Thursday, April 28, 2005

The chavista lifestyle

I was in Caracas these last few days and went out for dinner with a friend. We decided to try a restaurant in Las Mercedes (one of the two main dining out areas). What interested me in the one we chose was the huge terrace, facing a street intersection where the French embassy is located (this way people will know without having to mention it).

The street level was a large AC area, packed, exceedingly noisy, with a huge bar area with people that seemed right out of office (they had ties on). The upper level was much quieter, the terrace was nice but the decoration had a je ne sais quoi of nouveau riche that gave me a hint as to the kind of place I was. Any doubt was removed when I saw the menu: >90% meat or fish dishes, less than 10% salads and deserts. We were in a chavista restaurant. I do not eat much meat and even less at night so I settled for a salad. I could not finish it, it was not that fresh and the dressing was tasteless. A restaurant where salads are rarely asked for, where customers do not know better. My friend could not finish his salad either.

Chavista restaurants?

Over the recent years with the changes in public administration and the in the flow of money, the ruling patron class has changed. But not without problems. What happened is that the new political group that arrived into office does not have the cultural background to enjoy the fine dining of Caracas. They did not have the money before and now they mean to enjoy it as if there were no tomorrow. Nothing new actually: we saw that phenomenon in the 60ies when AD arrived into office and replaced the old planter and old boy's classes inherited from Gomez time. Even in the 70ies the jokes kept running on the AD country bumpkins. I will recall the famous joke on the wife of Carlos Andres in his first term, who ordered, supposedly, mortadela con patilla when everyone else was ordering jamón con melón. Sartorial and epicurean prejudice are nothing new in Venezuela. (1)

However this time there is a difference: the divisiveness that Chavez has brought to the country has generated the phenomenon of rejection between the old class and the new "boliburguesia" instead of the grudging slow integration we saw a generation ago (2). Soon chavismo was not welcome in Caracas fine restaurants, by the public that is. Glass hitting with the knives rose to a noise level that resulted in guests ending up in either a fist fight or with the chavista personality leaving the premises. Some moments were particularly scandalous either by the shameless attacks from the opposition guests or the stupid reprisals of chavismo on some restaurants who were unable control the situation.

The solution of course was for a few entrepreneurs to create the chavista restaurant. Just as the one I described. I know at least three like those ones, and I suspect of at least 4 or 5 more. They tend to have opened no more than 3 years ago (though some have gone chavista long ago such as a famous meat place in Las Mercedes which parking was often full during the strike of 2002 and which is still covered with pictures of famous adecos visiting in past decades). On a Tuesday night they are the ones full even if their food sucks. Their menu is based on meat and potato, and some fish. Their cuisine is not great, but their Scotch card is better than their wine list. And there is a certain character within the crowd that is not seen elsewhere in more established restaurants. As we were seating on the terrace edge with a view on the arriving cars I counted two luxury convertible cars, imported cars that is, something that I had not seen in years in a Caracas night (3). And half of the cars in that place were no more than 2-3 years old, with a sizable chunk of expensive cars.

When we left by curiosity I drove in front of a couple of "traditional" and gastronomic restaurants of Las Mercedes: they had the expected crowd for a Tuesday night, a dozen cars at most, parked neatly in front. The restaurant where we were was creating a traffic jam on its own, and not by people rushing out from the lousy food.

Now, before I am accused to write an elitist post I would like to remind the reader of my French origins that I honor: I will go to any dive if the food is good and the safety reasonable. I really could not care less whether the chef or the cook is chavista, as long as I delight my palate. But I must report what I observe about the fast evolving Caracas night scene.

Fast cars

So what to think about that new display of wealth, from the new if not very tasteful restaurants to the obscenely expensive cars? Well, it is indeed sudden. As it turns out we got help today to understand the new social reality. Decifrado and Miami Herald report a very interesting fait divers. The son of a director of the actual PDVSA pseudo management has had a car accident in Key Biscayne (it seems that chavistas like Miami as much as anti chavistas). The passenger died. This would be sad enough by itself but the details that followed make it scandalous. The car was a Lamborghini Gallardo 2005 whose price list is 175 000 US dollars, a car normally reserved to older gents trying to impress younger chicks, gents without any financial trouble after a long life amassing money. But it gets better. Bail for 100 000 USD was promptly posted. Did Dad bank out 100 000 that easily from Venezuela where we are under currency control exchange and where folks are allocated only 4 000 USD to satisfy all of their travel needs in a year? Inquiring minds want to know.

I was thinking about those expensive convertibles I saw last night, one of them driven by someone that could not have been more than 30 years old. Let's see, Chavez announced the new minimal wage of 188 USD per month (144 at street real market exchange). That car I saw cost at least 70 000 USD plus import taxes. The Lamborghini 175 000 USD. That is, 121 Venezuelan workers gave one year income, at the new minimal wqage, for the Lamborghini and the bail. The PDVSA director lost through his son the earnings of 121 Venezuelan workers in a year. 159 workers at the real currency exchange rate. Plus a few to pay for the insurance. In social democratic countries pay check spread is no more than 7 to 10 times from the janitor to the CEO. In a social democratic country only the president of Polar and a couple of other business can afford a Lamborghini, not their sons who will have to settle for the convertible Audi I saw last night. I do not recall any of the fired PDVSA management having owned Lamborghini, but maybe a reader can point out to such a similar scandal....

Boliburguesia. And some still believe ...

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(1) Mortadela is a cheap ersatz of reconstituted meat sold as a ham substitute as it comes in large cylinders that can be sliced just like ham; and patilla is water melon, the fruit of the poor. Of course, Parma ham and cantaloupe (the jamón con melon) is a long established gourmet delicacy.

(2) Chavez has been diligent in trying to subsidize the rapid growth of a "deals" class who gets all government contracts. The sudden climb to riches of a few people has created the term "boliburguesia", a pun on bolivarian and bourgeois. Nothing new under the sun, again.

(3) For security reasons convertibles are not used in Venezuela. People that own them use it only to go to visit friends or valet parking places. There is no way you can leave a convertible parked in the street. It is really, really, a toy for the very, very rich. Or very very tacky.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Goodbye Cesar Miguel Rondon

I have learned a few days ago that Cesar Miguel Rondon TV talk show, the 10:30 PM Televen show 30 Minutos will go off the air at the end of the month. This was the best talk show in Venezuela, at least in my opinion. The one on one interviews were perhaps the most perceptive and intellectual in Venezuelan TV, cool, composed. No matter how disgusting the guest might have been, Mr. Rondon never lost his civility. Then again, a slight move of his eyebrows would reveal exactly his stupefaction at the gross declarations that he just elicited. Subtle skepticism was his trademark.

Why is Mr. Rondon leaving? Well, we will not know exactly, at least for the time being. Everybody, including the Rondon producer, pretends that it is all normal (after all why should Rondon or Colomina make a fuss against the people with whom they worked well for so many years and who are under great political pressure that they cannot resist, Rondon and Colomina are classy enough people to know where to direct the real criticism).

After the departure of Marta Colomina from her early slot in Televen, it was bound to happen. Since the August 2004 referendum Televen has shown that it did not want anymore to oppose Chavez. Its target was the middle class sectors, leaving the poplar segment to RCTV and Venevision. But the battered middle class has been shifting fast to cable TV, not wanting to be subjected anymore to cadenas, mandatory propaganda or politics. Business is business, and Televen could not resist the financial offer of governmental advertisement. To our astonished eyes already in September we saw the first pro Chavez adds. But that willingness was not enough, the pressures to get rid of the Chavez critics who had some of the high rated shows on TV at Televen continued and Televen knew what to do if the manna was to keep flowing. Not to mention unconfirmed rumors that ownership composition had changed. Now Televen is to become not really a pro Chavez channel, but a dumber media, like Venevision became once Cisneros visited Chavez with Carter. The only question is how long RCTV and Globovision will remain showing real news. The "gag law" was really aimed at them anyway. Globovision is succeeding in remaining as critical as before, while taming its style and of course one wonders how long will Chavez tolerate Alo Ciudadano Smart people always find ways to transmit the news of his administration mischief and sure enough the "gag" law will not be enough to ensure the docile press that dictators like.

But this is another story. Today I only want to express my real admiration and thanks for Cesar Miguel Rondon, for having been able to explain to me, through all these years, without exaltation, the "barbaridad del dia" (the gross political event of the day). I understand that he will remain in Union Radio but unfortunately San Felipe is not reached by Union Radio. Internet perhaps? At least now I will not have to wait until 11 PM to go to bed…

To close this letter, there is an even better homage to Mr. Rondon, and it comes of all places from Aporrea. An anonymous note coming from the direction of Aporrea says that (My translation, I cannot bring out the full flavor of the revolutionary ill written prose)
...where he worked, maintaining an information line not only opposed to the revolutionary Government, [but also] opposed to the majority of the people who decided to be protagonist, behind their President leader, of radical changes and them [Rondon, Colomina and other] transformed themselves in maimers (?) of the truth, liars by default and roach like manipulators hurting deeply serious and responsible journalism.

I will not discuss the obvious insanity in these words, the hatred and barbarity hidden in them. Not to mention the implied fascist idea that the only valid news are those that are approved by a majority. However I can say that when someone attacks you in such way it means that your intellectual probity, the acumen of your words have reached bull's-eye and that these people hate you because they are actually guilty of all that they accuse you of doing. Precious!

Monday, April 25, 2005

Attending a screening of “The Revolution will not be televised”

A while back I mentioned that I could open my page to letters from readers detailing an interesting experience. Today for the first time I have the pleasure to publish an excellent, and very important, letter. May there be more of them. Thanks Bruni!

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I received an invitation from a friend to go see the film “The Revolution will not be televised”. I have heard from both sides about the film and decided that I would go. I had read about the April 11 2002 events in Francisco Toro’s essay and interview. Also, I had read in El Gusano de Luz an analysis of the film that found 20 major inconsistencies. I actually studied each of the points and took notes to be able to compare with what I was going to watch in the film.

The show was taking place in a small bar downtown and it was organized by a group concerned with globalization issues. When I got in, the bar was full of very young people all very eager to watch the film and very sympathetic to the Bolivarian cause.

The film was amazing. The music, the songs’ words, the pictures, the way they follow Chavez in his everyday endeavors and the story are very well treated. If I had not studied the flaws before watching it, I think that I would have been totally convinced about the veracity of the whole story. As the film advances, one is taken more and more by the intensity of Chavez personality and by the awful maneuvers of the opposition leaders, journalists and oligarchic housewives. When Chavez is forced to leave Miraflores, many people in the audience expressed their outrage and when Carmona dissolves the powers and all the people present in Miraflores cheer; I must confess that I was not very proud of what I was watching. I laughed with the audience when the ministers come back to Miraflores and do not know how to get organized in that unusual situation. Finally, as Francisco said in his interview, when Chavez comes back, everybody feels Chavista, me included. We all applauded the end of the film.

In the middle of the applauses, the organizer asked if there were any Venezuelans present. I raised my hand and asked if I could address the audience. I was cheerfully given a microphone and asked to step up to the center of the stage. I started saying that I was a dissident and that I was very glad to live in this country because I liked freedom and democracy and I was very worried with what was happening in Venezuela. I pointed out that the film had many bias. First, it chose to caricaturize the situation by portraying everybody in the opposition as white and blond and every Chavez supporter as brown or black. I told them that in Venezuela we were all “café au lait” and we lived without racial stereotypes until Chavez created them with his divisive fashion and that the film insisted on emphasizing them. They had just to look at me, I said, with my very curly black hair (whereas one of the Bolivarian ladies was actually blonde, but that I did not say). Next, I pointed out specific points that were not shown in the picture. For instance, the picture does not show that there were close to a million people in the April 11 march. Without that information, the viewers could not grasp the importance of the conflict. It does not say that Chavez had knowledge of the march rerouting and did nothing to avoid it. Finally, I said, it did not say a word about the infamous “cadena” in which the president monopolized the communication waves to keep talking about utilitarian vehicles while people outside his Palace were being killed.

At that point, the Bolivarians that had organized the event started shouting at me that that was not true, that until when I was going to make false statements. They were enraged. I was taken aback despite that I knew of the reputation of the Bolivarian circles. I calmly asked them to let me finish, mentioned the essay in Caracas Chronicles and El Gusano de Luz and quickly regained my seat without losing my temper.

Two members of the Bolivarian group were then given the chance to talk. They did not addressed my comments, but rather explained how the poor were not taken into account in Venezuela until Chavez got into power and made emphasis on the missions and on Chavez fight against poverty. They also invited the audience to go to Venezuela and to know more about their group. They were not fluent in French but I actually thought that they were quite charming trying to get their message across with smiles. I was again surprised these could be the same people shouting at me minutes before.

After they talked, I asked the organizer for a chance to reply, I wanted to provide the latest poverty figures, but the organizer said they had to close the event. I later mentioned to him that I thought that he had not been fair since he let two people talk from Chavez side, while I was just one person. He said that I had a little bit more time (true) and that I could communicate better (a very funny and clever excuse, I must say!).

Finally, when the evening was declared to be over, the Bolivarians shouted: Viva Chavez! Viva la Revolucion! But the audience was silent. They had lost their momentum and they were not happy. They carefully avoided exchanging any word or eye contact with me.

When I was about to leave, a young woman whispered me that she was very thankful that I had given the other side of the story and that she knew about it because she had spent eight months in Caracas. Then, a young man approached me, and almost whispering told me that he was Iranian and that he knew what a totalitarian regime was. He also thanked me for my address.

I could not sleep that night. The evening events, the film and Francisco Toro’s essay images were playing in my mind. I was recalling the twenty lies pointed in the film. But, first of all, I was thinking how Venezuelans have changed. In any other circumstances that I could think of, a group of Venezuelans in a foreign site would have engaged a conversation in Spanish with me, aware that we were part of the same culture and shared many experiences. Instead they were shouting at me and calling me a liar. It was my first experience with a Bolivarian group and it was also the first time in my life that I was the object of two feelings previously unknown to me: antagonism and hatred. I guess those will be Chavez’s legacies.

Brunilde Sansò.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Venezuelan bloggers keep scoring

Today Alek Boyd gets its very own interview by Roberto Giusti in El Universal. In it he details all the irregularities that he has been uncovering about how the Evas Golingers of chavismo through the VIO offices in Venezuela are trying to organize the Chavez propaganda in the States. Nothing that the readers of this blog did not already know as this writer has been keeping track and reporting of the excellent investigative work made by Alek Boyd.

I would like to stress out that not just anybody gets an interview with Roberto Giusti, one of the foremost Venezuelan journalists. And that it appears in the Sunday paper is even more rewarding for Alek.

If I may pat our collective back, Venezuelan bloggers in the English language have been doing well in the past few months. Besides the great success of Alek in showing part of the ethical misery of the chavista propaganda machine, we cannot forget that Miguel has been getting well deserved exposure in US blogs when he showed how chavismo works its advertisement on photoshop to outright lies. Even through my very humble report on Miguel's work a few days after the fact, he got further boost at Instapundit, showing you how strangely internet works. I have to say that I was not quite reporting on Miguel but on how his discovery had made it to a newspaper, Tal Cual. Instapundit loves when bloggers hit the front pages, so to speak, and Miguel's work did deserve newspaper notice! Not that Instapundit had to wait for me to know Miguel's work: he has been cited several times by Glenn Reynolds in the past, in particular for his economic reports on Venezuela.

Of course I have not uncovered as much as my distinguished colleagues, but still I did get a radio interview by Milagros Socorro, another star reporter as Giusti, who was more interested in what it took to write a blog. For some strange and undeserved reason it seems that my consistency at writing has drawn attention on its own right, even getting me the little white award on the right :-). But also getting me mentioned in El Nacional and an interview with Investor's Business Daily, all interested in what it took to write day in, day out.

We are benefiting from the trust of our readers. Perhaps people are sensing the solidarity among us, that we do not compete but fight together to contribute in preserving the freedom of our country. And without anyone paying us a dime for our efforts. This of course obliges us to keep working and maintain our standards, if not increase them further.

PS: I cannot cover all the great blogging coming from Venezuela: I must limit myself to English language blogs for reasons of format, time available and space. But Spanish language blogs from Venezuela are alive and doing well, thank you. For example Weblog Venezolano who right now requires your vote for the Bitacoras contest :-)

Democracy in Venezuela: going nowhere fast

Our quite battered democracy was deliciously illustrated this week.

Electoral fraud within the MVR

The MVR, Chavez official party, was holding its internal elections in view of the municipal elections in August (the real target being of course the National assembly election in December). Well, apparently it was quite a mess in some states, and in Caracas it became a public show of disgust when on April 19, Caracas holy day, its mayor Bernal was booed in public by an angry crowd for his alleged electoral fraud. His retort? "they are adecos!". That is, true chavistas and revolutionaries would never question what their leaders decided! (1)

Unfortunately the mayor at large of Caracas does not seem to support him much. I remember when AD was accused of the very same crimes that the MVR is accused of. But those were other days, democracy was improving then until it even allowed an anti democratic movement to make it to office. Right now, Bernal has a bunch of people on Bolivar's square on hunger strike, with all the cameras filming while the only TV station that does not show anything is the state TV, VTV, with the communications minister, Izarra, reported to be furious. The situation overall must be quite bad as the MVR is going directly to the High Court to postpone the deadline for filing. Indeed, "justice" might work for them and they need time to sort out the conflict with their "allies". I can imagine what would NOT happen if, say, AD would go and ask for a one week delay...

I must admit that I am enjoying to see some chavistas receive their own bitter medicine. It always happens in all revolutions, they purge constantly, they just did not know it until this week.

Chile's president Lagos receives the Venezuelan opposition

Ricardo Lagos visited Venezuela this week. As a socialist from the time of Allende, who has known the roads of exile, and one who had a very difficult election 4 years ago, one thing we know is that he is not a fool and that he has learned his lessons. Now, he benefits of an excellent popularity for someone already in office for many years and an economy that trots along nicely as his socialist tradition does not stop him from making successful trade deals with the USA. In short, Lagos is all what Chaves is not, and without a sea of oil, only the hard work of his people that he defends as best he can. To drive home the point that his country is on the verge of first world status, the primary election to succeed him will be run by two women who ride high in the polls, no matter which opposition candidate they might face. Chile is on the verge of having the first female president elected on her own political merits. Not even the US seems close of such a change in mores!

No wonder Chavez had had so many problems with Chile. Lagos represents for Chavez all the antithesis of his machismo, intolerance, economic failure, chaos, egoism, autocracy, and what not. But times have changed and Chile needs markets, so Lagos will stop in Venezuela since it seems that this unsavory character might be around for a little bit longer.

However quite a visit it is, in particular if one compares it to the recent one from Rodriguez Zapatero, an utter disgrace which is still trailing the deficient Spanish diplomacy at home. Lagos has not only avoided all the pitfalls of any visit to Chavez, but he has even been able to receive all the Venezuelan opposition and offer a sincere hearing to their claims without creating a diplomatic incident (2). It must be said that Chavez could hardly criticize him for doing so, after all Lagos had the outmost democratic weapon: he had among the people that accompanied him to the meeting a legislator of his local opposition! A detail by the way that he stressed on when he received folks (and presumably he stressed also when he met with the government) What could Chavez complain about when it has been ages since he has not even given a press conference in Venezuela where independent journalists can ask the hard questions? Lagos has no problems meeting journalists anywhere in the world, or at home…

Chile seems now the most advanced democracy in South America, the most prosperous state, and the one with best growth perspective and happiness for its people. That is why his president can travel with such confidence. The total opposite of Venezuela, fast sinking in abjection, only received well by rogue regimes and ignoramus Spaniards who think they can control the beasts (plural intended as Rodriguez Zapatero pretends to wash up Castro bloody hands). Even vice president Rangel is rumored to consider retiring in Chile….

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1) The root of all the mess is that people vote MVR because they vote for Chavez, not out of love for the MVR who ranks low in any poll of "confidence". Minor allies of Chavez know that unless they manage to get on the MVR lists they will not be elected. MVR is reluctant but then again the "allies" have threatened to set a separate list which could be enough to cost MVR a few seats, in particular as the opposition shows signs to get its act together. That is, unfortunately for Chavez, his "allies" are still necessary if he wants to remove all opposition.

2) During Rodriguez Zapatero visit, only a fraction of the opposition accepted to meet with him, and with great reluctance. Then RodZap was questionably coming to sell weapons and instruments of repression (tear gas) while Lagos is selling wine and other goodies. It seems that Zapatero's socialists have forgotten their Franco period whereas Lagos has not forgotten his Pinochet one. It seems that Rod Zap polls are suffering lately... Imagine that...

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The dehumanization of the opponent in Venezuela

One characteristic of fascistocomunistotalitarian regimes is to remove the human nature of whomever opposes them. This can be done in different ways, from amalgamating opponents in a simple group that all can hate ("the jews!", "the commies!", "the fascists!", "the XYZ!") to simply denying the existence, the relevance, the basic rights of the individual. If we cannot say yet that chavismo is doing this in a large scale we can already observe that the readiness to do such discrimination exists in its followers. I am not talking here of the Tascon list, a flagrant example of the apartheid mentality that already exists in some chavistas. But I am talking about how the desire to obviate people that do not agree with you already exists in the underlings of the regime. This is not a polite way of "ignoring" someone pretending that one did not see that person arriving. No, we are talking at the deliberate strategy to make folks non-entities. Let's examine an example.

Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias

The ABN was founded by the government a few months ago with the objective of projecting "real news" on Venezuela. On occasion I scan it. Today their picture of the day section give us quite a story. I have saved a snapshot of today's offering below.

This might not seem much, but when you click on the different pictures, the legend tells us quite a tale. (The golden letters were added my photo editor, otherwise the rest comes from the 'print screen function').

1 and 2

The big news, so to speak, was the apparition of Caracas Mayor at Large at an event sponsored by FEDECAMARAS, the private business association of Venezuela, ill advisedly involved in the April 2002 events. Well, water has run under the bridge and FEDECAMARAS as well as the Venezuelan government are calling a truth of sorts, to try to make some business deals. But in the legends we only see the name of the mayor, Barreto, and not the one of Albis Muñoz, the lady in pink and the president of FEDECAMARAS, the hostess of the event.

8 and 9

The US embassy has sponsored for Earth Day a few activities to try to promote a rapprochement between the two countries. But the name of the ambassador, William Brownfield, does not appear in any of the two legends, and yet he is at the center of both pictures. We only read "La Embajada de los Estados Unidos".

Other pictures

The names of public officials that appear in 3, 4 and 7 is spelt correctly in the legend.

Now, this is too much of a coincidence, I think. A little Granma in the making?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Chavismo dim light bulbs

These recent days we have been able to see how come Chavez keeps running into trouble in spite of his good intentions (assuming they are good, of course). The reason? One cannot get good help these days.

Maduro and Ecuador

As heard on TV. National Assembly president Nicolas Maduro declared that it was Bush who gave the order to oust Gutierrez in Ecuador. Huh? A president that was willing to negotiate a trade deal with the US? A president of the only dollarized country in South America? A president that was rather right wing? Obviously Maduro must have sources in the CIA that report directly to him.

Not to remain behind, his companion and also representative from Caracas, Celia Flores, chimed in saying that she was not sure that Gutierrez had resigned and that he could well be back "we have seen that before". Obviously not realizing that indeed Gutierrez had not resigned, he was fired.

It is a good thing that this power couple is not in the foreign relations committee...

Tascon the self appointed avenger

You have to give it to Tascon: as a street rabble, he is not afraid to fight back even if all is against him. Now he is vowing to become the defender of all of those who got hurt by his infamous list. That is right, in a turn of events that will give a new meaning to passive aggressive, Tascon will start a "crusade" to defend people victim of political prosecution. I really am out of words on this.

But it gets even better. If at least he recognized that the apartheid list cannot be destroyed anymore, he went ahead and proposed new legislation to protect the confidentiality of those who signed. Adding thus a new meaning to chutzpah. Scarlet O'Hara had it easy when Rhett Buttler forced her to wear a red dress for Melanie's party...

I saw him last night in Alo Ciudadano, practicing the time honored tradition of the rats caught in a political hole, repeat a lie constantly until people think it is true. The show host had the greatest trouble in the world to even try to ask Tascon pertinent questions as Tascon was obviously there to repeat again his new tale, and only that. Among the many gems that he threw, it is now SUMATE's fault that the list existed. He only put it up on his web site as a public service. He never meant any harm.

For those who do not know, the real truth is that it was indeed a mole inside SUMATE that started publishing part of the people who signed and then that partial list was used to put political pressure. Soon enough the pro Chavez CNE provided the complete list to Tascon people and up it went on the web page. Tascon never answered the pressing question of the talk show host as to who really benefited from holding the list: the government.

But the anxiety of Tascon is understandable as he has been thrown to the wolves by his boss. Trade unions and diverse personalities are about to press charges in international forums. To add one more nail to Tascon political coffin, Teodoro Petkof takes to task the General Prosecutor to go and nail Tascon and all public employees that used the list for political prosecution. No excuses as:
This is now beyond doubt, because Chavez even described the modus operandi. There was a crime. Its intellectual author confessed.
This has to be one of the clearest cases ever handled to a prosecutor office. I am not holding my breath of course as justice as long become a mockery in Venezuela.

Electoral fraud within chavismo

It seems that chavistas are not only unable to hold internal fair elections, but they are unable to do electoral fraud in a discrete enough way. Makes one wonder who managed really the electoral fraud of August 15 2004. Cubans? Hackers?

Reports are now abundant of such fraud and miscontent. Yesterday I was already reporting on crowds bitching at Bernal in Caracas. But this goes much further. In Zulia, the key state for Chavez final hegemony as the governor might be arrested anytime soon, the battle for positions is rather heated, and accusations fly in chavistas very own civil war there. The tale repeats itself in Anzoategui. To all of these reports we only got lame declarations from the ineffable William Lara who "was not aware" of the problems. He needs only to read the translation of an article by Ms. Diaz to see that MVR is acting just the way AD was acting in the past when it tried to renew the local party cadres. Plus ça chance et plus c'est la même chose.

It is kind of fun to see all of these folks entangled in their web of lies, ignorance and moral decay. If it were not so bad for the future of the country one would even enjoy it.

Ecuador tonight

Well, yet again an army decides who stays and who goes in Latin America. As soon as it was known that the Ecuador army was not supporting him, it seems that the Ecuador Congress ditched president Gutierrez, and put in office, under surveillance, the vice president. But is that the real story?

I am a little reluctant to discuss Ecuador. It is perhaps the country that I follow the least in South America. Not because of lack of interest, but its chronic instability makes following Ecuador a full time job. And as a blogger on Venezuela I have my hands quite full already. However, I will still try to discuss some of the interesting points in Ecuador as they do sound like a distant echo of Venezuela.

Ecuador has had a troubled recent history. The last three presidents did not make it through their terms, not even half of their term I think. Mahuad was overthrown by an alliance of military and native groups that balked away from outright dictatorship at the last minute. Mahuad was still ousted, but Gutierrez, one of the soldiers, got a Chavez like fame which brought him, with some difficulty, to the presidency a couple of years later. Apparently, Ecuadorians are more weary of soldiers than Venezuelans and gave the nod to Gutierrez after a difficult second round ballot.

But Gutierrez was not going to resemble too much Chavez. Actually, his economic performance has been much more predictable and Ecuador kept growing. Perhaps the previous dollarization of the economy did protect its people from adventure. But still, Gutierrez seems to have been more concerned with his own career, aware of his political limitations, without a clear popular support as soon some of the native groups withdrew support. On the foreign scene, Gutierrez maintained a studied neutrality towards Venezuela and avoided any comparison to Chavez. In other words, Gutierrez seems to have been interested more in ruling and the welfare of his people than to engage in a Chavez like grandstanding.

But Gutierrez seems not to have overcome his military rigidness and soon enough he was embroiled in the political conflict now characteristic of his cantankerous nation. Like the Venezuelan conflict it even included threats of constituent assemblies, changes in the high court, threats, political and economic, etc... But unlike Venezuela, it seems that all the parties had a higher sense of democracy than chavismo. The pressure that Gutierrez endured were nothing compared to the ones that Chavez endured, simply because he was probably not as charismatic and messianic as Chavez, and because he could not gain time at all cost until he could buy back his electorate (though I doubt he had that financial option).

But his undoing seems to have been the High Court manipulations which resulted in the surprise return from exile of ex-prez Bucaram, the joker of the Americas. That apparently was too much for the congress already embroiled in a bitter battle for the future of the high court. Now Gutierrez is asking for political asylum in the Brazilian embassy. It is strange that a ruler who from outside seems to have managed his country better than expected is ousted in such an unceremonious way. While the disaster we have in Venezuela keeps strengthening his power with money and repression.

Tonight many people must be thoughtful in Venezuela. Definitely, only constant street pressure will offer us some hope of change. Even some chavista groups understand that as a violent chavista mob was harassing Caracas mayor Bernal yesterday, complaining of electoral fraud in the recent internal election of Chavez party. Imagine that!

But one thing seems certain, as in April 11 2002, the Venezuelan Army, for better or for worse, will be the one who decides who stays and who goes. We are quite far from true democracy, in Ecuador or in Venezuela...

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Habemus Papam: Benedict XVI

Today is a holiday in Venezuela, when we commemorate the initial uprising of Caracas (rather a palace coup) in 1810 which started our painful road to independence. The opportunity always cherished by politicians to pronounce silly discourses and make cadenas will be shot as the Vatican gave a true show today.

White smoke cloud, bells ringing, people running in the streets of Rome towards Saint Peter Square, the expectation for the name, the Swiss Guard arriving, the balconies of Saint Peter filling up to red Cardinals, the arrival of the elder of the conclave to announce in Latin the name of the new Pope (German cardinal Ratzinger) and its chosen name (a surprise by itself), the unfolding of a spectacular cover from the balcony, the new Pope arrival and blessing, an hysterical crowd. You cannot beat that and can only be happy to be at home so you could get to watch the whole show live!

The Catholic Church gives us a lesson again, even to non believers like this blogger: life goes on, a Pope left but a new Pope comes and off we go. Doubts are allowed but there is a road to be walked whether we like it or not. No wonder the Church has survived so long and political movements have floundered no matter what. It is a mystery as to how a group of old men manage to renew themselves, to hold such a power over the soul of so many people.

Caveat emptor

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PS: added after lunch

It is not always that I can indulge in some non Venezuelan comments. But after all, whether we like it or not, the Catholic Church is everyone's business, at least in the Western world.

To begin with, I was sure that the new Pope would be at least 75 years old. After such a strong Papacy as John Paul II, the Church needed a transition period. By putting Ratzinger at the helm it was getting many things at once: a transition Pope, a continuity to John Paul II actions, a new Pope that linked even furhter in the past (Benedict XVI was made Cardinal by Paul VI), a further opening to the world by not coming back to the Italian Popes while still remaining close to Italy.

Ratzinger, as grating as he was, is certainly fit for the job. More impressive than him speaking several languages, is his fluency in Italian, the Church basic business language. Like any modern man, he adopted the practical language of his business and made it his. Just as smart people in the West make English their basic day to day language without giving up their native tongue. I am sure that Ratzinger on occasion must read Goethe aloud for pleasure.

It was not the time for a non European Pope. Europe has actually become a land of mission as religion is fast receding in front of secular values. But next conclave will be different. During the next few years the Cardinals and the rest of the clergy will have to reconsider their role, a new aggiornamiento, perhaps as big as the last Vatican Council three decades ago. But that new Chuch will be developped by his succesor, who then might well be an American (and by American I mean as usual all those from Bering to Patagonia). Expect a short papacy, and then a young new Pope with a clear road ahead. And by chosing his name Ratzinger has clearly shown that he might be the man of the hour. Not to mention that he might be the best thing to happen to Germany in decades :-)

We will see, and we can be sure that it will be interesting to follow.

More on Tascon's list

Well, whatever positive effect Chavez might have wished by demanding publicly for the dismissal of the Tascon list is not showing up. As expected the general reaction is to ask for redress and punishment. After all, if the president publicly admitted the fault of some of his subordinates, the very least one would expect is for those subordinates to be dismissed.

Having digested the news over the week end, through the press and the news today we start seeing a shaping of public opinion, while in a hurry the Ombudsman, Mundarain, is sent in a hurry to try to explain that there will be no evidence to pursue the perpetrators. What is most astounding in the declarations of Mundarain is that he admits that misuse of the list was perpetrated but likely no evidence will surface. Am I the only one detecting a basic fault of logic there?

Meanwhile the opposition is wowing to press charges for discrimination to the UN itself (after all, there is no justice in Venezuela anymore, so why bother pressing charges here when the Ombudsman himself announces the result of the investigations?) Still, this does not stop some to try to organize themselves to put pressure on the regime. After all, if the president admitted the crime of his subordinates...

And of course, Tal Cual which brought heat to the anti-discrimination campaign asked the general prosecutor to put his office to good use in an unambiguous editorial where the real underlined question is the probity of the General Prosecutor Isaias Rodriguez. Of course, sensate people do not expect anything of Prosecutor who has shown to be one of the most sycophantic characters of the regime. Editorial kindly translated by Miguel.

I am not too sure what is really going on. I have heard that apparently many an embassy protested the despicable list and something had to be done by a regime in great need to redo its democratic make up. But considering that the Chavez announcement will have no real effect on the victims of the Tascon list, I tend more and more to believe that we are watching an internal show of chavismo where positions are shifting quickly in view of the coming elections. Rumors are that many parliamentarians will not be postulated again as Chavez wants a sizable group of military sent to the National assembly. If Tascon falls, a few "civilians" could follow. Thus, as usual, the welfare of the people is not the real concern here.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Tascon list: modern political apartheid in Venezuela

The other day Chavez announced that he wanted to stop the use of the Tascon list to screen people for government jobs, contracts and even such basic rights such as passports and ID cards. For those who are coming late to Venezuela, assemblyman had the idea to get the names of all of those who signed to ask for a Recall Election on Chavez, and use that for political purposes. That is, if your name appeared in that list you became automatically a second class citizen. That list, now removed, was published on the web page of the said Tascon.

Now, let's look at some of the implications of that Chavez announcement and detail some of the double standards and hypocrisy of the current regime, which has the knack on occasion to show itself in all of its moral misery.

The Tascon list

Some people deny the existence of the Tascon list, even if most who cared were able to consult their ID numbers as it appeared in the web page. I did and sure enough I was there. Even in this blog there used to be a regular visitor that denied its existence. I suppose that now that Chavez admitted the existence he stands corrected, among all the scores of hypocrites pretending that such a thing was impossible in the glorious bolivarian revolution. Thee fascinating double standard of these people made them refuse the existence of the list because "they had not seen it" while they were taking at face value any gross announcement of Chavez. I do tell you ...

The discriminatory aspect of the list were of course clear for all to understand, even if there was a refusal to admit its existence. The list was promptly distributed on CD and seen in many a ministry where it was extensively consulted when you were coming from anything from a passport application to a business permit. Of course the most interesting contradiction is that all of this was taking place just as chavismo pretended that the signatures were not in. They were in to refuse governmental mandatory services but they were not in to call for the election. The damage that this list has made to the institutional texture of Venezuelan society and institutions is only beginning to be appreciated.

The Chavez announcement

In a way this was quite extraordinary that now almost a year after the cursed referendum Chavez finally admits the existence of the list. Why so late? Is the Tal Cual campaign hurting? Just as the list keeps being used as recently as last week? Is he getting too much criticism from foreign governments? Is he using this announcement, now that he does not need that list as much to put pressure on the opposition, to distract from other Human Rights violations taking place in Venezuela? Or is it simply a way to settle accounts between chavista factions?

However one fails to be reassured by the announcement. Chavez claims he "forgot" about the matter and who signed against him, just as he is stepping up political prosecution against other opponents. He also adds, in an outmost moment of cynicism, that "Tascon made the list with good intentions". In other words we are absolutely certain that all who incurred civil rights violations for the last one year will not be pursued for their actions. And of course no words for the victims of this new political apartheid. The only thing that was lacking to the show was for Chavez to forgive his opponents ...

But the cherry on the cake came later as Tascon announced that his web page now will receive the denunciations of people victim of discrimination from the usage of the list. Surely giving a new meaning to the "Stockholm Syndrome"... With this, Luis Tascon earns the award of sleaziest and most cynic person of the semester. If there were any justice in Venezuela, Tascon should be facing dozens of court trials while, instead, the journalists that reported on his corrupt practices are the ones standing trial.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The fascism 14 step program

This week I was traveling extensively on business, as readers could gather from the low post count. As it happens after such long breaks, it is difficult to get back on the saddle as so many events took place and I was so far removed from the daily grind of politics (a nice break in way, though). But when one is too lazy to do the backtracking of a week rich in "barbaridades" there is always something in the mail box from some faithful reader to allow creative juices to flow again.

A political scientist, named Lawrence Britt, wrote in Free Inquiry (the Secular Humanism vehicle) an article titled "Fascism anyone?" Unremarkably this article has been taken over by quite a few liberal leaning sites which either copied the basics or commented extensively on it. For example the Double Standards site added a significant amount of foot notes to the core of Britt article (that site, by Cliff Jackson, is dedicated to educate on the claimed reality of the post September 11). Another site that commented extensively is Couples Company a web site providing advice to modern couples from sex to politics (I suppose for too often neglected pillow talk). In there Laura Dawn Lewis writes, considering the nature of the site, a rather odd and fascinating article, "What is fascism?".

Thus one can see that these sites, who supposedly know a fascist when they see one, should start looking down here at our budding El Supremo. I propose to help them as a collective effort of the readers of this blog. For this let's go back to Lawrence Britt premise. He identifies in the original article 14 common characteristics to fascist regimes, from Hitler to Pinochet going through Sukarno. He observes only deposed regimes as indeed they allow a more complete examination to the characteristics of a proto fascist regime, but whish is also a good excuse not to discuss inconvenient leftist regimes that do show strangely some fascist characteristics such as the ones subjugating Cuba or Libya. The 14 characteristics:

1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.

2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.

3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.

4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism.

5. Rampant sexism.

6. A controlled mass media.

7. Obsession with national security.

8. Religion and ruling elite tied together.

9. Power of corporations protected.

10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated.

11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts. Intellectuals and the inherent freedom of ideas and expression associated with them were anathema to these regimes.

12. Obsession with crime and punishment.

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption.

14. Fraudulent elections.

The original article contains the detailed descriptions, a must read if you want to participate in the next step.

What I propose is that those who feel like it pick up one of these characteristics and write a short assay documenting with adequate links and information each one of these characteristics as they already apply to Venezuela or seem to be on the way of an application in some not so distant future. I will do the ones that are not picked up (or all if necessary) over the next couple of weeks. At the end I will write a round up article putting all the adequate links, to obtain a single complete study that we will be able to pass all around, to enlighten whomever needs it.

The participation rules are as follow:

1)let me know which topic you chose and I will announce it (without your name, in case you have second thoughts later) on my blog so as to reserve it for you. Write me to reserve at danielinyaracuy at gmail dot com

2)you have one to two weeks to write a preferably no more than 2 pages article. I will publish it under your internet chosen name WITH an internet address so that people can write to you instead of me (open your discrete yahoo mail if needed).

3)if you have your own blog it will be fantastic to publish one of more detailed assays if you wish. I would like it to be a collective effort.

4)whether they are published in this blog or elsewhere, please coordinate with me so we publish only one article per day, and it can be duly announced in this blog.

5)and of course, all articles that will be published here or announced in here from other sites, must follow the rules of reasonable language, research and data. This is not Aporrea!

Note added this evening: Jose Mora had already posted Umberto Eco on this matter, from where seems to come the Britt list, without reference to Eco. I remember now having seen something in C.C. but I had forgotten about it and I am glad that we are reminded, so that we can give proper credit to Eco. Thus of course making it more urgent to expose chavismo under the very words of Britt. I recommend to read the Eco version according to Mora and compare to Britt, in particular if you want to pick one of the topics to write on. By the way, 1 and 13 are gone already. Do not delay!

Friday, April 15, 2005

Chavez 's milestones

Up to August 2004, I had followed Chavez revolution from afar. I had not voted for Chavez and I could not understand why anybody would vote for him. I have a very deep social conscience and I believed that something had to be done in Venezuela to improve the standard of living of everybody, but Chavez? A caudillo? A putchist? A populist? A man with no clear vision of how to run a country? At the time, I had just accepted with resignation that the countries deserved the rulers that they elect. Every time I read the newspapers I would get mad about the situation and I decided to just try to forget about it.

Among all the many events that have taken place during Chavez term, there were three that took me out of my political lethargy. They are critical points in my political assessment of Chavez government and, in my view, constitute the three most dangerous milestones in the Venezuela path leading away from democracy. They are:

1. - the persecution of the Sumate directive,

2. - the refusal of the CNE to open the boxes after the Revocatory Referendum,

3. - the changing of the law to pack the Supreme Court and, consequently, the use of the single majority in the National Assembly to elect the judges.

The first event, persecuting the directive of Sumate, showed me the intimidation face of the Chavistas. The government really worked hard to find an obscure article, dating from the time of Dictator Juan Vicente Gomez that could be applied to the only effective opposition organization that was in place in Venezuela. The article (article 132 of the Penal Code) is so archaic that any democratic government would have removed it from its law. Chavez government not only did not remove it, but gave them a convoluted interpretation that could put in prison for 8 to 16 years the directors of Sumate. Their crime? Accepting a small grant from the National Endowment for Democracy. Even if the grant had been illegal, in any democratic country the penalty would be to pay a fine, but not 8 to 16 years in jail!

The second event of importance was the refusal of the CNE to open the boxes after the claims of fraud made by the opposition and after the publication of numerous studies showing inconsistencies in the results. Even though the Carter Center carried out the audit of 1% of the ballot boxes, that audit was considered inadequate and many Venezuelans still believed that there had been a widespread fraud in the Referendum. Under such circumstances, the obligation of any democratic government is to do whatever is necessary to replace people’s confidence in their system. Venezuela CNE refused to take any further steps. This brings two possibilities to my mind: either the government really had something to hide and, therefore, refused to open the boxes or Chavez had won as claimed but was determined to show everybody in Venezuela who was really the boss. Neither possibility is reassuring from the democratic standpoint. One indicates that the results of the RR may not be correct and the other shows an arrogance of power that cannot be accepted in a modern democratic society.

The last event is the latest strike to Venezuela’s fragile democracy. In a country where everything is regulated by law and where there is an abundance of laws to be interpreted, those that have the power to control the interpretation of the laws have, the facto, the absolute power. To get to that control, Chavez strategy was a proposal to increase the number of judges of the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia. The so-called ``Court Packing”, condemned by Human Rights Watch, was followed by a swift election of new chavista judges by a single majority vote in the National Assembly instead of the 2/3 of the votes usually stipulated.

Sadly, we are quickly witnessing the results of the last milestone. The TSJ recently reconsidered its own ruling on the acquittal of the military involved in the events of April 11, 2002 opening a dangerous judicial Pandora Box (see Viaje a la Semilla).

To complete the dark portrait given by those three milestones, there is, of course, the infamous Tascon list according to which those that signed to ask for a referendum to revoke the president are blacklisted. There are also two new laws that have been recently added: the muzzle law, which controls the content in radio and television and the modification of the penal code that imposes tougher jail sentences that may restrict in some cases the freedom of expression. More recently, we have also witnessed the increasing militarization of the country, for instance, the government has proposed that 10% of the Venezuelan population be military reservists! (see here and here).

And, going back to the penal code, you may think that since the government had to change the code, they would have got rid of its anachronisms like the infamous Juan Vicente Gomez article, right? No such luck: article 132 is still there.

I really miss my days of political lethargy!

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Three years from Chavez downfall


I am travelling this week and I did not think I could write a post. I did ask Jorge and Mora to step in if they could. But today I had an unexpected break and could whip up a quick post to commemorate the April 11 events. To my surprise I found the Jorge interview to Francisco Toro. Quite a document!!! Honored to have such stuff published in my blog.

Still, I decided to go ahead and post my text as it pretty much says the same thing, but with other words. I find the timing interesting and I hope that it will allow for a better understanding of how little we know TRUE from those days.


This week we remember April 11, or rather the events of a week that started on Sunday April 7 2002, when during an infamous TV broadcast Chavez used a whistle to fire people he did not like in the upper echelons of PDVSA management, as if PDVSA were his to do as he pleases. The events that followed resulted in a general strike, a protest march of a size unknown in Venezuela's history until then, a march that ended up in a blood bath under the walls of Miraflores, a Chavez resignation, a coup against the people who received the Chavez resignation, the stupidest political decree in recent history and the eventual return of Chavez to office.

What really happened in that crazy week is still not known because the Chavez government has made all it could to sabotage the installation of a "truth commission" formed with independent personalities and observers with real access to public officials and state documents. The consequence of course is that all sorts of myths have now been enshrined in the memory of a few people. And new myths are being created as chavismo is trying to rewrite history books, whose first draft of late 2002 today does not have enough of an epic flavor it seems. Of course having new judges in the high court, a controlled electoral system, a divided and ruined opposition, allows Chavez the opportunity to give a new meaning to the old term "history is written by those who won" even if the win lacks on ethical grounds. For example, if we are going by the evolving official version of last Sunday Alo Presidente, we can live with a vision of Carmona Estanga receiving a cell phone from the US embassy so as to wait for the direct phone call from Bush as to when and how dispose of a Chavez in jail. That Chavez waited for three years to reveal us that Carmona and Co. were waiting for the order to eliminate him does not seem to bother the pro Chavez crowd. Then again, they are used to swallow raw stories....

So, as an homage for those days, who did have some moments of glory, I figure that I could write what is the impression of this blogger at this time of what might have really happened during these days. All has been documented through the narrative of this blog.

People were plotting against Chavez since early December when it became clear that his support was not as solid as thought.

Chavez who still did not benefited from sky high oil prices was looking for way to have access to cash in an easier way and thus was looking for ways to bypass financial controls to PDVSA.

The crisis escalated through the first trimester 2002 as the opposition showed more and more muscle.

As admitted by Chavez himself he tried a showdown with PDVSA but was surprised by the popular reaction.

The opposition plotters, surprised by the intense reaction overplayed their hand at the same time as Chavez overplayed his.

The strangely rerouted but glorious march of April 11 2002 met bullets whose origins are still to be determined in full.

Chavez who ordered the Plan Avila that would have ended up in a blood bath was not followed by the army and thus created a grave crisis whose natural conclusion was the announcement by Lucas Rincon, the Army Chief of staff, in the 11-12 night of Chavez resignation.

As a consequence of that announcement, and the unexpected speed at which Chavez apparently had fallen, a small group within the opposition gambled and outrun everyone else, taking over the government: the real coup d'état took place after Chavez resignation, by a coterie, during the early hours of Friday April 12, AFTER the Rincon speech.

The infamous Carmona decree revealed to the whole country at 6 PM on Friday 12 that we were under some form of dictatorship.

A split army showed quickly that it would not accept this new fiat and a faction of the opposition did not follow the new situation: already on Friday afternoon the CTV refused to endorse the decree.

Saturday morning, a still reeling country woke up to TV networks mysteriously refusing to broadcast any news, the excuse being that some looting had started in some areas of Caracas on Saturday and they did not want to advertise it.

By Saturday afternoon,courtesy of CNN, it was clear that Carmona was not in control, that in addition to looting there were also some pro Chavez manifestations in some areas of Western Caracas, and that the Army was abandoning him fast.

During the night of Saturday to Sunday Chavez was returned to office.

Whether the reader agrees with my summary, I do not care much: the true story could have only been written if a "truth commission" would have been installed then and not blocked by chavismo. Meanwhile, this is as simplified and close to the truth as anything else that could be advanced. There is no hard evidence to clearly contradict this version of the story, and even less to sustain parallel versions.

Meanwhile, my most heartfelt homage to all the victims of these 3 days and my sincere regret that real justice will never take place. I am only too afraid that there is more blood in our future.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

What happened on April 11, 2002? An interview with Francisco Toro.

Between April 11 and April 14, 2002, Venezuela witnessed some of the most bizarre events in recent Latin American history. They could be dismissed as nothing more than a bit of Venezuelan folklore if they had not been so tragic. Twenty people died that day, and yet, three years later, we still don't know who killed them or what really happened.

I was not in Venezuela at the time and I have heard very differing views about what happened. I started to understand the issues behind the history after I read Francisco Toro’s essay Venezuela’s 2002 Coup Revisited”. This is a must-read piece of work for those interested in recent Venezuela history.

From 1999 to 2003 Francisco was a freelance journalist writing for foreign media outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Financial Times. He was in Caracas on April 11 2002 and he has kindly agreed to answer my questions on the events of that day.

1.-How would you describe the situation in Caracas in the days before April the 11, 2002?

It was clear from the first few days of April that something very nasty was about to happen. The mood of national crisis was palpable in the air. The government obviously had a calculated strategy to escalate the crisis as much as possible. But the opposition wasn't the least bit shy about escalating the crisis either. Both sides were itching for a showdown, and a showdown is what they got. Last year, Chávez actually acknowledged, in a speech, that escalation was precisely what he'd been trying to get. "Plan Colina" he said it had been called, together with a "Colina Taskforce" in charge of implementing it. The government served up a steaming plate of "casquillo" - provocation - and the opposition ate it up with relish. Both sides decided to play "chicken" with the country; to my mind both were incredibly irresponsible. In the months and years following the coup, both sides played a fairly sick game of "tira la piedra y esconde la mano" - trying to pretend that they had been entirely blameless in the events of April. Each side has built up a "heroic story" about the crisis - where all of the blame was pegged on the other. Those stories are really seductive to people on one side or the other, but both omit key parts of the story and twist others. More than anything, I would advise readers not to buy the hype (either side's hype) uncritically.

2.- Can you explain to us what were you doing on April 11 , 2002 and what were the circunstances that took you to be a witness of the tragic events of that day?

I was working on an unrelated freelance documentary at the time, so I had access to a camera crew. We went out and got some video, some of it got picked up by the BBC, even. But we didn't get any smoking-gun type material. To this day I kick myself for not having thought to pan the camera accross the rooftops on Avenida Baralt that day - we could've gotten the evidence that the entire country has been looking for ever since. But I didn't think of it in the general mayhem.

3.- Why are you sorry that you did not put the camera across the rooftops on Avenida Baralt? Can you sum up for us what was happening??

At around 3:45 p.m. a shooting spree started on Avenida Baralt – the main North-South avenue in downtown Caracas. Many eye-witnesses claim they saw people shooting from rooftops on Avenida Baralt. No video has surfaced to show that, and to this day nobody knows who the shooters were, or if they really existed. All we know is that at a quarter to four in the afternoon, Chávez started a speech on cadena nacional - a nationwide broadcast on all TV channels and radio stations - and at almost exactly the same time a serious gun fight broke out on Avenida Baralt. Twenty people died around Miraflores that day. People fell on both sides.?Three years on, we still don't know who shot first, from where, or on who's orders. The fact is, the shootout that afternoon was never really investigated properly. It took the Prosecutor General's Office an astounding two weeks to even secure the scene of the crime and start to collect bullet casings and such. Obviously, by that time most of the evidence had been cleared away.

4.- The Chavistas claim that the large march that took place against the goverment was rerouted to Miraflores on purpose to create problems that would lead to the removal of Chavez. Were you there when the rerouting happened? If so, can you describe it?

I wasn't there, so I trust the version of events published by Sandra La Fuente and Alfredo Meza in their excellent book, "El Acertijo de Abril." (The April Riddle,) which is the most trustworthy source on the crisis I know of.

They report that on the evening of April 10th, the main opposition leadership, including CTV (the labor union federation), Fedecamaras (the employers' federation) and several radical NGOs, met in Fedecamaras headquarters in El Bosque. They were concerned that the second day of the General Strike had not been as successful as the first and the movement could peter out if they didn't get results soon. It was at that meeting that the plan to re-route the march was hatched, as well as the decision to present the re-routing as a spur of the moment thing the next day. This was part of the game of "chicken" the two sides were playing. The opposition thought that by precipitating a crisis, they could provoke the armed forces to step in on their side. This meeting has been more or less erased from the opposition's own "heroic version" of events, but when you think about it the manipulation involved is pretty grotesque: these guys planned an insurrectional march, in secret, and bamboozled hundreds of thousands of caraquenos to take incredible risks for the sake of their gamble. The fact is, they used us as cannon fodder.

5.- In your essay about the events of April 11 you write that Chavez' groups had infiltrated the meeting in El Bosque and Chavez was aware that the march was going to be rerouted and yet he chose to do nothing about it. What do you know about this?

La Fuente and Meza report that two separate chavista agencies had infiltrated the meeting at El Bosque where the march re-route was planned: Disip and Aporrea. That means that Chávez had at least twelve hours warning that the march would go to Miraflores - a detail that often escapes people. Now, with 12 hours warning, Chávez had options. The most obvious one would have been to order the National Guard to set up road-blocks on the access routes to Miraflores - a single contingent at the end of Avenida Bolivar would probably have been enough to stop the march. The National Guard is equipped and trained to deal with civilian demonstrations: it's a major part of their mission. It's telling, and very troubling, that Chávez chose, instead, to call out the army together with his armed civilian supporters. The Venezuelan Army has no non-lethal weapons at its disposal, and no training in crowd control. Chávez's plan was to face down several hundred thousand unarmed civilians with light tanks and soldiers carrying automatic assault rifles (FALs). It's a good thing General Rosendo and General Vásquez Velasco, the officers ordered to implement this order, flatly refused. Going along would have set the stage for a much bigger massacre than the one we had. It's also important to remember that the constitution the chavistas had written less than three years earlier specifically bans the use of firearms in civilian demonstrations. Chávez's order was not only incredibly dangerous, it was also unconstitutional.?

6.- The opposition claims that Chavez sent his bolivarian groups to shoot against the crowd. Do you think that that statement is correct? What did you witness?

Well, there's no direct evidence of that. What we can say for sure is that part of the government's plan was to surround Miraflores with hardcore chavista civilians. Some 15,000 turned up following calls on state-run television. This contingency plan had been worked out between chavista civilian leaders and military officers in the days prior to April 11th, as reported by General Rosendo in his testimony to the National Assembly. Rosendo says he argued against the plan, and wrote a letter to Chávez pointing out that it had a high potential to degenerate into a massacre. Chávez brushed off his concerns.?It's also clear that many of those civilians ended up with guns in their hands, and some of them used them. La Fuente and Meza were able to confirm that chavista groups handed out handguns to anyone who wanted them that afternoon, though only after the shooting had already started. "Some took them, some did not," is how they describe the dynamic. Which guns in which hands killed which protesters is one of the things we don't know because no serious investigation was ever held.

7.- Can you tell us more about the famous "cadena" that took place at the moment the shooting started?

It was just bizarre. Chávez gave a generic speech for almost two hours, without directly mentioning the huge mess just outside his door. He was sitting a mere block from a massive bloodbath, but it somehow slipped his mind to say anything about it, or to try to take any measures to stop it. Time and again, a military officer would step into the frame to hand him a slip of paper. La Fuente and Meza confirm that those bits of papers contained a running tally of the cassualties taking place outside. He would read the notes, pause momentarily, then continue his speech. At no point did Chávez stop to do anything to stop the violence. He spent a good few minutes, I remember well, talking up his new program for a Vehículo Utilitario Familiar – a subsidized delivery van - to go on the market later that year. It's hard to overstate how incongruous it all was: you're in the middle of a massacre, you turn on the radio, and you hear the president speaking about subsidizing delivery vans? Surreal, totally surreal. It's not at all clear what the point of that cadena was. It escaped no one's attention that the shooting and the cadena started just about at the same time. What you read into this depends on where you stand, of course, but there was a very definite sense that Chávez was using the cadena to cover up the violence outside. Certainly that impression is bolstered by his announcement, towards the end of the speech, that he had ordered the National Guard to take the private broadcasters off the air. One way or another, it didn't work. During the speech, the private TV stations split their screens down the middle, showing Chávez on the left side of the screen and pictures of the massacre on the right side. It was the only way the private broadcasters had to break the first news blackout of the crisis. Of course, the second news blackout they implemented themselves, on April 13th.

8.- The goverment claims that after the Carmonada millions of people took the streets to claim for the return of president Chavez. Where were you on April 13 and what did you witness?

I was outside Fuerte Tiuna at around mid-day, again with my camera crew. There was a very angry group of hardcore chavistas protesting just outside the fort, looked over by a group of soldiers. There was an uneasy peace between the two. The protesters did not quite cover the highway overpass into Fuerte Tiuna - one or two thousand people at most. I was not outside Miraflores that day, but I've spoken with eye-witnesses who saw about four blocks worth of Avenida Urdaneta full of Chávez supporters. Some tens of thousands of people. The crowd built through the night, and other crowds assembled in other cities. It's hard to get a precise count, but the 8 million figure Chavez is an obvious exageration.

A big part of the chavista "heroic story" about the coup is that the crowds were responsible for Chávez's return. It's just not true - there's plenty of evidence to show that the key decisions that brought Chávez back were made by loyal military officers in Fuerte Tiuna and in Maracay. In fact, the bulk of the crowds came out after it became clear the generals had decided to bring Chávez back, not before.

9.- Can you tell us a little more about what happened in Fuerte Tiuna and on the role of the military in this whole episode?

This is the most confusing parts of the crisis. Leading up to April 11th, a lot of discontent had been brewing in the armed forces about Chávez's demolition derby style of governance. The generals could see Chávez's escalation strategy just as clearly as everyone else, and many were alarmed by it. More than a few cliques of friends within the armed forces were speaking privately about the situation, and at least some were conspiring to launch a coup at some point in the future. But events moved much faster than their planning. When Generals Rosendo and Vasquez Velasco refused Chávez's order to put the army on the streets, the floodgates burst open. All the little cliques that had been operating behind the scenes came into the open all at once. Dozens of generals poured into the fourth and fifth floor of the Army Headquarters inside Fuerte Tiuna to try to decide what to do next. Another part of the chavista "heroic story" is the idea that everything that happened that night flowed from a carefully planned, US backed conspiracy. But eye-witnesses in Fuerte Tiuna that night say the scene was an out-and-out "gallinero" - a chaotic free for all - rather than any single organized conspiracy. The chain of command had gone to all hell. The various groups of generals couldn't agree on anything, even what to do with Chávez (keep him around and try him? send him away to Cuba?) General Vásquez Velasco, who was the nominal head of the army, should have taken control of the situation. But precisely because he had not been part of any conspiracy, it was easy for the conspiratorial clique backing Carmona to outflank him. Neither Rosendo nor Vásquez Velasco woke up that day thinking they would end up overthrowing the government: if they had, they wouldn't have ended up in such a chaotic situation. The big irony is that if the coup had been carefully planned, like the chavistas say it was, it almost certainly wouldn't have unraveled. It's unthinkable, for instance, that in a carefully planned coup the coupsters would "forget" to take control of the military garrison sitting next door to the presidential palace. Yet, amazingly, that's exactly what happened: the chavistas in charge of the Palacio Blanco kept control over their garrison throughout the crisis simply because the coupsters didn't take the trouble to replace them!

10.- What is your conclusion about this whole affair? Who, according to you, is responsible of the deaths of innocent civilians on April 11, 2002?

I have no idea who is responsible for those deaths. Nobody does. One thing I do know is why we don't know: we don't know because, once Chávez returned to power, his prosecutor general/crony Isaías Rodríguez stubbornly resisted a chorus of petitions to launch a serious investigation into what happened. Calls for an independent truth commission were never heeded. The investigation was put in hands of politically pliant prosecutors - including the late Danilo Anderson -who never made a serious attempt to find out what went on. I mean, it took these jokers two weeks - TWO WEEKS - to even send ballistics experts to secure the "crime scene" on Avenida Baralt. That detail alone speaks volumes about the kind of prosecutor general Isaías Rodríguez is. Either this was a cover-up, or Isaías Rodríguez is the world's most incompetent prosecutor. One way or another, the guy should've resigned long ago. The overall lesson, for me, is that it's almost imposible to reach closure on an episode like this when the institutions responsible for finding out what happened are openly politicized. Without access to a single, broadly shared version of what happened, each side just goes ahead and creates its own fantasy-version of events, its own Disney-style story where everything they did was good and righteous and justified and everything the other side did was bad and criminal and indefensible. It's sad, but it's not really possible to move towards reconciliation when there's so much we still don't know.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Venezuela and Pope John Paul II

Today was the funeral of the Great Polish Pope. And what a funeral it was. Even this agnostic blogger feels compelled to recognize his admiration for the man who lighted the fuse for the downfall of the Iron Curtain. Even if I have had quite a few problems with his moral and social positions, I have to admit that at least you got what you saw and that his unquestionable moral fortitude and criticism of materialism, be it capitalist or communist, allowed him to accomplish so much. Never a Pope needed so few military divisions for the immense victories he obtained, to paraphrase Stalin whose "evil work" finally was undone in large part through the Polish Pope. No wonder Poles are lining the streets and streaming to Rome. He is their Simon Bolivar, to bring back in a way this thread to Venezuela.

The objective of this blog is not to write a panegyric to the dead Pope, but still it is a good opportunity to visit the religious issue in Venezuela and the problems that Chavez had with the Catholic church, problems that we can be sure will come back to haunt him.

Religion in Venezuela is a rather complex issue. First, although a nominally Roman Catholic country, many people ignore that "parallel" religions are very strong here. With Brazil Cadomble, Cuba Santeria and Haiti Voodoo, Venezuela holds the distinction to have a very strong pagan cult. It is not very known probably because contrary to the other countries it has not been used for touristy purpose. But the Maria Lionza rituals in Sorte have nothing to envy to what you will find at a Voodoo ceremony or a shadowy Bahian practice. Not to mention that public figures who consult astrologers or visit a witch doctor do not raise an eye brow when it is revealed.

In addition Evangelical missionaries have been working hard and their effect is now felt across Venezuela. Even modest San Felipe has a local Church of the Latter Day's Saint Temple, fairly sized for the city. Speaking of Venezuela as a Catholic country does not make much sense anymore when one observes semi empty churches with women inside during services while most men wait outside. Yet... Religious marriage, baptism of infants, communion are familial rituals that can not be ignored, even if the date might be consulted with the astrologer beforehand. All polls show the Catholic Church as one of the most respected institutions, and when Chavez tried to face the Church, well, he had to back down some.

Facing the Church is nothing new in Venezuela since the times of Guzman Blanco who declared that the only marriage recognized by the Venezuelan state was the civil marriage. In 1873! Divorce was added to the civil code in 1904! Chile barely allowed for some cases of divorce a couple of years ago...

But colluding with the church was also a sport sought. Though it seems that the Venezuelan Church since Guzman Blanco was not as tied up with governments as one could see elsewhere in Latin America. He set the precedent that the president could not be seen as a devout practitioner and none dared to stay publicly too close to church, even Christian Democrats who downplayed some of their Church attendance. As a matter of fact, even Chavez, whose connections to witch doctors is rumored, and who himself declared as belonging to more than one religion, did not dare to push for legalization of abortion in his 1999 constitution and retained some ambiguities, missing a great chance to clear up the air. Even today after years of conflict with the Catholic church, chavismo still subsidizes some Catholic charities though it seems that the final break up is around the corner.

The real problem between Chavez and the Catholic Church is that this one has clearly seen his game from the very start. The crass materialism of the chavista patchwork ideology, to give it a qualifier, and its connection to wanna-be atheist Cuba clearly spoke to a church that had been already lead by John Paul's anticommunist experience for 20 years. By the year 2000 the Catholic Church could be counted as an opponent to Chavez. And the rift shows no sign to mend. That many in the evangelical movement follow Chavez does not help much: the fire and brimstone style of Chavez appeals to that constituency, as well as the perceived anti Catholic stance.

But the Church is not going to be intimidated by Chavez. After all it survived the Inquisition, the XVIII century philosophers, the XIX revolutions, the XX century fascism and communism, and scores of other trials. The Church has eternity as time reference, it never forgets sic transit gloria mundi.

Unfortunately for Chavez, he has had two formidable opponents from within the church.

Rosalio Cardinal Castillo Lara, descending from an illustrious pedigree, became Cardinal due to his services in the Vatican administration, rising to some of the highest positions in the Church. In short, a Cardinal that had perhaps almost daily access to the Pope and his total confidence, a Cardinal that likely was very involved in the two visits of John Paul to Venezuela. In an unusual move Cardinal Castillo decided to retire to his ancestral home, in the remote village of Güiripa where he dedicated himself to social work. He could have stayed in Rome longer, or forever, in the glories of the Vatican, but he chose to retire to comfortable but distant dwellings. Unfortunately for his peace of mind that retirement coincided with the bolivarian riot. And Cardinal Castillo rose to the occasion, becoming a leading critic of chavismo while this one was unable to find a way to tarnish his image. After all, it is understood that a Cardinal deserves a nice retirement and when it is in the Venezuelan boondocks, people are impressed. At 80 plus years, what personal interest could a Cardinal seek?

Cardinal Castillo was the one directing the Venezuelan Church mass for John Paul. The mass, in Don Bosco Church of Altamira drew an immense crowd. And during the mass the Cardinal told us stories that illustrated how close he had been to the Pope, going as far as saying that he does consider him worthy of beatification. There is no doubt that the Pope was well informed on Venezuela descent into madness.

But that was not all. The Papal emissary to Venezuela, Monsignor André Dupuy, revealed himself to be an extraordinarily articulate moral light against Chavez, obtaining more than once unbelievable, not to say vulgar, criticism from Chavez. And Monsignor Dupuy never blanched, never raised his voice while Chavez was showing his true self, his ignorant "resentimiento social" dark side, not noticing that the Church of John Paul 2 was not the Church of the Inquisition anymore. Torquemada was now outside of the Pale of the Church.

Monsignor Dupuy is now leaving Venezuela after 4 years of service. His presence will sorely be missed. Honors are falling on him and his services must have been great as he goes to represent the Vatican to the European Community. He certainly was a great diplomat. And he certainly understood the creeping materialistic fascism that is besieging Venezuela. His parting salutation to Venezuelans was to tell them not to be afraid.

The coherence that existed between his words and his deeds [John Paul II's], what he beleived and waht he lived. Sadly,in our human life there is often a divorce of sorts between words and actions.
Needless to say that these general words had in fact a precise target.

Chavez has nothing to look for in the Vatican. Even with the Pope death Chavez lack of class showed. The delegation sent to the funeral is a joke of ex-guerilla and atheists. Compare this to Bush and Clinton praying together, or Zapatero going hand in hand with the opposition leader Mariano Rajoy. And to dig further his hole, Chavez convoked his own requiem mass in the Caracas Cathedral, a much smaller church that Don Bosco, where the military vicar presided the mass. Chavismo in full was there, alone.

Chavez probably wonders how many oil wells the future Pope will have.