Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Miguel translates the more than likely truth on PDVSA

December 31!! 2003

Today is going to be a little hectic so I am going to thank Miguel from having provided the translation of an article from Jose Toro Hardy, a former director of PDVSA and arguably one of the most knowledgeable people in the business. For some reason I did not read El Universal yesterday otherwise I might have translated it too... Anyway, thanks Miguel, that way I can move on and get ready for tonight's activities :-)
The original article, in Spanish if you prefer.

In case I do not post anymore today, a Happy New Year to all, and may we get the Recall Election by May 15 at the latest!

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Raspando la olla
Brother, can you spare a billion?

Tuesday 30, December 2003

The title refers to a Venezuelan saying, of scratching the pan to try to get one very last crumb. As the end of the year is approaching, everyday it looks more and more that Chavez is trying to use the Year End political pseudo-lull to push a few initiatives and get some extra cents for any future political contest he might have to undertake (if forced, of course). So far he is succeeding, since the opposition is strangely silent on two rather, by any standard, questionable moves.

Last Saturday I wrote on the PDVSA refineries sales. Besides Ledesma I have not read much outrage. Does the opposition knows something that we do not know? Meanwhile with all due cynicism Chavez in his weekly perorata says:

"How much is the refinery worth? $1 billion or $1.2 billion? I do not know. We will know when the appraisal is ready. By depositing this money in a bank, we may have bigger earnings from U.S. dollar-denominated interests."

"What returns are we obtaining from the refinery? Nothing. They [former Pdvsa managers] made this business there (in Germany) and spent millions and millions of dollars, supposedly to supply the refinery with Venezuelan oil, to open markets for oil refining and sales in Germany. But this refinery does not process Venezuelan oil. It is in the other side of the world, and buys crude oil from Saudi Arabia, the Middle East or Russia."

1) Clearly Chavez demonstrates his lack of investment savvy. Anyone that has looked at interests paid by US banks lately knows that owning a refinery can only pay higher dividends these days...

2) But this is not the point, Chavez is justifying himself to his electoral base that only knows the interests rates paid by Venezuelan banks, floating between 10 and 20% with an inflation of between 20 and 30%. Since they believe whatever he says and do not know better, Chavez is covering his back exploiting once again the gullibility of his political base.

As for the commercial validity of the argument, I have addressed it already Saturday.

The other item is more complex: yet again a naked attempt at grabbing control of the Venezuelan Central Bank (whose directorate he named by the way, but who have shown a sense of responsibility and independence that the caudillo cannot tolerate, in particular if he needs cash). I quote from El Universal:

===
The President on Sunday demanded the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) to give his administration $1 billion from the country's international reserves to fund agriculture projects.

During his weekly radio and TV show "Alo, Presidente! Chavez challenged BCV directors and officials by reminding them that he implemented a "cleansing" process in the state-run oil conglomerate Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (Pdvsa) because the oil corporation's directors were antagonistic to Chavez.

"In the Central Bank there is still a neo-liberal current, just as there was in Pdvsa. Several months ago, when I started addressing this issue [requesting $1 billion for investment in agriculture], they [BCV staff] claimed they were going to halt BCV activities and launch a strike... I am fine with that. If you go on strike, I am going to order an intervention [in BCV] similar to that in Pdvsa!"

He insisted in urging BCV directors to cooperate with the financing of agriculture activities in Venezuela, claiming that "BCV has an obligation to support the Constitution."

"This is not a threat. I am only fulfilling my obligation. I am telling you: If two weeks of January elapse and we have no answer from BCV, I am going to appeal to the Supreme Court of Justice" he warned.

"BCV is supposed to manage (Venezuela's) revenues, mostly from oil sales. BCV is autonomous, but it is not actually autonomous. The rules governing BCV are dictated by transnational powers contrary to the interests of the country," Chavez said, suggesting that BCV blindly obeys orders from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
===

I really do not need to comment on this, words speak by themselves.

I will just add for a more complete information of the reader that the president of the BCV has shown all desire to collaborate "according" to the established laws. In particular it has offered financing schemes for the agriculture using private banking backed by the Central Bank. But stating that as an institution the BCV was forced to keep some reserves that could not be used by the administration as petty cash. This really is what irritates Chavez, in particular when the currency exchange control is coming under more and more criticism from the Central Bank who contemplates a very painful devaluation if the governmental policies continue. They are doing their job, but Chavez can only accept that any branch of the state do HIS job. Meanwhile one of the directors of the BCV has declared that he had no problem to go to court to settle the differences between Chavez views and the law, which I am sure must have made Chavez cringe.

All of this is just a show to create an excuse to intervene one of the very few institutions that still eludes Chavez's control. The strong words, and lies, used by Chavez are for all to read, and weep.

Meanwhile, where the heck is the opposition?

Monday, December 29, 2003

Letters to the Editor: The Venezuelan ambassador writes to the Washington
Post

And so does Georgetown University...

Monday 29, December 2003

On December 14 The Washington Post published an excellent editorial on Venezuela. The link is gone now, but I have copied it Sunday 12/14.

Now, this has generated two letters to the editor. The first one is from the ambassador of Venezuela himself. I post it with my comments (red: Mr. Alvarez, purple: my comments)

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The Dec. 14 editorial "Eye on Mr. Chavez" about Venezuela stated as fact the opposition's claim to have gathered 3.5 million signatures calling for a recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez. But the leaders of the opposition have yet to turn the petitions over to the National Electoral Council. Nor has the Organization of American States or the Carter Center or the media seen the signatures.

And this is written by an ambassador? Perhaps the Post delayed the publication (mischievously on purpose?) but 3.4 million signatures were handed in on Friday 19. The ambassador HAD TO KNOW that the opposition would be handing the signatures, even if they were fake or invalid!

As for the unfortunate comment on the OAS or the Carter Center. It is not their business to verify the signatures. What the ambassador tries disingenuously is to make people forget is that the OAS and the Carter Center have stated that the collection process proceeded in a normal and regular fashion. A well known tactic.

The editorial also said that Mr. Chavez "triggered an ultimately unsuccessful coup against himself by ordering police and the military to attack opposition demonstrations." The Post used an unsubstantiated claim to justify a military coup against a democratically elected government. More than 50 people were killed, and the coup leaders dissolved the country's democratic institutions, including the Congress and the Supreme Court.

Yeah, well, same old story. The "unsubstantiated claim" is actually quite substantiated: there is a tape where Chavez is heard trying to make the Army take position in Plan Avila, a military provision that would have allowed the armed forces to shoot the marchers on April 11 2002. I am not sure exactly what was triggered after the military received that unscrupulous order, but it was not certainly to Carmona that Chavez was radioing that day...

Finally, the editorial alleged that Mr. Chavez is dismantling Venezuela's democracy. Every change that our government has made since 1998 has been accomplished using peaceful and constitutional means. Hugo Chavez has twice been elected in voting internationally recognized as free and fair.

You can read the editorial of the Post and this last item is not questioned. What is questioned, and the ambassador knows it quite well, are the recent attempts at ending whatever is left of the independence in the judicial power. Not to mention curtailing the freedom of expression, the recent seizure of Globovision transmission equipment as the latest example.

This is in sharp contrast to the opposition, which has staged a bloody coup attempt and several economically devastating oil strikes in hopes of unseating a democratically elected president.

Several oil strikes? Please! The first one was a worker strike (2000) when Chavez reneged the government obligations. This is the strike that created Carlos Ortega, and it was at a time where Chavez was riding high in the polls. The other was the 2002/2003 strike of known results. That last one was certainly to unseat Chavez, but by then the poll numbers of Chavez had changed. It is just like chavista paranoia to try to put all together as an immense conspiration that predates whatever it needs to predate, according to the needs of the moment.

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA

Ambassador, Embassy of Venezuela, Washington


Yep, this is our ambassador in Washington. I am not sure who he is trying to fool, but surely not the folks at the Post.

=== === ===

The other letter is quite a piece of work from somebody that I know nothing of but that supposedly does independent and objective research at Georgetown University, which has an important department for foreign affairs. I am quoting the part that does not reflect what is already stated in the ambassador letter. Purple, my comments.

The editorial also said that Mr. Chavez "triggered an ultimately unsuccessful coup against himself by ordering police and the military to attack opposition demonstrations." The coup has been shown to be a well-organized right-wing effort with questionable democratic credentials. Further, members of the metropolitan police -- under the command of the mayor of Caracas and prominent Chavez opponent Alfredo Peña -- did most of the killing.

Umm... And the proofs are? It is astounding to me that a faculty member (?) of Georgetown University is not aware (or does not want to be aware?) that no independent "commission of truth" has been installed, a tool used in several South American countries emerging from deep political traumas. The Chavez administration and Chavez controlled National Assembly have sabotaged any serious attempt at finding the real truth, preferring the pro-Chavez courts of Aragua State to do their deed, that is proving "innocent" the Llaguno shooters and trying to make guilty a few cops of "la Metropolitana" (and Peña what? If his cops are guilty how come he is not on trial?) For all that I know the charges leveled by the letter could be right, but right now they are NO MORE credible than what the Post writes.

Mr. Chavez should respect the will of the majority should it choose to revoke his presidential mandate, just as the opposition should respect the will of Chavez supporters who choose to do the same to opposition lawmakers (government supporters gathered more than 2.6 million signatures, enough to call a referendum on 37 opposition lawmakers). This, though, does not justify The Post offering farfetched allegations and rumors as fact.

And the point is? How come the letter mentions ONLY the total gathered by the government who finished their slow tabulation just as the opposition finished its own tabulation? Is this coming from the law department or the foreign department of Georgetown?

MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE

Center for Latin American Studies, Edmund A. Walsh
School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University


I have no idea who the writer is, but his letter seems to match too well the one from the ambassador. Coincidence? I will let the reader speculate on the objectivity presented in that letter.

=== === ===

But this was not all. The page of the Post gives two paid advertisement links. One is for Venezuelan coffee; the other for Venezuelanalysis.com. This last site is little more than a propaganda machine for the Venezuelan government. That it is so is simply confirmed by "someone" paying to advertise it in the Washington Post (according to an explanation link). As far as I know I do not see real news agencies such as AP advertising in the Post web pages...

Really, when the history of the Chavez propaganda machine will finally be revealed I am sure that a few surprises are in store for us. I, for one, cannot wait to see who paid what to whom to say what.

=== === ===
Note added 24 hours later (first time I do edit a post of mine except for an occasional glaring grammatical mistake, I am very strict at standing by my words once posted):

I did a quick Google search on Martin AUSTERMUHLE. It turns out that he is a Master´s student at Georgetown. Nothing wrong with that of course, and nothing wrong writing to the Post as a Graduate Student. However, the Post did a mistake in not checking out Martin before. The way he is introduced anyone could be led to think that he was some authority from Georgetown. I did sense that something was odd in his letter to the editor and I did put a question mark (?) when I qualified him as a faculty member. My intuition was right and I should not have trusted the Post on the credentials published. My mistake, I will be more careful next time, even if magic words like "Harvard" appear.

Still, obviously Mr. Austermuhle needs to do more homework on Venezuela. And Georgetown University might want to make sure that its Graduate Students do not speak in its name.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

PDVSA 's refineries backyard sale
The Dowager sells the heirlooms

Saturday 27, December 2003

The State Oil Company, PDVSA, is acting like one of these old dowager from European Aristocracy that start pulling stones from their old tiara, to sell them to keep food on the table.

During the Christmas lull we became quite a ware of the real reasons of the visit of the Russian Foreign Minister early this week, incidentally on the same day as Castro. I quote from El Universal English page summary:

State-owned oil conglomerate Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) and Russian corporation Alfa Group signed a letter of intent aimed at selling PDVSA's stake in the refinery Ruhr Oel GmbH (ROG), located in Germany, to the Russian firm. The refinery was bought as part of PDVSA's globalization strategy, which was launched in 1983.

Detailed articles elsewhere reveal that one of the reasons that PDVSA is selling is that it cannot supply its own refinery in Germany. Why is it so? PDVSA states that because it is too far and Russian oil increases the refinery dividends. The set of refineries in Germany is purported to have a very good profit margin, even with Russian oil. So why sell?

The real reasons are very simple.

1) PDVSA lacks the managerial skills to rule a far flung empire. These skills were lost when Chavez had PDVSA upper management fired in January 2003. It is not easy to hire people that are able to manage the complexities of a state company that is in the middle of a political battle. People that would be able to do so demand premium salaries, clear accounting, and a certain freedom in their maneuvering. These things the current directorate of PDVSA is unable or unwilling to provide. An anecdote comes back to mind: in the first post strike major oil meeting in Houston, attendants were surprised to notice that the new management of PDVSA had a rather weak command of English. Certainly, the political hacks placed after the strike are for the most part unable to supervise PDVSA investments in Germany (or anywhere else probably, in my opinion).

2) The sale of the Ruhr Oel refineries is also the acknowledgement that PDVSA knows that it will not be able to maintain satisfactory levels of production as a consequence of the 2002-2003 strike. Mass firing of middle management and technical folks has generated a loss of maintenance and productive capacity that is very hard to reverse. To do so, assuming that the business and political decision has been made in PDVSA, will require gigantic investments that are not in the coffers these days. Only the sale of a few assets could bring the capital necessary for new drills and old oil-wells restoration. Will this work? I doubt it very much. The Chavez administration is hard pressed for cash to satisfy its populist agenda and try to remain in office were a Recall Election to take place. Or even looking forward the 2005 and 2006 electoral dates if the Recall Election were to be voided. What has carved a financial black hole in the accounts of PDVSA is the inextinguishable thirst for more and more cash by the Chavez administration, which has dug even deeper in PDVSA than previous administrations. Any monies collected from the Russian are likely to be directed in ineffectual social programs and the corruption that accompanies them.

An excellent full report on how the Venezuelan economy is mismanaged is published today in El Universal, and in English! It comes form the research of Leandro Vera, a noted economist, on how Chavez uses debt to stay afloat and the direct consequences on our economy. I recommend reading it and I will quote the part pertinent to what is written above: "an increasingly greater deviation of PDVSA cash flow to the public sector has eventually favored debt holders, and has left the country's oil industry without capacity to grow or expand in the future. This has opened the door, perhaps inadvertently, for a bigger penetration of transnational corporations." So Chavez, the champion of anti globalization folks, might end up selling PDVSA to multinationals in order to keep money coming into his pockets. You must love the irony1

All reports seem to indicate that PDVSA is not recovering, as the government would like us to believe. The PDVSA management is doing the only thing it can do: recognize its failure, albeit indirectly, by curtailing its properties to a more manageable consortium. After all, the only thing that Chavez cares is that enough oil reaches the US to keep it quiet. And to get enough money to manage his electoral base. I think it is called short term vision, but that happens when those in power have neither the education or intelligence to understand how the world works. Or just care about what commissions they can cash in while they are in office.

A few months ago I wrote a series of articles on PDVSA, the Queen of our Venezuelan companies. I am sorry to report that my predictions might come to pass sooner than later.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The Christmas post

Wednesday 24, December 2003

'twas the night before Christmas

Well, in Venezuela it is the night. The 25 is better described as hang-over recuperation period while kids play with their new and sometime "noisy" toys.

Christmas at home are much simpler than they used to be. Aging parents, married siblings having to juggle different holidays in different families, relatives and friends leaving Venezuela for long vacations (or for good). Gone are the days when up to 40 people showed up and where dancing lasted until the wee hours.

We will only be 7 tonight and instead visit each other family group over the next few days (eating left overs?). Still, it does feel like Christmas anyway, in spite of the very low firecrackers decibel level this year, courtesy of the street dollar value.

At home we did hallacas yesterday, a rather rare activity since my parents are from Europe. So tonight we will have an unusual good mix of all sorts of food from the new and the old countries. Not that we do not like Venezuela fare! Far from it! We eat hallacas or pan de jamon almost every day from mid December until January 6, our official Christmas end at home, on Epiphany. But Christmas eve was old country on the table.

The nice thing about Venezuelan holidays is that they have two big bangs, on the 24 and 31, and they slowly peter out until January 6 when the Kings bring a few extra goodies (some people keep teir lights up until February 2, La Virgen de la Candelaria). When I lived in the US I was always a little bit taken aback when on December 26 the parking lot of K-mart was already shredding Christmas trees. Such a cold shower... Here I will have gaitas and some Christmas tunes all the way until New Year. Actually we have several traditional songs written for the New Year!

Maybe there is a clue there as to why we like to extend our political conflicts for such long periods...

Have a good Christmas and thanks for the best wishes received. May the next year bring more hope to my country and the best in your countries.

Monday, December 22, 2003

NOT A MINUTE OF PEACE!

Monday 22, December 2003

So there I am hoping from some quiet on the political front, a Christmas truce, but no such luck. There is only so much cynicism that a blogger can tolerate. Back to blog!

The thumb print affair (Saturday)

In yet another dilatory move, the minister of public works, Diosdado Cabello, went personally to the Electoral Board (CNE) to demand that the finger prints of every signature is checked. Let's pass on the facts that the rules only contemplate use finger prints in cases of a contested signature, that it would be too long and expensive, that the rules agreed by all did not demand finger print revision, and most importantly that there is no a good database of Venezuelan finger prints to do the job even if all wanted it and provided the funds and people for it.

What is truly an insult to intelligence is that among many hats worn by Diosdado since Chavez came to office one was to direct the ministry in charge of establishing Venezuelan ID, and presumably to collect thumb prints and create a database. If there is anyone in Venezuela that should know what a disaster is the "Ministerio del Interior" is Diosdado. He knows how impossible it is to do such a job, even just for contested areas like Tachira, in a timely fashion. But no journalist (that I know of) did ask him at his press conference if during his tenure he had worked at improving the data base that he demands now the CNE to use. Though that would probably not have shut up his big mouth, he is one of the really hard noses of the administration, only surpassed by the Vice.

Really, they do not know what to invent to annul the signatures! Signing has become much more difficult than voting! I can see what voting in Venezuela will become if Diosdado gets his way: just like the pre-Iraq invasion referendum on the rule of Saddam when people signed with their blood to vote for Saddam. Incidentally that "referendum" was won by 100% of the vote. I suppose that Diosdado would not contest such a result.

Lunch with Chavez (Monday)

With a sense of timing defying description, Chavez announced that he had invited Castro for lunch to discuss bilateral matters, "in a new way, not like that neo-liberal way to deal between nations" or some such nonsense. Among other things they would discuss progress on the oil program with Cuba (the big subsidy that made Venezuela replace the USSR in survival aid to Castro). They would also discuss the progress of Barrio Adentro, the program where Cuban doctors treat the poor. "Castro unfortunately would not have time to inspect personally." (And miss such a PR opportunity? Pleaaase........)

I think I will stop enumerating the excuses for such a luncheon (apparently a luncheon at the beach at that if we are to believe Miguel report on this). The real reason of the meeting is just the same one that is found in all those authoritarian rulers that we have had: " 'cause I said so!". What Chavez really wants is to see Castro to get some "moral support" from Castro (and yet a new meaning for "moral"!). And perhaps plan something together to counter the opposition advantage. Two fine democrats discussing elections, you gotta love it!

The cynicism at inviting right now, when a recall election hangs on Chavez head, the longest serving dictator of the Americas is pretty obvious. The cynicism on wasting public monies for a long distance lunch, is even more obvious, but thus operate this kind of characters that only want the best for their people. The cynicism of trying to make us believe that it is a real business affair, well, it is just insulting to our intelligence.

But Tal Cual did not miss a bit. Teodoro Petkoff gave one of his most stinging editorials ever! And the front page cartoon was a gem! How low the image of Castro has fallen!


OK, I think it is about time that Chavez and co go and do some Christmas shopping and stop hugging the news!


PS: sorry, I am on vacation and too lazy to put up links. But I can assure you that I am not inventing anything. Any link to a Venezuelan newspaper should confirm my delirium. If I find a moment I will try to translate Petkoff editorial. Miguel kindly offers some links in his post today, and his own view, hardly less sanguine than mine...

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Reflecting on one year ago, during El Paro Civico Nacional
Was it worth it?

Sunday 21, December 2003

One year ago, still in San Felipe I was wondering how I was going to make my way back to Caracas. Gas was scarce. I had managed to fill up my car and was not driving it, saving its gas for the one way trip, to weather the Paro with my relatives and friends. TV was bringing the daily list of disasters, abuses, marches and what not. Christmas certainly was not in the air. And all for what?

The victory of Chavez?

For the outside observer, that Chavez survived a crippling national strike that lasted for two months could be seen a victory. A normal president would have caved in way earlier or negotiated some settlement. De La Rua in Argentina had left for much, much less than what happened in December in Caracas.

Chavez's motives for fighting the opposition so bitterly are his to detail. His "final" fight, initiated on December 2001 has been dragging for two years, has left the country almost like a corpse and still does not bring him any closer to the stability he so wishes to gain. His own stability that is.

More than ever he is isolated behind a camarilla of sycophantic hanger-on that might or might do accompany him until the bitter end, be it loss of power or coup d'état. The very limited successes that he does have, cannot even been properly exploited as trust is lost in today's Venezuela. Whatever Miraflores palace says, it is taken like the Gospel by Chavez's followers and as plain lies by the other side. Some, like Teodoro Petkoff in Tal Cual, still try on occasion to "interpret" positive signs from Miraflores but even their patience is running thin. The recent "megafraude" campaign has done nothing to help toward some arrangement or at least a vague Christmas truce.

Yet, Chavez has all that he needs to control the country as he pleases. His election allowed him to change the constitution to custom made document. It allowed Chavez to put safe personnel in crucial positions such as the general prosecutor or the general controller, people that have done all what they could to accommodate the corruption and other illegalities of the regime. The April days allowed him to purge the armed forces from elements that were not reliable for the Bolivarian Revolution. The strike allowed him to fire an elitist pro globalization management at PDVSA, the state oil industry, transforming it in Chavez's own petty cash box. As a revenge measure Chavez installed a strict currency exchange control which allowed him to decide pretty much who got US dollars and who did not get them.

The only people still escaping his reach are the media, but not for lack of trying. A law to curtail the media is under fierce discussion in the National Assembly where the opposition can only do all what it can to delay its passage. Stealing (there is no other word to qualify the actions of the regulatory agency) transmission equipment from networks. Assaulting reporters. Trying to create a new TV station or newspaper, at taxpayer expense (the paper lives off paid advertisement from governmental agencies).

And yet on December 19, 3.4 million signatures were submitted to the Electoral Board to call for a recall election.

The defeat of the opposition?

The opposition started from a wrong footing against Chavez. Perhaps it thought he was a democrat and played the democratic card allowing for the new constitution. That bid did not work well. The perspective of a 6 year term with deep and damaging changes to the country made the opposition assertive when Chavez did his first missteps: a failed trade union referendum and the enabling law package that was a direct threat to private enterprise. By then it was clear that the new judicial institutions could not be counted for a fair legal appeal against laws that were violating the constitution that Chavez himself so vaunted. The result was the one day general strike of early December 2001.

The surprising success of that day encouraged the partisans of a show of force against Chavez. The next possible election was 2 an a half years away, and local elections at that. Certainly patience seemed useless. Tensions mounted fast as an unlikely union of left and right political actors grew and grew until the first attempt at sacking the PDVSA management led to April 11. That day Chavez mistakes made him resign, although he apparently never signed anything. But unfortunately Chavez's chair did not have tome to cool. Carmona and a small right wing clique that somewhat had infiltrated the popular and almost spontaneous uprising did the coup that blew away any advantage that the opposition might have gained since late 2001. To this day we do not know really what happened, as neither side is really interested in a full investigation, both sides having probably quite a few skeletons in their closets.

One thing is certain, as of April 12 (the real date of the Carmona Coup) the opposition was saddled with a coup mongering label that most of its members did not deserve.

Unfortunately this was not the end of the extremist elements within the opposition. The loss of some of the military sympathizer was a blow to that fringe but they were helped by Chavez failure to rise to the moment. This one instead or reaching some favorable deal for himself, did not waste time in plotting his revenge and the sacking of PDVSA. Soon tensions rose again. A consultative referendum was attempted and dismally neglected by authorities who even refuse to discuss its validity. A military dissidence movement appeared suddenly in October and took over Plaza Altamira. And the country walked bleary eyed into a new confrontation: the national strike of December 2002.

Again, it is not clear how we came to that situation. It seems that the pressure of the most extreme elements of the opposition managed to carry the day and get at least the strike started. Chavez saw that and very likely created enough provocations to encourage the strike to strengthen, relishing the prospect of a violent confrontation that he was in a very good position to win. The situation became so embroiled that nobody knew how to solve it. Eventually the strike petered out, but with a last bang, El Firmazo that at least showed to foreign observers that the opposition was mostly democratic although some extremist characters were trying to control it.

But the damage was done, Chavez had gained PDVSA and the currency control exchange.

The real gain of the opposition came after that new defeat. First, it had resisted the calls for violence from within its ranks and showed its democratic will with El Firmazo and two months of peaceful huge marches. Chavez marches were smaller and some of Chavez supporters were shown to be hard to control, charitably said. The huge political losses were blamed on some of the strike leaders that to this day are exiled. Indirectly this finally allowed political parties to reassert their leadership role. Extreme elements were relegated to talk shows. The OAS negotiations finally gave late May a weak accord, but an agreement nevertheless that tied down the government. Late August a resurrected, and now democratic and internationally protected opposition officially marked its return by submitting the signatures of February. Little does it matter that they were rejected, in August the opposition by accepting to play the recall election card and nothing else but that card had against all odds recovered the initiative lost since 1998.

It still took a few more months until yet a third signature gathering could be effected. But this time Chavez mistakes were duly exploited: the currency control is now blamed more for the economic recession than the general strike, a one year old excuse now!; the clumsy seizure of the networks transmission material, a case of petty revenge that did not even please his supporters who would have preferred him to close Globovision altogether.

Now the opposition is waiting for the Electoral Board ruling and it seems that there will likely be a recall election mid May at the latest. Of course, many things can happen until mid May, but right now the agenda is held by the opposition with the administration in the very uncomfortable position of reacting.

All for what?

As I think about the real suffering of the days of El Paro, of living on the edge for two months, on seeing the disastrous economical results that we have had to suffer through 2003, I am strangely satisfied. We, as a people, have lived an epic year and yet have managed not to kill each other. We have lived through the greatest crisis of our history since the Federal Wars of the mid XIX century. And we might still be able to solve our problems in a democratic way.

I think that Chavez for all his rhetoric has considerably underestimated the 40 years of "democratic" rule he so much excoriates. Our democracy is not perfect, but we care for it. If Chavez has not been able to completely impose his model it is because too many people have opposed the most questionable parts of it (while granting him all what he wanted to administer it, which he failed at). If the opposition has not been able to overthrow Chavez once and for all it is because it has resisted the siren calls from its extremes. Instead it has opted for the rule of law, even if it disagrees profoundly on the basis of some laws.

We are not in a safe harbour yet, but we have seen the flash of the lighthouse.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

A blogger takes a break

Saturday 20, December 2003

I realized the other day that even though the official starting date of this blog is January 6 2003, the first posts were already written as letters in early December when the general strike, known as Paro Civico Nacional started. When I started this blog I thought it would be an affair lasting no more than a couple of months. It turned out to be quite a year and I do not know what the future reserves.

One thing I have sensed is that after the successful signature collection drive that ended on December 1, I have become a little bit tired and dried out, writing has been more difficult. The Christmas holiday is upon us and soon I will be leaving for Caracas and a few places around, to have a vacation, spend time with relatives and friends. I think it is a good time to take some distance from the blog and refresh some before late January when the action will pick up again. Also since the political contest next year would be of a very different nature perhaps it is a good time to take some distance with what I wrote, to find a new breath, a new outlook for what is to come.

I am not going off line completely but posting will be erratic for the next few weeks, and briefer. I expect to be out of reach of phones and Internet at least a couple of times, for 2-3 days each. I am looking forward being isolated from the world...

Still I will be in the Forum_Venezuela, and you will be able to reach me by mail if you have questions though I cannot guarantee speedy reply. I will complete also the index section of the different topics that I covered through 2003. When the electoral campaign starts for the recall election it might be useful to revisit fast some of the issues that will be at the center of attention. And of course if something major were to happen, which somehow I doubt, at least until after New Year, I would be back to report on it.

Tomorrow I will have a last post again with a final political balance for the year. It is almost done but I am too lazy too finish it tonight to post it with this one. I am also late in packing, tying loose ends, trying to leave Monday at the latest. After that one expect only news on how the holidays operate in Venezuela, a welcome change I think.

Cheers.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Maintenance and good news

Friday 19, December 2003

I think that my post yesterday was a little bit too long. But it is difficult to make it shorter. At least it is as complete as one can do now. I did notice a few grammatical errors that made reading it more difficult than necessary. I have corrected them without changing the post. Sorry, that is what happens when you write too late at night, after three glasses of white wine.

On the good news now. The post of yesterday starts running as of today: the signatures were finally turned in today to the Electoral Board (CNE), without trouble.

In other words all the scenarios I speculated about yesterday start running as of today. Should we take bets?

The CNE decision should come late January.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

What will happen in Venezuela?
This blogger indulges in some punditry

Thursday 18, December 2003

The opposition will hand in the signatures tomorrow. I have been postponing making predictions since the signatures were collected. It is not my style to begin with. Second, to make predictions one needs to have "some" hard data and in Venezuela, which has become the land of "magical realism" by excellence. But I think that considering the merry season on us, and that I have started to drink a little bit everyday (I will get into that Christmas spirit one way or the other) I think I can allow myself some punditry. But be warned: two weeks from now I could rewrite a very different text.

Let's review the facts first, at least those that have some substance.

I- Who knows exactly how many signatures has the opposition or the chavistas collected: the one thing certain is that the opposition has collected more signatures and with more enthusiasm than the chavista camp. If the TV images of the two journeys do not convince you, you just need to look at the overblown campaign that the administration and its beneficiaries are trying to stir up. And the tense faces of the different spokespeople of Chavez. No matter what the final tally the Electoral Board will be giving in January, on December 2 the country woke up with a new political landscape and the political class must deal with it.

II- If chavistas do not manage to cancel the opposition signatures, some form of election will be unavoidable. That or a coup d'état. It looks very difficult for the administration to void the opposition collection journey. Of course, with all that is within Chavez power something can be attempted, something that still retains some form of pseudo-legalism. However, it seems that this time the international observers will take a stand.

III- Chavez will not accept a recall election. Chavez ambition is to become a South American leader. Administrative tasks in Venezuela bore him to tears, except inaugurations and big promotion shows. His obvious desire to be preeminent would be irremediably damaged if he were to lose a recall election, the type of election that is the biggest sanction a politician can get. There would his career go. Losing a presidential election is not that bad and offers a ready-made excuse: the other guy had a better program and that does not mean that my program or my actions were bad. You can recover from a failed re-election. You cannot recover from a direct sanction vote. Chavez will go to a recall election only screaming and kicking.

IV- No matter what, Chavez has a hard core support of at least 20% of the electorate. This translates into his 30-40% popular support in spite of the crisis! No serious poll give him less than 30 (or more than 40), and this is politically a very appreciable capital, after 5 years of misrule. He has something to gamble with. The opposition even with a hard core 50% cannot crush electorally a following of 30% that can quickly become a 50% if they fail a few years down. It is that permanent 20% that is the biggest obstacle for the opposition to remove Chavez. It forces very much a difficult union. The math is simple: with a divided opposition, in a one round balloting system Chavez could pull a 35% and get re-elected. And then what?

So, what could happen?

Scenario 1. Chavez accepts to go to a recall election. This one would happen late April or early May. Maybe even in June or July if Chavez tricks work to the best. He is very likely to lose the election. A new president would have to be elected by August to finish the last two years of the term.

Chavez could try to come back in 2006. Unfortunately for him he would have lost some of the key players and the opposition will have modified the constitution, instituting among other things a two round balloting that would be a major hurdle for Chavez for at least the next 3-6 years. The transition might go sort of OK and the opposition would try to maintain peace reassuring chavistas that the problem was Chavez but not his followers. Of course, if the recall election goes something like 2 to 5 against Chavez he would be done for good.

This, in my opinion, is the best we can expect. However by May I doubt that the opposition will be able to inflict a disastrous defeat on Chavez. They will win, but it will not be a knock out as Chavez will have plaid all sorts of nasty cards to polarize people and preserve a base for the future.

Scenario 2. A variation of 1. Somehow Chavez manages to postpone the recall election until after August 21. Even if he is booted out, the catch 22 constitutional provision allows the vice president (that he names) to finish the term. Depending on who he manages to leave (and that could even be negotiated with the opposition) the country might remain on a stand still until 2006, or slowly drown into anarchy. The final outcome would depend on the local elections of June 2004 or the legislative elections of June 2005. This scenario is not discussed by anyone right now, though it should. But it would be possible ONLY if Chavez manages to postpone the recall election until after August 21, a rather difficult prospect at this time.

A great coup for him would be to manage to put an acceptable vice president for the opposition and resign on August 22 in exchange of avoiding the recall election. He would retain his party machinery and start a two year electoral campaign to come back. Will enough members of the opposition be willing to negotiate such a solution? I doubt it but a lot of things can happen form here to May...

Scenario 3. Chavez resigns. An obliging High Court allows him to run again. He might win if he manages to divide the opposition which is riddled with ambitious characters. He will be helped by his extensive money reserves that would allow him to spread money all around and buy loyalties. If he wins he might be able to consolidate his system and it would be very difficult to unseat him in 2006. The only chance would be that finally the opposition understands that unity is the only way to boot Chavez out, but by 2006 it might be too late. The country would have become again a centralized state, barely legal and democratic, but still enough to avoid major international sanctions. It will all depend on how much oil Chavez is able to deliver.

Unfortunately this is a rather plausible outcome that is been discussed more and more. It would become like the Peru of Fujimori but without the economic skills and recovery.

Scenario 4. As 3 but the opposition manages to maintain its unity and comes up with a transition candidate that engages herself to rule for 2 years only in order to strengthen up the institutions and allow some economic recovery. In 2006, after a constitutional amendment, we have free and fair election and a new president comes into office.

I think it would minimize the most the risks of major unrest providing a suitably long but accepted transition. It would allow tensions to decrease as both sides would perceive that in 2006 they have a chance to prevail. The likeliness of high oil prices would allow the opposition some leeway in attaining some results. Even if it goes in separate blocks to the 2006 elections, the political parties would have had time to complete their recovery and to show some results. Chavez might manage to retain control of his troops and would be able to pick perhaps 40% of the vote. But his return would be difficult, and would only occur if the opposition fails in the two years chance given to it.

Of course, by retaining control of his troops Chavez could manage to sabotage any real progress for the new government and thus improve his chances of returning in 2006. On the other hand part of his troops could leave him and form a new leftist block. Definitely, the departure of Chavez would be far from resolving the problems, his or the opposition.

Scenario 5. Chavez refuses elections of any type. He manages to annul the signatures in a semi legal way. All will depend on how he does in the local elections of June 2004. If they are free and he loses them he could still remain in office but it will be a controversial presidency, a country slowly but surely sinking into the abyss. In 2006 the opposition will have to manage a united front and all will depend if the elections are fair or not. I think it very unlikely but I suspect that this is the one that Chavez is trying to get.

Scenario 6. As in 5 but Chavez kicks the footstool completely and tries to establish a legal dictatorship. The high court caves in and offers to the world an image of legality that complicates the tasks of foreign pressure. Any election is stacked against the opposition and Chavez tries to stay in office as long as he can. Needless to say that the country will be ungovernable, foreign investment will be minimal, international sanctions will be eventually taken, the economic crisis will become permanent. Chavez on the long run might go the way of a modern day Castrist regime. Or Venezuela might become Zimbabwe. Unfortunately the odds for such a scenario are not insignificant.

Oddly I do not think that Chavez wants this scenario. His model is more Fujimori than Castro, trying to find a way to really win elections again. He probably thinks that he needs more time to convince the wavering ones to come back to his fold. But if he fails to woo them back then he will go the #6 way without qualms.

My scenario? I do not know. I think that scenario number 1 is the best in what it gives the best chance to get rid of Chavez once and for all. And thus Chavez will oppose it until the very end. I think that 3 and 4 are the two most likely ones to occur.

Scenario 4 will not solve much but at least will give the opposition time to re-establish counter powers if Chavez, or a Chavez like president, were to come to office in 2006 or 2012 (or 2010 if the presidential term is cut down from 6 to 5 years). The only good thing about scenario 4 is that it would force any new government to act seriously and responsibly, not playing the populist card that Chavez will always play better than any politician alive today in Venezuela. If the transition managed to survive and hand power to a non Chavez president Venezuela could be quickly in the way of a fast recovery, but after 2006.

A cure for populism could only come from a serious administration in 2006 that could demonstrate that some budgetary rigor does not imply that the poor are forgotten. A hard trick to pull if you ask me.


Tuesday, December 16, 2003

2 items

Tuesday 16, December 2003

I am tired tonight so I will be quick.

Signature processing keeps at a good pace, if slow. The Chavez screams have induced the opposition to be twice as careful as planned. I seems that all will be OK. Final answer Friday when the opposition has announced it will handle in the signatures. Just in case you think that there is something fishy: the government who had to collect half the amount of signatures as the opposition had to do is still not done handing in their own work. And they collected one week earlier than the opposition.

An announcement.

Some Venezuelan bloggers have decided to organize a forum site for discussion. We want it civil so at the beginning we will be monitoring messages to avoid attacks, flames, etc... This might slow down the pace but considering some comments appearing recently we think it is a wise move. People that want more "action" can open their 'free for all forum'. However we want to assure you that all are welcome, no matter what your ideas are and there will be no censorship as long as posting language is civil (and in English, as we hope you will understand).

Thus if you are interested you can access the main page of Forum_Venezuela

and sign up (you will require a yahoo ID which is a formality).

Or you can write at Forum_Venezuela-subscribe@yahoogroups.com stating why you want to join (this is just to avoid spammers).

I hope this will work well.

Monday, December 15, 2003

FOUR YEARS AFTER VARGAS
A national disaster and a new flawed constitution.

Monday 15, December 2003

It was four years ago that the mountain rolled down on Caracas playground, the Caribbean shores 30 minutes away from Caracas, the state of Vargas. Thousand of people died, either killed by the rolling stones, drowned in the seas or the swollen streams. The images were horrific, the country marked.

Recovery hopes were not good from the beginning when in a show of infantile nationalism Chavez refused the help of the US, help already on its way and promptly stopped at sea. The administration bragged of recovering Vargas in a couple of years. Today barely the road grid has been restored. Thousand of Vargas residents are still spread all around the country, some still in refugee camps of sorts.

But if Vargas is one of the flagship failures of Chavez administration, my main grip with it is the lack of imagination in recovering a wasted area and bringing it to a glittering future. The Vargas shore had become a mostly an over-urbanized area, where most beaches were too polluted for swimming. A good urban planning, mixing private resorts and public access areas could have provided enough income to provide for water treatment plants, organized housing and what not. But privatizing part of Vargas was too much for the Chavez crowd, who probably were happy to see that the few existing private resorts were battered badly. Interestingly, with little if any governmental help some of these private resorts have recovered better than some of the public areas that were supposed to be fully recovered by now. But a government that has not been able to recover all of the residential areas cannot be expected to recover either the beach areas or even the torrent control system.

Incidentally December 15 is also the date for the referendum that approved the Bolivarian Constitution. The least that we can say is that the fate of the constitution has not been much better than the fate of Vargas. Though at least Vargas seems on the way up, albeit slowly.

The 1999 document is in my opinion flawed. For one thing the Constitutional assembly had until January 30, 2000, to approve and send the constitution to vote. But Chavez was prey to the millennial folly and wanted “his” constitution to welcome the new millenium. As a consequence the constitutional debate was rushed and many flaws starting to appear now might have been avoided with a few more weeks of debate and proof reading. But Chavez did not care, by late November he had obtained what he wanted, a six year term with re-election for another 6 years, the power to control the military promotions, the power to remove and renew most of the judiciary and other institutions. The rest were just details that he could not be bothered with. Voting while flooding was happening every where was already criticized. Nevertheless Chavez even invoked the words of Bolivar defying nature and the vote took place the day he said. Now tragedy for ever is marked on the birth date of the constitution.

The constitution was approved with 70 % yeah and at least 40% abstention. 42% of Venezuelans at most felt motivated enough to vote for Chavez, rather than for a document that most had not read since it was published a very few days before the vote. But Chavez was riding high these days. Nobody cared. Except for an almost 20% who cared to make that 30% that voted no, abstention correction made. This was up quite a lot from the April referendum where only 10% voted no, which with more than a 50% abstention, made less than 5% of the actual population. I was in that 5%. Thus in barely 8 month Chavez had managed to quadruple his staunchest opponents. Today the number could be as high as 50% of the country and hopefully we will know that soon.

Indeed, Chavez has little to celebrate today, and instead of memorials, or re-openings or even constitutional celebration he is touring the Army barracks trying to convince them that the opposition did commit fraud, trying to convince them to join him in an adventure. Maybe the opposition did commit fraud, but it is a sad spectacle to see a president that once had a lofty 80% rating to fight a ridiculous fight for survival. Ecce homo.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

The Nutcracker in Yaracuy

Sunday 14, December 2003

Jennifer Fisher wrote yesterday in the NYT a wonderful article on the cultural value of the Nutcracker, The Ballet Russia Didn't Want. The Nutcracker became a big hit in the USA while Europe never quite warmed up to this Christmas Fantasy Story of a child’s birthday. Ms. Fisher argument is quite convincing, the "family values" tendency of the US society can find itself very nicely represented in the Nutcracker.

Of course this made me retrieve my CD of the ballet and I played a couple of times, through an unseasonable rainy day in San Felipe. I suppose that I am probably one of the very few people that would play the Nutcracker in San Felipe. Not that I associate it with Christmas. North Americans have that mania to associate a lot of things with Christmas to the point of making them irrelevant the rest of the year. A major victim is Haendel Messiah, which is perfectly playable at Easter, or any time for that matter. No, my love of the Nutcraker comes from way back, when I was 5 actually and my Dad bought an HiFi system. I remember the first LP he brought along, LP that I suppose had the greatest influence in my musical development: La Mer of Debussy, Rhapsody in Blues of Gershwin, Capriccio Espagnol of Rimsky Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. This last one in a wonderful US edition with plenty of black and white pictures of the different moments by some ballet company. Nobody at home could translate the short text so I imagined all sorts of wonderful tales that I think were better than the original story. But I digress.

As I kept busy around the house trying to hum the ballet I had to fight the outside world noise trying to intrude. The main culprits were these cheap trucks loaded with big loudspeakers that go around Venezuelan small towns doing all sorts of advertisement at given time of the year. Elections too, are a big noise pollution time. But now it is Christmas and even big shoe stores of San Felipe are able to have jingles written for their store, following the Gaita rhythm. Gaita are the music from Maracaibo and serves many objectives, besides entertaining. It is mass produced in Maracaibo starting in August, reaches a peak there at the celebration of La Chinita in November (the Virgin protector of Maracaibo) and then moves all over the Venezuelan air waves. Gaitas have a very nasty habit: many are protest songs and many governments saw their popularity plummet at Gaita's time. This year Gaitas are very cruel with Chavez.

It is very easy to get tired of Gaitas, in particular as jingles in the streets of San Felipe on the last big shopping day before Christmas. There is a big week end left before Christmas, but that week end will be a travelling time for many people and attendance to the stores will tend go down. Actually most stores in Venezuela will be closed by the 24 at noon if not even on the 23rd! Christmas for us is the 24 at Midnight and on the 24 in the afternoon we are too busy preparing for guests or getting ready to go out.

I was thinking of all these things while I was doing my own private culture clash that afternoon, wondering how loud I could put my speakers before my neighbors came to complain. One thing that was crossing my mind is how was the Nutcracker in Caracas this year? With all the Venezuelans that have lived in the US, the Nutcracker is becoming a staple of Christmas here too. Venezuelans do respond to that family gathering message that is so important for us at Christmas when people will spend a lot of time and money to cross the country and visit relatives. Even people with humble means will go to great length to travel in December to eat Hallaca with their parents. In this respect we are a lot like North Americans at Thanksgiving, except that in lieu of turkey we eat hallaca, our more than fabulous version of tamale, the glory of Venezuelan cuisine.

But I wonder if under Chavez the Nutcracker will keep its slow progress into Venezuelan society. To begin with the laxity in copyright measures by the Venezuelan government has finally closed the last record store of San Felipe. Now you buy your CD at street corners, all pirated versions of whatever the recent hits are. I am pretty sure that none of these street vendors has cloned a version of the Nutcracker to popularize it around here. Someday, maybe, but for the time being forget about classical music outside limited stores in Caracas.

I do not think that the fate of The Nutcracker is promising, looking at the way that the Chavez administration has handled cultural affairs. The regime has let the Museum of Modern Art decay, has sacked the staff of the National Library to be replaced by political hacks, has let Unesco sites of Venezuela go to seed. Classical ballet? A straw in the wind! Chavez is tone deaf by the way, one thing we can detect as he is not afraid to sing in his Alo Presidente of every Sunday. Though he likes to be filmed in folk dances that as far as I can tell he does not manage well. Thus be it Nutcraker, Gaitas or Villancicos, I am not expecting much from a regime that in addition is almost in open war with the Catholic Church.

This disregard for culture and tradition is starting to affect the country, perhaps even more than the economic crisis. Tonight as I write I leaned over my window and none of my neighbors has put this year their Christmas lights. Only some have put a wreath on their doors. Another "tradition" is biting the dust this year: Venezuelans love with noisy fireworks that through December explode anytime of day or night. Well, this year it has not been a problem at all in San Felipe. I cannot say that I am sorry for that.

Clearly there is no Christmas spirit this year. The irony is that the Government spokespersons have been making a big campaign of "getting back Christmas that was stolen from us last year from these nasty opponents that went on strike". It certainly has not fired up the spirits as far as I can tell... At work the personnel has preferred to organize a field day at the beach instead of having our annual Christmas party. Next week I will spread what we would have spent for the party among people so the ones that want to go to the beach will have pocket money to do so. I am not sorry I must confess, less trouble for management that normally has to do all the organizing work.

This is not to say that Christmas is absent, but it fair to say that it is only a shade of what it used to be in Yaracuy. Townhall has put up the lights. Stores do advertise. But all complain that customers are not buying. After my exercise walk I stopped at my "frutero". Outside of Caracas you can find everywhere these wonderful stores that sell only fresh fruit and freshly squeezed juice, and believe me, after an hour of a power walk a fresh Passion Fruit juice will restore more than any Gatorade. My "frutero" looked grim as he told me that his sales have dropped since November 15 by almost half! They normally double, with the end of the year bonus and shopping spirit! He has a few shelves where he would also sell a few goodies such as Olive Oil or jams and "turrones" that sell well when people feel like partying. They are all empty. He cannot afford to refill them with the devaluation, and he does not think that people in San Felipe would be able to afford them anyway.

TV runs specials on how to cook "cheap" hallacas that are still way more expensive than last year. Some Christmas jingles try to grace ads. But it stops there. We are not into it this year. We will snack with Pan de Jamon, we will eat our hallaca, we will exchange presents, we will even put some of our very own, very gorgeous, very Venezuelan Christmas music. But we all have our mind elsewhere. How are we going to make it through next year? What is going to happen to us?

I think that Christmas might be even sadder than the last year disaster in the middle of the strike. At least we had a motivation then, giving us something like the Christmas hope for a better tomorrow.

Saturday's editorial from the Washington Post

Saturday's editorial from the Washington Post

Sunday 14, December 2003

'nuf said!

= == === ==== ===== ====== ======= ========


Eye on Mr. Chavez

Saturday, December 13, 2003


THERE WAS a remarkable democratic exercise two weeks ago in Venezuela, a South American country of 24 million, a major oil producer and the foremost of a number of troubled Latin American states that the Bush administration has badly neglected. Determined to oust their populist and quasi-authoritarian president, Hugo Chavez, before he can do any more damage to the country, more than 3.5 million people signed a petition, in just four days, calling for a recall referendum. This astounding turnout by some 30 percent of the electorate occurred peacefully. Observers from the Carter Center and the Organization of American States said they saw no evidence of irregularities. A commission will now validate the signatures; unless it throws out more than 1 million of them, Venezuela will have the chance to peacefully resolve a political conflict that has threatened to tear it apart.


The main obstacle, predictably, is Mr. Chavez, a self-styled revolutionary who over the past five years has triggered an implosion of the Venezuelan economy, trampled on the private business sector and the independent media, and alienated nearly all his neighbors save Fidel Castro. Mr. Chavez appears likely to lose his job if a referendum is held, and consequently is doing everything he can to stop one. He accused the petition-gatherers of "megafraud," though he produced no evidence; he summoned thousands of his supporters to a demonstration and vowed that no vote would take place; he sent his thugs to attack anti-government protesters in a plaza where the opposition was headquartered. Opposition media report that thousands of Cubans have entered the country in recent months and are busy organizing the president's strongholds. No one doubts that Mr. Chavez is capable of violence. His first political act, after all, was a failed coup, and last year he triggered an ultimately unsuccessful coup against himself by ordering police and the military to attack opposition demonstrations.

Mr. Chavez will allow a referendum and respect its results only if he is convinced that fraud or violence won't work for him. That's where the Bush administration should come in, along with Venezuelan neighbors such as Brazil. In the coming weeks, as the referendum process proceeds, they must insist to Mr. Chavez that he not disrupt it -- and be prepared to respond if he tries. If the president can persuade Venezuelans to keep him in power through a democratic vote, his country and the outside world will owe him a fresh chance. But he must not be allowed to complete his depredations on Venezuela by destroying the last vestiges of its democracy.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Pictures from last Saturday Plaza Altamira events

Friday 12, December 2003

The little action of a few drunken (and perhaps not so drunk) chavistas last Saturday has upset quite a few people, as expected. Indeed, in a country quite devoted to the Virgin Mary, even for those that do not practice much, beheading a statue, painting another one and stealing a third one did not go down well. As expected the opposition is milking it for all that is worth, and justifiably so.

In my December 5-7 posts I tried not to make the biggest deal out of it, treating the event as drunken rampage. But perhaps there is more to it. Miguel publishes a few pictures of the Vice President cheering his supporters at Plaza Altamira itself! I have not seen these pictures elsewhere but perhaps the world of blogging is getting ahead for news to the "normal" channels. But sure enough it is our ineffable VP and the pictures tell quite a tale. Please go and visit!

It is not clear whether the pictures were taken actually at the time of the rampage. As far as I know the rampage was after the vice went by, as reported on Alo Ciudadano on Sunday, but I might be wrong. But in my opinion it is not relevant. Chavistas that saw the Vice applauding his supporters hurling insults at Plaza Altamira, easily worked themselves up enough to do that rampage a few minutes later.

I agree with Miguel who actually did not want to inject religion in his blog until the pictures reached him. I tried to be calm when I wrote last week end, but I must confess that I was rather upset, even though I am not a religious person at all. There is a matter of respect for other people's belief. If you cannot respect a religious icon, then there is little hope left for a reconciliation.

The thing that does surprise me is that I do not see much outrage among chavistas on TV. Their promptitude at accusing "agents" is understandable, but their slowness at condemning the action is damning. The result? In Falcon a few religious icons have been destroyed and a church fire bombed. I have a hard time to think that Chavez and his cohorts are ready to go all the way against the Church. Tough verbal sparring I can see it, but hitting sacred images?

More to come?

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The recall election drive: tabulating fraud

Wednesday 10, December 2003

I am not a happy camper writing this. Reading some US papers, reading some moronic comments on some blogs (poor Miguel has been the victim of a few these commentators) I feel that I have once again to re-state a few things. I'll do this as an index of sorts and put some color to cheer me up from such a useless task.

FRAUD (Or "mega fraud" if you are a Chavez sympathizer)

Any significant fraud is impossible for the opposition. No matter what Chavez hurls at the opposition, the press and foreign representatives, charges that his minions dutifully echo, large scale fraud is impossible.

To sign you had to show your picture ID, stamp your finger print, write down your signature, imprint your ID number, all of this on safety bond paper issued by the government mint. Fraud of the magnitude that Chavez implies would mean that the opposition somehow would be able to print hundred of thousand of fake ID, get at least a hundred thousand people to go around and sign with one of the several fake ID provided to them. And this in front of all sorts of observers that so far have not reported anything except for an occasional local problem. Among these witness were thousand-S of pro Chavez witnesses and very few of them have reported anything of substance ON THEIR OWN (whatever is said is said through Chavez and then repeated).

Last but not least: the opposition would have to find a way to clone the forged names inside the database of the Electoral Board (CNE) as registered voters. These in a data base that has been monitored for years now. The said database has only 12 million folks so the introduction in a few weeks of 1 million fake registrations surely would be noticed by someone at some point.

Let's not waste anymore time with that. When Chavez screams fraud he is trying to gain time for something else. And even if "some" fraud would happen it would not affect enough signatures to jeopardize the total numbers of signatures needed to call a recall referendum.

Though I am quite tempted to report some of the fraud signaled on the governmental signature drive, which, rumor has, is still running in some ministries offices. It shows the maturity of the opposition: let them do as they please, we only care about the referendum on Chavez.

NUMERICAL INCONSISTENCIES

This was a doozie in some newspapers and lefty commentators. For example the Chicago Tribune did question the whole process because the opposition was honest enough to report that it did not reached enough to recall all of the assembly members it intended to recall. Let's examine this a little bit.

To figure out how many people did sign one must do first a visual screening of each form. These forms have 10 lines. If there has been an error, one line is totally crossed. One or two of the last lines might not have been filled up because it was closing time. Etc… In other words, one valid form does not mean 10 valid signatures.

The totals were transmitted by phone to Caracas. Confusion between number of "forms" and number of "signatures" must have happened more than once.

A 2-3 % on error in reporting forms could quickly become a 10-20% error in assessing the number of signatures, since any form wronlgy reported becomes up to 10 signatures wrongly reported.

The initial reports, as I wrote here in "estimates" were hinting at crossing the 4 million mark. 10% of 3.6 million is 360.000. 3.6 + 0.36 = anything close to 4 million. Of course within a day or two of closer scrutiny, with cooler heads and sharper eyes, the high 4 million had to drop: incomplete forms, errata in forms, exact number of forms, etc… And we get the 3.6 million signatures, a number that has been steady for now a week and that should be confirmed within a few days once the opposition delivers the forms to the Electoral Board (CNE).

Meanwhile where is the foreign press (from the BBC to the Chicago Tribune) these days to scrutinize the chavista signatures that went down for an heralded 7+ million by the Vice president to pretty much nowhere as I write?

THE OPPOSITION FIASCO: 'CAUSE THEY DID NOT COLLECT WHAT THEY SAID THEY WOULD.

This is my favorite. As recently as this morning on Triangulo, the serious talk show of Televen at 7 AM, William Lara ex-president of the National Assembly was declaring that in the halls of the National Assembly the opposition deputies were bragging that they were going to get 8 million signatures (we only have Lara's word for it). Since they did not get them, then they have failed. "Who cares if they did get 3.6?!" would be what Mr. Lara wants us to think

Let's reconsider the event by itself.

1) giving all your privacy rights to sign against Chavez is quite a biggie. If the guy manages to remain in office, better not start looking for a job in the public administration. This is serious: too numerous reports to count are surfacing every day of people that got fired from civil service because they signed last week or in February. And I will not repeat the threats made by Chavez and associates in the days going to the signature collection. All of this is public knowledge in Venezuela.

2) military were forbidden to sign. Public employees were forbidden to sign. People waiting for governmental licenses did not go and sign. People waiting for public housing did not sign. Etc. 100 000? 300 000? A million? Add that up to the supposed 3.6 million collected.

3) where in the world have we ever seen 20% people sign for a recall election, let alone 25 or 30%? Even California had all the trouble to reach the 10%.

4) the electoral population is 12 million including 100 of thousand of dead people not purged yet from the rolls. And a couple of million that will never vote no matter what. Assemblyman Lara should worry that the 3.6 million who signed might indeed be 36% of the "real" electorate. If for one who would vote against Chavez signed one did not sign, could we speculate the 72% mark against Chavez? Maybe not but a good campaign from the opposition could lock the hard core 50%. Chavistas can do simple arithmetic.

Voilà! I hope this helped! Feel free to pass around to your favorite pro-Chavez person.

Conclusion

I think that chavistas know real well what is going on, even if they are in utter outside denial. That they are following a tight script is painfully visible. Televen this morning had also assemblyman Rondon who had almost as tight a face as Lara and who repeated the same lines all over again. Lines given Sunday 7 by the Great Leader himself and dutifully repeated almost to a comma. We are watching a written script whose simple objective is to derail the road to the referendum, at the cost of mobilizing its supporters from some last minute desperate and violent move.

Heady days ahead.

Monday, December 08, 2003

REQUIEM FOR PLAZA ALTAMIRA
Or Chavez and his opposition get rid of a burdensome PR problem

Monday 8, December 2003

Today I just feel like putting a short note on the fate of Plaza Altamira, our tropical version on Tien An Men square.

Plaza Altamira (Officially known as Plaza Francia, by the way), is one of the landmarks of Caracas. Four years ago it was even chosen to have at one of its corners a Four Seasons luxury hotel. The mile to the East on the Francisco de Miranda Avenue is even semi-ironically called the Golden Mile as the residence of some of the most prestigious corporate names. Obviously, Plaza Altamira in the wealthiest municipality of Venezuela, Chacao, is a natural for a rallying point of the Chavez opposition.

Originally Chuao owning a PDVSA major site was the main rallying point for the opposition, the one from where the fateful march of April 11, 2003, started. But Plaza Altamira became the focus center when a few dissident military took over the handsome square to set up tent in October of 2002. The night images of these days were just spectacular as perhaps 100 000 people gathered nightly with candles, flashlights and what not. A stage was set up where pretty much any opposition leader went to say a few words, in between commoners using this as a new Speaker’s Corner.

The high point was on November 4, 2002 when the first petition drive was taken to the Electoral Board for a consultative referendum on Chavez rule. The success of that delivery should have been a good opportunity for the dissident military to give up Plaza Altamira, but they made the foolish decision to stay, adding even an electronic clock to count the hours since the dissidence started. The fiery speeches emanating from Plaza Altamira greatly contributed to the paroxysm that led to the General strike that started on December 2 2002, even though some Cassandra voices were already questioning the presence of right wing nuts manipulating the Plaza Altamira grand stand.

The most memorable event in Plaza Altamira was the shooting of December 6 leaving 3 deaths and several injuries. This event happening live on TV galvanized the opposition and almost single-handedly held the strike together for weeks!

During the December-January strike Plaza Altamira was the main rallying point for the opposition, in particular the ones wanting Chavez out at any price. People came from all around the country to visit it as a shrine. Even yours truly went as a bemused observer to get a first hand knowledge of the collective folly that embraced our country from both sides.

But the strike eventually faltered. It might have failed at ousting Chavez but it left for the world to see where the people were, who were the ones with the true democratic bent and who was the authoritarian side. From then on Chavez started losing his martyr aura unjustly gained on April 11.

By the end of the strike the dissident military had been “camping” in the underground parking of the Plaza Altamira for already 4 months. In reality it quickly became a group of feuding rivals, some of them setting up residence on the now disaffected Four Seasons, torn by a legal rivalry between the owners and the managers. And the right wing connections became more and more apparent. Prudently the democratic opposition slowly but surely isolated the military dissidence, whose moment had come and gone.

By June Plaza Altamira had become as much a problem for the opposition as for Chavez, a problem that nobody knew really how to extricate from. That is until last Saturday.

The rampage of December 6, 2003, not only broke icons of the Virgin Mary but desecrated the grounds of Plaza Altamira which was commemorating the massacre of one year ago. But the Chacao Mayor saw the opportunity he had been waiting for: with the excuse of Christmas he has decided that all political expression will be banished through December and promptly ordered the dismantling of the stage that had sat for over a year. The chavista drunken minority unwillingly might have helped the opposition in more ways than just giving them the image of a decapitated religious icon. The ironies of politics!

No word on the dissident military meanwhile. They have been quite absent lately, some of them apparently hiding, and justifiably so. But the soldiers with a future are the ones in jail today as political prisoners. It is sad to say but among all the people that risked it all, such as the striking PDVSA workers now fired and holding baking sales to survive, the Altamira dissidence are the group that most blatantly failed in their political adventure. If Chavez ever leaves, the PDVSA workers will come back in triumph. I doubt that the military dissidence will do so.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

JOSE VICENTE RANGEL, ANOTHER SORE LOSER

Sunday 7, December 2003

The dust settled on yesterday’s silliness, with even more silliness.

Our ineffable vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel (JVR), more chavista even than Chavez, announced with his poker face that he has been honing since El Petarazo, that yesterday’s march was the biggest in our history. Always bigger the marches, it seems. He also added that any damage in Plaza Altamira was self-inflicted by the opposition. Of course, if he only watches the state TV he would have missed the images. Or is it that he misplaced his TV glasses?

The sad fact for the VP is that the attendance was counted at less than 100 000, still not a bad turnout. The other sad fact is that chavistas were filmed drawing graffiti and lifting the statues of the Virgin Mary. Too many were filmed to use the charge of double agents. Indeed if they can be conned within their own marches by so many double agents, they are quite incompetent. There is no elegant way out. Yesterday’s negations were just as his negations of last weekend lines at the opposition signature tables. He has to negate the fact that he is losing control of the situation at all levels.

But why is the VP taking such risks? Surely he cannot ignore that Gaviria for one will be well informed by his very own observers? Why are Chavez and JVR screaming a fraud that is technically impossible? Why are they denying what has become public knowledge? But more importantly why is JVR ruining his reputation forever inside and outside of Venezuela?

One obvious reason is that infighting for an eventual post Chavez leadership has already started among the chavistas. Fealty has to be demonstrated to be able to lead a future post Chavez chavismo. A side benefit is that whatever troops are left need this kind of “cara durismo” (stone face) from the top to remain faithful to the government in case this one wants to do some strong actions in the near future. Fascism has its own logic.

Another reason is that the moral (and financial?) corruption of the regime does not allow for any other option but hold the bunker until the very last possible minute. JVR knows that he has no future outside of Chavez. No serious politician within the opposition will negotiate with him anything more than the terms for a political transition. The best he can hope after Chavez is a golden exile in Chile where his wife holds citizenship.

Like any good poker player when cornered, JVR does the bluff of his life! If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then he seems to have quite a following among other ministers of the court.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

CHAVEZ, THE SORE LOSER

Saturday 6, December 2003

Today chavistas decided to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Chavez election in 1998. What best opportunity “to demonstrate” that the people are still for Chavez, no matter the “Reafirmazo” that took place a few days ago with 30% of the country.

So, people were summoned to gather in several places and asked to march to Avenida Bolivar for the habitual grandiloquent meeting that Chavez loves so much. A gigantic stage was set with the huge pictures of the beloved leader as background. I am sure paid by loyal supporters and not by state monies… The convocation to several starting points of course was a measure of precaution just in case the assistance were not to be too great: chavistas could always point that elsewhere more people were coming.

As it turned out they were in luck this time and did manage a rather decent turnout. It seems that the winds of defeat have scared enough chavista officials into shaking up Chavez followers to attend the rally. One of my friends in the government where he works was told directly that they were counting on him at the Petare starting point where that office section would gather. This was the first time ever he was told to do such a thing! Fortunately, he had a good excuse not to go. He also told me that many of his co-workers were suddenly prey of an excitement that they never displayed on previous chavista rallies that they usually “pretend” to attend while actually taking the day off.

At any rate, full buses arrived from outside of Caracas and as usual have been seen lining by the hundreds the vicinity of Avenida Bolivar. I am sure that all of these where volunteer bus drivers, no?

The Petare march started at around 10 PM and the TV showed plenty of people drinking beer already. By the time that that march reached Altamira at noon the effect of beer (and other) was felt as a rowdy crowd assaulted Altamira place, the rallying point of the opposition. Only the local mayor was there to guarantee order but he quickly had to be evacuated as desperate (?, or so they claimed later) assemblymen of the Chavez side were trying to stop the rampage. Of course, the stage set up there for already a year was covered with pro-Chavez graffiti, and the dissident military nowhere to be seen. They could have shown their mettle I think, after one year of doing very little but blowing hot air from that tropical version of the Speaker’s corner. But I digress.

Even the statues of the Virgin Mary placed by devoted opposition fans were not spared. They were floated around the crowd, disappeared in it and eventually returned, one painted in red and the other beheaded. Quickly a few of the chavista around claimed that that was done by “infiltrated agents”. If that charge is true, then there must have been quite a lot of double agents in the march and the security service particularly inefficient. The sad fact is that the crowd that invaded Plaza Altamira was a drunken crowd and that was for all to see on TV, a sad reflection of what it takes to attract people to chavista marches. Whether that crowd was deliberately driven there by the organizers searching the opportunity to avenge the “affront of last week end” is a different question, but the crowd was abundantly dotted with ethylated people and control was lost. I am sure tonight that more than one chavista leader must be wringing their hands at the PR damage of today’s TV footage.

But that was just a prelude. Avenida Bolivar indeed saw a very nice turnout, maybe the best for a Chavez rally. Chavistas are obviously scared to lose their jobs and privileges.

The great leader arrived and made his way through the adoring crowd in a now quite worked out ritual. His speech from the altar was as brimstony as ever. Actually, if George W. Bush dared to say about Democrats a quarter of what Chavez said of the opposition he would be quickly be impeached by the Republican Congress. I will spare the details and just summarize the whole speech. “The Bolivarian Revolution is great. We are not going to let it steal away from us by forged signatures”. It took about two hours to say that.

If nothing is really new in such an activity, what is different this time is the grim determination of Chavez not to recognize the signatures collected by the oppostion, even if the Electoral Board certifies them. I am afraid that we are about to see more and more disgraceful scenes in the next months. The government seems to be losing its control, and the one of its followers. Their authoritarian tendency shone through today and they are only but a step away from tropical fascism. It will not be too soon the day of the recall election.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

The local variations in the potential votes against Chavez in an eventual recall election

The numbers game, part 2

Thursday 4, December 2003

Yesterday I gave the results so far in the signature collection for a recall election on Chavez. And my interpretations.

Today, as promised I am giving you more details as to the local repartition of the vote. This might not be of as much interest to those not familiar with the local characteristics of Venezuelan provinces. However to make it more interesting I have sorted things according to states where the potential anti Chavez vote has grown the most. For example the State of Aragua held by Didalco Bolivar was the biggest victory for Chavez in 2000. Today the opposition that had been reduced to its minimal expression then, thanks to a reasonably effective governor, has suddenly become quite competitive while the same governor has proved less effective under Chavez. That way, it will be interesting to observe that in some States the gains of the opposition have been quite impressive.

To make the reading easier I will write first the legend of the first five columns, then insert the table and then write the legend of the last 2 columns (the things that “blogger” forces one to do). And my conclusions at the very end of course.

The first column lists the states, in red those that have a pro Chavez governor, and in purple those that have an opponent to Chavez as governor (I still leave Bolivar as a pro-Chavez state although the governor has broken up with Chavez a few weeks ago, but for most of his tenure he was a big supporter).
The second column shows the votes of Chavez in 2000.
In the third the votes of the main opposition candidate in 2000, Arias Cardenas, that had about 85% of the opposition vote.

The fourth column displays the total signatures verified so far. I have highlighted in dark mauve the states where the number of signatures is larger than the chavista vote of 2000, meaning that in those states if the signature process had been a ballot Chavez would have been revoked there. In lighter mauve I highlighted the States where the signature number is almost as high as Chavez vote in 2000, that is states that more than likely would have revoked Chavez last week end in a secret balloting.
The fifth column titled “opposition gains” rate the percentile increase from column 3 to column 4. In blue the states where the opposition progress has been more than 70%, in yellow the states where the opposition has progressed less than 30%, states that arguably Chavez could recover, and in green the only state where actually the opposition has yielded ground.


StateChavez 2000Arias 2000Signatures 2003Opposition gains 2003Chavez advantage 2000Chavez advantage today
Aragua2929159177217651392.3%3.21.7
Vargas58958227234228186.1%2.61.4
Lara23723813012323836183.2%1.81.0
Caracas Center38736021393035920667.9%1.81.1
Nueva Esparta70805478477664860.2%1.50.9
Portuguesa146628529438378858.3%2.81.7
Bolivar1889497976512320954.5%2.41.5
Merida1273628978812309837.1%1.41.0
Falcon1313049443412940337.0%1.41.0
Trujillo116568605988303137.0%1.91.4
Amazonas1445085241153335.3%1.71.3
Sucre1452197944110401830.9%1.81.4
Barinas105507608897662525.8%1.71.4
Tachira16019412771315992425.2%1.31.0
Cojedes47409319633881621.4%1.51.2
Guarico98481640447121011.2%1.51.4
Delta Amacuro251571285710005-22.2%2.02.5
Miranda34600325718546060879.1%1.30.8
Carabobo30370117584230968276.1%1.71.0
Yaracuy82836549179346670.2% 1.50.9
Monagas1134647674512661465.0%1.50.9
Amzoategui18961311391218742864.5%1.71.0
Zulia32186631241546641049.3%1.00.7
Apure53527441775017413.6%1.21.1


The sixth and seven columns are a theoretical exercise where I assume that by some miracle Chavez retains his votes and that the opposition only progresses thanks to a decrease in the abstention vote of 2000. These two columns show how the Chavez advantage has receeded. Simply, in column 6 I divided the Chavez vote in 2000 by the Aria Cardenas vote of 2000. For example in Aragua for every voter of Arias, Chavez got 3.2 votes! In column 7, I divided the vote of Chavez in 2000 by the signatures of 2003. Now the Chavez advantage in Aragua has dwindled to 1 opposition vote for 1.7 vote for Chavez. In column 7 the states that Chavez might as well kiss goodbye are highlighted in tan.

Conclusion

Clearly Chavez has lost big not only in previously opposition ruled states, but also in some of the states that followed him from the beginning. These states share all one thing in common: they have been hit particularly hard by the crisis: Aragua, Carabobo, Lara and Miranda the industrial states who have seen their industrial park devastated, Zulia that has seen its important oil industry “taken away” by chavistas without regards for the local habits. That Zulia as our biggest state is already the biggest problem for Chavez should not hide the stunning progress of the opposition elsewhere. In Lara, reputedly one of the chavistas stronghold, the progress is spectacular. Lara was a state locked for Chavez, with the governor a notorious chavista from the coups of 1992, going as far as to even imitate Chavez’s ticks, most of town halls with chavista mayors, an iron clad majority at the state assembly. The misfortune for Chavez in Lara is that the total pre-eminence of his people implies that there is no one to blame locally for the mismanagement and economical crisis.

Only in Delta Amacuro does Chavez show some remaining power. But this is our poorest state probably, and one whose majority population is Native American. This rather thinly settled state might have actually benefited from the new Constitution that improves the status of indigenous people. Even the social programs that have failed elsewhere might have paradoxically worked some there, considering the previous state of neglect that this are suffered.

As for my own state, Yaracuy. This state actually voted for Chavez in 2000 but at the same time re-elected its governor, Eduardo Lapi with even more votes than Chavez got. Naturally, we were not from the start strong supporters of Chavez. And Chavez has pretty much abandoned us to our fate. This explain why even though Chavez was not that strong 3 years ago, he managed to lose so much more ground in Yaracuy. People are not dumb and they know who they are dealing with. The local question is which pro Chavez mayors are going to survive next year elections…

The table shows how much Chavez has receded. The states where he has faded the least are the rural states of the Llanos (Cojedes, Barinas, Guarico) or Tachira where he was not too strong to begin with. Even if he were to recover these states with lot of spending until the referendum, the main states of Zulia, Miranda and even Lara and Aragua seem quite uphill if not lost for good!

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