Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Follow-up on Chavez’s anti-semitic remarks: A letter from Mario Vargas Llosa

Amazing how busy the government has been after the publication of a letter signed by Venezuelan intellectuals and professors appeared in El Nacional! As this distinguished ghost blogger has reported, the government was not amused! They published an insulting letter in their official web page and, just by chance, decided to erase the name of Sofia Imber, one of the signatories, from the MACSSI (see here my “Sofia” post in The Devil's).

Today we learned that Mario Vargas Llosa sent a letter to President Hugo Chávez that appeared in El Nacional.

Here is the translation :

Mr D. Hugo Chávez
Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Caracas, January 26, 2006

Mr President:

The International Foundation for Liberty has seen with consternation your recent anti-semitic manifestations. For this reason, we think that the recent letter signed by a group of Venezuelan intellectuals worried about such an abominable manifestation of racism was totally justified.

Among the signatories of the document was journalist Sofia Imber, and we have just learned that in retaliation for having added her voice to other democratic Venezuelans, the government has taken the decision to eliminate her name from the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofia Imber, of which she was the founder and that she led to be one of the most important and respected cultural institutions of Latin America.

We protest with all our energy for that mean way to punish an honorable Venezuelan for expressing her opinion. Such an unjust action, that we ask you to revoke immediately, will increase the discredit of your government but will not diminish at all the prestige of Sofia Imber.

Mario Vargas Llosa.

Reporting from cyberspace,
Jorge Arena
Distinguished ghost blogger

Friday, January 27, 2006

More observations from The Empire

I am still traveling through the Empire. Observations cannot be avoided.

Bush gives a press conference

Yesterday president Bush gave a short press conference. I was not impressed by his demeanor (it was, believe it or not, the first time I watched him in such a setting for longer than what the nightly news give us in Venezuela). However I observed that he did receive some rather tough question and if he dodged most of them he did try at least to reply to them. For the life of me I cannot when was the last time that Chavez had a real press conference with the Venezuelan press. From my hotel room, Iraq and all, Bush seemed to have much more accountability than Chavez. Perhaps those attendees to the Social Forum that decided to idolize Chavez while hating Bush could drop their double standard for once and demand the same type of press treatment for both “leaders”. No se, digo yo….

Maria Anastasia does Evo

Today a WSJ withering article from Maria Anastasia O’Grady on Evo Morales. Considering that she pegged Chavez as a wanna-be dictator one can start worrying sick about Bolivia’s future. Some excerpts.
There was a time when Evo Morales deserved a chance to show his democratic bonafides as Bolivia's new head of state. But 96 hours into the presidency, time's up. Anyone still wondering what Evo has in mind for his country qualifies for permanent disability -- or a job at the Organization of American States -- on grounds of terminal naiveté.
I was among those that were moderately cautious on an Evo presidency. Well, I agree with Anastasia and I am even embarrassed that I was moderately optimistic on Morales.
After six years of Chávez, Venezuelans, once ecstatic about their Bolivarian Revolution, are sinking deeper into poverty. Fidel's largely Afro-Cuban population is destitute after almost 50 years of El Máximo Lider.
No comments needed there.
One reason this has been slow to dawn is that observers have been assigning far too much importance to the question of whether foreign investors will be allowed into Bolivia's rich natural gas industry, or if, instead, Bolivia will go forward with full blown nationalization. The answer is probably the former, but so what? As both Venezuela and Cuba illustrate, such a policy does nothing to ensure development and reveals very little about whether democracy and liberty will survive.
No comments needed either.
Yet the presence of foreign business interests in a dictatorship does little for the locals. Both Castro and Chávez host foreign investors, recognizing them as perfect business partners because they are politically indifferent as long as they get their cut. The key to a dictator's control is ensuring that local interests do not have economic power to challenge the political status quo.
This is something that always befuddled me. All those attendees at the Social Forum, or those that regularly come to this page to complain about my opposition to Chavez have absolutely no problem to see big multinational globalized free marketer oil giants which they profoundly dislike make deals with Chavez (and soon Evo?). What gives? The companies that they oppose at home can come to third world countries as long as the local potentate screams “death to Amerika!”? Who gets you guys?
It would not be surprising to see the angry Bolivian nationalist make a deal with Chile so he could reach the coast and tap into the rich market for liquefied natural gas up north.
Remember, Maria Anastasia wrote it first.
A constituent assembly later this year will rewrite the constitution and if Venezuela is any guide, the concept of limited government will not be included in the document.
Déjà vu all over again.
Finally, there is the matter of the military, an institution near and dear to the heart of an "elected" president who has no intention of leaving office when his term is up. Again, Chávez's Venezuela provides the template. To this day, a number of Venezuelan experts believe that the so-called "coup" of April 11, 2002 was a staged event, designed expressly for the purpose of identifying high-ranking Chávez opponents in uniform so they could be relieved of duty and replaced by less-qualified, loyal soldiers.
On Tuesday, Evo fired 28 Bolivian generals -- essentially the entire high command -- [snip] He then reportedly passed over the next generation of officers to replace the generals with a young group of soldiers. There can be little doubt that these new generals understand well that the president deserves credit for their accelerated career success.
The Chavez script is followed.

Daniel shops at a Publix grocery store

I went to shop for a few items that are now impossible to find in Venezuela, courtesy of currency control exchange and other mismanagement measures of our beloved revolutionary leaders. Such things as a small bottle of real Maple Syrup, Thai cooking species or cheap migraine medicine.

I was impressed. I wish that Exelsior Gamma in Caracas were to be half as furnished as the Publix I visited. And guess what? MORE THAN HALF of the shoppers were African American. So perhaps an obvious question to the Forum attendees: how come Venezuelan stores get impoverished and still few African-Venezuelans can shop there? And I will skip on the obvious comments about the Cuban long lines, Chavez giving oil to poor (by Venezuelan standard?) white trash, while political and aristocratic trash watched, etc…

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Tidbits from The Empire

A small break in my activities allowed me to spend a few minutes with Venezuelan news. I was not disappointed. In fact, I am even wondering whether the attendees of the World Social Forum in Venezuela are reading the papers and realizing where the heck they have landed. For sure some have no clue as they are more than willing to accept that Chavez highjack the event for his personal glory (or is that profit?). Thus goes this note dedicated to the attendees that think that Chavez is hot stuff, a paragon of liberty. Here a few items picked up in the headlines.

The culture wars

Sofia Imber is an elderly woman with a very distinguished career. disliked by every government in the past she has managed to create the most significant museum in Caracas, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Sofia Imber. Her hard work certainly deserved her name on the front plate. One of the first things that the Chavez administration did when it reached office was to remove her from the direction of the museum. But of course, that was not enough. As she remained one of the critical voice of the cultural misdeeds perpetrated by Faruco Sesto the adulating minister of Kultural affairs, and as she signed the letter of protest for Chavez anti semitic remarks she was promptly sacked from the museum marquee. But she was upbeat, limiting herself to say that as long the museum was allowed to do its cultural work she did not mind, that her name was associated in the mind of people to the museum and that Faruco could not do anything against (1)

The anti semitic spat does not die down

And it must have hurt enough Chavez that he agreed to a closed door meeting with the Hebrew leadership of Venezuela. Where there is smoke...

The Anderson murder goes underground

Meanwhile, the government of Chavez has decided to put the lid on the information on the Anderson case investigation. Why? Because of the botched investigation due to the incompetence of the general prosecutor Isaias Rodriguez. Because of the open, all out open, partisanship of the justice official WHO SHOULD BE THE MOST IMPARTIAL ONE IN THE COUNTRY. Since his sycophancy and lies cannot be hidden anymore, so he shuts up the press. Note that for writing this, this blogger could actually get prosecuted.

The consequences? Well, to begin with Reporters without Borders accuse this measure of state organized censorship. The Freedom House keeps downgrading Venezuela's status putting it almost to par with Haiti and Cuba (the last one repression not being a concern of many of you, quite a double standard that you might want to revise if you pretend to speak in the name of all of us).

And more but I have no time right now to peruse further. However I will advise you to leave early, really early to catch your plane back home. All the Caracas exits were blocked for hours yesterday due to accidents in the two escape routes. 5 hours standing in line for some, a few missed planes. See, many of you are here to demand that Bush does not bomb Venezuela. Well, he does not need to, Chavez is doing a good job in destroying the country infrastructure on his very own. Make sure to watch carefully where you walk in Caracas, you could break an ankle in any of the too numerous potholes that dot the city.

And of course, as you wait patiently on your way back to the airport, it would not hurt to meditate if you would put up with this type of situations back home.

1) yours truly also signed, gaining a few insults from chavista pages, of the "betrayer to the fatherland type". Goes to tell you how freedom of expression advances in Venezuela.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Censorship in Venezuela: it is official

The latest news from the general prosecutor is truly frightening. Basically he wants the government to control any information on the Danilo Anderson case. The problem is of course that the free press has unmasked the witness upon which rests all the case, or so it seems. Is it the fault of the media that Isaias Rodriguez has decided to base his case to arrest score of people on a single dubious and now discredited, and more than likely a pathological liar? Where is the other evidence Isaias?

Tal Cual of coruse was not going to let this go and at the end of his editorial Teodoro even throws the guantlet to Isaias and the government at large. I translate the end (full editorial here).

But this goes further than the Anderson case.

This must be faced down with all resolve because this event looks too much like a general trial on censorship over freedom of speech.

Over the last two years the government has managed to create a certain level of self censorship through the "gag law" on the airborne media. But it seems that it is not enough. And with this "excuse" it is trying to silence further the air waves media, and or the first time to hit directly the written press.

The escalade continues. It seems that fake statistics and bombastic speeches are not enough to hide the reality of the country.

Note to the attendees of the Social Forum: you might want to follow this affair closely as to get a good idea of what is really going on in Venezuela.

The first march of the year

While I was trekking to the airport (see previous post), the opposition was holding its first real rally in a long time. In fact, by far it seems, the biggest rally since the pre recall election days. I did get this photo in the mail which seems convincing enough.

We are not in the half a million mark yet, but without buses, no means and quite a lot of fear from a now unfriendly Metropolitana, it is quite a turnout.

An anecdote. On the way to the airport (no, we could not make it to the march as we were escaping Caracas through the mountains) we were listenening to Alo Ciudadano. Some caller, a guy who gave his name as Moreno was bemoaning that he went to the march, that it was a fiasco, that perhaps as an opposition "we should draw the conclusion that the time to oppose Chavez had passed and that we should wait for a while" or some such nonsense. El Ciudadano let the guy finish his call as he always do as long as no insults are uttered. A few minutes alter another caller, mentioning that he lived in Cuba in the early 60ies. And then added that it was exactly what Castro used to do early in his regime when there was still some sembant of opposition: he would infiltrate agents to bring in self doubt. Classical.

Trekking down from Caracas

This fearless blogger, regardless of the difficulties, has decided to travel for business to the US. One would have never thought that a missing bridge would complicate thinks so much, and so fast. Thus, while Jorge holds the fort as the distinguished ghost blogger, I will indulge in some travel diary. Who knows, it might even come handy to any of our distinguished visitor from the Social Forum visiting.

The first consideration is that now traveling to the US might take more than 24 hours, certainly if you have a morning flight. That is, the old road to the Caracas shore (Carretera Vieja or “benemerita” as Zapata called it in El Nacional, 1) opens for vehicular traffic at 5 AM. At night only trucks are allowed, one day up, next day down, thus making any delivery from La Güaira a 48 hours affair, including FedEx I suppose.

Unfortunately the road frequently does not open at 5 AM: truck accidents that are difficult to clear due to the difficulties of a 300+ bends road will take care of that. Some days it might take 2 or 3 hours to finally open and thus if your flight is, say, at 11 AM, well, too bad. Since I am traveling on business, we decided to leave the day before and sleep in some cheap hotel, which rates have doubles since two weeks ago, though we were guaranteed that it was free of bed bugs. We entered the Old Road at around 4 PM, as it closes at 6 PM to unleash trucking. Though closing time depends on traffic. It took us 1 hour and 43 minutes just to travel from the road entry to its exit in Maiquetia. Rather good in fact, probably due to the late Sunday time we picked to travel. The highway normally could be done in less than 20 minutes. To this of course you must add your inner city trips at each end.

There are two clearly different segments. Leaving Caracas the road winds through a favella, slums, ranchos or whatever you may want to call them. Let just say that you certainly would not want to have a flat tire in that area, even with all the cops and soldiers frequently seen. The neighborhood that formed along that road had had a very bad reputation and the government basically had to militarize the road to allow a modicum of security for travelers. That is, chavismo implicitly acknowledged that, well, it was dangerous. Many business prefer to travel through the alternate option of Carayaca if their trucks are small enough. They go through it usually in convoys of a few trucks to guard each other. That trip lasts for at least 3 hours, at night.

Now, I have driven through different bad neighborhoods of Venezuela and this one was not worse than other I saw. Oh, sure enough it is bad and scary alright. But in a beautiful afternoon the “tourist” that I am anywhere could not help himself from taking a few shots. That it was a permanent stop and go for the first hour of the trip did help (click for larger pictures). This is conveyed in the first picture which allows you a glimpse of the long line ahead, and a military truck on the left side that is supposed to reassure us. It did not once I passed them trying to pick up some local girls. By the way, that particular shot is probably the widest the road ever gets, and the longest straight line.

The road must have been gorgeous when brand new. Probably even until the very early 60 ies when the slums were barely touching that area. The next view gives you an idea of the mountain vistas once enjoyed and the new foreground that you can peruse in, and I mean inside the house, as your car is stopped in front of dwelling built directly on the road. Note in this picture that there is a satellite dish, Direct TV for the inquiring minds, indicated by the red arrow.

But satellite dishes were quite a frequent sight! Even if sometimes the satellite dish seemed like the sturdiest item of the shelter. This other view gives you more detail as to the construction directly on the curb, a cheap zinc roof, BUT iron bars at the windows and the door and a satellite dish. No wonder Chavez is rumored to try to find ways to control cable and satellite TV: next right is the proof that people at all social levels are not afraid to pay good money to escape cadenas! (2)

Another advantage of the old road is that you get a clear understanding on how the viaduct eventually met its end. And how Caracas has grown wildly, out of any planning. Sure enough, Chavez cannot be blamed for that chaotic construction, but he can be blamed for not having done much to stem the growth, amen of reversing it. The following pic shows a neighborhood that has collapsed above the highway. I do not know whether it has fallen naturally, or if it is already the crews that have been sent to remove people and remove the danger (it might be the famous Nueva Esparta area but I cannot check on that from here). The reader can imagine easily that such a neighborhood, without drains, has all of its sewage slowly but surely seeping into the ground, increasing its weight and its “mobility”. Put that on top of a natural fault undetected at the time, and you lose the viaduct. On the bottom left corner you can see edge of the highway, barely a few hundred yards from the bridge.

It is to be noted that this problem has been decried since I can remember, that slums allowed to grow so close of such a main highway could only bring trouble some day. Indeed, it did, and it was diagnosed already in the early 80ies! Even if earlier some Cassandra were complaining of the increasing risks that could come from people living so close, risks for the drivers as well as for the inhabitants.

Eventually after about an hour we reached “Plan de Manzano”. I believe that this used to be one of the very few flat areas on that road. It probably had always some “conuqueros” (3) living there and might have even been the seat of some small hacienda or a meeting point. Well, it has become a small town of sorts, the example on how eventually slums become glorified Kasbas. You could probably stop for a drink there in a normal day and not feel like you will be robbed silly.

After Plan de Manzano the road starts slowly winding its way down. It is very high above the finished highway which looks far away, and strangely empty of any vehicle. It is also a rather beautiful road, and that afternoon the mists from the sea were coming up, creating an unusual and bucolic freshness to the air. I am actually looking forward a trip with clear skies, though there are very few and rare spots where one could stop and admire the scenery: the road is that narrow. It is also basically empty of constructions, Plan de Manzano being as far as the city seems to reach.

As a child I had traveled that road once, my parents inquisitive and “perpetual tourist” wanted to see it again even though the new spectacular highway was available. I did not remember anything from then, except that I was quite taken with motion sickness. But perhaps it is as well. No reference point might make the heart a little bit less sadder at witnessing my country go down the drain faster, and faster even if car traffic is down to a crawl.

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

1) The old road (Carretera Vieja) to La Güaira was hailed in its time as a big advance from the Colonial Times treck. That road was build under Juan Vicente Gomez, the longest serving dictator of Venezuelan history, Por Ahora. He had himself nicknamed “El Benemerito”, (the blessed one ?). In a great cartoon that Jorge might have the good idea to send me so I can post it here, Gomez complains that the road should be renamed “la Benemerita” instead of Carretera Vieja, since we are so blessed to have that as an escape route.

2)Cadenas: the power that Chavez has to comandeer ALL OF VENEZUELAN MEDIA, TV and radio, for as long as he wishes to pass his speeches or propaganda. Only cable TV escapes sicne the foreign signal cannot be cut. But at least through the "gag law" chavismo forces cable providers to pass governmental propaganda during scheduled intermissions!

3) Conuqueros: traditional slash and burn peasants.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Tale of Chavez's Anti-Semitic remarks

After Alex Beech’s post and my first inquire right after Christmas, your favorite ghost blogger has been trying to get updated about what is going on concerning this convoluted issue.

It is time to report .

First, your second-favorite blogger, Miguel, was able to find the exact reference where the remarks appeared, so that people could grasp by themselves what was exactly said by President Chavez.

Next, your second-favorite blogger, again, dig a book by known anti-semite Chavez 's mentor Norberto Ceresole. Interesting, in the preface of the book, Ceresole made anti-Semitic remarks even tough it was a book about Chavez. And he also made remarks about those responsible for Bolivar's death. Just like Chavez in his speech.

On Jan 4, The Wiesenthal Center demanded public excuses to the President.

On January 14, Chavez read a letter signed by some directors of CAIV (Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela) in which they declared that their government is not anti-semite.

On January 14, Paulina Gamus, a well known political leader and third vice-president of CAIV protested the letter signed by what she said was a minority of the directive. She also wrote an article about the state of anti-Semitism in some official media, it appeared in El Nacional (translated here).

Meanwhile, a group of Venezuelan artists, intellectual and professors signed a letter to repudiate Chavez’s remarks. The letter appeared in a page in El Nacional today (January 21st)

and, guess what?

the MINCI (or MCI), Chavez’s Ministry of Information (or should I say Misinformation?) is already insulting them! They lost no time to answer with insults! They are quite efficient for that!

Reporting from Cyberspace,

Jorge Arena
favorite ghost blogger

Friday, January 20, 2006

Chavismo reply to the Human Rights Watch Report

Creativity of course was not expected from people that are clearly running out of ideas, but not out of ill intentions. I got this in my mail box.

This was published in Ultimas Noticias, the only major tabloid paper which is equally read by chavistas and opposition since it has a rather popular bent, short written news, and the best red page without looking like the Enquirer.

This is all the argument they could present. A phantom "journalist" organization which signs kind of the logo "Venezuela ahora es de todos". They even started by accusing Human Rights Watch to be named in "the language of the Empire" reflecting their supine ignorance as to what English has become, and their tremendous inferiority complex along the way.

Basically, trying to shoot the messenger, the strategy always used by those who run out of arguments.

Now that I think of it, it is the one that some chavista visitors to this blog tend to use. Interesting connection, no?

PS: the add is so bad, the puns so lousy, that it is not worth translating. But the obviously hurried response demonstrates indeed that HRW hit the sore spot.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A note to the chavistas reading this blog: the HRW report

In fact, the note can even go directly to the vice, JVR, Jesse "James" Chacon and the most infamous Isaias Rodriguez and his accomplices at the high court. Not to mention "el reyezuelo".

The Human Rights Watch report has published its 2006 report. In English. In Spanish.

It web page title is:

U.S. Policy of Abuse Undermines Rights Worldwide

Now, I recall all the times that you and your leaders have tried to make a case, with no success I must add right now, that the HRW was a pro US group dedicated to sabotage Chavez. I will pass on the delusional idea that you are so important that the HRW group is dedicated exclusively to monitor Chavez. Many times I did point out (as did other bloggers) that the HRW did cover quite a field besides Venezuela. But no, so incensed were you by the "lies" that you just turned deaf, blind but unfortuantely not mute.

Now I would like your opinion on the HRW when one of your favorite pet peeves is in the title of the report.

And before you entertain the mildest of hopes that the HRW might have been bought off by Chavez petrodollars stolen to his own people, read a few gems below.

On Cuba:
Cuba remains a Latin American anomaly: an undemocratic government that represses nearly all forms of political dissent. President Fidel Castro, now in his forty-seventh year in power, shows no willingness to consider even minor reforms. Instead, his government continues to enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions, long- and short-term detentions, mob harassment, police warnings, surveillance, house arrests, travel restrictions, and politically-motivated dismissals from employment. The end result is that Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.
And this is just the introduction. I need not paste anything from the body of the text.

On Venezuela:
Since winning a national referendum on his presidency in 2004, Hugo Chávez and his majority coalition in Congress have taken steps to undermine the independence of the country’s judiciary by packing the Supreme Court with their allies. They have also enacted legislation that seriously threatens press freedoms and freedom of expression. Several high profile members of civil society have faced prosecution on highly dubious charges, and human rights defenders have been repeatedly accused by government officials of conspiring against the nation. Police violence, torture, and abusive prison conditions are also among the country’s most serious human rights problems.
This is the introduction. Nothing, NOTHING that you have not read first in this blog.

This next one concerns also bloggers, or will some day soon when the government gets around to it.
In March 2005, amendments to the Criminal Code came into force which extended the scope of Venezuela’s desacato (disrespect) laws, and increased penalties for desacato, criminal defamation, and libel. By broadening its desacato provisions, Venezuela ignored the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and bucked a continent-wide trend toward the repeal of this type of law.
And about the repressive system that Chavez is installing or at least abetting. First on the three students assassinated by the police a few months ago.
According to an eyewitness, men in civilian clothes wearing hoods captured Montenegro and Quintero in an alley, made them lie on the ground, and shot them in cold blood. The police reportedly planted weapons on the scene to make it appear that they had been fired on first.
And more, though note the objectivity of the HRW.
Hundreds of police executions have been reported over the past several years, although the problem long predates the current administration. While the Attorney General’s Office and the human rights ombudsman have denounced these abuses, little progress has been made in prosecuting the police responsible or introducing the reforms necessary to combat the practice.
And about prison conditions, a post for which I got a lot of flack from some of you:
Conditions in Venezuela’s prisons are notoriously abusive. Overcrowding is chronic and armed gangs maintain effective control within the prison walls. Prison riots and inmate violence claim hundreds of lives every year.
And last but not least the concerted attacks on human rights groups in Venezuela. Impressive, even making the connection with the servile judiciary.
Public officials and government media have continued pursuing efforts to discredit Venezuela’s nongovernmental human rights organizations. Government officials and pro- government legislators publicly accused Humberto Prado, coordinator of Venezuelan Prison Watch and a prominent critic of prison policy, of starting a prison protest. In January, Prado reportedly received anonymous threats on his mobile phone. In March, COFAVIC, a respected human rights organization, reported that official media had insinuated that the organization had taken a share of money paid by the State in reparation to the victims of police killings during the Caracazo riots of 1989, a claim the organization vigorously denied.

In August 2005, the Supreme Court rejected a petition by another human rights organization, PROVEA, to order President Chávez to retract public statements he had previously made suggesting that both groups were participating in a U.S.-backed conspiracy against the government.
And what has been the Venezuelan response on all of those well documented cases? "Shoot the messenger", just as you do when any of the opposition blog does point out Chavez failings.
In response to the IACHR, the Venezuelan government maintained that the IACHR’s analysis and recommendations regarding Venezuela in its 2003 report infringed upon the country’s national sovereignty. The commission had criticized Venezuela’s weak separation of powers, the concentration of power in the executive branch, and the growing participation of the armed forces in government. In its 2004 annual report, published in early 2005, the commission noted that the government’s position was “incompatible with international law and with the American Convention itself.”
So please, next time you visit this blog on these issues, be preapared to bring real arguments or you will be suspected fo supporting the US actions across the world. In other words, "put up or shut up!"

PS: as of this post and for the next few days, I will do the Quico thing and try to write on things that could be of interest of the visitors from the Social Forum. Perhaps some of them might want to read something else than the propaganda that will be doled to them by the regime.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

All Revolutions end up in ridicule

And the Bolivarian one is no exception. In our forced march toward fourth world banalization, and utter bananization, the first new law that the brand new National Assembly decided to tackle was to change the Venezuelan Flag and Coat of Arms.

I will spare the details of the changes. Suffice to say that about three months ago Yo, El Supremo decided that it was time to change the symbols because his daughter thought the horse was looking weird. And voilà, the monochromatic assembly elected in December demonstrated from the start, without giving people the tiniest chance to have a doubt about its total submission, subservience and sycophancy to El Supremo, that it was there only to serve the will of Chavez and nothing else. And when I say the will, I am being generous, I could have written brat demands, because this is what Chavez is with that issue, a spoiled brat.

While the "lambucio" assembly, who got from the start a lap top for free to type this new regulation on how many f****** stars the flag should have, let's look at a few things that in a normal country where legislators feel an obligation to their voters, even those who did not go and vote for them, should be examined as an urgent matter:

-the "alternate" road to the main international airport and the second largest harbor is also collapsing, now that people have returned from New Year's break. I have a relative who lives in Vargas. Now he calls from "the new island" and speaks of taking the ferry to go to Caracas, since going to Caracas from the airport is longer than going from Margarita Island to Mainland. Perhaps the Vargas and Caracas representatives coudl use the e-mail service provided with their lap tops to check on their consitutent problems.

-a case of military corruption is so big, that they could not hide it. It has to do with, of course, the agricultural sector who no one dares to examine since it is El Supremo pet project. Perhaps the National Assembly could have started its term by dusting off an anti corruption law that has been waiting for eons to be voted. Not that it would have been effective, but at least appearances might have been preserved. But I suppose the technicians giving the assembly folks the new computers have not downloaded yet the pending legislative texts.

-organized gang style building seizures keep apace. Due, of course, to the inability of the government to build in 7 years as many public and subsidized housing than Caldera II did in 5 years without the extraordinary windfall of petro dollars that Chavez benefited (see eloquent graph here). Perhaps the national assembly august representatives could use Adobe Illustrator to draw in their brand new lap top economical house designs or draw financial plans with Excel to improve credit access to people by, say, generating confidence in the country and private investment to generate jobs that earn enough money so people could actually afford a house without having to go to the government for help.

-or they could vote emergency funds for restoring the Valencia Caracas highway before yet another neglected viaduct collapses. There is still not only time to build an alternate road to La Cabrera path, but even to speed up railroad construction which is advancing by fits, depending on the electoral calendar. I am sure that the lap tops carry a map of Venezuela where they could draw new roads.

-or they could tackle the new "mision Negra Hipolita" and give it a legal basis, a sustain through time instead of letting it become yet another totally unsupervised mision where money will be sucked in without knowing how effective it is or where the money goes. Imagine that, a mision destined to build refuges for street kids (forgotten by Chavez for 6 years and suddenly, just as the international forum comes to Caracas, a resuscitated convenient interest), what a potential source of graft in construction contracts!!!! Perhaps from their new lap tops, enjoying I hope a high speed wireless connection from their pulpits of the glorious revolutionary assembly, the representatives could consult Internet for successful programs to deal with street kids in other countries.

But no. We are fixed on the role of that new Assembly, an assembly that we need to look back to the XIX century , or Perez Jimenez, to find as servile.

In El Pais Mario Vargas Llosa had a fantastic article on the new LatAm nationalism. And an article he did not know woudl be validated so close form its publication date by El Supremo cheap star flag adding. As a conclusion I will translate the last paragraph.

In addition of racists and militarist, these new barbarian caudillos brag from being nationalistic. It could not be otherwise. Nationalism is the culture of those who lack it, an ideological ersatz built of such an obtuse and primitive manner as racism (and its unavoidable consequences), which makes belonging to a collective abstraction –the nation- the highest value and the privileged badge of the individual. If there is a continent where nationalism has been devastating, it is Latin America. That was the ideology used by all caudillos to disguise their abuses and extortions who bled us in internecine or external wars, the pretext who served to waste funds in weaponry (which allowed for great corruption) and the main obstacle for economical and political integration of Latin America. It seems incredible that after all that we have gone through, there is still a left in Latin America that will resuscitate these monsters –the race, the boot and nationalism. As a panacea to all of our problems. It is true that there is another left, more responsible and more modern –the one represented by a Ricardo Lagos, a Tabare Vasquez or a Lula da Silva-, which clearly distinguish itself form the one incarnated by this alive anachronism that are Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and the Humala clan. But, unhappily, it is much less influential than the one propagated across the continent by the Venezuelan president with his verbiage and his petrodollars.


Monday, January 16, 2006

The Church, in Chile and in Venezuela

Michelle Bachelet wins in Santiago

Chileans can celebrate today that they made history. For the first time a woman in South America, heck, in Latin America, made it to president on her own right. Other cases, though meritorious due to the circumstance (Chamorro or Moscoso) were the result in part to their connection with some known husband that could not run for office. Bachelet won it on her own.

What is remarkable there is not that she is elected as a socialist: she heads a coalition and although a socialist herself she depends on enough centrist support that Chile seems safe from adventure, in particular after the amazingly successful Lagos demonstration, a socialist who did not see a free trade treaty he did not like. What is remarkable is not that she is a woman: she was running in a primary in her group against another even more remarkable woman, Soledad Alvear, who desisted in her favor. No, what is remarkable is that in a country where the Catholic Church resisted so much that divorce is barely happening there, Bachelet is a divorcee and an agnostic (probably an elegant way to hide her atheism). It seems that the changes in Chile are deeper than one would have thought, perhaps the first country getting into a right/social-democrat European pattern for the good fortune of its people.

Chavez gets hit again in Caracas

If we can assume that there is some despair in sectors of the Catholic Church of Chile, we can be quite certain that they have much less problems than the Catholic Church of Venezuela: after all Chile has been steadily growing for the past two decades, national reconciliation is low but advancing, the Church lost the divorce battle but divorce is still harder than anywhere else in LatAm.

Things are different here and divorce is the least of the concerns. The Venezuelan Church emitted its regular report last week. Chavismo was not amused.

In short the Church points out to “the uncertainty of Venezuelan democratic future due to the extent of its political problems”. It added: large and deep corruption in some areas, “the munificent external solidarity and the deterioration of the institutions” (observe the juxtaposition, an elegant way to state that there is NO control over state spending), the fast increase in poverty and insecurity, politico-judicial repression, violation of human rights, penalization of normal activities (read: Tascon list), in the same sentence “negligence, omissions, manipulations and distortions” (code words for general incompetence).

And even when they do acknowledge social programs they blame the government from not trying to go to the root of the problem, not trying to erase that handout mentality who thinks that working is not a viable option. It calls for opening to all sectors of the country as all are needed, denouncing point blank “the open favoritism of the government for those who support him” (Tascon and much more there!). And most infuriating for Chavez “to stop political persecution and complete renovation of the Electoral Board, its members and rulings, organizing it as stated in the constitution and with the unavoidable demands of transparency, autonomy and trustworthiness” (you cannot say it better that the CNE is a den of cheats!).

Chavez main argument? “It is a lie” plus assorted associations with the opposition. However, duly stung as only truth hurts, he also added that he was willing to collaborate some with the Church, in particular on the latest Mision, Negra Hipolita, who after 7 years in office is the first real effort for street kids. Or so we would hope.

However Chavez being Chavez he chose his State of the Union Speech to start his latest anti Church rant, quite appropriate I would say after his anti Semitic comment of December. This rather gross affair was, as a friend of mine said, an Alo Presidente in frock. For almost 6 hours he nailed all of his supporters in the National Assembly, the diplomatic corps, a large group of Venezuelan public servants and soldiers who probably had better things to do such as repair highways than to listen the answerless rant of Chavez, a long string of platitudes, accusations, bad jokes and assorted vulgarities. If all is going so well, why such a long speech? In fact it looked more like a frustrated demagogue that is still reeling from his December 4 disdain, a frustrated man exacting revenge on those who do not voted for him by insulting them in an interminable “cadena”.

Sunday he still had enough energy to do yet another Alo Presidente, back to the red shirt. His anger was aggravated again as Rosalio Cardinal Castillo made quite a little speech at the Divina Pastora ceremony in Barquisimeto yesterday (1). In his speech the Cardinal simply picked up some of the main points of the Church report and made it a personal criticism and plea. Perhaps the holiest day of Barquisimeto was not the time and place to say it, but the Cardinal never speaks without knowing what he does.

So Chavez went ahead and first started criticizing again the Church Report, refusing obviously to see that it is a serious report for a naked emperor who is even losing the bridges. Then he demanded that the Church Assembly dissociates itself from the Cardinal, and even offers an apology.

But I doubt Chavez will get much

To begin with the Cardinal participated in the elaboration of the report and the opinion polls seem to indicate that he is more in touch with what Venezuelans think of the hell the country is becoming rather than the rosy picture Chavez sycophants feed him. Second, the Cardinal has retired from any activity in the Venezuelan Church administration since he decided to take a higher political profile. So far the bishop of Barquisimeto as complained about the timing but he has not denounced or apologized for the Cardinal. Chavez claims that Caracas Archbishop called him but there is no way to trust him on what he says on that. In fact even that lousy attempt at lying was cut short as Monsignor Santana, the head of the Church assembly declared that this one was under no obligation to apologize. The monsignor stressed that the Cardinal was completely out of the administration of the Church and thus was speaking “and repeating positions he had already taken elsewhere” as a private citizen.

And today we have some words from Monsignor Perez Morales who far from condemning the Cardinal, reminds us that this one has been unjustly accused of plotting the murder of Danilo Anderson. Suggesting indirectly that if someone has to apologize to the Cardinal, and to the Venezuelan people, it is Chavez. Not to mention that El Impulso reports that the local chavistas in office in Barquisimeto were trying to use the organization of La Pastora procession (2 million people) for their own political agenda, as can be seen from Mayor Henri Falcon associating his name in the light display on the right , at tax payer expense (2). Well, they did get some of their own medicine.

What to think? I doubt that the Cardinal is senile enough not to realize what he has done. And the Church is not complying with Chavez. They might not have liked the timing but the Church certainly cannot negate the message as it is what they wrote in their report: they certainly can sense that this is exactly what Chavez wants to do! And they are not falling in the trap.

No, in fact the Church might have just announced to Chavez that with all power in his hands, Eastern Europe style, the Church will not be afraid to become the opposition, Eastern European style.

Meanwhile, to come back to the start of this post, no one is worrying much about the future of democracy in Chile. Curious, no?

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1) La Divina Pastora is perhaps the largest gathering of Marian devotion in Venezuela. This year it is thought that it reached up to 2 million faithful walking the streets of Barquisimeto. In addition this year was the 150 anniversary of the devotion and its importance got a special recognition of the Vatican. Hence the enhanced value of the Cardinal words?

2) If you look at the pic in El Impulso link, you will see that the name of Barquisimeto Mayor, Henri Falcon, appears in the light display to La Pastora. Clearly Falcon played politics and self promotion with La Pastora, so why not the Cardinal? Double standards over and over... Not to mention that notorious cinycs of chavismo, people that have not seen at church in years except for weddings and funerals were with their new found angelical face at the Pastora high mass.

Maria Anastasia O'Grady in the Wall Street Journal

You have to give it to Ms. O'Grady, not only she is perhaps one of the most lucid writers on Veenzuela, someone that really "gets it", but she is not encumbered by PC crap when she needs to get down to the point.

Her article today is a must read as she manages to tie it all together, from the Iran connection for evil to the collapsed bridge. I loved particularly these lines:
That Chávez is making a hash of the Venezuelan economy while he courts international notoriety is no secret.
In his efforts to provoke the U.S., the Venezuelan no doubt hopes that saber rattling against imperialismo can stir up nationalist sentiment and save his floundering regime.
Nationalism, the last refuge of the scoundrel.

and (my stress)
But what is clear is that the importation of state agents from Hugo-friendly dictatorships hasn't been a positive experience for Venezuelans. Imported Cubans are now applying their "skills" in intelligence and state security networks to the detriment of Venezuelan liberty. It is doubtful that the growing presence of Iranians in "factories" across Venezuela is about boosting plastic widget output.
'nuf said!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The field guide for the Bolivarian Socialism for the XXI Century

This morning I went for my round of weekly shopping. I was not disappointed. Not only the nefarious effect of price control on some goods are becoming visible, but I even started seeing the effects of the collapsed bridge. Thus the idea of this field guide of sorts, on things not reported by CNN, the NYT or chavista media. All in San Felipe, the state capital of Yaracuy, on today’s date (click on them to enlarge).

The coffee line

Coffee has been missing from the shelves since December (see picture further below). The reason is that the government decided to increase the price paid to producer of green beans, but still refuses to let the roasting and distribution folks to pass the added cost. Apparently true revolutionaries are nauseated by the idea of profit, even as they have now enough money to buy nice Caracas condos. It also seems that they have trouble understanding that no one on their free will buys at 100 to resell at 90. As a result the government seized the roasted coffee in stock, paid the manufacturer the “regulated” price (too bad if they do not have enough money to replenish their stocks), and through Mercal they set up “selling points” where people are forced to buy a package containing coffee and goods that the government wants probably to get rid of from its Mercal overstocks (1).

Now, they could sell directly this at Mercal, but nooooo! In a fit of publicity stunt that one is hard pressed to understand, while even some Mercal shelves as of this week end are reported missing coffee, they prefer to set in many towns a single visible line of coffee seekers, such as the one shown below (above is the close up). I suppose it is all part of the plan to set in people minds that their food comes from Chavez will. Got that Volk?

At Central Madeirense

San Felipe only real supermarket is a “Central Madeirense”, the large Venezuelan chain established, like very other food chain it seems, from people from Madeira. They are now the only nation wide system (and thus in the eye of chavistas who resent “foreign” interference). I go there because it is the one with the best choice, and produce that can only be found there. That is, by Yaracuy standards it is the only real “cosmopolitan” store as Yaracuyanos are slow to warm up to such exotic things as fresh lettuce.

I did take my camera today and photographed a few shelves. This first one on the right is where the coffee was supposed to stand. As you can observe, there is a wide variety of lousy Lipton tea, some local brand hardly any better (OK, I am a tea snob, so sue me!), and even imports of Celestial Seasonings and Coffee Mate, this one rather incongruous as coffee is missing. Not even imported Colombian instant decaf!!!!! The last one to disappear in a caffeine addicted country!

The picture on the left is from another item which has been missing lately. Whole powder milk price is a big “political” issue. However in recent years more and more people have started consuming skim milk. That variety of milk is not controlled and is basically the only one always available now. However, years of Bolivarian control have started limiting the choices of milk. In the picture you can see only one brand of milk available, though with three presentations, two of them of skim milk (with or without added stuff). Observe that the whole milk is the one in lesser amount!

A couple of aisles down we reach the rice and bean shelves. These are very important as they are main staples in the Venezuelan diet, in particular in the provinces. Not to mention that black beans are considered THE Venezuelan favorite bean included in the national dish “Pabellon, con o sin baranda” (2). On the left in bright fuchsia I have circled what used to be the bean section which included black, navy, green, pinto, and which is reduced to a remain of chick pea, some red beans and the usual amount of lentil. To look less desolated the store replaced the missing beans by rice. There was a time when stores would leave the shelf empty for people to see, but in these days of SENIAT repression and “all is rosy” propaganda, it is better not to attract the attention of public “servants” that are shopping (3).

Thus basic staples of the Venezuelan diet are starting to miss, sporadically perhaps, but more and more frequently. A way to get people used to socialism and ration cards? Just wondering… But people with a more exotic diet such as myself are being hit elsewhere even if we drink little coffee and only use skim milk. I got shocked when the imported cereal I buy to add to my evening yogurt increased 20%, 20%!, from last time I bought it two weeks ago. Is this the collapsed viaduct effect? Since Central Madeirense and its supplier import most of their stuff through La Güaira, are they already anticipating the dramatic increase in shipping costs from La Güaira to Caracas? Well, at least I am fixed for “my” inflation for the year, it will not be the rosy 14% anticipated by Giordani. And let’s see if the beans only increase by 14% when they return, someday, soon, anytime now.

Driving back home

There is a now well established racket in San Felipe. Wherever you park your car, when you return there is a little ill cut card board, hand written, tucked under your windshield wiper. Some guy appears, removes it and waits for you to give him some coins for having “watched for” your car safety. Some are kids, or old people, or handicapped and I doubt very much they would oppose any significant resistance if someone wanted to get inside my car… Four years ago this “line of business” did not exist in San Felipe. But as the revolution advances fearlessly for the betterment of the country I suppose that these people are part of the "newly employed" that the government claims to have generated. When I look at these brave but unfortunate souls, I do not need to wonder whether they subscribe to social security.

And so I drive back home and pass in front of the main State Office building. A few weeks ago a new sign was placed to “grace” its rather non descript concrete design. The sign is of Chavez and Governor Gimenez in full drag regalia. Now, I cannot help but wonder how come there is money for such a lousy, tacky, useless sign, but no money to subsidize the coffee producers or the truck drivers of La Güaira route whose income has been more than halved. Where is the austerity of a government dedicated to the betterment of the poor? Under Lapi there was an occasional sign with his face, personality cult is always part of countries with a past "caudillo" culture. But this quaint tradition is becoming ridiculous under Gimenez whose now obvious shortcomings he tries to dissimulate by posing everywhere with Chavez.

There is no austerity in this administration. Excessive spending goes from the luxury suits worn by Chavez to the 167 (declared) brand new lap tops bought for the new National Assembly representatives. Yes, they make much, much more money than I do and they got, without even asking for it, a new lap top, the same HP model I bought with some sacrifice last month since my previous lap top was stolen, courtesy of the out of control criminality that we suffer now. Because in spite of a “booming” economy, less and less jobless people, criminality is at an all time high, largely underestimated as many people do not even bother anymore to report when their house is broken in or they are mugged in the street in broad daylight.

And are the people getting anything, besides a lap top, that is, if you had the good luck to run unopposed for office? My housekeeper, a luxury one can still have in Venezuela, got sick early December. She suffers from congenital high cholesterol level even if she is rather thin, giving her chronic dizziness. I am the only person she works for as she is a “barrio” seamstress and only use this job for her steady income. She works for me because I live alone and I travel a lot and I need someone to take care of my cat, plants et al, because I pay her way above the average in San Felipe (eliciting even comments from my neighbors who think I am ruining the market) and because she is a good cook and I bring from Caracas lots of interesting stuff for her to play with. In other words, if you must do house cleaning and cooking twice a week, you could do much worse than working for me in San Felipe.

Well, Señora A. went first to her local “dispensario” (4). After one day and no improvment, she went to the hospital. There she was redirected to the local Barrio Adentro “clinic”, to see the “Cubans” (5). In her own words she described to me how neat was the new clinic, in much better shape than the hospital, better equipped, all nice and new. Even the attention was fine if rather short. They examined her briefly, gave her a pill and that was that. Two days after, the desperate woman caved in and went to see a private doctor who gave her an electro cardiogram and a complete exam, finally. And some rather expensive tablets to buy. But 48 hours after she did not need help to walk anymore. In January she resumed work. I gave her a larger than usual end of year bonus that Señora A. used all for her health. If she was the only one with Barrio Adentro problems I would not worry too much, but most of the employees at work go to Barrio Adentro as a last resort or to get aspirin and such common medication for free. They go to the Red Cross "dispensario" first.


The degradation of the country is becoming more and more visible, from collapsing infrastructure to coffee lines. The government tries to put a brave face and even tries to use the set backs it creates by its incompetence to its advantage (As Castro would say “convertir el revés en victoria!”). Oh yes, we are much better off than in Cuba, at least our shelves are still full, if only of rice and tea, at least we can still go to private practice when we get desperate, but the new National Assembly is a thing to fear as more and more controls will be produced by the archaic mentality that has now taken over.

The signs are there, you just need to observe.

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1) Mercal: state owned and managed food distribution scheme. Some say it is a way to teach people to eat sub par quality food items, to get used to limited choice, to learn how to stand in line until you get in. I think there is an exaggeration, but definitely Mercal is designed to have a group of people become dependent of the state for their basic dry staples.

2) Pabellon: minced meat stew (kind of like a distant parent of the Southern BBQ), rice, black beans are the basis. "con baranda" means the "deluxe" version. It come then accompanied of fried plantain and possibly avocado and a fried egg.

3) SENIAT: Venezuela tax agency, widely used against the enemies of the regime.

4) Dispensario: small health centers installed where there were no hospitals. They are the precursor of the Barrio Adentro joints even if the government refuse to acknowledge that debt to the past democracy. They were rather successful in the 60ies and even 70ies but they were not as much later as they failed to be built in the new population growth areas. Some of the new "barrio adentro" are in fact recycled dispensarios.

5) Barrio Adentro: one of the two social programs of Chavez that can really claim some success. The idea was to staff small units deep inside the barrios with Cuban doctors. Highly controversial and of uncertain future as they rely on too much on Cuban "doctors" whose competence seem in fact for some to be barely equal a nurse. Probably the effect of overstretching the reach of the program.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Tidbits: Evo Morales, Wikipedia and Zapatero punched again

Three little items that deserve a small post each, but that I put together in no particular order of importance.

Evo Morales travels courtesy of PDVSA

Fascinating stuff. El Universal high class backed up “gossip” column of Nelson Bocaranda reveals to us that Evo Morales “grand tour” these recent days was made at Venezuelan government expense, apparently without the knowledge or preparation of the Bolivian foreign ministry. It seems that even the Bolivian ambassadors were not warned that their president elect was arriving and were not included in any of the activities anyway. The tab seems to have been picked up by Venezuela (even the credit card info reached Bocaranda), and organized by Cuba and Venezuela, mostly Cuba as Venezuelan foreign service staff has become sub par. Body guards provided by Venezuela (and Cuba?) it seems, even so much armed that they were politely requested to leave their weapons on board when they reached Spain.

Of course they forgot to check out that the plane of PDVSA was US registry and thus the planned stop in Teheran (Chavez wants Evo to have his same friends) had to be canceled at the last minute. So goes international planning, perfectly suited to Chavez loud mouth.

Bocaranda also reminds us that when Chavez gave Evo his pocket money (30 million USD and some fuel, perfect for a long trip) he told him “… and do not think on paying me back”. This money belongs of course to the Venezuelan state but Chavez subconscious betrayed him and once again he has admitted that he sees Venezuelan state money as his own now, just as a thug looks at his booty. Just as the mayor of Caracas could use those 30 millions to house the people evicted of their slums because of the viaduct emergency. For less that such arrogance Carlos Andres Perez was ejected form his seat. But those were other times when some democracy existed, not like this proto-fascist state we are saddled with.

Wikipedia as an infiltrated agency

A few days ago a certain regular visitor of these pages code named Flanker defended Wikipedia coverage of Chavez whereas I questioned the objectivity of Wikipedia in that it was subjected to incessant chavista writing manipulation. Well, Alek Boyd, our favorite investigative journalist who notoriously on his own and a computer uncovered from Eva Golinger to Dan Burnett has found out how the Wiki pages are written, with written confessions from one of the perpetrators. Hilarious!

So, next time you read on Wiki on a political issue wonder about who “edited” the article.

The US puts a veto on Spain arms sale

In spite of plenty of inducement to the Spanish government, it is of all people the Bush administration that had to force “decency” into the pseudo human rights socialist administration of Spain. The planes final sale by Bono in his latest, and scandalous, visit to Venezuela will be under par as the US forbade the use of US military technology. It is not just a matter of a contract that cannot be fulfilled anymore. It is a matter of continuous deterioration of relations between Spain and the US. Guess who is going to lose the most economically? Not the US. It is sad to see how Rodriguez Zapatero is losing the significant foreign influence that Gonzalez and Aznar left him. Gonzalez made Spain a respectable country and Aznar built wisely on that to even give Spain, a mid size country leaving the XIX century, more influence than it should have (though his Iraq stance was, deservedly, his undoing). Now Zapatero and Moratinos generate ironic smiles wherever they go, and are reduced to flatter third rate autocrats and petty tyrants like Castro.

And this blogger gets another radio interview

This one was from the Radio Five of the BBC, interested again in Venezuela after hearing from the bridge collapse.

Unfortunately we were late in starting, the host running out of time from previous interviews, we did not have time to check the sound OK and thus it was difficult to hear myself on occasion. Also, a theme that has kept Venezuela stressed reflected into the stressed voice of yours truly. Oh well. You need to use the fast forward buttons until you reach around minute 23-24 to hear my section.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

In Peru Chavez is not welcome

After the Mexican spat who brought us a "suspended" relation, at least until a new Mexican president is elected, Chavez got the good news of Morales election. Though the political context in Bolivia does not guarantee free cruising to Morales, at least Chavez could flatter himself that if in Venezuela he was barely getting 15% of the vote, in Bolivia he was already a future president of the Bolivarian Confederation of South America.

So emboldened when Morales Visited he received also the very lousy Peruvian wanna-be Chavez, Ollanta Humala. This failed military gained fame by taking by assault a town hall, not even a bona fide coup as Chavez did in 1992 (again I ask, what is it with those failed soldiers that catches on with the crowds, since Hitler by the way). But apparently the resentment and silliness of the people is enough to propel him to second in the present polls. Peru complained then of interference of Chavez in its internal affairs, a new dispute erupted and the Peruvian ambassador was called for consultations. (1)

Things seem to have settled down some. But an irrepressible Chavez, who just must have, thug style, the last word, did manage to reopen the spat and escalade it. Toledo this time was not amused. His choice words:
Chavez is president of Venezuela, not of Latin America.
He can have all the petrodollars he wants, but that doesn't give him the right to destabilize the region.
Strong words. But Chavez has a not so secret weapon, his vice president who will lower himself to any lame excuse, statement or whatever noise to protect his boss (as when he declared poker faced that "nobody knew about the failing bridge"). So he went ahead and said:
Toledo lacks good judgment and his political opinions are no doubt undermined by the immense failure of his presidency
And more.

One does not know whether to cry. What is wrong with this statement? For all of its political problems Peru has kept a constant economical growth, something that Chavez with a huge supply of oil could not manage, except for the recent recovery (recovery, not growth). Peru has done much better these past 5 years than Venezuela. Peru is at 63 in the index of economic freedom, as a "mostly free" economy whereas Venezuela keeps going down and is now at the end of the pack, in the "repressed group", at 152 out of 157 (even below Cuba at 150), together with rogues such as Burma and North Korea. (2)

For those who do not understand what the Index of Economic Freedom means, Peru is in a group of countries that are finding a way to have a sustainable economical growth whereas Venezuela group is the one of countries which found the way of sustained decrepitude.

You can find the Peruvian version in the links from El Comercio Toledo words, Lourdes Flores, Chavez bête noire and still up in the polls, and the prime minister. (3)

Really, Chavez would do better to busy himself with Venezuela and how to solve the fallen viaduct, for example. Even if "his" candidates win everywhere, they will probably get rid of him ASAP and certainly will not become abjectly servile the way he became to Castro. But it seems that his folie des grandeurs is pushing him to make more and more mistakes, exposing himself more and more such as his recent anti-semitic words. Amusing to watch, though scary: after all, it is the Venezuelan people that will pay the piper when he is gone.

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1) All links in English today! Except for the ones from El Comercio.

2) Published by the Wall Street Journal, no link, sorry.

3) Globovision even showed a clip of a Peruvian politician saying that Chavez had won by fraud. Looks like doubters are growing. Also shows that it does not pay on the long run to be big mouthed.

Weil strikes again

To understand this graph, in case you do not get it, you can start reading the previous post and recall all the billion of dollars that Chavez has wasted overseas to promote HIS PERSONAL AND EGOTISTICAL career, not Venezuela interests. Though some think he is actually working for Castro.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Caracas isolated, a bridge gone and a country hostage

I have not addressed much the problem of the bridge that fell last week. Simply put I was too angry. But today I did find some motivation as Tal Cual hits the streets again after a two weeks vacation hiatus. I did translate the Teodoro Petkoff editorial as Daily Journal now wants to charge us 199 USD to read their own version. Some comments of my own at the end, to clarify points that the unfamiliar reader might ignore. Emphasis from Teodoro himself. Original in Spanish here.

Chaviaduct [untranslatable pun]

It has been seven years, Hugo Chavez, SEVEN YEARS, during which the solutions to the viaduct problem have been in the hands of this government. No matter how much he kicks and scream, no matter which rhetorical turn and bad jokes are used, no matter how much he tries to put the blame on previous administrations, El Supremo will not be able to attenuate his responsibility in the string of recent negligence which led to the collapse of viaduct number 1. That there was a lack of foresight during past governments? Nobody questions. That during the Caldera administration, once a Mexican consortium had won the contracts to refurbish the highway, viaduct included, a weird lawsuit from the losing part made impossible to start work? It is also true. But SEVEN YEARS are past. The previous governments and their negligence are now history. During these SEVEN YEARS, two more than what previously lasted a presidential term, it has been Hugo Chavez who has held in his hands ALL the responsibility to overcome the previous carelessness, to get started with the recovery work of the Littoral Highway and to avoid the disaster that the collapse of this viaduct means.

During these SEVEN YEARS there was more than enough time to build an alternate route to the viaduct, that one route that was initiated barely a very few months ago. The point is not that the viaduct is out of order. We knew that this was coming.

What should have been worked on from long ago were the alternative solutions. What the “geniuses” that rule over us will never be able to justify is why did they delay so much in starting the construction of an alternate route, why did they let the flu catch them without a hanky [lost in translation].

A lot of speeches on the “re-founding the Republic”, tons of crap on the “socialism of the XXI Century”, but, how are they to re-found the Republic those who in SEVEN YEARS have been unable to build a measly road of a very few miles? The President had no better occurrence, to comment on the event, to note how “pleased” would surely be the opposition by the disaster. Each one judges as he thinks, says the old saying [some lost in translation]. Surely Chavez would be jumping on one leg if the viaduct death would have happened under another administration. But there is no one happy here. Nobody can be happy with the thousand of lost hours due to the interminable traffic lines. Nobody in Vargas, no matter how deep in opposition they might be, can be happy with this new tragedy which has befallen on their victim poster state. Incensed is what everyone is. Incensed with a government who allowed such a calamity to fall on us without having taken BUT TO THE LAST MINUTE, ALMOST SEVEN YEARS AFTER, the necessary measures to face it. This battered and useless viaduct is still standing like a mute but eloquent symbol of SEVEN YEARS of charlatanry, of ignorant arrogance, of improvisation, of negligence, of waste and corruption.

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Brief additional comments.

Since the early 80ies it was widely known that the viaduct had problems and that there was a “date of expiration” even if no one dared to stamp it.

During Caldera last term indeed some studies were done. All was canceled when Chavez came into office.

Denunciations of a weakening bridge kept going on and on. Only two years ago the government finally accepted to consider that there was something going on, though minimizing the problem as much as possible.

There has been talk of the need for an alternate route for La Guaira and Maiquetia for years already, just due to the constantly increasing traffic.

The VULNERABILITY OF THE HIGHWAY, AND CARACAS, was DULY EXPOSED IN 1999. When the Vargas disaster struck, BOTH the alternate roads and the highway were closed and slowly reopened, with intermittent closures do to additional landslides. This blogger remembers the ordeal of early January when he came back form a business vacation trip to Europe and the trip to Caracas from Maiquetia airport took longer than the trip from Paris. Since 2000 it was common knowledge that an alternate road had to be built. Nothing was done until late 2005, not even a real maintenance of the alternate routes.

Maiquetia and La Guaira handle up to 60% of commerce value. They cannot be replaced. The second harbor, Puerto Cabello is already saturated. No other entry point is equipped as well for refrigerated commerce or live stock handling. Even in volume La Guaira is second only to Puerto Cabello.

In passenger traffic Maiquetia cannot be replaced. This was also demonstrated in 1999 when Valencia airport collapsed. It would require for the military air base of Maracay to be made into a civilian airport and this cannot be done in a few weeks. Not to mention that militaries will never relinquish their playground: after all, in a military regime they can just ask for a chopper to fly them to Caracas, the hoi polloi may well be left behind.

If the crisis lasts more than a couple of months, by itself the viaduct collapse could chop of a 1 to 2 % growth and add 2 to 4 % to inflation in Venezuela. If bad weather were to cut the “alternate” and very deficient roads, we could even face a small recession.

Nobody indeed can be happy with it, and when you see that even Russian comes out to praise the adminsitration effort, you know, you just know that chavismo is running scared and is not telling the whole truth, too busy to hide its ass.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Chavez Effect on Poverty

AIO, a long time reader and even a poster on occasion has sent me this for publication. I think it is interesting, at least for me, in that it does make us think about how numbers are manipulated. Enjoy! and tough questiosn will be answered by him.

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Daniel posted on poverty not long ago, a topic that I have been thinking about for quite some time, and he also recently posted on misleading economic information provided by the Venezuelan government. (See The Venezuelan Mirage, Parts 1 and 2.) This kind of fits into that theme, but I wrote most of this back in November, so we can’t really call this Part 3. How about “The Venezuelan Mirage – the Prequel?”

Though I am no longer in Venezuela, I am still paying attention to what is going on, and seeking information from a variety of sources. On a strongly pro-Chavez blog I found an article (1) using Venezuelan poverty statistics to attempt to show that Chavez has been reducing poverty, and that the 2002/2003 strike is really the only obstacle to greater poverty reduction since 1998.

The essential point of the essay/post is that “Upon taking control in 1999 the governement [sic] followed through on the prevalaent [sic] current that was leading to improvement in poverty reduction.” The author then invites “the reader, [to] be the judge,” which I did, and purely from an objective, mathematical perspective. I think the conclusion will surprise you. It surprised me.

First let me say that poverty is a very important issue to me, in part because I grew up poor myself. Not indigent, but I remember standing in the unemployment line with my mother as a child. I later went through a time as an adult eating only one meal most every day, because I literally couldn’t afford more food. I’ve been on more forms of government aid – in both my youth and adulthood – than the average American can probably name. I’m better off now, thanks mainly to government assistance to get me through college, but am by no means rich. (I’m not in the highest U.S. tax bracket, I don’t own a home or any property, and I’ve never earned capital gains.) More than most people, perhaps, I understand the role a government can play in keeping and moving people out of poverty, because it is inescapably the story of my life. That said, for me to support someone’s anti-poverty work, it’s got to be effective. I’m a pragmatist – words aren’t worth much, only results, so these statistics are far more relevant to me than anything Chavez says in his favor, or that someone else says against him.

To begin, here is the data the author refers to, which was obtained directly from the INE:

Year Poverty Rate
1997 48.1%
1998 43.9%
1999 42.0%
2000 40.4%
2001 39.0%
2002 48.6%
2003 55.1%
2004 47.0%

The author’s premise, or hypothesis perhaps, is that Chavez being President is effective against poverty; that is, Chavez has caused the poverty rate to drop, and the only reasons that poverty increased was the general strike. This is based on the fact that the poverty rate was down every year from 1998 to 2001, but then rose in 2002 and 2003, when the strike took place.

First, however, a comment on the data itself. In order to scientifically test a hypothesis – that a given factor has a certain influence on a specific outcome – it is necessary first to determine what the results are without that factor being present. This is called the control. In this case, we would have to be able to see what happened to the poverty rate before Chavez became President. We have the poverty rate in 1997, but it is the change that is relevant, which we can only find by comparing it to the rate in 1998 – after Chavez became President.

In other words, the INE, by not providing sufficient data, makes a true test of such a hypothesis impossible. We have no control; therefore we cannot truly test this hypothesis. Was this by design? We can only guess. Moreover, the INE website no longer has even that much information available, only this 2-page document, (plus a “poverty map,” which enumerates poor Venezuelans by state, but doesn’t even use income as part of its definition of “poor”) focusing very little on what the actual statistics have been but greatly emphasizing what they estimate they will be in the future.

Nonetheless, we can consider the idea that a downward trend (such as in the poverty rate) is proof of a downward influence (by Chavez). Consider a ball thrown up in the air. Its movement has an upward trend. Does that prove that gravity has no effect, or is actually pushing it upwards? Of course not! A ball moves upward because the momentum from forces that were affecting it before – the push by a hand – overcomes the effect of gravity, at least for a time, while gravitational force is constantly pulling the ball down. In the same way, while an economic indicator can move down due to forces pushing it down, it can also move downward (due to momentum) while forces are actually pulling it up.

The question is: which is happening here? In the case of the ball, you observe the effect of gravity by seeing it slow down as it rises. It is moving up, but decelerating. Eventually, it slows to a stop, and then begins to move downward. Examine the poverty data. From 1997 to 98, it drops 4.2%; from 98 to 99, 1.9%; from 99 to 2000; 1.6%; and from 2000 to 2001, 1.4%. It is indeed a downward trend, but clearly a decelerating one. Like gravity pulling downward, there appears to be something pulling poverty upward. There was a downward trend, and then something changed to slow down that trend. And what is the one variable that was introduced, according to this author? Chavez.

The principle can be expressed mathematically as well. The actual poverty data can be represented by the following equation:

P = .3875t2 – 4.6t + 52.3125

Where P = the poverty rate and t = years since 1996. Plug in different years (such as t=1 for 1997) and see for yourself, if you like. The values for 1997, 1999 and 2001 are exactly right (they have to be, since it takes 3 points to derive a quadratic equation), while the predicted result for 1998 (44.6625%) is less than 0.8% too high and the predicted result for 2000 (40.1125%) is less than 0.3% too low. (N.B. I could have picked other points to derive the equation, but I picked these for three reasons: the difference between predicted data and actual data in the other years is the smallest, both in total and absolute values; it was one of just two equations which had one prediction too high and another too low; and it used the “normal” data - not affected by the strike, or when Chavez was theoretically the only new influence on the poverty rate – most spread-out over time. In other words, it is the equation that gives the most accurate picture possible of the actual data provided.) You can visually see that the predicted trend matches the actual data in the following graph:

Now that we have seen that the pattern holds (and that the equation I derived accurately represents actual results), we can look at where the result diverges from the prediction. We’ll start with 2002 and 2003. The equation shows that poverty should have been 38.7% in 2002 and 39.1% in 2003. The actual results were 48.6% in 2002 and 55.1%, 10% and 16% higher than expected (as seen in the graph). No doubt about it: the strike hurt people, and some of the neediest people in Venezuela. I don’t personally know anyone who still says that the strike was a good idea, but I suspect there are some – perhaps many – who say that it would have been if Chavez had indeed resigned. If any of the readers of this blog are in that category, I would encourage you to reconsider that opinion in light of this result.

However, while the strike caused problems, we can see from the predicted results that the downward trend in poverty rates would have begun to reverse itself in 2003 without the strike. Just like gravity eventually pulls that ball downward, the upward force eventually would have overcome the downward momentum and turned the decline around. And remember, I am only interpreting the mathematical equation based on actual data, not offering a subjective opinion.

Moving to 2004, the equation predicts that poverty would have increased in 2004 to 40.3%. However, the actual result was 47.0% - quite a bit HIGHER than the equation predicts! I imagine the author and others would tell you that this is simply the lasting effect of the strike. There is probably – I would say certainly, except that it is unprovable – some truth to that.

However, such a simplistic assumption ignores some basic facts (all from government sources, the BCV and the MF), which I’ve put into this table:

1998 2001 2004
GDP (trillions of 1997 Bs.) 42.1 42.4 42.0
Poverty Rate 43.9% 39.0% 47.0%
Government Spending $19.0 billion $29.3 billion $28.7 billion
Spending as % of GDP 21.4% 25.1% 26.5%
Government Oil Income $5.1 billion $11.0 billion $12.4 billion
Oil Income as % of GDP 5.8% 9.4% 11.4%
Total Debt $27.5 billion $36.4 billion $42.6 billion
Total Debt (as % of GDP) 29.6% 30.4% 39.0%

GDP remained about the same in each year, but poverty worsened over the period. And while GDP rose 17.9% from 2003 to 2004 (not in the table), poverty dropped only 8.1%. In other words, income distribution was more unequal in 2004 than in 1998 or 2003. The recovery of the country in 2004 was not passed on well to the neediest.

Next, poverty rose from 1998 to 2004 despite huge increases in government spending (and oil revenue), and a vastly increased government role in the economy. Note also that the rate of decrease slowed considerably from 1998 to 2001 despite a very large spending increase. This shows that government action aimed at helping the poor was not very effective, and evidently less effective than with a lesser role in the economy, as seen by the 4.2% decrease from 1997 to 1998.

Finally, debt rose substantially over the same period, handicapping the country for dealing with poverty in the future.

While this result begs the obvious question of what Chavez has or hasn’t done to affect it, I would prefer not to speculate on that for the moment. That would be subjective, and I would like this to stand alone (for now) for what it is: an objective, mathematical conclusion based solely on the data provided by the Venezuelan government.

But the bottom line remains: since Chavez became President of Venezuela, the poverty rate in the country has been affected – unfortunately, in the wrong direction.

An Interested Observer

1) The original article, which can be found here , was written by someone known as El Pulpo, a former frequent visitor to this very blog. I know that many here did not like him very much, but I ask that you ignore that for the sake of this post. I did like him, and remember some very interesting conversations we had here. Please consider what he wrote as simply a starting point for discussion, on a very important topic.