Sunday, March 16, 2003

Sunday 16, March 2003

I have already referred to the corrupt and inefficient judicial system in its past use by different governments to reach some of their ends, and Chavez who brought it to a higher level. But another consequence of this is the spectacular increase of street crime. I will put first some of the numbers (complete table from 1986 to present can be obtained from a table in Tal Cual , March 12, 2003; but you need to register to access earlier editions, and it is in Spanish).

Since I cannot make a nifty table in this format I will put the description year by year. The year, Total Murders TM, Murder Index in Venezuela per 100,000 people (MI), Caracas TM and Caracas Index per 100,000

1986 (first year cited, Lusinchi administration, 3 years before El Caracazo and 6 years before the Chavez coup)
TM 1501
MI 8
Caracas TM 335
Caracas MI 13

1992 (the year of Chavez coup)
TM 3366
MI 16
Caracas TM 1541
Caracas MI 68

1998 (Chavez elected in December)
TM 4550
MI 20
Caracas TM 1436
Caracas MI 63

TM 9617
MI 42
Caracas TM 2436
Caracas MI 133

How to explain these terrible numbers and what does it mean to us?


The punitive system is based rather on revenge than punition or rehabilitation. Jails in Venezuela are notorious in taking in small time thieves and releasing them full blown murderers. The country has been cited several times over the last 20 years on that. Jails are truly rotten places where prisoners are accumulated without any regard as to sanity and safety, with the secret hope that a few will die through internecine warfare.

The judicial system is hopelessly slow as the judges are not interested in small crime which does not pay much. Add to that governments that do not want to build reasonably decent jails and you have petty thieves that get thrown in jail for month without trial and suddenly released, of course rather damaged goods.

Public outcry comes mainly from lower classes who see their children going in for minor delinquency, sins of youth, and coming back hardened criminals. Chavez was in part elected with the promise to treat prisoners a little bit better. Nothing has been done.

This might explain the doubling murder rate between 1986 and 1998 in Venezuela. But how to explain that under Chavez, the president of the poor, murder rate doubled in just four years in Venezuela, and reached a level TEN times higher in Caracas since 1986?

For one thing his refusal to let the Metropolitan Police have its way. In the past few months Chavez cronies have been more busy trying to take away the Caracas Metropolitan Police away from the Mayor rather than fight crime. They have claimed that by sending soldiers to protect the city people would be safer. They have been proven wrong, and it was to be expected as soldiers training do not include crime control which can only work if done integrated with the community. Show me an army that is able to listen to community concerns…

And this is of course compounded by a continuous economical deterioration which hits the lower classes harder than the higher classes, contributing mightily to crime increase.

What is worse is that this crime wave hits the poor the most since the bulk of murders come from street gangs fighting for the control of slum alleys. What else is new?


The most affected are the lower classes, as mentioned above. Higher classes have limited their going out at night, and remain mostly within the confines of a few well delimited areas under the protection of the local police. However, even there the rise in robberies and other crimes is quite scary too. In San Felipe where the local governor has managed to maintain control of his state police, crime has not gone up as much. But industrial states such as Carabobo and Zulia have seen a spectacular increase in crime, linked to the economic deterioration.

What is much more worrisome is that a sense of lawlessness is slowly seeping into the people more likely to resort to crime. The laxity if the system is well known and the continuous examples of delinquents released is just becoming an incentive.


If you are middle class. Stay home. Leave only for work or necessary shopping. Drive with your windows up, doors locked, AC on. Only go out at night to visit friends, valet parking safe places. Get back home by midnight or come back next morning. Carry always some cash in your wallet to make the robber happy, and do not resist so as not to get shot.

If you are poor. May the force be with you.

Of all of Chavez failures this one seems the worse, to his own electorate. It is actually so bad that one sometimes wonders if it is not done on purpose so as to scare people and make them stay quiet at home. Surely, Chavez and his gang would not be that evil, wouldn’t they?
An editorial from this week El Universal

Impending Humanitarian Crisis
Sunday 16, March 2003

[This translation appeared this week end. I do not need to add any comment]

Venezuela faces an impending cataclysm -whose epicenter is politics- that may result in devastating consequences for both economy and society and that is threatening to bring about the conditions for a humanitarian crisis. Even though the government skillfully tries to blame the crisis on opposition groups, people know that after four years of misgovernment and the squandering of $110 billion, the resulting economic disaster itself has justified civil protests. In 1998-2002, more than 4,000 factories and 12,000 businesses closed their doors, leaving almost one million Venezuelans unemployed and two million and a half people impoverished. Only in 2002, the Venezuelan economy dropped by 9 percent, inflation rate amounted to 32 percent and the Venezuelan bolivar fell to 1,402 bolivars per U.S. dollar from 780 bolivars per U.S. dollar.

As if that were not enough, economists estimate that the economic package implemented by the government may cause the economy to shrink by 15-25 percent this year, depending on the pace of the Venezuelan state-run oil conglomerate Petróleos de Venezuela's (Pdvsa) dismantling. Besides, according to several economists, unemployment rate may hit 30 percent. This would be a very damaging unemployment rate in a country where 85 percent of jobs are created by the private sector, precisely the sector that the government is determined to crush by closing down the foreign exchange market during more than 40 days now. In addition, the inflation rate hit a seven-year record high in February, and is expected to exceed 50 percent this year.

This scenario is turning explosive, as no assistance program to mitigate the threatening social disaster for the poorest sectors and -why not- for the middle working and professional class has been designed. Anybody can see that Venezuela is sliding into a humanitarian crisis besieging the poorest people in every aspect, including environment and health. The fact that Venezuela finds itself in the middle of this social anomie precisely when the country faces another type of anomie -the institutional anomie, where the lack of transparency has reached paroxysm- should not surprise anyone. Amartya Sena, a Nobel laureate in Economics, proved empirically in his book Development as Freedom that all famines during the 20th century occurred amid regimes with insufficient freedom and controls, with weak mass media, inclined to abuse and the lack of accountability.

Monday, March 10, 2003

Monday 10, March 2003

Today I will be brief. I am going to present the numbers emitted by the Venezuelan Central Bank as reported by El Universal on March 8. Semi independent Central Banks have a way to make up numbers to favor one side. El Universal is not known for favoring Chavez economic policies. I think that this makes for a good balance.
After each year you can find the percent Variation in Gross National Product (%GNP) and the infaltion for the year (%I).

1998...%GNP + 0.2...%I 29.0
1999...%GNP - 6.1....%I 20.0
2000...%GNP + 3.2....%I 13.4
2001...%GNP + 2.8....%I 12.3
2002...%GNP - 8.9....%I 31.2

1998: the rise of Chavez in the polls coincides with a drop in the price of oil. This triggers a pre election recession that the now lame duck government of Caldera cannot fight efficiently.

1999: Chavez call for a constituent assembly with a further decline of the price of Venezuelan oil create what was considered as one of the worse economical crisis so far.

2000: Chavez marshalling of the OPEC since he came to office pays off. Oil prices rise. The approval of the constitution leaves many unknowns. Revamping of the judicial system. If the capital flight slows down some, none of the economical policies seem able to reverse the tie.

2001: Chavez picks up a fight with trade unions. His candidates lose many of the union elections. This does not contribute at all in quieting the atmosphere. Chavez manages to put many of his supporters in positions were independents would be better suited (High Court, some judicial appointees). Capital flight goes up again, to levels never seen. The year ends up with the first business/union strike ever seen, on December 10.

2002: The year starts with Chavez locking horn with business and refusing any revision to some of the laws. In February, veiled threats to the state oil company PDVSA increase tensions. Also in February Chavez floats the currency which loses 30% in a few days. When the PDVSA threats become reality in March, the result is another general strike and the 2 days overthrow of Chavez April 11. Since Chavez return no serious effort is made to quiet the tensions. This allows a reinvigorated opposition to launch the December 2 general strike.

2003: the country starts the year with over a 100% increase in the exchange rate against the dollar since February 2002. The inability to reach the oil returns of November brings the government to Currency Exchange Control on January 22. A further 15% drop in the GNP is predicted for this year if no political accord is reached soon. Accumulated inflation for the first two months pass the 7% mark for an expeced 50% for the year.

The question is how come Chavez administration manages to survive such a terrible management of the economical factors. Inflation and drop in GNP affect the poorer classes the most. Any normal government in a normal country would have resigned, or been thrown out.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Sunday 9, March 2003

It has been more than 10 days since I posted last. I suppose that I was a little bit burnt out and really needed to take a break for a few days, to try to regain a sense of perspective and not lose too much objectivity. Objectivity, a commodity in very short supply these days.

Newspapers are abuzz with continuous violations of the rule of law by Chavez; or they think that Chavez is recovering the upper hand; or civil war is just around the corner. What is really going on is that nobody, on either side, really knows what is going on. Yes, goals are clear now, but it does not seem that either side as a clear idea on how to get there, nor are they able to evaluate their real strengths and weaknesses. To re-start the thread, I will give today a brief evaluation, score card fashion, of where we are now.

Chavez wins some.

The end of the strike was for Chavez a Pyrrhic victory. That is, the strike did not manage to dislodge him and thus he can claim a victory of sorts. Yet, he inherits an economical situation that borders chaos. But good soldier that he is, he is not wasting any time trying to capitalize on his perceived victory. The opposition being demoralized and bankrupt seems an easier target these days. So, with several compliant judges, sectors of the police and army that will do any of his bidding, Chavez has taken up a vengeful tone (see New York Times editorial of February). He has managed to jail briefly the leader of the business union, the less charismatic of the leaders of the opposition, and he has on the run a few other ones. And threats rain right and left.

Chavez has been able to simplify his message, and now he does not bother to convince the other side to regain some of his earlier support. Now is the time of “you are with me or you will die when I am through with the opposition”. A little bit too earlier to see if this will bring any success, but there are signs that a sector of the population is afraid enough to pretend to buckle under. After all, people need to eat and probably see no arm in faking support for a while. Venezuelan culture likes winners and will follow them no matter what. Albeit ditching them at the first sign of weakness. It is thus anyone’s guess if Chavez will be able to bring his numbers back up to the mid 30% in polls, the only way he would have a chance at surviving an eventual recall election. The real victory here for Chavez is that he has coalesced his troops better. No more dissent is heard, wishy-washy politicos have been chased, and the military seems at least safe. This might be due to fear perhaps, but at least it gives him a freer hand to attack the opposition.

Chavez loses some.

I will put in this field what might appear the big Chavez victory: total control of the state oil company, PDVSA. As I am writing it seems that the government has reached the incredible figure of more than 16 thousand fired. Out of 33 thousand, we are talking 50% of the personnel. There is no way that a company can take such a blow and run smoothly. Without independent audit there is no way to determine if the numbers offered by the government are true. From what can be gathered on the business pages, it seems that PDVSA is still far from generating adequate revenue. And “rumors” are growing stronger and stronger that people put in place by Chavez are generally incompetent and are operating what might be the biggest plunder of a state company in history. In other words, Chavez is about to turn a decently run state company into a wasteful patronage machine. Maybe that is not was he intending, but PDVSA is heading that way.

Other “rumors” with a clear likelihood are that the “new patriotic PDVSA” is over pumping oil in the easy fields risking severe damage to these wells. An oil well must be pumped at a certain rate to allow oil to fill back the emptied space. Failure to respect this can bring underground collapse (sinkholes) that can clog the well and render it useless. This is likely happening since some extensive oil fields are still not operating and yet exports have got back above the 60% pre-strike according even to striking employees. Chavez is killing the golden egg geese. When it is dead he will have no money to run his show.

Other losses are of course the opposition wins

The opposition wins some

The real victory of the opposition is to have uncovered Chavez. In Venezuela and outside it is clear that Chavez is a wanna-be dictator. The mystery is really how come he has not been able to finish up the job. There is not lack of trying, but these days becoming a dictator seems more difficult than in the 1960ies… These pesky media are in the way, for one. There are all sorts of international agreements that cannot just be ignored without consequences. The only allies left for Chavez are Fidel Castro, and some in the Arab world, allies that Chavez does not dare to call to the rescue this days. After all Chavez is the only democratically elected head of state to have visited Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War. This is not a good thing to have on your resume these days.

In South America, even the new leftist governments of Brazil and Ecuador are lukewarm to Chavez. Actually Lula Da Silva seems even to have changed his initial opinion toward Chavez. The example of the economic collapse of Venezuela is not a good way to gather friends. Or to reassure your opposition if you preside a left wing government.

It is difficult to overrate this victory. Newspapers in general were neutral or pro Chavez early in December. Now, most are at least mildly critical of Chavez when they are not downright calling him a quasi tyrant. Governments (US, Spain, Colombia) that in April got scalded by congratulating themselves a little too fast over Chavez ouster had become quite diffident. Now they are again taking position. This is not going to send the marines to Venezuela, but it does greatly complicate Chavez take over of the country. After all, the opposition only request is that fair elections take place. Now there are plenty of people willing to come and observe any electoral process that might take place in Venezuela this year. In order to make sure it is fair and that it will remove Chavez without much pain.

The opposition can claim another victory. The show of civism during these terrible two months of strike has become the stuff of what legends are made of. There is a sense that even if we did not kick out Chavez, we have at least shown our temple and moral fiber. If Chavez might be able to regain some ground, there is now a core opposition that will make his life difficult. That opposition barely existed a year ago. After El Firmazo, any election in the next few months is sure to be a defeat for Chavez. Only the extension gap in the vote count is in question.

The trick of course is to reach an election.

The opposition loses some

The strike was led by business who was willing to foot the bill. The bill is huge and the country is teetering on the verge of financial chaos. The economic collapse hurts more the opposition than Chavez who at least for the time being gets some money from oil and has no problem to pocket it for its own interests. He fails notably to pay the states the money that is their due creating significant hardship in the provinces. Of course this leaves the opposition with less economic muscle to oppose Chavez effectively.

Something more worrying is the rather dispirited state of the people. After two months of marches, hard ships, missed holidays, it is difficult to accept that no clear cut result did come from it. The realization that the country is in the hands of a rogue that has no qualms bankrupting it for his selfish interests is hard to accept. How can you deal with that? What sacrifices is one to be going to be called upon to kick the rascal out? The task of the Coordinadora Democratica (CD) is difficult. It needs to keep people motivated. It needs to bring them regularly to the streets to demonstrate that Chavez is not back on the saddle the way he would like people to think so. Most importantly, the CD must find a message. Obviously, it is not enough to demonstrate that your opponent is bad. You need to establish that you are better. A first step towards this has been taken.


The chess game continues.

The CD has started a process of reorganization and re-evaluation of strategies, creation of a message to nail down support. The goal now is to reach August and go for the recall election vote. The signatures are in. The observers are ready, even to help finance the election. 5 full months might seem long, but it is the price to pay if we want to avoid a civil war. The opposition hold the high ground, the good will from the exterior, and paid off the April mistakes. The opposition also has a group of people that is not afraid of violence and is only too willing to fight Chavez with violence. It needs to muzzle them if it is not to meet again the post April 2002 fate.

Chavez knows better. In spite of all the attacks and propaganda eventually the chickens are going to come back to roost. He will not be able to put all the blame of the economical collapse on the opposition. This only gives him some time while he finds a legal strategy to block the recall election. One bet is to create an atmosphere of violence that will make it impossible to hold elections. He knows that if he is going to have to face an election he needs more that 5 months to recover and organize. He has for him his lack of scruples, a large group of sycophants willing to go along, and a sizable chunk of the people that still believes in him.

Monday, February 24, 2003

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

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
(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.''


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.

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

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

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.