Monday, September 29, 2003

THE WEEK IN REVIEW
September 21 through 28, 2003

Quite a week indeed.

The Nazi-onal guard strikes at Los Semerucos

I am not making this up, some press writers and caricaturists now call the Venezuelan National Guard, the Nazi-onal Guard since the eviction of the striking oil workers in Los Semerucos.

After the massive firing of oil workers through the first few months of the year (around 20 000) some of them kept using their regulation living quarters in the oil fields. The argument? The firing has not been properly done, the compensation package has not been given, they are still entitled to their housing.

The argument from the new political management of PDVSA says that they have been fired and that they have betrayed the nation so that they should be happy they are not in jail, and thus should be giving up their houses fast.

Unfortunately, when the strike started it seems that the workers gave notary statements as to the conditions of the working places and to this day the government has not been able to make a lawsuit prosper against the ex-workers, be it for sabotage, be it for crimes against the state. Even worse, the oil workers have won some preliminary injunctions that should eventually force the government to make good on its legal obligations.

That is no problem with the Chavez administration who has no qualm about sending again (Revenge in Paraguana) the Nazi-onal guard to vacate the Los Semerucos complex, even though judicial injunctions forbid it. But of course another judge refuses to consider these decisions and emits one that “legalizes” what was one of the most deplorable scenes that we have been subjected to. In the middle of the night, a tear gas attack inside houses that ended up with elderly parents and children running in the streets in their night attire . And 26 arrests for violence. The Nazi-onal guard that threw tear gas inside houses is fine, thank you. Its honor, or whatever was left of it, done for. I suppose that at some point they will claim “I was following orders”.

I wonder, if Chavez ever leaves, what we’ll have to do with the disgraced National Guard, this 4th part of the Armed Forces, responsible for internal security and who under Chavez has lent itself to all sorts of abuses and corruption, like your average S.A contingent…


Iris Varela, the new cat woman

Another obscure incident at the National Assembly. Iris Valera one of the Pasionarias of the glorious Bolivarian fiasco, probably upset by the blockade made by the opposition against the attempt by Chavez to control once and for all the Judicial system, scratched the face of one of her main opponents. The unfortunate victim (accused of having kicked her before) was for all to see on TV with a bloody cheek. For all her lame explanations people have not forgotten her use of pepper gas at different opportunities, even inside the National Assembly. She is a true democrat and has the means to convince you, whether you want it being irrelevant (The Political Fringes on Stage).


The Electoral Board (CNE) gives the rules

The rules on how to call for a recall election were handed down Thursday night . This would deserve an article by itself. It probably will be better to wait and see how the process evolves. What was surprising was that the CNE will involve itself closely in any signature recollection process, even controlling the time frame of the collection! This is almost risible as it looks almost like a real election!

But one should not be too fussy. After all, now there are rules, and these ones, if harsher than what the opposition would have liked, are not impossible to follow. If the opposition indeed has the following it claims to have we should be able to vote on Chavez by late February (a complete article by Roberto Giusti for El Universal on the electoral situation can be found in an English version)

Of course there is a problem: what will Chavez do? He is not going to sit tight. Considering that he has done all what he could to block any election since last year, it is to be expected that a rain of legal challenges and acts of violence is on its way. Even if ludicrous, they will at least postpone any election. A glimpse into Chavez state of mind came fast.


Chavez against the world.

In yet another memorable moment, Chavez managed to insult the US, the UN and the Spanish Prime Minister. While cutting oil supply to Dominican Republic on some alleged support for coup-mongers against his rule.

There is no point in repeating the inanities that Chavez uttered. What is really interesting here is the not so distant echo of Fidel Castro excoriating Europe because he put in jail a few dissidents a few months ago. Chavez is quite clear: all is just a conspiracy against the Venezuelan people. This is a very convenient excuse for whatever he is planning to do to block (destroy?) the opposition democratic tries at ending the crisis. Why give the legitimacy of an election to what is only a press and “foreign interests” conspiracy?


Remember, you read it here first.

Friday, September 26, 2003

ON THE ROAD AGAIN
and so much going on....

Friday 26, August 2003

Chavez insulting Aznar and Bush (making friends as usual).

S.A. like assault on family housing at Los Semerucos (The grand mother that could barely walk to a car in the midst of tear gas was surely a dangerous "golpista", as seen on TV).

The Electoral Board CNE handing down as from the Olympus the new referendum rules (apparently there is slight chance to make it, good news I suppose).

Assemblyman with a bleeding cheek (courtesy of Iris Varela who apparently not being able to have her amendment approved became Catwoman).

I wonder what a foreign observer would think watching Venezuelan TV these days. Wait! I know! I had one from Brazil and he is just speechless. And this is a businessguy that comes often enough to Venezuela to be able to rent a car and drive around in the country.

Embarrassment hardly describes it...

I will write as soon as possible on these lofty issues. Unless loftier material comes along. All is possible in this country of ultimate "realismo magico".

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

THREE EMBASSIES

Wednesday 24, September 2003

The Venezuelan plight has had interesting ripple effects on the diplomatic representations in Caracas, which of course cannot escape the turmoil of the Bolivarian Revolution. The problems faced by three of these institutions are quite telling.

The Embassy of the United States of America

Let's start by saying that the status of this embassy as the one from the "Empire" has not helped its dealings with the anti-globalization leadership of the "glorious Bolivarian Revolution". In the tradition of the yanqi go home Latin American leftist past, the US ambassador is critics's target of choice. In particular to distract the opinion from other unrelated uncomfortable topics of the Revolution own doings.

Until April 11 2002, the relationship although tense was not frayed. After April 13, things did change. In the all out effort to rewrite history at all costs, the US is regularly accused to have shouldered the alleged April 11 coup. Certainly the past interventionist history of the US does not help, and the avowed dislike of Chavez is on every one's mind. However, from likely US blind eye promises to anti-Chavez initiatives, to actively sending weapons, intelligence and advisers is quite a stretch. Chavez and his minions have no problem to bridge that stretch offering tomorrow all sorts of proofs, any wilder than the other. But tomorrow never comes.

Charles Shapiro, the US ambassador, seems to be a brave man. And a decent one too, with that naïve but implicit proposal that the US always offer: embrace our values, rewrite your laws to imitate ours, dollarize your economy and you will be a happy nation. In a country where the only values and law come from our great leader, and where the real currency is already the dollar as can be observed with capital flight, the US message can only be seen with contempt by the leadership. Mr. Shapiro keeps his smile no matter what vulgarity Chavez throws at him on his Sunday monologues. Chavez's opposition, some probably wishing the Marines to land soon, is not adverse to criticize the US ambassador for his lack of pressure on Chavez. Mr. Shapiro must be doing something right.

But sometimes he does some bad moves. One was on a reception May 13 when a humorist came to the embassy party with a show of dubious taste . Another one was the visit to the newly minted Electoral Board, offering US technical assistance. This initiative, worthwhile certainly, was ill timed. It showed undiplomatic eagerness to have elections A.S.A.P., and this from a country that
was the laughing stock of the Western World during the Florida electoral
debacle.

The Italian Embassy

The new Italian ambassador did not have the leisure of a honey-moon period. Within a few weeks of his arrival Mr. Carante was concerned with two major threats to the Italian interests.

The first was a fight between the minority partners of DIGITEL, one of the three big wireless in Venezuela, and the majority stock owners, Telecom Italia Mobile (TIM). Well, TIM did experience the direct effect of the twisted Venezuelan judicial system when the minority partners were able to subject the majority owners to actions that in normal countries are reserved to the parties that lost a trial. The beauty of the Venezuelan system is that you do not really need a trial to ask for redress. Trials are such a cumbersome procedure when there are "other ways".

The second one was even worse. The Venezuelan oil monopoly, PDVSA, had developed a successful way to use heavy oil by emulsifying it in such a way as it can finally be sent through pipelines and tankers to be burnt, with minimum environmental concern, in power stations. Big contracts were written with Italy which invested heavily in retooling some of its power plants to accept Orimulsion, that emulsified shale oil.

Unfortunately for Italy the PDVSA strike resulted in firing most people that were involved with this high tech venture. The political hacks sent to replace the personnel are probably unable to keep the installation running. And even less to build new facilities to fulfill the contracts that PDVSA worked so hard at gaining (see Petroleumworld). The solution, in true Bolivarian Revolution spirit, was just to close down the facilities saying that it was a pet project of the corrupt PDVSA management that, thanks to our leader, has finally been fired.

The Italian Ambassador promptly visited the vice-presidency and from the podium of the Vice President press room, with the seal Vice Presidency in the background he demanded Venezuela to fulfill its contractual obligations. The Spanish was perhaps heavily italianated but the subliminal message was extremely clear for all: "Italy does not mix into your politics. Italy just wants to know if it is possible to do serious business in this joint. If not, Italy wants its money back."

The Italians might have invented Carnival and La Dolce Vita, but since the Medici bankers of the Renaissance, they have been dead serious with their money.

No official response so far from PDVSA except a lame "the decisions were not final" and "supply of Orimulsion is assured". Obviously the Italian ambassador did something right.

The French Embassy

Mr. Vandoorne had the misfortune to initiate his tenure at the helm of the French Embassy while the events of the December general strike were unfolding. He had another misfortune: his connections with some sectors of the intellectual left in France became public knowledge. But this might not be a misfortune. Apparently, France is doing brisk business with the Chavez administration. For example some French companies are getting some of the oil concessions that the Nationalist Bolivarian Revolution is giving away to private capital to try to bolster oil production in view of the troubled PDVSA production. If we can learn from the French experience in Africa, French have a gift to deal with unsavory regimes of all stripes. With the likely blessing of the Empire, of course, who cannot do everything everywhere.

But among the opposition to Chavez the embassy image is at its lowest. It all started during the December 2002 strike when the US, British, German and other embassies recalled their non-essential personnel. The French, according to an embassy communicate, were staying in solidarity with their Venezuelan friends, while Air France flights were full of families leaving for a longer than expected holiday break in France. Other faux-pas followed. A noted one came this last April 13. Chavistas called for a celebration of the first year of the restoration of Chavez's democracy. They invited a whole bunch of dubious intellectual and political personalities from the French left. This did not go down well since to this date the truth of the April 2002 events and its various crimes are far from solved, and the intention to clarify them even less certain than ever. One just needs to observe that suspicious acts of some of the April 2002 agents have been rewarded with high positions within the regime.

Press interviews were offered here and there by the Ambassador to clarify positions, only mucking them further. The lack of credibility by the French embassy kept growing as it is now deemed openly pro-Chavez. Incidents at the Bastille Day celebrations of July 14 at the French embassy hit the gossip columns with the same force as the US embassy May show hit the political columns.

This image degradation has even claimed an unfortunate victim. A "photography month" copied from the successful Paris similar event was organized by the French embassy in an attempt to at least play on the intellectual and cultural image of France. The noteworthy show, about to open all over Caracas, has been mired for two weeks in what is now the biggest cultural scandal in Venezuela since the subtraction of the Venezuelan Matisse last year. The reason was very silly. In their apparent desire to avoid controversy with Chavez and the opposition a few pictures from a photo-journalism exhibit were removed for being "too political" (imagine that!). And this after having been accepted by the curator. The screams of censorship of course have been littering the press, a censorship coming from France, of all places. This caused withdrawals from notable photographers, suspension of exhibit spaces, "alternative anti censorship exhibits", more murky press conferences, etc… and giving a perfect excuse for the Caracas Metro direction to exert its own censorship on the pictures of journalists from El Universal, a consistent critic of Chavez's policies that were going to be exhibited in some of the subway stations.

In the state of political excitement that Venezuela suffers, the French embassy seems to be digging a bigger hole for itself as days pass. The French ambassador surely is not doing something right.

Monday, September 22, 2003

IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT
(NOT by Cole Porter)

Monday 22, September 2003

We have had off track fireworks Saturday.

At around 1 AM a bomb exploded in the barracks close to Miraflores, in the parking lot of the military detachment that ensures the security of the presidential compound (and then more as we could see from the pictures but that is another story). The fire department was not allowed in and at 2 AM a group of soldiers was dispatched to clean up the street of any glass debris (and any possible evidence). Rumors of course went wild, not helped by the Interior Ministry whose head changed completely the “official” version through the day, none of them of course satisfactory whatsoever. The only thing that was discarded is the possibility that a passerby threw above the 10 feet plus wall a bomb powerful enough for the damage done. If that were true, Venezuela has at least one gold medal assured in Athens next year. Now the story seems to be that it was either of: “mishandling” of explosives (handling of explosives at midnight?) or a “terrorist” attack (at midnight, in one of the safest area of the compound? too far from Miraflores to do more than awaken the president? and with what kind of internal complicity to get there?). The reason is actually irrelevant since we will never know the what-s and why-s. After all we are waiting for the investigation results of so many more important explosions that have happened this past year….

The same day but at 11 PM this time a strange shooting happened at Plaza Altamira. The shots were exchanged between the DISIP (state secret police cum FBI) and the police department of the Chacao district. Plaza Altamira is of course the headquarters of the military dissidence that just never ends and seems everyday to serve less and less of a purpose. The curious aspect of this event is that the DISIP acted without a mandate to show, right after Chavez started one of his lengthy “cadenas”, thus making sure that no TV could show live the events from Plaza Altamira. Incidentally, this is not the first time that a “cadena” coincides with suspicious maneuvers from Chavez. At any rate, today still we do not know for sure what happened exactly and what were the reasons. The responsible official of the interior ministry. Mr. Azuaje, blandly said that the secret police did not have to justify its actions and covert operations needed not be reported, as if raiding the Plaza Altamira were a covert operation. From the other side the Mayor of Chacao the Chacao Police thought it was an abduction and that when everything was over, the DISIP promptly removed any evidence taking away officers hurt in a car crash while they were escaping.

What is interesting there is that the dissidents did indeed have a self defense plan that worked, that the DISIP came with a whole bunch of unidentified cars, that the neighbors got up and banged their pots and pan to make an awful racket, that the DISIP had no qualms to fire at the Chacao Police coming to the site to see what was going on, that the Chacao mayor came and was held at gun point briefly, etc… Many of these stories dressed with tales of Cuban accents among the DISIP guys.

And of course next day Chavez excoriated the Chacao Police and Mayor, obviously his next target after the Metropolitan Police has been done for last November.

What to make of all this? Clearly we have a government that does not even pretend to give credible accounts. In addition, the government is clearing testing the capacity of response of the opposition strongholds, which is the only way to interpret the Plaza Altamira events. At the same time it is trying to “create” events that will give itself some fake legal excuse to intervene organizations that do not agree with him.

If not glamorous, it is all quite simple.
ZIMBABWE AND VENEZUELA
a foot note for the preceeding post
Monday 22, September 2003

The New York Times has an editorial today on Zimbabwe, The Tyranny of Robert Mugabe. Mr. Mugabe is asked to resign, and the South African president is cited as the main reason why Mugabe is still in office. Interesting. Another Castro/Chavez tandem of sorts?

A sentence in the editorial catches one's attention: "The collapse of Zimbabwe is affecting all southern Africa". Just as the troubles with the chavista regime are starting to affect Middle America. Chavez in his paranoia is accusing the Dominican Republic to help former president Carlos Andres Perez plotting against him. As a clumsy pressure move, in spite of all the denials of a government which seems more serious than ours, Venezuela has stopped delivering oil to the Dominican Republic. The first instance in our history when we use oil as a deliberate pressure tool!!!! A sign of diplomatic weakness, definitely, the Venezuelan bully against the Dominican weakling.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

VENEZUELA AND ZIMBABWE
Saturday 20, September 2003

Sometimes pertinent opinion articles on Venezuela can come from the most unexpected places. In the August issue of National Geographic one car read a report on the agrarian reform that has been undertaken by the government of Robert Mugabe, now a 79 year old man, entrenched in power since independence, 23 years ago. What is rather surprising for a National Geographic article is that this one has a strange Op-Ed flavor, usually reserved by the editors for more ecological interests.

The article details how an unaccountably long dormant land reform is suddenly activated to get deliberately rid of perceived “opponents” and to favor directly, not to say shamelessly, political supporters. Along the way Zimbabwe loses its relative agricultural and food independence as the white colons, trusting enough to have remained in Zimbabwe after independence are not only dispossessed but, for all practical purpose, kicked out of the country. One should keep in mind that these type of political transitions are not concerned about helping the recipients to make good on their newly acquired land, as it seems to be verified again in Zimbabwe. What is a terrible indictment of Mr. Mugabe’s intentions is that a plan to proceed to an equitable re-distribution existed since independence and only his administration incompetence and political ambitions had delayed it until today’s sad outcome.

The results can be read in a September 14 article of the New York Times. With food and gas shortages, a 400%+ inflation, a 70% unemployment Mr. Mugabe now can find nothing better to do but close one of the last “opposition” papers that was still running, The Daily News. Of course, on some trumped up legality to try to preserve the image of a democratically elected leader. Today situation should come as no surprise. From early on after independence Mr. Mugabe has tried all sorts of tricks to preserve his presidential chair, starting early enough by trying to impose a one party state trying to integrate his minority allies from the independence war. With this type of mentality, it was to be expected that Mr. Mugabe former training, as a man of God, did not protect him from considering himself all-powerful.

What is eerie in this National Geographic article is that one could replace the words Zimbabwe with Venezuela and Mugabe with Chavez and some paragraphs could be used “as is” in writing an article on Venezuela on the same subject. Some of the real intentions in Chavez’s land reform schemes are just the same as Mugabe: punishment. Venezuela is now an urban country and the agricultural productive sectors are the targeted ones. The non-productive sectors but potentially productive, often held by the government, the states or the Army are not touched. Adequate investment does not necessarily follow land seizures and repartition, leaving the new tenants almost as poor as before while the farms taken go to seed. Or go into land development speculation schemes in the hand of chavista’s supporters. Indeed, a case can be made for some local land reform where a significant rural labor force still exists and could take over some areas, but land redistribution seems guided mostly by politics.

Although Venezuela is not nearly economically as bad as Zimbabwe is today, one cannot but wonder how long it will take until we drop to Zimbabwe’s level.

Friday, September 19, 2003

A SUMMARY PRESENTATION

Friday 19, September 2003

I had been working for a while on a presentation to summarize the economic results from the Chávez years. Thanks to a friend who is hosting it, and did the transfer from Power Point, I can now have it on the net. It is a summary of some of the economic data available in a format that I hope will show clearly the beating that we have been suffering since 2000.

One little glitch though! I must have been a victim of Power Point self-correction feature as all the Chávez appear as Chavéz. I just realized it when all the work was done. It is silly as usually I do not use accents. I hope the president will forgive me and I promise that someday we will fix it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

ELECTORAL CHESS
Wednesday 17, September 2003 (for the thrid time)

Last week the electoral council decided to invalidate the request for the recall election. It promised to handle this week the rules so that a new petition drive could be held. A preliminary document was offered for consideration to the political parties and an immediate outcry rose from the opposition, while even the some government supporters could not be totally satisfied with it.

Before getting into a lot of hand wringing and recrimination it would be best to consider a few facts to understand better what is at play here.

Article 72 of the 1999 constitution states clearly that any elected official can be subjected to a recall election petition if 20% of the electoral list signs for it, once the midterm of he office has been reached. Period. Well, not quite, 25% at least of voters must bother to vote and the votes for the ousting of the official must be greater than those that elected official got the first time. But these matter only if the petition is determined valid to ask for a recall election. So let's not worry about it for the time being.

Article 230 fixes the presidential term at 6 years with a single re-election immediately following the first term in office.

Article 233 states that if there is a vacancy in the presidential office, a new election must be held "to complete the constitutional term." However, if that vacancy occurs after the 4th year, the vice president will finish the term, no new election.

A recall election constitutes of course an immediate "vacancy" in the presidential chair.

Chavez assuredly reads the polls even if he denies it and denigrates them in public. If he were so sure to win we would have already voted! But the polls are lousy and he knows it will be a while until he can improve his numbers.

Polls are clear that the people want Chavez out. An agreement has been signed to reach an election of sorts to pacify the country. Foreign powers are watching, the OAS has a stake.

So, what to do?

1) Block at any rate the election, but with at least an external legal patina.

2) If an election cannot be blocked let's be sure it is at least after August 19, 2004. That way whoever is the vice president can continue to rule until 2006 and Chavez can try to come back then.

3) If an election cannot be postponed until August 2004 then let's try to make it impossible for the opposition to garner the votes on election day.

4) If everything fails, then real bloody violence will become a definite option.

Would you do anything else if you had Chavez thuggish mentality?

What is playing now at the CNE is a crass attempt to achieve as many advantages as possible to fulfill any of the above criteria when the time comes.

Right now several approaches are taken, ranging from only allowing political parties to petition for referenda, to making it difficult to raise signatures. Most of these initiatives violate some article of the constitution and thus will be bound to be appealed to the high court and thus favoring option 2. Discussing them in detail now is pointless since we must wait what will be the final outcome.

Political parties have screamed loud enough that the publication of the new norms announced for today had to be postponed until next Monday, which is something I was expecting and yelled at for even thinking of it! But spirits are really tense these days. One must not fall into the Chavez trap, to create a national commotion and thus allowing him to establish some form of state of exception, the ideal way for him to postpone ad infinitum the recall election. The opposition must keep a cool head. Now it is time to maneuver, there will be always a chance to kick the chessboard.
Wednesday 17/09/2003

I might be an incurable optimist but the CNE has decided to postpone until next Monday the publication of the recall election norms. The draft that was presented Monday was simply unacceptable. Yesterday the political parties made their observations and there has been a general outcry in the press. Obviously the CNE directors must cogitate a little bit more on these norms.

However there might be a simpler explanation: the directors legal counsel could not resist to that long ingrained habit of Venezuela to legislate on every single detail making many a new law inapplicable from the start, a little bit like missing the forest for the trees. If to that you had the desire to make life difficult for the opposition, no wonder the first draft was such a blooper!
THE END OF DEMOCRACY?
Wednesday 17, September


A lot is going on with the electoral system these days. The electoral council, CNE, seems on the verge to basically make a legal coup that would postpone any recall election until the middle of next year at best, based on arguments that are a violation of the 1999 constitution. It seems that some major decisions are to be handed today. We'll see. I still hope that some common sense will prevail. It is OK to make it difficult for a recall election to take place but it is not OK to make it nearly impossible. The objective there is of course to hold an eventual recall election AFTER August 19 2004, making the current vice president serve the end of the term. That of course would ensure chavista rule until 2006.

But that is not the worse problem. If the current CNE accepts the "orders from above" then it will likely trick the electoral system to favor chavista candidates in local elections (2004), National Assembly elections (2005) and the presidential one in 2006. The "legal" end of democracy in Venezuela seems at hand.

I am on the road. I will write a summary ASAP.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

A NOT SO GOOD ARTICLE FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES

September 13, 2003
Mr. Forero does it again

In December the NYT brought Juan Forero to cover Venezuela. His very first missives seemed to be closer to the mark than the original NYT corespondents that missed the point completely. Alas! Soon enough Mr. Forero revealed himself to be a cryptic pro-Chavez groupie. Lately he seems to have tried to be a little bit more objective. Perhaps the NYT received enough complaints? Yet for all his efforts Mr. Forero cannot help it and messes up any potentially good article with a single sentence. Today’s offering is a very good example.

Mr. Forero report on Friday’s annulment of the recall election drive is rather good. That is, until you reach these two gems:

Opinion surveys by organizations linked to the opposition say Venezuelans would vote 2 to 1 against Mr. Chávez.

And

A referendum is seen by opposition figures and the Bush administration as the best solution to the political turmoil that has gripped this oil-rich country.

In item one Mr. Forero seems to imply that any polling organization that predicts a 2 to 1 against Chavez is tied with the opposition. Mr. Forero would be well advised to read the back issues of Venezuelan papers where these same pollsters predicted rather accurately the Chavez 1998 election and his re-election of 2000. And if Mr. Forero doubts Venezuelan pollsters he could check the US ones that are giving very similar results.

The second item is downright silly. The opposition leaders that want recall election are tied to President Bush? Mr. Bush is pulling a California on Chavez as an unfortunate Davis? Or perhaps Mr. Forero means to say that the “good” opposition, say, the one tied to Al Sharpton, would rather suffer the Venezuelan mess, recession, chaos, violence, insecurity and what not until 2006, with the illusory hope that after almost 5 years in office Chavez will finally have learned to govern the country effectively.

The real question actually is how come the New York Times editorials on Venezuela are rather severe on Mr. Chavez while Mr. Forero’s productions are supportive. What kind of twisted objectivity takes place in the NYT editorial offices? Or does the NYT editor even read his own paper?
A good LA Times Editorial on the need for a recall election

September 12 issue
To the South, a Good Recall (*)

Venezuela's a mess, economically, socially and politically, and matters will only worsen unless President Hugo Chavez and his opponents can agree on a democratic solution. That relief — the resolution of a national crisis that already has prompted one unsuccessful coup — is in the Venezuelan Constitution. It allows for a national recall election. As Californians know all too well, this electoral option poses its own grave challenges.

In Caracas, there doesn't seem to be much choice, especially given the violence and unrest and if the nation's economy keeps tanking. In the first half of 2003, nonoil economic activity contracted 14.7%, with huge drops in construction (minus 61.9%), commerce (minus 23.6%) and manufacturing (minus 22.5%). Tight foreign-currency controls imposed by Chavez's regime have forced foreign firms like General Motors, Ford, Procter & Gamble and others to dig into their reserves. Now, they're running huge deficits with their parent firms and suppliers. Venezuela's gross domestic product shrank 29% in the first quarter of 2003.

Venezuela fares poorly on the social and political fronts too. Class warfare is common, and the frequent, violent clashes between government sympathizers and the opposition — including shootings and bombings — have ripped apart the nation's society.

The prospective recall is the best way forward for Venezuela, according to the Organization of American States, the Carter Center in Atlanta, the United Nations and countries including Brazil, Mexico and the United States. They note that this process is provided for in the constitution, commissioned by Chavez and endorsed by the voters in 1999. Unlike in California, the leader must serve more than half his six-year term before opponents can try to oust him; he can be recalled only if more people vote to recall him than voted for him in his last election; and if recalled, he could run again as a candidate in the subsequent presidential election.

Though there are questions about the recall petitions and process — questions being contested now — public opinion clearly has turned against Chavez, with polls showing he would lose an election by a 2-to-1 ratio. Chavez jokes about how a recall may be appropriate for California but not for his country. He may be hoping for a delay to better position his equally unpopular vice president as his successor.

None of this helps his beleaguered people or his staggering country. For their sake, Chavez should submit himself anew to a fair, democratic vote. If he loses, he must go; if he wins, he should join with his foes in an effort to swiftly put the tattered nation back together.

(*) This editorial was translated into Spanish and published in El Nacional today, September 13. Unfortunately, El Nacional is a pay access site now, leaving only El Universal as the free access Venezuelan main newspaper.

Friday, September 12, 2003

EL REVOCATORIO (VII)
Back to the drawing board (hopefully!)

Friday 12, September 2003

As was expected since early in the week, the petition for the recall election was denied on two points:

1) Collection time out of place, before the date at which the recall election can be requested.
This is troubling because how could you request legally a recall election on the first day of that "constitutional right"
if you have not been able to collect the signatures of 20% of the electorate?


2) The petition was not well drafted.
This mean that the petitioners were "demanding" a recall election when according to the constitution they can only request the electoral council, CNE, to convoke for a recall election based on the signatures presented. This was Chavez's main argument, as if the people that did not approve of his rule on February 2 were to have changed their mind after a terrible depression and a punishing, not to say vengeful, currency exchange control.

This had been already announced from within the opposition and this is why the Coordinadora Democratica, CD, already tonight announced that the “Reafirmazo” will be held on October 5. It is an interesting play on words from “El Firmazo”, “The Big Signature” which becomes “The Reaffirmation”.

So far so good, in a sick way. These legalistic ploys used to deny the will of the people were expected. It was hoped that the new CNE would have weighted more the political notorious popular movement of February 2 when more than a million of people signed in a single day. But if El Firmazo will not give right now the recall election, it remains that it allowed the opposition to extricate itself from what had become an interminable and useless general strike; while demonstrating to the world that indeed people were willing to take a democratic stance against Chavez, en masse.

However, there are some strange clouds over the day. The new president of the CNE had an almost angry tone when he read the decision, almost a rancorous stance against the opposition arguments that he took great pains (and pleasure?) to refute publicly. The decision was 3 to 2, as expected, but the unnaturally impassive faces of the other 4 parties did reflect the tensions that are already taking place within the 5 directors. In fact the 2 dissident opinion refused to declare today and promised a script later this week. They seemed to try to avoid further tensions within the CNE.

What was more worrisome was that Carrasquero, the president of the CNE, went out of his way, and duties, to criticize Sumate and say that he would not accept signatures collated by Sumate, making it a third reason to invalidate the recall election petition. This does reflect perfectly the position of the Vice President that wants to disqualify Sumate as a way to slow down any new signature recollection. The specious argument was that Sumate was not an NGO or a political party. That around 400 “representative groups” supported Sumate in delivering the signatures seems irrelevant for Carrasquero. But this is rather silly since Sumate can be easily dismantled and rebuilt in a different guise. Or it can turn in all the signatures to a group of political parties for them to bring to the CNE. One wonders what obscure interests is the CNE president suddenly following. At least now it is clear that he is not as impartial as some people would have liked him to be.

Still, there was a slightly encouraging note. The CNE promised to deliver by the middle of next week the rules on how to call for a referendum. In the scandalous draft that was leaked a couple of days ago it was written that the CNE was going to wait for a few weeks before issuing the rules. The CD simply said that you cannot invalidate a petition if you do not offer at the same time the format to make them. It seems that the logic hit home and the CNE decided not to look so brashly biased. It will surely look for other ways to slow down the signature collection process but at least we should know what are the new hurdles to jump.

The game is just starting.
THE CREDIBILITY GAP
Friday September 12, 2003

Who to believe in Venezuela? Obviously, politicians in most countries are not to be taken at face value. Still, there is a certain coherence, a certain pattern to state things that allows the general public to establish whether a minimum amount of trust can be invested in the politician requesting one’s vote.

One of the problems we have in Venezuela is that politicians from both sides suffer from a considerable credibility gap. Let’s examine two personalities who albeit diametrically opposed in every aspect, are equally less credible.

Juan Barreto, the media "expert" of Chavez

Before Chavez Mr. Barreto was certainly was not a media heavy weight, although he cuts a rather heavy figure himself.

With the Bolivarian Revolution, he got involved in the supervision and management of parts of the communicational policies of the government. Among other failures was “El Correo del Presidente”, the “President’s Courier”. This newspaper did not survive long, although it was distributed free. Gossip has that people would not pick up to read the directives of the great leader. Other attempts at establishing a “bolivarian” weekly paper did not fare any better, and the fact is that for all his communicational alleged talents, Mr. Barreto has not being able to set up a decent sheet that people would be willing to read.

This did not stop him to get a notorious career as an elected representative to the National Assembly. We can thank him for many a colorful moment from the Assembly. He has pushed his weight into any commission that has to deal with media and communications. He is the paramount manager of the presently discussed “Ley Mordaza”, “gag law”, whose thinly veiled aim is to at least partially shut down the incessant exposition of governmental failures by the independent media. The excuse? Protect children sensibilities until 11 PM.

The events since April 11 2002 have greatly helped him to overcome his less than stellar performance. He was one of the principal “prosecutors” in the hearings of the National Assembly, more worried about humiliating the opposition participants than getting any true information out of them. He also showed a liking for all sorts of videos “from the real People” that supposedly proved without a doubt things that he was the only one to see in these videos. The blurrier the video, the better.

These hearings lead nowhere, and when in August 2002 the Supreme Tribunal ruled that there was no coup in April 11, but a power vacuum, Mr. Barreto gleefully directed a “popular and spontaneous” assault attempt against the high court. In perhaps his most memorable moment he verbally attacked an opposition party with words unfit for this family oriented publication, though they made it on TV news. Let’s just say that he unflatteringly discussed their alleged sexual orientation. One has to wonder what this has to do with the assault of the high court with a street mob.

But Mr. Barreto has run into some trouble since these days. Or has he? It turns out that he has been rumored consistently as having experienced a considerable improvement of his living standards. One gossip would be that he traded his former apartment in El Valle, a low middle class neighborhood for a significantly more upscale one in El Rosal, the up and coming area. Another gossip says that he won a bank prize because there was a lot of “movement” in his savings account. People sure are mean.

Another interesting incident came from an alleged chauffeur of him conveniently reporting of his new luxuries. This chauffeur was later found a fraud but curiously has not been arrested and was rumored to be working for the Revolution at a more discrete position. The latest stroke of fate was two weeks ago when hand grenade was thrown shortly before dawn under Mr. Barreto’s car. Of course one would never wished such a thing on somebody but after a few hours of reflection one cannot but wonder. The grenade inflicted very limited damage to the car, which incidentally was a rather new expensive SUV. The time and place were the best to make sure nobody would be hurt by accident. And Mr. Barreto was sleeping in the building, his old El Valle building. How convenient it is to be the target of an attack while sleeping where one was not supposed to be sleeping for quite a while, no? Forgive my suspicions, but they actually came when Mr. Barreto “demanded” that the state act diligently in the prosecution, in front of a live TV camera. Perhaps somebody should remind him that since April 11 2002 a lot of people have been demanding the establishment of a truth commission that he has helped block… On Monday September 1, Reporte de la Economia reported his El Valle neighbors saying he was long gone from the area, having bought an apartment “en el Este”, where well to do Caraquenos live. However, the apartment is still under his name. He probably was there that night packing a few items left behind. What bad luck to be bombed just that night.


Cecilia Sosa, a legal "expert" of the opposition

Cecilia Sosa reached fame when she became the head of the high court. In such a job she was the one that witnessed the transfer of power from Rafael Caldera to Hugo Chavez on February 1999. She certainly must have had a distinguished career as a lawyer to reach such a position in a rather machista country, a country where justice is not in saintly odor.

Right after Chavez was sworn in he emitted a controversial decree calling for a consultative referendum for calling a constituent assembly. Well, this legal figure was not contemplated in the 1961 constitution, and the decree was just plainly illegal. The best solution would have been for the high court to rule so and to ask for a speedy change in the constitution to allow such a figure. But in the face of Chavez electoral triumph and the concomitant spectacular collapse of the political parties supposed to organize an opposition, the court caved in and ruled in a way that was not clear at all. One that wrote the decision is today’s head of High Court. Where was Mrs. Sosa during all these intense legal debates? She had inhibited herself supposedly because she had emitted a previous opinion in public. She already seemed to have been rather big mouthed for a Supreme Justice!

The referendum took place and Chavez got his constitutional assembly. But a few days before the election on July 5 the old Congress had its independence day ceremonies. The ceremonial speaker actually delivered a very inappropriate discourse attacking Chavez in a way that, if justified, was at the very least misplaced. At some point the speaker asked the judicial power formally represented by Mrs. Sosa to act on Chavez faults and prosecute him. Mrs. Sosa, previously greeted by Chavez with a kiss stood up and left the session creating a certain commotion.

Whether she was trying to ingratiate herself with the chavista movement it did not help. With the new constitution she was swept away and one of her underlings replaces her to this day.

One would have expected that Mrs. Sosa would have returned to law practice. Instead she joined the opposition as one of its more outspoken personages. Some have not hesitated at qualifying as a “golpista” coup monger. Strange after having all but favored the legal referendum coup of Chavez. During the general strike she was a regular on TV, pretty much calling people to the barricades, though I do not recall her having led any of the marches against Chavez. Perhaps having reinvented herself as the iron right wing lawyer has made the media forgive her previous compromising “absences”. She even lets herself be mentioned as a possible presidential candidate against Chavez. Right wing of course.

One cannot help but wonder about where does Mrs. Sosa really stands up. Or wonder even more about why a sector of the opposition is willing to consider her as her anti Chavez flag carrier. What makes them think she might be effective considering that when she had a chance to risk her career and do something to at least slow the damages that Chavez was doing to the institutions she just sat tight? One really wonders what is going on there.

The presence of so many Barretos and Sosas in the political establishment certainly contributes to the lack of credibility that the two sides enjoy. The real mystery is why they still manage to catch so much attention when obviously they have nothing to say.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

EL REVOCATORIO (VI)
What is a valid signature?

Wednesday 10, September 2003

This morning talk shows and papers are abuzz with the distinct possibility that the electoral council, CNE, is about to invalidate the recall election petition. This should not be a surprise as many people predicted it from within the ranks of the opposition itself. Indeed it was a heady debate before August 20 as to what to do with the signatures collected in February 2: submit them or wait for the new CNE to collect them again? These signatures were vulnerable to delay tactics from the Chavez administration (collected too early, no finger prints, no supervision, and what not). The opposition decided still to submit the signatures to the CNE. If anything, this probably accelerated the resolve of the High Court to name the new CNE. The judicial imbroglio that would have followed submission of the signatures to a “temporary” CNE was too daunting for the High Court. Better replace the old CNE with a new one and let them deal with it.

Now things have changed. The CNE named late August is now legally recognized by all (if questioned by many). As an independent power under the 1999 constitution it is now the only umpire of the political situation, for good or bad. If it decides to validate the petition, then Chavez will have to provide the means for the referendum. If it does not validate the petition it will have to hand at the same time the protocol on how electoral petitions signatures must be collected and how the questions must be drafted. Then the opposition will have to collect the signatures again and all the government excuses will be over.

A win-win situation? Might just be.

In all the brouhaha that emanates from the government, there is a direct single objective, delay or annul the recall election. There is one thing though that cannot be hidden: it was for all to see on February 2 that people stood in line, sometime for hours under the sun, to sign a recall election petition. This is a “notorious” fact and thus exempt of any “impeachment”. The will of the people has been expressed and the CNE can only delay that expression by creating the legal framework. Instead of having the referendum in December this year we will have it in January or February. Anything else will be an attack on the constitution and the civil rights of the people. It does not matter how Chavez lawyers tweak the laws: the signatures are valid, no matter what, even if the collection form is not valid.

But these delaying strategies might be very counterproductive for the Chavez administration. By successfully lobbying to have the original petition voided, they expose themselves to the opposition organizing an even bigger and better “Firmazo” that this time will be observed closely by all sorts of foreign correspondents. If the opposition is able to collect 3-4 million signatures in a few days, what better platform to launch the recall election campaign? How could Chavez explain to the world that millions in the street exerting peacefully their constitutional rights are reckless lawbreakers?

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?

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