Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Elections in Venezuela? You mean, those are the options?
Part 4: chavismo divinely enthroned candidates

Whether the electoral result is probably pre-written, one must still examine who are the guys running for office. The Electoral Board, CNE, has announced 140 candidates for 22 governor mansions. The first conclusion is that the opposition is not showing a unified face. But that, curiously is also true for some chavista candidates.

Although not explicitly stated in the 1999 constitution, it was understood that the transformation of the CNE into one of the 5 powers of the nation meant that it would supervise the nomination process for elected offices. In other words, a system of primaries would eventually be installed. Chavismo has demonstrated that it would have nothing of the sort. Most candidates have been anointed by Chavez himself, regardless of what the local bases thought. What is surprising is that even in spite of Chavez ascendant, or dependence as the case might be, in some areas chavismo is going to the battle in disperse order. Let's look at the chavista offerings.

The first observation is the predilection of Chavez for governors coming from the Venezuelan armed force. They might come from those that followed the Chavez adventure of 1992 or those that have thrown their lot with Chavez since he made it to office. This is perhaps the most telling evidence that we are in fact into a military regime. Chavez seems only to trust other soldiers, if he trusts anyone. Outgoing governors that come from the army can be counted at 6. They are all running again. To this you can add 5 more that are running for the first time. If all are elected, half of the governors would be ex officers, and they would control all but one of the major states.

From the track record we know that these soldiers are not well versed in the art of democratic negotiation. Not to mention a clear track record of authoritarian predisposition.

In Carabobo Chavez has named Acosta Carles, the noteworthy general that rode fuel trucks, burped in front of cameras while seizing alleged hoarded goods, and beat to the ground a woman here and there. When getting the divine unction, he declared that he was already the governor of Carabobo and would act accordingly. This meant last week, for example, a series of squatter movements against lands held by opponents of Chavez.

For Miranda state, the anointed one is Diosdado Cabello, leaving a ministerial career as none but the Vice President can boast of in the Chavez administration. He was in all the positions that had to deal with money grants and one can be assured that he organized flawlessly the "special" transfers that these ministries oversee regularly. He is thought as being a radical, but one of the few ones with enough political intelligence. Gossip has that he has amassed quite fortune in the last 4 years and several of his relatives have found employment in key administration positions. He clearly works at becoming the heir of Chavez for whenever that time comes. Meanwhile we can see his class in the incipient campaign, from easily lowering himself to effect sexual innuendoes to Miranda current governor when needed to all sorts of lies when required. He is one candidate that has trouble meeting the camera's eye.

These decisions from Chavez have encountered some grumbling. For example, Reyes Reyes, yet another soldier governor in Lara state, is not a popular choice to succeed himself. His administration was poor and many chavistas there just dislike him profoundly. It must be said that he totally lacks character and has striven to look like Chavez to the point of imitating his ticks. More would prefer Barquisimeto mayor, Henri Falcon, who has at least shown some vague managerial skills. In at least 4 other states chavista dissidents have decided to throw their hat into the ring.

The big problem for chavismo is that all of its governor, in spite of lavish grants from the central government, cannot show a significant body of work to be able to run on their record. The only one that had at least something to show for, the governor of Bolivar state, defected a couple of months ago when Chavez did not give him the nod. Of course on April 11 2002 he was not too unhappy as to the Chavez ouster. But I personally think that his main crime was that his poll numbers were rumored to be above those of Chavez in the region. Bolivar state was the state that followed the least the 2002/2003 strike, incidentally. But Chavez does not like political debts.

No matter, since Chavez decided on most candidacies, he is making these local elections as a referendum on his rule. How will the opposition handle this?

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

More on today's decision by the Venezuelan Electoral Court
Plus bonus: control of cable TV?

Monday 29, 9 PM

Apparently today's decision delay in coming was due to the need to craft the response to the Constitutional Court in such a way as making it difficult for it to counteract effectively, and to avoid, if possible to go to the full "Sala Plena" with its 20 Justices. First reactions are positive if somewhat cautious.

In brief:
1) the Electoral Court states that it has the competency to decide on electoral matters and thus there is no conflict of powers. Meaning that the Constitutional Court should mind its own business (and if it does not like it, it can seek the Sala Plena itself). It is also an indirect warning to the Electoral Board, CNE, better starts paying attention to the rulings of the Electoral Court and that more stalling might have consequences.

2) the Electoral Court states that the problem is in how the courts should deal among themselves, and that must be as equals. Very clever because it makes this issue the one that will go to the 20 Justices. Naturally they should agree that the Constitutional Court cannot go around bossing the other 5 Courts.

3) and to make things more palatable it announces that it will emit a final ruling on the matter at hand (re: the criteria for invalidation of signatures decided by the CNE) but meanwhile the parties are invited to negotiate some agreement that the Electoral Court would be only too happy to supervise. That agreement must respect the rights of voters, rights such as the presumption of innocence that the Constitutional Court so happily threw away in electoral cases (recognizing in a strange way that politicians are natural crooks, I suppose).

4) and other matters.

My reading is that the referendum is again quite alive, but all is not over. The Constitutional Court seems to be the one that has to go to the Sala Plena. Depending on what it dares to do, how much it decides to go off the beaten path. And one is never certain of what might happen on the Sala Plena level, where one way or the other this should end.

But the Chavez administration is not wasting time waiting for the courts to rule in its favor. Two incidents today remind us from where the wind blows.

In a first incident, the autonomous economic counsel of the National Assembly has been illegally disbanded. It is illegal because it requires a vote from the National Assembly. But the chavista bureau (the opposition is barred from any form of authority in managing the National Assembly). It is done because the counse;l operates as it should do, making projections on the proposed laws and demonstrating that the chavista proposals are not economically sound. Yet again a case of "killing the messenger".

More worrisome is a crass attempt at forcing cable TV systems to broadcast the Chavez cadenas. This is not quite clear yet, but it seems that cable TV might be on the way to force suspension of its Discovery Channel trasnmission to broadcast the "important messages" of Chavez to the nation. Yet another way to limit free speech, in particular such things as CNN (who has the nasty habit of transmitting images of what is really going on in the streets, things that the government claims are not happening...)

This maneuver seems to have been a trial balloon and quickly CONATEL, the agency responsible for broadcast regulation, claimed that "foreign networks would of course be exempt". Me thinks that it was a case of some nincompoopy idea that was caught to late. But at least it shows clearly the mentality inside CONATEL. It also shows the misery of the official message that can only reach people when it is force fed to them. The cadenas failure as a strategy to counter the excesses of the private media is admitted through such measures. Perhaps it might reach their minds some days that good government does not need cadenas to promote itself...

Monday, March 29, 2004

As expected! Venezuela's legal high court battles intensify.
Monday 29, March 2004

The Electoral Court has finally given its verdict today and has decided to go the full 20 Justices to decide whether the Constitutional Court was right in overruling the Electoral Court. The 20 justices now will decide if there is any future for the Venezuelan legal system or if we enter into the no man's land of a de facto legal system.

The only little mystery is that the Electoral Court exhorts the parts to reach a deal for the questioned signatures, without waiting for the 20 justices to decide. Do they know something we do not know? Was that just a pill to soothe chavismo? Do they anticipate deliberate stalling by chavista justices?

El Universal: the view from Tal Cual

Monday 29, March 2004

I just read the Tal Cual editorial for today and it is an attack on El Universal: "Que facil es ser Ultra", How easy it is to be an ultra. Indeed.

Teodoro Petkoff is a little bit upset about El Universal banner and opinion articles of yesterday, in particular the editorial line and Marta Colomina. The reason? They preach that the opposition should not bother with elections since we are in a dictatorship. And Teodoro asks the question, how can El Universal rest its case with a banner that reads "elections under dictatorship", a banner that Chavez could show in any international meeting to PROVE that Venezuela is not under a dictatorship?

Indeed, we are a hair away from the definitive break down of the de jure system, ready to happily jump into the de facto system (and Chavez yesterday said nothing to reassure us, by the way!) But El Universal radicalism might have the contrary effect: people giving up the struggle since all is lost.

One thing is to be aware that the stack is piled against the opposition, another thing is to give up and rebel before the time comes. We must go all the way to the bitter end, that is the only way to avoid that bitter end, perhaps .

I do respect and like EL Universal, and I quote freely from it since it is the only major Venezuelan paper accessible for free in the Internet, not to mention that it is the only one that has a small section in English. But I must agree with Teodoro, sometimes it is hard to quote El Universal.

One thing I will say in the defence of El Universal: it is the only paper that has opposed Chavez consistently, and even fairly at first, even before Chavez made it to the presidency. Other papers, such as El Nacional did help along to the victory of Chavez and today have positions sometimes as silly, or more, than El Universal. Too late guys, you should have seen it coming!

Now, unfortunately it is difficult for all sides to even try to maintain a minimum of objectivity. Teodoro sorts of manages it, but even Tal Cual on occasion slips. When you have an agressive president as we do, who is really to blame? How can objectivity be maintained when our beloved leader is past morality?
A warning for the Venezuela opposition
Monday 29, March 2004

Although comparing the French politics to the Venezuelan politics is rather unfair, in the regional French elections of yesterday there is knowledge to be gained for the Venezuelan opposition.

The right wing in office for the last two years under Chirac (who shares with Chavez some audacity and the taste of ruling unencumbered by legal restrictions) went to the local elections divided. The first round balloting was favorable to the opposing left. But in the week in between the two rounds, the right wing adversaries could not overcome what had been a very divisive and bitter campaign agaisnt each other. The result of the second round were WORSE than the first round and Chirac's friends lost ALL but one of the French regions!!! A map will give you a dramatic summary of the results.

Now, people like AD or Copei that think they can do campaign as usual and trash Primero Justicia, Causa R, Proyecto Venezuela, or whoever they do not like might be well advised that even if they kiss and make up before August 1, the electors might be disgusted enough not to follow. And Chavez could end up not only keeping what he already has, but might even add a couple to it.

Regional Elections have a way to become National Elections, a way that might be difficult to control. If that is true in France, where democracy has been well tested since 1870, imagine how much truer this might be in Venezuela.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Elections in Venezuela? You mean, votes are actually going to be counted?
Part 3: the great scam of the electoral system

Sunday 28, March 2004

The worry of accurate ballot counting is present in any democracy. Some have rather simple systems. The French for example have one separate election for everything. When you go to a French ballot office you are sent to a table which has neatly stacked piles of cheap small pieces of papers with the names of the candidates or the list printed on. You take one of each, an envelope, go to the voting booth, place your preferred paper inside the envelope, throw the other in the garbage and go to drop your envelope in the ballot box.

In the United States things can be significantly more complicated as Election Day decides a significant amount of officials, and often has a few referendum questions. Some states have put big machines with all sorts of levers that people are supposed to pull. One big lever will print the complete ballot. None of these systems is safe, as can be seen for the recent Florida debacle. In France tales of ballot stuffing are still reported on occasion.

In Venezuela, a rather illiterate country in 1958, balloting was done once every five years, for all offices, from a single list, giving a new meaning to "winner take all". You were given all sorts of colored papers and you would pick your favorite color to put in an envelope and voila. Ballot stuffing was quite a problem. When elections became more complex as local elections were held separately, the system tried to modernize itself. Electronic counting came in 1998, and was wildly decried as being prone to cheating, event though Chavez won. Electors were given a huge piece of paper and a marker. With this one they were to fill up a few spots in front of their choices (still framed in colors, incidentally). That semi hard paper was then put through a scanner that registered and counted the votes.

During Chavez term, it seems that some electoral fraud indeed took place. Numerous court challenges have been brought forward and some elections have been declared as impossible to audit! This is all resting in peace in courts while the putative fraudulent winner has been ruling the district these past 4 years.

This system, not too good but perhaps subject to improvement, has been changed by the current Electoral Board, CNE, whose actions are certainly not above suspicion given the track record so far. By a 3 to 2 vote (guess who were the 3 yes votes!) a new system has been approved. Even more complex! These are the new steps.

1 You are given an electronic board that looks a little bit like the big piece of semi hard paper given to you on past elections. This board is connected to a small computer like feature. You press your choices where once you had to mark them...

2 On the screen you choices can be seen. If you agree, you touch something on the screen and you ballot is entered. If you do not agree, there is something that you can press to start again.

3 Once you ballot is entered on the screen, the computer prints a small piece of paper. You check if what is printed corresponds to what you entered. If yes, you drop that small piece of paper in a box. This will be the box to audit the election if needed.

4 The result of that particular polling station is sent via phone lines to Caracas where it is hoped that the results are tabulated within minutes from the closing of the poll stations.

Now, I am not an expert but I can detect plenty of places where fraud can happen. In the same order:

1 and 2 This might be OK, but who is to tell that favorable votes are not entered "twice"?

3 This is where it becomes quite interesting. Two cases.
Case 1: Imagine that you are in an allegedly pro Chavez rough neighborhood, say, El 23 de Enero. You vote against all of Chavez candidates. But your printed paper says that you voted for all of Chavez candidates! Are you going to make a stink knowing full well that leaving the precinct you will be branded as anti Chavez?
Case 2: Imagine that you are in an anti Chavez neighborhood. You vote for all the pro Chavez candidates. Then you keep your printed paper with you or drop a blank one or a pre-printed one in the box. Later the results are challenged and, lo and behold, the electronic tally does not match the paper tally! What will happen? Which tally will be declared valid?

I can come up with more "cases" but right now it should be clear that it is quite possible to cheat with the new system, in particular if the poll station is sloppily run. A few well chosen targets could change the result in areas where a close result is expected.

4 This is really the weakest link! With all the illegal taping of phones taking place in Venezuela, it is not unreasonable to think that the results from a few centers will be intervened this way, in particular if a particular center is not selected for audit.

It is clear that an endless series of confrontations on electoral fairness are waiting ahead, in particular with a CNE that has lost all credit with the opposition. Not to mention that the Constitutional Court will review whatever electoral complaint it feels like reviewing.

There are ways to minimize these problems but I am worried that the opposition so far has not been addressing these issues more forcefully. With all the problems that are already besieging us, and a delinquent administration that will go to any length to preserve as much power as possible, the pressure on cheating will be unbearable, even for a serious and impartial CNE.

Of course, a simple yes/no ballot on a Recall Election would have gone a long way into reestablishing confidence in the electoral process. But many suckers seem more interested on pre-rigged elections than on the one that will determine our democratic future.
Post of the day
A tale of wanton police brutality

Please visit Vcrisis to read one complete statement in English of one of the many atrocities that have happened in the week that followed February 27. Mr. Biella was a truly innocent victim, if I allow myself to use such an oximoron. To his family my sincerest support.

Brief news from Venezuela
Political prisoners remain in prison while election speak goes on
Saturday 27, March 2004

El Universal publishes in English an article on political prisoners in Venezuela. I will copy just one paragraph:
This means a total of 202 persons imprisoned or sentenced to visit a court weekly, many of them teenagers. All of them have reported to have been tortured or threatened with death.

Meanwhile El Universal today's banner is the apparent failure of chavismo to collect enough signatures to subject opposition legislators to a Recall Election of their own. Apparently only 2 are subjected to a Recall Election and half of them escaped altogether. Chavista officials in a rather somber mood assured that their collection effort was itself subjected to the repair process and that surely during that process they will ratify the signatures collected.

But is this really a relevant piece of news? We all knew from the November and December shows that chavismo had not done too well in its recollection process. Funny videos of people carrying loads of "signatures" in obviously strangely light boxes are in everyone's memory. No, this is meaningless since the only Recall Election that really matters is the Chavez one. Furthermore, this is good news for chavismo: by accepting that they did not get the signatures they will be able to demand that the opposition recognizes that it did not collect the necessary signatures against Chavez. Remember, you read it here first.

What would be news is for the 36 opposition assemblypersons that were subjected to a Recall Election to offer to go anyway if Chavez would submit himself to the Recall process. But assemblymen seem rather attached to their paycheck to make such a dashing performance. While I keep hoping for some real action from our representatives, I cannot fail to observe that in spite of talk of unity against Chavez, 140 people are running for the 22 state houses. The Venezuelan political class is just hopeless and it will be saved in spite of itself, if it gets saved.

To close this issue. The Crass Declaration Award goes to PPT's secretary Albornoz. According to him, the candidacies of the opposition for governor mansions (and town halls too) are decided at the US Embassy. As usual no evidence is offered, except that Accion Democratica, AD, seems excluded from many candidacies reflecting the US veto. The best spin that one can put on such an absurd declaration, from someone specializing in absurdities is that he is trying to put a wedge between AD and the Coordinadora Democratica. Though I expect anything from AD, including to negotiate directly with the US if needed.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Elections in Venezuela? You mean, as in choosing a future?
Part 2: coercion and torture set the general mood
Friday 26, March 2004

Normally when a country goes into an electoral process there are certain guarantees that a minimum of electoral campaign will be allowed. Citizens would be assured that they can cast ballots without being afraid for their direct well being if the other side wins. Well, it seems that the last part of the equation is not guaranteed in Venezuela, not to mention that the incessant attacks on the media makes one wonder about the first part of the said equation.

It cannot fail to strike the serious observer of the Venezuelan scene that a government who is doing its utmost to annul enough signatures to void a referendum ballot petition, is suddenly finding all these signatures very valid when it uses them to fire public servants. In one of the most revealing episodes of the true nature of the regime since this one came to office in 1999, a savage McCarthyism is striking the country. Even to the point of denying passports to people! It seems that signing is now a crime as El Universal reports extensively, and in English.

El Universal also reports:
Jacqueline Farias, president of Hidrocapital - Venezuela's largest water and wastewater utility - denied reports on employees dismissed for having signed the presidential recall petition.
Farias admitted that the government knows who signed the petition, "because the list was made public," and insisted that "there is no sanction in this regards."
"I do know who they are, and I do want to change their minds," Farias added. "I have to show them how wonderful Hugo Chavez' administration is."

I even saw the interview on TV. Ms. Farias, an unquestionable chavista civil servant, was seen as a public servant not too bent on political activities. Well, it is fascinating to observe how people change when they feel their job threatened. Suddenly she tries to contest the Health Minister for the Vile Person of the Day Award. But public employees do not seem to buy. After all they know very well that recanting will only gain them a couple of months of employment. They know first hand the true nature of the "wonderful Hugo Chavez administration."

But this new unacceptable pressure has not stopped the other forms of Human Rights Violations that started on February 27. Two Primero Justicia activists that were kidnapped last Sunday have been released with clear signs of torture, physical and mental. Celso Rodríguez and Sergio Vargas, apparently were taken to find out the hiding place of Baruta's Mayor, Henrique Capriles Radonski. Mr. Capriles lawyers, by the way, have yet to see the charges that are pressed against the mayor, in what is perhaps one of the grossest violation of the judicial process we have seen lately, at a time where such violations abound.

But the hurt within the government at the fast decomposition of its international image since February 27 is plain to observe when the Nation's ombudsman gives a rather surprising report trying to effectuate some late damage control. He recognized that excessive violence had been used. Yet on TV later he denied that there were political prisoners, but politicians in jail. A pun of dubious taste. No matter, a hardly convincing performance that is probably just the prelude to yet a new disgusting action from the government.

The Coordinadora Democratica promptly replied that there were 18 political prisoners taken since Feb 27. It even gave their locations, while reminding that those were not the only ones as several have been jailed during the past year. In addition, to remind the government what its role is, the CD set up a center to supply the political prisoners since the government is unable to give humanitarian detention conditions to the jailed population. This, by the way, has been decried as one of the biggest failures of the so called Chavez human rights policy. A president "of the people" has let the people rot in jail in conditions that are the worst in our recent history.

The question is very simple, in a situation where political activists are held and tortured, where government officials lie routinely, where public voters are basically told for whom to vote for, how can we conduct a fair electoral campaign? Is the constant violation of civil rights a way to brow beat the opposition? Or is the intention to corner the opposition into some desperate action?

The truth of the matter is that Chavez is promoting the local elections to distract the attention from the Recall Election. He knows full well that doing so will transform the local elections in an indirect referendum. But he is also desperate to gain some time to either fudge the local election results, void the Recall Election, or even to cancel these elections under some National Emergency measure. Which one will it be?
Political Prisoners
Friday 26, March 2004

Union Radio gave a pic of Carlos Melo, a leader from the non-chavista left. This left by the way is more numerous than casual observers might think: Bandera Roja, Causa R, MAS, and more small groups. The picture was taken when he was transferred today to a court hearing as the prosecution is asking for a 2 weeks extension to build the case against Melo. With the due military escort as if he were a very dangerous prisoner. In three weeks, with an alleged in fraganti arrest, they still need 2 more weeks to build the case !!!! Chavismo is very decided on destroying Bandera Roja or Causa R, who still carries some weight with trade Unions, because it does not want anyone to its left, whatever "left of Chavez" might mean. All is fair to destroy the non chavista left, who seems to thrive the more chavismo attacks it. Apparently the pressure is very strong in some popular areas of Caracas where chavismo cannot afford a dent in its support, and Melo was denting.

As I promised, slowly but surely I will be posting a pic of every political prisoner or persecuted opponent of the regime, as I find them. You can find the rogue's gallery in Francisco site ;-)

Elections in Venezuela? You must be kidding!
Part 1: To run for office or not to run? Hamlet had it easy!

Thursday 25, March 2004

Among the many splendorous things happening in this new land of Magical Realism (with my apologies to Garcia Marquez), it seems that we are going to have local elections on August 1, 2004. If we are to believe the Electoral Board, CNE, we are going to renew the mandate of 23 governor and state assemblies, and 300 something mayors.

And the Recall Election? Fine, thank you!

Considering the unquestionable evidence of the CNE bias favoring Chavez, one would be justified in wondering the use of running for office. Is Chavez going to allow for opposition governors? Sure, he will leave a few to shore up his pseudo democratic image. But let’s not forget that some contested elections from the year 2000 have not been decided by the courts yet, while the chavista beneficiaries have been ruling those states since that time. It goes without saying that any close election in August will probably be fudged for the chavista candidate and the opponent will have to trek the judicial system for 4 years.

But is it wise not to run? Making a grand stand and not run for election will give away the very few remnants of influence that the opposition has at the administrative level. Victorious chavistas, even by default, will have no qualms in taking office and screw up the opposition once and for all. Democratic check and balances is not part of their vocabulary.

So we will have to get ready for these elections, whether they will eventually take place not being the issue. While, of course, keeping up the fight for the election that really matters, the Recall Election.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The thin hair between law and lawlessness
Venezuela and the judicial coup

Tuesday 23, March 2004

The Constitutional Court, as expected, finally emitted its ruling turning down the ruling from the Electoral Court.

But before, a quick recap. The 1999 constitution previewed a High Court, TSJ, of 20 justices. The TSJ is divided in 6 courts to address the different type of cases that can make it to the court. It is obvious that when a particular case impinges on Constitutional rights, the Constitutional Court has a right of intervention. If the intervened Court deems that the Constitutional Court is wrong, and they cannot reach an agreement, the case goes to the full Court that will decide once and for all.

The Electoral Court has acted, as it is its duty, on an electoral complaint against the Electoral Board, CNE. The 1999 constitution has created the CNE as one of the 5 powers, executive, judicial, legislative, electoral and the obscure poder ciudadano (citizenry power) which in reality is a division of the judicial branch specialized in prosecution and the monitoring of public administration.

Today's ruling from the Constitutional Court basically says that the CNE as an independent power cannot be intervened as the Electoral Court did. The immediate implication is quite clear: the function of the Electoral Court is voided for practical effect. The real implications are more perturbing: the Constitutional Court by going about the jurisprudence it has set has made itself a Court above all the others. This not only goes again the 1999 constitution, but it also implies that whoever controls the Constitutional Court in fact controls the country, that its regulation of other powers excesses, in particular the executive branch, has been given up. Nobody will be able to win a judicial case against the Venezuelan government if this one has the sympathy of the Constitutional Court. There will be no legal precedent to respect if it is contrary to the interests of the group that controls the Constitutional Court.

Let’s not dwell into the technicalities that might or might not justify that ruling. The fact is that if this ruling is maintained, then we have entered into a de facto system. With all the implied consequences as for personal security, property rights, foreign investment, etc… One thing makes this ruling even more damning. By upholding the CNE decision to emit a new regulation on the validity of the signatures AFTER THESE HAD BEEN COLLECTED, it breaks the principle of non-retroactivity of the law, implied in ALL Venezuelan constitutions since 1811. A new precedent will be set and from now on any governmental regulation can be changed at will if the results do not satisfy the original intent, and these new changes could be applied retroactively to punish the people that acted on good faith within the original rules. One can easily imagine the effect on such a precedent on the tax code, on white collar crime, on future elections, and even on the civil code!

What now? Normally, and this must be written with great caution, the Electoral Court should refuse that ruling and emit another one that would require the case to go to the 20 justices of the TSJ. If the cases reaches that highest level there could be two outcomes. The TSJ sides with Chavez and the Constitutional Court implying that the TSJ goes under the Constitutional Court. Or the TSJ settles the issue in favor of the Electoral Court, though the extent of that victory can be very relative according how the TSJ ruling is written. Weeks of negotiation probably, delaying the Recall Election at the very least.

But there is a trap: 16 of the TSJ 20 justices must gather together to take the decision. If 5 justices refuse to take their seats, the case cannot be discussed and the present ruling will take effect until the TSJ eventually manages a way to gather the 20 justices.

Our future is in the hands of 5 people that might or might not seat on the TSJ 20 justices sala plena. Needles to speculate on the pressure that Chavez representatives will be exerting in the coming days. Everything has a price. But one thing is certain, a government that lowers itself to such a judicial trick is not a confident government.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Venezuelan Human Rights violations, a blueprint for the XXI century.

Monday 22, March 2004

Since February 27 the Chavez administration has taken the path of repression, getting old recipes and updating them to a time where media, Internet and video cameras are prevalent. Let's examine the methodology.

February 27, and posterior repression

The pacific march to the Teatro Teresa Carreno was brutally stopped by the National Guard. Videos abound of the excess repression from tear gas to plain brutality. This march could have been stopped peacefully had the government accepted an opposition commission to cross the National Guard lines and deliver a message to the attendants of the international event. But this was never negotiated by Chavez who would not tolerate anyone to steal his show. As a result the show was stolen by the repression and the precipitated departure of the three main head of state that were attending.

However, in hindsight, that was not really the point of Chavez. As the Electoral Board announced the treachery on the signature counts, it was to Chavez interest to "frighten" the populace and thus try to cow them into submission. It really did not work too well as the people started barricades and what not. Not to mention that the OAS and the Carter Center diplomatically denounced the fraud.

But the repression ball had started rolling. An updated list of the casualties and abuses on March 19 showed 28 deaths or missing. This on top of hundreds of people hurt or briefly jailed one way or the other, and a few dozens still in jail as political prisoners.

This of course has attracted the attention of international observers. Not to mention the publication of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report on all the violations committed in Venezuela since Chavez has reached power.

To this, we can now add the denunciation of people that have signed the recall election petition from ANY sector of public administration. Even lists of traitors are posted in governmental offices. These people are asked to retract their signature or face instant dismissal. These dismissals are taking place at an accelerated pace while ministers of Chavez have no qualms in accusing them of conspiracy for signing the forms. People's courage in refusing to retract their signature is the knowledge that in such a regime, even a retraction will do no good: the Scarlet Letter is on their forehead.

The argument as to whether the government has a legal claim to fire people that oppose its policies can be debunked by reading again article 57 of the Bolivarian Constitution, a constitution written by the people holding office today.

Article 57: Everyone has the right to express freely his or her thoughts, ideas or opinions orally, in writing or by any other form of expression, and to use for such purpose any means of communication and diffusion, and no censorship shall be established. Anyone making use of this right assumes full responsibility for everything expressed. Anonymity, war propaganda, discriminatory messages or those promoting religious intolerance are not permitted.

Censorship restricting the ability of public officials to report on matters for which they are responsible is prohibited.

It is not questionable that the Chavez administration is violating the constitution of the Republic.

How can Chavez get away with this?

It is all quite simple actually.

First, make ineffective the judicial system. All the violations that are reported find prosecutors unwilling to take down the data. Some that do so are immediately fired. Or moved to another department. This by itself already makes it more difficult for the injured party to access international help as often these organizations require some legal support from the country of origin. When they finally get access to such help, it might be too late anyway.

Second, let the media scream bloody murder. This really is inconsequential for the government. The media can say all what it wants, accuse the administration of the worse crimes, proof in hand, it is irrelevant as the judicial system will not take action. The side bonus is that the screaming press is the fig leaf that still allows chavismo's claim to operate as a democracy. Now, closing the free press is not as urgent as it used to be.

Third, disqualify your opponents. This is very easy, repeat anything you want often enough and eventually a few suckers will believe it. The opponents can be unarmed civilians accused of attacking armored National Guards, or even respected international agencies. Just accuse them of partiality, aggression of what not. Of course you need to reward he people that do you biding. Chavez for example is constantly congratulating the National Guard for its superb job on February 27, going to the point of awarding medals to the worst offenders. Or he can grant exclusive interviews to newspapers considered as softer on his rule, such as the New York Times. One good thing is to justify your actions on past affronts. After all, the time of reconciliation is gone so might as well use past crime, from Columbus time if needed.

When a government is placed between the choices of losing power or becoming an international pariah, it is easier to choose the later. Power is a powerful drug.

If Chavez succeeds, this will become now the way to reach absolute power in the XXI century. Fascism in the era of Internet.
Sunday at the Polo game, while candidate John Kerry takes a stand on Venezuela

Sunday, March 21 2004

I needed a break today and a friend suggested attending a polo game. I had never attended a polo game, you know the one that Prince Charles is supposed to be good at, that game where men run after a small ball trying to hit it with a long stick while riding a horse at break neck speed. Not that I could ever even afford to play polo, but I was intrigued. It was a different experience all right.

The game was in a mountainous wealthy rural area which has now been totally surrounded by the Caracas Metropolitan area. Indeed, it is quite a luxury to hold such a flat field of probably incredible real estate value. Although anyone could get in, clearly the attendance was upper-upper class, with even a couple of "nannies" taken along to take care of young kids. We had lunch at the club house terrace overlooking the field and the game started while our entrees arrived. It would have been hard to have a more gentrified Sunday lunch. It was really quite something to watch the polo players, and their beautiful horses in action.

It was certainly a throwback to more "gentile" times. White rich folks playing polo while not so white folks were serving lunch. But as usual in Venezuela, there is more than what meets the eye. To begin with, anyone could go to the club house and sit down for lunch. No membership required, though you need to be able to afford a rather pricey lunch. What caught my attention is that since it is polo season, the small crowd seemed to be regulars and most in jeans, very casual. Many seemed to know the waiters and were in friendly terms with them, reminding me that in spite of class differences Venezuelans can always communicate at the basic level, something that is not true in other countries. The installations were a little bit run down in areas, showing that even rich people do not have the resources that they once did. In other words, even that world is changing, and I guess that the change started before Chavez. Quite an interesting glimpse of a vanishing? changing? Venezuela. And curiously a strange sense of being subversive just by being there enjoying the moment.

Coming back at home, no big news, except for a John Kerry declaration on Venezuela. Chavez lately had started playing the Kerry card just by attacking Bush and wishing that he loses the November election. But Chavez was probably under the delusion of favorable liberal views towards "his revolution" propagated by the New York Times who claims to be the Liberal beacon. Readers of this blog, liberals or not, know better than trusting the New York Times. Just a portion of Kerry's statment:

The referendum has given the people of Venezuela the opportunity to express their views on his presidency through constitutionally legitimate means. The international community cannot allow President Chavez to subvert this process, as he has attempted to do thus far. He must be pressured to comply with the agreements he made with the OAS and the Carter Center to allow the referendum to proceed, respect the exercise of free expression, and release political prisoners.

It seems that Kerry is very well informed. If Chavez has no friend left in the outgoing administration, he should not think for a moment that he will get friends in November.

By the way, I bet that more Republicans play polo than Democrats, but they all seem to agree on Chavez.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

In Venezuela only: Chavista oath is more important than Hippocratic oath
Purges in the Public Administration

Saturday 20, March 2004

Today was another day of marches in Caracas. It was against the usual themes but with a new urgency considering all the repression tales are coming through louder and louder, against the holding of political prisoners.

I did not go to the march, not feeling well enough for the few hours march under the sun. It seems to have been an interesting march, daring to cross some sections of downtown that are supposed to be pro Chavez. Well, if they are it is not a fervent support. I did not hear of any incident.

There is only one significant piece of information that is worthwhile sharing tonight, and it will earn the Health minister the award Vile Person of the Day, and while we are it, the Vile Moment of the Day. Since I am on my third edition in three days of this award, I should perhaps establish certain rules to make sure people do not think I am doing that out of a mean anti Chavez streak. These awards will be given to people that have made particularly vile statement going against basic reason or human decency. The statements need not to be important or have definite implications. What matters is that they reflect the moral corruption of the regime. And opposition members could deserve such award too in case they lower themselves to levels of the pseudo public servant that we seem to have, though I think that chavismo is on a roll.

The Minister of Health, Roger Capella, has confirmed today that his department would be firing all the doctors and personnel that have signed for the referendum against Chavez. Questioned twice by a Globovision reporter he stated twice that to sign was to conspire against Chavez and that in any country that is what they do to conspirators. And he meant it, the tone was right.

Gone was the Hippocratic oath. Gone were the years of service for low pay. Gone were the equality before the law. Gone was the duty of the state towards curing the people above any consideration.

But if this was the brashest declarations on that matter, it was coming from only one of the many departments that started such witch hunting. This is observed in the workers of the Caracas subway system. Or even in PDVSA where workers that did not join the strike and were hailed as heroes are now fired for having exercised their constitutional right to ask for a referendum.

Fascism, quite simply.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Venezuelan Electoral Board, CNE, gets ready for a major international break up
Probably at the bequest of Chavez looking for an excuse to do so

Friday 19, March 2004

Today it was Yaracuy’s holiday, Saint Joseph. We were closed at work so I left at noon for Caracas and I have not been worrying too much about the news, instead listening to opera for most of the 3 hours drive. There is a march planned tomorrow, not a major one but a meaningful one and I will likely go, if I can find my usual march companions.

Tonight the news is in the natural prolongation of the preceding one, and now reaching the first symptoms of breaking point. Indeed, the biggest pressure that the Chavez administration is experiencing right now is from the International Forum. The only way to escape is to break up with the outside world and it seems that Venezuela is heading that way.

Let’s start with Battaglini who deserves the Vile Moment of the Day award. This 5th rector of the Electoral Board, CNE, is the silent one. Actually it was the first time that I heard him talk! And now I know why they do not send him out too often. He limited himself to repeat what has become the official line, namely that they are waiting for the Constitutional Court to save their butts, but what was particularly interesting was the contempt that could be sensed in his voice. One could hear all the sourness accumulated over the years against real or imaginary woes. Truly a small, vengeful man.

Carrasquero gets again the Vile Person of the Day award. No contest. Again, as the house is burning, as he is supposed to prepare to obey rulings he refuses to acknowledge, he goes to Maracaibo for some University event, packed with chavismo and faculty looking for chavismo grants, where he will be the guest speaker. I suppose he needed an ego boost. At some point he declared to the press that the debate is not an electoral debate because signatures are not votes. Ergo, it is to the Constitutional Court to deal with the matter. And this guy was a law teacher!

Back in Caracas, we learn that he started yet another lawsuit in the name of the CNE without consulting the other rectors. Zamora actually called for a meeting tomorrow to examine all thes emajor decisions taken without his knowledge. We will see what excuse Carrasquero will come up with in order not to face his colleagues who he has been stabbing in the back for the past 48 hours.

But if his words were a repeat performance he did not look very confident, and avoided direct eye contact with the camera. Interesting. Perhaps at that moment he was already aware of the bomb that the OAS was going to drop on him. Taking Carrasquero at his word when he accused the OAS of partiality against Chavez, the OAS representative in Caracas, Fernando Jaramillo writes in a letter sent to EVERY rector of the CNE:

"In your declarations, you assert that you have proofs of your affirmations. Considering the gravity of such allegations, with all due respect I request through this note, as the head of the OAS mission, that you let them know to me, or that you make them public in order to avoid creating confusion among the citizens."

My emphasis.

What Mr. Jaramillo says is that in Venezuela Carrasquero and Chavez can get away unjustly accusing people as there is no way to force such people to justify or take back their words. But the OAS is an international organization and it cannot let such things go by. And Carrasquero cannot fail to put up, or retract and apologize. There will be consequences if he ignores this letter.

Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center was declaring along those lines too in CNN tonight.

And Venezuela's position is weakening every day as reports of Human Rights abuses keep piling up, in addition to his electoral fraud. Chavez needs a way out of international pressure.

No wonder Mr. Carrasquero did not look too good today. A small man, dragged into something that is just too big for him.

Friday, March 19, 2004

A summary of the news from Venezuela
Carrasquero and CNE fraud, back taxes on the networks, the case of the missing constitutional case, and a Human Rights report

Thursday 18, March 2004

Things keep moving. The coup keeps tightening. Tonight's targets are the private TV networks, fined for giving free air time to opposition advertisement during the 2002/2003 strike. Let's forget about some peculiar tax code interpretation that might justify that a company that loses revenue on purpose should be fined. What about the CADENAS to which we were subjected those days, dozens of hours a week? Is Chavez going to pay for all the revenue that the networks lost while he was transmitting his propaganda at the same time on all radio and TV? In a moment of particular cynicism, the SENIAT director (IRS equivalent) Vielma Mora said that the state TV, VTV was also investigated. Yeah, right... I would like to see the amount of that fine... Oh, and that declaration was given on VTV only! But little did they know that this blogger monitors VTV.

Tonight I feel tempted to start a new section: Vile Person of the day. The clear winner is CNE president Carrasquero. He piled it up high. He accused the OAS and the Carter Center to be partial against Chavez. He told them that they could leave or stay but that Venezuela was a sovereign country and would do as it please. I am sure that this declaration will go down real well. But that was not all. He said he had proof!!!!! We are anxious to see the evidence!!!! And he went on to say that there might be recall elections in spite of the opposition. It is all the opposition leaders fault now that the people that signed are missing the referendum. Or maybe I have stopped understanding Spanish...

But these declarations were accompanied by declarations from the two minority members of the CNE. Yesterday the CNE had announced that they were to obey the ruling of the Electoral Court. But this morning Carrasquero took upon himself to have the CNE sue for autonomy of power. This legal maneuvering that will cost money to the CNE was not decided in reunion! The two minority directors of course voiced the possible legal implications of Carrasquero acting on his own. Let's see how many lies, distortions and plain punishable misdeeds we can count on Mr. Carrasquero actions since early this week.

As a side comment. A couple of days ago I was commenting on the puffed face of CNE director Rodriguez. Well, he was hospitalized today for hypertension. Once again this blogger shows himself to be a keen observer of the big and little news. This probably explains why Carrasquero did not dare to convoke a meeting today since he would not have been able to have the lawsuit initiative approved.

Another piece of news was the revelation that the famous ruling of the Constitutional Court that started this whole chaos, the supposedly illegal but then legal ruling, well, it does not exist in the dossier of the case! It has not been registered! Gerardo Blyde, a notorious representative from Primero Justicia, a doggedly good lawyer apparently, was able to force his way as a plaintiff to the constitutional case and found out that there is no ruling on paper against the Electoral Court, and thus there is no case. At least on paper. Is there deliberate misdeed in the Constitutional Court?

The Electoral Court, probably still waiting for that ruling decided that it would not surrender its electoral dossier to the constitutional Court, stating a now open and verbal defiance to the Constitutional Court. That Court, probably knowing that it screwed the case, is probably behind a silly move from the National Assembly to disrobe the Electoral Court justices. Yet anothe case of "shoot the messenger"!

But for candidate of Vile Moment of the day we do have the National Assembly which, as Caracas is burning, decided to discuss a law to allow casinos to operate in Military Bases. We know of course who is really ruling the country now: the notorious Portuguese Casino Mafia and the generals that will offer them protection. An obscure fist fight between two representatives lightened up the lofty discussions.

To close, the report of CIDH came out, in English. It is for the year 2003. I can hardly imagine how will be the 2004 report! The Inter American Commission on Human Rights, a section of the OAS, is rather damming, in spite of their condemnation of the 2002 Carmona adventure. Here is paragraph 523 for a sample. While you read it think of the Vice President or of Chavez daring people to bring evidence for Human Rights Violations.

537. The Commission has observed, as noted throughout this report, that between March 2002 and first quarter of this year more than 40 people were killed and some 750 injured as the result of street protests. The extreme political polarization and the resulting acts of violence that erupt periodically between demonstrators of different persuasions illustrate the growing political intolerance in the country. Among the signs of institutional weakness are the failure to enforce the new constitution, the perceived lack of independence of the branches of government, the growing concentration of power in the national executive, the impunity with which armed civilian groups and death squads conduct their activities, the tendency to confrontation and to denigrate the traditional political opposition on the part of the government, the constant attacks on journalists and the news media, the tendency to militarization of public administration through the increasingly prominent role of the armed forces, the growing radicalization of political stances in the context of widespread public discontent with the failure to meet social demands, controversies over the exercise of trade union rights, and the climate of harsh political intolerance and, in relation to the inter-American system, the repeated and persistent failure of the State to comply with precautionary measures granted by the IACHR and the provisional measures ordered by the Inter-American Court, all of which has been documented in this report and will be presented in summary fashion below.

Torture in Venezuela
Wednesday March 18, 2004

Last night I did not have the stomach, literally, to try to translate the coroner's report on the death of Juan Carlos Zambrano. Francisco Toro did so and I invite you to go there and read today's post. As far from diner time as possible.

I must make a mea culpanow. I have not addressed as much as I should have all the cases of Human Rights Violations.

For some reason it is hard for me. Any form of violence, even verbal one is hard for me. Perhaps it is because I am so afraid to lose my own composure as I know only too well how difficult it is to recover it. Perhaps I just cannot believe what is going on, refuse to accept the Venezuela that I see today. Perhaps my fellow bloggers linked on the right side are doing such a great job on it (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Perhaps the vile chavista counter propaganda is succeeding in shutting me up. How can one reply to the ignoble discourse of Jose Vicente Rangel yesterday? It is soiling to just listen to him. If a famed journalist like him has fallen so low, surely it is contagious.

But I am watching, I am hearing, I have heard stories and when the time is right I will write. Right now I can only do what best I can do, try to make some sense of it all. Try to explain things to myself. And everyday it is more difficult.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

The judicial coup in Venezuela keeps forging ahead
Thursday 18, March 2004

The news is just unbelievable.

A cocky Carrasquero, the president of the Electoral Board, almost defiant, and certainly vindictive, stated that he was going to wait for the ruling of the Constitutional court, while "obeying" the ruling of the Electoral Court. Which of course meant that he was not going to do anything until the other ruling came in. And, he went on saying that "had we done it our way we would now be almost done with the reparation process". His cocky smile said volumes: this is not about the rights of people anymore, just a battle between lawyers. Carrasquero now does not even pretend anymore. He is part of the coup, officially now.

However he should not be gloating too much as he could get a surprise from the 20 justices gather. I think that the has done enough already to deserve destitution if the ruling of the Electoral Court is eventually held up. As usual, I am dreaming.

Nothing else new this afternoon from the court except for a crass maneuver to try to pretend that last week ruling from the Constitutional Court was legitimate. Laughable, but they might prevail. The Constitutional Court is twisting the facts, "back writing" decisions and justifying the unjustifiable. The judicial coup keeps advancing.

I forgot to mention that yesterday the vice president said that there had been NO HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS. He defied human rights organization to come up with proof. As dozens and dozens of videos, interviews, witness are coming through. A clear defiant attitude of "see if I care". A now unrestrained executive power mocking international opinion. Interestingly this was done on front of a group of diplomats, "invited", and as far as I can tell in a format that did not allow for questions. Which they would not do anyway, but the vice likes to be safe.

And the latest blow, the arrest order for the mayor of one of Caracas districts, Baruta. Capriles Radonsky has been attacked regularly by chavismo since his not exactly clear role when the Cuban Embassy was besieged by a mob on April 12, 2002. In these contentious days, Capriles had to run there, called by the Cuban ambassador himself, to face a mob ready to go inside of the embassy and sack it. Apparently he was not efficient enough to stop the mob, came in late, etc... Which is of course very easy to say when one was not there at the time. Regardless of the truth, in these crazy days nobody is quite clear about what they really did, starting with Chavez himself. But let us accept the argument that Capriles was indeed delighted by the mobs in front of the embassy. Why wait for 23 months to arrest him? Why arrest him because he supposedly refused to declare, once again? Why not show to the defense lawyers the arrest warrant? Of course Capriles Radonsky has said that he would surrender to avoid any bloodshed as his constituents are ready to go and riot in the street. But understandably he wants to see the arrest warrant first. Since we are in an evolving coup d’etat, I doubt he will be granted that request, and he is resigned to become the first elected official to go to jail as a political prisoner.

But other political prisoners are already in jail. Carlos Melo a popular activist in the Western part of Caracas was arrested after February 27 and weapons "were found" in his car. Since he was kidnapped at a gas station, it is easy to imagine how the weapons arrived in the car. From the pictures I even wondered if the weapons were fitting in his small car. But that is irrelevant, the only thing that mattered was to put Melo in jail as he was rumored to be the a likely candidate to run against Chavez bad boy, the one controlling the Bolivarian assault sections of Caracas, Mayor Freddy Bernal, ex cop, ex jail bird.

Other elected officials are already in the judicial line of fire. The comptroller, silent for eons resurfaced with old charges against all the opposition leaders that are stratospherically high in the polls. This is of course the best way to run electoral campaign, make sure you only have weak candidates in front of you. In particular my own governor, Eduardo Lapi who was particularly vociferous after February 27 and who is rumored to ride a comfortable 50% lead over any possible chavista candidate in Yaracuy. He has the distinction of having been threatened directly by Chavez.

It seems that the plan has been set a while ago and now we have reached the execution phase. All is not lost yet, but there will be a price to pay. Street gangs do not give up their blocks without a few casualties.

Meanwhile, yet another injured man from February 27 died as a consequence of his wounds, bringing the total deaths to 15, I believe. The horrenduous tale of Juan
Carlos Zambrano
is just coming to light. The autopsy is a text book case of torture. his wife was raped in front of him according to survivors. Still, no pretection measure for witness , no serious investigative action. Then again he is part of the fired PDVSA contingent and justice for these people means revenge.

More are still missing. Meanwhile Justice is busy trying to exculpate the Chavez administration and making safe any future election.

I am leaving you with a pic of Capriles. Why, when there are so many people that should have their pictures up as protest about the gathering repression? Well, he would be my mayor if I were not registered to vote in Yaracuy. Baruta in Caracas is where I stay, and from where come the pictures of the street barricades that I posted two weeks ago. He is about to become the major political prisoner and he is not hiding or leaving the country as other have done. But I will make a comitment now, as I find or receive small pics of other prisoners I will be putting them up. So far I have not found any of Melo but if anyone can send me one I will put it up.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Judicial coup in Venezuela
Breaking news!

As expected, but hoped it would not happen, the Constitutional Court has moved to strike the Electoral Court out of its constitutional functions.

The excuse? Since the Constitutional Court named the Electoral Board, then it should supervise all of its decisions. That is, the Electoral Court has no business supervising the Electoral Board, CNE. In a nutshell, the Constitutional Court has taken over the court at large:from now on it will have the jurisprudence to revoke any decision from any court, as it feels like... They have gone against their own jurisprudence (in particular an April 2003 decision). They have dared.

Venezuela is now under a de facto system.

The next step? It is for the Electoral Court to call the court at large, the 20 justices, and have them decide if they will support the Constitutional Court (and their implied subordination to this one from then on) or if they will remind them that the Constitutional Court is one among the 6 courts and that there is something called separation of powers and jurisprudence and laws.

The Chavez Mafia dice are rolling.
Venezuela at a cross roads.
Wednesday 16, March 2004

This is an attempt at evaluating what is really going on. It is probably going to be a futile exercise as things keep changing at a breathtaking pace.

First, the driving force.

Chavez cannot, will not go to a Recall Election. If he loses it, his international career is over. He might still have some future in Venezuela but he can forget about becoming Castro's heir.

His people cannot let him go to an election that he might lose, because without Chavez they are nothing. After 5 years, perhaps the most amazing thing in chavismo is that it has produced no one with a shred of leadership, except, wits will say, for Lina Ron.

We are not talking politics here, and even less ideology or sense of mission. We are talking about a group of people that made off with power, and privilege, and as any good Mafia or street gang, they are not going to let go.

It is really quite simple. Everything else are mere words of justification.

Second, the governmental trap.

Once they realized that they could not stop the development of a Recall Election process, all of chavismo energies were spent in finding ways to slow it down, to bog it down, to kill it.

They tried all sorts of things but to no avail, a signature collection had to take place. I think that they came up with the final trap rather late. It was going to be the "assisted" signatures form. That was the only way to annul massive amounts of signatures, namely 800 thousand (plus a few more on other technicalities). Then they invented a system of signature "repair" or "verification" too cumbersome to have any chance of success. That would have proved the famous charge of megafraud hurled by Chavez even before all of the signatures were inked. After all, besides a handful of unconvincing pseudo forgeries, that would have been expected in any third world electoral system, they had nothing to show after months of "verification".

The expected result was that the opposition would cave in, try to amend at least 80 % of the signatures in an impossible short span of time. If by any chance they made it, Chavez would have countered with lawsuits and at the very least he would have gotten the referendum AFTER the fateful date of August 20. Then, if worse came to worse, he would have resigned before the recall, let his vice president run the show for two years and try to come back in 2006. We would have had to wait until 2006 to measure his real popularity. And two years are a life time in politics, all can change and does.

This, and it must be stressed, was the worst case scenario for Chavez.

Third, the trap unravels

Chavismo is not very competent or efficient, due to its own nature as all must be referred to high above. The Electoral Board set up quickly showed its true nature, its partiality to delay all for Chavez sake. This was so obvious that by the time they decided to put 800 thousand signatures under "observation" and annul outright a few more hundred thousand, international observers had had enough and said so. Ever so diplomatically of course, but it was clear to all.

I think that that was the first error of Chavez. After repeating for months that he was the sole victim of the April 2002 events, I think he and his people started to really believe it, and believe that the whole world was going to buy that forever. But suddenly they realized that a fraud from their part on that scale was going to have consequences.

Quickly they moved on a plan B of sorts which was nothing less that create a state terrorism of sorts. We had the brutal repression of February 27 and following days. And a series of constant provocation such as unnecessary National Guard attacks, to more cadenas, to judicial abuse and even threats to the banking system. The subliminal message was that removing Chavez from office would create chaos in the country. The immedaite objective was that while the opposition went around screaming, chavismo would win time to come up with additional moves, legal ones if only in appearance.

February 27 was a key moment as the regime officially unmasked itself in front of the whole world, and that was the second mistake. Nothing would be the same after February 27. The regime had officially stepped on the slippery slope of open violence, and legal disregard.

But such a display of force was obviously a sign of deep weakness and insecurity. After all, the 1.8 million signatures collected, at the price of surrendering the right of voter secrecy and becoming listed as an adversary of the regime, was a hefty 15% of the voting population. In a country with 40 to 50% abstention, this was a lot!

But things got worse quickly. When the Electoral Board started showing their survey results it became clear that they had done a sloppy job, a job that was wide open to law suits. Facing a public humiliation of "their" Electoral Board, chavismo political players started to move within the High Court to block any adverse decision. Something went really wrong. Perhaps it was on purpose to set yet a new unknown trap. Perhaps it was sheer incompetence. Perhaps it was actually some justices way to say that they were leaving a sinking HMS Chavez. Some day we will know. But the fact of the matter is that they played their hand without keeping some of their cards close to the chest. Within a single week end, duly warned, three justices from the Electoral High Court section surprised the Constitutional Court and sent crashing down the trap set up since August 2003!

Picking up the pieces? Or heading into uncharted territory?

Right now it has been 48 hours and the government and his supporters in the high court have made no move. There is talk of appeals, a mushrooming of insults, and all that goes along such an situations. How come? In such an important matter, in a few hours a well crafted appeal should have been published. Is this a way of recognizing that the Electoral High Court decision is indeed final? Or do they just need more time to play their last card? Because that is where we are now, the last card from both sides.

Indeed the situation is very grave. Playing the judicial card of one High Court section against another high court section implies a constitutional crisis of major proportion. The Venezuelan High Court system is formed of six courts with specific attributes, and only in some cases the 20 justices sit down together. Hearing chavista lawyers this morning on television was listening to arguments as to why the 5 Constitutional Court members could actually rule over the 20 justices. That is, they would have the Constitutional Court take over the Venezuelan judicial system. I have read the constitutional articles tonight, and though not a lawyer I could clearly sense that objective and the irreversible bending of the constitution.

Any support that any of the other branches of the government would bring to such a scheme would make them partners in constitutional violation, and aggravate the crisis.

I think that we are reaching the end of the rope. The Chavez administration is engaged in a constitutional violation path. Whether it will get away with it is another matter, but the consequences for both sides are tremendous. They could range from the establishment of a "legal" authoritarian regime Peru's Fujimori style, to pure and simple dictatorship. If Chavez prevails. And if Chavez fails, the resulting crisis could go from voiding of the constitution requiring again another lengthy constitutional process to just plain civil war.

Chavez has demonstrated time and again that a few violations of the constitution did not take from his sleep. This is the big one he has been preparing himself for, since late 2001 when he decided politically that he had to liquidate any vestige of the old political order, regardless of its faults or virtues. I am convinced that he is ready and willing. He is a soldier. Whoever opposes him is an enemy.

The only question left for him is how many people are going to accompany him.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Venezuelan institutional chaos? Venezuela loss of morality?

Tuesday 16, March 2004

The readers of this blog by now must have a pretty good idea of the answers to the questions in the title. And today's even give pretty good examples on how low institutions have fallen, or are about to fall. Since It has been a busy day for me, I will only give you now a few links and comments and try to write an explanation summary at home tonight.

Now, not really in chronological order.

The Electoral Board, CNE, speaks in two voices. The two directors that more regularly speak to the press were out today. The chavista Rodriguez, with a rather puffed face (medication? bad night?) came out saying "innocently" that he was no lawyer but that surely the ruling of yesterday could be appealed. And the CNE would do so. Later on the opposition representative (they should all be impartial but that has been lost long time ago), Zamora, particularly gaunt, came out to state that the ruling could not be appealed. He also took the opportunity to say that Rodriguez has "not stated the truth" about some of his declarations towards himself. They have a board meeting this afternoon. Would be nice to be the fly on the wall.

From El Universal in English this snippet:
Vice President José Vicente Rangel said Tuesday that the sentence of the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) validating the objected signatures that support a presidential recall was typical of a "mafia."

"Electoral matters only have to do with the National Electoral Council and the Constitutional Chamber of the TSJ," Rangel said. "It is like Don Corleone making justice."

He added that the sentence is "basically immoral," and compared it to that of August 14, 2002, when the April 11, 2002 coup leaders were declared innocent, he added.

Asked about the recent declarations of organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Press Society about the violations of human rights in Venezuela, he said those statements are "bureaucratic and have a price."

Rangel, the vice president has sunk so low that now in any of his declarations he doesnoto care about what he says. It has become a propaganda war and he knows it (you can read my series on El Petarazo to have examples on how the man operates). Of course one could ask him why is there anelectorall Court if all eelctroral matters should go to the Constitutional court or the CNE? But we know the answer: matters of importance only go to the courts that are on the government side.

But theoppositionn was not staying put. Previewing a windfall of law suits, it already asked three justices of the Constitutional court to inhibit themselves from ruling on these matters as they have shown their partiality. In the Venezuelan system judges and assembly men have a "second" that steps in when the principal cannot be there, a clever ploy to increase bureaucracy. As chavismo is also inhibiting whomever they can. I wonder if there is going to be ANY judge left to hear the cases...

And at a press conference the opposition spokes people had a hard face and the sternest tone. Harder and harsher than usual, appropriate for the crucial hours that we are living.

Very "helpfully" chavismo had its own rally in front of the High Court. If the rally was not too well attended, it was full ofincendiaryy words, with an assemblyman, Dario Vivas, accusing the judges to have accepted bribes. As usual no proofs whatsoever were offered. I suppose that since they are buying whomever they need to buy they assume that the other side operates the same way. Cada ladrón juzga por su condición we say in Venezuela, "Thieves judge people according the their own values".

Finally the third justice in the Electoral Court criticized vehemently his colleagues. Apparently he was at work but they claim he was not, which would explain why he was not there and why they used his substitute. Maybe be true, but if he was not so busy talking and plotting with Chavez agents he might have caught on. However the story does not say whether he put an official complaint. Talk is cheap in chavismo.


PS: an English summary of yesterday's ruling and events is here.
A judicial ping pong game in Venezuela: has the electoral fraud blown up Chavez 's nose?
More on today's events

As I try to make sense of the events of these past days I have been reminded of a famous day in French history, during the minority of one of the King Louis. There was a series of court intrigues to obtain the regency using judicial procedures that resulted one day into everybody thinking that they had won the game, when in fact they had lost it: La Journée des Dupes, the day of the fooled ones. Indeed last Friday one judicial branch went off on week end thinking that it had blocked the other one. Only to find today that the blocked branch swung back and smashed the previous attempt. Actually the smash today was so convincing that I wonder if the other branch did not on purpose sabotage its action, to try to pretend to please Chavez while sinking him. That or they are incompetent and overplayed their hand. All is possible in Venezuela.

The judicial system as of 1999 has a supreme court, TSJ, composed of 20 members divided in equal chambers. One chamber is formed by 5 judges and takes on constitutional matters. Its ruling must be taken AT LEAST 3 to 1. In other words 4 judges must attend the seance. Last Friday only three judges emitted a ruling that forbade the chamber dealing on electoral matters to rule on appeals deposed in front of it. That Electoral Chamber is formed by three judges and its decisions must be taken 2 to 1. The Electoral Chamber today decided to rule anyway declaring that what the Constitutional Chamber sent them last week was illegal. And rule they did. They canceled many of the provisions taken by the Electoral Board CNE, making in fact the Recall Election all but certain. All the petty measures painfully taken by the CNE to diminish the total signatures collected, all the post-act modifications of the rules to that effect, all the sloppy work, all the delays and treacheries were declared void and the CNE was told to move on with the Recall Election process. It remains that chavismo has to find a way to cancel at least 700 000 signatures out of 1 300 000 contested signatures by the end of March to legally stop the Recall Election. Any other way will be illegal. That is the extent of the alleged "megafraud" that Chavez had been trumpeting all along. Now he has to prove it or desist.

Here are the appropriate links for you to check details, a I have simplified the tale and rounded numbers.

The story, in English, in El Universal

The ruling by the Electoral Chamber

The story in Spanish

The two Chambers telling each other that they lied

The satisfaction of the opposition with the ruling

The suspension of tomorrow's march of the opposition, as requested by the Carter Center and the OAS to avoid unnecessary provocation

But in case you still think that Chavez was playing fair play. We were greeted today with two piece of news that show the coercion used by the administration. This while the Constitutional Chamber was trying to knock out the Electoral Chamber. The comptroller General, long silent, the guys supposed to pursue all corruption cases suddenly woke up. For what? To find fault with potential popular opposition candidates and try to stop them from running in the local elections planned for later this year. Of course all pro Chavez candidates are models of honesty. Story in English by the way.

In addition a couple of hundred of workers from Caracas subway are threatened with being fired because they signed for the Recall Election, something seen in other state industries and offices! Meaning of course that the government is going to try to have them recant their signatures.

I would not be ready to dismiss Chavez's chances to stop the recall election, yet. Certainly he seems to have received a very hard knock today, but he surely has a few judicial tricks. I use the word "tricks" as I am rather convinced that the next moves of Chavez are now outside the legal path. They might apparent legality but they will be taken in the frame of a confrontation of powers, and he has the guns and the money, two natural factors that make their holders think that they can get away with it. Not to mention that one thing he does not have, scruples.


PS: keep in mind the lengthy table of advantages and disadvantages from each side of the conflict. I posted it yesterday and you might need to return to it in the coming days to understand the new developments.

Monday, March 15, 2004

A surprise announcement on the recall election against Chavez in Venezuela
Breaking news!

Monday 15, March 2004

In a very unsettling move for the Chavez camp that thought it had the upper hand in the Venezuelan High Court, TSJ, one of its sections, the Sala Electoral, decided to invalidate some of the very contested decisions taken by the Electoral Board, CNE.

Indeed, the TSJ is composed of 20 members divided into several sections, one is the Sala Electoral, and another one is the Sala Constitucional which, as its name indicate, deals with constitutional rights. When one of the sections ruling is appealed on solid grounds, the 20 judges decide as a last resort.

The Sala Constitucional is formed by 5 judges, 3 of them devoted to the Chavez cause. In the last few days they have tried to hijack the decision on appeals presented by the opposition from the Sala Electoral by means of a rather dubious legality. But today the Sala Electoral, probably not amused by the coarse usurpation attempts, ruled that the trashing of 500 000 signatures was not right and these people should be allowed to "correct" or "ratify" their signatures.

But even more damming, taking up the arguments advanced by the Carter Center and the OAS, they decided that the good intention should prevail in the 800 000 signatures put under observation. This means that instead of forcing 800 000 people to go and ratify, the 800 000 ID numbers should be published and those that do not agree being in that list should be the ones going and denounce the fraud to which their name was subjected. As it should be.

If this decision stands, and that remains to be seen as it is certain that the Sala Constitucional is going to try to make some move, it almost guarantees that the 20% signatures requirement has been met, or will be met. It is very unlikely that the chavista camp will be able to demonstrate that several hundred thousand of people in the 800 K lot did not sign. And even if they manage to get a few thousand to "change their minds", the opposition should get enough of the 500 K lot to compensate.

The math is quite simple

2.4 million needed.
1.8 already in
0.8 almost in
0.5 can still be made to go in

Chavismo needs to annul 0.7 out of the (0.8 + 0.5) = 1.3. A daunting task at the very least. Unless of course Chavez was right in the "megafraude", for which we are still waiting for the hard evidence. Now there is his golden chance to prove that he was right all along as hundred of thousand of people will clog the streets to have their name removed and finally uncover the fraudulent opposition.

Yeah, right....

Now, on to Chavez next move, and it will probably not be a pretty one....


Note added later: El Universal is out with the news too. Nothing in English yet. I will write more tonight as I learn all the details and figure out whether I understood correctly all the legalese involved earlier on. One thing is certain, Bernal the spokesperson of chavismo today (they seem to take turns), was almost foaming at the mouth. It must have hurt.

Note added even later: Ismael Garcia, quite unhinged, is calling for chavistas to go tomorrow to the High Court to ask for the removal of the "bastard" judges that betrayed the people, going even as far as accusing them to get money for that decision. More tonight.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

A summary table on the Venezuelan political situation

Sunday 14, March 2004

I have been postponing for a few days an analysis of the situation. Indeed the speed at which events move forward, in particular the breathtaking judicial cheating taking place in the high court makes any analysis run the risk of becoming outdated by the time it is posted. I decided instead to create a table where I list the advantages and disadvantages of each camp at this time. These of course can and will change too, but they will remain basically true for the weeks to come. Any movement made by the political antagonists is based on what they have in their cards.

I hope that from reading both tables, it will be clear that no side has really the upper hand. Not Chavez in spite of his heavy display of force since February 27. Nor the opposition that can only benefit from the good will of the international observers and that could be helped as well as harmed if for example the OAS decided to apply sanctions.

It is a very complicated and dangerous game.

 On the political front
Uncontested leader. This allows him to control tightly his followers, no dissension within the ranks. Last dissenters have left early 2002.Has few genuine feedback, mostly from people interested in keeping their jobs, or cashing in their positions while the going is good. Implies relying on corruption to buy fidelity.
His will applies.A lot of subservient people implement whatever is needed until Chavez forgets about it and then the program sinks into oblivion. This causes a rudderless administration, only worried about day to day survival.
Controls the Nation's institutions. National Assembly reduced to a rubber stamp body, with an intractable opposition. Justice rulings tend to favor the administration. Investigative bodies unwilling to deal with corruption.No serious counterweight besides the press. This has become obvious as the function of the state machinery has become the defense of the "Bolivarian project", costing international support.
In particular the control over the electoral board and the judicial system is now for all to see, casting serious doubts about the possibility of any real and fair election in the future.
The preoccupation of the judicial with the preservation of the regime causes an impressive backlog in other areas of people's security. Crime keeps on the increase, fueled by the economical recession and the careless judiciary and penal system.
On the armed forces front
Neutralized the Army.If he is sure that the Army will not rise against him, he is still not sure it will accompany him all the way in the road of repression.
Controls the National Guard, allowing him the recent and effective repression.Major tarnish to his international image as the defender of Human Rights has been transformed into your average repressor. Might have doomed the National Guard in a post Chavez administration, or at least the serving personnel.
On the economical front
Control of the State Oil company, PDVSA, which acts directly as the petty cash of the Bolivarian project.The financial needs of the company are neglected. Necessary investments in oil well recuperation and new exploration are not met. The national production has shrunk and a pre 2002 strike level cannot be reached unless massive private investment is allowed. This will result in a slow but sure privatization of the oil production.
Free spending policies, unchecked by the national assembly, the Central Bank or the Office of the Comptroller.Bed seed of corruption, never prosecuted in spite of mounting visible evidence.
Runaway spending, increasing debt, fiscal fragility, currency depreciation, a time bomb, probably short term.
Ability to launch all sorts of popular and populists programs, little bit more than a give-away to shore up the electoral base.If the effects are positive in the polls, their very unsustainable nature and the continuous shrinking of available resources makes these programs less and less effective and more and more difficult to launch. Eventually people will realize the fraud as no matter how many programs are launched few, if any, benefits reach them.

In general
By accepting in February 2003 to play the recall election card the opposition has effectively cornered Chavez in an election that he cannot afford to lose.Losing a recall election is the worst possible case scenario for Chavez. A politician can recover from losing a presidential election, a politician cannot recover from a recall election that is a direct sanction on the actions of the politician. Having hastily promoted the recall election in January 2003 to put an end to the strike, Chavez is now trapped and must resort to extreme measures to avoid the referendum. This is what we are seeing now, from judicial treachery, to repression. All great dangers for the country, and the opposition.
 On the national scene
The opposition has strong local leadership.Increases the centralization of the government which deliberately starves of resources the local communities that do not support its project. The effect on a future fair election is open to question.
It has a fervent following that really think that with Chavez the democratic values of the country have no future. This fills the streets that Chavez cannot fill as easily and at great expense.Sometimes the crowds, becoming more and more exacerbated with the inability to make any headway in removing Chavez from office, are difficult to control. This creates delicate situations such as the long stay of the dissident military on Plaza Altamira or the spontaneous recent street rioting.
The opposition is an eclectic group, vital in ideas and democratic aspirations. It rallies solidly the largest part of the population that want real solutions and not the will of a single man.The lack of a clear front runner, or a coherent organization able to propose real post Chavez programs is seen by some sectors as a weakness that pushes some of these sectors to indifference or back into the arms of Chavez.
On the economical front
No advantage besides the press. Most muscle power has been lost during the general strike of 2002/2003. Must husband its resources carefully as Chavez has free access tot he treasury.The sensitivity of most the media to the authoritarian temptation of the power makes the media give as much support as possible to the opposition, opening both to charges of unfairness by those that do not understand the real workings of the Chavez project.
Stimulates a constant war of cadenas. Costing money to the media, and more money to counteract the free TV exposure of Chavez.
Fervent following. Offers uncounted numbers of volunteers for all the logistics required to mount an effective political challenge.Makes the power nervous. Stimulates all sorts of accusations such as US funding, SUMATE conspiracy, eta... While the government dips freely into PDVSA funds.
On the electoral scene
Consistently strong lead. Consistently hard core support for Chavez. Dialogue is difficult if not impossible.
Chavez has not been able to sustain the charges of signature collection megafraud. Radicalizes the Chavez position and thus increases the dangers of further adventures from this one, adventures that the opposition might not be able to withstand.
On the international scene
It has regained the sympathy of the West and of most of Latin America, what really counts around here.The political adventures of 2002 are still in the memory. Doubts still remain in some international observers.
Allows Chavez to attack the opposition as a servant of "powerful foreign interest" in a cheap nationalistic defense.
The Carter Center and the OAS have all but declared fraud by the Electoral Commission, CNE.Still, there is little that the opposition can do once the international observers declare fraud and leave the country.
Also opens the opposition to cheap nationalistic, even jingoistic attacks from the Chavez camp.
It is now clearly the victim of excessive repression from the government.A government that has crossed the threshold of repression, torture and political prisoners has set foot on a never ending spiral of more and more repression.