Monday, January 12, 2004

AN ELECTORAL RABBIT OUT OF THE HAT

Monday 12, January 2004

The president of Primero Justicia (PJ) has pulled out a fast one this week end, something that in my opinion can be quite important. Mr. Borges, president of Primero Justicia (Justice First) has brought forward what should have been public knowledge for all (including myself): legally there can be no regional and local elections until December 2004. Why is this so important?

Background.

According to the 1999 constitution and the laws that followed, regular elections can only be held in December, our election day being the first Sunday of December. With the constitutional change, and under the excuse of the transition period, once the new document was approved on 12/15/99, the electoral offices were put up for re-election in July 2000, instead of December 2000 as it should have been.

Furthermore, a ruling by the high court decided that the 6 months between 7/2000 and 12/2000 would be a ñapa, (a bonus) to the normal 12/2000 12/2004 term. This also applied to Chavez 6 year term, which became a 6 year + 6 months.

A Chavez trap?

By deciding to announce his candidates to prospective local elections in July 2004 Chavez set up a mechanism that until today was unchallenged. Amazingly we had to wait for four months of this initiative to find someone contesting the legality of it. Why? The urgent desire to see chavistas out of office? The general legal ignorance of people? I did wonder briefly about it a few weeks ago but I did not know the legalese of the case and I thought that some agreement had been made where from now on regional elections would be held every four years in July. But this is not possible apparently.

However Chavez by setting up the local election mechanism was slowly inducing the political greed of the opposition politicians to bloom. Indeed, if the opposition has much better numbers than in 2000, it stands to gain a few governorships and townships. For career politicians, suddenly, the recall election is not as important as their future career. And as a side bonus for Chavez it creates plenty of instances where the fragile opposition unity. This is due as the discrepancy between the unity wishes of the people and the lack of mechanism to decide the united candidates.

This malaise was part of the problem through December when the signatures collected it seemed that the traditional political hacks were more worried about how to decide the candidatures of July instead of defending the signatures.

The electoral surprise of Borges.

PJ might be a young party but it is learning fast. And of all the opposition movements it is probably the one that has its ear closer to what is happening in the streets. This is not a free declaration to stir the pot. It is likely that Mr. Borges is pursuing several things:

1) Have the movements within the Coordinadora Democratica (CD) face their immediate responsibility, the one that brought them together, the one that garnered them the people’s support, the Recall Election. No more dithering! This is what is killing enthusiasm since the signature drive!

2) Remind people that the problem is Chavez. His governors and mayors might be part of the problem but they are not the problem. The problem is Chavez.

3) Remind them that any talk of elections, of unique regional candidates is not only distracting but very complex, and plays into the hands of Chavez. If the Recall Election is held by late May, it will be much easier and less divisive to hold local elections in December, with probably even more votes to grab for the opposition as chavismo will be very diminished. But if local elections happen at or near an eventual Recall Election, without a mechanism of candidate selection, the infighting might turn off voters and allow Chavez to squeak by. A victory of Chavez at the Recall Election will demobilize the opponent electorate and perhaps allow him to regain most of the states and cities currently held by chavistas.

4) Bring back PJ to the front news, which seems to be working as can be heard tonight on TV when some of the apoplectic colleagues of PJ in the CD are making declarations to unity, declarations sorely missed through the holidays, and displaying their dislike of PJ incidentally (which might be a confession of PJ strength).

5) Force the CD to define once and for all how unified candidacies will achieved, in particular the one that matters, the one that will oppose the chavista candidate were the Recall Election be held and won.

I think that Mr. Borges was right to kick butt yesterday and tonight on TV. He might not reach the goal of elections in December 2004, but he might reach other more important goals such as reviving a somnolent CD. As days go it seems more and more that only PJ has a clue as to what is going on. Even old and wily Accion Democratica seems out of the loop. But the old coots might have the final trick, deal with Chavez directly. The PJ move might force that issue too, which might be a very good thing: it is time to know where the political class stand, with the people for the Recall Election, or for their own interests.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Danny Glover's vacation in Venezuela

Sunday 11, January 2004

Danny Glover, an African American actor, came to Venezuela this week. At first I did not pay much attention since I did not know who the man was. But in the papers, and in the blogosphere, his visit has created quite a stir. So I inquired further.

Mr. Glover claim to fame is to have starred with Mel Gibson in some rather violent cop movies, the ones you wipe away blood from your face when you leave the theater. No wonder I did not know the character, I tend to avoid these kind of entertainement. Interestingly for some people these type of movie acting can lead places, to the California Governor's mansion or to spokesperson of TransAfrica. This group, I understand, is a rather left wing African American group (radical chic even?). On the other side of the movie ticket, Mel Gibson is known for machismo, homophobic and anti Semitic controversies among others. Which goes to tell you that extremes have a surprising way to meet.

Mr. Glover arrived in Caracas this week announcing that he was here in a neutral visit to "observe" the fate of Venezuelan Blacks. A rather surprising statement when you land in a country where mestizo is the norm rather than the exception, where "pure Black" are counted in very few percentage points. Details, details. Surpises were not over: when the agenda was announced it turned out that Mr. Glover was going to meet with a whole series of chavista organizations and none from the other side. Mr. Glover cinematic career probably gave him a strange sense of neutrality.

But I will not go into the details, so many bloggers have got a field day on that: Guillermo "Open Letter to Danny Glover"; Miguel "Lethal Ignorance"; Scott; Gustavo "Danny Glover travels to Venezuela to show his support for Black Venezuelans" (and others that I might have missed).

My contribution will limit to two things, a comment on one visit of Mr. Glover, and something that I personally know of Transafrica.

Let’s start with Mr. Glover visit to Mr. Giordani, our minister of development, the very one that created the economic mess that triggered the 2002 devaluation and the unrest we live ever since. Fired in April 2002, reluctantly by Chavez who sees in Giordani a father figure cum guru, he was brought back to his position as soon as possible where he keeps plodding ahead in his fantasy economy constructs. Well, apparently he was only to happy to receive Mr. Glover. Rarely visitors to Mr. Giordani are reported, probably because few serious visitors come to his office, unless they try to get something out from him. Actually, now that I think of it I cannot remember of any major finance/economy minister visiting Venezuela in quite a while.

The result of that rather extensive visit are reported yesterday by El Nacional (subscription, sorry). Apparently Danny Glover got the full round up of the Venezuelan economy and prospects, something that even us in Venezuela are not granted by the minister who never speaks to the press. Imagine an economy minister never speaking to the press in the US or Europe!

But the best part was that Danny Glover was treated to the details of the Eje Orinoco Apure project. This nincompoopy project aimed at developing the least developed area of Venezuela through the Orinoco and Apure rivers has more to do with the (in)famous projects of the extinct USSR to drain rivers in some forsaken deserts rather than any serious scheme. If the area is lightly settled and only has a little bit of cattle ranching, there must be reason for it. Perhaps strengthening first was is already there would be a good way to start, but glorious revolutions are not known for gradualism. But after this famous visit WE KNOW NOW the real reasons for the Orinoco-Apure!!!! According to El Nacional, Giordani said that the implementation of this plan would allow Mr. Glover to star in action adventure movies filmed there!!!!!!! Glory Be!!!

To close this post I would like to mention some information about the TransAfrica Forum that I did get personally and that the local Venezuelan Press has chosen to ignore. I did get a letter from an African American that visited Venezuela late last year and that left the country without a particularly good impression of its authorities and the glorious revolution. This person, for the record, cannot be qualified as Republican Black since among other things he opposes the Cuban embargo. But he seems to have seen the light on his brief stay in Venezuela. Well, he wrote me a few days later of his attending the TransAfrica fund raising show using the movie "The Revolution will not be televised", a manipulation of the Venezuelan reality now plagued by scandal. Apparently he was not impressed with the motives of the attendance of the show in Washington DC and was kind enough to share this data with me. Although I do not share the mail that I receive (it says private, the "talk back" feature is for public comment), I will post an excerpt from one of his letters to me (and I will invite him to post further here if he wishes).

The event last night was put on partially by the TransAfrica Forum. A political group that I receive their event schedule. I was impressed by them and their standing up for disadvantaged people in the Caribbean, Central and South America and Africa. I just wish they and other citizens of the USA would call a wrong a wrong no matter who does it. I find we as Blacks in this country are far to willing to overlook wrongs performed by leaders we like. Don't get me wrong I like the fact that Fidel has stood up to the USA for all these years and I think the embargo against Cuba should be lifted but I don't like the fact that the Cuban people cannot speak their minds on fear of being imprisoned. So I say Embargo NO, Fidel NO. As the saying goes two wrongs don't make a right.

Clear and loud from Washington DC.

My personal interpretation when I put 2 and 2 together is that the intentions of TransAfrica are not necessarily all holy and like many of these groups, fringe or not, some of its members subconciously strive in perpetuating cliches and divisions, for their self-perpetuation in office. This does not stop Danny Glover from getting a big kick out of his visit here, at least seen from a picture of him dancing at the opening of the Martin Luther King school in Naiguata. By the way Danny, what would this unquestioned noble soul think of the violence promoted by Chavez?

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Qaddafi and Chavez
The school of left wing authoritarianism, Venezuela or Libya

Saturday 10, January 2004

A few months ago I did write about some perturbing similarities between the mess that Zimbabwe has become and the mess that Venezuela is becoming. Yesterday the New York Times had an article on the recent decision of Qaddafi to give up any suspicious weapon program that he might have. I have picked up a few sentences that feel too eerily close to home. The words from the Times article are adequately pasted as Libyan green.

These experts agree that the main factors underlying his decision [to give up his illicit weapons programs] are more likely to be his disastrous economic policies at home, the squandering of Libya's bountiful oil resources and a deepening isolation that threatens any hopes for the country's future.

Squandering oil wealth? What has Chavez done with 3 full years of high oil prices?

"Qaddafi has always had a messianic complex," one Western expert said of the unpredictable army officer, who seized power in 1969. "He feels that God has been unfair to him by making him the leader of a small country of five million people, and he always imagined himself walking on a larger stage, like president of the United States."

Messianic complex? We know all about that in Venezuela. Chavez wants at the very least to be the heir of Castro. Quite often his subconscious betrays him when he speaks of a reborn Gran Colombia, the short lived state that encompassed Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. His, fortunately tuned down, pretense to be the direct spiritual heir of Bolivar is in all memories.

Having failed to exert power as an Arab leader in a region that has largely shunned his erratic policies, Colonel Qaddafi has sought in the last decade to reinvent himself as an African leader, lavishing financial aid and oil supplies on a destitute continent, including some on pariahs like President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Having failed to woo leaders of South America Chavez has turned to the trouble-makers. Evo Morales of Bolivia is the latest example.

But none of those attempts to find legitimacy have delivered what Libya needs most: an infusion of Western investment, especially in its oil industry, whose production has declined steadily from a peak of 3.3 million barrels a day in the late 1970's to about 1.4 million barrels a day now, industry experts say.

Venezuela own oil industry has dropped dramatically. Only the few fields managed by foreign contractors are maintaining the out put by dangerous overexploitation. Yet, we were above 3 million in 2002 but we are down to 2.5 and going down, according to all reports from foreign reception of oil. Seriously audited numbers from Venezuela are unavailable.

As a result, much of Libya looks like its poor neighbors. Its schools, hospitals and airports have deteriorated, and its national airline is dangerous to fly, Western pilots say. "They would like to have Boeing aircraft and rebuild their fleet," one Westerner said.

Venezuela as shown a marked pauperization, from the informal vendors taking downtown streets of most cities, to the ruinous state of hospitals and schools. Of course, a few showcase items are in the works such as a renovated airport for Caracas. Visitors see that first.

The arrival of satellite television and the Internet since the late 1990's - much later than they appeared in most Arab countries- has given rise to what professors call an "electronic perestroika," an opening to the outside world that has shocked many Libyans into a realization of the backward conditions they live in.

This is probably the reason why Chavez has not succeeded yet in taking over the way he would like to. There is something to be said for mass communication in the early XXI century.

Seven months later, Mr. Ghanim's claim to have privatized 360 state companies is more fiction than reality, foreign diplomats say, but he is trying to rebuild the institutions of public administration that Colonel Qaddafi spent years tearing down to prevent any competitor for power from emerging.

That tearing down of any potential competitor is what Chavez is doing. No institutions have survived the chavista onslaught. The very few, like the Central Bank, that somehow were revamped by serious minded pro-Chavez people are indeed turning against Chavez excesses and he is trying to sack the office holders. Only submissive organizations can be tolerated.

"This is a micromanaged country," said one diplomat. "If a light bulb burns out, no one dares to change it until he gets permission from the leader."

Well, it does not go that far in Venezuela yet. However it is well known that no minister will make any significant, not important, just significant decision without "consulting". The Venezuelan public administration, slow from the start, has got down to an ice age pace.

"He is the chief of his tribe, and he wants most of all for his family to be at the helm of the ship," a European diplomat observed.

Chavez tribe is extensive and well provisioned. One brother is close at hand on sensitive political positions. His father was elected to his home state, Barinas, in 1998 on the breath of Chavez. The Barinas administration is reported employing relatives of Chavez. And the tribe is quite extensive if you consider those faithful from 1992 that already then bowed to any wish and whim of the great leader, such as Diosdado Cabello, the multi-ministered acolyte, the closest to the big patronage positions.

It is not pointless to recall that Chavez is the only elected head of state to have visited the post Gulf War I Saddam Hussein. In that trip he also made a stop in Libya where Qaddafy personally toured him at the US raid bombing sites, museum like preserved. Whether the US bombing was justified is a different question, but Qaddafy and Hussein are/were heads of pariah states during that visit, and certainly they have no democratic credential, nor were democratically elected. The lack of regard for this fact speaks volume on Chavez real motivations for Venezuela's future.

We have a saying in Venezuela:

Dios los cria y ellos se juntan

(God breeds them and they find each other)

Indeed.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Back home!

Friday 9, January 2004

I finally drove back yesterday to Yaracuy to resume work. The dry season has started. When I drove to Caracas on December 20 late rains had kept all lush and green. But we got strong weird dry winds for several days between Christmas and New Year and the effect on the vegetation can already be seen as the seasonal dryness is catching up fast. On the other hand we do get cooler temperatures at night and luminous skies. Until late January that is, then comes the worse part of the year until rains come again, sometime in May.

Road traffic was still relatively light as about half of the country is still on vacation. One of the AC at work is broke and the service company is closed until next Monday... Other suppliers and clients are reopening this Wednesday as we did, or next Monday. It is quite amazing how many sectors of the country shut solid for three full weeks this time of year.

On the other hand Chavez's mouth is already working full speed. Conflict in the National Assembly has already started as the chavista side is pushing all the orders from above. They do have until April to secure control of the High Court to block a referendum. They need to produce money for vote buying ASAP to prepare the campaign just in case; and too bad for credit rating and inflation.

In addition some changes have been made in the Army commands to neutralize "unreliable" components. Or so go the analysts. But who knows what really is going on inside the barracks. As long as Chavez can lavish money on the Army I suppose that they will stay quiet, if not supporting deliberately Chavez.

The interesting news really is that Garcia Carneiro, the commander of the Army has been named defense secretary. This officer is not one of the brightest one of the armed forces, barely making the grade. But he was wise enough to tie his fate to Chavez and accept to perform all sorts of tasks from him, including selling produce on Avenida Bolivar at discount rates while the Colombian border becomes a Colombian guerilla freeway. He has no charisma whatsoever but he "looks" like the people and he has managed to convince Chavez of his loyalty. It seems that he is becoming an experiment of sorts: how to transform a mediocre soldier into an acceptable political candidate, as Chavez seems to be running out of acceptable candidates. Certainly Chavez has shown a consistent dislike of the civil sector, preferring any time he can to put soldiers in key public service position. Garcia Carneiro already known for spreading the revolutionary largesses to the masses is certainly a candidate for cross over to the pseudo civilian world that Chavez would like so much to create. A world used to follow orders blindly, even if the orders are ridiculous. Once a soldier...

It seems that while the country was enjoying the season's bounties Chavez was diligently at work on his cause. What was the oppositon doing?

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Yet another wanna-be fascist moment

Wednesday 7, Janaury 2004

I am stuck in Caracas for work and actually had to learn the news of the day reading Miguel's post today.

In a nut shell, Chavez is still insisting on getting his hands on the day to day reserves of the Central Bank. Besides showing a total ignorance on how a monetary system is run, it demonstrates once again his utter disregard for the rule of law. It seems that today was yet another page taken from the "HOW TO" series, namely how to establish an authoritarian state. It came complete with "spontaneous demonstrations", threats "in the name of the people that want what is theirs" (don't I have some rights myself on that money?), emotional blackmail and what not. Plus a few assorted "cadenas" through the day.

But do not be fooled by Chavez rhetoric, the real objectives are:

1- bend to his will one of the last institutions that still try to work by the book
2- get some cash for distribution among his followers
3- distract the opinion from the Recall Election
4- try to provoke something, anything, that will allow him at the very least to delay any election that he cannot control.

Expect further actions in the coming days, from outright intervention of the Central Bank to a "spontaneous" workers take over of the Parmalat assets in Venezuela. Anything to occupy the front pages and pretend to be leading the country "for the people and against the ennemies of the people". Authoritarian characters (fascists?) are very good at inventing ennemies when needed to justify the unjustifiable. Even when they claim to be from the left political side, acting for the poor and the forgotten. Look at Zimbabwe! Same difference! Except that trains are still not running on time. Or whatever symbol of efficiency you pick if there are no trains.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Dia de Reyes
Reyes: The Kings (the magii or the three wise men)

Tuesday 6, January 2004

Today is the end of the holiday season when we commemorate the supposed visit to baby Jesus by the three wise men. Many homes get their presents today (which makes much more sense to me, the Spaniards got it right!). Those homes that do not get presents, like mine, still get a special pastry with something hidden inside. Whoever gets the prize is the queen or king for the day. This might be silly but the special pastry is anything but silly.

We will thus bury the holiday season with yet another nice cake. And the diet will start in earnest tomorrow. At my place it is the day we take down all Christmas decoration. But this is an European custom, many Venezuelan homes are not adverse at keeping their decorations for a week or two more, some until February 2! But this is overkill if you ask me...

It is also the day when all the TV Christmas jingles mercifully end (though they have been going down since New Year day).
Vacation almost over

Monday 5, January 2004 (blogger down again...)

Yep, soon I will be back to work in Yaracuy so I am trying to finish as many vacation projects as I can finish. Including a few hikes in the Avila Mountains to try to work out some Christmas damage.

Nothing much happening fortunately. This morning though was the official return of politics. And they were as usual but worse. That is, on Monday morning talk shows the chavistas attending seemed to have all the same language no matter what the topic at hand. You guessed right, the "megafraude" of the opposition. The discourse is now finely honed to an elemental "the massive fraud of the opposition will be uncovered finally" but we are still waiting for a serious evidence able to invalidate, say, 100 000 signatures.

It is so ridiculous that this morning I was wondering what would one of these Chavez agents would say if the journalist asked "Is the sky blue this morning?". Probably "It would have been bluer had the opposition not falsified the signatures". But perhaps I should worry, repeating the same leitmotiv over and over again might have some effect in a country where journalists are not very good at asking the tough and real questions. One full month after the signature collection some people might start forgetting what really happened. And buy Chavez line.

The other interesting item is that some recent polls give somewhat better numbers for Chavez. With the Christmas lull and the money spread over the last three months this is normal. However at least one poll reported that the numbers of other chavista officials were not improving. I have not been able to track that particular poll yet so I do not want to speculate too much on it. I heard on TV that the chavista office holder numbers represent the real hard core Chavez vote. Thus the bonus gained by Chavez might be very weak and hardly sustainable without an improvement of the economy, a real one that is, creating real jobs. We’ll see.

I probably will write from Yaracuy next.

Friday, January 02, 2004

The New Year’s post

Thursday 1, January 2004
(But posted on 2, blogger being down...)

If you are expecting big revelations from my New Year partying you will be very disappointed. I have always found New Year a particularly artificial holiday, with the aggravations of being noisy and expensive, noisy being the key word in Caracas. Thus, my New Year experiences have mostly been as an observer, with a drink in hand perhaps, but an observer rather than a reveler. But keep with me and I will let you know of one very unexpected and gratifying reward last night.

The day was strangely gloomy for the season, and for the first time since I have memory of December 31 in Caracas, the afternoon was cold and drizzly. Cold in the tropics is anything below 20C. I thought it to be a rather troubling symbol to say goodbye to the gloomiest year in our recent history. I did have to make an errand in downtown Caracas, and under that strange unseasonable weather (1) the mess, dirt and lack of upkeep of Caracas were put more in evidence than usual. Caracas looked almost like a bombed city! Rather depressing.

This year as usual I settled for a nice diner with some relatives. I did get asked to go to Plaza Altamira for the gigantic street partying that took place there. Really... I mean, I have nothing against collective street partying, but I find that my reserves dwindle real fast as noise and crowd size increase. So there we were at a little before midnight, barely done with diner, looking outside waiting for fireworks. Fireworks in Venezuela are big at Christmas and at New Years. Midnight can eventually become so smoky that after a while you cannot see anymore the weakest or distant bolts. Indeed, it is a source of amazement for me how many people do buy those incredibly expensive fireworks that would do proud a small US town on July 4th.

This year it was a little bit different. Usually between December 15 and January 2, there is no way you can have a complete night sleep: some jerk will blast something around 3 AM. Let’s just say that thanks to Chavez recession, this year we slept better than usual. However, fireworks might have been fewer this year but they were all saved for the New Year gap at 11:30-12:30, in as good a display as usual, if much briefer. I was actually very pleased by that. The holidays have been a little bit depressed this year. Few houses did outside lighting, and most of those that did were rather discreet affairs. Shopping was down considerably. The mood in the streets was not too hot. The Christmas fire works were nothing to write home about. When a country goes down 11.7 % down on its per capita income in one year cheerful folks are not to be expected. I do read this brief and unexpected sparkling outburst as a positive sign that people spirits are indeed looking forward. Venezuelans might have had a less than glitzy holiday, but consciously they all seemed to have targeted the year switch to show their optimism for better days.

The divine surprise came from TV of all places. Chavistas had announced some organized revelry in front of Miraflores to wait for a new and bright year with the great leader. On the other side of town opposition mayors tried to repeat what had happened last year for the first time: a Times Square like wait for the New Year. In the middle of the general strike, lacking gas and partying facilities it sort of made sense to go all out on foot to wait together for a the New Year as a gesture of defiance against Chavez. But this year? Surely people would go to their old partying habits. Instead the crowds were huge. A giant stage had been placed near Plaza Altamira and the Francisco de Miranda avenue became the latest salsa dancing arena. Close to midnight all but one of the networks switched to show the partying, waiting for midnight and following the very nice fireworks display, courtesy of Chacao town hall.

The lone dissenting network was VTV, the state network. Instead this one showed some kind of indoor concert featuring some Cuban group with a lousy Celia Cruz wanna-be. Rather pathetic. And no crowds to be filmed outside Miraflores (or anywhere else for that matter). Come on! Whenever there is any single meeting in front of Miraflores VTV cameras are right there showing the "incredible popular support to our president". For all the talk of megafraud for the signature drives, it seems that even chavistas went to Altamira for a good time, as the crowds shown on TV seem to indicate, by the way. This was precious, the vaunted chavista party nowhere to be seen.

Incidentally VTV was the news by its lack of news. In Venezuela all networks tone down their shows and talk shows, relying on old movies and a few specials which look strangely more like a party broadcast than a Christmas special US style. VTV in spite of the arrival of a new director was particularly dismal. Its fare for the last two weeks has consisted almost exclusively of re-broadcast of the "best" shows of 2003, meaning the opinion talk shows that best defended Chavez. Almost no paid advertisement, but instead all the ministries sort of put up a choral of their employees to transmit along the minister a holiday message. I will pass on the low technical merit. Unbelievable!!!!! This for a government that through the last few months promised a "Christmas that will count for two" as a clear reference to the missed holidays of last year. Well, if you ask me, certainly VTV did its best to dampen Christmas. It is in these little things that one detects the true despair of the administration, how scared they are running these days, how real the number of signatures against Chavez.

I find myself this January first in a much better mood than expected. Or is it because the lack of hangover?


(1) The rainy season ends late November and December rains are rare, in particular in the second half. Those are the most luminous, cool and dry days in Venezuela, the best time to visit as all is still green from the recent rains, but the humidity and heat are gone. By late February heat comes back, and all is brown and dusty.

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.

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