Monday, March 31, 2008

State of censorship in Venezuela

This state paid advertisement (tax payer expense for those who do not get it) was published today in page 5 of the El Universal sports section. It reads textually:

there is so [much] freedom of expression in Venezuela
that you are reading this paper.

(In small at the bottom you can read)

[an] expression of liberty

(and then the logo of the MINCI, the communication ministry)

There is so much wrong in this add, so much threat that the mind of anyone should reel at the implications. But let's start by the beginning before any one thinks that this blogger is prejudiced: there is indeed freedom of expression in Venezuela, although increasingly threatened and occasionally limited. What is lacking everyday more and more is freedom of expression. And this has been building up for quite a while, with increasing refusal of the state to talk to anyone but "official" media, and effective freedom of information done with when RCTV was closed last June.

First, let's discuss the context of this add. This week end the IAPA/SIP organized its first of two yearly meetings, this one in Caracas. During last year referendum campaign the government tried to put all sorts of obstacles to the meeting been held anywhere in Venezuela. But the SIP said that they would come no matter what and that lodging would be found one way or the other (remember the latest round of governmental pressure over hotels when the Alejandro Sanz concert had to be canceled). So the SIP came and offered Chavez to open the meeting and expose to the SIP his point of view on the whole matter of freedom of expression in Venezuela and elsewhere. Chavez did not show up and did not even had the decency to refuse. No answer, period.

However the government sponsored a "counter meeting" a couple of blocks away from the SIP hotel. It was called "encounter against media terrorism", no irony intended. As it is becoming more and more the case, the effect of this counter meeting was rather negative to the state as it flopped badly. In fact, it more than flopped, something stressed when Marcos Hernandez of Reporteros por la Verdad, was given a right of response at the SIP and showed his low class, his partiality and his incompetence, not to mention the compulsive lies now the everyday talk in chavistadom. He threatened Mr. Natera, director of Correo del Caroni, a much attacked newspaper, with judicial action by accusing him of being a coup monger in front of all the SIP. That Natera was the spokesperson of the Venezuelan press for that meeting exposed clearly to the whole world better than anything else how threatened is now freedom of expression in Venezuela.

Of course, with his very tarnished image of Chavez was certainly not going to take a chair in a room where someone would dare to criticize him. If you look at the purges inside the all but still born PUSV, whomever might criticize Chavez, even behind closed doors, has been shut out of the chavista pseudo political party. These days Chavez has his paid agents to take the heat wherever needed. That the SIP did criticize much more than just Venezuela, the US was one of the targets, did not make a difference: Chavez wants to project an image of being above criticism even though everyday he is more deserving of it. The self righteousness of Chavez, and his thinning skin are everyday more obvious, as much as his bloated physique. however as he keeps insulting the SIP this one says that only Cuba has more limits to freedom of expression than Venezuela in the Americas.

Now to the add published above. It is very simple: it is a direct threat to El Universal as this add implies directly that El Universal of Caracas, the Venezuelan senior paper, is published at the sufferance of the regime. Its objective might have been to criticize the SIP meeting but in fact it achieves (willingly perhaps?) the opposite effect. Did the subconscious of the public official in charge of this add betrayed him/her?

So here we are, with a government that thinks highly of itself by permitting still some papers to publish. And there are some folks that still dare to defend such policies...

By the way, the SIP heard again about abusive cadenas and that about 80% of the Venezuelan air waves are now under direct or indirect control of the state. That is right, about only 20% of the airborne media is still independent. And this quote is worth posting:
"There is a President (Hugo Chávez) who is persistently attacking journalism and harassing and insulting the press. Journalism here is faced with serious restrictions, and when journalism is exercised under serious restrictions there is no press freedom,"

-The end-

Saturday, March 29, 2008

From those who brought you the Tascon List: official racism in Venezuela

When I was taking my English courses to go to graduate school in the US I had to file for Social Security. We were all gathered in some auditorium and some official distributed us a form to fill up. The usual stuff until I came to a section who asked my ethnic background or something of the sort. I did not understand the question at first, and when I saw the choices I understood even less. See, I had to pick between hispanic, african, caucasian, native american, pacific islander, asian (I think those were the exact words then, but they might have changed since). I was very confused because ethnic origin for me would have been French and French was not an option. Caucasian I had no idea what that word meant then except for this word appearing in some Russian music titles and geographical features. African I was not but I wondered if it meant black or arabic or what. Hispanic was not an option at first since for me Hispanic meant from Spain and I found it odd that Spaniards would be underscored.

I had to ask and the designated helper did not know what to do with my request and blandly told me to write what I thought would describe me best. Of course, I understood much later that even if I had been pitch black with the kinkiest hair of all that person could not have even suggested African.... Eventually one of my class mates pointed Caucasian. "Why?" "European, you know..." But the Caucasus is not really in Europe!". Eventually at a loss I put Caucasian. But a few months later when I started understanding the real meaning of these code words I was genuinely upset and form then on each time I was asked such question I put a different answer. In one census I am Hispanic, in another I am "Other". By the end of my stay I was always putting "other" whenever I was asked such indiscreet question except for the single/married ones which did made sense though I resented that "concubinage" was not an option.

See, my problem is that until my early twenties I had NEVER been asked my race and the idea that I could be asked such a question directly did not even enter my mind. In Venezuela then you never asked someone's race, you just assumed it if you must, or took for granted whichever race your interlocutor wanted to be, even if you disagreed inside. That is, in Venezuela when I was a kid and in college, race was simply not a mater of discussion even though we knew that the darker one's skin the less likely one to be rich. If there was a divide it was the money one which overlapped dangerously on the skin one, but in the end the money divide was the one that mattered the most. Though in all fairness if you stroke it rich, people even forgot you used to be poor. The reason for it all was very simple: the racial mix in Venezuela is so varied that trying to bring out the "pure" races would have left at least 3/4 of the population as unclassifiable.

Well, Chavez has done away with all that. It might have been a little bit hypocrite for us to pretend that there was no racial problem, but Chavez made sure to create new racial problems where they did not exist. The latest is the little picture above, of lousy quality I am sorry, and which was reported earlier this week by Tal Cual. In it, a school of art in Venezuela asks you to fill up one of the following choices in their application form:

African descent
Native (indigenous)

I do not know where to start on such a racist instrument, and a blatantly xenophobic one to boot. Whomever designed this questionnaire has no sense of nuance, and favors only native and backs, hoping for immigrants to return home ASAP. Or are we also to suppose that immigrant means Spaniard descent even if one can trace back one's ancestry tot he XVI century? Clearly, whoever is responsible for this form has been brain washed, and is full of hate.

But what can you expect? After 9 years of chavismo saying all sorts of historical nonsense and pretending to rescue minorities, some are actually starting to think that this is the way to go and that reverse discrimination is acceptable. And in a country where almost 4 million citizens suffer of a political apartheid due to the Tascon list (look in the right side column for complete references), why not also install racial separation?

With Obama the US might be advancing further on the difficult path to integration but in Venezuela we are going back to colonial times where a frustrate and idiotic Chavez wants revenge for what happened to his ancestors. In fac we are not returning to the past, we are going to a worse place where we have never been.

-The end-

Death at the maternity: money for Brazil, no money for Venezulan hospitals

The bolivarian pseudo revolution never tires of giving obscene spectacles to confirm its incompetence and its cynicism. Yesterday the "fait divers" was 6 babies death at the Maternidad Concepcion Palacios, the biggest hospital in Venezuela dedicated to birthing.

I am not getting into the detail of what exactly happened last night. Maybe 6 babies did indeed died for lack of attention and resources. Maybe they were dead on arrival as the government tries to have us believe, going as far as sending its health minister discuss media terrorism and how the media focuses on those six alleged death and refuse to discuss the alleged overall drop in infant mortality. I am sure that these words were of great consolation to the parents who were indirectly all but told that their babies died for the revolution, perhaps to illustrate better all those that were saved. Meanwhile the minister still has not tended his resignation, nor the politically appointed directors of the facility.

This awful episode is a true reflection on how detached the government has become from the people: the first reaction of public officials is to minimize, to attack the media, to do whatever is necessary to distract attention rather than face the problem at hand and start by offering excuses and compensation to the unfortunate parents. Under this light we can praise the vice president Carrizales who at least had the gut to show up at the hospital.

However today we got again a crash course summary on all that is wrong in Venezuelan public health system: pathetic lack of resources, dramatically underpaid doctors which lead to the expected lack of doctors, lack of students and residents who simply cannot make it in expensive Caracas and either go to the private sector or remain in the provinces. In other words last night there were no doctors, there was not even distilled water. And this in a hospital who gets in inordinate share of poor expectant mothers, too many under age, too many under health and thus risky birthing in the best of time.

And while this tragedy took place what was Chavez doing? He was giving millions to Brazil just as to have Lula call him a great pacifier. Yes, that is right, Lula accepted to receive a much tarnished Chavez as long as this one took over financing the bulk of the Recife joint oil refinery. In exchange for that money, wily Lula had no problem to call Chavez the pacifier of the Ecuador Colombia conflict when Chavez was the one who put oil on fire by sending Venezuelan troops to the Colombian border even though Venezuela had no part in the Colombo-Ecuadorian conflict.

I have a simple question: besides the fact that Venezuela could use an additional oil refinery of its own instead of "investing" in Recife, how many Venezuelan hospitals could be fixed, fully equipped and the pay check of its staff improved to at least humane levels if not according to their positions?

For note: a young doctor at the Concepcion Palacios makes about 1.5 minimum wage in spite of all his or her years of study. The scummy minister who accused them of conspiring with the media makes about (at least?) 30 times the minimum wage and his only credential for the job is to suck up to Chavez. You do the math and draw your conclusions.

-The end-

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Putting a full stop to some of the B.S. of Chavez and Correa over the bombing of the Reyes FARC camp

[Updated! Comes with Uranium!]

Raul Tortolero, a Mexican investigative journalist of a certain renown, has written a technical account of some of the "intriguing" facts of the bombing of the Reyes camp. For example, Chavez, scared shitless of the Reyes computer, is trying to promote the thesis that if Reyes was killed he certainly could not be survived by his computer. People like me, scientists by trade, know very well that if the bulk of Reyes body survived then there is a very good chance that the hard drive of his lap top could also make it. True, the screen might be shot and the PC useless but a hard drive is quite a solid little thing. However when Chavez or Correa speak on these matters they are not speaking to people like me but to the ignorant masses that still follow them on faith.

Of course, what is really going on here is that there are all sorts of people, including Insulza of the OAS, that are probably very afraid of all that can get out of the diverse FARC lap tops captured by the Colombian army these days. So anything is good enough to discredit that evidence, unheard. Classical.

The Tortolero article, translated here in English, is a must read to get up to date in anti guerilla warfare techniques, but also to discover how implanted in Ecuador the FARC Reyes camp was. Very enlightening wen one wonders what were doing there the Mexicans that got killed and who were the buzz of Mexican papers while I was there a few days ago. The ramifications of the FARC and the complicities it benefited from go much deeper than many a head of state must have suspected. Calderon for example must have received quite a wake up call.

Update: well, the rumors of Uranium accounts in the Reyes computer seems to be confirming as the Colombian defense ministry is right now digging in some Bogota neighborhood perhaps as much as 30 kilos of low grade Uranium. Low grade perhaps for a nuclear plant, but good enough for a small dirty bomb?

-The end-

I will boycott the Beijing Games

[updated and updated again]

Once again the crass errors of the International Olympic Committee and their desire for cash out of lucrative sponsor contracts have put us in front of the obligation to choose whether supporting Olympic Games held in a totally undemocratic country. When Beijing got the nod for this summer games, I already thought it was a mistake, that after the fiasco of granting the games to Moscow in 1980, the IOC would have known better than to take a chance with China. Yet a few voices were convincing enough to tell us that there were profound changes taking place in China and granting Beijing the games (above much better suited places such as Paris, by the way) could only but speed up these changes.

Today we know that once again we were lied to by the likes of IOC chair Rogge, a curiously appropriate name in the light of the extreme discretion of the IOC over China constant violations of Human Rights.

After the protests in Greece when the Olympic torch was lighted, Rogge had the nerve to state again that it was good to award the games to China, and again told us about his alleged "silent diplomacy". Unfortunately that was very easy to debunk since there might be a "silent diplomacy" to pressure China but the results are even more silent, when not deafening in Tibet.

So, for the second time in my life I will be forced to ignore an Olympic Games. But this time I will also list all the sponsors that are supporting the games of a country that promotes such awful regimes as Burma or Sudan and its Darfur genocide, besides the obvious repression in Tibet and its continuous colonial policy of "Chinification". Those sponsors include some companies very easy to boycott for me such as Coca Cola, Samsung, Panasonic or McDonald. Some will be a little more tricky such as Johnson and Johnson or Visa (I guess my MC bills will increase as of now). Some will be a pleasure to boycott such as Lenovo or lousy beer maker Budweiser. At any rate, and thankfully, some are surely already regretting the millions unwisely invested. As for me I will have to buy my future flat screen TV from SONY, unless I find it also involved in that scam. In Venezuela Panasonic and Samsung are cheaper than SONY, to give you some perspective.

Of course it is dreadfully sad for the athletes, those who in the end pay up for the follies of the IOC. Right now my boycott is "passive" in that I will ignore the games and boycott the sponsors. But if China keeps the pressure up on Tibet and if the IOC does not at least comes out a little bit cleaner, well, too bad for the athletes. But some are already feeling the winds such as recent French swimming sensation Alain Bernard or even Sarkozy who sort of admitted that France will boycott the opening ceremony. That might be enough humiliation for the Chinese leadership considering their sensitivity to losing face, perhaps even better than an actual boycott. After all, if you are in Beijing but refuse to be pictured next to any Chinese official.....

For those who have qualms I will recommend an article by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post, of which I will pick up a paragraph:
"The Olympics are a force for good." Not always! The 1936 Olympics, held in Nazi Germany, were an astonishing propaganda coup for Hitler. It's true that the star performance of Jesse Owens, the black American track-and-field great, did shoot some holes in the Nazi theory of Aryan racial superiority. But Hitler still got what he wanted out of the Games. With the help of American newspapers such as the New York Times, which opined that the Games put Germany "back in the family of nations again," he convinced many Germans, and many foreigners, to accept Nazism as "normal." The Nuremberg laws were in force, German troops had marched into the Rhineland, Dachau was full of prisoners, but the world cheered its athletes in Berlin. As a result, many people, both in and out of Germany, reckoned that everything was just fine and that Hitler could be tolerated a bit longer.
Still not convinced? Well, look at the vehement defense of Chavez and his strange agreement with George Bush on this matter. By the way, Chavez never adverse to sink further in ridicule as long as it gets him a head line stated that the whole Tibet thing is again a ploy of the Empire. I wonder what he said when told that Bush does not want to boycott. But then Bush does represent some of the wealthy sponsors of the games, does he not

PS: as a reminder I will like the readers of this Internet page to remember that China is one of these Internet dark holes, along Libya, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Belarus.

[Update] And to top it off, the Washington Post carries a great editorial on the whole business, showing clearly how the hypocrite "silent diplomacy" of Rogge et al has pathetically failed.

[Update 2] Looks like more cartoonists are into that boycott bandwagon, Rayma and Weil regale us with two cartoons that need no comment.

-The end-

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Chavismo economic policies: a perfect symbol

This beginning of year, after the currency change to BsF., we have been under the aggression of diverse governmental measures that are supposed to lower inflation, stimulate job creation and all sorts of other things that under the last 9 years the government has demonstrated its utter incompetence in creating outside the direct spreading of oil revenue. With new luminaries like El Troudi in charge, needless to say that no one is holding its breath awaiting success, in particular when one of the first measures is to change the way inflation is measured....

Anyway, if the value of currency is the golden standard by which any macro economic policies are judged, then today Rayma cartoon says it all.

-The end-

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Chavez media predictable failure

Today is Easter and also the end of two weeks away from easily accessible internet. Thus, since it is Easter, and according to my counter most readers have deserted the blog for the week, I decided to restart posting with a piece of good news: evidence that the media communication offensive of Chavez is destined to failure, no matter how many millions he sinks in or how many media he manages to close. He might manage at best to reduce the flow of information that proves the failure of his regime but he will not be able to stop it. The evidence came to me surprisingly examining a set of pictures that I took at day break on my way to the airport for Mexico. Taking advantage of my new zoom lens I wanted to picture the huge slums that are on the Planicie Tunnel, to show how little things have changed after 9 years of chavismo.

From this picture it is clear that this chavista hardcore electorate area has not had much improvement in its day to day life. Perhaps a few Barrio Adentro modules that allow for free aspirin and cough syrup, but the trudge up and down the hill is still the same, the water supply problem is still the same, the food supply problem is still the same and we can guess that from the closeness the crowding and personal security problem are still the same. I am optimist, I wrote "still the same" when in fact it might have gotten worse, for example when people must walk twice as much for a single kilo of essential powder milk.

But if the above picture speaks for itself as to chavismo overall failure, another one gave me quite an hindsight as to how fed up people are with Chavez cadenas.

In this image where I was trying to illustrate from closer the living conditions, the first thing that struck me was the amount of satellite TV dishes, Venezuelan Direct TV. After all the precarious existence of the dwellers is obvious, again after 9 years of chavismo. What is less obvious is the amount of satellite dishes, something that did not exist there 9 years ago. How come at the very least 10-20% (I was able to distinguish 24 dishes, marked with a pink dot next to them) of these homes are paying the most expensive cable system in Venezuela? Click to enlarge and to see if you can find more dishes than I did.

On the practical part, land line cable is simple very difficult to set up in such areas. Besides investment cannot be recouped for the very simple reason that illegal connection will bloom as soon as a network is set up. Chavismo has been terribly lax with property, material or intellectual, and cable systems are simply defenseless against piracy in Venezuela. Thus the inhabitants have only two options: Direct TV of free open broadcast signal.

Unfortunately open broadcast is less and less of an option. RCTV was closed last year and as such it created a major "entertainment" problem in that it was a major source of soap operas. These days the major news network Globovision is under serious threat of been closed in turn. But the other two private networks have censored themselves a lot on the news front and have not been able to step in to replace RCTV in entertainment as people simply resent the fact that they have no more choice between soaps: there is only the Venevision soaps, the Brazilian soaps of Televen and that is that.

But the key factor here is the constant intromission of the government in the broadcast system. First there is the "cadena" problem where the government hijacks ALL TV and RADIO signal SIMULTANEOUSLY for AS LONG AS IT WISHES to pass any propaganda or speech of Chavez. These can last several hours and that night, well, there is nothing on TV but the same vociferating Chavez in any dial number. If that was not bad enough, the government has barred new private networks to emerge while it has increased the state owned networks. From the original VTV in in 1998, now we have also ViVe and ANTV, Tves upon the ruins of RCTV, and in Caracas Avila TV, the nationalization of one small operator into Telesur, and some other local stuff, plus some private but cryptic pro Chavez such as Canal i. In other words, as the private sector is squeezed out of media, the state increase its presence with mostly propaganda, political programming and lousy entertainment.

So what is the harassed worker to do, the worker who had to leave the hight of his hill before day break and who probably returns past sunset to his home? He wants entertainment, mindless or not, and VTV will not give it. Thus he needs to scrap all the money he can to get a satellite dish.

Now this is very bad news for Chavez because banning for example Globovision from open air broadcast in Caracas will not work. First, if the closing RCTV was a PR disaster, the closing of Globovision will be the official end of freedom of expression in Venezuela. The national and international consequences this time will not be as easily avoided.

But second and more important, hiding information that exposes the badly manged country will not be possible. While I was away we had the fabulous border concert organized by Juanes for peace in Latin America. Well, if you looked at any of the state media listed above you would had never known that such a concert took place, and even less of its success. Unfortunately for Chavez such news reaches the population. So, even for those who do not have access to Direct TV, those who cannot afford it, they will still manage to know those who have access to Direct TV and in time of trouble will ask them what is really going on, or bring a six pack of beer to split with the dish owner at news time. With only 10% of barrios already having a satellite dish, news cannot be hidden anymore, CNN is not subjected to cadena, RCTV neither and if Globovision is kicked out of open air broadcast it will also be exempt from following cadenas. Only open signal networks are subject to cadenas. Paradoxically information might circulate better, have more impact as even hardcore chavistas will start to suspect that government is really trying to hide stuff.

No matter what minister Izarra is saying trying to justify his job to Chavez, chavismo will either fail or will be forced into suppression of freedom of expression.

-The end-

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Easter week break open thread

I am back from a short business trip just to leave again for the Holy Week Venezuelan recess. This year I am skipping from the start and I am going to get lost in the middle of nowhere again. No Internet although there are many posts I would like to do (one more Mexican inspired, one PUS electoral fiasco inspired, one more milk policies inspired). But I am taking my lap top (I will have electricity at least a few hours a day) and hopefully inspiration might come: after all, hammocks are great places to take a lap top with you and write. If anything I might bring back more flower pictures from the Palos de Maria and Nazarenos who should be about ready to start their show.

I suppose, and I hope, that after three months of incredibly perturbing and perturbed activities the government will take the chance to rest some this week, the more so that Wednesday is a holiday of its own so for all practical purposes state offices and banks will be closed from Wednesday to Monday after Easter. It would do good to Chavez to take a breather, I really mean it in a good way.

Meanwhile like many Venezuelans I will disappear for a week, for a well deserved rest. For those who might wonder how come I did not stay in Mexico since I was already there I will reply that there is nothing better than spending a Semana Santa in the Venezuelan country side when you can be far from everything, picking up yourself your limes and oranges for your drinks to be taken in a hammock under a shady large veranda. If you are lucky, there will be some milk and fresh queso de mano from your neighbor's cows, and if heat bothers you, a hose never feels better than in the worst part of the dry season. If crowds tempt you, there are always the local colorful church activities for the Holy Days, and if your car AC works fine, no one is stopping you from visiting remote villages and seek their folk treasures. After all the crowds went to the beaches or the Andes and the rest of the country belongs to whomever wants it. Heat and dust are a small price to pay for the privilege to seat on Tacusiapon shaded Bolivar Square sipping una colita in front of the old colonial style church.

Meanwhile you can keep posting comments as for the very first time I will declare this a free thread post (though trolling remains a But do not be surprised if they do not show up for a couple of days. I will take my Treo with me so if I reach a hot spot of sorts I will try to approve comments. So there, your chance to discuss anything you want, time delay mode (I am still trying to get a ghost moderator, but they also seem to be skipping town...)

-The end-

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The UNAM of Mexico city

I left Mexico. But before I write more about my stay there, to start this post there is a little clue about where I might be now. For those who did not get it on the first try, another shot in the woods.

The trip to Mexico City was more cultural than usual. First, I managed to visit all the halls of the Museum of Anthropology. That is, I finally recovered from the shock of my very first visit to the city when half the rooms where closed in particular the Maya one.

But as luck had it, business had me for a full day at the famous UNAM of illustrious trajectory, from the Olympic games and the Tlatelolco massacre to the current controversy about the UNAM students that happened to be in the Reyes camp when that one was bombed by the Colombian army. Now, I do not want to get into the grit of this, but how did these students got to the secret camp of Reyes? Needless to say that as I visited Mexican public opinion got suddenly aware of what the FARC meant on how it pushes its sick tentacles inside Mexico, and the UNAM.

But the UNAM today is a splendid campus. Perhaps not as neatly conserved as some famous US colleagues, but infinitely better conserved and organized than the Caracas UCV. The contrast is just almost unbearable as we see how Venezuelan successive governments have sort of abandoned the UCV even as this one has been declared a World site. Now, under the current administration the UCV body is in direct confrontation with the state and the consequences can be felt, including shooting of the students by forces as evil as the ones that shot the UNAM students that were at Tlatelolco square, under a PRI administration that tried to project a leftist liberal image to the world, just as the Chavez pantomime.

The UNAM today is, as I could observe through privileged work reasons, an active campus, with a dynamic research. Perhaps not as high tech as much better endowed universities up North but up to date enough to offer its brightest students a chance at a real academic career. The college I visited had a good atmosphere, students looking like students, spending their break on the well tended grass fields. If the buildings show a little bit of aging, they are clean and not run down the way we see many buildings at the UCV in spite of its best efforts. Simply put, maybe the Mexican government does not give the UNAM as much money as it should or that one would like to receive, but I have a clear idea that the UNAM gets proportionally much more from the Mexican system than what the UCV gets from the Venezuelan one. And certainly the UNAM staff cannot be accused of being close to the Mexican ruling class..... I also sensed that faculty at the UNAM was more accountable to results than the one at the UCV, but that is another discussion and even if chavismo is right in pointing such "productivity" problems, its offered solutions are not solutions and will only aggravate the problem of the decaying level of Venezuelan higher education.

But there was more to surprise me. First, the campus had a neat system of free bus to go all around Campus. And it works because traffic is kept in check, illegal parking is near inexistent and work study students (?) directing crossings and circulation is impressive. I will remind the reader that Mexico is also a Latin country, as messy as any other one but yet when they want they can establish enough order to make life enjoyable for all. This concept under chavismo has become totally alien to our society as we are slowly descending in utter chaos. Read the latest example narrated by Miguel where students are too worried about occupying space even if this implies a "burnt earth" strategy.

The other thing that surprised me was the bookstores around campus where piracy does not prevail as it prevails in Venezuelan campuses. The direct consequence on the lack of will by the Venezuelan government to control piracy of intellectual property is that Venezuelan bookstores are getting increasingly poorer of teaching material. Around the UNAM the problem is certainly not as bad and this blogger had the joy to sink himself in such book worm pleasures that he bought 5 technical texts to bring back home, at a significant cost in excess weight. And he resisted himself the temptation to dig into art and historical books, otherwise he might have missed his plane next day.....

This profusion of book stores in addition to one of the most famous library buildings (picture above) is no accident: the UNAM is indeed a center of culture and it reeks of it at every corner. Just a look at its web page will dazzle you by all the cultural activities offered which by themselves are infinitely superior in quality and quantity than all that Venezuela has to offer these sad days where creeps like Farruco Sesto preside over the regimentation of Kultur!

This last picture resumes in a way the surprisingly placid outlook of the huge UNAM where business seems to be to think more than to make politics. Even though Mexico is still not out of the Obrador accusations, you would never have guessed it from a UNAM visit. Even if the UNAM is a world on its own, a large city with all its services and problems, it functions, it looks to the future and is not immersed in navel gazing and acrid recriminations. But chavismo is clearly not interested in such a campus style: here campuses are to create the new Venezuelan man through political education. Technical education and critical thinking can take a back seat for the time being. We are going to pay this dearly. Meanwhile the UNAM can manage highly skilled professionals and dreamers wild enough to join the FARC. That tells you all.

And yes, I have been totally enthralled by the blooming jacarandas, I shot dozens of pictures just of them. But I think that three are enough for a single post.

-The end-

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chavez in bed with the FARC

This IBD cartoon needs no comment. Hat tip PMB.

-The end-

The Mexican milk problem

Grocery shopping is always a must when I travel. And no matter how often I visit a given place. Great place to see how the natives live.

This time I discovered "la comercial", a sort of low middle class shopping. Everything is here, but sort of stacked up on the cheap, no frill decoration, semi warehouse, not even muzak. I certainly went to check out what the Mexican do have that we do not. OF course, we must make certain corrections in that there are almost as many people in Mexico City than in Venezuela so certainly variety of brands is a given. But Mexico also suffers of a climate that does not make it particularly favorable to milk production. About half the country is arid to desert like or too mountainous for any use. And how many Mexicans at that, with a considerably rising income these past few years. Surely they must be having a milk shortage even worse than Venezuela, if the economic theories of Chavez are right on shrinking world supply. We have been told that the milk shortages in Venezuela are solely due to larger income of the poor and the difficulty to find milk to buy since them naughty Chinese have started eating morning cereal.

So let's see what I found.

First picture is the huge section of long duration, UHT, milk. Variety and quantity and in cases is the word. In Venezuela when you find such milk, you are usually limited to no more than 6 liters at best. Here you can buy two cases and no one will say peep squeak.

But wait! There is more, right after another full aisle of milk, with lactose tolerant stuff, etc, etc...

Curiously the fresh milk section was not too large, even smaller than a Venezuelan one, in those halcyon days when you coudl buy all the fresh milk you wanted any time. Still, it was quite well stocked, no? In spite of the yogurt hanging there....

The powder milk was also a rater small section but with a diversity that we used to have in Venezuela and that now we cannot even dream on... Then again why woudl "la commercial" have a big powder milk section when folks can get enough of the other varieties?

So? What gives? How come Mexicans in a neighborhood that does not look any better than, say, El Paraiso or Sabana Grande have so much milk? Boat just shipped in? Smarter at snatching milk away from them greedy Chinese? Do they just happen to produce enough for their needs?

Did Chavez lie to us? Or does he want us not to eat cholesterol foods so he created this scarcity at home? Meanwhile, by typing the search words "food shortages" on the top left of this page you will be able to find plenty of picture of missing items in Venezuela, such as milk. Draw your own conclusions.

-The end-

Monday, March 10, 2008

For from the maddening crowd

Traveling outside of Venezuela for not even a week, but in a country where hotels have free WiFi all over, not like in Venezuela where they are way, way more expensive, and lousy WiFi if any. Here is the first picture clue, a blooming jacaranda lined avenue of the city where I am at. Let's see who guesses it first (don't bother magnifying it as much as possible, I tried to chose the right pixels to make it illegible). Tomorrow another clue if necessary.

A quick note on what a shitty work do some of the international press does when reporting on LatAm. In previous post I described a little bit the Santo Domingo meeting of the Rio group where Correa and Chavez had to swallow their earlier threats and accept to tone down their words against Uribe.

But lo' and behold, the French nightly news says that Chavez was the big victor because he showed a mediator skill!. What? A mediator the guy who expelled Colombian embassy personnel, the guy who closed the border, the guy who sent 10 divisions even if the dispute was not with him, the guy who has copiously insulted Uribe for now three months? Please...... Where have the French been?

But one of the papers of the country I am at now had a very interesting comment: the Rio group is different from OAS in that it is kind of a family gathering. All is in Spanish as the only non Spanish speaking country is Brazil, which manages enough Spanish anyway, and where in addition Lula did not show up which means that Amorim, the foreign minister did not even speak. So, free form the diplomatic inhibitions that the anglo saxons countries of the continent bring, the squabbling was bright, loud and ended up as a family dispute ends: we all hug again and pretend that nothing happened.

That is why we all in LatAm now that Uribe scored big and why some naive souls elsewhere (not in Spain) misinterpreted the dramatic fallback of Chavez as a conciliatory speech. They just do not get our cultural quirks.

In the case of the French it is even more irritating because the French historically have been particularly off the mark when LatAm is concerned, probably much more tone deaf than the US on that respect. Apparently they have not learned anything since the French sponsored Mexican empire. The French love the romance of bearded guerillero more than any one else and France was perhaps the last country of Europe who finally ditched Castro. Curiously the French left was not as seduced by Chavez but the right is still seeing things in Chavez that no one else sees. But this is probably due to the Ingrid Betancourt affair since she was well "connected" to the French right. So perhaps in addition to real sloppy journalism, with obviously lots of home work to do, we might also see a lingering projection on the Ingrid worry, hoping that any "renewal" of Chavez image can only speed up the release of Ingrid, a release that was made considerably more difficult when the French transformed Ingrid in THE hostage, the one that mattered (at least for them).

In fact what the French do not realize is that the recent humiliation of Chavez might be the best thing that has happened to the cause of Ingrid. Now, that is the last card the FARC has left to improve their image. AS the computers keep revealing their secrets (and they are just starting to read the hard drive of the Ivan Rios one), the FARC image can only get worse. They thus have only one option to retake the initiative: to release Ingrid ASAP. That is, if someone is left alive that can order such a release....

-The end-

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Prozac for everybody! Kiss and make up in Santo Domingo

I am traveling so little time to follow up close the news. Too bad because today was truly something. No time to put links, so you will need to take me on faith from my radio and TV occasional glimpses.

The Rio group gathers in Santo Domingo

Well, the scheduled reunion was expected to end up with someone punching someone's else face and it ended up fine, to everyone surprise. It seems that eventually common sense prevailed, that Chavez and Correa realizing that their broadband insulting of Uribe was not taking them anywhere decided to take a breather. So, let's distribute awards.

The big victor of the day award

Lionel Fernandez, who as president of Dominican Republic and the host demonstrated extraordinary skill in shepherding his summit and obtaining a positive result. When he finishes his term he has a promising future at the UN or the OAS.

The come from behind winner

Uribe, no question. After the OAS summit he kept pressing, standing firm, calling everyone's bluff and it paid off. At the end drunkard Ortega had to withdraw his earlier break up with Colombia, shit faced Correa had to shake Uribe's hand and Chavez had to salute him. The winner of the round, no question. His walk around the table to go and reach out to Correa will remain in the annals of direct diplomacy.

The sour puss award

Correa. He knew he was beaten, that he had more to lose than to win trying to make a mountain of a mole hill. So he relented and allowed for a conciliatory moment. He still benefits from the OAS inquiry commission to recoup, but tonight he is in full retreat. But his face and the one of his foreign minister told the story.

The back from the abyss award

We must give him something: he lost graciously, at least by his standard. Although it was clear he was pissed when Uribe stood up and walk to Correa, as a consummate showman Chavez knew that Uribe was nailing it. So, he decided to accept with a big smile Uribe calling on him. Months of insulting Uribe to end up pitifully like that. But at least he minimized as much as possible the damage to his image today. We must grant him that cleverness. The question now is if there is no coming war with Colombia, at least in the next weks, what is Chavez going to do when he comes back to an ever deteriorating home front? "tanto nadar para ahogarse en la orilla" (so much swimming to drown at the shore).

Bad move of the day

Chavez invited to attend the summit two people that had no business there: Piedad Cordoba and Yolanda Pulecio. As a diplomatic summit the Colombian senator and the mother of Ingrid, clearly suffering form a bad case of Stockholm syndrome, were a silly ploy by Chavez to try to impress Uribe. As usual, he underestimated the man who not only accepted this unaccountable intrusion but went ahead saying all what he had to say anyway, perhaps even morally strengthened. Thus we had Chavez the manipulator and Uribe the statesman in an even starker contrast.

And these two women degraded their image inside Colombia even further where now they can be treated as traitors in the public opinion eyes. I wonder if Ingrid is ever released alive if she will thank her mother for the delays she caused to her freedom as being such a convenient puppet of Chavez and the FARC... But if Ms. Pulecio had at least an emotional excuse, Cordoba had none. Banking on the discomfiture of the president of her country in public sitting on the side that was supposed to do the humiliation, she will pay the consequences. Such political errors rarely remain unpunished.

Grim moment of the day

Perhaps the success of Uribe today could also be explained by the news that had been circulating. Ivan Rios, FARC number 4 was killed three days ago (was the release of the info a planned strategy by Colombia today?). Thus in a week FARC loses 2 and 4.

But it got worse when details came. It was the body guards of Ivan who killed their boss to cash the bounty. And they sent to the army as a safe conduct the severed right hand of Ivan, his computer and his ID papers. Ah! The lovely FARC that Chavez, Correa, Cordoba and assorted jerks think is worthy to support....

-The end-

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Urgent: Chavez announces the end of trade with Colombia

Chavez is doing a cadena with Correa. Well, carried on with emotion Chavez has announced that the 6 billion dollar trade with Colombia is over. That Colombian business in Venezuela will be listed and possibly bought out (taken over?) and that whatever Venezuela has in Colombia will be sold. Even the gasoduct of Guajira might be shut down.

My first comment, for those who have a car, go out and buy as many spare parts as you can as I was told that about 50% of Venezuelan spare parts come from Colombia. Do stock up on underwear too, the lion's share of the market is "ropa intima colombiana"... And let's not talk about food stuff.

Chavez is certifiable........

PS: I wonder, again, if Uribe would be alloted so much TV space to insult Chavez, simultaneously on all the Colombian media, all TV AND radio. I also wonder again if VTV will give 5 minutes to Uribe.

-The end-

Prozac is starting to hit the spot


The good news today is that Ecuador and Colombia managed to negotiate an agreement at the OAS that both could endorse. Quite a feat. Even the US voted for it. The OAS does the first positive acting it has done in years.

All voted to criticize the interference in one country by another one. Of course they would: Latin America history is plagued from across the border raids. Even today, does any one think that, for example, Kirchner has never thought about bombing that paper mill in Uruguay that is causing him so much trouble at home. Of course he did, and of course Tabare Vasquez wondered if there was a way to knock out these pesky Argentineans blocking the bridges. But they would not do it and they would not support ANY country that would do such a thing because, well, that could bite them in the rear real quick.... That is why diplomacy was invented for, something that Chavez will never grasp. No matter how much, say, Alan Garcia approved of Uribe actions, he will never say so in public and received instead Correa with warm hugs. Instead Chavez would open his big mouth in a reverse situation (say, Ecuador rescuing FARC inside Colombia), and that is why he keeps running into more and more trouble and getting more and more isolated tot he attic, like those weird uncles we all have.

So, in spite of the fiery rhetoric, the OAS did what it is supposed to do: cool down the mood and set up a commission to check into the events. Then someday there might be a report to condemn someone, but it will done in an orderly fashion, containing the conflict to manageable proportions until some solution finally comes up. If North Viet Nam and the US managed the Paris talks, I am pretty sure that relations will reopen between Quito and Bogota sooner than what the MSM would like them to.

Another one who seems to have his Prozac function better was Sarkozy. He gave a press conference to Colombian media, something of course that Chavez would never do these days even though Sarkozy is hardly more palatable than Chavez over Colombia these days. In short, Sarkozy did not approve the Colombian raid but added that he certainly understood that Uribe had his reasons... I can imagine the pregnant pause that this must have caused in some LatAm chanceries...

But it got better: Sarkozy said that the FARC had no other option but to release Ingrid Betancourt ASAP if they wanted to preserve any hope to ever be recognized as better than a narco-terrorist organization. That is right, Sarkozy implied that there was no more 300 million payments to the FARC or retreats inside Venezuela and Ecuador: the solution of this whole problem was in the hands of the FARC. That he added that Uribe understood that the solution could not be only military was in fact a reinforcement of the message to the FARC: do the political thing and release Ingrid because if the FARC also choses only the military exit then Uribe might just win.

Update: Two for whom Prozac is not kicking in yet are Chavez and Correa who is visiting tonight. We have a cadena by the way. I doubt Uribe will have five minutes on VTV, but such is the concept of communication in the glorious revolution.... Anyway, they are using the cadena to mostly insult Colombia and treat all of its government of liars and up. Now, as I have expressed earlier, Uribe might be all these things and then some more, but the words of Chavez and Correa tonight raise more questions: why the OAS effort today to again undo it all tonight? why provoking incessantly? Is it enough to state your point of view a couple of times? Why such a sad spectacle where right now as I type I hear Chavez repeating for the nth time that Uribe is a compulsory liar? I mean, if we were doing a liars competition Chavez would be a front runner.....

Again, two ladies protesting way, way too much.... I must say that I am a little bit disappointed in Correa. I had never any positive expectations about Chavez, ever, but I thought that Correa who has been around the world, who has some real education, would understand that the spectacle he is giving tonight is not helping him a bit. As I type right now they are calling some Colombians psychotic and laughing at it as if it were a big joke. In other words, Correa might indeed be a "cachorro" of Chavez. Birds of a feather......

-The end-

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The war at home: Chavez against Venezuela?

I am not too sure whether some war actions are actually taking place on the Colombian border, but the war at home is certainly growing. Let's first start with the general mood, splendidly given by this Weil cartoon which was the front page of Tal Cual.

Mom: Take care of yourself at the border
Son: Don't worry Mom, I will write everyday
Mom: And if you can also send me milk, chicken and eggs

Because thsi is the real mood here, the real war, how to find ALL the basic food staples that you need and that are imported in increasing amounts. A couple of mines dropped by Colombia in front of Puerto Cabello and La Guaira and in a few weeks we are all starving. Because this is what keeping people awake at night, what line will they have to take to find X, what hospital will be able to handle situation Y, how they need to hide their cash and cell phone when they go around doing these activities (hospitals by the way are racked by common crime as patients lose everything if left alone for the night while doctors get mugged during their rounds). And let's not talk about the degradation of school quality, job quality, everyday life quality, things that cannot in any possible way get better through a war with Colombia. WE ALL KNOW THAT and that is why Chavez is seen as increasingly alone on this matter except for the red shirted flapping seals that surround his circus.

Elides Rojas, the director of El Universal, (HT C.) wonders openly about who will be distributing chicken and food stuff if soldiers are at the border; and how officers war on cholesterol and triglycerides will prepare them to fight against Colombia. It is supposedly a humorous piece but in fact it reads as a searing indictment of the Venezuelan army.

And the Tal Cual editorial that accompanies the cartoon is yet another indictment as its veiled implication is whether Chavez is in fact doing war on us, taking the opportunity to purge once again his entourage. It should be noted that as this typing, I am not aware of any new defensive measure that Colombia might have taken. Uribe knows very well that Chavez will not dare attack and that soon frontier circulation will start again as Venezuela will cry "uncle" without Colombia firing a shot.

That the head of state sings, dances, insults or brags on television may be objectionable or laughable, as you see fit, but it is ultimately inoffensive and inconsequential. However it has never happened and should not be tolerated that an entire nation is to be put on alert, ordered to mobilize troops and nearly putting Venezuela on a war footing, through "Alo, Presidente". This time Chavez went too far. To take such a decision and made to hip-hop dance in front of the cameras does not prove anything other than a supreme irresponsibility on the part of those who govern us today.

The former defense minister, Raul Isaias Baduel, has arguments when he notes that Chavez interference in a matter that does not concern us directly and provoke the Colombian government to respond to his verbal attacks and military threats, is none other than one evil attempt to mount a media show.

The president intends to convert the Colombian government in the "enemy" because it desperately needs to appeal to nationalism to divert attention from Venezuelans from the real and urgent domestic problems and seeks to bring all together around him, as a figure of power.

But that formula, as Baduel said, does not work. First, because Chavez is no longer the messianic leader of the past to the masses who followed blindly. Second, because the idea of Colombia, the most brotherly of our neighboring countries, as a real threat and potential aggressor was discarded after the Bogota government reaffirmed its commitment to peaceful means and announced that it would not mobilize troops.

In this race messianic to promote conflict at any cost, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro chimed from the AN that the operation carried out the weekend against the FARC in Colombia equatorial soil was actually scheduled to be held in Venezuela in September 2007.

That same night, Minister of the Interior, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, told the joke of the laptop left by the murderers of Wilber Varela (aka Jabon) next to his body, so that the Venezuelan authorities could, a month later denounce connections the narco with Colombian officials. Silliness of this magnitude is conceivable only in the head of Rodríguez Chacín, an official with "impeccable credentials and operational military "from the slaughter of Amparo and who on political issues is a functional illiterate. Chavez meanwhile, watches from the stands the show that he mounted and keeps a prudent silence.

For all practical purposes, even after the stupid communique of last night, the war is over, the one at home is just starting.

-The end-

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The world panics, Venezuelans and Colombia stay cool

The French love maps. Must be something from the Napoleonic wars. With a new little Napoleon in charge in Paris, one should not be surprised to see Le Monde put a map of the military campaign against Colombia.

It comes complete, with FARC influence areas (curiously quite close from the borders, no?), troops moving, and where Reyes was killed.

I am sure that somewhere in France someone must be looking for the next Austerlitz (or is that Waterloo?)

The only problem is this very same Le Monde article also states that the Colombian army is not moving, that it has nothing to fear, that basically it does not care, that they can move fast any time they want, that they prefer to spend time taking Chavez to international courts for sponsoring the FARC.

It does not say, but I can vouch for it, that Venezuelans are going around their everyday business as if nothing. If there is a war atmosphere it is in the mind of a few hysterical chavistas. There is no "union sacrée".

(Hat Tip Kepler)

-The end-

The lady does protest too much: Venezuela and Ecuador should rein their mouths some

[updated 1 and 2]

As expected, Ecuador broke relations with Colombia and nowhere were the Venezuelan army to be seen in larger numbers at the Colombian borders. No excitement by the way in the streets. At least in San Felipe there is ZERO war fervor: Chavez is alone on that one. Actually today many were reproaching Chavez to have kept a minute of silence for Reyes when he barely bothered about the 43 people who died in a plane crash in Merida a few days ago. Not to mention the hundreds who are murdered every month in Venezuela.

No, what was interesting today was the difference between those who talked, too much, and those who retained some composure and sobriety.

Ecuador rattles

Correa of Ecuador started well on Saturday but since then Ecuador has become rather incoherent. It all seems to have started when the computers of the FARC were found by the Colombian army at the wreckage scene. One of the first revelations was that the Ecuador foreign minister was "in touch" with the FARC. He promptly admitted it but we had to wait today for details. I saw his speech, and I saw that he was a rather lousy speaker, not something to be expected from a foreign minister. Then again that he was caught in fraganti did not help, for sure. But what was worse is that he had the nerve to claim he was negotiating the release of 12, TWELVE, hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt. Yeah, right... The FARC were going to give to Ecuador twice as many hostages than they gave to Chavez including their top possession. Who does he think he is kidding with such a preposterous assumption? Gee, Ecuador government is even more naive than what I thought! Or more stupid. Your pick.

Correa gave an interview to CNN's Patricia Janiot where he tried to dodge the bullet. One of his claim was that the border of Ecuador cost 100 million a year to keep up and Colombia does not do anything on its side. Maybe, but that still does not explain why the FARC found easy refuge on that side of the border. The issue will not let go: Ecuador is perfectly right to protest against Colombia the violation of its own space but Colombia has also the right to point out the shitty job that Ecuador does of guarding its border. As long as Correa does not deal with that, he can break all the relations he wants with Colombia, he will be less than convincing. I can see from this that Correa is nothing more than a cheap politician with some charisma and lost of ambition who will not balk at anything to keep his hold on power even if Ecuador will be more hurt by a disruption of commerce with Colombia than Colombia would. At least that is what I heard from experts who say that for example 15% of electricity of Ecuador comes from Colombia.

Venezuela babbles

In Caracas things were hardly better. Apparently Chavez has been silent today, probably realizing that he shot enough his foot and that others should come to the forefront to fix things up some. Unfortunately once upon a time he had an operator like Jose Vicente Rangel who could not fix much inside Venezuela but who at least could present some more credible image to the foreign observers. Now Chavez has only Maduro and Rodriguez Chacin, a failed bus driver now foreign minister and a thug now Interior and security minister.

Maduro went to the National Assembly. He made a cheap chauvinistic act, criticized the Venezuelan opposition for not rallying the way the Colombian one was doing around Uribe (I kid you not), spoke of all sorts of things that seemed like coming from Cliff notes from the Cuban staff in Venezuela (they were that dated), and climaxed announcing that Venezuela had asked all the Colombian embassy staff to leave the country. Not a complete break up but same difference.

Rodriguez Chacin presentation was even worse. Not only the man looks even more of an ignorant thug than ever, but he freely qualified the Colombia government of fascist. I mean, even if it is true you do not do that. How can he pick up the pieces later? Is Uribe calling Chavez in public a commie? Well, I suppose not since Chavez acts much more like a fascist than Uribe...

But the highlight was when Rodriguez Chacin pulled out a computer form a manila envelope (I kid you not) and said it was the one from 'Jabon', the infamous narco killed a few weeks ago in Merida. He said that in this computer he got as many convenient proofs against Colombian officials than what they were saying they found in the Reyes lap top. To a stunned audience he told that he did not reveal anything before, because of his "ethics", leaving the audience even more stunned. I mean, what ethics are we discussing here, those between two narco groups supporting each other and having rules of engagement, or the ethics that a chief security officer should have about the Venezuelan populace? Because if Rodriguez did really had such evidence for quite a while, it was his duty to warn Uribe of his staff dealing in drug trafficking. Unless Rodriguez was collabrating with the US or something in order to expose a major drug cartel. Of such a possibility he said nothing, just "ethics", even when a Colombian reporter asked him again why he did not reveal such crucial information. Yeah, right, the ethics of the mafia mob.....

Colombia remains focused

Colombians know a good thing when they hold it, they are forging ahead, revealing what they know, and not getting at all in the ridicule tit for tat that the other guys want to drag them into. No matter what tantrums Chavez and Correa throw, and what the rest of Latin America might hold in particularly fake crocodile tears, the Uribe staff is in control. Well, maybe they are getting into some tit-tatting but they are definitely much less hysterical than their neighbors.

So Colombia calmly said that they would not be mobilizing anything to any border and that instead they will go tot he OAS to protest the protection given to the FARC by Venezuela and Ecuador and the implication for the OAS raison d'être that is . In other words, Uribe is going to call the bluff of Venezuela at the OAS and might be the one wrecking the now totally useless body. I bet you that Insulza must be having cold sweats at the prospect of seeing himself ridiculed just when preparing to launch his candidature to Chile presidency. Oh well, too bad for the most insignificant and enabler chief in recent OAS memory.

Meanwhile, an instant poll revealed a Uribe floating at a stratospheric 84%. The opposition rallies and only a few voices pray that Uribe will not use this to seek a third term.

France confesses before it is caught

Perhaps the amusing detail of today was the admission by Kouchner that France was in direct contact with Reyes. Probably they preferred to mention it before the Colombians had the time to announce to the world that France was doing behind the back dealing with the enemies of the Colombian state. I suspect that foreign minister Kouchner will not be received any time soon in Bogota as the French now have also lost any credibility in the whole business, Ingrid being now reason enough for them to flout any convention, at the risk to destabilize gravely whole countries. France has been so reckless, so inconsiderate of the problem that it is simply astounding! Heck! Kouchner with total lack of diplomacy said that Ingrid should be released first.

Conclusion? Watching all of these people today, just on gut feeling, I trusted more the Colombians than anyone else. For starters Colombian officials speak in whole constructed sentences. Second they are composed. Third, the arguments of the other side are too numerous and too contrived. Maybe Colombia is a liar, but the ones that look like jerks are form the other side.

Besides let's not forget one thing, after decades in the jungles, a bitter Reyes might have started fantasizing in his own computer so everyone might be a liar. However, "el que se rasca es porque algo le pica", those who scratch themselves it is because they have an itch.... I will leave it at that....

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

Update 1: This Tuesday morning I had the pleasure to read Tal Cual while I was drinking my morning tea the editorial of Teodoro (ins Spanish here). Not only he confirms a lot of my interpretations above (see, you do not need to be a rocket scientists to find it weird that Chavez and Correa are shouting so much) but it insists a lot on why the FARC was in Ecuador as "Pedro por su casa". Teodoro, an ex guerillero himself, pertinently asks where has anyone seen a guerrilla sleeping in pajamas.....

If Chavez was hoping for Venezuela to rally to the flag, well, it ain't happening.

Update 2: and of course Weil had to chime in. Legend is "Do not get into my territory". no comments needed.

-The end-

Monday, March 03, 2008

A quiet Sunday afternoon in San Felipe: war with Colombia? what war?

[update 11:30 PM]

All is quiet this first real warm afternoon in San Felipe for the season. I mean, warm as in the heat we normally get the rest of the year instead of the breezy 27 ºC we tend to get from December to February. But this was about the only thing hot in San Felipe today: no sound of army rolling trucks on their way to the Colombian border, no caravans of people chanting their support to the beloved leader in preparation of a war with Colombia. Maybe elsewhere, such as the sitting public servants in Chavez's Sunday show, but in San Felipe nothing disturbed the peace of a normal Sunday afternoon (1). And not only I live inside the city so I would be aware of anything particularly unusual, but as it turned out I was seeking more pictures for my next follow up and that made me drive in front of the Nazional Guard command post of San Felipe, not knowing yet Chavez words. I can assure folks that the command post was as quiet as it gets. Obviously they have not gotten the phone call to pack and leave for the border.

I have been resisting myself writing on the killing of Raul Reyes yesterday. I really think it is irrelevant in some aspects, and I have already written a lot about the FARC lately. I think also that the post of yesterday is closer to the real reality, so to speak, of Venezuela, and perhaps illustrates the reason why Chavez is seeking foreign adventure so people do not inquire about how many homeless, squatters, shanty dwellers are still in Venezuela in spite of 9 years of social revolution. Besides I have written that a war with Colombia is suicidal for Venezuela and my opinion has not changed. If Chavez indeed enters a war against Uribe he probably will be booted out of office by its own army before he provokes its destruction.

And what can happen in Colombia? Will we see if Reyes was the real chief? Will we see again Marulanda who has disappeared for months? Will there be an internal war of succession? IS the FARC that powerful that it matters really who is the boss? El Tiempo in fact thinks that it is a chance for the more "moderate" wing of the FARC to take over the radical wing of Reyes and even is there a predictable violent reaction of the FARC in the next few weeks, the log term prospects have gotten better yesterday.

What we can be sure is that more hostages are going to die and not necessarily due to Colombian army bombs as inner scores are settled within the FARC. Ingrid might be released tomorrow or might not be released ever, or once dead. It is pretty much up to whomever is watching over her right now and I bet you that it crossed his or her mind that to surrender to Colombia's army offering Ingrid might be the best way out of the jungle into some form of normal life somewhere.

No, the real interesting detail yesterday, besides Reyes elimination, was the reaction of Chavez. Reyes might be important for Colombia but it is really a Colombo-Colombian matter even if he was shot on the Ecuador side of the border. The rest of the world, well, they might as well stop holding their breath and set down.

But Chavez of course cannot do so. Not only he is pissed at Lina Ron for stealing the limelight on hostage release day earlier this week, but this action of the Colombian army definitely puts into an increasingly distant background his FARC "humanitarian" successes. After all, once Ingrid is dead who is going to care in the world about any FARC hostages? Once Reyes is out, who can do anything about hostage release until the FARC sorts out its internal matters?

So Chavez pathologically needing to be the center of attention, unable to resit his butt-in tendencies declared yesterday that if Uribe were to attempt the same stunt inside Venezuela, there would be war, "causus bellis" [sic] it would be (2).

This is of course a grievous mistake on his part because his subconscious betrayed him: there must be indeed reasons for Uribe to order police actions on the Venezuela borders. With this simple menace Chavez in fact admits that the Venezuelan border is nothing more than the rest area of the FARC guerrillas and that these ones roam around in Venezuela. We already knew that, of course, and for memory just the case of Granda should be mentioned. But Chavez yesterday implied that the FARC operates freely in Venezuela and that he is protecting them and that he supports these terrorists and drug traffickers enough to go to war for them. I cannot underestimate the meaning of this, the real meaning that is, beyond the military flourish that Chavez would like the world to think.

He also asked whether Colombia was becoming the Israel of the region, which also betrayed his antisemitism: anti semites are experts at finding ways to criticize Israel but not Jews, with sometimes a certain justice one must say, at the drop of the hat, even if the analogy with Colombia is rather debased.

Anyway, I am not holding my breath on the prospect of war. It is showmanship, that is all.

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

Update: Ooops! It looks like the computer taken at Raul Reyes camp had information that would point out to a direct link between the government of Correa and the FARC, à la Chavez. That would explain the harsh position assumed today by Correa whereas yesterday he was behaving much more like a head of state. I mean, let's start from the beginning here, how come Reyes was in Ecuador? Don't they supervise their border over there? Or has Ecuador become equally a haven for the FARC as Venezuela is? Truly, if there is a smoking gun of the sort toward Ecuador current administration, expect trouble for Correa as his opposition is not as wishy washy as the Venezuelan one that could not even supervise the first scandalous shipments of oil to Cuba.

Suddenly the potential for major political trouble for the whole area has got up a big notch....

--- --- --- --- --- --- ---
1) The video of today's new insults of Chavez toward Uribe is also quite fascinating. It comes from Telesur and you can appreciate at time the red shirts applauding hysterically the inanities of Chavez. It is short so even if you do not understand Spanish you can get the gist.

2) The video of the moment where Chavez attacks Colombia is fascinating, in particular the second half as taken from the state TV news. You can observe all the grimacing of Chaevz, all the manipulation, and how much he looks like any mafia Don, impressive. The "causus bellis" is at 1:06 for those who do not understand Spanish.

-The end-

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Squatting in Venezuela: worse than ever

Chavez celebrated his 9th year in office earlier in February. Grieving comes to a lot more folks around this fateful day. I was wondering what kind of comment I could write up to commemorate (?) such a date. But how do you reminisce about the date when Venezuela started its final road on becoming a broken country, a failed state if it were not for the thin glue that is still coming courtesy of high oil prices?

And then a couple of weeks ago I got an idea: discuss the squatting epidemic in Venezuela, 9, NINE years after Chavez reached office. Before getting into the why of the squatting pandemic, to enlighten the reader about this Venezuelan drama I will report on the two recent instances in San Felipe, which I managed to photograph without upsetting the natives who understandably are not too happy when someone comes to take a picture of their precarious living conditions. Note: the pictures were taken on two different days; click on them to enlarge for some of the worthy details.

The general set up

First, squatting rarely takes place away from central urban areas, or at the end of some dirt road. It is always on some worthy land, next to some major highway or some land suitable for housing projects. I will thus start first with a picture of San Felipe from Goggle Earth where I point out the two "invasiones" that I will describe today, invasion 1 offering the picture that introduces this post, with drying laundry included.

It is thus relatively valuable land, as close as possible from already established real estate, even if that real estate is for popular neighborhoods, as is the case for invasion 1. Invasion 2 is closer to a a middle class set up.

In the end an "invasión" is simply a blackmail to force the owner to shell off money to get back the land. If the owner does not have the money it is then expected that the municipal council will decide that it goes against the general interests of the community to let slums proliferate randomly. Again, blackmail. It has been reported often that some people have made a career of this: they invade an area, stick around for enough time and when some "compensation" will come they transfer their "rights" to someone else and go elsewhere to start the process anew. If it is a tragedy for some it is also a business for many.

Because this is the real problem that makes the situation so intractable: there is a genuine, dramatic, housing shortfall that has gotten much worse under Chavez. Mix with it a few unscrupulous low life adventurers and you get for a heady mix of corruption, violence, blackmail and human misery, while the state suffers from an increasing paralysis. It is important to note that the average housing construction under Chavez is below those of any recent democratic president.

The time table of construction

It always starts like that, a group of people set a few picket fences, a few plastic covers on top of 4 sticks. Even if it looks like it, it is not that random. This picture is on a portion of invasion 1, its current expansion toward the North. Now that the southern part is relatively settled, newcomers keep arriving and boldly creep toward the main avenue North. Note: this is the third try I remember on this very same piece of land which might be from a different owner probably as the one that finally took root, as we will see below. That is about the only explanation on why of two adjacent pieces of land one succeeded at first try and the other is still finding its ways.

Over a few weeks the settlement starts taking form. The settlement can be as primitive as log cabins (on the right side) to a mishmash of old zinc sheets, street signs, cardboard (on the left) to higher investment in new to semi new zinc sheets (in the middle). They are always one room at first although very soon a second room is added. Since it is Yaracuy and rains are heavy, they are careful from the start to build a slope on the roof. The one on the left is particularly interesting even though it is the one with the cheapest "recycled material": is is the one with the best engineering of the scene, with even a small open air area on the very left for people to spend the afternoon.

This next picture is a little bit further to the South and here you can see another example of log cabin on the left and a truly rag tag assembly of whatever from the right. Clearly, the background and means of these "settlers" can be quite different. Also note the log cabin one: think about where does that timber come from? Which land has been deforested somewhere? In case you do not know, in theory you need a permit in Venezuela to fall any tree, even in your backyard. If at my work place or a the family farm we were to cut down enough trees to build up a log cabin for the kids to play, the Nazional Guard would be immediately on us for a fine, or more likely for some baksheesh. These people, I am pretty sure, did not get bothered by the Nazional Guard, whereas the ex owner of these trees might be questioned about it about where his trees went..... Ecology under the bolivarian fraud is an empty concept.

The life style

Now, let's move on to the southern part of invasion 1. As you can see from this first picture it is more settled, more developed. People now are actually living in it whereas in the pictures above usually a single guardian stays the 24 hours in the "home". the reason is that since some authority or some thug group might come in the middle of the night and bring all down, the "claim" could be lost to either another "invasor" group, or to public authorities and even in some cases the owner. Yes, "invasiones" are not necessary an easy business, and can be fraught with risks.

But there comes a time where the owner for some reason cannot get the authorities support (usually because he cannot afford the lawyers and the right bribes) and the settlement can start to prosper, so to speak. In this picture below you can see a Saturday afternoon family scene where, stroller and all, the family retreats to their home. Shacks look bigger behind the grass, more densely settled with pickets to bring in electricity. Many, if not most, will by this stage have a TV and a refrigerator. The highway is a double road and in front you can see the well worn pass where the grass is topping to grow. There is now significant human traffic, and probably either a bus stop or some "bodega" not too far which justifies that folks go always through this 'pass'.

Because it should be clear that there is no service, no running water, no drains, no electricity. Water can soon be bought in by trucks (usually offered by the municipal social programs though purchasing them is faster and they can pull together resoruces) and all the settlers will soon acquire some large enough containers for water, stored INSIDE the shack because they are a prized possession and the envy of the neighbors. There is enough water so that folks can even do their laundry as the opening picture showed you clearly.

Sewers you can forget for a while and I confess that I am not tempted to go inside and inquire. I suspect that they must dig latrines or walk to the wooded area in the back though this is snake country. Maybe they use the old fashioned basin system? Maybe they put it in plastic bags? 'Showers' might not be too much of a problem. Washing with a few cups of waters does not wet too much the soil, the water will not be too dirty and this being the tropics within hours all will be dry anyway. In Caracas it is less of a problem since the big slopes allowed for drainage in the middle of the 'street' to the 'quebrada' (wadi). But here in flat land I am a little bit concerned for the health of the folks.

Fortunately electricity is an easy thing to fix: steal it from the aerial lines across the highway. In this picture you can see how they place high bamboos or tree pickets to carry electricity inside the settlement. Guess who pays for that? Yours truly since the electricity charges are all split under registered customers who must shore up the burden of all the stolen electricity of the country. The government rarely cuts off these people. If hey did within hours they would restore the cables anyway. The rear pages of the newspapers carry regularly reports of guys dead from electrocution.

Unfortunately garbage is another matter. The municipality cannot charge them for garbage disposal and thus it is collected only on occasion, when it becomes a traffic hazard. The picture below speaks for itself.

Invasión 2

The second area, invasion 2 in the map above, is a very recent one. It is placed right next to a new development project, of course bringing down the value of whatever folks are trying to build there. It is also next to a potentially dangerous "quebrada" who could overflow someday (hence the wooden nature of the area, clearly seen on the satellite image, since humidity is not too far below ground. And to complete the whole picture it is next to San Felipe historical archaeological park, ruining the tourist attraction. This area should remain wooded and become eventually a new park of sorts. Now it is ruined, an ecological crime and will cost the municipality a lot to recover, if it can ever come around to do it. And of course, if the stream overflows and destroys a few "homes" and takes a few lives, well, tax payers will have to foot the bill for something that started illegally.

The picture above repeats what was described above, even though it is hidden from view by the trees and because it is below highway level.

And the picture below shows how the folks spend their Sunday afternoon, guarding their take over. You will notice that we are at the early stage, no real inhabitation yet, one of the shacks has its 'walls' made of black trash bags (on the right side).

Is it cold in Boston in February?

Conclusion: what Joe Kennedy does not tell you

The first thing that the reader must be aware of is that these pathetic scenes of human misery are everywhere in Venezuela. In San Felipe, with not even 200 000 folks, you can count at least a half dozen new squatting events in the last three years. In fact, it has mushroomed since the state house was taken by chavismo three years ago. In all fairness Gimenez has built a lot of housing, but then again he got the means that were always denied to Lapi. Thus he probably ended up attracting people from far away in their desperate hope to find a home.

"Invasiones" also happened heavily in Carabobo after the Salas were evicted three years ago. The Southern approach to Valencia is dotted with huge squatting settlements for hundreds and hundreds of plots. I even allow myself to suspect that such squats are a deliberate maneuver from the new chavista administration to change the electoral makeshift of some areas.

Thus when you drive from San Felipe to Caracas you could easily count a couple of dozen of squats in 3 hours drive. Impressive by any standard.

Since I am aware that it is a reflection of human misery, of an incompetent state unable to promote economic policies that would allow these people a better way to solve their housing problems, I am not mad at them at all. Even though I know that my tax money will be used some day to try to solve somewhat this huge problem, I feel pity for these people and wish I could help them. It remains that the best thing that could happen to them is for Chavez to go and for a new economical system to come up, one that creates real jobs with real wages and not a "Mision" dependency of failing social programs that allows people to survive in such settlements, making them support the local chavista apparatchiks least they lose sustenance and any meager hope they might have to hold to their land claim.

No, my anger is well directed at Chavez and the sycophants that leach from him. Because the pictures that you saw above were all taken this past month, NINE YEARS after Chavez came to power. What has he done with all the oil money he received and all the taxes the SENIAT has collected? How come that after NINE YEARS of rule we see MORE SQUATTING SETTLEMENTS than 9 years ago? Where do these people come from? What are they refugees from? Because this is what it looks like, that Venezuela is becoming a refugee center of sorts. Are we seeing a massive exodus of the rural population that is chased away from the extraordinary failure of Chavez agricultural policies?

But what irks me more is that with the oil money we give to Boston alone we could build a small and cheap house for all of these people, in better land that could be purchased at a discount price from any owner instead of staling it form them, and if we must keep the dirt roads we could at least provide every house with a single faucet of clean water and at least a central line of sewer. And heck, even a Barrio Adentro module could be tossed in. And I bet you that some money would still be left to build a sheltered bus stop and expand the nearest school from the settlement. And why not, even clothe, vaccinate, buy school books for the kids.

Meanwhile leaches like Joe Kennedy play politics with Venezuelan oil in Boston where none of the recipients of the oil aid would put up for a minute with the living conditions of the people you saw on these pictures.

Where is the Boston Globe sending a reporter to make a good study of these squatters in Venezuela and show Joe why he is such an asshole? Where are the Delahunt and other Chavez apologists? Where is the stupid Obama campaign worker with a Che poster in her nice Air Conditioned office with working toilets down the hallway?

These are the people that deserve all the contempt that I was feeling when I took all of these pictures.

-The end-