Monday, September 08, 2003

EL REVOCATORIO (V)
SUMATE under attack

Monday September 8, 2003

Judging from the attacks this recent days on SUMATE, one is to wonder what is itching the Chavez administration.

When the signatures were collected for the failed November consultative referendum, or in February for the recall election, the diverse opposition groups agreed to center the signature inventory and validation with the non-profit organization SUMATE (add up to the cause). The daunting task has been performed quite well by Sumate who functions on donations and volunteer work. The organization of course has acquired quite a lot of proficiency and now can set up a collection of signatures quite fast if need be. Which of course is not of the liking of all.

An idea of the work done comes from some simple statistics provided by Sumate.

11.996.066 electors registered as of July 2003.
27.784.948 signatures collected during "El Firmazo" on February 2 for 10 different electoral instruments.
3.600 collection centers and nearly 100.000 volunteers needed for that February 2 event.
2.399.213 signatures(20% of the electorate) are needed to call for the recall election.
182.649 signature forms had to be scrutinized.
3.236.320 signatures collected for this particular item.
446.935 signatures (13,8%) could not be validated (missing from rolls, not properly signed, etc…)
2.789.385 signatures (86,2%) were declared valid by Sumate.
390.171 is the number of signatures collected above the required number (23.3% of the “valid” electorate signed!).
61 boxes were required to carry the signatures to the electoral council, CNE, on August 20.
609 books bind the signatures forms.

The signatures delivered August 20 should be validated or rejected by the CNE by September 20. But before that fateful deadline, which probably cannot be met by a brand new CNE, attacks have been raining, some downright circus like.

The first one came when a state prosecutor showed up at the CNE to “investigate” fake signatures for the consultative referendum petition of last year! About time… This very reasonable request from people that claim their signature were faked by Sumate was performed assault like fashion. The prosecutor came accompanied by about 2 dozen of FBI-equivalent policemen dressed with bullet proof vest and precision assault weapon, as if the CNE were some sort of military target full of weapons… On TV it was a sight to behold, in particular considering that the area is supposedly Chavista friendly so one wonders who would have tried to stop the prosecutor. Well, the prosecutor embargo was stopped by the CNE itself that said that the signatures were open for inspection but could not be removed from the place. Period. The CNE reminded the prosecutor that as an independent 5th power according to the 1999 constitution, the judicial power could not just barge in and help themselves with the help of rather unnecessary goons.

Next day, yet another judge accompanied by a politician came to check out the recall election petition. This time the goons were left at the secret police department. The politician claimed that there were some “photocopies” in lieu of originals. Neither one was shown any way but that did not stop another one to make some wild statistical prediction that a good third of the signatures were invalid. The judge and prosecutor remained mercifully silent.

One cannot fail to wonder if these politicians have the intelligence to realize that it is easier for Sumate to collect the signatures than to fake them through diverse clonation tricks from bank lists… Indeed, if Sumate has half of the evil powers that chavistas grant it, then Sumate has a brilliant future in the spam industry!

Undaunted, our ineffable Vice President kept declarations pouring out of his office. Again Sumate was accused to be a private company and thus unacceptable as a signature tallying entity. As if the Vice were able and willing to provide a reliable and fast signature collection system to boot him out of office! Then, Sumate was tied to former president Carlos Andres Perez, the usual suspect to finger-point by chavistas when no one else is at hand. And as a final touch, the Vice advised the opposition to seek another entity to gather signatures again since Sumate is morally corrupt. Sumate by the way did an impeccable expose of its actions, but surely this will not matter.

Chavez in his Sunday show excoriated everything from the courtesy visit by the US ambassador to the CNE to high court judges. A pearl was his repeated request that all signatures should be graphologically tested, something that of course Sumate could not do. Experts replied that it would take at least 2 years to do a graphology inspection of the 2 million plus signatures, assuming of course that another sample of the signature could be found . One might as well change the constitution to remove the recall election feature.

Meanwhile El Universal published a large study detailing how the Chavez administration is pursuing a witch hunt within the military that dared to sign any electoral petition, even though Chavez insisted in 1999 in granting the right to vote to the Army. I suppose that he thought that the grateful Army would be 100 % behind him just because of that… But all is valid to make sure that in case of a referendum the soldiers know who to vote for. Just in case, you know.

In other words the strategy is clear: no recall election whatsoever: We will try to disqualify the signatures by demonstrating that a few “forged” signatures annul the other millions that we saw lining up the streets in February; We will delay for years, who cares?; We will destroy an efficient organization like Sumate so that the opposition will not count on it if more signatures need to be collected; And we have a lot more in the works.

To conclude this post the best is to translate part of the August 7 El Universal Editorial

The accusations against Sumate and the investigation on the consultative referendum signatures are within the open fire strategy against the recall election. Even though the Vice President claims to act personally, his constitutional position goes beyond his persona: Can one investigate people collecting signatures, bringing donations and exerting a constitutional right? Is it just enough to infiltrate a hundred or a thousand people to invalidate the majority expression of million of people?
[...]
We must understand that the government operates with leftist schemes and is ready to propitiate a institutional fracture of whichever consequences, before yielding to the democratic majorities the fate of Venezuela.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

AN ELECTORAL POST CARD
September 2003, first week.

I am travelling for business. This is good, I do not have much time to worry about the news and in spite of the work it gives me a slight vacation feel. Yet a few clips from our unreal political world manage to reach me.

THE SUPREMES GET HOAXED

The High Court in Venezuela is involved in a very trouble, and troubling, incident. Apparently, a recent decision unfavorable to Chavez as it would bar him to run immediately after a recall election was “found forged”. I really have not been able to try to understand what did happened. Was the decision really a forgery? Do the “supremes” read what they are signing? Did they claim a hoax because the president exerted strong pressure on them to reverse their ruling?

Actually does it really matter? Important forgeries have occurred in the past such as when an president signed a pardon for a narco without realizing it and if it really was a forgery the High Court will clear out the air and install safer provisions.

What is really important here is that the fuss made by the government illustrates how this one is trying very hard to find a way to allow Chavez to run again right after a recall election. Just as if you had been fired and would be allowed to put your resume back for consideration where you had been fired, and at the top of the pile of resumes at that. Besides the silliness of it all, and the annulation of the intention of a recall election figure in the constitution, it looks like a confession from the government who seems to think it will lose a recall election these days….

SILLY CAMPAIGN TRICKS

The ineffable vice president that we must suffer went yesterday to ask the general prosecutor to investigate SUMATE, the organization that tabulated the signatures that were given August 20 to ask for a recall election. The arguments? How could a private company usurp the right of the citizens to tabulate their will! How could a private company usurp the Electoral Council attributions by initiating a petition? How could people dare give money to SUMATE to do such felonies? And who are these people by the way?

In the oxygen deprived environment in which the vice president seems to operate these days one wonders if he thinks that it should be his responsibility to organize the collection of signatures for a recall election against himself.

To begin with, SUMATE is an NGO. And although this has been stated and restated profusely, the news seems not to have reached the VP yet. And even if SUMATE were a private company, so what? Is it not for the Electoral Council the organism to validate the signatures, no matter how and who collected them? But why argue with the VP? He is just doing his job to muddy the atmosphere and try to postpone the recall election at any opportunity. One suspects that even if people were to sign with their blood he would still find objections.

MORE SILLY CAMPAIGNING

Some brouhaha arose when on August 23 meeting Chavez named a few candidates for the July 2004 local elections. A little bit early for that of course, but nothing is silly enough to use in order to distract the attention from the recall election. Besides Chavez violating, once again, the constitutional provisions on how campaigns are planned, what was really interesting there is that the candidates were named by Chavez dictate. They do not emanate from the local base as it should be for local elections.

A Freudian admission that Chavez has not as strong a local base as he claims to have?

With all of that and the legal challenges that already rain on this pre-campaign, Diosdado Cabello did have his first campaign rally on Saturday. The VP graced the rally with his presence, uttering as usual some more “ineffabilities”. Mr. Cabello is running against Enrique Mendoza, a successful Miranda State governor who has become a probable challenger to Chavez. The most relevant electoral promise from Mr. Cabello was that “now Miranda will have a first lady” alluding to Mr. Mendoza being single. The VP, lacking oxygen probably, declared to the press at hand that Mr. Cabello was going to beat “El Pato Donald” (Donald Duck). This is a clear sexual allusion on Mr. Mendoza sexual preferences in Venezuelan slang.

One wonders if the language of a pre-campaign is that bad already, what will Mr. Cabello say a week before election in July 2004…

MEANWHILE BACK IN CUBA

During all this time Chavez finds nothing better to do that go to Cuba attend a UN meeting on desertification. This is not a pressing problem in Venezuela. Usually the only head of states that would attend such a specialized conference are the interested parties, namely those from the Sahel Countries. Indeed of the around 200 participants there were only a dozen head of states, including the host Castro and Chavez.

But any excuse is good for Chavez to go to Cuba visit his guru. Even better if Chavez can use the opportunity to present himself as the leader of the anti-globalization movement he claims to be. And most importantly to decide and announce there that the signatures for the recall election are not valid; and if the Electoral Council declares them valid, then this one is lose legitimacy as morally corrupt. The recall election in Venezuela being of course a very pressing problem for Sahelian countries, an issue that they want to be objectively informed first hand by Chavez.

Really, if Chavez is so confident on his electoral support why is he running so scared?

Saturday, August 30, 2003

MARS IN YARACUY
Saturday 30, August 2003

Mars also came close to Yaracuy this past Wednesday 27. But you would have been hard pressed to notice any excitement in the population. To begin with, Yaracuy is hardly a good place for astronomy since clouds are always passing by in their way from the Caribbean to hit the Andes where they end up feeding the mighty Orinoco. A clear night is a rare occurrence even in January, our driest month. Any wanna-be astronomer must be patient it s/he wants to catch more than the moon and main stars. Mars caught me, at 11 PM, alone in the parking lot of my apartment building, with my binoculars gazing in wonder at the Martian disk. Tiny disk perhaps, but more than a point in the sky and strangely troubling.

Why did I have to fight the garage lights to observe fully Mars? Well, besides the fact that nobody I knew was interested in a good night of star gazing, the rampant insecurity would discourage anyone from going far out in the dark country side, park the car and get out in the open. I personally think that late at night the Yaracuy side roads on a weekday are not very dangerous, but living daily with the crime anxiety that has crept on us in the last few years is a powerful deterrent. Mars is safer through the TV set.

If I could not find anyone willing to dare go for a night watch in the country side I could have found plenty of people to talk on the astrological effect of Mars. Astrology might be the black sheep of the star sciences, but in Venezuela there are probably more people able to read an astral chart than to find Aldebaran, the eye of the bull in Taurus. But even if Yaracuy is the center of “other world” in Venezuela with the cult of Maria Lionza in Chivacoa, Venezuela as a whole is much more willing to put its faith in the astrologer than financial planning. Chavez is rumored to be a particular fan of the Chivacoa voodoo, but he is certainly not the first president putting his fate into the hands of spirits. Carlos Andres Perez was rumored to have his personal astrologer, and most of Caracas elite supposedly consults them. The most famous tragicomic incident was under Rafael Caldera. An astrologer predicted the imminent death of the visibly senile president and he was briefly arrested and interrogated. Caldera is still alive, by the way.

Actually, with all the unrest that has accompanied us in the last few years, the link between our predicament, Mars and the war god could not fail to be at the center of all conjectures. Astrologers were invited to most talk shows to seriously discuss the implications to Venezuela of its brush with Mars. One woman even read the Tarot on prime time in Globovision and predicted trouble with the weather and airplanes. I suppose that she will be able to increase her fees now: 3 days after her prediction a small private aircraft crashed due to a storm killing its three occupants. That one was a member of the national assembly enhanced the coverage, and her coverage.

Nobody seems to have escaped that Martian mania. El Universal published, tongue in cheek one would hope, the comments of Rocco Remo, star astrologer. He pointed out that Marta Colomina, one of the most outspoken critics of Chavez turns her wrath against the opposition when Mercury is in retrograde. And since his statistics allegedly sustain this last claim he went on to announce that the conjunction of Mars and Mercury in retrograde these next weeks will create confusion in the country, with a big change at the end of September. We will certainly be on the look out.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

CHAVISTAS ACKNOWLEDGE WAKE UP CALL
Tuesday 26, August 2003

Certainly, chavismo was not going to stay behind after the success of the opposition march last week (Revocatorio IV). And actually they can be thankful for that success since it seems to have awakened Chavez supporters to the reality that maybe, just maybe, a recall election could come up and remove their beloved leader from office. Chavistas governors and mayors sure did move their rear to try to bring as much support as possible to Caracas. Around 10 AM of Saturday 23, Globovision was showing the hundreds of busses driving up to Caracas and lining many a highway of the capital.

In one way the organizers gambled, while staying prudent. Instead of 6 starting points like the opposition act, they decided for two starting ones, though from their areas of strength they could have opted for at least 3. Effectively that did concentrate people some. But the chosen length of their marches did dilute some of the effect and TV did show significant gaps within the marches. Well, Globovision did since the state TV, VTV, has become a specialist of close ups and night shots that make it easier to give an impression of bulk.

Eventually the two marches converged to enter together on Avenida Bolivar. Certainly chavistas filled it up at some point in the afternoon and that gives a good hint of the total participation, at around 300 thousands (*). Much less that the opposition but perhaps the biggest chavista rally ever! This is the paradox, chavistas manage one of their best gatherings and yet, in spite of busses from the provinces, free booze and food distributions, and even some pay off to travel to Caracas, they manage at best to do half of a Caracas mostly based opposition march.

Chavez sensing a decent turnout showed up before nightfall in a triumphant procession through the crowd. He did is long speech in “cadena”, not surprisingly. Some technical problem suspended it temporarily, but he finished it with a big firework, a perfect ending to his fiery rhetoric which must have set yet a new record in threats against the opposition, the USA, neo-liberalism and what not. Unfortunately the cadena was suspended a tad too early and Globovision which had a camera at the other end of the Bolivar Avenue showed the last fireworks and 2/3 of the avenue empty! Well, it was 8:30 PM and people wanted to go back home, a few hours away for many of them. Some chavistas were livid on Sunday, saying that it was old footage. Unfortunately Globovision showed again the footage and one can see the fireworks, the specially decorated podium for the “third” anniversary.

But this is not really a matter of numbers. After all governments in Venezuelan history have subsidized busses to fill up their mass meetings. Booze also was freely given at many of Accion Democratica rallies, in addition to nifty T-shirts and what not. It really does not matter whether Chavez goes way further in this aspect. It really does not matter if the opposition does not need any more to hire busses to carry supporters from the provinces now that Caraquenos can offer half a million marchers without much trouble. What is important is that the opposition had no street presence until early 2002 and now Chavez must work really hard to keep his street presence at a respectable level. What matters is that chavismo is on a reactive mode in the street expression and does not set up the agenda anymore there, unless it wants to promote violence on occasion.

What is even more important is that the care and preparation of the Saturday rally and the particularly vengeful tone of Chavez’s discourse belittles the official confidence of the government language. The Chavez administration is running scared, scared of a possible recall election that they know they cannot win legally these days. They also can read the polls.


(*) Bolivar Avenue by itself cannot contain more than 200 000, without considering the space taken up by podiums, etc…

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Excellent article from The Economist
Sunday 24, August 2003

It is always nice to find an article from the foreign press that gets all its facts right. On August 21 The Economist published the following article that I allow myself to paste below. No commentaries are needed. Who knows, maybe someone at The Economist is reading this blog :-)

---------------------------------
Venezuela's president
Recalling the revolution
Aug 21st 2003 | CARACAS


California comes to Caracas
Not if Hugo Chavez has his way


NEARLY five years ago, Venezuelans elected as their president a former army officer best known for having led a failed coup in 1992. After 20 years of social and economic decline under a flawed two-party system, even those who had not voted for him were enthusiastic about Hugo Chavez's “Bolivarian revolution” (named for South America's independence hero). Having rewritten the constitution, he was re-elected, for a six-year term, in 2000. Even today he has a respectable 34% popularity rating. But under Mr Chavez, decline has accelerated. Polls show that two out of three Venezuelans now abhor the president, seeing him as an incompetent would-be dictator who must depart. As in California, they now trust in a recall referendum to achieve this.

Mr Chavez included this device in the new constitution, proudly defending it as “participatory democracy”. Once past his term's mid-point (which fell on August 19th), he must face a referendum if 20% of the electorate (2.4m voters) call for one. On August 20th, tens of thousands of opposition supporters gathered to hand over to the electoral authority what they say are 3.2m valid signatures. So far, so clear.

But that is not the whole story. Mr Chavez has suddenly gone cold towards this aspect of participatory democracy. He is doing his best to ensure that the vote is never held. The National Electoral Council (CNE), which must organise the referendum, is not functioning: its members' terms have expired and the National Assembly has failed to name new ones. The supreme court, perhaps irregularly, has said it will do so instead. But one side or the other, or maybe both, seems bound to question its neutrality.

The government will be helped by the lack of clear rules. Nobody knows for certain what constitutes a valid signature, nor whether a fresh petition can be presented if the first one is ruled invalid, nor even whether the president could stand again if voted out. Mr Chavez and his followers will challenge the process every step of the way. If the referendum does take place, the opposition must obtain more than 3.7m votes to oust Mr Chavez, the number he won in 2000. That could be tricky if the chavistas turn to violence on polling day.

It was their conviction that Mr Chavez would thwart a referendum that led the opposition to try to topple the president by force, first in a failed coup last year and then with a two-month general strike. Such measures were justified, it said, because Mr Chavez had under his thumb such supposedly independent institutions as parliament, the courts, the CNE and watchdogs such as the public prosecutor.

But having fallen out last year with Luis Miquilena, his former political fixer, the president is finding that he no longer exerts unchallenged sway over these institutions. His parliamentary majority is down to four, the supreme court is split in half and even the public prosecutor—his former vice-president—sometimes seems to contradict the government line. Outsiders will watch closely too: in May the Organisation of American States brokered an agreement that would seem to commit Mr Chavez to the referendum.

Most opposition supporters, and some moderate chavistas too, now think that the recall referendum is the best way out of Venezuela's agony. Even the sceptics believe it should be pursued, if only to prove that the president is no democrat. The next few months will provide the answer.
PDVSA: the once and future Queen (IV and last)
The little magic black box of Chavez
Sunday August 24, 2003

On August 3 a surprising note in El Universal announced that PDVSA Finance was showing signs of doing better, and perhaps dragging up the credit rating of PDVSA. This note was based on a report from Bear, Stearns and Co. on that subsidiary of the state oil monopoly of Venezuela, PDVSA.

One can wonder if the financial Wall Street guys read the local press in Venezuela.

The same day , El Universal reported that the PDVSA president, highly questioned Ali Rodriguez, was confirming that the people that had been fired during the strike would not be re-hired no matter what. Furthermore, the contractors that had supported the strike would be forbidden to do any business with PDVSA. Well, Mr. Rodriguez certainly has the right to protect himself from future strikes that the fired workers could create if they were re-hired. But if one uses a little bit more of business acumen, Mr. Rodriguez is not thinking for the well being of the company. Why did these contractors go on strike to begin with? Could some have been forced to go on strike? Can they be replaced locally? In other words, we have a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. This type of attitude can only result in an increase in the production costs for PDVSA at least until some healthy competition among providers can be recreated.

But these optimistic reports from Wall Street are perhaps missing other details. The firing of more than half of the PDVSA workers is not going unchallenged in courts. Preliminary rulings seem to indicate that the government will have to pay due compensation to most of them. El Nacional o July 13 was not afraid to title its economy section with the debt of PDVSA to its oil workers, somewhere on the other side of 300 million dollars. And as long as PDVSA refuses to reach a settlement that debt is speedily increasing. Not to mention that some practices could be punishable with fines such as seizing the contents of the PDVSA savings system; these funds final destination seems to be the mystery “du jour”. In the now insane revenge seeking of the government outright robbery is a valid weapon. But someday that money will have to be shelled out.

However it seems that the government is having other creative ideas besides trying to get revenge on its former employees in spite of the courts leaning toward the fired workers. A resurrected subsidiary of PDVSA, CVP, Corporacion Venezolana de Petroleos, would be in charge of administering and investing directly a very significant portion of the oil income. CVP used to be the state oil company before nationalization. After nationalization, all oil companies were eventually united under the PDVSA holding.

What does this hare brained scheme implies? Well, according to an El Universal article on August 13 , CVP would be responsible to build a significant amount of public projects, in particular for popular housing. The beauty of the scheme is that eventually perhaps 50% of the PDVSA dividends might go through CVP for it to spend at will. No approbation by the National Assembly would be required, making it, one supposes, a discretionary item in the National Budget. No formal consulting with Venezuela governors would be necessary as CVP would contract the works as the central administration sees fit. In other words Chavez will be able to distribute these moneys to whoever political ally he wants, regardless of the real needs of the country. The revenge on the elected opposition officials would be complete. Decentralization would be a thing of the past. A way to violate the federal clauses of the constitution would have been found. Corruption would be even more difficult to check. Not to mention that the investment for growth in PDVSA would further be jeopardized. CVP, the magical little black box of Chavez.

One does wonder really what criteria do Wall Street finance companies use to assess risks. These days PDVSA might show signs of putting some order in its accounting and production. That the production is at a lower level is not too much a problem, but the criteria of the management to conduct business and the necessary transparency that is required in the process should give pause to anyone. The secrecy within the company, the contempt vis-a-vis adverse law decision in a revenge bent management, the gone business autonomy and the lack of planning for the future investments necessary to sustain oil production cannot bode well for the future of PDVSA.
PDVSA: the once and future Queen (III)
Should we put our hopes on her?
Sunday 24, August 2003

There is no need these days to be an oil industry expert to realize that something is going really bad inside the giant state oil monopoly PDVSA. Since the forcible personnel removal as of December 2002 where about two thirds of workers were summarily thrown out, hints that the mass firing has caused a devastating blow cannot be hidden anymore.

We can skip the fact that there is no serious audit coming from the new authorities of PDVSA. The rectors are finding all sorts of excuses with the December strike to justify all sorts of normally unjustifiable acts. Some examples are the presence of National Guards forbidding any press inquiry inside the installations. More telling is the constant postponing of a full SEC, Security Exchange Comission, report to the US in order to do business there. Eventually some form of report has been submitted but we do not know exactly what was in it or how this one has been received.

Other signs that things are wrong abound. Old and delicate oil fields in Zulia seem to have closed since the strike. And experts know that re-opening them is nearly impossible either technically or because of the prohibitive costs. Meanwhile new oil wells are pumped faster than what they should be in prejudice of their future yields. This can be observed from the road sides. Refineries we are told are back to normal, but no inventories or export tracking are made public. The government claims that we are exporting as much oil as before the strike yet the Wall Street journal and the US government talk of a drop of at least 20% in Venezuelan oil reaching the US. Who to believe?

Three recent incidents really are worrisome.

On his return of Argentina Chavez had a “slip” of the tongue in his press conference, mentioning an oil production of 2.3 million barrels while the official claim is 3.2. Slip of the tongue? The estimated Venezuelan output by international observers is around 2.5-2.7, closer to Chavez slip than to the official numbers.

Venezuelan papers have been reproducing “wanted” ads from newspapers across South America for engineers to work for PDVSA. Acknowledging of course the fact that PDVSA is unable to find local qualified labor force, or that political credentials are not sufficient to pump oil from way below. Perhaps what is more interesting is the fact that the adds were circulated in South American papers. Why? South American workers are cheaper? The new PDVSA management cannot speak enough English to hire qualified International workers? Inquiring minds want to know. Meanwhile “wanted” adds to work in reconstructing Iraqi oil fields at considerable wages are circulating among the fired PDVSA workers.

The third item comes from the August 3 El Universal who published a report on the faulty billing within Venezuela. Apparently, since the military took over the gas distribution depots, and then eventually transferred it to the newly hired workers, there is a deficit of around 50 billion Bs. That is, at the official current rate of 1600 to the US dollar, there are 31 million dollar of unaccounted gas expenditures. Were they billed? Were they cashed? Who cashed? Who authorized the expenditure of that gas?

The conclusion of all this is that recovery of PDVSA is not only far from complete in spite of claims to the contrary. The further and much graver conclusion is that PDVSA has more than likely lost the manpower and financial muscle to keep exploration, drilling and future development of the industry. This puts at risk the future of Venezuela who will depend every day more of the oil industry when one considers the debacle of the private sector.

The government does not seem to mind at all. The private sector is anathema these days. The prospective trade accords that are being negotiated with Brazil for example will have a negative effect on the economy since Venezuela is much less competitive than Brazil in the potential products it could sell there. Meanwhile, Colombia who was the biggest trading partner of Venezuela, and a complementary economy, is shunned. These comments according to several articles in today’s El Universal. In the near future if Chavez remains in power we will depend more than ever of the Queen of Venezuelan enterprises, but a queen now in rags.

Friday, August 22, 2003

PDVSA: the once and future Queen (II)
The secret kingdom
Friday 22, August 2003

If you drive from Caracas to San Felipe via Moron, you drive along El Palito, one of the main oil concerns of PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company. EL Palito refines some oil products and next to it there is one of the biggest thermal plants in the country, although it can work at barely 50% of its capacity.

The huge complex is separated from the road by a normal fence, and has several entry points. These days there is only one entry point that one can see clearly, and the fence has been lined by a concrete wall, recently painted in part with some allegoric figures supposedly drawn by the kids from the local Bolivarian schools. And at each end of this wall the slogan “Ahora Si Somos Venezuela!”, now we are Venezuela!

El Palito was one of the first concerns to shut down in April 2002, and December 2002. It carries a significant amount of complex and potentially dangerous equipment so it must be promptly shut if any trouble in supplies is forecasted. But since it is located near Valencia to provide the crucial center area of the country with gas and other products, the government targeted it first for forced reopening, trying even to physically force the strikers to work. Eventually they did grab a few local people and slowly but surely they did reopen El Palito.

But this reopening was not trouble free. Explosions were observed. Strange smokes are regularly seen, shown on TV while officials deny the mere existence of these likely toxic clouds. At least a couple of deaths have been reported. The National Guard locks everything up, leaving only one access as far as I can see from my regular driving in the area. Interestingly in February while the government was claiming “full” operation, El Palito seemed rather quiet from what I remembered. I suppose that eventually the amount of people either protesting or trying to film whatever was going on inside made the administration build that tropical version of the “Wall”, duly decorated now for the human touch.

Accounting is of course not forthcoming. The only TV ever allowed inside is the state TV. No reliable witness has been allowed in to say what really is going on, what really is working and producing. Not to mention what quality is being produced.

But things get out. Even myself who has nothing to do with the oil industry except putting gas in my tank and driving by has learned “stuff”. The son of Senora Altagracia, the lady that has done some curtains for me and waters my plants when I travel, did not go on strike because he was in a “safety” position. When the new management came in they wanted to skip some of the safety norms in their haste. The workers refused to go along. They were fired. Her brother in law, a Chavez supporter did cross the picket line. Now for the revolution he has done regularly 12 hours shifts and worked quite a few week ends. He gets paid in cash without any receipt and on occasion is bought out with some bogus performance bonus. In other words he could get fired tomorrow and would not have legal support to claim any severance package. But he is with the revolution so I suppose that he is willing to sacrifice himself, even if he bitches a lot these days, I was told. Incidentally his wife, Senora Altagracia’s sister, “has been told” not to criticize the “revolution” anymore by “visitors” in the supervision team of her husband.

The papers are rife with such stories, and speculations. But the government remains silent on that, just saying that all is great, targets are met, revolutionary workers are happy.

The Queen of Venezuela has become the silent kingdom.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

PDVSA: the once and future Queen (I)
Revenge in Paraguana

As an oil country the fate of Venezuela has revolved around what dividends its state oil monopoly can provide. Until the 70ies foreign oil concerns ruled the show. By the late 70ies the Venezuelan government had nationalized its industry and from then on PDVSA, the holding state owned company, grew into one of the largest world companies. Surprisingly, it was run well enough, basing its directing principles on a minimum of competitiveness and professional management, a “meritocracy”. All was not rosy, after all the only stockholder was the state and the pressure for efficiency was not certainly what one would have seen in the private sector. Still, it worked well enough to finance the largest portion of the Nation’s budget.

This success of sorts was due by the tacit agreement of the Venezuelan political establishment to exempt PDVSA of the piñata rules that other state concerns and agencies were subjected too. In other words, it was understood that a stable source of income was needed if they wanted to be able to carry on their populists policies through the 80ies and 90ies, policies whose failure eventually brought Chavez into office.

Chavez brought to the country leadership positions a failed political class that was never able on its own to hold any significant share of power. The few allies with some real government experience and skill such as the MAS, a leftist party, had abandoned Chavez by December 2001. In the successful bid to seize all aspects of political and, eventually, economical controls there was only one leftover institution holding from the pre 1999 regime: the jewel of the crown, PDVSA, the Queen mother of all of us.

Certainly, Chavez through 3 directors in 3 years had tried to modify its functioning to make it more malleable to his goals. But the stubborn work ethic of its workers and the solidity of its plans and international engagements blocked an outright grab of the company. The naked attempt to seize control by firing all the principal managers in April 2002 was the trigger of the fateful events that followed. A strong show of support of Venezuelans for PDVSA ended up in bloodshed in front of Miraflores and the resignation of Chavez.

The return of Chavez only gave a truce. By October it was clear that maneuvering was under way and the certainty of that was one of the triggers of the general strike in December 2002. This time Chavez did not fail. Ruthlessly and at an incredible cost to the country he fired nearly 2/3 of the PDVSA staff and replaced them with all sorts of political hacks and technical underlings. The fired oil workers became one of the most active components of opposition through the groups Gente de Petroleo and Energia Positiva. Jobless, they are now of all lawsuits, all marches and rallies, trying to get back their jobs that they consider unjustly taken away. And they know how to manage things.

But this is not good enough for Chavez. Many things he cannot forgive, such as the fact that they were the excuse for his brief overthrow. But what he cannot forgive at all is that ex-PDVSA employees represent all the attributes that he and his followers resent, the symbol that Venezuela can be successful by other ways than what Chavez preaches in his passe leftist theories. Revenge for real an imaginary deeds is in order.

The first sordid act was to deprive them of all their workers right, rights existing for all Venezuelan workers that are fired, all of them. The excuse was the alleged sabotage of December 2002. This does not hold ground since the striking management properly closed the installations and notarized everything. To this day not a single serious lawsuit has been introduced in courts against the PDVSA ex-workers. The administration hides behind “moral rights” but is unable to build a case. With signs that things are not running well in the new PDVSA ex-workers are even more demonized. Even the structure that held the life time savings of the employees has been sequestered to the point that no one knows where the money went.

But he latest ignoble attack was on the living quarters of Paraguana. PDVSA in some of its big sites did build small urban centers for its workers. Since the firings are in appeal courts and so far these courts seem to be leaning toward granting at least some of the constitutional rights, the ex-workers have refused to vacate the housing unless the firing is done properly. Well, complacent judges can be found for eviction actions such as the one that took place today against Edgar Rasquin.

Edgar Rasquin is not your everyday oil worker. In his distinguished career he has managed the PDVSA oil compounds in Germany before becoming the manager in one of the 3 biggest refinery complexes in the world, Amuay and Punta Cardon in the Paraguana peninsula. He even is the subject for a prize winning opinion article by Ibsen Martinez reflecting on the fact that the only thing that matters for a Chavez appointment is fidelity to the “revolution”.

Edgar Rasquin has finally been evicted this morning, after having had his house surrounded by 200 National Guards. The military goons tried to enter into the house and were stopped by the neighbors and sympathizers that did not hesitate to sleep in the street. Eventually this morning with a suspiciously blessed tribunal eviction in spite of all sorts of counter appeal not resolved yet, the Guards managed to close in and in a very dignified move Rasquin left to avoid further damage. But he left as a new national hero, and even worse, as a bright poster-boy for international workers rights defense groups in front of all sorts of international courts. Yet another thorn in Chavez's side.

This is what petty revenge gets you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

EL REVOCATORIO (IV)
Caracas is back

Wednesday August 20 2003

Caracas, and Venezuela, lived today another important day. The general objective was to depose the signatures for a recall election on the first legal day for it, and mark the moment by a revival rally. By the looks and often-incoherent speeches from government officials, Chavez’s opposition seems to have scored big today.

THE SIGNATURES ARE CONSIGNED

The widest avenue in Caracas, Avenida Bolivar has been duly hijacked for the whole week by chavistas celebrating the mid term their own way. Besides trying to create some show of support if anything by offering free goodies, the idea is doubly shady. For one it deprives the opposition from a photo-op rally. And perhaps more importantly it allows them to block the access to the Electoral Council to an eventual march to deposit signatures. At least for this week.

Bringing the signatures this morning at 5:30 AM smartly turned this around. Chavistas vigilantes that probably stayed late on Bolivar Avenue partying were nowhere to be seen. Around 10 AM, a delegation of 20 people arrived discreetly to make official the reception of the signatures that were held in the Electoral Council auditorium.

There was nothing left to utter by Chavez attorney but a lame argument as to the validity of the signatures. Not that they are not unimpeachable, but the heart was not there in the declarations.

THE RALLY TAKES PLACE

In spite of all the veiled threats uttered yesterday, even a bomb threat this morning, the six starting points did begin to see marchers arrive at 8 AM. In the next two hours marches started. No serious incidents have been reported though some intimidation attempts seem to have taken place. But again, the stunning day-break coup seems to have taken the trouble makers will for the day.

The confluence on Libertador Avenue was in the grand tradition of the marches that Caracas has been hosting since early 2002. What was noteworthy was the recovered cheerfulness of the people after the doldrums that followed the failed general strike to oust Chavez. Knowing that suddenly there is a real chance to get rid of Chavez in the reasonable future has revitalized the people in a way that seems to have contributed to stun further the government. A visibly upset Chavez, still in Argentina, gave a press conference that he probably would have liked to skip. Then again his camera avoiding eyes, nervous writing while talking, vindictive comments, cheap shots and obvious lies as to the meaning of the Venezuelan constitution showed that he felt furious enough to risk ridicule.

The rally was a little apotheosis of its own crowning a successful day. A very hard sun, followed by rain did not dampen enthusiasm. Hearing the National anthem, I thought of its ending as quite appropriate for today

y si el despostismo
levanta la voz
seguid el ejemplo
que Caracas dio


and if despotism
raises its voice
follow the example
that Caracas gave

CARACAS IS BACK!
EL REVOCATORIO (III)
The (comic?) stage is set

Tuesday August 19 2003, at 11 PM

Tomorrow Chavez will have legally ½ of his term plus one day in office. Legally the opposition may now submit the signatures collected on February 2 and ask for a recall election.

Long gone are the days were during the heat of the December-January general strike Chavez was claiming high to heavens that the opposition should wait for August. Until Carter took him at his word. Now he is trying very hard to avoid this hour of reckoning. So how do we find the two sides, tonight at 11 PM?

THE OPPOSITION

The day opened with the newspapers, in particular El Universal, giving an extensive recount on how the “bad” Chavez administration led him to face such an unpleasantness. Indeed, what record can he run on? True, a careful observer could pick up a few positive points, but they are so far outweighed by the economic disaster, the lack of direction, the rampant corruption, that the real question should be “how come Chavez is still in office”.

During the day the opposition has been arguing with the authorities about the preparations for tomorrow’s multiple march from 6 points in Caracas, a march that will converge on Avenida Libertador. But it is a cheerful and confident opposition that senses that once again it is managing the agenda. Yes, most serious spokespeople insist that tomorrow is the official start of the race and that we are far from the goal, but it is a good race, a race that we can win.

TV talk shows are witness of this newly found optimism. For example, RCTV did show excerpts of the video Tiempo de Marchas (see one week ago). It also interviewed a young lawyer who is a musician on his spare time and who composed one of the tunes that was a main hit in the general strikes marches. Now he has a new one, probably promised to a great success from what I could hear. Indeed, one of the striking successes of the anti-Chavez gang is that they seem to hold to all the “political” creativity. Not to mention having transformed the Venezuelan flag as a symbol of freedom against Chavez, as seen on marches. Unbelievable!

The other activity for the day was to prepare for tonight rallies on main cities, with fireworks at midnight. I doubt much that San Felipe will be awake past 11 PM, but between 8 and 9 PM I did hear some activity in the streets, some firework, and whistles with the syncopated one-long-three-shorts that is the hallmark of the opposition, based on the rhythm of the “Ni un paso atras” (not a step back). As far as I could tell tonight on TV, Caracas had at least already two significant night rallies. We will see later.

THE CHAVISTAS

Let’s start with the beloved great leader. He seems to have decided to weather tomorrow storm by going out on an unnecessary trip to Argentina. Unnecessary because it is a private trip, no official business, with a discreet meeting with Kirchener. That is all that was discreet.

Chavez started his long weekend outing by calling for a South American debt referendum. While of course ignoring his own recall election. No other leader picked the ball at the Paraguay meeting. Incidentally all leaders present at the new Paraguayan president inauguration did sign an anti terrorist document for South America and in support of Colombia. Chavez was the odd man out, on some of the lamest excuses that diplomacy is able to provide.

Fresh from this bust, he went to Buenos Aires to do his weekly live talk show for over two hours, except that this time the Venezuelan tax payer will have to add the expenses of the satellite link. But who’s counting….

I am not sure what he did yesterday, but today, still in Buenos Aires he called for a meeting. Obligingly some of the Argentine left sent their militants to provide for a night background. It is interesting how Chavez meetings are now at night so the cameras cannot show really the extension of the crowds. The speech was slightly more anti neo liberal than usual, but that is OK in Buenos Aires. However, Chavez did link his speech to the satellite again, and made the speech yet another long “cadena” on all Venezuelan networks and radio stations. While calling the media, that he rackets at will with his cadenas, whores for colluding with the opposition in their message. What would the state TV be?

But his administration was not idle. While they refused to give some of the march permits for tomorrow alleging that Avenida Libertador cannot be blocked as too much traffic goes by, they did hijack for the whole week the largest Caracas avenue, Avenida Bolivar. Yesterday not much happened while they were setting up tent. Today they put a “popular market” and an expo from each ministry to show the “works” of Chavez rule. More activities will follow until the big rally Saturday (at night?) to “celebrate the rule of Chavez. Meanwhile if you need to drive in the area, tough luck for the whole week.

Late this evening, the ministry of defense did a cadena to scare people away by saying that “any violence will be the only judicial responsibility of the opposition” since apparently they did not offer a good marching plan. Yes, indeed, the organizers experience in a dozen of marches containing a few thousand hundred of people is still not good enough to convince the authorities.

And the state TV talk shows were just perfect! A text book case of twisting news, and facts by any “expert” they could bring. Now, if they feel so strong about their work, why that exasperate desire to block everything, to look for any stage away from Venezuela? Why the sudden intensity in the media counter attack?

It is just midnight. I did hear a few fireworks in San Felipe, and the TV blares the Caracas party feel. The midnight rally of Altamira has a very good turn out, maybe 50 000 people. At midnight.

We will see how long the anti Chavez camp will be able to keep their high spirits in the upcoming tough weeks.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

THE WAY WE WERE (in East Germany?)
August 16, 2003

In his search of any possible credit to restore his image, the Chavez administration is not afraid to use old recipes that were once useful under different skies.

These past two weeks the Dominican Republic hosted the Pan-American games. If these games do not hold the attention of the world, being basically a competition between many second line US athletes and Cuba first line ones, they still are important for the rest of South America where the medal repartition that really means something are the bronze an silver. I do not mean this to belittle the games, but the fun part is to see all the silver medals that go to countries that otherwise would be absent in an world class event.

Venezuela is one of these countries that do well there, while in the Olympics we might leave without a single bronze medal. It does happen that Venezuela is a minor power in the Pan-American Games where it fights for a position between 6 and 10, our main rivals being Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. This makes the competition fun to watch.

Last night, in one of those moments that never fail to show up in such games, the Venezuelan volley ball team did the Cinderella thing, beating 2 days ago favorite Brazil to go on to the final and beat defending champion Cuba, who earned its berth by previously beating the US. An a clear victory at that, 3 to 0. A cheap feel good moment that I could not miss, even if volley ball is far from being a favorite of mine.

So far so good. But as soon as the victory was acquired, the state TV who holds the retransmission rights, linked the team captain with Chavez over a cell phone. Chavez, by the way, being in Paraguay. Then the phone was passed to one of the manager of the team that was even more profuse in thanking of Chavez for everything. That is, had Chavez not being president probably the team would not have had even the plane tickets to go to Santo Domingo.

In a sycophantic country where getting a sport dollar from politicians is a rather hard task, I can go along with these people defending their job and in the emotion of the moment becoming more chavista than Chavez. But what came later was worthy of any of the propaganda based regimes that used to dot some parts of the world, when sports victory were supposed to compensate for bread lines. A “cadena” was suddenly called and all of Venezuela networks had to show the corny medal ceremony from beginning to end. Trust me, it is way longer and silly than the mere flag rising we see in the Olympics, and the feel good effect is eventually lost, even as the National anthem comes on in a sort of unexpected anti-climax. There is a reason why normal TV broadcast shows only the anthem and flag part. At least our willful and deserving volley team did not have to watch the manipulation.

With a recall election looming, all is fair I suppose to mark a point.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

AUGUST IN YARACUY

August 14, 2003

The rains have been with us now since June. Even though they never quite leave Yaracuy, this year was drier than usual and we needed them. Now the valley of the Yaracuy is at its lushest green, reminding us why Yaracuy is known amongst Venezuelan painters for its unique palette of greens. Sugar cane is high, mangoes have come and gone. The humid heat has become oppressive as the sea breezes have dropped to their aestival low. The air conditioning comes in handy at night.

All back to normal? Not really.

Quite often in the morning when I arrive at work there are people waiting for the “boss”, asking for jobs. This is rarer know, eventually people have realized that we had not been hiring since last year, even the to replace the few resignations we had.

The workers are anxious. Mid January when we reopened after “El Paro”, on directions from pour main offices in Caracas I gave a little speech trying to re-assure our workers that the company was still sound in spite of a year of economic chaos and that payroll was safe until May. We are in August, dollars from the control exchange commission are not flowing as they should and orders have continuously dropped. Workers are idle half of the week in general and they are getting scared, realizing that I had not lied and that the time of reckoning might be near. I do not know what to tell them since I have no idea what our fate is. What I do know is that our fate is linked to our clients and they are having problems.

What is scarier is that in the San Felipe industrial zone we are the only business that “seems” to be running, and our workers know very well that if we must make a lay-off they likely will not be able to find a job. Certainly not with our neighbors that have had less qualms about laying off than we did. Really, we have a good team, a team where the most recent worker has already 2 years with us and we are reluctant to break it, not to mention our sense of responsibility for them. But how long can we hold?

On more mundane aspects things have acquired a strange new “normalcy”. The grocery stores have become experts at hiding the holes on their shelves. Now, the alley were corn and wheat floor were stocked has been taken over by rice and sugar. Wheat flour has disappeared from the shelves for two months now, the few that gets into the country being shipped directly to bakeries and pasta makers. Little baking at home these days. One of the ubiquitous bread brand available in the stores is from a company that has decided to play its future with the government, even appearing in official events. That is a good way to get dollars I suppose. And I suppose that we will all take this road if we want to keep in business. At least until we can vote on the recall election.

Corn flour, the staple of Venezuelan diet is really becoming a problem. Since its price is controlled, the large chains have stopped selling it because they cannot recoup their costs. To avoid political sanction, grocery store chains purchase small amounts. A couple of large packs will arrive at the store on occasion, and skip the shelving process as they are opened directly on the floor. People grab two packs per capita and within minutes it is all gone. A family of five goes through one bag of corn flour in two days.

I have entered into a strange bartering agreement. I use on occasion a little bit of yellow corn flour. Most people in Venezuela eat only the white corn floor (which by the way is very different than in the US or Mexico since it is a pre-cooked variety specially designed to make Arepas, our local variety of corn bread and Venezuela’s gift to gastronomy). I find yellow flour to have a heartier taste that I favor for the arepas that I make at home. Now, whenever I see white flour I buy my allowance, bring the bags at work and barter it for yellow flour if someone can find it. Or just resell it to my colleagues that depend on Arepas. A little bit like in the old USSR. I just hope that it will not go further than corn flour.

Other items are missing of course, or have acquired stranger aspects. For example my UHT brand of milk has lost its pouring opening. Now I have to cut the edge with scissors again. The only brand that still has the specially imported pouring device is another brand that has linked its fate to the Revolution. And I do not like its taste. So I will keep cutting the edges of my old brand which will probably go chavista at some point to be able to import the plastic devices without trouble.

One thing we can still be thankful for is that the crime wave that is besotting the country has not reached Yaracuy with the same intensity. Things are worse of course. A water bottling plant a block from us was attacked at payroll last month. Recently at night somebody tried to steal the metal name plate of my apartment building to resell for scrap metal. He was heard at 2 AM and one of my neighbors got his gun and caught the guy. Big scandal in the street, people half naked out of bed, a couple of shots in the air for good measure and after half an hour eventually a police car came and took the thief. The pieces of the sign were collected in a bag and now there are only two letters on our front. Somewhere a bag lays miserable with the scrap metal wanna-be other letters.

If this sign of misery, literally, is almost risible, other signs are less. The newest racket, in San Felipe, are car “vigilantes”. You cannot park anywhere downtown without coming back to your car and finding a little cardboard that claims your car is watched. Some guy just pops out to remove the card as you get into your car and of course you are expected to give some small change. At least we are not yet pestered by all these kids that at busy intersections of big cities try to clean your windows with a bottle of dirty water.

But if these new “offices” are created with the crisis, they also come along with an increase in petty larceny. More and more stores in San Felipe are having personnel just to watch customers, when not an outright uniformed guard. In big cities bang robberies are peaking again. And the national weekly murder rate is stable in the 70-80 body count. This all on TV, and San Felipe is scared waiting for the local body count to go up anytime. Going out alone at night in erstwhile quiet San Felipe is now something you think about. I would like to know how is the cable TV industry faring these days.

MIGUEL OCTAVIO BLOG ANNIVERSARY
August 14, 2003

Miguel Octavio Blog, The Devil’s Excrement, just reached his one year mark. Besides wanting to congratulate him for the effort and good work, I want to say that he has helped me indirectly by keeping me writing on in a kind of “gentle” competition, or even by giving me a sense of duty to write when he was out of town.

Our blog styles are different. He is not afraid to cite more facts than I do, or less lazy than I am at translating articles. I tend to like to process things “in block” and perhaps I focus a little bit too much on some ideas making me perhaps too analytical on occasion.

But I like to think that our different styles allow people to have a more complete perspective of what is going in Venezuela. We both want the best for our country and we both are allergic to the misinformation that emanates from so many sources.

Thanks for writing Miguel.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

THE POLITICAL FRINGES ON STAGE
August 13, 2003

As the heat wave from hot talk is sure to strike us with the recall election approaching, it would be interesting to describe two of most prominent spokesperson from each side. I have selected two emblematic figures that can be charitably described as belonging to the fringes of each block. From the chavista left wing representative Iris Valera embodies all the passion of the “Bolivarian revolutionary cause” independently of the hard facts of life. From the anti chavista right wing, well known former actor and recycled TV talk show host, Orlando Urdaneta, illustrates how oblivious of the real country the opposition can appear.

IRIS VALERA

Representative Iris Valera is the prototype of the political non-entity and fringe activist that was catapulted to fame and some form of power thanks to the Chavez coat tails. An obscure lawyer from Tachira, she even confessed having toyed with the idea of joining the Colombian FARC guerilla in her youth. She cultivates a certain disheveled look that centers on a leonine curly hair-do. Her speech tone is generally excited and ideas do not seem to stay long enough behind her lips to mature. Or do they? One does wonder because sometimes she seems to be quite the agent provocateur.

She rose to fame while a member of the 1999 constituent assembly. Her principal contribution was the demise of the Venezuelan senate. “We cannot make a revolution without radically changing some stuff. Let’s eliminate the senate” she said more or less. Certainly one of the most powerful intellectual arguments ever advanced to create or demote a venerable institution.

Chavez impressed by her direct words gave her the surname “comandante fosoforito” (easy burning match commandant).

Of course, she has been extensively used by chavistas for some high profile media outings. She seems unusually able to dig out pertinent information that would take days to a normal investigative journalist to find. Surely, she and her staff are particularly efficient. One should not speculate on her mounting media shows of counter information, even if that seems to be her objective.

Her latest gambit was to propose two new constitutional amendments. The government hell-bent on delaying or stopping the recall election altogether can only be pleased by her suggestion to change the rules for naming and removing the High Court officials and the Electoral Authorities. This would be done by a simple majority, instead of the cumbersome democratic consensus seeking 2/3 majority required by the constitution. That Chavez style has made him lose by defections the 2/3 majority he had in 2000 does not seem to be a source of angst when he can try to change the constitution.

Unfortunately, this has to go to referendum, if passed at the assembly. Interestingly, the cursed, and fascist actual electoral authorities unfit to run a recall election, authorities that should be changed for “good revolutionary ones” suddenly appear to be fit to run a constitutional amendment referendum. I have to admit that only Iris Varela can pull that one in front of TV cameras, without the shade of a single self-doubt. Ah! Faith in the revolution!

ORLANDO URDANETA

Orlando Urdaneta opens his nightly talk show on Globovison network by describing the fashionable outfit that he is wearing to promote a well-known boutique. He announces simply that every night they lend him a different outfit and tie (he seems partial to Armani). He also advertises later in the show watches in the thousands of dollars that go rather well with his outfits.

Mr. Urdaneta used to be an actor until he found his calling in defending Venezuelan liberties against the bloody tyranny of Chavez. He became particularly active after one of his cousin messed up the April 11 events. The cousin, a high officer in the military establishment, eventually joined the Plaza Altamira sit-in of last October, a sit-in that lasts to this day, benefiting now the government rather than the opposition.

Mr. Urdaneta has become a celebrity of sorts with his strong statements, widely cheered as a fixture on the stage of most opposition rallies. In his defense, I must say that on occasion he has not hesitated to walk in the front lines. Less wisely, he has taken on himself to promote events that have been more of a bust than a success. Recently, when Omar Calderon, an ex-governor of Tachira and prominent local opposition leader was abducted, Orlando Urdaneta called his admirers for a sit-in on Caracas main thoroughfare. This resulted in a massive traffic jam and a universal pestering against him. This still would have been OK, except that the attendance was poor, he almost got arrested putting at unnecessary risk some of the dissident military and almost created a violent situation that would have benefited the government and damaged the opposition hard earned and still fragile pacific and legalistic image. All of that of course without bringing an iota closer the freedom of Omar Calderon.

Of course, this type of direct action activities garners him a lot of sympathy with some that still think that a military coup would free us from the Chavez nightmare.

His latest TV/radio crusade is to call for the boycott of companies perceived, by him, to make a fast buck with the Chavez administration. This type of actions, well targeted, could indeed bring some political dividends. But when announced from an Armani suit to the people in the lower echelons of the financial pyramid one is allowed to wonder of its efficacy. Surely, there is a feel good cheap activism for those who have options. However, does Mr. Urdaneta realize that the sales tax of 16% on the Armani suit goes to Chavez’s coffers? Is he aware that the company that most helps the government finances is the oil and gas PDVSA giant monopoly? Next to PDVSA all are peanuts. All what he might achieve, perhaps, is ruining the alleged accomplices and make their workers lose their jobs. I wonder if these newly jobless folks would vote for Mr. Urdaneta friends.


As the reader can see, inconsistencies are not the monopoly of either side. Oddly, both of today personages, immune to ridicule, seem the two sides of the same coin.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Tiempo de marchas
“a time to march” (*)
August 11, 2003

Sometimes one gets one of these moments where we can reflect on what certain episodes of our life meant. I did get one of these moments Saturday when I attended the premiere of a documentary on some of the events of last years, namely the huge popular manifestations that happened so regularly in Caracas.

The world became aware of the marching ability of Venezuelans on April 11 2002 when Chavez resigned (temporarily) after the huge march of the opposition was ambushed downtown Caracas, resulting in dozens of dead and injured. But Venezuelans have been doing long marches as a form of political action for a long time. Even Carlos Andres Perez built his own successful 1973 bid for the presidency with the leitmotiv “ese hombre si camina” (that man really walks).

Chavez, in the best populist tradition, rated his success by his ability to mobilize people in huge rallies, or lengthy marches. And at least until December 2001 he claimed that the opposition was unable to match him in the streets. Indeed the efforts from the opposition until the first one day general strike of December 2001 were noticeable but still weak. The video which title I use today shows clearly how Chavez lost the street and the public support through 2002.

Tiempo de marchas is an edition of hundreds of hour of film footage, from news clips to amateur videos of the sometimes gigantic mobilizations that the opposition carried through 2002 when it still believed that a reasonable ruler would hear the complaint of his people and act accordingly.

As a polished documentary one can see all these critical moments that marked the political evolution of the country. The video starts with the January 23 march, held while chavistas had their own one a few blocks away. The opposition march at the very least matched the chavista one in numbers, and with a thrill we realized that we could dare take on Chavez in the streets. This defining moment certainly contributed to lead to the second general strike.

The April 11 march was the fateful march where everything changed as the country was broken in two. Still, Chavez seemed to have the upper hand. But this was going to be an illusion as the rest of the year unfolded. The May 11 night rally was noteworthy if anything because with barely one month after the April 11 catastrophe, the grieving opposition was undaunted and back on the saddle.

The October 10 march was the first one in Venezuelan history to pass the 1 million marchers. The thrill of that march was, for me anyway, unmatched. Perhaps its size was impressive but what struck people more then was that for the first time the cameras could show that all sectors of Venezuelan society were marching together, in peace. Black and white. Rich and poor. Leftists and rightists against a wanna-be authoritarian ruler. Chavistas never recovered from October 10. They did attempt to mobilize some but clearly the heart was not in it anymore. By November the marching alleys were for the opposition and the stage was set for the December general strike.

Among the many marches that are shown through the video there is one which was particularly important, Saturday December 14 2002, when in the middle of general strike, while gas had run out in Caracas, more than a million people marched from all corners of Caracas to converge at Altamira exchange on the central highway, to gather in the most spectacular rally that Caracas had ever witnessed. The image, and impressions, of the sea of flags as nightfall fell went around the globe and showed that Chavez speeches were mere propaganda. From then on international opinion who tended to be legalistic, and thus rather pro-Chavez, started having second thoughts. It became clear to many that Chavez had a problem, of his own doing.

But the video also works at an emotional level. It is a very moving video, at least for those of us that did participate to some of these marches. It makes us understand that all the effort was not lost, that we learned something about ourselves and our love of freedom, and our wish to fight for it. It shows what was truly an epic moment in our history, a popular fervor that is rarely seen. Chavez might still be in office but he has lost the heart of most Venezuelans.

(*) “Tiempo de marcha: un a?o dando la cara” (A time of marches: a year facing up) is as of Saturday 9, 2003 available in Venezuela, and I trust that soon on internet excerpts will be found. It is a 50 minutes documentary showing the highlights of the main marches that took place in Caracas in 2002, including hard moments such as the shootings of April 2001, as well as some of elating moments of civic pride, and comic relief, that dotted these marches. It is promoted by an NGO, Ciudadania Activa ; contact contacto@ciudadaniaacctiva.com

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