003

Thus, the strike endeth… But the oil strike continueth.

How is life in Venezuela these days? I am back in San Felipe after over two weeks away. The area still is calm. El Firmazo was a big hit here so it seems that all is pretty much said and done for us. We are just waiting to see what happens with the powers that be and wonder how it will ricochet on us. However, this peace is relative as the effects of what might be the worst economic crises in Venezuelan history are slowly but surely lapping at our provincial lives.

Yaracuy, I read in the paper today, is in the category of states not too affected. I shudder at what might be in more affected states. Now lines are always long when gas arrives. In early January lines were long but not as long as they are now. This is of course due to the fact that people are back to work and consumption is much more important. But are people really back at work? Some of the stores that had closed with the work stoppage early December have not reopened to date. And they do not seem to be reopening anytime soon. On my daily trip to work I also saw a store that did not close in December but it is closed now. There is no sign of a vibrant commercial sector.

At work, orders are down by half and with the currency exchange control we cannot purchase anything imported. Since more than half our raw materials are imported, we have little to do these days. Actually today I did not open the production part of the company, what for? The few orders that I have cannot be processed. I only had half of the clerical staff come in and catch up with their work. We will reopen tomorrow but until supply lines are not normalized we might be closing one to two days a week. Of course, we must keep paying employees full salaries. How long will we hold is anyone’s guess. The problem is that the government is making a big mess of the organization of the currency exchange control. All reports indicate that once the system is in place it will take between 1 to 2 months to process an importation license. We are not looking to receive any raw material until sometime late April. We can hold until then but after that some hard tough choices will have to be made.

It is of no consolation of course to know that other folks are in the same trouble. But today I heard from a friend that manufactures an upscale set of veggies and ready to serve salads, a product that should not be subject too much to the crisis at least at this point. Apparently they have not received a single order this week and decided to close for a day tomorrow so as not accumulate inventories of perishables. Even upscale people are feeling the pinch

I have gone grocery shopping. Cuba it is far from being. However, it is quite different than in early December. After two weeks of slow reactivation, the inventories are good but the variety is further down than in late January! That is, where you had an aisle full of, say, a dozen brands of laundry detergent, you have now the same amount of detergent except that 90% is one brand and 10 % the remains of two other brands. This is observed at many aisles, in particular the cookie aisle were only one of my 5 favorite type of cookies or crackers was back, while another that I had found a week ago was gone. More pathetically, the yogurt section has disappeared except for one brand that I do not particularly care for. Considering that 20% of what I eat is yogurt in different guises, I am not very happy. I still did buy some, and I will need to activate more frequently my yogurt maker. And get used to monochromatic aisles at the grocery stores. Should save time when shopping, I suppose.

Other details are worrisome. The elevator of my building has been broken for a week. The repair man cannot find the part. I suspect that the part is imported and the supplier is holding the sale, waiting for the exchange set up to decide on the new price. Meanwhile I should be happy that I have only four floors to climb. I keep hearing of little things like this all the time. Since Chavez has announced all around that no dollars would be provided to the enemies of the revolution one wonders who is going to get ‘em dollars. And what will be “revolutionary” imports…

Yes, life is sort of back to normal except that some things seem very changed, and probably for a long time. Advertisement for one has not recovered. The newspapers remain thin, and TV commercials are few except for the political announcements of the opposition keeping the opposition supporters charged. The air reeks of unburned gasoline. The imported stuff comes from winter production which is more volatile than summer production. One has a permanent upset stomach in Caracas. Meanwhile we keep hearing that “all will be normal within a few days”. Maybe they meant “months”?

We are starting to pay the price for our follies, and we still do not know if it would have been worth it. The amazing thing is that people are not complaining, except chavistas of course. We seem to have agreed that the strike was something worthwhile doing and that we must keep supporting the oil sector strike even as it brings chaos to our lives. I am afraid that our time of test is only starting.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

THE WILLFUL DESTRUCTION OF THE OIL INDUSTRY (PDVSA)
February 9, 2003

Chavez claims that he is “re-nationalizing” the oil industry (PDVSA) and bringing it “back to the people”. These claims seem very hollow. He is actually destroying an industry that although state owned functioned with a relative efficiency on the international market.

Briefly, Venezuelan oil is of a rather heavy quality and thus requires a more expensive refinery processing; unless of course it is to be burned at power plants. To secure a world market PDVSA over the year has created some outlets such as Citgo in the US whose refineries were designed for the use of Venezuelan crude oil. This is indeed capitalism since it does require significant investments and happens within the framework of globalization. A sector of the Venezuelan left finds this to be an abomination as some of the PDVSA earnings had to be invested overseas instead of being distributed in social programs. Chavez has embraced that view, and it is at the root of the problem between him and the industry. The first conflict in April ended up with Chavez brief ouster. When he came back, he had to reestablish PDVSA as before his ouster. But it was a lull in his control game.

PDVSA is actually a rather sophisticated corporation that has been left pretty much alone by the successive governments. If it shows problems in efficiency, due in part to excess personnel and a need to give as much revenue as possible to the government, it is still reasonably well managed and provides all of the countries energetic needs (including good gas quality, many petroleum derivatives). It has developed a series of side business such as INTEVEP which is PDVSA own research laboratories developing a decent number of patents. It has also developed the natural gas business, its own merchant navy, etc…

Obviously, the management of PDVSA is highly educated, with a vision of world markets and economy that were bound to collide with the more simplistic approach of Chavez to world affairs. This one trusts more the OPEC to increase the price of oil in order to garner revenue instead of producing more oil. More production might mean lower prices but it will mean also more jobs and the ability to secure more markets in search of reliable and reasonably priced providers. The supporters of this theory say that the more jobs PDVSA creates in Venezuela, the more of a development engine it becomes.

With the December 2 strike Chavez might have reached its opportunity to alter in a definitive way the oil industry. Below the numbers published today by the New York Times and [my comments]

The strike has reduced Venezuela's oil capabilities

THE COSTS
Venezuela's Oil Industry and the Strike.

Oil produced, total:

3.1 million barrels a day before the strike.
1.3 million now, say dissidents. The government says the figure is 1.9 million.
[With the militarized installations, it is impossible to verify who is telling the truth]

Oil exported:

2.7 million barrels a day before the strike, most to the U.S.
700,000 barrels now, according to Mines and Energy Ministry.
[it would be interesting to know where the 1.2 million difference goes. As far as I know it is not all used to burn electricity generation. Again, the NYT fails to ask the good questions. Not to mention that the NYT fails to wonder in what shape are the production facilities, or if the environmental controls are operating]

Work force:

33,000 full-time employees before the strike, and 37,000 contract workers, which fluctuated.
Unclear how many now, but 9,000 of the full-time workers have been fired.
[This seems to be true, and the numbers increasing. Chavez is truly decapitating the industry even firing secretaries. What the NYT does not say is that the government is replacing a lot of the fired workers by political personnel from the Energy Department and the political party PPT, to the point that wits call PDVSA PPTESA. One particular sad example is that half (!) of the personnel of INTEVEP has been fired probably dooming the research abilities of PDVSA forever].

Gasoline produced for home market:

250,000 barrels a day before strike.
150,000 barrels now, the Mines and Energy Ministry says.
[Yet the gas lines are almost as bad as in late December and imports keep arriving. This is noteworthy since a large part of the economical sector is stopped and thus not putting pressure on gasoline inventories. Again, it is impossible to verify the government figures. It should be said that since late December the government has been predicting “normalization” within a week and such normalization has not happened. Though it seems that some refineries might be experiencing a partial re-opening if anything for a political show. And forget about gasoline exports for a while!]

Gross oil revenues:

2002 (estimated) $22.2 billion.
2003 (forecast) $14.3 billion, according to UBS Warburg.
[Totally unpredictable]

However what the NYT cannot see at this point is the core damage to Venezuelan society that this “take over” is doing. The gravest action is the hiring of all sorts of foreigners to run things. For one thing, it is almost an unbelievable action for a nationalist and leftist president, to hire foreign scalawags. Even worse is that many of these people will gain insider knowledge of PDVSA and can transmit this to the competition. The long term damage is truly frightening! And one could go on an on, as to the transformation of PDVSA in just another patronage agency that slowly but surely will see its output decrease, but not as fast as its efficiency. Corruption also will take off as the military is heavily involved in gasoline and cooking gas schemes, contracts will be given according to party lines, etc, etc…

Conclusion?

You can draw your own conclusions as to the economical future of Venezuela. One thing is certain, if Chavez does not leave office soon, or backtracks in its PDVSA policies, the damage might become permanent. The best oil technicians in Venezuela will be slowly but surely hired elsewhere or leave the industry for good. The huge sums spent in personnel training will be lost.

Unfortunately what matters for Chavez is control of PDVSA. Why? Besides its authoritarian nature, he wants to control who does oil go to (Chavez is helping Cuba) and he wants a steady if low supply of money that is enough for his political process. Venezuelan people interests? The question is whether he had those interests at heart, ever.

PS: in another NYT article you can gather interesting descriptions as to the actual PDVSA CEO.

Venezuelan Oilman: Rebel With a New Cause
February 9, 2003 by JUAN FORERO

--the president of one of the largest, most complicated and, these days, most embattled companies in the world, Petróleos de Venezuela.

But make no mistake, Alí Rodríguez still sees himself as a revolutionary. His boss, after all, is President Hugo Chávez, whose sharp tongue and efforts to remake Venezuelan society have left the country deeply divided and on the edge of economic collapse.--

--Though his résumé makes no mention of it, Mr. Rodríguez has leftist, some would say radical, credentials. For 20 years, he was a clandestine agitator and a fighter in a Cuban-inspired rebel movement, where he specialized in political proselytizing and making bombs, according to former guerrilla comrades--

--To be sure, he does not seem entirely comfortable poring through planning documents, but though he does not carry a rifle anymore, he still says he is fighting to shake up the system for the betterment of the poor. --

--Still, the reality is that today's rebels are his former oil executives. For more than two months they have been out in the streets protesting against Mr. Chávez and, by extension, Mr. Rodríguez's management of Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.--

--He vows that the thousands of dissident workers who went on strike — and continue to strike — will never return to their jobs.--

--Petróleos de Venezuela, once valued at $110 billion, is producing just half what it did before the strike, which ended in the non-oil sector last week after 63 days. Moribund oil fields are sanding up, losing the ability to produce oil; the company's reputation is in shambles; and the 9,000 workers Mr. Rodríguez has fired represent a loss of experience and skill.--

--in 1979 Mr. Rodríguez was one of the last rebels to demobilize under a government amnesty. […]When Mr. Chávez was elected president in 1998, he became minister of mines and energy.

--"I have had the good fortune of being in different situations that have to do with petroleum," he said. "And now it is as an entrepreneur, a role I had never thought I would play in my life."—

{and one would add, a role that nothing prepared him to do}


Saturday, February 08, 2003

A FEEL GOOD MOMENT.
Saturday 8, February 2003

After a week of threats, menace, propaganda, assaults, the only thing that Chavez got was yet another march and rally, bigger, better, nicer, and feel good to boot!

The motive? A show of support for the striking oil industry (PDVSA). As the general strike and lock out fade some, the oil strike looks pretty much left holding the hat. The opposition felt that they should be aware that the country was behind them and with nearly 9000 guys fired out of a somewhat less than 40 000 work force, something had to be done. Therefore, as a big ego boost the 2.7 million signatures collected in supports of PDVSA were presented to the members of the negotiation table, in front of the PDVSA fired management, on the stage at the end of the march. Incidentally, 2.7 million signatures mean that at least 25% of the electorate bothered to sign up in a single week. Try that at home...

The set up was the same as Friday 31/01 for the march to show support for the media under siege. The attendance was ad big, if not bigger. The emotion as high or higher. The sea of flags seems to get denser as the marches multiply, with bigger and bigger flags carried by the indefatigable people. This time the cameras were in better positions than last Friday and although I am back in San Felipe and unable to march this time, I felt all the stirrings of emotion that come with these big events. I could watch through the afternoon the constant coverage of Globovision (our CNN like network under Chavez investigation and direct threat, and you wonder why). Thus, I could see the different starting points, the slow but constant increase in attendance, the different marches as they made their way to the rallying point and the half a million or plus crowd that gathered occupying the 8 lanes two levels central highway of Caracas. It was beautiful and stirring, so much so that when they played the national anthem I stood up in my living room, close to tears. I am proud of my people!

Then the signatures were carried on stage by a human chain and piled up in white boxes for all to see, in front of the opposition delegates. Speeches and songs alternated, and the rally is just ending up now with what has become a weird element: the singing by a local tenor of the “Nessun dorma” aria from Puccini’s Turandot. I am not too sure how this guy has managed to make a career of this, but I suspect the thrilling finale of “Vincero, vincero” has something to do with the selection. “Vincero” I shall prevail (or triumph). I suspect that now I am not one of the few that are able to sing along.

It is dark now, and people have been in front for already 4 hours but they are remaining, waving their flags as if there were no tomorrow. The reflected lights on the flags are beautiful, the atmosphere surreal. Another national anthem sung, another tightness in our hearts and we can go back home.

VIGNETTES FROM EL FIRMAZO
February 2, 2003 and later

Although I have already mentioned some of this stuff, I cannot stress enough the magnitude of what happened Sunday 2.

The consultative referendum of February 2 having been postponed ad infinitum by the High Court on specious grounds, the opposition in barely a week organized what has to be qualified as one of the most spectacular grassroots manifestation on record. The questions offered were: 1) recall election for Chavez; 2) recall election for many a chavista elected official; 3) an amendment to the constitution establishing a shorter presidential period applicable now and a two round balloting for presidential election; 4) call on a referendum for a new constituent assembly; 5) a letter of support toward the oil industry workers on strike and 6) some other stuff according to local requirements ranging for a weird media defense proposal to overturning the enabling law of 2001 that was the trigger for all of the present mess. Some “polling” places had up to 10 forms to sign!

This mega sign-in petition drive was dubbed El Firmazo. Depending on the topic, it required that the electorate sign by 5% for law annulment to 20% for Chavez recall. With close to 11 million registered voters it is easy to do the math. The opposition hoped for a good turnout and reach close to 20% in a single day with securing the necessary votes on the following week or so since a certain numbers of signatures are bound to be declared invalid.

Considering that verifying these signatures even with modern scanning software is quite more arduous than counting votes, and that in view of Sunday success the drive was extended until Wednesday, no official results are still published. However, rumor has that there will be more than 4 million validated signatures. That is, at least 40% of the electorate is today on record as wanting to have Chavez out. If one considers a 30% normal abstention rate (it was near 50% when Chavez was voted in) it shows that at best 30% of the electorate is for Chavez, assuming of course that all that did not sign up are for Chavez. This would give the recall election at the very least 58% for Chavez out. Not to mention the additional hurdle that no matter what the percentage of “yes” is, they still need to total more than what an elected official obtained to get in. Thus, the opposition demonstrated without doubt that it had the percentage and the total votes needed to oust Chavez. Of course, this did not go down well with Chavez, but more of this in another post.

VOTING PLACES AND SECURITY

Normally the army ensures safety for voters. In addition, most public schools are offered for voting. Needless to say that the government forbade any school to open its locale and the army was nowhere to be seen. Yet, people organized an impressive army of volunteers, installed wherever they could from private schools to public squares with in some areas a meager police protection.

It seems clear that the government did not expect such a turn out. The hired scoundrels sent to some of downtown areas were few and late. They encountered larger crowds than expected and when the police fought back, the crowds gathered back swiftly to continue signing up. Still they did mange to burn out a TV network car that was sent to film (Televen).

Popular areas were untouched and it is quite likely that they did not expect much turn out there since chavistas were nowhere to be seen except downtown in Caracas and a few isolated points. However in the Catia neighborhood some locals did manage to make serious trouble hurting two people, one badly with the loss of one of his eye. The story will remember that the guy that got hurt was protecting his mother and that both were chavistas volunteers a year ago. So goes democracy in the chavista mind set.

RUNNING OUT OF FORMS

The Coordinadora Democratica, the opposition umbrella organization, had printed around 3 million forms. By mid morning many centers were stopped by lack of forms. These had to be photocopied in a hurry and undistributed reserves for the following days had to be dispatched quite fast. Yet, in spite of the wait many people stood under the sun to wait for the forms to arrive. TV has a field day interviewing these hardy anti chavistas! At noon the country was already experiencing quite a “frisson”.

THE CHAVISTA SIGN UP

Not to be discounted, belatedly the chavistas decided to put up a few sign up tables to call for recall elections against elected officials from the opposition. Attendance was pathetically meager and by late in the morning most of them had folded and left the grounds in spite of calls by some party leaders. It seems that they got more attendance to create a few small groups to throw stones elsewhere.

CAMEOS

TV offered many cameos for the voting day. They included a 102 year old lady, sharp enough to explain how come she came to sign up in spite the fact that she is confined to a wheel chair since she lost a leg years ago.

TV also offered plenty of cameos from popular sectors voting in large numbers, mostly mixed race folks who are “supposed” to be chavista die-hard.

CHAVEZ SPEAKS

While this was going on, Chavez made his week end show, Alo Presidente! It was a record breaking 6 + hour show, where as usual little was said, with most time occupied in reminiscences of things past, anecdotes and idiotic moments that he offers profusely. One wonders when Chavez does work and why some people have nothing better to do than to listen to the guy for 6 hours! Not to mention that he has his usual court of cabinet secretaries that seem to have nothing better to do than follow Chavez wherever he is. Reminds me to ancient courts where the king had all his ministers follow around wherever he was. Of course, no mention was made of El Firmazo. One supposes that if his cohorts attempts at counter signing had been more successful, and visually appealing, his own TV cameras would have taken a break to show them. However, at noon when the show started it was all over from that quarter except for the street violence. Really, his people need to learn how to put up shows! Or they were really surprised by the outcome…

CLOSING CEREMONY

The day ended with an apotheosis. The opposition called for a huge rally near Plaza Altamira that ended with a great firework. For an opposition that had lost its right to hold a referendum that day, what a come back!

OUTSIDE LOOK

CNN offered coverage but magnified the feeble chavista show, I suppose to show balance. Since Chavez TV did not dwell much on it one wonders why CNN takes so much care. Afraid of an April 11 faux pas again?

Major US papers seem to have ignored the event. French papers did notice the amplitude of the grassroots movement. Are US people that skeptic of grassroots activism?

CONCLUSION

I did go to sign up to my old high school which had opened in spite of some warnings. My old high school is located close to the residence of the president, residence that has not been used by Chavez since he separated a few months ago. He sleeps now at the presidential palace of Miraflores downtown. When I was there late in the afternoon over 7000 people had shown up. They had to ask twice for extra forms since they had expected to collect only 2500 signatures during the day!!!

I felt quite good as I signed, only sorry that since I was not in my home state I could not call for a recall for the local chavistas. Fortunately I have learned since that Yaracuy has gathered more signatures than what the few local chavistas collected when they got in! I was not needed.

Friday, February 07, 2003

WHAT IS UP WITH THE NEW YORK TIMES?
February 7, 2003

The New York Times published today a very disturbing article by Juan Forero. What is disturbing are not the information that he chooses to display, but the information that he chooses to withhold, and of course some of his interpretations. Some of his inconsistencies will be addressed next.

[http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/07/international/americas/07VENE.html>How Venezuelan Outlasted His Foes]
[By JUAN FORERO]

There is already a problem with the word “outlasted”. One would expect a description of the price that Chavez has been willing to pay to maintain his rule, but when the article is read, one does not find much criticism on that…

[But through the two-month strike that strangled oil exports and generated the deepest recession in years, Mr. Chávez never wavered.]

True and the opposition underestimated his disregard for the consequences of his actions. That Chavez did not hesitate to bring the country to the ruin instead of negotiating is a matter of reflection as to his real commitment to the welfare of his people.

[The military stayed by his side, ignoring calls to revolt. The state oil company, though nearly shuttered by thousands of striking workers, made enough of a comeback to keep the country afloat.]

Here, as in other articles, Mr. Forero always forgets to mention that since military control has been installed there has been no way to have an independent observation of the real situation inside the refineries and oil fields. One has yet to see a report of Mr. Forero on ecological considerations, safety regulations observed, scalawags hired to substitute striking workers, etc… He also never mentions the rampant corruption that Chavez has brought in the ruling military officers, the abuses committed by them in the service of Chavez, the fact that gasoline distribution is pretty much into their hands and that the judicial does not allow people to complain about these abuses. What gives Mr. Forero?

[Mr. Chávez insisted, even in his darkest hours, that the only settlement would be a referendum on his rule later this year, a proposal his adversaries rejected.]

See later.

[Now, the strike is over, the opposition is splintered, and Mr. Chávez is savoring victory over enemies whose tactics to unseat him have failed.]

Well, I do not think Mr. Forero watches much Venezuelan TV. Chavez is not savoring at all, he is actually attacking as hard as he can, which sorts of contradicts the meaning of “savoring” which would presuppose a president finally at peace.

[The president is not in a forgiving mood. He has opened investigations into the actions of the country's antigovernment television stations.]

That is all the comment. Where does Mr. Forero analyze the reasons why the private networks have become an active opposition to Chavez? Where does he mention the dozens of TV reporters, cameramen, etc. that have been attacked and hurt by chavistas? Where does he speak of the TV cars that have been bombed, burned, highjacked and vandalized? Where does he mention the abuse that Chavez makes commandeering the private networks emissions to send his useless political rants propaganda that can last for hours? Where is his criticism to the Venezuelan public TV which has become a silly propaganda instrument for the regime? But worse, Mr. Forero indirectly implies that is OK to threaten freedom of speech since the TV stations are “antigovernment”. It is important that Mr. Forero realizes that there is a wide body of international injunctions against Mr. Chavez actions against trade unions, press, media, etc…

[Today, his government imposed foreign-exchange controls intended to stabilize the currency, the bolívar, which has lost 30 percent of its value since the strike. But Mr. Chávez warned that the controls could be wielded as a weapon to cut access to dollars for opposition businessmen. "Not one dollar for coup-mongers," he said in a televised speech.]

Mr. Forero is reporting the news so I suppose that he cannot comment on this. However he could recall that in February 2002 the currency was around 700-800 bolivares to the dollar and that capital flight had started long ago, much longer ago than the April events. The pre-strike rate was already in the 1400 rate, that is a 100 % devaluation since January. The late strike rate before currency control was around 1900. Now the new ‘fixed’ rate is 1610 bolivares to the dollar, and it is to become a direct subsidy to people that favor his rule. The way Mr. Forero reports would lead one to think that the run on the bolivar started only with the strike and that Mr. Chavez is in his perfect right, or duty, to impose exchange control.

[Opposition leaders spent time characterizing Mr. Chávez as an unbalanced dictator while playing down his support as marginal compared to the throngs of Venezuelans who attended anti-government demonstrations. Meanwhile, the anti-Chávez news media, which forms a radical wing of the opposition, presented commentator after commentator who predicted he would be forced out by the sheer magnitude of anti-government sentiment.]

Again, Mr. Forero does not describe these “throngs”, or the big petition drive of last Sunday. He also does not seem to realize that few chavistas accept invitations to the private networks, and that they have plenty of access to it while opposition access to Chavez TV station is pretty much limited to an occasional second fiddler guest in the morning show “En Confianza”. Mr. Forero should really sit down and watch a little bit more of Venezuelan TV before making such statements.

[The government instead hunkered down and, with each passing week, the strike weakened while the opposition appeared increasingly wobbly.]

The opposition is democratic and since it unites a wide spectrum from the leftist Bandera Roja to the center right Proyecto Venezuela it is to be expected to seem “wobbly” when compared tot he monolithic chavistas support who dabbles very much into personality cult to the great leader.

[“If only the strike had focused solely on an electoral solution,” lamented Felipe Mujica, president of an opposition party, Movement Toward Socialism. “The opposition thought that it would lead to Chavez’s resignation and that was a mistake.”]

This is a good point. But unfortunately not complete. One of the reasons to go on strike was the plan by Chavez people, postponed in April, to reorganize the state oil company to Chavez liking which is not necessarily to the best interests of Venezuela. The oil workers were keenly aware of the political motives behind Chavez attempt at intervention of the oil industry and opposed it. The government offered no national debate and thus the oil management found receptive ears in the Venezuelan people. The strike was aimed at removing Chavez from office because there is a need to get rid of him before he takes control of the country once and for all. It is always easy in hindsight to lament things when one forgot all of the reasons at the time.

[Carlos Fernández, president of the country's most influential business association, said: "I did not think the president would be so callous. I thought he would be a democrat and sit down at the table to resolve the problem."]

This is as close as Mr. Forero gets in showing Chavez character flaws.

[The opposition is still trying to apply pressure, as its leaders push for a constitutional amendment to shorten Mr. Chávez's term. The government, though, has rejected the proposal, and political analysts say it is becoming more likely that the president's foes will end up settling for the referendum in August that Mr. Chávez had offered weeks ago.]

Mr. Forero either does not understand the constitutional mechanisms or just ignores them. By constitutional rights the validated petition drive should yield to referendum on constitutional amendments. Chavez refuses to provide the monies or the security for any electoral process that can damage his cause even if the constitution mandates him to do so. It is time that Mr. Forero does an analysis of the constitutional violations that Chavez routinely does these days. There is some help for him next.

The reason why Chavez is only willing to accept the recall election that legally can take place after August 2003 is that it is the one that he can manipulate the easiest and delay the longest. By accepting this issue he buys some credibility overseas while gaining time inside. For example his minions are already on record as saying that signatures for the recall elections could only be gathered after August 19. Thus the petition drives of February 2 is cancelled. Chavez is on record as saying that signatures should only be gathered officially in front of two witnesses. Besides the time it would take to collect 2 million signatures, one can imagine the pressure that this does on political liberty. Think electoral system under segregation, apartheid, etc…

But it gets better. Chavez wants to hold until August 2004, and thus any delay is good, and likely to be granted by a more and more compliant High Court. Why? If he loses the recall election after August 19, there would be less than two years left to his term. Then the vice president (appointed by the president and not elected) would complete the term and no new elections would be held until 2006. That is, he could still run the country from behind a puppet vice president. Of course by 2006 with a ruined country, an opposition standing in line to get bread, an army totally revamped to suit its need, him the only source of money, it is easier to imagine that elections could be easily manipulated to engineer a “come back”.

[Still, he is not out of danger, since polls suggest that 70 percent of the population opposes him. Those polls show that while he would win the highest number of votes against a field of candidates, he could easily lose, too, because opposition voters could coalesce around one candidate, as has happened in previous elections. ]

Which is the reason that he refuses to consider an amendment that would put a second round balloting. Actually this was already torpedoed during the constitutional assembly of 1999, in prevision of bad days. Mr. Chavez has risen to power benefiting of the divisions within the country. His rule has been at directed at strengthening such divisions which is the main reason why Venezuela has reached such a state. He miscalculated in that the division has become mostly him against them, but still the potential of opposition division is strong.

[Although support for Mr. Chávez remains strong in the poor neighborhoods where most Venezuelans live, analysts and community leaders say residents in those districts could grow restless if he fails to deliver on his pledges. Already, the president will find it difficult to provide much assistance this year, since the economy is expected to shrink by 14 percent and oil earnings will plummet.]

First, this seems to contradict Mr. Forero assessment of “keeping the country afloat” he made earlier. But let’s not be picky. The point is that Mr. Forero has not observed the long lines in many popular neighborhoods last Sunday during the petition drive El Firmazo. Mr. Chavez was at 30 %, perhaps, before the strike. Since then no serious poll could be taken. But the street poll of Sunday confirmed the worst fears of Chavez: he has lost the majority of the people by far. Why should he risk an election? Any election? Ever? Mr. Forero should do well to ponder this sobering observation as to the democratic future of Venezuela.

["We have not received what has been promised," said Juan Blanco, a pro-Chávez community leader. "The assistance we get is very small; we do not even feel it. I ask, what is the goal of the revolution — where are we headed?" ]

How is one to interpret this concluding observation? Could this be a hint for Mr. Forero to investigate where the monies that Chavez has received during his term have gone? Could this be a hint that something deeply wrong is occurring within Chavez administration?




Monday, February 03, 2003


CHAVEZ HAS A BAD WEEK
January 29 to February 2, 2003

It is always interesting to check the foreign press when the situation shows some new development. After 62 days of strike things had to change some. The private sector could not keep on strike unless taking the risk to go to complete bankruptcy and not be able to oppose Chavez anymore. This was perhaps the main reason, besides of course some of the positive results that have been achieved, and not from a real fear to be blamed for the economical chaos which people knew well was a reality before the strike. But read the New York Times and you would think that the opposition has lost the battle. Watch European TV and you would think that tomorrow everything will open as if nothing. The truth is far from clear and as usual the Washington Post has a better understanding, going as far as saying that there are no winners. It is becoming a real mystery as to why the NYT seems unable to have a clue as to what is going on here.

But I better narrate these last days events.

The strike falters (?)

After two months the country needs a break. The real strike now is the oil industry strike. And the fight is the attempts by the government to break it. Everything else is dwarfed. The results have been good at least in one point: the world has finally taken notice and I think that foreign governments have a clearer idea than the NYT. Pursuing the strike was becoming counter productive. Yet, many people want to hear nothing on an eventual stop to the stoppage. Compromise was reached. Malls, movies and restaurants will reopen progressively with a limited schedule. No late shows for a while. Banks will resume normal schedule when security allows, since in the last two months security for money transfers has been greatly diminished. Schools are sill debating but some colleges will reopen in the next days.

But this is all relative: normal activity and industrial production cannot go back to normal as long as the oil strike goes on. You need a regular supply of gas and fuel to operate properly and meet your delivery schedule. There is no point to do a hard strike when you probably cannot reach half speed anyway. And of course the mobilization keeps going on. People have little money and even less desire to consume. But they would not mind taking the kids to Harry Potter… So we can relax a little but I can assure you that the strike can restart full force quite fast if needed.

The strike results

International opinion has noticed one thing: this is the only place in world where the government accuses of fascists and coup mongers an opposition that is non violent and claim for elections. Even after two months of a punishing strike that almost ruined everybody besides stealing Christmas and the holidays.

Carter came and made a strong proposal. The government is at a loss to make an answer, even to just gain time. So they are not talking.

In Lula da Silva swearing in ceremony January first the proposal of a “Friends of Venezuela” group was launched. Chavez said OK at first thinking he would get to chose the friends, but his eagerness seem to have cooled Lula da Silva who supposedly was to be an unconditional ally. By January 15 Chavez tried to force the inclusion of Cuba, Algeria and Russia (one wonders why Russia) but Lula said no and put in the USA, Spain, Portugal, Colombia and Chile. Chavez was not amused. It seems that real negotiations will have to be undertaken.

Another result is that the government is close from bankruptcy. Besides the fact that oil revenue is slashed by more than half, sales taxes have stopped coming in since early December, and income tax will be very low this year. Extending the harder aspects of the strike will only further ruin the private sector. Now the opposition just needs to watch how the government manages things. The first and predictable measure was currency exchange control. But the way it seems that this will be organized leads us to think that it will be a den of corruption and revenge, and not a source of real revenue to finance state obligations.

However, the most important result is that the country is totally mobilized for its rights and chavistas seem to have lost initiative. They have locked themselves in the same vacuous repetitions of 6 months ago while the scenario has considerably changed. And the world has noticed the democratic bent of the opposition in spite of the few faux-pas of April 2002.

Attack on the news

So chavistas are trying the next best thing, to shot the messenger. The strategy is to demonstrate that the TV concessions have failed their duty. A few charges have been made up as to the TV not providing “programming content appropriate to children”. Of course during the last two months we were all news. But if one looks at the state channel this one has become a plain vehicle for chavista propaganda and should be probably be the first one to be closed. But in a country of double and triple standard such technicalities are not to be a bother. Other charges are about violence on TV, in particular at the children hours. If one listens to some of Chavez speeches in the late afternoon, which are broadcast through all networks, he is the one that should sued.

The thing is that the government has found out that a state TV and the right to commandeer a few hours a day the private networks for their messages is not enough to hide the disaster it has created. Perhaps closing the TV, and newspapers, and radio stations will do the trick. So preliminary judicial investigations were initiated.

Well, this was again a big mistake and resulted in a spectacular march geared as a direct show of support by the crowds to “their” private media. This took place this past Friday 31, just in front of the Gran Melia hotel where the representatives of “Friends of Venezuela” were gathering.

I went to this march with my sister in law as no one else was able to go for diverse reason. Alone we did represent 12 people that would have liked to march had they been able to. It was a working day after all, and even during strike time some things do operate. Many of my fellow marchers must have represented other folks. We left at 2:30 PM and were back at home at 7 PM. Walking non stop across Caracas though the main highway (Francisco Fajardo). This highway has the particularity to have 4 lanes partially suspended over the other 4 lanes. It offers a spectacular set up as the 8 lanes were occupied for more than 2 miles. With of course a huge stage set astride the 8 lanes at the point where they merge again, in front of the delegation’s hotel. At 5 PM, the estimated peak hour, it was calculated that 465 000 people were standing packed. If you think this is high, you are in for a surprise. All the way through the several miles we marched many people waved at us, not participating but offering encouragement, flag waiving, etc… This was the same from other city points where 3 other similar marches started and converged to the same point. And when we arrived, a lot of people were already leaving, while many more were behind us, still arriving. And I pass on those that marched only a few blocks. It is fair to say that at least a million were involved at some point during that afternoon. And more of we think of those that could not come.

And it was also the more intense march I have participated so far. The energy was spectacular, the motivation incredible. After all we were defending our freedom of speech after its first frontal attack. And it was great for name dropping as most TV and Press personalities, as well as a boat load of artists, soap stars, singers, etc showed up. I personally met the editor of one of the two main papers (Miguel Otero from El Nacional) and one of its star reporters that also directs a tabloid, Ibeyise Pacheco. I had my sister in law pose next to Ibeyise. If I mention that is to illustrate the impression of carnival, of casualness, of folk fair that pervades these events now. And I will pass on the street vendors, with the latest novelty, baseball cap with the Venezuelan flag and a solar powered fan. I will try to set up pictures somewhere.

Obviously the people seem to side more with the style of their media rather than Chavez idea of what TV should show…

And allow me to introduce a racial comment here. Earlier in the afternoon I observed that the march was rather white and rather feminine. At 5:30 PM we reached the stage and made our way back. We did notice that the march had darkened a lot, and it was not due to the setting sun. The explanation? Administration workers and other service people that have been working through the strike were off and were coming to the rally! It might be a sad comment on the distribution of social roles, but it speaks volumes on the hopes that Chavez has betrayed. No matter, the racial division alleged by European media in particular, has ceased, at least when Chavez is in front of us.

Friends of Venezuela

Earlier in the day, Chavez had received the delegates and showed movies to justify his criticism of the news. Apparently the delegates were polite. In the afternoon the government did skip the negotiation table but the delegates met different sectors of the opposition. Chavez also made a claim that the strike was over. Curiously early in the day several gas stations of the eastern part of Caracas, the opposition core, received gas. Many of them had not received gas since mid December. Of course, with gas and the main highway blocked by the march traffic was almost back to normal in the remaining streets…

But troubles were just starting for Chavez. At 5 PM the delegates were taken from their reunion with the media to watch from high in the hotel the gathering below. One of them is said to have remarked that he did not know that there were so many capitalist exploiters in Venezuela. Obviously they learned more than what Chavez would have liked them to learn. Another one is said to have commented that he had no point of comparison with Latin American history as to people mobilization the way Caracas is doing routinely these days.

The communiqué at 9 PM was brief and clear. The delegates said diplomatically that the government and the opposition had to negotiate. That the opposition had made its case and proposals and that they would be waiting for the government proposals next week. If this might seem standard, translated from diplomatese it means “Chavez, enough! The opposition is legitimate and democratic. Their proposal is reasonable. You have no excuse not to negotiate. Bring your proposal and let’s get this moving. Or else.” This is big since for the first time the organized opposition is officially recognized as the only valid counter part for Chavez in spite of all of his efforts to make it look as the left over coup mongers of April. And what must have hurt the most is that the spokesperson chosen by the delegation was the Brazilian representative.

El Firmazo!

With the suspension of the February 2 consultative referendum 10 days ago, the miffed opposition has reacted well. And the attacks on the media did further prodding. The result was that today, February 2, we had an “alternative referendum”. With public school access barred, military traditional security denied, funds withheld, a ferocious campaign from the state TV against it, the opposition decided to collect the necessary signatures for up to 10 petitions depending on the areas. The general ones were the recall election on Chavez, and in many areas to boot many chavista elected officials. Other were support for the oil industry and a call for a new constituent assembly.

Now the electoral college in Venezuela hovers a little bit above 10 million. The opposition needs to collect 20% for a recall election on Chavez. That is, it needed to collect at least 2 million signatures in one day. And the other million later on perhaps since easily up to 20% signatures can be invalidated. A daunting task in the best of times. Well, it seems that the opposition might have collected 4 million and perhaps significantly more. Lines were long, the printed 2 million forms had to be photocopied in haste as registration centers were running out of material.

Think of it. At least 35% of the electors showed up on a Sunday to sign a sheet of paper with problematic value considering to whom they are intended to. And this without much gas to spare. Imagine 35% of the electors of your country taking a couple of hours of a Sunday to go and sign up. 35% of the adult US population signing up in a single day to kick out GWB. More than the votes he got to get in.

At 3 PM the opposition called for a mass rally at 6 PM near Plaza Altamira. This turned out to be yet another huge and emotive affair that ended at 9 PM with a great firework, just as if Chavez had been beaten in an election. The opposition must have known they were going to score big to set up such a display.

Of course Chavez is going to claim that the 60% that did not show up are on his side. Unfortunately he was elected with 3+ million and even if 20% of the 4+ of today are annulled, there is still 3+ valid votes firmly against him. And to add insult to injury the opposition has decided to set up many tables tomorrow to try to pick up an extra million and perhaps reach an unassailable 50%.

So, who is a democrat now?

Meanwhile Chavez was “celebrating” today the 4th anniversary of his swearing in n 1999. He did that at the presidential palace deciding wisely not to face potential hostile crowds outside. He did his weekly TV show establishing a record of sorts by lasting nearly 6 hours! The audience was not seen much and the usual hanger-on must have been on a mission. The highlight was perhaps his comment that a “group of terrorist were again trying to cheat the people to sign pieces of paper without legal value”. The end was a birthday cake split with a few soldiers. Pitiful to say the least.

A normal leader would consider resignation, or at least some form of serious negotiation. Chavez is unwavering in his goal to destroy his opposition even if it brings the country down.

Chavez winning the battle? Maybe some of the foreign correspondents should review their sources. At least CNN tonight was not too flattering for Chavez.

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