An old regime under new pressures of its own making
What we need to understand first is that chavismo is now an exhausted regime, a group of people who have been holding office for ten years now and who are running short of ideas and personnel. From purge to purge the regime has been reduced to a small group of faithful, and sycophantic, helpers. One consequence that it is not easy to grasp for foreign observer is that the regime has slid into a pronounced inefficiency because nobody dares to take the decisions that need to be taken since nobody can move unless Chavez blesses himself publicly the move. Considering that Chavez can change his mind in a jiffy, nobody dares to invest themselves as they should to defend their project since all their work can be undone with a single utterance of Chavez during a Sunday Alo Presidente. What we are seeing is a text book example of frozen regime waiting for something to happen.
The problem with such regimes is that the world does not have the courtesy to stand still while it finds a way to renew its administrators, solve its problems, come up with a plan that goes beyond retaining power at all costs. And what makes the situation even worse is that El Supremo still thinks he can change the world and is acting as if there were no problem at home, investing himself in his foreign adventures. Where have we already seen that? Hummmm....
Which problems have acquired urgency within chavismo? There are two.
The first one is of course El Supremo's ambition that blinds him from the reality or useful advice that he does not want to listen to, no matter how smart a politician he has been until now. Yes, smart because, even with a fat checkbook, retaining power for ten years with the ineptitude he has shown in managing the country is quite a feat.
The second one is that the economy of Venezuela is unraveling. True, it is not obvious to see it: after all even at only 60 USD a barrel it is still way higher an oil price than the 10 USD a barrel Chavez received in 1999, even if exports are down. What we are seeing now is the realization that all the production plans that Chavez has come up with have not worked, or at least not a the extent that they should have worked. Early this week in a series of articles El Universal showed the economic sectors that have been falling back since the economic crisis hit the world last year (1). The picture they give us is that of an economy that in ten years has become strictly oil dependent creating an import system designed to gain the good will of the popular classes through subsidized goods and services. True, up to a point the lower economic strata of the country have experienced a certain improvement between 2004 and 2008, but this improvement has basically been based on distribution of goods, not on the creation of real sustainable jobs. And this improvement itself is severely undermined by a high inflation which, if not tackled seriously, could wipe out fast any gain made since 2004.
It is beyond the scope of this post to go into the details on all the red lights turned on. These El Universal articles are good enough for those who can read Spanish (little can be found in English for these couple of weeks). What is more interesting right now is to describe the effects that we are seeing everywhere.
The root cause of today situation is that the government is running out of money, that its "savings", whatever those might have really been, are being eaten up faster than anyone at Miraflores expected, and that the gamble by Chavez to wait for a recovery of oil prices seems everyday more of a losing bet. It has been calculated that Chavez needs an oil barrel at least at 70-80 USD to break even with his political plans. With the lower oil production probably the required price range went up, 20 more at least than what he is currently getting. Of course, the downward spiral of the economy is putting additional strain as income and sales taxes are taking a hit. This is crucial because it was that revenue that served to pay public employees, oil money being used as Chavez personal checking account from social Misiones to foreign adventures.
The private sector is simply unable to pick up some of the slack because it has been punished so severely since 2003 that it is now without significant reserves, suffers of lack of internal investment, and is subjected to unfair competition form the subsidized imports of the government. Not to mention that the currency restrictions, the legal jeopardy to which private property is subjected to, the litany of repressive laws enacted since 2003 and the rampant crime are a deadly cocktail to stop any investment intention the private sector could still have. The paradox of Venezuela crisis is that unless the rest of the world, its finance sector is coping more or less while its manufacturing sector was already tanking before the crisis came.
What we see today
Let me start by narrating what you can see on the road between Caracas and Yaracuy.
More potholes than at any time I can remember. And big ones, of the type that can wreck an axle of your car. Those potholes exist even on the speedways.
On the side of the road there are more "invasiones" than at any time since Chavez came to office. That is, you see whole community of tin and cardboard shacks, new ones popping up on a monthly basis.
The amount of garbage on the side of the road seems to be increasing a lot too and the once reasonably well cut grass seems to run amok in many a stretch.
Before you would cross regularly police cars, now that sight is becoming rarer and rarer, be it state cops or local cops. Any accident generates longer lines than before, huge delays because there seems to be a lowered response ability from the safety people. When you stop at gas stations and want a snack there is less choices than before.
If you think that this is a subjective way to look at things we can discuss how difficult it has become to buy a car, or to find spare parts for your car. We can also discuss how in ten years, in spite of a significant population growth San Felipe has still a single large grocery store, and that the local Mercal has become a joke. The hospital of San Felipe is worse than ever and private clinics are burdened with work. But the CDI and barrio adentro joints do not seem to have many visitors in comparison...
Still not convinced? Turn on the TV and watch protesters everywhere, in particular in state enterprises which have been packed with Chavez supporters, in particular PDVSA, and which are about to go on a general strike anytime soon. Why? Because of the huge delays that government has in meeting its contractual obligations. These workers might be chavistas but they still need to eat, to pay rent, to send their kids to school; the "solidarity" language of the pseudo socialist revolution goes only so far (2, 3).
You still need more evidence of trouble? Watch the medical personnel asking for the resignation of their corresponding minister. Or even better, watch the barrio adentro medics asking for their pay check. Look at what happened in Caucagua and Curiepe where folks who voted for Chavez every time for the last 10 years suddenly went out with stones and sticks to bar access to the Nazional Guard wanting to take away the PoliMiranda precincts. Amazing sights!
Clearly chavismo is watching all of these signs of deteriorating support. If the streets are becoming restless in some chavista strongholds, the recent opinion polls are not bringing any comfort. If Chavez remains still the most popular leader around, his numbers have gone down significantly, those of his government much lower. Any bounce effect from his February referendum victory is now gone and he has run out of excuses to call for a new election to campaign and recover some ground, the only thing he excels at even if they are now a mere exercise in vulgarity. It is under this light that we must observe some of the recent radicalization measures.
Chavismo reactions under stress
As a hurt animal chavismo is reacting out of fear that it is losing control of the situation. Let's look at notable examples of these past two weeks, all, we can be sure, influenced or dictated from Miraflores palace.
Diosdado is going after the media
The first expected reaction is to cut off media. That media cannot be tolerated because it is showing the Curiepe riots or the barrio adentro medics demanding their fair wages or the Guyana blue collar hard hats laying all of their problems with the "socialist" management imposed on them who apparently has no idea on how to run a business, even in a socialist model.
The attacks on Globovision are continuing and it seems that government is getting ready to pay for the political costs. But it also seems that government is willing to add to the bill by closing down up to a couple of hundred of radio stations across the country. Why?
The "excuse" offered is "el latifundio mediatico" (the media big ranch?, bolivarian speak at its best!). According to the government 30% of the radio spectrum is "owned" by 27 families. If anything the informed observer already notices that this number makes the Venezuelan broadcasting system one of the most open in the world! But it gets better, Diosdado Cabello, the super minister in charge of implementing censorship in Venezuela also wants to set a limit of three radio stations by group, and to forbid that they pass simultaneously the same program more than half an hour a day. Or some other stupid disposition like that. That would mean for example that a sports network could only pass a full baseball game in only one of its radio stations!!!!
It is not idle to note that the only nation wide radio coverage system belongs to the government, RNV, and it only passes the official line and propaganda (I read somewhere RNV has 73 radio stations, almost nine times more than its nearest "competition"). The opposition access to RNV is near zero, and only a little bit at election time, when intentional observers might be watching. Not mentioning the YVKE system and all the radio stations already purchased by "friends" of the regime and the "community" ones which are held and financed though chavismo. Someone often on the road will notice that in some areas of the country there is only chavismo on the air waves. You may red a great interview of Cesar Miguel Rondon on these matters where he is not afraid to say that Cabello is a liar. A partial translation in English here.
Already in Venezuela big networks are limited in the number of radio stations they can manage. As such, networks avoid small towns limiting themselves to the major markets. In San Felipe I never listen to the radio because no national network has a station here and I can only put up with so much local news. But that is exactly what the government seeks, that only local news are discussed, that national news are only discussed on state networks or at the very least neutralized ones such as Venevision. In other words, in Valencia there will be only Valencia news, just like in San Felipe there are only San Felipe news (besides what they pull from Internet and newspapers, of course; but those are not "live" news).
There is no point to go into the minutiae of the eventual control law about to be voted. Suffice to observe that this law is designed to avoid a coming "caracazo", that the government is aware that the increasing unrest due to increased economic and social problems could suddenly lead to a spontaneous combustion, like in Caracas in 1989. Naively they think that if people do not know that Guyana is up in flames, it will not affect them, less incite them to join the protest. They should be reminded that in Russia there were few radio stations and papers, and all were controlled tightly by Moscow. That did not stop the USSR from collapsing anyway.
Diosdado Cabello is operating out of fear
Rafael Ramirez is giving a new meaning to sectarian
What is happening inside PDVSA is truly mind boggling. For recall after the 2002-2003 strike, PDVSA was gutted of more than 20,000 of its workers and management. I think barely a very few thousand remained. But since 2003 chaivsmo has been filling it up again with under par technicians, corrupt managers and all sorts of political appointees who get a pay check from PDVSA in exchange of political activities, inside or outside.
The other remarkable thing about the "new PDVSA" is that its payroll has more than doubled the old one while production has not even recovered from pre-2003 levels. Since it is impossible to get verifiable numbers from the state, and even less from PDVSA, there is an estimate of significantly more than 70,000 "workers" inside, all "rojo-rojito". PDVSA of course has never bothered to put that rumor to rest which probably means that the estimate is fairly accurate, and maybe even under par.
But as all state companies in Venezuela, even firing 80% of its original workforce, PDVSA still inherited the trade unions of the old PDVSA, though now with pro Chavez leaders. As years pass a novel conflict arises for these new union men: be more faithful to the revolution that gave them a cushy job or make sure employees get a fair deal. This is most crudely exposed when trade unions have to renew their direction, through, gasp, internal elections.
Chavsimo has sensed that winning an outright majority in the PDVSA internal elections was not a sure thing. First there were delay tactics, postponing negotiations until after elections to proceed when chavismo finds that the time is right. But trade unions inside PDVSA were divided enough that even those tactics could not be held longer. So chavismo decided to face elections using the same strategy of fear that it uses in normal electoral campaigns. This is what explains the latest outburst of Rafael Ramirez who as a minister of oil and president of PDVSA announced in a mortifying speech that he would only negotiate with representatives of pro Chavez trade unions, that he would never sit down at a table with enemies of Chavez. Mind you, not enemies of Venezuela, enemies of CHAVEZ.
In any civilized country a minster would say a quarter of what Ramirez said early last week would have been fired on the spot. But in Venezuela where barbarism now reigns it is seen as a badge of loyalty by the thugs ensconced in Miraflores Palace. It is OK for the revolutionary regime of bolibanana to make it an official policy to segregate folks. Ramirez went as far as announcing that PDVSA will create socialists committees everywhere in the enterprise and that those who did not sign in would be considered suspects.
"Quien no esté en un comité socialista es sospechoso de conspirar contra la revolución" Whoever is not in a socialist committee is suspect of conspiring against the revolution.
Fascism or terror inspiring CDR in Cuba, your pick.
But no matter, it cannot be hidden: Rafael Ramirez is operating out of fear.
Luisa Estela Morales threatens journalists, and brags about it
This is a small incident but is so telling of the blinding arrogance of chavismo, an arrogance that, if you allow me to say, hides only deep seated fair.
Luisa Estela Morales is the head of Venezuela's TSJ, our Supreme Court. Under her tenure she has gained from me the qualifying of Chavez 's Harlot for all her permissiveness in allowing multiple constitutional violations while making sure that most lawsuits from opposition politicians are either dismissed or put in the back burner for years.
Truly she knows that she is operating illegally, amen of unethically. But for someone who has been fired twice and only reached such her "exalted" position through her ability of selling her soul, she is not about to give up.
Now, she is reaching the arrogance of the thief caught in fraganti. The other day she replied to a legitimate journalist question by threatening her and reminding her that there was already another journalist that she had screwed for not asking the type of questions she likes. Just like that.
Can you imagine the head of the US Supreme Court or of the French Conseil Constitutionel threatening a journalist? What would that suggest you?
Chavez and his wild chase in Honduras
To end this long assay a short note on Chavez himself. His indecent interest with Honduras, his all but open pushing of Zelaya to call for internal subversion to create trouble inside Honduras can only mean one thing: Chavez knows very well that if Honduras is allowed to leave the ALBA, his oil money driven feudal hold, it will be such a major loss of face that his whole political project will be threatened, not only in Honduras but in the ALBA countries AND in Venezuela. Teflon eventually yields.
Chavez started hard on Honduras but quickly backed down for a few days. Now he is up in a roar again. Why? Because he has failed to rally Venezuela into the defense of Honduras, even among most chavistas. Thus he probably sent a couple of million dollars to his Honduras agents which is enough to build a few road blocks and make believe that Zelaya has more support than the actually does. Whether he manages to recover Honduras might not be Chavez point right now, what he wants is to change the subject at home, not to feel obliged to discuss Venezuelan matters.
Hugo Chavez is reacting out of fear.
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1) Articles that detail the significant drop in customer activity: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. That is, generalized drop in sales from food to shoes. Articles that describe the lower production numbers of the first semester: public sector and private manufacturing sector. And finally general economy contraction and increase in the government accounts deficit (without that deficit being used for new projects as is the case in countries trying to get out of the crisis.
2) For the protest in Guayana you can read this set 1, 2, 3 and 4. For the troubles at PDVSA you can read more here.
3) You can read this summary in English of the trouble in Guayana.
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PS: this post has taken a lot of work to write. In addition, it is long on purpose because I will probably not be able to post again until next Thursday. Though I will be able to check comments.