Thursday, October 30, 2008

From this side of the yucky news

Yesterday and today I had to concentrate on an oncoming trip to Valencia for business. Tonight I tried to catch on the news and I am not pleased. Not to mention my own news.

Looting on the road

I did the round trip to Valencia today. Depending from the hour of day I chose either the Nirgua-Bejuma road to reach South Valencia or the Moron road to reach the Northern suburbs. 10 years ago I used to like the Moron option. The highway from Morn to Valencia has some spectacular views and the Moron San Felipe road was a reasonable two lanes road with tolerable traffic but rolling through a sometimes impossible green country side. Now I only take that road when I need to avoid South Valencia rush hour. Today I had to go both ways through Moron.

On the way in, there was a jam that lasted for about 15 minutes until we could start again. A truck carrying cement bags had overturned and we had to wait until the looters had finished their work to be able to pass again. There was no rescue crew or nothing when I went by, just a Nazional Guard that did the best he could to make sure the looters did not fight among themselves and making sure they would not be run over by the cars waiting in line patiently.

On my return trip same thing. Except this time it took longer, I had to turn my car off: the tows had arrived and they were moving the big truck. When I arrived to the spot I could see that it had also been looted by the natives before the security and tows could operate.

Interesting detail: it was barely a mile from the morning "incident". Coincidence?

Ten years of Chaevz rule to help the people and the only thing we have become is a nation of organized looters where authorities must wait for the looting to be done before they can rescue the victims.

The Venezuelan satellite

Apparently yesterday Venezuela became the owner of a communication satellite. It is Chinese made, it is Chinese controlled, it is Chinese technology. It is Venezuelan dollars just to see Chavez Ooooh and Aaaah with his friend Evo Morales. Did Evo pay for his trip to watch this thing, by the way?

The satellite is called, of course, Simon Bolivar. We know the Chinese are doing all the job because chavista engineers are unable to keep electricity running in Venezuela. Chavista engineers are unable to keep a serviceable Internet system. Chavista engineers are unable to provide us with a regular supply of clean water. Chavista engineers are unable to provide us with pot hole free roads. And we are expected to believe that chavista engineers can design and control a satellite?

Chavez is upset because he thinks that the independent media did not treat the satellite launch as a national holiday. What was in for the Venezuelan people to celebrate? That VTV will get high definition so that Chavez propaganda programs come to you in high definition? So, in sheer spite, he announces that he wants to establish in Venezuela a satellite factory. Why not? We export nothing but oil, why not try to export satellites? What do you say Hugo? A dozen a week?

Sometimes I really, really wonder what link with reality Chavez still has.....

Buying warm clothing from Bolivia

I suppose that in fact I should not bother wondering about Chavez contact with reality: since Bolivia was affected in its favorable customs to the US, Venezuela will buy 200 million USD worth of textile to Bolivia. Has anyone wondered what kind of textile was Bolivia selling to the US? Nice, light, breezy tropical textiles or the warmer, multicolored or not, sort sold for winter clothing? And what about promoting Venezuela own textile industry through the socialist cooperatives? How many of them are going to go bust as the state promotes cheap subsidized Bolivian textile to promote the wonders of ALBA?

But it gets better: in Bolivia they do not believe in this agreement. They point out justly that the Venezuelan market bears no comparison with the US market (Florida GDP is already bigger than Venezuela). Folks also point out that all sorts of wonderful economic joint ventures between Venezuela and Bolivia have amounedt to nothing, that Venezuela promises much but delivers little. Imagine that!!!!!

I wonder if overturned trucks carrying Bolivian clothing will also be looted......

Obamathon

Trying to find some news that if not good is at least not stupid I turn my eyes to the US. And I fail.

Trying to shore up support as polls are starting to tighten some, bringing Obama's result closer to a potential Bradley percentile, he decided to spend a huge wad of money to buy himself a cadena. That is right, Obama bought a simultaneous broadcast of a 30 minute infomercial on 3 major US networks.
Obama's infomercial aired at 8 p.m. EDT on CBS, NBC, and Fox, plus on cable on MSNBC, the Spanish-language Univision, and two networks targeted to African-American viewers, BET and TV One.
Now, Obama should take lessons from Chavez when he becomes president: Chavez gets ALL TV stations, ALL radio stations, ALL OVER THE COUNTRY for as long as he wants, SIMULTANEOUSLY, to say whatever he wants, to attack whomever he chooses, without the right of replica from the aggressed parties, AND he does not pay a penny for it.

I must admit that now that I was warming up to Obama that he pulls such a cheap stunt just because his campaign war chest if full of cash bothers me, bad. I mean, if he had done it 2-3 weeks ago, even better at convention time (he already had the cash then) I could understand. That is what Perot did in his time. But now, not even a week before election? I wonder if Hillary would have done such infomercial........

Anyway, good thing that the US got the faintest of hints as to what we must endure here day in and day out. The satellite launch never ending cadena apparently was quite something in the genre.


-The end-

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Venezuelan 2008 election: update 13 - Zulia, Chavez personal failure?

Considering that Chavez has been wanting to jail Manuel Rosales last week, I think it is time to review Zulia, the only certain good news for the opposition. Indeed, in spite of all the vitriol thrown by Chavez at Manuel Rosales and his likely successor, Pablo Perez, even pollsters that tend to favor Chavez are previewing victories by 20 points for the opposition. Note: this confirmed an earlier poll which was already establishing a favorable trend toward Rosales and Perez. If this turns out to be true it could by itself mean the very end of Chavez ambitions to force next year a reelection amendment. Henceforth Chavez involvement.



Why does Chavez hates Rosales so much?

That might be the question to understand what is going on over there. For this I can appeal directly to a post that just got published in Pajamas Media who asked me if I could explain such tantrums. I am just lifting from myself, 3 paragraphs over at Pajamas.

And yet this [decree laws, inhabilitaciones, recentralization] is not stopping the rise of opposition candidates which is also starting to be fueled by the corruption of the regime exposed mercilessly in a Miami trial. Thus Chavez after having invented yet another assassination attempt on him has decided to jail notable opponents (the dozens of previously claimed assassination attempts have resulted so far in no blood spilled nor any trial or convicted figure or even a picture of the plotters in the press).

Rosales has also another plus: he speaks like the people and he is very influential in the Andes region which is also escaping chavismo influence. He cannot run again for Zulia but he decided to go back to Maracaibo Town hall to retain a position of influence and remain in the news for future political plans. For some reason Chavez must have assumed that Rosales is the natural leader remaining for the opposition now that Mendoza and Lopez are out for several years. In his rage he has stopped measuring his words and yesterday he said that he was going to look into ways of putting him into jail. Note: this comes after he called Rosales “desgraciado (without divine grace) which in religious Zulia is akin at cursing.

Chavez is committing a major error here because if Rosales is indeed such a dangerous criminal, plotting against him to the point that he must cancel his visit to El Salvador for an important Ibero-American summit, how come Chavez did not have him arrested in the 8 years he has been governor? Has not Chavez controlled fully the intelligence apparatus since at least 2002, enough time one would presume to levy charges? We must thus interpret Chavez's anger to polls increasingly negative for his side and to him felling that he is losing control of the situation. He might not be wrong, but he is barking at the wrong dog: the fall of oil and an inflation reaching 40% will be his undoing much faster than any opposition politician can hope to be. Meanwhile his merciless attacks on Rosales, and others, only seem to strengthen them in the polls as they look like victims of abuse.


The Zulia peculiarity

Zulia is today the most populous state, a little bit like our California, or our Bolivia's Santa Cruz, a silly comparison that Chavez is fond of making these days as he threatens the state with military take over. He could not even dispatch promptly a military convoy to the Colombian border because it got stuck in traffic somewhere in Aragua, so we can wonder about his ability to militarize Zulia. The state was nothing much one hundred years ago as power in Venezuela resided then in the Andes and Caracas. The lower Zulia, humid and swampy, and Maracaibo unbearably hot lived because the commercial traffic of the Andes had to pass in front of Maracaibo.

But oil came and all changed. Air Conditioned allowed the rise of our second biggest metropolitan area, filled fast by immigration and a healthy birth rate. Zulia developed two things: a rich an dynamic local culture that invades us every year at Christmas with its gaitas and the sense that the rest of Venezuela were leeches of Zulia's oil. That Chavez has abused this privilege of central government by also giving Zulia's riches to people as undeserving as Castro has not escaped the locals.

Thus in spite of the misery that also exists in Zulia, chavismo has not prospered as much as elsewhere. True, the rise of a local politician of no particular charisma but of dogged will has helped. Zulianos in the early chavista years have been fond to cross their votes by electing Rosales to State and Chavez to Caracas. But this seems to be changing in an ominous way for Chavez. The first sign came with the red wave of 2004. All but two states fell in the hands of chavistadom. But Zulia not only resisted successfully, Rosales even improved his reelection score from 2000! Still, Chavez had won the Recall Election of 2004 there so there was noting much to worry, was it not? In 2006 Chavez won, but with the narrowest of margins in the country, and lost big in Maracaibo which was ruled by chavista mayor. This one, Giancarlo Di Martino, is now the candidate for governor. And then came the 2007 referendum where the margin of loss in Zulia was bigger than the national one! In Zulia the SI lost by 150 000 votes, nationwide it was a lower 130 000!

The message was clear for Chavez as he took the threat personally. In the table above I have changed a little bit the format by putting the percentage of votes Chavez got in 2006 in different Zulia's districts and what those districts yielded in 2007. I think it is very, very clear. Zulia needs to go chavista for Chavez to get a chance to change the constitution in a legal way.

But this is not going to be easy. We were surprised and disappointed across Venezuela when we saw that Rosales who could not run for reelection decided to go back as mayor of Maracaibo. True, Maracaibo is the second district of Venezuela but still, did this not reek of "I don't wanna go home!" ? Today we understand that Rosales had the right strategy. With Chavez's recent decree laws Rosales might have more money at his disposition as a mayor than as a governor. By controlling himself Maracaibo and having his protege as governor of Zulia, he transforms this one in a bastion. Chavez knows that very well and that is why he wants to put him in jail, except that the more he wants to, the larger the margin of victory for Rosales in Maracaibo looks like.

The table above is divided in three. First the Maracaibo metro area. Di Martino holds Maracaibo town hall because eight yers ago he won helped in part by a portion of the opposition who saw him as a maverick of sorts within chavismo. His reelection in 2004 was rather a surprise though he had not been a bad mayor. But since 2004 he got himself closely associated with Chavez and even with some guerilla/para groups. His weak star started fading and no matter what Chavez does to help him he is not catching at the polls. In fact, a case can be made that any help form Chavez is more of a kiss of death for Di Martino. Today, the latest surveys put Rosales at 70% in Maracaibo and Perez close to 60% state wide.

The second part are the oil working districts of Maracaibo. I chose Cabimas and Lagunillas as two districts hit very hard by the 2003 strike. Lagunillas has been lost for chavismo since then but Cabimas was still fighting grounds as it is more popular. But it looks like this time around Cabimas will finally break with Chavez.

The rural areas of Zulia (which is also a major food producer in addition of being an oil producer, making Zulia a economically vibrant state) have suffered a lot form Chavez policies. Land redistribution battles have been frequent, guerillas trafficking a common sight and kidnapping a growing industry. Thus even though that there is a rural class that deserved help, it looks like chavismo will also lose strength where supposedly it should be the strongest. I had to scan all rural districts to find one that seemed safely chavista, Sucre. This small district, at the bottom of the Lake, warm, humid and poor did indeed go Chavez in the past. But the result of the 2007 election and a decreasing trend in other elections make me place it in the too close to call category.

Thus we are maybe on the verge of a nearly clean sweep of the state for Rosales folks who should get the governor seat, 90% of town halls and perhaps even 2/3 of the legislature.

Chavez indeed will have proven to be the best campaign manager of Rosales and he will have created a powerful opposition base for 2010 and 2012. Well, maybe not for the opposition, rather Zulia opposition because the particularity of Zulia does not apply elsewhere: unfortuantely for the rest of the opposition in Venezuela the Zulia example cannot be replicated, its "cultural" make up, to give it a name, is different enough form the rest of the country. Santa Cruz it is not, but neither it is Caracas.

--- --- --- --- --- ---

This post is dedicated to Juan Cristobal at Caracas Chronicles so he can remember the warmth of his home land as he gets ready for a cold winter.


-The end-

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

La CANTV ahora es de todos, but not mine

I must report that I was left without Internet service for 6 hours yesterday. Apparently some cable was severed somewhere. OK, shit happens, but that is the second time since CANTV was taken over by the revolution. In the past when I was out of service it was because I had forgotten to pay my bill. And within a few hours of paying it was reestablished. Now, the only time I forgot to pay my bill, the reconnection lasted ALMOST 72 hours!

But that is not all: in San Felipe since CANTV was taken over by the revolucion bonita my pseudo broadband service has become hardly better than my dial up service of past years. That is true! Because of the low density of Internet in San Felipe then my dial up was the envy of others dial up as I could connect almost anytime at the first try. When pseudo broadband came I did not need to dial anymore and I got a somewhat faster service. Today that speed has gone down and some days I have trouble even downloading e-mail. I guess I still do not need to dial up so I should not complain. But there is also another mystery: at least once a week I notice that suddenly my connection goes near zero speed. That is, pages simply stop downloading. Sometimes it comes back on its own, sometimes I need to restart my computer! NOTE: I have an excellent anti virus system and firewall that I keep updated, so it is not a virus. This started happening within 6 months after CANTV was taken over.

As a consequence of this I have had to get a blackberry so I can always receive my work mails (no, do not ask, I do nothing on the blog with my berry, not even approval of comments). I also had to subscribe with a wireless net service who works slow but at least works all the time, as a back up (and when I travel through Venezuela which is nice). In other words, the CANTV takeover has forced me to double my Internet expenses! And not for the blog, just because of work and security reason. Because there is also another doubling of costs: cel phone services. It is now a need in Venezuela to have two wireless phones from two different companies when you travel a lot as I do, since you never know whose signal you will get: road security and service are at an all time low and you need to be able to reach someone fast if your car breaks down!!! I remember fondly the days when we could travel without a phone at all as we would be able to find help without much trouble without fearing to be robbed first, a time where we would stop anywhere to admire the view without fear for our life. Now travel is getting as fast as possible to a safe place. And there is no security in numbers as buses are regularly attacked by road pirates.

-The end-

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Venezuelan 2008 election: update 12 - Carabobo and Aragua, in search of the inner chavista

After having reviewed the Caracas area we can now look at the very interesting developments in Carabobo and Aragua, Venezuela's industrial "heartland" of sorts. The region stands out as probably the laboratory of what is at stake for the future of chavismo. We see in Aragua a traditional battle between a populist left and a more social democratic option and in Carabobo we can witness chavismo in all of its hubris as the Supremo decided to test his ability to dictate his choices. As such it is not so far fetched to write that the results of these two states will indicate us how democratic we are as a country, truly.



Carabobo

In Carabobo the opposition has one of its best shots at a strong come back, with some sour notes. Two things are at play here: chavismo has filed the possible worst of ideological candidates in a state that is more educated and more conscious of the bounties of democracy and economic freedom. As we have discussed when looking at past election results, chavismo tends to do poorly in developed urban areas whereas it does better in rural areas or dormitories: look for example the preceding post where the Caracas dormitories of Guarenas-Guatire vote more for Chavez than some of the lower classes of Caracas's Petare neighborhood. The other state where this is clearly seen is Carabobobo where Valencia and its residential neighborhoods of Naguanagua and San Diego vote against Chavez while more industrial and dormitory areas of Guacara, Libertador and Los Guayos hope for chavismo (though Guacara said NO in 2007). It is interesting to note that Valencia as the largest district in Carabobo has extensive popular areas in its South side and still that did not stop it from giving a major thumbs down to the constitutional reform of 2007.

Historically Carabobo had been ruled by the Salas dynasty for almost a decade and a half. Carabobo was considered as one of the best administered states. Thus the narrowest of losses by the then sitting governor Henrique Sals Feo was considered a surprise, even in such an unfavorable year as 2004 for the opposition. In fact of all the results of that regional election the ones of Carabobo were perceived as the most dubious one as the CNE sent Jorge Rodriguez to preside personally over what was considered organized cheating. Salas Feo threatened all sorts of actions but in the he decided to take care instead of his personal life and let the new Governor Acosta Carles take the state to seed. It paid off apparently because with little money, with little campaigning Salas Feo is parading far above on top of any serious poll published for the state. Maybe in retrospective it was a wise move for Salas as paradoxically the Acosta Carles administration might have been bad but not as bad as other chavista administrations. At the level of state services Carabobo could be recovered quickly to its pre-2004 status, which is apparently what people there want.

Acosta Carles was the Nazional Guard General who had the famous burp that went around the world in January 2003 when he seized a soft drink plant on strike. He became the darling of the vulgar chavismo, the one that wanted to punish the opposition, and thus his way to Carabobo governorship was a given. He was elected under a cloud, and a dark cloud at that because of the paradox that Salas Feo’s Proyecto Venezuela retained a majority in the state assembly, a cross voting never seen in Venezuela.

Still, Acosta Carles dropped his military fatigues and took the business civilian suit. And in more ways than one. He apparently started dealing discretely with the mayor of Valencia who even though an opposition mayor was also a personal enemy of the Salas. Quickly Acosta Carles found out that there was money to be made in social construction as well as popularity to be gained. We can criticize him at will but we are told that of all chavista governors he is the one that built the most housing under his tenure. He also had deals with Puerto Cabello commerce and harbor. Soon Acosta Carles showed the very dangerous situation within chavismo of being able not to depend anymore from the beloved great leader. Within two years of rule rumors of a break up between Acosta and Chavez were starting to circulate, not because of the corruption associated with his tenure, but because Chavez could not stand his independent ways. Early this year the break up came when Chavez forbade Acosta to run for reelection. After a few weeks Acosta decided to run anyway under his name and no matter what heavy artillery chavismo, and Chavez as the loudest gun, deployed against him, he retains at least 10-15% of voting intentions.

It must be said that Chavez did not simplify his task by ensuring that Mario Silva would be the PSUV candidate. We think that it must be because of his personal friendship between them because the man has absolutely none of the qualities needed to become governor of any state. He is crass, vulgar, vindictive, manipulator, a liar, probably a druggie and what not. But no one sucks better to Chavez, and this from his late night infamous show of La Hojilla that Chavez visited frequently. Apparently Chavez mistook the ratings of la Hojilla for approval of what was said there and decided to send Mario Silva with zero administrative experience, without any electoral victory under his belt, to earn the governorship of the third most important state of Venezuela, and perhaps the most sophisticated one at that in spite of its smaller size.

Needless to say that it has not worked out well. As far as I know Mario Silva has not been able to cross the 30% voting intentions in polls even though his situation improved some when people started realizing that Chavez really, really wanted Mario Silva and was not going to change him. In fact Chavez has been campaigning heavily in Carabobo. From there for example he expelled the US ambassador while at a Puerto Cabello meeting. At another opportunity he said that Carababo was a land of traitors, which is exactly the kind of thing you do not say if you want to endear yourself to the people of a rather proud state. This of course was promptly used by Acosta Carles in his web page.

These days there is a rumor that chavismo might consider making up with Acosta Carles, though we do not know if it is to give him the nod after all the insults Chavez sent his way, or to Mario Silva paying off Acosta, or maybe even another one though the late date almost excludes that possibility. But the damage is done among chavismo as its campaign turned really grotesque, to the delight of humor sites like Chigüire bipolar. Polls are clear, even if we were to assume that the Acosta and Silva people would make up and kiss in spite of the incredible insults exchanged, their sum is still a few points below Salas Feo.

But all is not rosy for the opposition as division reigns in at the level of municipalities. Proyecto Venezuela has proven to be a rather intolerant negotiator and wants all of the state for itself. This has not gone down well, in particular after 3 years of a diffident Salas Feo who only returned to run, avoiding any confrontation with chavismo for 3 years while others tried to defend Carabobo alone against the abuses of chavismo. Thus I am not expecting the opposition to make significant gains in its town hall count. Though this is also compensated in part by a relative lack of unity in chavismo camp. Except for the all but certain victory for the governorship one can only project tendencies, with victories in three Valencia districts.

Bejuma is an interesting district because it is one of the rare rural districts where actually chavismo and opposition can battle. Bejuma could be recovered this time by the opposition (it held it in 2000-2004), which would be bad news for chavismo in other such districts, the more technologically advanced rural areas which might be escaping the grasp of chavismo as evolved urban centers do.

Besides Bejuma the other district to watch is Puerto Cabello where chavismo has not hesitated in threatening local radio stations that were not favorable in their talk shows. The incredible graft existing in Puerto Cabello and the general deterioration of the area which also depends on tourism could bring a surprise as the opposition there did manage a unity candidate. But the historical trend in Puerto Cabello (Chavez got 71% in 2006) is not favorable and Lacava aggressiveness could pay off for chavismo.

Finally the possible good news for the opposition is that the many divisions within chavismo can compensate for the divisions within the opposition when the vote for the legislative council is considered. I expect there the opposition to get an easy majority.

Aragua

Aragua used to be the most chavista state of all. Chavez got 71.8% of the vote there in 2006 but the SI of 2007 was a paltry 53%. What happened?

Didalco Bolivar is the long serving governor of Aragua and through the quirks of electoral calendar and the 1999 constitution he has been ruling Aragua since 1995! A record in Venezuela! but he broke up with Chavez over the 2007 constitutional coup and as such Aragua is up in the air. That is, not accessible to the old opposition yet, but possibly to the new opposition that is birthing from chavismo ranks: the traditional opposition of Venezuela and the new one of Primero Justicia have only a role to play in Maracay and La Victoria.

Aragua has always been ruled from the left since governors are elected. This is due to two things: its industrial and worker trade union base, and its historical heritage as Jose Vicente Gomez administered Venezuela since Maracay and as such Aragua was the most controlled state of Venezuela 80 years ago. That Gomez established the main military bases of Venezuela there did not help in creating a democratic, dialog centered, political culture in the state.

When Chavez came to power Aragua of course gave him fervent support. In 2006 for his reelection the locals under the flag of PODEMOS did not do that well: of the 72% that Chavez got, 45.3% came from his own MVR ballot and PODEMOS only gave him 13.7%. This was already seen in 2004 when Didalco Bolivar got 12.3% from his own PODEMOS whereas the MVR brought him 37.8%. True, many people vote MVR because it was simpler to find in the ballot but it remains that the relative strength of PODEMOS in Aragua is weakening to the benefit of more radical chavismo. The whole question this time is to see how powerful PODEMOS really is, how the machinery of Didalco bolivar will be able to help its candidate, Henry Rosales, win.

Henry Rosales does have some advantages: he is a local, he is well known, he has the Didalco machinery behind, he won the only opposition primary which allowed a good support across the board, he has the rule of Didalco behind him which for all its fault looks to have been better than the one of its neighbors in Miranda and Carabobo. But Rosales lacks charisma, is seen too much as a continuation of Didalco who, ruling since 1995, is getting a little tiresome. In front of him he has the all but appointed Rafael Isea. And ex military participating in the coups of 1992 I have difficultly to be objective writing about him. This is made more difficult because as a finance minister he has presided his office while some of the deals exposed these days in Miami were taking place. Nobody is investigating him so far.

The campaign of Isea is very simple: gifts and promises, and I mean gifts as his giving washers and refrigerators are well known. Of course he does not pay them from his own pocket. But I have other more important problems with him: as a strong supporter of Chavez the state will become a radicalized one under his tenure. I suspect that he will have no qualms dismantling the federal structure to surrender it to the local military entrenched at Maracay bases and who already have more local power than what they should be getting. Isea is someone who like Chaevz has no notion of what dialog is, and who as a military even as a governor of his state he will have no problems obeying Chavez even if it hurts his state.

The only district here worth watching is Girardot, the main one that covers most of Maracay. There is a generalized political division in this district. Chavismo won it in 2004 without a majority of the vote and thus it was always up for grabs. The 46.3% SI were further bad news, noteworthy considering that Maracay has a large military population which is supposed to support Chavez. It seems that the candidate of Primero Justicia Richard Mardo is slowly gaining and could become the next mayor. That would be a major success for Primero Justicia because it would consecrate it as a national party proving that it can gain important districts outside of the Caracas region. Meanwhile Mardo has had no problem campaigning with Henry Rosales and if Mardo wins he would be in excellent position to succeed Rosales in a not so distant future, taking Aragua from the left for the first time in nearly three decades.

In the other districts things are not clear as we see mostly a fight between PSUV and PODEMOS or PODEMOS supported candidates. The parameters here vary from one town to the next: the influence of Didalco Bolivar in the local vote, whether PODEMOS has indeed its own strength and if that one is able to combine with the rest of the opposition. I tend to go PSUV because of the heavy effort that chavismo has been putting there since 2004 but surprises are always possible so I am not calling anythign in Aragua except for two districts of Maracay that should not go to the PSUV.

Meanwhile the elections for the legislative assembly are totally up for grabs. The district drawing of the state favors PODEMOS and the MVR. The opposition can only hope to sneak in where MVR and PODEMOS are even. No matter who wins the governor's seat, the odds of a legislative body going PSUV anyway is high.

Conclusions

The results of these two states are much more crucial than those more glamorous of Miranda or Zulia. In there we are seeing the most likely scenario of a post Chavez era. The leftist and trade union tradition in both states allow the PSUV to have a more genuine political base there, not as Chaevz dependent. Thus the fight is between a radicalized PSUV or a social democratic future. This social democracy is almost a caricature in Carabobo under Acosta Carles leadership, but the 10% of people behind him are the popular classes that cannot stand the intolerance of Chavez and his PSUV. In Aragua it is more clear as PODEMOS and PSUV battle in earnest for the mantle of the left, whatever left means today, that is. Thus we must hope for a Rosales victory but Isea is running strong.

The future opposition is also being defined there even if it is not as obvious. The "right" is in fact formed by relatively socially conscious movements such as Proyecto Venezuela of Primero Justicia. It seems that there AD and Copei who still breathe in other states, are gone for good as major players here. Salas Feo will face the definite challenge to see what he is going to do with Proyecto Venezuela now that he messed up its start as a National Party that many thought it had reached in 1998. Since he cannot run again in four years he will have to define a heir and this is always a risky proposal in what has been until now a family franchise. Thus Primero Justicia has an excellent chance to rise fast in these two states once the Salas fade away and either the PSUV or PODEMOS decide the left. Yet, one cannot discard that out of spite a portion of Proyecto Venezuela goes to the UNT to complicate things some.


-The end-

The BOB awards

The German Deutsche Welle has its Internet awards. Although we could argue about their selection method (the Spanish section is dominated by Argentina again, 1 Chile, 1 Cuba and the rest from Spain) there is at least two things that are of interest for readers of this page. In the categories of Best Blog, Spanish blogs and RSF blogs you have Generacion Y of Yoani Sanchez, dissident Cuban who was interviewed by no one else but Alek Boyd in a trip he made to Cuba. I certainly urge you to cast your vote for her in the three categories. But there is also a surprise: there is a blog about Venezuela by regular reader Alpha! Free Opinion Venezuela. Why the only blog about Venezuela would be in dutch remains a mystery but there it is and the least you can do is to vote for him (unless you read Dutch and you can convince yourself that there are better blogs in Dutch than his). Note to Alpha: you got the nomination but if you do not write more often it is useless. So go and hit the key board at least during the voting period.

-The end-

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rogues gone bust

This delicious title for a Washington Post Editorial deserves a full publication below. ¡A cada cochino le toca su sabado!

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U.S. adversaries were delighted by the economic crisis -- until it affected the price of oil.

A few weeks ago, the leaders of Russia, Iran and Venezuela were gloating gleefully that the financial crisis would depose the United States as the world's leading power. Yet as the price of oil dropped below $65 last week -- or less than half its peak price last summer -- it was looking more likely that global economic turmoil would produce a quite different result: the substantial weakening of those countries' challenge to U.S. interests in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.

Unless oil prices quickly recover, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are likely to face even tougher domestic economic challenges in 2009 than the next U.S. president. According to independent estimates, both countries need an average oil price of up to $95 a barrel to fund the populist subsidies and social programs they have launched in recent years -- not to mention billions of dollars in arms purchases from Russia. Venezuela has been furiously importing food to fill empty shop shelves, while Iran heavily subsidizes domestic fuel. Even if Mr. Chávez and Mr. Ahmadinejad manage to continue those politically sensitive programs, they may find it harder to sponsor foreign clients -- from Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East to Cuba's Castro brothers. Already Mr. Chávez has stiffed Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, to whom he had promised a $4 billion oil refinery.

Though somewhat less reliant on oil revenue, Russia may be even worse off, because of its dependence on foreign investment. The Russian stock market has dropped more than 70 percent since last spring, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has had to commit more than $200 billion of the country's reserves to shore up banks. In the past several years, Mr. Putin has several times interrupted energy deliveries to European clients to make political points; he may have less financial leeway to wield that weapon in the future.

Will the decline of revenue lessen the hostility of these regimes toward the United States? There are some intriguing early signs. Russia unexpectedly announced last week that it would not oppose an extension of the U.N. mandate for U.S. troops in Iraq. Though it has refused to rein in its nuclear program, Iran has at least temporarily curbed Hamas, Hezbollah and the "special groups" of Iraq, which in recent months have all but ceased attacks on American and Israeli targets.

Mr. Chávez was notably disturbed when both Barack Obama and John McCain pledged in their final debate to eliminate U.S. dependence on Venezuelan oil within a decade. The caudillo quickly appeared on television with an appeal to the candidates that "instead of saying that they are going to free themselves [of Venezuelan oil], what we have to do is sit down and talk and come to an agreement because we need each other." Is that the "Bolivarian revolutionary" suddenly seeking rapprochement with "the empire?" If so, it may not be the last such offer that the global economic crisis delivers to the next president's desk.


-The end-

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Saturday comics: austerity under Chavez

Willart, collaborator to El Chigüire Bipolar has his own blog. Recently he put an hilarious take on Chavez austerity measures to face the crisis, basically based on what quality of Scotch will his administration be drinking according to oil prices. I did not mention it and even less translate it because I had no time for it, not to mention that the translation would not be as good as the original. But still, a reader, BW, did it for fun and sent it to me. Yes, the translation cannot be as good as the original but I trust you will get a big kick out of it. Click to enlarge.



-The end-

Friday, October 24, 2008

How to defeat chavo/fascism

Ciudadania Activa is an organization that spends its time trying to educate the voter on democratic values and how to fight to preserve them. This video is self explanatory, and not even directed at current elections: "we have the power to enforce the constitution" (from the repeated violations of red chavismo I add, in case you do not get the point).



-The end-

The Venezuelan 2008 election: update 11- The Caracas Metropolitan area

It is time to start making individual predictions. It is not possible to know exactly what is going on in all of the country as many polls are not revealed (if anyone knows of serious polls of local value, please let me know for future entries). But there is enough information to make as of today some educated guesses as to which are the outcomes. I will go area by area as I feel confident enough to discuss the local evolution and hazard some prediction. We will start with the Caracas area, "Region Capital" as the one which is right now with the clearer outlook.

The area is electorally complex as it includes two states, Vargas and Miranda, an independent municipality, Libertador, and an overlay structure that includes Libertador and the municipalities of Miranda that constitute the Caracas Metropolitan area. Thus the chart below which will be the most complex of the series, so bear with me :)

This chart is organized the same as future charts will. First column the state and some noted districts. Second, the current holder. Third, the number of electors in thousands. Then if there has been a reliable poll made available. In fifth what I consider the trend as far as I can tell based on previous results, my evaluation of the campaign and candidates and polls when available. Sixth column is the SI vote in 2007 and finally what I think will be the final result as I write, that is, my bold guess. Just before the vote I will publish a general table with any correction as needed.

Vargas

Let's start with the simplest one. Vargas can be qualified as the ideal chavista state in that it is the state in Venezuela which is perhaps the most dependent on the central government subsidies, the ultimate clientèle state. After the 1999 disaster, in a fit of late guilt, Vargas benefited for a while of all sorts of grants. However the reconstruction of the state, which should have provided it with an economic boom, was a failure, and a corruption hot bed. If to this you add that the two biggest employers are the Caracas Airport and the second harbour of the country, La Guaira, all under political control of the central government, it is easy to realize that Vargas is the state where corruption, political manipulation and posturing are de rigueur. The few private business still surviving in the area report constant harassment by governmental entities that are always on the prowl as the state subsidies are becoming unable to provide for the constantly increasing number of wanna-be leeches.

As such chavismo should have a head start in Vargas for the simple reason that nary a family does not have one of its members depending on a state job or of a Misiones handout and thus all fear for their income were chavismo to lose the state. And yet in December 2007 Vargas only gave 56% yes to Chavez constitutional reform. Still, Vargas should be quite a safe seat but chavismo has managed to put up one of the very worst possible candidates, General Garcia Carneiro, a pseudo revolutionary hero, whose giving ways when he was a minister should make him a shoo in if it were not for his dreadful lack of charisma. To this the aura of inefficacy and the just terrible administration of outgoing governor Rodriguez San Juan have been weighing heavily on the chavista heritage. The opposition unity candidate, Roberto Smith, is infinitely more dynamic and appealing than Garcia Carneiro leaden style and to great surprise Vargas has become a competitive race. I still think that at the end the considerable dependence of the state on Chavez direct stipends will be enough for chavismo to retain the state but it is clear that as of today Smith has an excellent shot at making what would be one of the major upsets of this election.

Libertador

This used to be the ex-federal district which became a lone hanging municipality. It is as such the most populous of the country and more than half of the Caracas Metropolitan area. It has also gigantic neighborhoods of pauper "ranchos" on the hills, in particular in the Southern areas of Antimano and Coche, and more central Cementerio. More than half of the people of the district live in such "ranchos". But the rest is not necessarily much better off. The lower and low middle class districts of La Vega, Coche, El Valle and 23 Enero do contain about a third of the population. In fact there is only a few middle class neighborhoods such as Paraiso, La Candelaria and some "parroquias" of downtown and only two areas that can qualify as middle to higher middle class, El Recreo/El Bosque and La Florida. It was thus a major surprise when the 2007 referendum lost in Libertador when the SI did not even reach 48%!!!

The reason of such a set back is simply the outrageously bad administration of Freddy Bernal, unaccountably reelected 4 years ago when the opposition did not present a candidate for Libertador. If anything his second tenure was worse than his first one and Chavez simply banned him from running anywhere else, pretending he did not exist anymore. Under Bernal Libertador has become a garbage collecting area plagued with horrendous crime statistics, with collapsing infrastructure and public services. Under Bernal the Eastern dwellers of Caracas who would still visit the Solano avenue restaurants, the Florida museums and even the historical district on a Sunday morning have stopped coming. Catia today is something you drive by on your way to the airport. If anyone has divided the city into two estranged zones it is Bernal.

And yet chavismo could manage to retain the district. Not because things have improved, they have not. Not because like Vargas the density of public employees is high and dependent. Not because of its candidate, Jorge Rodriguez who is an untested administrator, a divisive personality, and who carries and aura of cheating, CNE or not, corruption and nepotism. In fact Rodriguez was such a bad choice that there is at least two chavista dissident candidatures running against Rodriguez though they do not seem to be prospering much as Caracas also carries the highest densities of hard core chavista.

No, the reason why Libertador could remain chavista is because the opposition presents itself divided and in addition with two rather lousy candidates.

The more verifiable opposition candidate is Stalin Gonzalez, emanating from the leftist Bandera Roja student body at the UCV. He might be from Bamdera Roja and be called Stalin, but he has demonstrated his political skills and maturity helping in the direction of the student movement successfully during the second half of 2007. Yet it is understandable that many in Libertador wonder how come a freshly graduated student without any administrative experience could deal with the most complex municipal district of Venezuela with Chavez sitting in the middle of its China shop.

Thus the second candidate, opportunist extraordinaire and ex mayor of Libertador himself, Claudio Fermin. If there is a slimy figure that has tried every possible way to survive the political turmoil of Venezuela it is Claudio Fermin who was even presidential candidate in 1993. And this even as he failed his reelection for Libertador under a cloud of corruption, which did not stop him to try at different opportunities to make deals with chavismo.

Why the opposition failed to come with a more convincing candidate will remain one of the great mysteries of this election, and one of its most flagrant failures. Though a last minute deal is always possible. Thus even though Libertador should go to the opposition because of Bernal dreadful tenure and Rodriguez questionable personality, it is still too close to call, and that even if Fermin and Gonzalez manage a deal before November 23.

Caracas Metropolitan District

This overlay district includes Libertador and 4 Miranda districts: Chacao, Baruta, Sucre and El Hatillo. Together these 4 districts constitute barely a third of the electoral population (1 102 000 to Libertador 2 094 000). Yet three of them are the ones that vote the most against Chavez by huge margins that cannot be replicated in Libertador and even less in populous Sucre which now will go big time for Ocariz and Primero Justicia.

Carlos Ocariz has been a diligent activist in Sucre and had it not been for abstention in 2004 he would have unseated then yet another dreadful mayor, Rangel Avalos who made it there only because he was the son of Jose Vicente Rangel, Chavez henchman until 2006. Amazingly Ocariz "si sube cerro", that is, manages to reach the populous lower class neighborhoods of Petare, and even further where some chavistas fear to thread these days. The chavista candidate there is former minister Jesse Chacon, another loser though at least closely associated with Chavez for the hard core believer. So far his campaign has been based on gifts to the people such as washers and refrigerators. This has made him the laughing stock as the hills around Petare are sorely in lack of water and electricity. Ocariz replied easily with "mision agarre" -mission take it anyway-, promising that he will bring water and electricity. The polls are clear, Ocariz should win by no less than 10 points in a district that should be rojo, rojito.

In the table above I have included two sections of Libertador that will go against chavista candidates for sure as they voted NO by margins varying from 5 to 40%! Just adding these two electoral sub-districts to the 4 in Miranda evens up a lot the field for the opposition unity candidate, Ledezma. This one had the misfortune to run against glamour boy Leopoldo Lopez. As such he was low in public opinion polls. When Leopoldo was barred from running he did not want Ledezma to take his unity role and UNT even tried to sneak in at the last moment a substitute for Leopoldo. This was perceived rightly as dirty tricks and arrogance from Leopoldo and thus cost him some political capital. To Ledezma merit he campaigned in earnest, improved his polls some and became a real unity candidate in spite of UNT misgivings. In fact he has been doing quite well and is now on top of serious pollsters as Isturiz seems unable to carry Caracas for his master.

It is not that Isturiz would be such a bad candidate: after the current tenure of Barreto, anyone is an improvement. Barreto might has been an even worse mayor than Bernal, so bad that Chavez has simply forbidden him to run again. His own polls were probably so bad that he did not even entertain the idea of running on his own anyway. Then again Barreto failure was something that anyone should have predicted. To begin with he was elected mayor under historically high abstention for Caracas, garnering barely 390 000 votes in a district which carried then 8 times that many electors! Had the opposition presented a candidate Barreto would have never been elected as even chavistas reject his grotesque actions.

Poor Isturiz must carry that Barreto inheritance, a Barreto who did not even to try to protect his authority over hospitals and the police as he happily surrendered it to the central government making the Mayor of Caracas at large an empty shell for whomever wins next November. It is to be noted that Isturiz is the guy that defeated Fermin for Libertador until in turn he was defeated by Ledezma. People do remember that and even remember Ledezma years when the city was not plagued by trash and street vendors. Isturiz himself was a reasonable mayor of Libertador but that was long ago and since then his servility to Chavez as a controversial education minister is now weighing on him as many independents who could vote for him blame him for Chavez failures.

Thus Ledezma should win without much trouble now that Leopoldo finally has endorsed him. Along the way he should carry the municipal council although the way Caracas electoral districts are drawn it will require him to carry more than 55% to ensure a majority there. Possible but not a sure thing.

Miranda

The last leg of this post is Miranda whose different districts I have highlighted in light orange, to make you understand better the different overlaps.

In a way Miranda is the same story as Caracas Mayor at large in that the heavy anti Chavez area of Caracas represents about a third of the population. But like Libertador Miranda presents pockets of strong opposition, weakening districts for chavismo and districts that cannot grow in pro Chavez vote to compensate for the decline in other districts. To that you add another dismal administration by the leader of chavismo right wing (meaning the one that likes money and corruption) Diosdado Cabello.

Cabello was also narrowly elected because of the heavy abstention of 2004 when Henrique Mendoza was a shoo-in candidate. His major argument then was that with Diosdado there would be a first lady in Miranda, grossly alluding to Mendoza single status as possible homosexuality. Just as it was predictable for Barreto, Cabello failed, though we would have expected more from him as he had exerced some ministerial positions including a brief stint as vice president in 2002. But Diosdado and his relatives are much more interested in money and power to be bothered by solving the problems of the people. Thus when Diosdado saw the first polls that ensured a speedy return of Mendoza he had him barred form running.

The hope there was to crate an opposition division with a more controversial Henrique Capriles Radonski as unity candidate. For a while it worked as a pissed Mendoza had a Leopoldo moment refusing to endorse at first Capriles. There are reasons to doubt Capriles nomination. He is very “Caracas” in his speech, his ways and that will not endear him with rural areas of Miranda and the very popular dormitories of Guarenas and the Tuy valley as they must commute up to 4 hours a day to work for a boss like Capriles. But Capriles has been a reasonable mayor for Baruta, is a popular leader among the Primero Justicia crowds, and is very, very dynamic on the trail, much more than a fat Diosdado who seems still amazed that he needs to campaign for reelection. Now all polls coincide in that Capriles will win and the only question is whether the margin of victory will be more than 10%. I personally think that it will and that Capriles will also carry the legislative vote and probably pick up 2 to 4 town halls, inaugurating perhaps more than a decade of Primero Justicia rule over the state.

In the table above I have added some telltale districts. I have ignored those on the Eastern part of the state as they have low population, little influence and would keep probably a stable pro Chavez vote. Certainly not an increase able to compensate for the areas where chavismo will fall irremediably. The surprise in 2007 for Miranda was populous Guaicaipuro and Guatire/Zamora districts results. Guaicaipuro and Miranda capital Los Teques went NO, in spite of the inauguration of a metro to Caracas (though still not completely functional). Guatire voted NO, barely compensated for by its rural areas thus going overall to SI barely. But Guarenas, a big chavista dormitory went a rather weak 56%. Cristobal Rojas and Paz Castillo, two districts of the Tuy, went heavily for chavismo, thankful I suppose for the Tuy train. But in their success last November we also saw the seed of Diosdado downfall: there is no room to grow there for him. There is a chance for some of these districts to be taken over by the opposition mayor candidates which will be a major blow for chavismo. Though I admit that my predictions might be a tad optimistic. Still, as Sucre is going for Ocariz big time, that by itself would be a major opposition gain in Miranda even if the opposition fails to pick Guaicaipuro or any of Guarenas or Guatire.

Conclusion

All in all this is the best bet for the opposition to make major gains, of those with big potential to influence the future. Except for Libertador, all of its candidates are “new” people, with some administrative experience and political talent, things that are woefully missing within chavismo who has better talent elsewhere, but not in Caracas besides Isturiz.

Historically Caracas has tended to be against the Miraflores tenant, no matter what the color was. These past 10 years of chavista domination can be considered an anomaly. It would not be a surprise for the Caracas region to become the first one to abandon fully chavismo. If Ledezma, Capriles and Ocariz individually score each victories with margins larger than 10% we might be in for 8 years at least of reasonably good administration and opposition domination with dire consequences for chavismo ambitions in the next legislative elections and 2012 presidential election. Not to mention that Ledezma and Capriles would be at hand to direct any future effort to counter Chavez reelection directly from the streets of Caracas with the support of its people. It is in fact amazing that Chavez does not spend more time than he does in Caracas. Perhaps he cannot conceive of Libertador abandoning him. Perhaps he cannot imagine that Petare will vote for Ocariz. But they can and Chavez might be in for a rude awakening.


-The end-

Thursday, October 23, 2008

News from Europe: thumbs down on Chavez

The European Parliament voted today to condemn Venezuela for barring politicians to run in elections and for the expulsion of two Human Rights Watch Activists. Of course Venezuela denied everything.

From additional information not appearing in press at the time I type, this is in fact worse for Chavez than it might seem at first. I am not going back on the cases except to remind folks that notable opposition candidates were barred from running this November on specious charges, without a trial and even less of a guilty court ruling. That is, a public employee, Clodosvaldo Russian, decided on his own who could or could not run in November while he refused to check on the scandalous money bag trial in Miami, the "valijagate", which should be his first obligation. Of course anyone could see through it and now the European Parliament in Strasbourg took the pain to vote a condemnation of Venezuela for violating human rights. In the deal the obnoxious expulsion of Human Rights Watch workers was also included as another violation.

No, what is more interesting to discuss is what this will mean for Chavez.

First the lame excuse that the vote only included the right wing parties is indeed lame (and I pass on the disqualification of these parties thrown by some chavistas). True, they all voted for, but it is also true that the social democrats abstained. Only the left more or less on Chavez payroll took the floor to defend what cannot be defended. Then again the speakers from Portugal and Izquierda Unida at Strasbourg have benefited from junkets to Chavez activities. Or their co-religionists, same difference. They do not want to see one of their main donors and promoters look really bad.

What is interesting here is the silence of the socialists, the real ones, the good ones. Apparently they were divided on this sanction and in a time of crisis where it is important to show coherence they prefer not to participate in the debate and not to vote. In other words, a long condescending European left is now unwilling to follow Chavez whenever he wants. Heck, even those willing to vote in favor are comfortable with abstention! His actions are catching up with him. Only the fringe left still follows.

At any rate, one thing is certain, as of now Venezuela is on the watch list of Europe as a regime of the same caliber as Zimbabwe. We all knew it, it is now just official and as of now Chavez reception in europe will be colder and colder, when received. Poor Hugo, he loves so much being received in European capitals.........

But that is all fine, more dangerous news for Hugo are coming from Miami, dutifully reported by the Miami Herald, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. If they do not get Chavez for Human Rights violations they will get him for being a crook. One always lead to the other anyway.

-The end-

The Venezuelan 2008 election: update 10- The Keller survey

I think it is worth visiting the regular Keller survey. This one is done in general each trimester and looks at general trends more than actual local voting. You can find it here (PDF) or satisfy yourself with the slides that I picked up below as particularly relevant for the November election.

In general the survey notes a decrease of chavismo and of Chavez himself though he still remains solidly close to 50%. But that decrease is not necessarily to the advantage of the opposition: the group with the largest increase are those who are described as NiNi, but who I qualify more as a "I do not care who's in charge, as long goodies keep coming". Chavez has had a long spell on these folks but their attachment to him was always relative and since the great populist measures of 2003-2004, Chavez finds it more and more difficult to hold their attention.

All in all the survey confirms my own suspicions: even though it seems that the opposition is gaining the upper hand the election is still very volatile and will be decided in the two weeks before voting, often regardless what polls say today. What I mean is that the opposition seems primed to get at least 6 states but it could go now as high as a dozen. The exact number varies wildly every week depending what Chavez insults were uttered and whether they reached his base and what electrical power outage happened or what shelf suddenly emptied the week end before the vote. Now, let's look at Keller highlights.


The first slide that caught my attention is the territorial division he chose. In each region he puts first in green the percentage of voters in that region. And then he puts the percentage of what groups represent in this region. That is why the count is not round. For example, the "andina" region counts 7% of Venezuelan voters. It also includes 3% of the chavista voters of the country, 10% of the NiNi and 8% of the opposition share of the vote. The results are nothing readers of this blog did not know from my previous electoral posts. However there is a novelty for me: Keller gives now the North-Eastern region to the opposition, something that I was giving to Chavez until now. I suppose that it means that Tarek rule has been bad enough that the main state, Anzoategui, is about to return to an opposition administration.

Another interesting slide was the one on crime. There all agree, from chavistas to opposition: the governmental action against crime is very deficient. No wonder the opposition politicians are using that argument more and more. The purple slices say it all.

A cute slide is whom in the US is the choice of Venezuelans. There we see again a strange concordance. Even though the majority of each group does not know, in each group Obama wins among those who know enough to make a choice (red slices) and McCain loses (blue slices). Amazingly inside the opposition Obama scores an even larger margin, 36 to 10 as 31 to 10 for chavistas!!! I suppose that at some level chavismo know that to maintain a screaming Chavez, McCain would be better at the White House!

To close this post let's discuss the abstention problem. According to Keller the abstention problem is not really an opposition problem anymore, but it is becoming a chavista problem. That is, the desertion that chavismo experienced in 2007 is confirmed. Many disgruntled chavistas want to punish Chavez for failed promises and authoritarian abuse but they are not ready to vote for the opposition. In the slide below we can see the voting intention, which favors apparently the opposition38 to 34. But when the question is asked to those who are certain to vote, the opposition advantage goes to zero. Clearly chavismo need to mobilize its base and the recent aggressiveness of Chavez might be explained by such results which I am sure are also reflected in the polling agencies hired by chavismo.


All of these strange things were observed by Keller in August-September. It is safe to say that these ones are exacerbated in unpredictable ways this late October. We shall see.

-The end-

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The US on a protectionist path?

An IBD editorial muses about what I consider Obama's weakest point: his willingness to submit free trade treaties to the whims of Unions and a few pols in Congress. The example of course is Colombia who is blocked from an FTA because under Uribe assassination of trade union leaders has not gone down enough to the tastes of Pelosi and allies. True, Uribe still has work to do but on that field looking at his global actions of taking down the FARC and trying to control general violence, including a considerably improved safety for union leaders, one would thing his successes should be rewarded instead of putting him through more unnecessary hoops that might in the end tire him and become counter productive. Not to mention that the current Colombia US balance is right now in favor of Colombia, which makes the Pelosi gang on trade look even more silly than what they really are.

But as it is usually the case, trends are more worrying than actual cases and the IBD folks wonder about Canada playing footsie with Europe since Obama announced that the FTA treaty with them might be reviewed. In fact it was the lowest point of Obama in his latest debate, when pressed on FTA by McCain. Clearly he did not know what to answer and reached for a fast "on the trail" cliché to reply. That is very worrisome. And I am sure that his misstep on Colombia was noticed by Canada and Mexico.

There are two things that need to be noted here: the US has always had a tendency toward isolationism. It was brought out kicking and screaming by Pearl Harbor and has been playing around since there, to global benefit in spite of a few pointed errors. Or does anyone think that we would be better off today if the Soviet Union where still splitting Europe in two?

The second thing to be noted is that Senators usually do not make the best candidates, the more so when their Senate experience is pretty much all that they have. And this year we have TWO senators running!!!! Usually I prefer when there is at least a governor, they do have a better grasp of the real world (though Bush is a flaming exception!). Although I have decanted for Obama I am still worried that he is a single term senator. And it shows when he takes positions like he does on Colombia and NAFTA. The current US problems are not due to NAFTA or Colombia, they are due to Wall Street uncontrolled speculation and the unwillingness of the US to confront its social drug problem. Creeping isolationism will not protect the US against drugs or loss of jobs overseas while it will favor authoritarian regimes elsewhere. Chavez would love nothing better than an autocratic Uribe to justify his strong armed rule and justify a road to war.

-The end-

You know that Chavez is going to run out of money when...

Today the BBC carries (semi hat tip SYB) that the Argentina government will take over the private pension plans of Argentina. The excuse is to protect them from the turmoil of the world markets. First, there is no way that Argentina which is basically a permanently broke government can protect the money deposited in the private pension funds. I do not know how the private pension system worked in Argentina, it could have been good or bad, that is not the point. What I know for sure is the dismal record of ALL Argentina governments since Peron and how all in the end ate all the trust and savings of the people. The current administration is no exception as Cristina has already proven herself to be an incompetent ruler in the barely one year she has been in office as she messed up badly the agrarian crisis through her, oh, so very Peronist arrogance.

But this is in a way anecdotal for us concerned about Venezuelan matters. What this take over of the pension plans, pretty much a highway robbery if you ask me, means is that Argentina has realized that it cannot rely on Chavez anymore to shore up its financial troubles. Maybe Chavez thinks Venezuela is safe from the financial global mess but in Argentina they know how to add and rest, and better than Chavez it seems. Thus they are taking measures, in true Peronist style, to make sure Cristina can keep making populist promises. We all know how it is going to end: after an initial apparent improvement through creative accounting the reality will come to roost. Then we will see yet again another massive devaluation of the Argentina currency, whatever name it will have at that time. The people that 14 years ago started saving in these plans will not be allowed to remove their deposits, or partially at best, and what they must leave will be eaten by devaluation and inflation. A fraction of it will have gone to buy out piqueteros and the sort, and the bulk to people close to the Peronist party. O just plain waste. They are good at waste in Argentina.

And the Argentine cycle will start again as after an interregnum of sorts (the current opposition mayor of Buenos Aires?) they will vote in yet again a new Peronist government, apparently never learning the lessons of history.

I am not laughing at Argentina because the future of chavismo is to become our own Peronist version, bankrupting the country every couple of decades. Meanwhile the current crowd at Casa Rosada gives us a new meaning for rats abandoning ship.

-The end-

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fin de regne symptoms for Venezuela

I know, I know, I tend to abuse this line in titles. But what can I tell you, everyday that passes we are getting more into that mood of a world ending. The irony here is that as the leftist idol of first decade of this century is irremediably declining, a more true Liberal idol, of the good kind, is about to start his own decade up North.

Where should I start? By Diosdado Cabello, whose incompetent 4 year sting at the helm of Miranda state has been so negative that he sees no way to stop the rise in polls of Capriles Radonski but by reopening a dismissed trial about him. Only in a country where the judicial power has lost absolutely all independence can you see such a judicial abuse.

Should I continue by yet another nationwide power outage that killed for most of us our Sunday rest? Yes, on a day of low electric needs (it was even a cool day so there was not even much of an AC demand) the system once again collapsed and left me in Caracas for more than 2 hours out of juice. But the sad part here is that a few days ago Chavez imposed on us yet another cadena. There he was witnessing the inauguration of some electrical facility in the Tuy valley. For people who have a few neurones it was clear that the size of the facility was unable to solve much in the pressing electrical problems of Venezuela. But still, that was not the point: the point was that Chavez wanted us to believe that a young woman, of her own admission trained in Cuba in electrical power management, was able to direct the facility from a simple lap top casually tossed on some table, not even a proper desk. Electrical plants are now run from cheap lap tops instead of dedicated boards in safe/security rooms?

What is this sudden urge, by the way, to do everything Cuban? Can Cuba, an island with only a few millions people with so many pressing needs, supply Venezuela's 28 million people pressing needs? That Barrio Adentro 1 is now an obvious semi failure is not escaping the good people of Venezuela. In such "cubanization" of cadenas we also see one of these sure signs of profound decay: look for unlikely messiah to come and save the day.

Should I move on the two UNT activists who were arrested at a PSUV rally because they were taking pictures and wearing red shirts to blend in? Chavez even mentioned his courage and temple as these two dangerous terrorists were caught. Of course they were terrorist as they were taking pictures of the empty areas that VTV is careful never to show in Chavez rallies, a true terrifying sight for the beleivers! Never mind that the state police and state helicopters are used at tax payer expenses to film any opposition rally... This item is so scandalous by the way that it elicited a very strong editorial of Teodoro. And yet no response from the authorities against Teodoro: in yet another sure sign that chavismo is smelling the end, they do not bother anymore to argue with Teodoro, knowing full well that they will be the worse off. Not to mention that the full force of the state is used against two kids does not show at all security and confidence in the said state but yet are not used against Teodoro. Abuse of the weak is yet another sign of end of times.

And since it is getting late, should I finish about the spectacular corruption trial in Miami? The amount of details revealed is simply astounding. The tentacles of corruption have reached so deep in the Venezuelan government that one is dumbfounded at the means and ways billions have been stolen from future generations of Venezuelans. And yet the Chavez administration remains basically silent as if nothing is happening; they pretend that it is only a ploy of the US to slander Chavez. That is yet another sure sign of how bereft of arguments chavismo is. The strategy cannot fly anyway because many of the accusations confirmed these days in Miami were already done 2-3 years ago without any action taken against the perpetrators. The most famous case, Nobrega, ex finance of minister directly indicated as having taken at least 20 million USD while in office has been languishing for 1 year in court. Meanwhile chavismo is busy trying to restart the failed trial against Capriles. But in the sad lot the most pathetic bunch are some leftists that are trying to explain to us that a little bit of corruption might be a necessary evil to allow the Chavez experiment to succeed in the end. When these people reach such lows of debasement, then you know the end is near.

I do not know what is coming next, a democracy or at last a fascist Chavez tyranny. But one thing is certain, the world he created will not last long, and even less at a 60 USD a barrel.

-The end-

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Mallarmé and me

A few days before I reached Paris I read that the Petit Trianon had been restored after an arduous year of work and would re-open to the public just as I was making it to Paris. Of course I tried to plan to go but bad weather and the flu prevented me from completing an overdue visit. On my only visit to Versailles, in a year that I prefer not to recall, the Petit Trianon was closed to the public. We could only walk around and watch the stunning architecture all dirty as graffiti covered some of the walls. My young eyes were shocked, from my history book the charming but organized lines had always mesmerized me as the ideal palace.

In truth I suspect the French to have had a difficult relationship with Le Petit Trianon. After all it was the small palace constructed by Louis the XV for his most famous mistress, and then became the private playground of Marie Antoinette. All, of course, at tax payer expense, a symbol of frivolity difficult to stomach for a more austere Republican France.

But years have gone by and culture wars eventually rest under a soothing layer of dust. The restoration of the Galerie des Glaces was hailed and we also forgot or accepted that the German Empire was proclaimed there, at Versailles, in 1870. And now Le Petit Trianon becomes a full member in the hallowed ranks of French cultural masterpieces. French TV did not waste time glossing on the Austrian interloper anymore. In fact her good taste was more likely to be praised. We might not be ready to thank her for starving peasants so as to afford life in the palace, but at least we have learned to look at her in a more consequent way, not the caricature that my school history books still carried.

And thus eventually time reconcile us around a common heritage. Except in Venezuela where Chavez is busy reopening old wounds that we thought long ago sealed. My return was a few days before October 12 which is now the Day of Indigenous Resistance and Columbus a guy that purposely discovered America so its people could be enslaved. Or something to the effect. Now the Colombus monument, destroyed by chavista hordes, will not be restored and the site will be renamed for indigenous tribes. We are told the Colombus statue has been restored but we are not shown the picture to prove it.

If cultural wars occur it is because our past has a meaning. We have a choice between understanding what our past really meant, through understanding the context and free ourself of what stains our heritage. Or we may prefer to look at a context that is no more and make it truer than what has reached us. We can thus chose to embrace Le Petit Trianon without diminishing the pain of an era or destroy the Colombus statue pretending that there was no pain in that era. Such is the final paradox of culture wars when people confuse understanding and knowledge. But being denied a Trianon visit would not deprive me of more musings on this paradox as France is so rich in well digested cultural paradoxes.

Not going to Versailles gave me the chance to go to my most beloved museum: Orsay.


The Musée d'Orsay was built inside the old Orsay railway station, saving this magnificent building from destruction and revealing to us the magnificent temples to travel that were XIX century "gares", the door to the fantastic travels until then reserved to the minority willing to face the hardship of traveling before railways. Today the preserved entrance to the station is also the gateway to a magical trip through XIX century art, with the most magnificent collection of Impressionist paintings you can find anywhere, even though routinely some of the pick choices are on loan somewhere. Impressionism and Railways share in having changed our minds and views of the world.

When I have only one day in Paris, there is one thing I always do, rain or shine: Notre Dame and a walk through the Marais. If luck gives me a second day then it is the Musée d'Orsay, even for only one hour, to go directly to the Impressionists. Besides a few Renaissance painters such as Fra Angelico, the only thrills I get watching paintings are with Impressionists and their near sequels. I got cold sweats when I saw in Chicago the Après Midi à La Grande Jatte of Seurat, I lacked oxygen when I met Renoir's Le Dejeuner des Canotiers at the Phillips Collection and was forced to look for a bench to sit down the first time I was confronted to Mary Cassat's The Boating Party at the National Gallery. She and Lincoln are for me in Washington what Notre Dame and Orsay are in Paris.

The Impressionist collection at Orsay is for me as much a physical experience as a visual one. The power of these paintings reach me in ways that I do not understand, or rather that I understand too well if I start a Jungian archetype self study, not the subject of this blog. But not all, not always. This time Gauguin left me cold. Some of the great Manet were missing and noticing it disturbed me. Thus for once I was able to focus more on what a painting meant than what it did to me. The first one that arrested me was one that I had never paid as much attention before, as so powerfully hidden by the larger Manets. I am talking here of the extraordinary portrait of poet Mallarmé, which adorns any high school literature book in France. Or should anyway.

I have had a difficult relationship with Mallarmé, one of the great poets that I could not study in school as end of year constraints made our French teacher skip over him. Thus if I went deep into Baudelaire and Verlaine, Mallarmé I had to do on my own and I confess with little success and many frustrations. See, Mallarmé is the kind of poet that you do not understand much when you read but somehow you know as your read him that it is really great stuff. A little bit like pornography for a famous Supreme Court Judge who said that he could not define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. Mallarmé was not a pornographer that I know of but then again only him could get away with such a verse to close a sonnet:

Je pense plus longtemps peut-être éperdument
A l'autre, au sein brûlé d'une antique amazone.

Longing for the burnt breast of an ancient Amazon...

His most famous poem is perhaps l'Azur, at times a painful mediation on the curse to have poetry inside, with one of the most famous French verses, if anything for its visual bizarreness.

Je suis hanté. L’Azur ! l’Azur ! l’Azur ! l’Azur !

You can find some translations of Mallarmé verses as some brave souls dared to try, but you also must know that Mallarmé was an English teacher and as such he admired and was influenced by Poe. He translated The Raven. So was Baudelaire by the way whose translations of Poe tales, well, read almost better in Baudelaire's French than Poe's English, a very strange case in world literature where a translation actually brings something. I suppose that in a way, that ability to cross cultures allowed Mallarmé to work through his life towards breaking the ancient molds of French poetry.

Seeing that sobering portrait of Mallarmé brought to me an odd action considering the place I was. Tourists were flocking in front of more famous pictures so, as Orsay allows it, I could take my very own shot while I meditated at Manet's Mallarmé picture. I know, no matter how good my shot might turn out it will never be as good as the exquisite reproductions you can buy at the gift shop at the end. And yet, watching your own shots a few days later bing back that moment and the thoughts you had better than any reproduction. That is, if you shot your picture after your processed your emotions or if you are a compulsive picture taker.

The very relative solitude I enjoyed in front of Mallarmé made wonder how could he possibly be relevant to the immigrant children that the French system is actually raising with lots of problems in its school system. The winner of the Cannes Festival this year, Entre Les Murs, has been a movie about the problems of a "banlieu" classroom and the valiant efforts of teachers to reach the kids, not an alien concept I am sure to the teachers of some inner city areas of the States. A famous scene is the "subjunctive past" lesson, where one child simply said that he would not talk to someone that uses such a tense. I suppose he would not talk to me who rarely uses it but does use it. But is it a generation gap?

If you spit on the French subjunctive, can you reach Mallarmé? Can you also reach Rimbaud and Verlaine through their poetry or will these kids get interested in them for their scandalous liaison when Rimbaud was 16 and Verlaine a married man? It is not that these poets drop past subjunctive in any sonnet. They do not, but the key to understand how the French language works is to understand how its subjunctive works. This verbal mode is the soft form of possibilities and dashed dreams, a complexity so missing in English. Though some would argue that this lack of subjunctive might be a reason of the anglo-saxon energy.

The subjunctive is not the only obstacle to French High Church. Mallarmé remains still a difficult poet even if some managed to put him into music. Brise Marine is quite an example on how difficult Mallarmé can be while still remaining somewhat accessible enough for Serge Lama to sing it.


I would even say that a case can be made that Mallarmé is becoming more difficult for today'snew Frenchmen when the all Mallarmé site, mallarme.net, feels obliged to widget the word "angélus" so people can understand it. The practice of angélus had all but disappeared in France when I was a kid, but yet I knew what the word meant. It seems that today political correctness reserves such knowledge to rarefied elites. An indeed, in the banlieus angelus is as alien as past subjunctive.

I did not think these dangerous thoughts as clearly as I narrate them above today, but they kept coming to me with more precision as I kept my walk through the galleries. In particular how will Muslim children in France learn to appreciate the French cultural heritage, and even more important, can their own cultural and religious heritage allow them to get meaning from Mallarmé or Renoir? Can they also own?

Certainly I do not mean that Muslim children cannot cross the cultural line and appreciate the Orsay Museum, true art speaks to all except for cases like Bamiyan. Then again if the Taliban felt the need to blast Bamiyan's Buddhas it must mean that their ideological construct was perturbed by that art. Though I have yet to visit a Muslim country besides Morroco I know that I can marvel at Islamic art. I know that Isfahan would be marvelous for me. But will it speak to me the way that Mallarmé or a painting by Renoir do? One of my favorite Museums is a small one at the end of the Washington Mall where a treasure of Muslim calligraphy is exhibited, the Freer Gallery. I have been there several times, marveling at the delicate art that pervades all Islamic tradition. It does speak to me, at some level, and I wish I could have one of such hanging on one of my walls to spend at times long minutes of meditation in front. But it is not me. There is something missing for me and it is the physicality of man.

Can the "balançoire" of Renoir not shock a religious Muslim? Is the casualness of the woman, daydreaming as possibly two suitors sweet talk her, accpetable? What about the form fitting dress that follows no proportion giving her impossibly long (and sexy?) legs? No word about the little girl watching all of this ambiguity? True, all are covered enough according to the more modest standards of the time, and current Muslim fundamentalist wishes, but the body language is there for all to see.

France has been wrecked a few years ago about whether to allow Muslim girls to wear the veil at school. The secular French state tradition, from left to right, ruled that the veil was considered a religious symbol and as such had no place in the French public school system, sending a lot or Muslim girls to private establishments. In all fairness the state also forbade yarmulke and crucifix medallions unless totally invisible under shirts. Much talk went around but not that many dared to speak the real truth around the issue: that feminist women in France could not accept that a religion forced submission of women. I do agree about the issue and the measures taken then, but that is not the point I want to make here. I want to come back on how art speaks to us, and to this second Renoir painting at Orsay.

Again here we see a casual couple, the woman painted with exquisite details of near ecstasy while he companion has a more predatory look, a sober, less detailed portrait. He is handsome though, a certain sexy squareness, a sense of dominating strength to which the woman seems to be yielding. He also probably lost his hat in the whirlwind chase, on the right corner, an odd detail to leave as the hat is certain to be trashed as people dance over. But he has no care for it, too concentrated on his prey.

Whether you are straight or gay you cannot escape the sexual power of this painting. But what makes it great is not the erotic allusion, it is the need for human companionship that the people in it reflect, perhaps the animal lust of the man or the longing to be loved of the woman, it does not matter, we are always looking for someone to hold us tight. And yet that need might not be love. This painting has an exhilarating effect on me as it shuts down the workings of the mind, letting instinct surface politely, even in the middle of a crowded museum. Suddenly some tourists do not look as unappealing as they looked earlier.

And there is of course that wonderful ball scene, full of hopeful glances and of people looking at who is not looking at them, where the only people that do touch are two dancers and two women. What can we make of that? Such a scene would still be scandalous in some Western cultures of the Mediterranean, at least not that long ago. Imagine it in Afghanistan! or even Saudi Arabia! But there is also the price to pay for this apparent happiness, on the left side there is a woman that seems to be alone, or lonely, or abandoned, in darker shades. It almost seems that the only dancing couple that is clearly detailed has something to do with that lone woman, they seem to be looking at her. Did the man leave her for another floozie? Or is she sad not because he left her but because she coudl not retain him? Or her? There is a strange message of personal responsibility in that detail.

Perhaps it has been the common thread in the story of humanity but what speaks to me when I see these pieces is of the XX century to come, that from this sort of art came our social, sexual and even moral freedom that today at least some societies enjoy. The works of the Impressionists by freeing themselves form the rules of conformist art helped on our road to civil liberty, Human Rights, and shall dare I say it, better forms of democracy and cross cultural richness. It was after the Impressionists that Western Art really became open to the glories of other cultures, not just a fancy "chinese" room as palaces like the Petit Trianon might have acquired in their day. Perhaps the question I wanted to ask myself is what do we need to do to bring the equivalent of the Impressionist movement to today's Islamism before it is too late and one side tries to erase the other.

The temptation of cultural wars is really big. Even Chavez indulges in it even though Venezuela was, and is still, the Latin American society most open to external cultural influences. Chavistas with money do flock to Mac Donalds, love to go shopping to Miami. But in Chavez case his attitude comes from his ignorance and from the feeling that he has been rejected by Western Culture, an easy way to cope with his own insecurities and possible sense of failure. The consequences of Chavez will be dramatic for Venezuela's future though his manic and silly cultural crusade will eventually be a footnote in the history of the Americas.

What is more of a concern, and Chavez does sense that at some level as he wants to use it, is the clash of civilizations that so many want to avoid and that Chavez foolishly fosters at his own risks. I am talking about how to reconcile a Western World open to new experiences and to a world of risk taking and personal responsibility with a clearly more obscurantists world who stayed in the XVII century where ideas left it as they went ahead with the West. Today the far East and even India espouse many of Western values and Japan is the perfect example on how to retain your culture while burnishing some angles with interesting foreign values. Chavez is playing with fire by thinking he can manipulate the barbarians of today to his own profit, but what he does not realize is that when all is said and done the one that will be on the losing end of the stick is him.

And why will Chavez lose? Because when I was at Orsay Mallarmé talked to me, and Renoir did touch me. And if I go to the Freer gallery something will charm me, and if I go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the Japanese weapon collection will make me daydream of my world of Kurozawa. What Chavez is trying to do is to erase as many cultural references as he can from us, an easy task as we are not blessed with a long cultural history and a lot of our history was very destructive anyway. Even from the few treasures that make us Venezuelans, that speak to us, even to me, the son of French immigrants, he wants to pick and chose what might serve him and discard most. There might not be a Venezuelan Mallarmé but there is Andres Eloy Blanco and all through my childhood I heard this.
Si queda un pintor de santos,
si queda un pintor de cielos,
que haga el cielo de mi tierra,
con los tonos de mi pueblo,
con su ángel de perla fina,
con su ángel de medio pelo,
con sus ángeles catires,
con sus ángeles morenos,
con sus angelitos blancos,
con sus angelitos indios,
con sus angelitos negros,
que vayan comiendo mango
por las barriadas del cielo.
And these verses speak to me with the same strength than anything that I might have seen in Paris two weeks ago. "que vayan comiendo mango ---- por las barriadas del cielo" nothing more Venezuelan has ever been written.....

And yet, even though the whole poem is one of the finest examples of anti racist literature to be found in any culture, chavismo has never embraced it. Because Andres Eloy Blanco was Adeco and that cannot be forgiven , as the accidental discovery of America by Columbus cannot be forgiven. Columbus must be charged with all the abuses committed after him. And thus Andres Eloy Blanco must be guilty, at some obscure level, if anything because chavismo has proven itself unable to write anything as inspiring and effective as that simple poem, and even if Andres Eloy Blanco died one year after Chavez was born and could not be held responsible for what the Adecos did later.

So Chavez is trying to gut our cultural heritage, without having some coherent system to replace it except his speeches and what are called his thoughts and his personal myths. Will Chavez speeches stir great emotions besides hatred? They will not because culture and art do not happen in a vacuum. If Muslims cannot feel what I feel in front of Mallarmé portrait it is because I cannot feel what they would feel at the Kairouan Mosque, it is because our emotions are constructed on our own cultural past and how it makes us relate to our environment and how they create a place for us.

But then again when Chavez makes Venezuelans stop caring about their real past they will also stop caring about him.

La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres.

I think I am not afraid of Mallarmé anymore. He came to me when I needed him most.

--- --- --- --- --- --- ---
Translations:

La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres.
The flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books.

Si queda un pintor de santos,
If a Saints painter remains,
si queda un pintor de cielos,
If a heavens painter remains,
que haga el cielo de mi tierra,
that he may do heavens of my land,
con los tonos de mi pueblo,
with the hues of my people,
con su ángel de perla fina,
with a mother of pearl angel,
con su ángel de medio pelo,
with a curly hair angel,
con sus ángeles catires,
with light haired angels,
con sus ángeles morenos,
with brown angels,
con sus angelitos blancos,
with white angels,
con sus angelitos indios,
with indian angels
con sus angelitos negros,
with black angels
que vayan comiendo mango
that they walk eating mangoes
por las barriadas del cielo.
in heavens neighborhoods.

And GP offers us this version

If there's a painter of saints left,
if there's a painter of skies left,
let him create my land's sky,
with the tones of my town,
with his fine pearl angel,
with his mediocre angel,
with his blond angels,
with his brown angels,
with his little white angels,
with his little Indian angels,
with his little black angels,
may they go on eating mangoes
through the neighborhoods of the sky.

-The end-

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