Thursday, April 29, 2004

Aporrea gets a hit
and perhaps some advertisement

The editor of Tal Cual is not amused today. Aporrea web site, the famous pro Chavez forum in the web (in Spanish) has criticized his family connections, I suppose in the spirit of "convincing people to remove their signatures".

In general I avoid criticizing other web sites that have a blog/forum "feel" since they are very "personal". But considering that I really cannot stomach the declarations of Assemblyman Lara (April 23 here) on "talking to people to convince them to withdraw their signature" I have taken the time to translate quickly the editorial of Simon Boccanegra on Aporrea. By the way, Aporrea seems to consider as traitors people who signed for the Recall Election petition, in particular if they work for any government agency. A peculiar conception of democracy if you ask me. The reader will decide whether I was right in translating it.


The baseness of “”

In the page of "", reproduced by the daily Reporte, the list of Central Bank workers who signed is published again [who signed for the Recall Election]. But in this instance a particular commentary is made on several of the mentioned ones. Of Rayna Petkoff, daughter of the director of TalCual [Teodoro Petkoff, often cited in this site], it is written that she was “hired when her daddy was director of the BCV” and of Luis Pastori, aside from noting that “he does not work” but “he gets paid allegedly as a consultant”, he is branded with the supreme disqualification: “He is the father-in-law of Teodoro Petkoff”. These two notes are sufficient to portray the moral misery of the rats, toads and bats that populate the obscure corners of chavismo. Rayna Petkoff, sociologist, entered the Central Bank in 1987, ten years before "her daddy" became director of the institute, and she reached the Direction of Culture by her own merits, well enough before her father occupied a chair in the directory, the same one that Giordani occupies today and for the same reason [Petkoff occupied the same cabinet chair, planning, in the Caldera Administration the one that Giordani is occupying today and thus both are/were the representatives of the government to the Central Bank]. Luis Pastori, not because he is "father-in-law" of the director of TalCual, that he has been for seven years, but because he is one of the important poet voices of the country, a National Prize of Literature, in addition of being an economist. He directs the reputed cultural magazine of the institution and with 84 years of age he goes every day to the bank, from which he retired after 37 years of work. But these are things that the miserable cagatintas [“ink shiters” in our colorful parlance] that make “aporrea” do not understand and never will.

They judge according to their condition. They serve the most nepotistic government in the history of the country, in which almost none of its worthies, from the President down, has forgotten to plug their family into the bureaucracy. But of course that swarm of cowards and bootlickers who make “” will never have the faintest gallantry to state this criticism. They prefer to slander. They are paid for that.

Repairing the Recall Election against Chavez

The Venezuelan opposition and the Chavez regime against the wall

Thursday 29, April 2004

I have been distracted by significant work issues these past few days. Bloggers do have a life outside of their blogs even if it does not seem like that :-)

But during these three days hiatus, there was really only one piece of news: after an anguished debate, the Coordinadora Democratica, CD, has decided to go and try to re-validate at the very least 600 000 of the signatures it claims it has collected.

First a reminder

The opposition needs 2.4 million valid signatures to force a Recall election on Chavez mandate (20% of the electorate). After a lot of huffing and puffing the opposition forced a Chavez controlled Electoral Board, CNE, to admit that it had collected 1.9 million approximately. Approximately because even though this result was announced March 2, to this very day nobody knows for sure what is the exact number of valid signatures. So let's assume that this 15.6 % of valid signatures is indeed valid. The first comment is that it is quite a result for the opposition. To remove Grey Davis from California took quite an effort to barely make it to 10%. The Venezuelan Opposition managed 15.4% in 4 days collection. Just to put some perspective.

Now the CNE has grudgingly accepted that 1.2 million signatures might be repaired, or claimed or re-validated. Whatever. And it will give 3 days, in about a month or so, for these 1.2 million folks to step forward and confirm that indeed they did sign up.

This takes place all in front of a legal battleground that is dividing the opposition. A large sector of this one would have preferred not to go to a repair process. Their position is that the CD should have forced the High Court to decided between two contrasting rulings from two of its divisions, the Electoral Court and the Constitutional Court. Critics of this position point out that 1) the final result is not assured to favor the opposition, 2) the Electoral Court is aware of this and thus exhorted the parties to try to make a deal instead of waiting for a final ruling, and 3) who knows when the final ruling would come, probably too late for a Recall Election before August 19. Failing to meet this date will ensure the survival of the regime until 2006, even if Chavez is recalled.

The Coordinadora Democratica position today

Eventually cooler heads prevailed: all agreed that whichever the final decision would be, all would back it. But there are several serious problems still to overcome and it would be a temerity to affirm that the decision is final. The resolution of at least some of these problems is necessary.

The problems to overcome

The long negotiations between the opposition and the CNE to agree on some framework for the repairs have yielded a solution that has pleased few, if any. Regardless of the merits of the rules agreed upon, in the last few days a few major issues have come forward, issues that must be resolved if the process has a chance to reach success. Some of them below.

Some people signed and do not appear anywhere. Amazingly that even happened to some major political leaders from both sides. Ledezma and the vice president share that dubious distinction. And it is notorious that they signed as TV watched when the did so. Where are the forms that included their signature? Can the CNE be THAT disorganized? But more importantly, will these people be able to claim their citizen's right to have participated in the process? We are talking 0.3 million people here.

Chavismo will "convince" people to withdraw their signature. This gravest, and fascistic, breach of ethics is scandalous enough as it is. On the ridiculous side it confirms that no "megafraud" was committed since chavismo amazingly confesses that it must convince at least 0.25 million to withdraw their signature or not show up to re-validate it (they assume that 40% will not show up, that is why they need "only" 0.25 million). In other words they admit that indeed most of the 1.2 million that must be repaired are probably true signatures!!! 1.2 + 1.9 = 3.1. So the fraud would have been 0.3 out of the 3.4 claimed originally by the opposition. Hardly "mega". But this could be left for the lore of Venezuelan politics if it were not carrying further meaning. Chavistas by these declarations claim that they have the right to "alter" the decision of people while the opposition cannot add more people if it could do so. This by itself illustrates quite well the real fraud that was committed by the pro-Chavez CNE. Can the CNE allow such blatant pressure on the electorate? Were there not rules emitted before about the point of taking finger prints as the only way to cancel one's signatures, by proving that someone else had signed for you? Unfortunately recent declarations of Rodriguez indicate that the job will be made easier for the chavista side.

People with "valid" signatures can withdraw. This is of course an extension of the preceding consideration. And this does not seem to have been contemplated previously as it seems to be considered now. Besides allowing further pressure on public employees that signed, one side effect is that it raises all sorts of conspiracy theories. One example is the theory that the government is cloning a series of fake ID so that while people that have valid signatures stay at home peacefully, someone with a fake ID with their ID number goes to annul their signature. Not a large scale operation obviously but a few thousand could be removed this way. A few thousand here, a few there and voila! The magical 0.25!

The data is not complete. When will this one be complete? The opposition needs the data so it has time to track its supporter to inform them. It will need it to prepare the necessary logistics. Every new delay of course complicates the task of the opposition.

What are the chances to succeed?

In front of such a possibility of treachery from the Chavez agents at the CNE one is justified in wondering if it is worth the effort. The divisions within the opposition are understandable. Unfortunately there is no other way right now. All the other options, ranging from hoping for a favorable high court ruling to plain civil disobedience can still be tried out if the Recall Election bid sinks in a sea of treachery. All have very high risks to lead to serious violence which is what the government seems to want, at least since February 27.

There is a simple truth that must impose its wisdom right now to all factors within the opposition.

Since the CD has chosen the strictly legal and electoral path, the Chavez regime has been making mistakes and losing points. The road has been long but it has been paying off. If the opposition wants to use fraud as a reason for further action, in particular from the international community, it must let the fraud happen for all to see. Until now the administration, through the CNE, has been very careful when cheating: no massive fraud can be claimed. But it has also reached the moment when it will need to perform that massive fraud to stop once and for all the march to the Recall Election. For as hard as it will be to witness such a fraud, the opposition must take the chance for it to happen. It must grin and bear it to finally unmask the true nature of the regime, once and for all.

The Regime would be losing in both scenarios. If it balks at the final massive fraud then it must go to the Recall Election and we will know if people are behind Chavez as he claims. If he orders the fraud then he will have to deal with the consequences, internal and external.

I am rather pessimistic as for a favorable outcome of the validation process, but it has to be taken. The chance is slim but it exists and it is still better than marching against the tanks. We claim to hold the moral ground and we must prove it to the world by taking the chance and go through that hopefully last obstacle.

Monday, April 26, 2004

A quiet and expectant week end.

Sunday evening

Not much to report newswise. I did travel to Caracas this afternoon and I cheered up some watching the beautiful Araguaney blooming all over like deep yellow clouds. Since I have no more digital camera, no pictures for you.

The Coordinadora Democratica is debating internally as to what to do. Unfortunately, and as usual, the Electoral Board AGAIN trumped up things by not surrendering the complete totals that supposedly it had surrendered to the different parties last Friday! Missing where the names of the people, the explanations as to why the signatures had been "put under observation", the list of the signatures annulled altogether, etc... in other words the data necessary to put forward claims and simplify the work of the parties organizing the repair process. The CNE, whose constitutional function is to facilitate electoral processes, does its outmost to paralyze them.

Thus it is unlikely that we will know tomorrow whether the opposition will pick up the challenge. Even if the missing data finally appears today.

Interestingly a series of e-mails were circulating all around calling for the repeat of the early March disorders, as of tomorrow. The CD promptly denied them and altogether blamed chavismo from creating this desinformation wave trying to distract attention from the discussions within the CD, and hoping to break up once and for all the fragile consensus forming within the CD. But chavismo, stone faced through representative Lara, the one that announced the fascist search of people that signed to "convince" them to retract their signature, went promptly today to the judicial system to accuse the opposition of being conspiring again. And he was received promptly even on a Sunday. Gee, I wonder how he does manage to receive such prompt service.

Lara deserves the award "vile person of the week", that he can add to his "vile act of the week award" for his announcement of invading the privacy and conscience of the people

Otherwise the military keeps stalling on the investigative process on the burnt soldiers. While new cases came forward! One of a drown soldier, in mysterious circumstances and another one beaten up and declared "dead from dysentery" or something like that. But I am preparing a little rapport on that, so no details tonight. Suffice today that a couple of generals did fight this week with Lara for the vile person award.

I expect next week to be troubled. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

A Chavez séance on the Venezuelan Economy
in three parts (III)

Rewriting the history books

The highlight of course was Chavez words on why Venezuela fell into a crisis. Until a very few days ago the official line was "the oil industry sabotage during El Paro is the origin of all our problems, and fortunately we are able to overcome this terrorist attack". (1) Now the new official line is "We were doing fine, maintaining growth and controlling inflation for the first time this century until the politics of the opposition in 2000 came to wreck everything”.

Besides being false, it is absurd. But when have revolutionaries bothered with actual historical facts?

Unfortunately for Hugo Chavez, the economic debacle started with the February 2002 devaluation. The political crisis started in November 2001 when the enabling law was promulgated destroying the last vestiges of economical confidence that were left. Whatever he says, his team was in charge from February 1999 until December 2001 when for the first time the opposition was able to call for a strike. This strike was called because Chavez refused to revisit some of the controversial laws dictated within the frame of the enabling law.

I doubt very much that a strike, just before the Christmas month long recess, would have been able by itself to provoke a devaluation 2 months after, so easily undoing 2 years and 10 months of allegedly sound economical policies. (2) Indeed, Chavez was setting the economic parameters for two years and 10 months before the opposition balked. That was long enough for the opposition to make up their minds as to the future of Venezuelan economy. Incidentally, the devaluation was in February 2002 and the "coup" against Chavez was in April 2002.

I suppose that soon we will be told that the nasty opposition was already plotting against Chavez before this one was born. All is possible for the man that has transformed Bolivar from the aristocratic scion of a rich planter family into a communist freedom fighter.


Notes longer than the text, like in scholarly books!

(1) This was the never ending line that when the PDVSA oil workers went on strike they trashed all installations. To date they have not been able to build a single case of sabotage against a single fired PDVSA worker. These were careful to leave under notary witness a description on how they left things when they went on strike. Apparently the new PDVSA management has not been able to make any charge stick to the now fired workers. This has become really one of the slimiest attack lines of chavismo and it is unbelievable that people are still buying it, even within the opposition. But it is a propaganda war, and thus this lie has still a few days ahead.

(2) Giordani was the architect, if one can call him that, of the Chavez policies in the first half of his term. A theoretical economist of the old school, without any real experience in the private sector he decided to gamble on monetary controls and debt payment to please the like of the IMF. That is, stay out of trouble outside while inside Chaevz changed the constitution.

Giordani never managed to bring inflation to single digits, and along the way could not stop growing budget deficits. Still, he managed to reduce foreign debt at the cost of a ballooning internal debt. The breaking point came late 2001 and by February 2002 devaluation could not be avoided anymore. Amazingly this did not cost him his post. We had to wait until the April 2002 events to see Giordani leave as a sign of a new and improved Chavez. As soon as Chavez could get away with it, he took Giordani back into his cabinet, and at the same post certainly not helping confidence to come back. But Chavez has too few real faithful and Giordani is one of them.
A Chavez séance on the Venezuelan Economy
Rewriting the history books, in three parts (II)

Saturday 24, April 2004

The growing economy

Yes indeed, the economy is growing. But when the country dug a hole with a 25% drop, a 6 % increase still leaves you in the hole. Let’s look at some indicators that Chavez highlighted.

The Venezuelan stock exchange has been the most performing one in South America. True. But why? Very simple. When the currency control exchange was installed, it did happen that the stock of CANTV, the Venezuelan phone company was freely negotiated in Caracas or New York. In other words, one could buy CANTV stock in VEB and sell it in USD. Traders of course took advantage of this way to go around the currency control and imposed a price far higher than the official exchange rate. Thus was born the street value of the VEB, now around 3,500 to the official 1,929 VEB to the USD. Of course this stimulated extraordinarily the trading of CANTV to levels that made the Caracas stock exchange quite "performing". Without forgetting of course bond issues that can be negotiated in US markets for USD after having been bought first in VEB.

Venezuela has the highest growth rate of South America. Tue again, although for the last 6 months only. But why? Well, Venezuela is getting out of the worst GDP drop of South America through 2002 AND 2003. No wonder! But how "good" is this growth rate?

Unbelievably, one of the directors of the Central Bank declared to the official State news agency, Venpres, that the growth rate was real and was not a recovery! In other words Venezuela does not need to recover from the 25% drop. All the business that went bankrupt do not matter. The high jobless rate is a fiction.

And all of this in open contradiction to the words of the Central Bank President, declaring to ALL the press that the present numbers were just a recuperation of productive capacity that had stopped since 2002. Do they read the same reports?

And let's not even discuss what other economists say.

Not to be left behind, the finance minister Nobrega states poker faced that the Venezuelan growth rate will be above 6.5% for 2004, perhaps even reaching 9%.

I suppose that the official explanation is that the business that went belly up were not "Bolivarian" and their dismissal just brings the economy to its just bolivarian value. The growth would be, I speculate, because good bolivarian companies can now operate in a real bolivarian market. Only growth in a bolivarian market is real growth, the rest only a product of the globalization evil.

Of course this is only official propaganda that his underlings feed to Chavez whose understanding of the economy is rather rudimentary and definitely ideological. The fact is that the observed recovery is just due to the fact that the businesses that survived the calamitous decline are now slowly edging back to a level of production that is still below their full potential. The businesses that did close are not reopening. Investment is limited to maintenance. Earnings are weak, when they exist. There is no way to sustain even a 5% growth rate if private investment and new business creation are not in the picture. The 9 % of this year, if we reach them, could become quickly a 0%, or less, next year! As long as Chavez refuses a political settlement, there will be no confidence in the prospects of the Venezuelan economy. It is really quite simple and quite independent of any good numbers that might circumstantially happen today.

Investments are coming! Partially true at best. The only ones that are coming from outside are the ones that are required for governmental business. Oil production and some public works. These will only favor the business class that Chavez is trying to create by selecting who gets government contracts. I use the term selecting as the word "bidding" seems to have disappeared from the Venezuelan lexicon. And when one will discount the "commissions" paid to selected officials so as to get the business one can wonder how much of this will trickle down to the Venezuelan economy.

The only investments made by Venezuelans these days are the bond issues that the government is emitting. By losing some of their investment in VEB due to a conversion penalty, people do get to take legally out of the country a few thousand USD and hide them overseas. The government meanwhile does manage to grab 1 billion USD from its reserves and dispose of these dollars without having to go through CADIVI and without significant budgetary constraints. This of course fuels inflation, and people are not fooled. Each time a bond issue comes to the markets the street value of the dollar drops. But within a very few days it increases again. The last bond was no exception: the street value of the VEB by Wednesday had dropped to 2,900 from a high of 3,500. Friday it was back at 3,000 and by mid to late May I reckon it will be again at 3,500.
A Chavez séance on the Venezuelan Economy
Rewriting history books in three parts (I)

Satruday 24, April 2004

Thrusday night Chavez treated us to a cadena on economic matters, namely the supposedly successful placement of a new bond issue. Since I was busy on other things I did not turn off the TV, nor switched to cable and with a distracted ear I followed his ramblings. I was not disappointed. I do not remember exactly the sequence of events, but in Chavez speeches this is really not important. So I will describe a few of the themes that I picked up.

The democratization of bond issues

The main point was to talk to a captive audience of the virtues of the new sovereign bond (see Miguel's blog for details on bond issues). He addressed the audience as if it were a foreign crowd when in reality it looked just like the packed crowds that officials prepare for him, with a few foreign guests on the first files.

Chavez gloated that for the first time in Venezuelan history small investors had access to such bond issues, that for once a bond issue was not in the hands of a privileged few that set the conditions that best fit them. Maybe. But at 10,000 US dollars the smallest coupon, I would hardly talk of "small" investor. At the official exchange rate 10,000 USD are 19,200,000 Venezuelan Bolivares, VEB. As a reference 1,000,000 VEB monthly paycheck is considered today a decent paycheck and puts you in the middle class (1). With Venezuelan labor laws that 1 million monthly becomes perhaps a 15 million total at year end with bonus and vacations. I wonder how on a 15,000,000 VEB income one can save 19,200,000 VEB. Democratization? Give me a break! To be able to save such amounts in today’s Venezuela you must own your own business or be a high placed executive.

Or win the lottery.

Or be a corrupt official.

(1) For perpective, 1,000,000 is almost 5 times the minimum wage.

Friday, April 23, 2004

The Venezuelan Recall Election on the tightest of ropes

Friday 23, April 2004

It almost consummated. The day started with the expected decision from the Constitutional Court. They annulled again the Electoral Court decision. And they stated point blank that the Full Court had no business meddling in this business. Thus hoping to scare the other judges from trying some move to that effect. A confession that they know they do not have the majority in the Full Court.

Now of course it remains for the other 15 Justices to decide whether they will allow the Constitutional Court set such a precedent. If hey acquiesce, then the judicial coup will be complete and justice in Venezuela will have ceased. Quite simple. (In English)

After lunch time the Electoral Board, with some of them sporting big smiles courtesy of the Constitutional Court, organized a silly ceremony where they FINALLY gave the results of the signature drives of November 2003.

The opposition limited itself to declare that now they will examine the rules and the data of what needs to be repaired. They hoped to emit a declaration as to whether they will accept the deal sometime Monday.

Chavismo was more direct. The ineffable William Lara stated that they would track down the contested signatures and they would try to talk to signataries into withdrawing the signatures or desist from validating. He seemed quite confident that he would manage to derail at least 250 000 signatures and thus sink once and for all the Recall Election. As to the ethical aspect of it, not a cloud on his mind.

One thing that is still curious for me, is the strange contrast between confidence and doubts on occasion from chavista spokespersons, including Chavez who two days ago told his supporters to get ready in case the "unthinkable" would come to pass, that is, if a Recall Election electoral campaign must indeed take place. Do they really think that there is a real chance that in the last inning the opposition will pull the trick? Or is it just psychological talk to influence the opposition and make them accept verification rules that most people think are too harsh, even undoable?

Maybe we are finally going to get some real answers soon. Even if we might not like them, it is still better to know the answers.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

On United States and Venezuela relations

The much ballyhooed visit by Florida Senator Nelson a few days ago was just the tip of the iceberg. A good evaluation of the deteriorating relations between Venezuela and the US has been written by Alexandra Beech "Venezuela is no longer a Partisan Issue".

Chavez has managed to alienate pretty much everyone in the Senate. I am sure Nader is not too far behind. A few more Human Rights violations and a good oil spill should take care of that.
Double talk on Caracas talk shows, again.
What is the government up to?

Thursday 22, April 2004

In what is now an only too predictable pattern, some chavista officials are hitting the morning talk shows, after weeks of estrangement. Not that they are not invited, talk shows host complain regularly on how difficult it is to get as a guest a chavista officeholder. Simply, the record of the Chavez administration is so difficult to defend that the best way to defend it is to ignore the media. Except of course the state TV, VTV, which has an uncanny ability to get all sorts of exclusive interviews by catching so and so at the right moment, in the right place.

But on occasion the regime is confronted with important tests where it is obliged to present a more democratic face, a clear disposition to dialogue. In those moments, usually close to some electoral process, or right after a devaluation, we can observe the return of chavismo to the much hated private media. This rule is repeating itself this week as the ratification process rules for the November signature drive were announced.

This morning was particularly spectacular. On RCTV we had Rodriguez himself, the real CNE power, defending his acts. Well, rather than defending it would be fair to say that he was stating and restating that he was right, period. In all objectivity he did a decent presentation. Unfortunately keen observers would have remembered that when he was named to the CNE he did tour some talk shows, in particular the formidable Marta Colomina show at 6 AM. There he gave all assurances that the signature collection process would be fair, transparent, and what not. See what mess we are now, 4 months after the signatures were handed to the CNE and we still have to wait until tomorrow to know the final results. I wonder if he was able to dust anyone’s eyes this morning.

On Televen we had Triangulo at 7 AM. The format of that show is for 4 people to discuss amiably some issue of importance. The host is less prone to direct questioning letting the guests question each other. Thus he tends to have a better chavista attendance than other early morning folks. This morning he had 2 chavista guests, one of the them, Rodrigo Cabezas, the chairman of the finance committee of the National Assembly. I do have some admiration for Mr. Cabezas. He is one of the few chavista that actually might know what he is talking about. Perhaps this has hampered his career. He was a natural to end up in Chavez cabinet but this one has never considered him. He was a natural to try to win the Zulia governorship, but Chavez forgot him more than once. Regardless, Mr. Cabezas remains on the surface the perfect apparatchik, stone faced when the opposition talks. Repeating the same prepared lines when his turn comes, regardless of what the other side said.

The discussion was on economic matters, rather a quaint topic considering what is politically at stake for the country these days. We heard again from the chavista guests the same litany of the oil industry been sabotaged in January 2003 (the proofs please?). What was more troubling was the pretense that private investment is coming back to Venezuela, and the only things they could point out was that private oil companies were investing to increase Venezuelan production (admitting that PDVSA could not do it anymore, and thus Chavez is starting indirect privatization of the industry) and that GM would invest (as the government is going to pass supposedly some orders to the car maker). As usual, an economy driven by public spending. The mind frame of chavismo is only an aggravation of what AD left us with: all comes from oil money, and as long as there is enough for political patronage, the rulers in office are happy.

But while these people were doing their duty to pretend to reach out to the opposing side, sporting again the democratic make up, the state TV, VTV, was making sure that the faithful were not perturbed by such good dispositions. Indeed, what chavista officials might say in the private media is promptly balanced by what they say a few hours earlier or later on VTV. To witness the interview late last night of Tarek Saab the chairman the foreign relations committee.

Late night VTV has grown to exert the same role as early morning private media. In carefully prepared performances, chavista big and not so big wigs come to VTV to give the official line. Even the reporters are well chosen for that task. Vanessa Davies, to name one, is a white girl with light brown hair, almost dark blonde, who makes a point to be even more endearing when her interlocutor is of a darker shade. She can be very serious or even bubbly depending of the topic and who she has sitting across. Like other VTV hosts such as the AM one, Ernesto Villegas, it has been very interesting to see their evolution since April 2002 as they have radicalized their style, or been told to do so as the case might be.

Mr. Saab last night was doing his job, that is, trash the opposition who his colleagues were going to try to endear this morning. Just to make sure that the faithful knew quite well that it was going to be just a show. I suppose that Mr. Saab assumes that people like me never watch VTV.

Mr. Saab was referring to the disgraceful National Assembly show of Tuesday night as chavismo called for a forced 72 hours permanent session to try to force feed yet again the new law for controlling the Judicial Power. What was most notable that night was the visual image. Chavista assemblymen gathered in a defensive position the major stand where the third vice president, Noeli Pocaterra was presiding. She happens to be a Venezuelan Native American. Meanwhile, down at the benches the opposition, with less votes, was making a noisy racket to protest the way the debate was handled by the scanty chavista majority. Nothing new really in recent debating procedures of the National Assembly, But Tuesday night it was a striking image to see the folks who claim to have the support of the immense majority of the Venezuelan people acting as if they were cornered defending the last dungeon of some medieval castle. Body language often says more than words.

Perhaps Mr. Saab sensing that it was not a glorious night for his colleagues at the Assembly, came up with an explanation for their attitude: they were defending Ms. Pocaterra from the racial slurs emitted by the opposition. Well, maybe, but I can assure the reader that if Thor Ramundsen from Uppsala had being presiding from the pulpit of the National Assembly in the way Ms. Pocaterra was presiding that night, he would have been equally insulted, racial slurs and all. After all the opposition has a few dark skinned representatives.

Thus the communicational strategy of chavismo. Pretend to be cool on occasion, while making sure that the bases know what to expect, that the bases know that nasty white opposition want to hurt nice black chavistas. Does this primitivism really, really work?

At any rate, we are waiting to see what chavismo has under its sleeve now that it is making nice for a few days. Allow me to be concerned.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

A decision from the CNE?
More and more tricks! Where are you Jimmy Carter?
Wednesday 21, April 2004

Around midnight, or at least after I went to bed, the Electoral Board, CNE, came out to announce the signature repair process. As usual the announcement was not complete and did not represent what the negotiators were said to have agreed to. About a 100 000 signatures were missing for example. I will not bother the reader with details but the approved provisions make the process as difficult as possible, much more difficult than any normal election. In other words, the CNE uses any, and I mean any strategy to remove a signature here and there, to make sure that there and here so and so will not be able to repair his/her signature.

Of course the announcement was a terse one, with only Carrasquero and Rodriguez present, while it was announced that Zamora and Mejias, the "opposition" rectors had voted against the rules. At this point it seems that their role is limited to try to figure out what is happening inside the CNE so as to report to the country the truth, as much of it as they can gather. Otherwise their effect has become insignificant for all practical purpose. The chavista trio does pretty much as it pleases, only slowed down on occasion by general outrage.

But other signs are very telling. The Miami Herald published the declarations of a certain Groh, the leader of automated election proposal that was rejected by the CNE. He declares, a little bit late by the way, that already in October Rodriguez was saying that there would not be a Recall Election in Venezuela. These words could be seen as the words of a jilted suitor. Unfortunately there have been other rumors that Rodriguez on occasion, and in private, has said that the signatures have not been collected (before the collection was even completed) and later that there was a fraud (even though the only thing he has ever shown was a few smudged form that he could have prepared himself for all that we know). Not to mention that the local Venezuelan press that is in station at the CNE reports that the official press is treated much better (coffee and pastries in private rooms, which has become a standard joke when talking of Rodriguez) and has much better access to the chavista rectors.

Definitely there is something that people outside of Venezuela should be aware of. In Venezuela Rodriguez is considered now as the real head of the CNE, and the partisan one at that. His "word" has no value for the opposition: he has betrayed himself so often that there is no point in keeping track. The only interviews he grants these days are to "safe" journalist such as Greg Wipert from the web site Venezuelaanalysis that Francisco took the pain to reproduce in his site. The arrogance of Rodriguez comes shining through.

In a way it is a perfect symbol of the chavista system. A psiachitrist that became the power at the electoral agency, managing it according to subjective criteria. The only thing that matters for people like Rodriguez is that their mission is fulfilled. That it crashes agaisnt the rules of reason does not even cross his mind. That his electoral criteria defies the rules of statistics, as Francisco bravely and uselessly describes in his open latter to Greg Wilpert, is not a matter of concern. That along the way he betrays the will of the majority of the Venezuelan people will not perturb his sleep.

Just as his idol is trashing the country with the excuse that he wants to make it better for all.
Tuesday 20, April 2004

We have spent all day waiting for the final rules on how we would eventually go to the repair election process. Unfortunately at this late time not only we have not gotten anything but the winds that are blowing are not very good. The division of the country seems to be reaching its natural consequences.

Simple logic demonstrates that if the opposition indeed did not gather the necessary signatures late November 2002, the referendum would be history long ago. After all, it has been almost 5 months. If the signatures are not there, then the count would have been published long ago and we would be talking of something else now. Or the vaunted "megafraud" would have been exposed and the perpetrators should be in jail by now. That the chavismo controlled Electoral Board, CNE, is still discussing who knows what establishes without the shadow of a doubt that it is trying desperately to find a way to cheat the people out of its rights. The signatures are in but the CNE has been unable to mount a convincing explanation to annul them.

Chavismo, knowing full well that the only way to stop the recall election is by effectuating a legal coup, is announcing its colors.

A few days ago Chavez declared shamelessly that he would not be taken out of office, with an election or without one. He hinted that the Army is ready to support the revolution.

The president attorney, a public servant incidentally as my taxes pay for her job, went ahead today and supported all the dubious legal proceedings going on in the High Court. Namely that the Constitutional Court is above of the Full Court, not to mention the Electoral Court. That of course means that the Constitutional Court is going to block the reunions of the Full Court, and will refuse to recognize its rulings if necessary.

Word is out that the Constitutional Court is about to emit a ruling canceling once again the ruling of the Electoral Court and basically announcing its supremacy above the other courts.

Meanwhile the thinly controlled National Assembly has retaken the debate on the reform of the High Court law and is forcing 48 hours sessions to painfully force votes on one article after the other, letting any other matter at hand languish. The objective of the chavista majority is of course to bloat the number of justices to 32 from the present 20 and thus pack every single court of the High Court to obtain predictable rulings. The projected law has of course being challenged as unconstitutional but since the Constitutional Court is about to complete its take over, who cares?

This has acquired even more urgency as the argument of the Constitutional Court is that the signature drive is not an electoral matter but a constitutional matter. Consequently the Constitutional Court would have to rule itself out of any electoral contention for the coming regional elections. As the CNE is surely planning some large scale fraud then, it is crucial that chavismo acquires a majority in the Electoral Court. After all, if the Recall Election is cancelled, then the regional elections could become a referendum of their own.

The strategy of the opposition has been only too successful. Chavismo is now cornered and is pushed to break the law, its only way out.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Monday night grab bag
From Petkoff in Boston to a Florida Senator in Venezuela and a Brazilian mugging

It is the end of a three days holiday, and stuck at home with the remains of a Brazilian flu I might as well put together some stuff that I have left on the side.

It is also a good idea to catch up before tomorrow when we are expecting momentous decisions from the CNE and the opposition as to the possibility of ever reaching a recall election. Incidentally, one thing that is bothering me is that now the earliest date for the recall election is early August. If the recall election is not held before August 19, then all the effort will have been for naught as Chavez will leave his vice president to complete the term. How come the Carter Center or the OAS, or the Coordinadora Democratica for that matter, have not come up front and say that the recall election after August 19 is unacceptable? That the CNE should come out clear on that? That the intention of the voters that signed in December was for a Recall before August and that bad management of the CNE is not an excuse? This should be grounds to demand the dismissal of the present CNE! Even if we all know that they were "incompetent" on purpose.

Am I smelling a rat?

But this is a topic for a full post later.

Teodoro Petkoff in Boston

Read the riveting account of his presentation in Boston as written by Guillermo on April 11. Note that the "Bolivarian circle" of Boston might be composed of US lefties instead of Venezuelans. How come I am not surprised?

Ibsen Martinez strikes again

For those who subscribe to El Nacional, read today's article by Ibsen Martinez on his visit last year to a certain Timerman, a close help of Spain's Aznar. He was visiting La Moncloa, the prime minister residence, incidentally with Petkoff, to discuss about Venezuela just as the alliance tanks were rolling into Baghdad. There is no one like Ibsen Martinez to expose so clearly the hubris of high placed officials (and to remind the Venezuelan opposition that they are victim of hubris even as they are in the dog house). You will probably understand better why Aznar's party is now out of office.

Yaracuy politics are a world of their own

Yaracuy governor, Eduardo Lapi, can probably run with one hand tied behind his back and still reach 60% of the vote. For better of for worse, what local leadership does to people that actually try to improve the lot of people that they administer.

He had some perhaps unfortunate declarations early in March when he threatened to declare himself in civil disobedience. Now the central government is accusing him of being a "conspirator". Lapi conspiring! The guy that cannot keep his mouth shut! Quite amazingly the Coordinadora Democratica is very reluctant to endorse him (as it is reluctant to endorse any of the guys that were in the negotiation table last year, how interesting!). And chavismo probably presented the very worst candidate to run against Lapi. So what else could they do but try to jail Lapi? And so far the Coordinadora is not up in arms the way it was with, say, Capriles Radonsky of Baruta. The reason? Lapi has trounced repeatedly Copei and AD in Yaracuy making them pretty much irrelevant here.

Senator Nelson Caracas vacation

Florida's junior senator came to Caracas and he left with a very bad impression of the place, and not from the obvious garbage in the streets. Quote:
''We may reach the point where the U.S. has to treat this government as a hostile and unfriendly government to the U.S. and the U.S. interests,'' said Nelson, a Democratic member of the Senates Foreign Relations Committee.

The vice president and the foreign minister are rather upset and found nothing better but to threaten visitors with use of lie detectors.
Apparently chavismo has not realized that fact finding missions are actually fact finding and not adulation material gathering.

The Brazilian report

Last two times I went to Brazil I was inspired to write some amateur social comparative studies. Having survived Venezuela high crime rates just to find myself mugged at 9 PM on Ipanema returning from dinner has cut short inspiration. Not to mention that my precious digital camera is gone. That Rio was in the middle of a favelha battle with all cops in the favelhas make me think that perhaps all the small time thieves were down in the now unguarded street.

Still, I came back with one piece of crucial observation. After a couple of days in Rio I noticed that something was missing. It was missing because the ethnic mix of Rio is pretty close to Caracas so it was obvious to my subconscious that something was missing. Eventually I realized it: no soldiers anywhere. Except very informally around some military buildings that are not guarded like fortress the way Venezuelan military installations are guarded these days. Caracas, and even San Felipe streets these days offer the only too frequent spectacle of soldiers loitering around, supposedly bringing some security to the citizenry. This military presence has not stopped the crime index from increasing, and a few reports have even surfaced where the muggings were actually made by soldiers. I wonder now what people visiting Venezuela think when they see so many soldiers that should be in their barracks preparing to defend the country.

Yet one more evidence that Venezuela might already be under a military dictatorship but we just do not know about it.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Another day, another march

Monday 19, April 2004

Today is a holiday. Banks and state offices are closed in memory of the first "successful" revolt against Spanish authority in South America, April 19, 1810. This sort of gives Venezuela the lead in emancipation movements across South America although the first official declaration of independence is owned by Buenos Aires, and Argentina. All these things probably depended more on how close from Spain these countries laid, Venezuela and Argentina being the first land reached by the news from Europe.

The opposition decided to call for a march, rather at the last minute. The idea had some merit. As the recall election is on its last agonizing throes, it was a good idea to remind folks that April 19 was the first "recall election" of our history even though nobody knew what a referendum was then. After all, the General Captain of Venezuela (governor equivalent) was foolish enough to ask from a balcony to a mob whether they wanted him in office. The result was rather predictable in the political effervescence of these days. Vicente Emparan took the next ship back to Spain and the Caracas cabildo (municipal council) was in charge of the city, and soon of the country.

But as the country is expecting the final death sentence for the Recall Election, it is quite clear for all that this one does not depend on a last minute march. It also does not help that the Coordinadora Democratica decided to take the route to Los Proceres, the Caracas Monumental avenue where in January 2003 a few marchers were shot. The government is doggedly decided not to let the opposition walk on military grounds, even more today when the military is the only real source of strength of the Chavez administration.

Still, if the turn out was weaker than usual the opposition started its march from Altamira all the way to Los Proceres. Just to be blocked by the National Guard as expected. Leaders of the march tried to negotiate the passage of a commission to deposit a floral offering at the foot of the monument honoring the heroes of the Independence wars. But they wanted to be at least accompanied by some media "for security reasons". The National Guard colonel in charge (not even a general!) would only have the state TV, VTV, come along. With this final humiliation the leaders of the march dropped their floral offerings at the foot of the National Guard line and called off the march.

This is all what the Coordinadora Democratica can come up with? No wonder the Recall Election is all but dead.
Elections in Venezuela? You mean, this is an electoral campaign?
Part 6: what we are campaigning about.

Sunday 18, April 2004

These days, as the Recall Election seems near its last sigh, we must start looking in earnest at what is our only chance to demonstrate to the world, in a peaceful way, that Chavez is not wanted by the Venezuelan people.

The regional elections, now almost certainly scheduled for early September as the Electoral Board, CNE, admits its inability to get ready for the August date, are turning to become the real referendum. In this rarest of climates one would think that the opposing Coordinadora Democratica, CD, would do its outmost to present a united front. Indeed, with single candidatures against Chavez it would become more difficult for a CNE sold to Chavez to manage a fraud big enough to steal the elections. The CNE can easily transform a 5 % loss into a 1 % win, but a 20 % loss would be more difficult to hide in a situation where international observers would be watching like hawks.

Regardless of the shameless gutting of the recall election signature drive by the CNE, in spite of all the warnings and observations from the Carter Center and the OAS, it seems unlikely that the electoral fraud in September can reach the same magnitude, not that chavismo will not try it. Thus the complaints of those that say that without a Recall Election then there is no point in running in the regional election sound hollow. If you want to claim that fraud has been committed against you, you must make sure that the fraud does happen by running. There is no better way to initiate real international pressure than to allow fraud in large scale to become apparent. For recent memory, see Fujimori "reelection" in Peru. A few months after he found himself in exile in Japan.

Considering that what is at stake is in reality the referendum on Chavez rule, how are the sides dealing with it?

Chavismo is out buying votes

One main problem that chavismo faces is that all the huge financial effort of last year to block a recall election has been lost with the Human Rights violations of February 27 and on. Thus, they have to plan yet a new massive spending campaign. Pushing back the elections to September is actually favoring chavismo, for all the crocodile tears that its leaders shed. The attitude of the chavista candidates speaks volume: they are rather quiet for people supposedly campaigning, just making sure they remain in the news while money reaches their followers. They seem to know that their score depends much more on what Chavez will do for them than on what they will do themselves.

It is interesting to observe that the one that has been making the most noise is Acosta Carles, the burping general, who is running in the well managed state of Carabobo. This state was kept in 2000 by its governor, Salas Feo, at the height of Chavez popularity in Venezuelan. This explains the lousy performance of the ex-general having his body guards jumping all dressed up and pointing guns in a club pool where the only adversaries were bathers in skimpy swimsuits. But the objective was very clear and simple: stimulate class warfare, rich versus poor as a tool to gain votes. The army and the "people" united against the aristocrats. After all, Acosta Carles is very white and one thing that can darken him is to demonstrate that the other whites do not like him. A couple of days after, Acosta Carles was received by the National Assembly (minus the opposition) as the main speaker to commemorate the return of Chavez on April 13, 2002. Certainly his disgraceful actions a few days earlier were well liked by chavismo. The electoral campaign in Carabobo could well become the script for a civil war if Acosta Carles keeps this type of politicking.

But chavista candidates elsewhere can remain cooler. The fraud will work in their favor. Rumors abound that Chavez has decided that the opposition will gain 4 to 5 minor states to "demonstrate" to the world that there is a working democracy in Venezuela. This time he is not going to lose any of the big states, three of them being now in the opposition hands. It is all quite simple, really. Once upon a time fraud was committed in totalitarian regimes with scores of 99.5 % votes. In modern days authoritarian regimes such as what Chavez aspires too, 60 % will be enough. In a country where the rule of law has ceased, 60 % of the votes give you 4/5 of the states and 95% control of what goes on in the country.

So, what is the opposition doing to counter that 60 % goal?

The Coordinadora Democratica is cackling.

The CD is very aware that the only way to minimize fraud is to present a united front. That is the only way to make it very difficult to lose states where they get a 20 % advantage, which is at least the case in 3 out of 4 states today. But will it do so?

The main problem of the CD is not that it is a hodgepodge coalition raging from right to left. The problem is that some among them think that there are enough votes to share so that they all have a chance to win. Indeed polls show that in every state anti chavista forces are ahead. But polls show also that chavismo nation wide is still in the mid 30 %, and in some states above 40 % which makes it a formidable foe if the opposition runs divided, thanks to the winner take all electoral system.

The CD is also victim of its success. Some participants of the CD think that they have resurrected their political fortunes, independently from the CD action. This is the case of old parties, in particular Accion Democratica, AD. This party, the main responsible of the situation that allowed Chavez to reach power, and unapologetic at that, thinks that people saw the light and will return to its fold. Sometimes it seems that AD main adversary is not Chavez but the "upstarts" that are trying to prey on the dissatisfied chavista voters that are looking for new options. Chavismo and AD coincide in that their main enemy is not the each other, but folks such as Primero Justicia.

These internal tensions are probably the reason why some unsavory candidates have suddenly found favor by a majority of members of the CD, something rightly decried by many and illustrated by clear headed commentators such as Milagros Socorro (April 1). One can only be dumbfounded watching the chutzpah shown by Claudio Fermin presenting himself for the office of Major at large of the Caracas Metropolitan area. Granted, the present holder, Alfredo Pena, has not been a stellar mayor. But perhaps of all opposition office holders he is the one that has had to face the strongest onslaught from chavismo, in part for having been an earlier supporter of Chavez and thus now a "traitor". One could deal perhaps with Claudio Fermin asking for some form of primary election. But no, what we are seeing is Claudio Fermin reproaching minor problems such as trash collection, to a mayor that had had to literally battle several times open assault to his town hall. What gives Mr. Fermin? Not to mention that Mr. Fermin has a rather checkered past himself, as a disavowed ex-mayor of a Caracas district, with a name that has not been cleared from suspicion of misdeeds.

What AD is doing in Caracas with Claudio Fermin, is also seen elsewhere in Venezuela, sometimes in agreement with another player from the past, Copei, or the MAS. One would believe that AD is unto something and that they really think that Chavez will share stuff with them. Others are not convinced. In particular when AD does not show any remorse from some of its past actions when in power. It is perhaps the biggest mistake of AD to think that people will vote for them against any chavista candidate. Many might just stay home.

I will translate a portion of an article from Marta Colomina a few Sundays ago:
Polls are already revealing that the elector will vote for the unity of the opposition, and that many will abstain if the atomization of candidacies and parties keeps going on. Citizens are not willing to forgive the repetition of errors of the past. The ones that will forget about the Recall Election and break unity, will be a political suicide. The bad thing is that with his suicide that no one will feel sorry about he will have contributed to legitimize and strengthen the dictatorship of Chavez.

Carlos Blanco on the same day goes one step further:
It is about choosing, and forgive my insistence, between collaborationism and resistance.

Strong warnings for AD and its ilk!

Not to mention this cartoon by Rayma:

Clearly, campaigning about potholes, at least at the governor level, might be very counterproductive. People have their mind set: for better or for worse they are voting for or against Chavez. This is going to be quite an electoral campaign, with or without fraud.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Thursday 15, April 2004

Trying to absorb all the political events from one week of Venezuelan politics can make your head spin. Trying to make sense of them can make you nauseous.

After one week out of the country, the return was kind of a shocker. To resume it is really not worthwhile so I will prefer address the points that I was following before I left.

The case of the burnt soldiers

In what qualifies as vile story of the week, Chavez went to Fort Mara on Easter Sunday to give his weekly peroration. To begin with, he could have given it a break, it was Easter Sunday. But probably he could not resist the opportunity of trying to outshine the Church on its most important holiday.

There in a display of particularly tasteless cynicism he "assumed" responsibility for the lousy information that made him say two weeks earlier that the injuries were "light", leaving him as a fool when the next day private Bustamante died. But if that was not enough he promised full inquiry, even though as far as today press and a delegation of the National Assembly are refused entry to Fort Mara and the military is far from offering any substantive explanation. Which did not stop him from exculpating the high ranking officers from Fort Mara. And he added insult to injury refusing to accept the resignation of Jesse Chacon.

Thus it remains demonstrated once and for all that the said resignation was only a show to protect some obscure events, people and "mistakes" of that fateful day. We will probably never know the truth, just as we will never know what happened on April 11 2002 or so many other deaths that occurred since that date.

The case of the "invalid" signatures

As expected the Electoral Court emitted a final ruling restating all that it previously announced, namely that the questioned signatures should not be questioned considering that the criteria to question them were established AFTER the collection fact. And it put the Electoral Board on notice.

Even though this makes simple logical sense, as expected chavismo accused the Electoral Court of all sorts of crimes and corruption.

Now we have to wait for the full High Court to settle this conflict of competence between the two conflicting courts. The Constitutional Court still considers that the signature collection is a Constitutional matter and not an Electoral matter, not explaining of course the imbedded contradiction that those signatures are collected FOR and election. It is already clear that the Constitutional Court will not hesitate in blocking the general functioning of justice if it is what it takes to stop that Full Court from sitting and rule on that matter.

The case of the dysfunctional Electoral Board

One thing interesting coming from the Electoral Court is that it still exhorts the parties to reach an agreement without waiting from the final High Court ruling. In other words, the Electoral Court knows that no matter how right it is, South American legal tradition allows for all sorts of delays when they are convenient for the powers that be. If this does happen almost everywhere, it is quite spectacular in Venezuela today where the principles of separation of powers is paid lip service.

But the Electoral Board, CNE, is not cooperating. Strangely the three pro Chavez rectors are almost down to one, Jorge Rodriguez, and the other two rectors, supposedly representing the interest of the opposition are amazingly discreet considering the circumstances. One can genuinely wonder what is really going on there, even though we can observe negotiations going on as the opposition representatives and the Carter Center and OAS are seen going in and out of the CNE offices.

Yesterday finally the CNE announced its formula from "revalidating" the signatures. Unfortunately it is a scheme that was long ago known to be unacceptable by the opposition. And this one said so today, almost shutting down the negotiation road. They do have an argument though: they cannot really evaluate the CNE proposal as long as they do not know which are the final tallies for the November signature collection. That is right, today April 15, we do not know the final numbers of what was collected BEFORE December 2, 2003! Can the CNE really be that incompetent?

The case of the nasty Yankee

This of course has not stopped chavismo to do all sorts of anti North American declarations and taking advantage of the Iraq situation to try to distract from problems within Venezuela. The US embassy, Europe and the most South American countries are not fooled and Chavez seems to have a hard time to rally any significant. The weight of the recent human rights violation is weighing heavily on any Venezuelan diplomatic result.

What it all really means

We simply watching a deliquescent administration that has run out of ideas. The Chavez administration is now getting its hands on the cheapest rhetoric and is not afraid of illegal ways to pursue its only aim, staying in office.

Why such a dogged resistance against an election by an administration that claims to enjoy the support of the people? By a president that promises, as if nothing, that he will kick ass if any election comes? Why so many lies, distortions, avoidance? It is all very simple: the trail of corruption and crimes cannot be hidden anymore, they know that if they relinquish power, too many of them will face sooner or later the courts.

The heroic days of the Bolivarian Revolution to improve the fate of the downtrodden masses are over. The days of saving one's skin, and booty, have arrived.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

And I want to leave already!

Well, in the past few days there has been some action.

Chavez made his outmost to agitate the "patriotic" flag against the US.

The Electoral Court ruled for good. The Constitutional Court is accused by one of its members of an illegal ruling before Easter. Big judicial mess developing.

Acosta Carles, the burping general now retired and running for Carabobo State House has invaded a private social club, having his body guards jumping all dressed up in the pool to shield him from bathers asking him to leave and used an army helicopter to escape, mooning the crowd. Notice that he used army material that supposedly he is not allowed to use anymore (not to mention that even if he still were an active general I doubt he would be allowed to use Army stuff as he does).

And some more good stuff if not that spectacular.

I will need a day to sift a little bit through all that I have been told, double checking things.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

A quick hello

Well, Venezuelan News did catch me. Today the Electoral Court did go back on its decision to validate the signatures questioned. Of course chavsimo says that the decision is not legal and goes as far as accusing without proof the Electoral Court to be sold off. Gee, lots of work for this blogger on his return.

But what was much more troublesome is that Chavez refused to accept the resignation of Jesse Chacon for the "lightly injured" statement. In other words, there will be no apologies, no explanaitions, no objective inquiry, no nothing that will really get to the bottom of the matter: military abuse of authority within its quarters. Chavez will protect the Army, his only real support no matter what violations to Human Rights they will perpetrate.

I think I need extra dose of Caipirinha tonight.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Off to Brazil

This blogger having spend most of the Easter holidays working, is taking off for business to Brazil and a couple of days rest (?) in Rio. I will check the news and if something big hits the front lines I will try to post something (internet access depending...) Otherwise I will be back on a regular basis late next week.

But I trust that as of Monday Miguel will be back at work.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Good Friday, April 2004

Venezuela reaches the holy week with a certain trepidation. It is the time of the year, with Christmas, that has become the general vacation time for all, the closest we have from the August exodus of Europe. The travel peak of the year is the week end before Easter, comparable to Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Venezuela shuts down solid for Thursday and Good Friday and with blithely call every day of that week "santo", holy. Not all get Monday through Wednesday as government keeps open, but many private business closes down for the whole week or let a few of their folks take off. Thus Saturday and Holy Wednesday are the biggest departure days, and Easter has become the traffic nightmare day of the year as all return.

Yaracuy is spared some of these excesses since as a small state it probably gets more visitors than people leaving the state. Not that Yaracuy is a state with particularly lots of tourist attraction (it has no beaches, which are the main destination for Venezuelans any time of the year) but it is a state that has many of its natives go elsewhere to find better jobs and they come back home for that week.

Yaracuy is thus rather a quiet state where to spend the Easter Holiday if one is not too keen on noisy and overcrowded beaches. It is also a state that focuses on the Venezuelan traditions. These are numerous around Easter week, the Spanish inheritance. The week is filled with processions and multiple sorts of devotions. Not as exaggerated as those people that drag themselves for miles on their knees in Mexico, or the flashy disguises of Seville with tall pointed purple hats. But in San Felipe processions you do have those that do penance waling the whole precession barefoot and dressed in light purple/dark mauve, the color of penitents. What is rather impressive is the number of children accompanying these processions, all decked as penitents. Supposedly to help their parents pay penance?

Yaracuy as Caracas is very big on "El Nazareno", the Nazarene. This is the figure of Christ, richly dressed (in purple) and bejeweled, but with his thorn crown and carrying the cross for the sins of mankind. The San Felipe Nazarene has actually a helper carrying his cross, as richly dressed as Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea. The most famous Nazarene is the one in Caracas, "El Nazareno de San Pablo" from the church where it used to reside until it was destroyed and moved to Santa Teresa. It is supposedly the figure who during a procession saved Caracas from a plague.

Since there are no new news today as the country is off to its devotions (only some gas stations and pharmacies are open), I am leaving you for a few days with the pictures of San Felipe procession last Wednesday. I will be back on line later next week although I will try to check in, depending of the Internet availability.

The Yaracuy procession is of course a very provincial affair. The local clergy gets a few musicians to lead the rather large procession for a small town. Somewhere in the middle there is the figure of the Nazarene. And the march is closed by the Clergy and an old and decrepit sound system that plays over and over a dreadful music that imitates quite convincingly the lament of the people following Jesus to the Golgotha. Quite an experience. But the devotion of the people is really touching, and for a short while they all forget about politics and try to atone for their sins. The pictures include the Nazarene of course, a penitent and the refreshment stand of shaved ice scones at the door of the church, waiting for the procession to come back.

Venezuela is off to the beach, or something

Thursday 8, April 2004

I drove back to Caracas today and traffic was light. The last big rush was yesterday afternoon and until Sunday morning people will be enjoying their Easter holiday. Even the news are taking a break. I could not even get the papers as my newspaper stand did not open! Not that it matter, many papers will not come out today and tomorrow. And a very thin edition on Saturday.

Thus I have only the web for news and the pickings are slim. Mostly news about where the flow of people has been largest, car crashes due to the usual suspects of people on holiday being careless.

The only feature is that the gravely other burnt soldier, Pedreanez is not doing to well and got an infection. His relatives are complaining that the military are still trying to take him away to Caracas. They also have refused to travel to Caracas to meet Chavez. And they reported that the military is pointing out at Pedreanez as the one that started the fire, according to the version of the other 8 soldiers that were in detention. That might be so, a young soldier that starts a fire to get out of detention. But some things are not quite right. Why is the commander of Fort Mara forbidden to talk to the press? Why are these soldiers shielded from the press? Why is there no official communique from the Ministry of Defense at this late date? Etc, etc.... Certainly not the way an administration would act if it were sure of its facts.

Meanwhile in Washington Venezuela keeps trying to put all sorts of blame on the US, persisting in accusing the Bush administration of financing the Recall Election effort. The State Department and the OAS representative of the US refuse to take the bait. Actually one wonders how long the Venezuelan government will persist insisting that with a couple of million of dollars the US has been able to stir all the mayhem that has wrought Venezuela since late 2001. If this were true, this would be one of the most profitable destabilization programs ever launched by the US.

By the way, how much did Chavez spend in the Salvadoran electoral Campaign? And what about the money given to Morales in Bolivia?

Finally since this is the holy week for Christianity, I will suggest a reading with a religious line. El Universal has a translation of the article/interview that they did of Rosalio Cardinal Castillo Lara. It is interesting to read how who was one of the most important Cardinals in the Roman Curia sees the Venezuelan situation now that he retired in the village of his birth. From the Roman golds to rural Venezuela, unfortunately coinciding with the arrival of Chavez into power.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Easter week sets in Venezuela

Wednesday 7, April 2004

Traditions are stronger than politics and the week that started with some intensity as far as news was concerned, is easing some. Nothing major today, just a follow up.

The case of the burnt soldiers. Nothing more except that now even the Ombudsman thinks that the fire was set on purpose while the Army keeps stalling any independent investigation.

Meanwhile the funeral for Orlando Bustamante drew a large attendance in his hometown, with all the proper expressions of familiy grief including all the Latin cultural excesses, of course duly shown on TV over and over. Air waves battle never rests.

Another soldier is still fighting for his life. The relatives refuse to let the Army transfer the soldier to a military facility in Caracas. Which seems to upset the Army greatly...

The Electoral front. Nothing. The CNE just left for vacation and any agreement will have to wait for negotiations to restart next Monday.

Carlos Melo. He received a hero's welcome at the head quarters of the Coordinadora Democratica and has retaken his political activities.

Other news. On the economic front the perspectives are not good. The economy is growing again, but it is growing from the bottom of the hole and not above the 2001 levels. This is a mild recovery at best. And an endangered one. Venezuela is eating all of its reserves in a period of high oil price. The posibilities of yet a harsh recession are again looming with any decrease in the price of oil. And we have not even recovered our 2001 level!

The debt service in the budget has ballooned to 32% of the budget! Eclipsing items such as health care and education! And what is worse is that the debt is going to increase as the government in an irresponsible permanent political campaign keep launching useless social programs (the famous "misiones") whose only mission is to buy votes for eventual elections.

Miscellaneous. A curious and grizzly murder was uncovered: three bodies were found in bags in two areas of Caracas with the same signs of demise. Quickly the investigation progressed and it seems that perhaps 5 guys were killed in some sort of Satanically orchestrated mass murder among the squatters of some buildings. These high rise apartment complex in a commercial area of Caracas were empty and destined for demolition or renovation. But due to the crisis the work had stopped. Some pro Chavez gang invaded them a few months ago. Since them, the police unwilling or unable or forbidden to remove them, has witnessed impotent as these buildings became the turf of gang wars and dens of all sorts of sordid business. Apparently the killed ones were the victims of an internal "reorganization" in one of the invaded buildings. Another sign of the continuous degradation of Caracas.

We do need a vacation...

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

A picture is worth a thousand words

And so is a cartoon.

Rayma, the very talented editorial cartoonist of El Universal has come up with quite a cartoon today. She identifies Chavez to some Roman soldier trying to justify the crucifixion, 2000 years ago. Indeed, talk about passing the buck... This cartoon summarizes quite well the two preceeding posts.

Translation of the caption:
The media printed that we had crucified him, when in fact we accidentally gave him the timber and the nails...

Indeed, the accidental match on the mattress, dixit the Venezuelan army and Chavez...

Sometimes cartoons are not as harsh as the very reality of the political situation they describe...
Realpolitik in Venezuela: the case of Orlando Bustamante, the soldier who died from its burns

And a liberation (perhaps to change the newspaper headlines?)

Tuesday 6, April 2004

In the wake of the resignation of the Information Minister, Jesse Chacon, the affair of the soldier that died from his fire injuries at Fort Mara, is far from over. To begin with the opposition through its spokesperson has dismissed the resignation as a cover up since "we all know that he will get an embassy" as a clear reference on how embassy assignation has become a way to place ex-ministers instead of articulating a real foreign policy.

But this was not strong enough. Liliana Hernandez stressed that Jesse Chacon is only the fall guy since on the infamous "Alo, Presidente" of last Sunday, the defense minister, Garcia Carneiro, was in attendance. This is doubly significant because
1) he is the one that is responsible for ANY information that comes from the army barracks to reach the president or the press, and not the resigned Mr. Chacon, and
2) why did he not say anything that Sunday? Ignorance? Deception? At any rate it should be the defense minister that should be picking up an available embassy instead of Mr. Chacon.

All sorts of stories and details are coming out to light, reported in particular by Tal Cual that has made a speciality on reporting from military abuse since it took as a banner the task of monitoring that Lieutenant Sicat be brought to justice from a similar affair three years ago. Some details are troubling. The Army tried to transfer the injured soldiers to the military hospital of Caracas, without the consent of the family. One family had to literally stand in the way to keep their relative from being transferred to Caracas (he is in Maracaibo still). In Caracas it was impossible to access the injured soldiers. The army commanders refuse to declare beside the cigarette butt explanation. They also refuse to let civil justice investigate even though the constitution allows military justice only for military matters and not when there is a "normal" accident or possible human rights violations. Both the chief of staff Baduel and defense minister Garcia Carneiro have to come out with a reasonable statement on the affair. Etc...

But it seems that the ripple effect of the Sunday words from Chavez might already be having some effect.

The CNE suddenly today seemed more amenable as to the repair process, all but announcing an imminent deal. The opposition is not denying it, acknowledging that indeed some progress has been made.

And an hour ago Carlos Melo, the most famous political prisoner of the February 27 days has just been released as the charges could not be founded by the prosecution! Even though they made up the arrest with weapons and all! As shown on the state TV only, by the way... Actually Carlos Melo has announced that he will not only sue the prosecutors for fabricating evidence, but he will consider actively entering the mayoral contest for the West district of Caracas, where he does have a chance to unseat the unpalatable Bernal, the head of the violent assault groups that haunt that area. After the media exposure that Melo has benefited he could become indeed a strong candidate (his candidacy has been registered even though he was in jail). If the right arm of the opposition unites behind him, Melo would be tough bone for Bernal. This is quite possible as the other main candidate, Liliana Hernandez, could be better used than in a town hall, and she is a prime defender of unity at all costs. She could make a highly visible withdrawal in favor of Melo and thus force some murky negotiations to be solved, such as for the Caracas Metropolitan Area mayor.

Maybe I am a cynic but something tells me that the Chavez administration wants people to talk about something else. It also does not hurt that to escape international scrutiny on political prisoners, the best bet is to release them, no? Some real politics are taking place within chavsimo side, pressed to concede some points while it regroups for the only thing that really matters, to avoid the recall election at all costs, or at least not before August 19. Throwing out a minister and releasing a few people could gain a few days of political grace.

Meanwhile the familiy of Orlando Bustamante grieves.
Carlos Melo free!
Tuesday 6, April 2004

The most important political prisoner from the days that followed February 27 repression has been set free a few minutes ago. Carlos Melo, a popular leader and an opponent of chavismo from its left side was jailed on what seemed trumped up charges, after a kidnapping, video taped from the security system of a gas station. Amazingly, none of the charges could be sustained by the prosecution after one full month of maneuvering!

And as I am opening my lap top to report on the blog, I hear Globovision announcing that the two body guards of Capriles Radonsky, Baruta's mayor that was into hiding for almost two weeks, were freed. They had been accused of been some of the "killers" of February 27. They always claimed that they were waiting for the major who was attending the march and never used their regulation weapons. No proof, ballistics or other, could be advanced to prove that they were not waiting for the mayor. After 5 weeks, they had to be released in turn.

More later tonight.

By the way, almost real time blogging again folks!

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Easter week holidays start in Venezuela
but there is not much resting going on

Monday 5, April 2004

Easter week in Venezuela is a major holiday in a country that does not have a tradition of summer month holidays as in Europe. Thursday and Friday are official holidays and many private business just close for the whole week, the closest approximation we have to August in Europe.

But politics is not taking a break this week.

Let's start with the murky incident of the burnt soldiers I had reported a few days ago. Still at this point there is no clear or convincing explanation. The Army is protecting the site not letting independent investigation. The relatives are having a different version than the one offered by the government. Even some of the soldiers "allegedly" changed their initial story.

But things took a dramatic turn today. In his weekly address "Alo, presidente!" Chavez, not only is not taking the Easter break himself but generated enough material to have tongues running all through the week. Besides aggravating in the holy week his relations with he church by calling the church clergy "Judas", he said that the soldiers "accident" was blown out of proportion by the "conspirator" press, tied with the church with foreign interest (etc, etc...), and that at any rate, the injuries suffered by the soldiers were minor.

Unfortunately one of the 8 soldiers did die today. And the information minister Jesse Chacon just tended his resignation a few minutes ago, as seen through Globovision, a first in Chavez Venezuela. Strange, is it not? So many ministers have made such big blunders and they are still in office or in a cozy embassy...

Actually it is not strange. The Army is now the main support of Chavez and a major gaffe in such a delicate business could jeopardize the support for Chavez, a support that is costing him so much to maintain. And hearing the ex (?) minister talk on TV, suggests to me that he is the one that minimized the injuries of the soldiers trying probably to gain good marks with Chavez. That would be the very best example to demonstrate that Chavez entourage are actively hiding the reality of the country to Chavez.

While this major political faux pas was taking place, there was some activity on the electoral front. The opposition getting restless and sensing that the recall election is about to die sort of made an ultimatum, posing three conditions to go to the repair process of the signatures. They seem to me quite reasonable and I will discuss them tomorrow when I get more details and a better understanding as to the why of these conditions.

To add insult to injury to the wretched opposition case, late this evening the CNE announced that the opposition did not get the signatures to effectuate Recall Elections on the chavista assembly folks it sought to unseat. The Coordinadora has not replied yet so we will see tomorrow what this maneuver mean.

And the Electoral Court has not emitted a ruling expected today. Tomorrow?

As you can see, it is a good thing that I do get to work through the holidays this year, I will be around to post on the further developments as this week promises to be more interesting than expected. Miguel was wise to bail out to some distant beach ;-)

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Elections in Venezuela? You mean, there is a winner in that lot?
Part 5: some old players are trying a comeback, some new ones are trying to prove themselves

Saturday 3, April 2004

Describing the side opposing chavismo for the regional elections is not an easy task. The only thing that unites the opposition is its desire to remove Chavez from office, although this does not seem as pressing in every player. From the old parties to the new ones, from the Civil Society and its Non Governmental Organizations to local political factors, there is quite a mosaic to consider when describing what are the offerings and the chances of the opposition in an electoral contest. One way to sort it all is to divide loosely the opposition in three groups.

The old establishment tries a come back.

The victory of Chavez in 1998 and the force feeding of a new constitution seemed to have put the traditional old players of Venezuelan politics on the verge of extinction. The country was preparing itself for the long wait until some new force will rise and challenge Chavez. Alas, the messiness of the chavista rule practically ensured a resurrection of some of the dead politics. This should not be too much of a surprise. After all, the electorate of Chavez did not come from "spontaneous generation", it came largely from the file and rank of AD and Copei who ruled Venezuela from 1958 to 1998, something that chavismo is loath to recognize. That many former Adecos and Copeyanos defected the chavista cause is not surprising, AD and Copei still share with Chavez the populist language that does appeal to this large fraction of the electoral body. That type of electorate has a limited loyalty.

Unfortunately for Copei it seems that AD is the main beneficiary of this light revival of fortunes. Copei is still paying for its historical error of having tried to be more populist than AD instead of following its natural calling to become the center right political party that Venezuela needed. From its internal divisions are born some of the movements that want to create a modern and efficient right political movement and they will not return to Copei. Copei knows this quite well, and has decided to keep some of its populist approach trying to link its fate in a more resurgent AD, happy to get back a couple of governorship if possible.

But AD is coming back from exile without having learned much it seems. One can detect some of the old arrogance, some of the same intransigence of the AD of old when it tries to negotiate political agreements. The fact that AD does not have a "presidential" candidate weighs heavily on its mood and is the only reason why AD is still in the middle of the Coordinadora Democratica, a very uncomfortable place for AD who is not used to share the decision making process.

What makes everything worse is that neither AD nor Copei show the slightest sign of remorse for their past actions, actions that brought upon us the Chavez calamity. A good heartfelt apology would be welcome, and that is what the civil society would like to hear to accompany AD in its quest to unseat a few chavista governors.

The civil society is restless.

When the "Punto Fijo system" collapsed in 1998, it was for the civil society to pick up the pieces.
In fact one could trace clearly the birth of the large anti Chavez movement to March 31 2001 when a few thousand of people gathered at Plaza Brion to protest against a decree that would intervene private education establishments. Old political parties were probably as surprised by the turn out than the organizers themselves. But the civil society, helped by the media which was starting to feel the heat from chavismo, quickly mushroomed into larger and larger forms of protest and when the political parties got in, we reached April 11 2002.

Discredited political parties could not have rallied people the way that institutions like CTV, or FEDECAMARAS united with all sorts of N.G.O. did. They were the real motors of the anti Chavez movement and political parties have been trying desperately since to harness that force. It has not been easy, not only because the nature of such a grass root movement makes it near impossible to direct, but also because large sectors of the civil society refuse actively to be directed toward a common goal, so afraid they are, perhaps justifiably, to be manipulated.

Thus all these N.G.O. and grass root movements face the very Hamletian question: to become a political force or not? Which is the inevitable end of the road if they want to avoid the fate of falling into irrelevance and oblivion.

The new players test their muscles.

One N.G.O. that has successfully made the transition to political party is Primero Justicia. Founded by a group of young lawyers to try to bring access to a fair justice to the people in general, PJ grew rather fast during the first months of Chavez rule. To everybody surprise it picked up two juicy townhalls in 2000, and 5 assemblyman, running only in the Caracas Metropolitan area. Since then they have become the "bete noire" of chavismo as they represent all what chavismo is bad at: efficiency, novelty, youth, future and even honesty.

But chavismo is not the only enemy of PJ. It is fair to say that AD is as weary of PJ as Chavez is. And that can be heard quite often when the tongue of a few AD leaders slip when they feel safe. After all, if AD can be seen as a "chavismo light", it is as much at risk from PJ than this one. One consequence of this unified animosity against novelty forces PJ take rather strong positions on the political scene, positions that other newcomers seem to like to follow.

The twilight years of the old system did gave rise to some important dissident regional forces that have become significant players. Proyecto Venezuela, with PJ the closest we have to a center right party, has risen from its efficient work administering Carabobo state. But PV, a scission from Copei itself, has failed to gain significant following outside of Carabobo, perhaps due to the competition of PJ. Both of them appeal to the same electorate, and even a case could be made that both of them find their electorate into the moderate to anti populist wing of the once large Copei.

Causa R is yet another one of these regional forces that suddenly acquired National significance when it became a serious contestant for the presidential chair in 1993. Like Proyecto Venezuela, Causa R can be traced as coming from one of the old parties, the labour wing of AD. Although from the left, Causa R opposed Chavez from the very beginning and if it paid a price for it, it seems to be making a significant recovery. In particular it benefits from its leader one of the few and articulate, if too passionate, visible head of the opposition.

From the left also comes the MAS who has the dubious distinction of falling into the old and new player category. Old, because it was born in the 70ies and has shared enough of the governmental responsibilities before 1998. But new because it tied its lot to Chavez, greatly helping this one to reach office. By 2001 they had seen the light and after a painful break up and internal division the MAS has been a consistent force in the opposition. Still, it has been maimed of part of its electorate that remained with Chavez and it is hindered by a certain tendency to forgive too much to AD and forget the not so brilliant past. Curiously the MAS could be the link between AD and PJ/PV/Causa R since it stands to lose less from them than AD.

We have thus quite a complex combination which is even more complex when one adds more scissions from AD such as Alianza Bravo Pueblo or defectors from Chavismo, and more, and more. It remains to see how these forces will find in themselves to reach a minimum of accords to be able to take away as many state houses and town halls as possible.