December 31, 2003

Today, I will break a personal rule...

...and blog about a subject other than Venezuela. Kind of.

The BBC (and everyone else) reports today that US authorities have named a special counsel to lead an investigation into who leaked the identity of a CIA agent whose husband opposed the Iraq war. Demonstrating that, battered though it clearly is, US democracy keeps on ticking, more or less, the investigation into this highly politically charged case will pass from a political appointee to the hands of a prosecutor with real independence.

Those of you who read the blog know where I'm going with this: there is no comparable legal mechanism in Venezuela. At all. No special counsel statute. No state or local criminal jurisdiction. Nothing. There is only the Fiscal General, a position that, on paper, is fully independent of the government, but in reality is held by perhaps the single most obsequious member of the chavista inner circle: former Vicepresident Isaias Rodriguez, the ultimate pushover, the regime's perennial number two man, an inveterate presidential yes man who has shown again and again that he will never, ever act against the president's interests.

For evident reasons, the personality and character of those called to investigate the most powerful men in a country are of key interest. The newly appointed special counsel in the US, Patrick Fitzgerald, is described by colleagues interviewed by the New York Times as "Eliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor," and a man with "a brain like a mainframe computer."

Former opponents agree. A lawyer who once had to face Fitzpatrick tells the Times: "Let me put it to you this way: If John Ashcroft wanted any favors on this one, he went to the wrong guy. This guy is tough."

This, of course, it what it takes to investigate the most politically sensitive cases. This is the standard that the citizens of a free republic are entitled to. If Fitzgerald decides not to charge anyone in the white house, it will be difficult for political opponents to cry foul. If he does move forward, his reputation will infuse those indictments with credibility that a politically motivated prosecutor would never enjoy. This is what it takes for institutions to have any sort of credibility, and for the law to apply equally to all.

Can you imagine a corresponding profile of Isaias Rodriguez? Could anyone argue that he meets this standard without provoking guffaws?

It's not a minor matter...this problem is at the center of the betrayal of democratic values at the center of the Chavez government.

You wouldn't necessarily know it, because he has a very low public profile, but Isaias Rodriguez is the lynchpin of the Chavista system. He shies away from microphones, works to make himself invisible, to not draw attention to himself, and he's successful. People don't notice him much. But his monopoly on the power to order criminal investigations, authorize indictments, and proceed on all criminal matters has produced a situation of utter lawlessness in the country.

I can, just off the top of my head, think of at least half a dozen cases in Venezuela where there is prima-facie evidence of criminal activity by Chavez personally that is far, far more direct and straightforward than the evidence linking the White House to the Valerie Plame fracas. Think of the FIEM, where Chavez admitted publicly to having ordered the Finance Minister to violate the Salvaguarda Law by failing to make the required deposits in 2001 - a criminal offense in Venezuela. Think of April 11th, when Chavez continued to give a speech for over two hours while a massacre unfolded just meters from where he was sitting, taking absolutely no action to stop it and later congratulating some of the gunmen. Think of the blatant disregard for the constitutional guarantee of privacy in personal communication, for its ban on the use of public property for party political purposes. Think of the continued and exceedingly public flouting of the regulations on the use of military uniforms for non-active military personnel. Think of the National Guard's action to tear-gas children while they slept, before dawn, to evict them from PDVSA housing in Paraguana. Think of the hundreds, probably thousands of instances of incitement to violence against journalists, priests, opposition organizers, anti-Chavez NGOs, etc. in any number of presidential speeches since 1999.

The newly appointed Special Counsel in the US says "the attorney general, in an abundance of caution, believed that his recusal was appropriate." In Venezuela, Isaias Rodriguez has continually and consistently refused to take himself off of cases involving Chavez and the government, despite the blindingly evident, indeed obscene, conflict of interest involved.

Attempts to force him to recuse himself through the courts have died at the Supreme Court level. With no legal lever to force the crony off of any of these cases, the government and its supporters can act under a kind of pre-announced blanket amnesty for any crimes they may choose to commit.

Had any one of the cases outlined above been impartially investigated by a truly independent prosecutor, it would have been an open-and-shut case. Because the lawbreaking in the Chavez government is not subtle, not a matter of careful legal interpretations that could go either way. It's open, brazen, proud, public.

Any of these cases would have provoked a serious constitutional crisis in a country with properly functioning legal institutions. In Venezuela, they get as far as the Fiscal's desk, and then die. It's the perfect scam: the government maintains the appearance of a properly functioning institutional system, all the while enjoying total impunity, absolute carte blanche to break any law it wants. This, in effect, is an outlaw government.

I do wish that those on the left who were so passionately angered by the wholesale violation of the constitution during the April 2002 coup would show at least a shard of that same indignation when faced with this less visible but equally thorough betrayal of constitutional principles at the hands of those who, ironically, wrote the current constitution!

December 27, 2003

Radicales y comeflores

Most newspaper readers in the English speaking world know alarmingly little about Venezuela in general, so it's hardly a surprise that their notions about Venezuela's opposition movement remain vague and contradictory.

On the one hand, almost every newspaper article on Venezuela has some throw-away phrase about Venezuela's "diverse and disjointed opposition, a loose coalition of businessmen, labor unions, NGOs and political parties." At the same time, when I talk to Europeans about Venezuela, it's clear that they have a vague notion of the opposition as a kind of undifferentiated mass of nasty rich assholes, reactionary, heartless and antidemocratic.

I find that this basic misunderstanding of what the opposition is, how it's made up, and how it operates, makes it very hard to hold any kind of sophisticated conversation about Venezuela. Because it's true, the opposition is remarkably diverse, fragmented, and in some ways chaotic. There isn't one clear leader, and it isn't clear that any one leader could ever lead the whole of it. And it is true that a substantial part of the opposition is prey to all of the same vices that rendered Venezuelan democracy disfunctional from the mid 70s to 1998.

What is lost in the standard journalistic vision is the key current within the opposition, a current I consider myself a part of, with a long if untold history of citizen activism, democratic idealism, and an earnest desire for real, systemic change. This section of the opposition - which I call the Democratic Movement, to differentiate it from the anachronistic pols and the opportunists - is known in Venezuela as the "comeflores" - the flower-eaters, literally, for our moderate posture and our stress on basic democratic values like tolerance, open debate, and respect for those we disagree with.

This label - comeflor - actually started as a slur pointed by the radical wing of the opposition towards us. The radicales, like all radicals everywhere, think of us as pathetically naive idealists, cannon-fodder for the totalitarian designs of our opponents. As far as they can see, the logical response to a government like Chavez's is to prepare for war. For our part, we believe that the logical response to a government like Chavez's is to build the peace, one day at a time, one act of tolerance at a time.

Comeflorismo antecedes chavismo. Elias Santana was organizing neighborhood committees to empower communities to exercise their democratic rights long before anyone in the country knew who Hugo Chavez was. Andres Velasquez was unionizing steelworkers when Chavez was a cadet in the military academy. Teodoro Petkoff was leading the democratization of the country's leftist movements when Chavez was in High School. Chavista mythology not withstanding, the struggle to truly democratize Venezuela is both far older and far more ideologically coherent than chavismo could ever hope to be.

Me, I think we should own the label comeflores. Sure it was meant as a slur, but what a nice slur! The label places us squarely in the tradition of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of Mandela and of the Czech velvet revolutionaries and the anti-Milosevic movement in Serbia. Each of them faced an opponent more ruthless and brutal than Chavez, each faced an opponent with a far bigger body-count than our opponent has. Each understood that the time to start to build their democracies is right now, and the way to do so is to put into practice the ideals we seek to establish in the government.

Little by little, this view has gone from the naive fringe to the center of the opposition movement. People like Elias Santana, once seen as a hopeless dreamer, have been vindicated again and again by the turn of events. Santana - the closest thing we have to an MLK figure - is today perhaps the intellectual father of the opposition. His quiet activism has left a real trace in the way more and more Venezuelans see the struggle against Chavista autocracy. His endlessly, tediously repeated motto - "sin violencia, dentro del marco de la ley" (without violence, within the law) - has gone from fringe to center in less than two years. If the current crisis passes off without significant violence, the country will owe him and those who've taken on his message a huge debt of gratitude.

This is not to say that the shrill voices of reaction have been silenced. They haven't. They exist, and they are a threat. Every non-violent democratic movement has had to contend with a similar fringe. And the successful ones have defeated it through the strength and effectiveness of non-violent tactics. I believe Venezuelans can do the same.

So here's to Elias Santana, and Chuo Torrealba and Leonardo Carvajal and Teodoro Petkoff and Ruth Capriles and Luis Ugalde and Vladimiro Mujica all those who've worked tirelessly since 1998 to show Venezuela that it can re-join the community of free nations without a bloodbath. They haven't quite pulled it off yet. But they're closer than they've ever been, and they're getting closer each day. Ultimately, they are the country's best and only shot at a decent future. Should they fail, the country's choice will be between the authoritarianism of the left and the authoritarianism of the right.

They must not fail.

December 21, 2003

Perceptive as usual...

...Erica Stephan writes in to let me know I totally missed the point in my last entry...

From "Erica Stephan" Date Sat, 20 Dec 2003 9:03 PM
To "Francisco Toro"
Subject Re: Why am I blogging?

for the record, I don't think your latest entry really addressed what for me is the key venezuelan question these days: Realistically, if an opposition candidate were elected president, would that regime be any better than Chavez's as far as respecting the equality of all persons before the law? Would that regime treat "deposed" chavistas with scrupulous fairness, would it change the constitution - if it did so - respecting a truly democratic process, would it give substance to the Chavez-era programs to help the poor like schools and credit schemes rather than tossing them out as retrograde populism? Would it institute land reform that worked? If your answer is yes, you've got some convincing to do, since the dominant voices in the opposition seem - to my amateur eye at least - seem mostly interested in booting Chavez at any cost. And if your answer is no, why should people interested in democracy support a recall effort?

FT sez:

In a sense, of course you are right. I can't guarantee that the post-Chavez era will come any closer to realizing the vision I set out than the pre-Chavez era. Certainly, any number of opposition dinosaurios give little room for hope. From Rafael Marin to Medina Gomez to Antonio Ledezma to Salas Romer himself, the opposition is full of "leaders" who don't really seem to get it at all, in my view. So the uncomfortable bed-mates problem is a real one, of course it is.

However, for every Rafael Marin in the opposition we have a Teodoro Petkoff, for every Ledezma we have an Elias Santana, or a Jesus Torrealba, or an Andres Velasquez, or a Manuel Cova. The opposition obviously has something of a split personality, yes, but one side of that split is made up of people of impecable democratic credentials, of considered views, of a deep commitment to tolerance.

Other than Greg Wilpert, I challenge you or anyone else to come up with a corresponding list of Chavistas who are willing to stick their necks out for the basic principles of the rule of law and the republican form of government. It will be a short list, an exceedingly short list, for the simple reason that all those who at one point dared to question anything that Chavez has said or done - from Jorge Olavarria to Pablo Medina to Javier Elechiguerra - were all promptly kicked out of the chavista movement, banished for what amount to thought-crimes against the carismatic leader's total control of his movement.

I do think that the opposition has changed, and continues to change and evolve. It's been a steep learning curve. In April 2002, at the time of the coup, the movement was barely five months old. We had no historical guides, no rule-book, no pre-fabricated idea about how to proceed against a democratically elected autocrat. And we made lots of mistakes, all of us, in thinking that Chavez's constant flouting of the constitution somehow excused us doing the same.

Two horrendous political train wrecks later, we're the wiser for it. The coup and the 2002-2003 general strike were, everyone now understands, truly disastrous failures, not only of tactics but of principles. It has taken a lot of time and debate and internal wrangles and angry diatribes for the opposition to come to understand that you can't protest the flouting of the law by flouting the law.

But today, the movement is closer to understanding that than it ever has been. The recall strategy in itself - scrupulously constitutional and carefully monitored by both sides, international observers, and CNE - is a powerful symbol in itself of this change in mentality. Teodoro Petkoff writes beautifully about this (Read Tal Cual, I beg you!) The fast-tracks and shortcuts and extraconstitutional hanky-panky strategies are really out of favor now, and the opposition's new maturity has been demonstrated again and again in its handling of the flood of chavista provocations on the days preceeding, during, and following the signature gathering drive. My point is that people do change, and so do political movements. They evolve, they learn, slowly, collectively, they do learn. In my view, this is the single most heartening sign in Venezuelan politics today.

Can the movement backslide? Of course it can. Do I have a crystal ball that allows me to guarantee that it will do the things you ask of it? I don't, and I can't. All I can do is guarantee that if it does backslide, I will be lining up behind Teodoro and Manuel Cova and Andres Velasquez and Elias Santana and Chuo Torrealba to fight for the same principles that we have all been fighting for since we started looking at the world in political terms.

What the opposition offers is a possibility for moving forward, a chance to solve a 173 year old problem. Chavismo, through its actions, has demonstrated again and again that it cannot, will not, and does not want to cut the gordian knot of arbitrary state power. If, like me, you think that solving that problem is really the key to solving all the rest of Venezuela's problems, then I think it's imperative to support the opposition, this opposition, warts and all, all the while keeping the eye firmly on the ball, reiterating again and again the point of this entire exercise.

With the opposition, success is far from guaranteed. But with Chavez, failure is guaranteed.

December 20, 2003

Back-and-forth with Greg Wilpert
I really don't agree on much with Greg Wilpert, the guy, but I respect his integrity and his intellect, and have a great time sparring with him. With his permission, I'm publishing this back and forth argument between us. Long, too long, like everything I write (currently accepting applications for a pro bono editor!) but hopefully interesting...

From "Francisco Toro" Date Thu, 18 Dec 2003 9:46 AM
To ""Gregory Wilpert"
Subject rumanian rambling

You wrote, in Venezuela Analysis -

"Also, if the pro-Chavez camp numbers are correct, this time could be used to forge signatures, so that the total turned in equals the number the opposition reported it collected from the different signature locations in the country."

I say: Remember the actas. The actas are there. They are signed by both sides. Forging signatures after the fact is impossible - CNE would automatically throw out any signature totals not already signed off on at the acta stage.

Overall, it is a cogent argument you put forward. This theory about political participation among the poorest rising due to increased mobilization is provocative, but not born out by turnout figures in 1998-2000, the peak of chavista popular mobilization. If you're really suggesting that the poorest people are MORE politically engaged now than in July 2000...well, it's an empirical question, but it seems wildly unlikely to me.

But, again, only an actual vote will tell.

BTW, after Chavez's little outburst of the second to last alo presi, do my concerns about committing the gov't to follow a CNE decision, whatever it may be, sound a little less shallow? Sure, he contradicted himself last Sunday, but that's just the point - the nation's political stability seems predicated on which particular side of the bed the guy gets up on each morning.

Oh, and also - do you read Teodoro Petkoff very often? You really ought to - we don't have that many sane commentators with integrity on our side, so it's worth taking the time to read the ones we have. Last Monday he had this to write, which I think gets to the heart of what is unacceptable about the Chavez regime, to me anyway:

¿Etica? ¿Con qué se come eso?

El desprecio del Presidente por las normas legales y el descaro de sus procederes alcanzan una cota elevadísima con la transmisión que hizo ayer de la grabación de una conversación entre Ramón Escovar Salom y su hijo. Rebajándose al nivel de Juan Barreto, de Tascón o de cualquiera de sus acólitos, en los cuales ese tipo de conducta no sorprende, Chávez ha transmitido una grabación que en sí misma ni siquiera podría ser presentada bajo la coartada de que en ella se revelan secretos de una conspiración, de un golpe o un magnicidio, lo cual, al menos, la explicaría. Es una conversación banal, con apreciaciones políticas generales, sin ningún valor "policial", por así decir. Eso hace aún más repugnante el acto de Chávez. Es la admisión pura y simple de que las leyes le importan un carajo. Pinchar teléfonos está prohibido. Divulgar las grabaciones también. Sin embargo, el gobierno lo hace.

Y lo hace sin disimulo. Se jacta de eso. Pero hasta ahora la divulgación de lo grabado quedaba en manos de los atorrantes de costumbre. Ahora es el propio Chávez, con un descaro inaudito, quien cumple con la sucia labor. Porque no sólo las leyes le importan un carajo.Tampoco la ética.

Greg, Greg, Greg...I shall forever remain baffled by how it is anyone sane could think anything good could come out of a government that behaves this way. Yes every previous government has failed, spectacularly, at the central task of establishing a rule-of-law based system of government as well. But excusing Chavez amazing flaunting of the law on that grounds is like excusing my decision to beat my wife cuz her previous husband used to beat her too!


From "Gregory Wilpert" Date Thu, 18 Dec 2003 3:09 PM
To "'Francisco Toro'"
Subject RE: rumanian rambling

> Overall, it is a cogent argument you put forward. This theory about
> political participation among the poorest rising due to increased
> mobilization is provocative, but not born out by turnout figures in
> 1998-2000, the peak of chavista popular mobilization. If you're really
> suggesting that the poorest people are MORE politically engaged now than
> in July 2000...well, it's an empirical question, but it seems wildly
> unlikely to me.

I think you have to talk more to people from the barrios. Perhaps you have and we each get a wildly distorted picture of what's going on there because we end up talking to unrepresentative samples. But I have a very strong impression, from talking to both barrio organizers and folks like my cleaning lady, that the barrios are more politicized now than they ever were. Chavez got elected by the middle class back in 1998 and 2000. Next time around, however, I would bet he will be elected by the folks who live in the barrios (and participation will be correspondingly higher, of course).

> But, again, only an actual vote will tell.


> BTW, after Chavez's little outburst of the second to last alo presi, do
> my concerns about committing the gov't to follow a CNE decision, whatever
> it may be, sound a little less shallow? Sure, he contradicted himself
> last Sunday, but that's just the point - the nation's political stability
> seems predicated on which particular side of the bed the guy gets up on
> each morning.

Obviously, I think you give Chavez less credit for being a rational person than I do. I realize that he has emotional outbursts ALL of the time. However, in the end, I see him as being swayed by rational argument and that's what, in the end, guides his decisions. I have seen him make emotional statements plenty of times, only to in the end do the rationally right thing. I basically agree with you that he is a narcissist, but I don't see much evidence that this has a major impact on policy decisions. Unlike you, I do not think that Chavez makes all or most decisions alone.

> Oh, and also - do you read Teodoro Petkoff very often? You really ought
> to - we don't have that many sane commentators with integrity on our
> side, so it's worth taking the time to read the ones we have. Last Monday
> he had this to write, which I think gets to the heart of what is
> unacceptable about the Chavez regime, to me anyway:
> ¿Etica? ¿Con qué se come eso?

Taping the phone conversation was indeed an illegal and unethical act. Releasing it was certainly highly questionable. On the other hand, if it contributes to proving that there was large-scale fraud, to which the public should be alerted, it might be acceptable. Unfortunately, the conversation was somewhat ambiguous, which makes the ethics of releasing it all the more questionable. I don't know. Obviously, if you believe that there was no fraud, then the conversation proves nothing. If, however, you are convinced that there was fraud, then it's a confirmation to which the public should be alerted. In other words, I see both sides of this issue, but would tend to agree with you and Petkoff that it was wrong to release it.

> Greg, Greg, Greg...I shall forever remain baffled by how it is anyone
> sane could think anything good could come out of a government that
> behaves this way. Yes every previous government has failed,
> spectacularly, at the central task of establishing a rule-of-law based
> system of government as well. But excusing Chavez amazing flaunting of
> the law on that grounds is like excusing my decision to beat my wifecuz
> his previous husband used to beat her too!

This is a quite absolutistic statement of yours: "how it is anyone sane could think anything good could come out of a government that behaves this way" If previous governments also behaved this way (and you seem to imply that this true), then nothing good ever came from them either? Here you are basically using a mirror argument of what the Chavistas use (to which the opposition always objects), which says that there was nothing good about the previous governments because they were unethical in many cases. I am not defending unethical activity, but I do think we can separate the unethical from the ethical and the good - i.e., not throw out the baby with the bathwater.


From "Francisco Toro" Date Fri, 19 Dec 2003 1:22 PM
To "Gregory Wilpert"
Subject RE: rumanian rambling

> Taping the phone conversation was indeed an illegal and unethical act.
> Releasing it was certainly highly questionable. On the other hand, if it
> contributes to proving that there was large-scale fraud, to which the
> public should be alerted, it might be acceptable. Unfortunately, the
> conversation was somewhat ambiguous, which makes the ethics of releasing
> it all the more questionable. I don't know. Obviously, if you believe
> that there was no fraud, then the conversation proves nothing. If,
> however, you are convinced that there was fraud, then it's a
> confirmation to which the public should be alerted. In other words, I
> see both sides of this issue, but would tend to agree with you and
> Petkoff that it was wrong to release it.

My point is that the content of the conversation doesn't make any difference one way or another. The content is a red herring. The country's problem for 173 years since 1830 has been the absence of the rule of law, of basic citizen guarantees, the existence of governments always based on force, on the caudillo or the party, rather than on the law. It's the constant flouting of the law that made the pre-1998 governments totally unacceptable, that made it imperative to change them. It's the reason my very first involvement in Venezuelan politics, in 1996, was with the radical opponents of the Punto Fijo system, and why it grates so fucking much when Chavez tells me, tells us, that we are accomplices of the old regime simply because we do not dogmatically accept everything he says.

Ese es el centro de la mezquindad de Chavez, and the center of his falsification of the history that brought him to power. But me? I haven't changed positions. My position is the same: people are only free when the powerful are bound by the law as much as the weak. It's the flouting of the law, the gleeful pissing all over the constitution, that makes the Chavez government precisely as unacceptable, unfair, retrograde, undemocratic and ultimately destructive to the nation as the old regime. And that I will not accept, can never accept - and I continue, naively, to think that deep down inside you cannot really defend it either.

I dunno how long it's gonna take for us to learn that the laws are binding, not just on your enemies, not just on the poor, not just on those without connections or cronies or old school friends in power, but on EVERYONE. Every time Chavez gives a speech, every time he uses state money and state property for party political purposes, every time he shits all over the rule of law with the certain knowledge that he is above the reach of the instutions (cuz the Fiscal General is a crony) Chavez deepens the central problem of the venezuelan polity - its total disregard for the law.

Chavez did not create this problem. He has just deepened it immensely. And again, it's hard for me to see how you can support a government that behaves this way, simply cuz the ideological background music happens to please you.


From "Gregory Wilpert" Date Fri, 19 Dec 2003 4:17 PM
To "'Francisco Toro'"@fas

> My point is that the content of the conversation doesn't make any
> difference one way or another because the country's problem for 173 years
> since 1830 has been the absence of the rule of law, of basic citizen
> guarantees, the existence of governments always based on force, on the
> caudillo or the party, rather than on the law. It's the constant flouting
> of the law that made the pre-1998 governments totally unacceptable,that
> made it imperative to change them. It's the reason my very first
> involvement in Venezuelan politics, in 1996, was with the radical
> opponents of the Punto Fijo system, and why it grates so fucking much
> when Chavez tells me, us, that we are accomplices of the old regime
> simply because we do not dogmatically accept everything he says. Ese es
> el centro de la mezquindad de Chavez, and the center of his falsification
> of the history that brought him to power. But me? I haven't changed
> positions. My position is the same: people are only free when the
> powerful are bound by the law as much as the weak. It's the flouting of
> the law, the gleeful pissing all over the constitution, that makes the
> Chavez government equally unacceptable, unfair, retrograde, undemocratic
> and ultimately destructive to the nation. And that I will not accept, can
> never accept - and I continue, naively, to think that deep down inside
> you cannot really defend it either.

As I said before, I tend to agree with you about the unacceptability of breaking the law. However, I find your position so purist that I find it hard to believe that you could be active in politics anywhere. I mean, how does the taping and broadcasting of a private conversation compare to the wholesale trashing of the constitution, which is what many in the opposition did and almost everyone at least supported during the coup? Even someone you look up to, such as Teodoro Petkoff, was much lamer and tamer in his critique of the coup than he was of Chavez and the phone conversation in the editorial you sent to me recently. I did not see anyone (I mean this literally) from the opposition get as upset about the coup as they are getting now about this publicized phone conversation. I mean, how can you possibly work together with people who are so hypocritical? I think, given your standards, you should really be much more ni-ni than you are.

Besides, while it is illegal to tape and broadcast phone conversations in most countries, it's something that happens all of the time. Just think of the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal. This does not excuse it, but it should put such practices into perspective and they have to be weighed against other values. I mean, what if someone in the conversation had actually said directly "we forged xx number of signatures"? Would you still say that under no circumstances could the conversation be revealed? If you say it can't, fine. Your position would be well based on legal precedent, which forbids the use of illegally obtained evidence for convicting someone (at least in the U.S.).

I guess my main problem with the whole line of argument you present, which is quite rational, is that while you present an admirable standard, it's not all that realistic in the Venezuelan context. That is, I agree in principle, but cannot draw the same conclusion that something like this proves that the whole government is corrupt. I have myself questioned the legality of some of the government's practices before (most recently in an article on the Globovision microwave
equipment case). While such incidents exist all over the place, I have to weigh them against the practices of the opposition, which I find much more objectionable, and the other aspects of the government that I find positive. In other words, I don't find your position realistic in the sense that it does not seem to weigh the real alternatives. I find your position honorable, but inconsistent if you are not equally harsh against the opposition. I know you can be, but in the end, in your comparisons the opposition always comes out ahead of the government.

> Chavez did not create this problem. He has just deepened it immensely.
> And again, it's hard for me to see how you can support a government that
> behaves this way, simply cuz the ideological background music happens to
> please you.

First of all, I do not think that Chavez deepened the problem. True, though, he has not contributed much towards resolving it. Secondly, I do think there's more positive things to the government than pleasing "ideological background music."


From "Francisco Toro" Date Fri, 19 Dec 2003 5:36 PM
To "Gregory Wilpert"
Subject RE: rumanian rambling

I use the term "flouting" for a reason. It's not that playing that Escobar Salom recording is a great sin. It's that it's a simbol, an EXCEEDINGLY EVIDENT demonstration of the shallowness of the government's commitment to a system of law. This is not a detail. This is the crux of the Venezuelan problem. There is no republic, for 173 years there has been no republic. There is only power, and those who wield it. And until we learn to understand the law as, um, mandatory, we have no chance at all at advancing on ANY OTHER field!

So fuck the opposition, the opposition is half full of goons, I know that, I can do nothing about them but criticize them in public, which I do constantly. I do believe that the saner, democratically idealistic faction within the opposition is much closer to totally controlling the opposition movement now than it ever has been before. (Again, Petkoff writes very eloquently about this.)

But ultimately, as far as I'm concerned, I am not a member of the Venezuelan opposition. I am a member of a democracy movement, a movement for the institution of a system of government based on the rule of law. Both because this is right in itself, and because establishing a proper vibrant democracy based on respect, tolerance and inclusion is the ONLY way to move the country forward over the medium and long term. So I will continue to oppose this government for its catastrophic failure in this regard, and I will judge any future government by this same standard. Simple.

Because achieving this, finally establishing a government of laws for the first time in the country's entire history, that Greg would be the real revolution. This is the challenge, the ball we need to keep our eye on. It would change everything, it would constitute a far more fundamental alteration of the power system in the country than anything Chavez has ever even come close to achieving.

So yes, Greg, if what you think insisting on democratic legality makes me unfit for politics, then yes, I am gleefully, proudly unfit for politics. I admit it, I am the wildly unrealistic one here - the one unrealistic enough to insist that, as a citizen of a free republic, I should enjoy the same protection to my citizenship rights as those taken for granted in all semi-functional democracies.

Remember how angry you were when you saw the US Republicans abuse their privileged position on the Supreme Court to give Bush the presidency? Remember how you felt your citizenship rights had been raped, that you'd been stripped of the basics of your political freedom? Remember how unacceptable it felt, how violent, how insolent, how wrong? That's basically how I feel Greg. And quite rightly.

You would not accept this type of wholesale scorn for the rule of law in your country, and I don't accept it in mine.

What's so damn unrealistic about that?

Isn't it a hateful, discriminatory, borderline racist but at the very least exoticist vision of Latin America one that leads you to argue that the basic procedural and citizen rights that you take as non-negotiable in the first world are "unrealistic" in Venezuela? Is real democracy, real political freedom, then also unrealistic in Venezuela? Are we not entitled to it? Are we not fully justified when we fight for it? Or is it only in gringos and Europeans who are entitled to political freedom?

Societies need wildly unrealistic people, Greg, they call us intellectuals. Me, I will wildly unrealistically support any political movement that demands the democratic rights of all its citizens, whichever side of the political divide those people my be on. It's just that I can see, to my utter spookment, that many of the governments cadres - the ones I know are in Obispos municipality in Barinas, not the Caracas barrios - have an ultimately autoritarian attitude to political power to match Chavez's perfectly! Dogmatism and intolerance of dissent are a fundamental part of the president's political imagination, it's very hard for me to see how the resulting instability and extremism can be anything but damaging.


December 5, 2003

This blog... about to go more or less quiet, since I'm off to Romania for the holidays starting today. I may post from net caf�s now and then, but obviously not as often as I'm doing now.

It's really been a historic week in Venezuela, and even though I'm far away now, it has been a lot of fun to chronicle it blow-by-blow. Do keep writing in, though, even if you don't hear back from me right away (which you won't.) I especially enjoy reading emails from people who have a coherent argument against something I have written - from any direction. (Philochavistas with integrity are my favorite correspondents.) Your feedback has been enormously stimulating over the last week. I think the possibility to exchange views is really one of the best things about a blog as a medium. So thank you for writing in, it has made this intense bit of blogging that much more interesting.

Also, please write in if you notice any factual mistakes. One of the joys (and challenges) of blogging is that you don't have an editor, but this does mean that mistakes are far more likely on a blog than if you read a newspaper (caveat lector.) I want to thank everyone who wrote in to point out mistakes. They are acknowledged when appropriate, and I do make an attempt to correct factual errors.

So I will read all mail when I get back, and respond to a selection. Please tell me explicitly if you want me to keep your correspondence private, or if you want your name and/or email address omitted. Unless you request otherwise, I will assume that anything sent to the CaracasChronicles fastmail address is meant for public consumption. Similarly, I will assume things sent to my personal address are not for publication.

I do intend to write a long (probably excruciatingly long) and detailed post about what actually happened on April 11-14, 2002, sometime in January. Many questions about the coup and The revolution will not be televised will be better addressed then. I want to read Sandra La Fuente and Alfredo Meza's highly lauded book on the subject before putting my foot in my mouth here. I don't know Alfredo, but I do know Sandra, and I'm thrilled she took on the project. Los que leen castellano really should get it. El Acertijo de Abril is the title - the first edition is, encouragingly, sold out, but we are promised an even better second edition early next year. The book, as far as I'm aware, is the most comprehensive and professional effort yet to document and describe exactly what the hell happened during the bizarre days of April 2002.

[And no, the plug is not only because Sandra is a member of the same pro-media balance NGO I am a member of, Los del Medio, which if anything is only to her credit. Sandra is a journalist of scrupulous fairness: exactly the kind of reporter you would want investigating a reality as complex and thorny as the coup.]

(Romania? Vacation? In December?!? Long story...don't ask...)

So if I have any readers in Transylvania, please, please, please get in touch and buy me a beer! Otherwise, heavy-blogging will resume in January when the signature tallies are announced.

Happy holidays to everyone,

If you are a first time reader, I recommend you actually scroll to the bottom of this page and read the entries from bottom to top, in the chronological order they were written. It will take a while (I tend to write a little too much, as you will soon find out) but I think it's worth it. This is a blog for people who like to read, and read, and read, produced by someone who likes to write, and write, and write. Especially if you know relatively little about Venezuela, it will make a lot more sense to read it in chronological order. Also, if you really need a (somewhat polemical) primer before delving into the minutiae of the fascinating saga in Caracas over the week of Nov 28-Dec 5th, I really recommend you spend some time reading the long but hopefully entertaining essay on the evolution of the Petrostate, from the 60s through Chavez. I wrote it because it seems to me one basic reason people don't understand Venezuela's complex reality is that they just don't know enough about the back story, the dynamics that brought the country to do something as dramatic as vote in Hugo Chavez with successive 60% majorities. The essay is my attempt to answer that question, in a way I hope isn't too too boring. To my mind, it's essential background: the rest of the story is unlikely to make much sense until you're a little bit immersed into the peculiarities of Venezuelan polititical culture. I mean, think about it: could you explain George W. Bush and his significance to US politics to someone without any understanding of the history of christian conservatism in the US? Could you make heads or tails of the middle east conflict without understanding the difference between an arab and an israeli?
In breathless praise of Sumate:
(or, Essay on the difference between voter intimidation and colossal bullshit)

From: "Erica Stephan" Date: Fri, 5 Dec 2003 1:06 AM
To: "Francisco Toro"
Subject: & what about

These reports that people were having slips of paper stamped as they
signed, to take to their employers?  if you're going to rant about pdvsa
pressuring their workers to sign, you should acknowledge/address the
accusations on the other side, no?

From: "Francisco Toro" Date: Fri, 5 Dec 2003 10:41 AM
To: "Erica Stephan"
Subject: Re: & what about

Sigh. I'd been hoping not to write about this, simply because it is a fairly technical question, and I thought it would be horrifically boring. But since these stories are now percolating up to first world consciousness, I might as well set the record straight.

About a month ago, as Chavez blustered again and again about imminent opposition fraud and insisted repeatedly on the need to check the opposition signatures "under a magnifying glass, one by one," the opposition started to get nervous. We know the guy, we've had plenty of occasion to get used to the way he and his cronies operate. We've come to realize that he'll often announce his dirty tricks publicly ahead of time, though through their mirror image. The second Chavez says the opposition is planning a given dirty trick, it's a pretty good bet that's what he intends to do!

As President of the durn Republic, Chavez was in an excellent position to carry out any such a plan. His government had already started intimidating state workers. They had already started offering jobs to the unemployed provided they did not end up on the list of those who had signed against the government. Chavez had personally thrown a number of hissy-fits demanding elaborate security procedures for the signature gathering drive which I described in yesterday's post.

(Said hissy fits, satisfyingly enough, have reverted dramatically against his interests, since all those security measures now make it exceedingly difficult to "prove" a fraud that did not take place.)

So the opposition was nervous, understandably so.

One wave of rumors that swept the opposition had to do with the electoral registry. The registry, which by the way is publicly available for anyone to look at online, had started to throw up some weird inconsistencies.

The most widely publicized bit of weirdness was the Case of the Missing "De"s. In Latin America, when a woman is married, she does not stop using her last name. Instead, she adds a "de" and then her husband's last name. So if you Erica Stephan were to marry, say, a Paul Cheney, your new married name would be Erica Stephan de Cheney (unfortunately, I guess he has a wife already - bet you two would've gotten along great!)

Now, the problem is that as women started checking the CNE's online registry, they started to find their "de"s had mysteriously vanished. They had become merely Erica Stephan Cheney, which is just not right. Of course, in normal circumstances, this would be seen as a very minor thing. But with Chavez ranting and raving about the coming fraud, it started to seem anything but benign.

Married antichavista women started to get very concerned that the government would move to have their signatures invalidated en masse because they had signed under a name that did not quite match the names as they appeared in the Electoral registry. CNE assured people this would not happen, but paranoia roams free, and people were understandably concerned. We are only too aware that we get ONE shot to recall Chavez per each 6 year term, so it was crucial to get it right this time.

As the missing "de" hubbub started to spread, other inconsistencies in the Electoral Register began to become apparent. Birthdates, for instance, seemed to be all over the place. When my sister Ana went to sign, the old lady in front of her in line found, on checking her registry entry, that her birthday had been switched to February 30th!

Why was all this weirdness taking place?

Could it have anything to do with the fact that the government had recently appointed a couple of criminals to run the National ID system? There goes Toro, exagerating again, is what some of you are thinking!

But this is not hyperbole, Erica. This is just what happened! It's a matter of public record!

At this point, I'll allow myself to quote at length from this remarkable, mind-altering article from the Miami Herald, signed by Phil Gunson, who heads Venezuela's Foreign Press Association and is, for my money, the best foreign journo in town.

Hugo Cabezas and Tareck el Aissami were appointed last month as director and deputy director of the Identification and Immigration Directorate, in charge of border controls and issuing passports and national ID cards. The agency also works with electoral authorities on voter registration.

Both were top student leaders at the University of the Andes in the western city of Merida, described by senior school officials as a virtual haven for armed Chavez supporters and leftist guerrillas.

When El Aissami served as president of the student body from 2001 to 2003, his armed supporters controlled the university's dormitories, said Oswando Alcala, a professor and director of student affairs.

Cabezas and El Aissami declined several Herald requests for interviews.

Their appointments to the passport office raised eyebrows both because of the reports of Arabs obtaining Venezuelan ID documents and the possibility of fraud in an ongoing drive for a referendum to recall Chavez. His popularity stands at less than 40 percent.


Born in Venezuela of Syrian parents, El Aissami is the son of the president of the Venezuelan branch of Hussein's once-ruling Baath Party, and nephew of Shibli Al Aissami, a top-ranking Baath Party official in Baghdad whose whereabouts are unknown.

Tareck El Aissami's father, Carlos, defended him in an interview with The Herald as an outstanding student and said he was not a member of the Baath Party.

In an article the father wrote after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and showed to The Herald, he called President Bush ''genocidal, mentally deranged, a liar and a racist,'' and al Qaeda's leader ``the great Mujahedeen, Sheik Osama bin Laden.''

So it's not like the opposition was pulling these concerns about Registry-tampering out of thin air. Since the registry is fully available online, lots of middle class Venezuelans who have net access could actually go there and check their registration info themselves. Too many were finding inconsistencies, data fields that would mysteriously change from one visit to the site to the next. With the National ID office in the hands of the gruesome twosome described above, anything was possible.

This is where Sumate, the opposition NGO, comes into the picture.

Sumate (which, incidentally, is NOT a for-profit corporation, as the lyingtie lying liars on the pro-Chavez side insist,) is a volunteer-run organization that organized the entire signature drive back in February, running the signing centers, transcribing the data, and auditing the results. CNE later ruled those signatures were invalid because they were collected too early. Still, Sumate, as an organization, had gained important experience and know-how. This, to my mind, is civil society at its best.

Sumate realized that, given the potential for confusion generated by the bum Electoral Registry, it would be helpful to set up laptop computers run by volunteers outside each the signing centers. That way, each prospective signer could check his or her official registry data right there, minutes before signing, minimizing the scope for inconsistencies between the information on the forms and the information on the registry.

The point was to minimize the number of signatures accidentally spoiled due to weirdness in the registry. After checking each signer's data through their national ID card number, Sumate would then make a little print out of each person's exact data as it appeared on the official registry. They would give each signer their paper as a cheat-sheet so they could fill out the form exactly right.

Abuse! Fascism! Conspiracy!

Now it's true that CNE barred Sumate from participating directly in last weekend's Reafirmazo. At the same time, as CNE board members said again and again in public, the elections' authorities has the power to rule on what happens inside the signature gathering centers. What happens outside those centers is, as CNE accepts publicly, none of its business. Citizens have the same right to assemble, discuss, participate, organize and check their electoral registry entry and print one meter away from a CNE signing center as they do anywhere else or at any other time.

Still, the chavistas - who seem to have some magical idea of what a Laptop computer is and what it can and can't do - saw the Sumate folk sitting right outside the signature gathering centers and freaked out. Manipulation! Fraud! Conspiracy! We're used to these epithets by now...and to the peculiar brand of antilogic that sustains them (like a laptop sitting outside a signing center has some magical power to stamp signatures on a form 10 meters away!)

Sumate, not wanting to do anything to derail the process, agreed to place the data-base checkpoints further away from the entrance to the signature centers. 20 meters away was the rule of thumb. Note that they were not legally obligated to, they just did it to avoid problems.

In some cases, they were invited to set up shop in the living rooms of people living close to the signing center. This is scrupulously legal: since when does the government have the right to tell me what I can and can't do in my living room on signing day simply cuz I happen to live next door to a collection center?

So this is ALL they were doing Erica. They were taking people's IDs, checking the numbers against the CNE database and making triple-sure that the two matched. They then went over the information with each voter to make sure nothing was odd about it, and that if something was odd about it, the signer was aware that they needed to sign using the official registry data, even if that data was wrong. Sumate volunteers would even give people the chance to "practice" filling out the forms on non-official dummy papers to make sure there were no mistakes due to unfamiliarity with the forms.

Don't forget that going through this procedure was a rigorously voluntary decision. Nobody was forcing anyone to do anything. If I wanted to go straight through to the CNE signing center and sign without stopping to check my data at the Sumate stand, there was nothing to stop me.

So yes, the little papers do exist. There is absolutely nothing illegal or untoward about them. After signing, you were free to scrunch up your Sumate cheatsheet and throw it in the garbage...or save it, to show your grandchildren one day.

If anything, Sumate merely embodies the opposition's determination to get it right, to outsmart any government plan to strip citizens of their constitutional right to vote yet again. This kind of careful planning and iron-willed determination not to screw up this time is driving the government crazy!

This, in my opinion, is the real reason they're mad at the little printouts - through their volunteer operation, Sumate totally outflanked the government. Sumate nutralized their plan to claim massive fraud because the information on the forms did not match the registry information, which appears to have been their plan all along. If the government seems desperate it's because Sumate has driven them to desperation. They now find themselves very much up a creek without a paddle.

Frankly, I'm tremendously proud of the huge amount of work Sumate's volunteers put in. Think about the spirit of civic involvement this reveals. The thousands of unpaid Sumate volunteers who gave their time to help set up these database checkpoints are one of the seeds of idealism, citizen participation and grass-roots involvement that gives me the hope, the near-certainty, that the post-Chavez era will be one of real civic renewal. Six years ago, it would have been nearly impossible to find thousands of volunteers to get trained and give up four days of their lives to do anything at all political. These days, for Sumate, it's a cynch!

This is how Social Capital is generated, Erica. My view of the opposition as a democratic awakening in waiting is not just something I made up in a fit of wishful thinking: there is solid evidence that their mindset has changed, and continues to change, as more and more opposition members realize that the "fast track options" (coups and strikes) were a huge mistake - and that re-institutionalizing the country is the only way out of the crisis. You, Erica Stephan, of all people, know that I've been arguing this point since 1999! (Remember those long emails about the central importance of the rule of law? If you can dig a couple up and send them to me, I can even put them up on the site!)

But I digress. You asked about voter intimidation. Think about this for a second. Even on the government's own, plainly dishonest terms, the accusations literally makes no sense. It just doesn't pass the test of internal coherence.

If employers wanted to pressure their workers, there was no need for any stinking bits of paper, because remember, tu voto es secreto, tu firma no. If I, evil private employer capitalist running dog oppressor businessman profeteer, want to find out if you, downtrodden revolutionary chavista proletarian, did or did not sign, all I have to do is go to CNE and get the list! It's a matter of public record!

Now, this obviously does not mean that the shards of paper could NOT have been used to pressure private workers. If anyone really was asked to present those Sumate printouts when showing up to work the following Monday - who knows, maybe somebody somewhere did - I just have two things to say to them.

1-It was perfectly simple to just go to the sumate tent, get your printout, then walk off without signing the official petition. You're a chavista under pressure? Just get your sumate form and don't sign!

(a much better plan than Labor Minister Iglesias's: she called on chavistas to break the law by signing with deliberate mistakes, which itself constitutes incitement to break the law and should get her arrested...but this is the chavista era, so...)

2-If you really were pressured and did sign, this is illegal, wrong, and destructive to the democratic process. Please protest. Get your act together. Document your complaint. Get witness statements from co-workers who had the same problem. Go to the labor ministry and get help with documenting precisely what happened. Then turn the whole mass of papers over the CNE (the 3-2 majority pro-Chavez CNE, may I add). If enough people were so pressured, then CNE will throw the referendum out. Simple! But remember, ONLY CNE can decide. And CNE can ONLY decide on the basis of official, documented complaints. So get to it!

*There was, incidentally, a rule in the CNE regulations saying that electronic machines could not be used over the weekend to publish partial results of the signature gathering process. It's plainly evident to me that using a computer to check your electoral registry information is entirely different from using a computer to publish preliminary numbers.

**And yes, Sumate did once get funding from N.E.D. Your point being...?

December 4, 2003

Last thing

If you need any more convincing of which side collected the signatures it says it collected, witness the Bs:$ rate on the semi-legal bond-dollar market. The currency has rebounded all the way to Bs.2,133 (from lows at one point of over 3,000 to the dollar) according to descifrado. Suddenly, a bolivar at that prize looks a reasonable bet.

This is how hungry for good news Venezuelan investors are!
The thing about the actas

The other aspect that people often lose sight of is that we are ALL being spun silly with numbers. Somebody is plainly lying: all of these widely varying estimates (from 1.8 million to as many as 4.4 million signatures, depending on which side you believe) are all drawn from the same raw data.

These data are all drawn from the famous actas, an official CNE document signed officially not only by the official opposition organizers, but also by official pro and anti-recall witnesses at each of the 2700 official signing centers, as well as the official itinerant witnesses that accompanied all official itinerant signature gatherers, who were officially allowed to canvas signatures door-to-door in the official CNE rule book.

These actas contain precise signature tallies. The actas, and the tallies they generate, must be accepted as prima facie valid, simply because representatives of both sides already signed off on their validity one by one, at over 2700 signature gathering centers, all over the country (with the very occasional exception.)

Over 90% of collection centers are reported to have done their work under "absolute normality", as the politicians' cliche goes, meaning that the chavistas themselves have already signed off on the validity of the central ement in the signature collection process. It's important to understand that the Coordinadora cannot imaginably tamper with the actas now, because all parties have exact copies of the documents.

People outside Venezuela often find strange the elaborate checks and security features that were built the procedures. Even the forms were a monument to mutual mistrust. They were very officially printed on security paper issued by the same office that prints the nation's currency. Each form is numbered and assigned to a definite vote signing center. And chavista witnesses were present at *all* gathering centers, along with hundreds or thousands of signers, the army, the OAS, the Carter Center and the news media. A process cannot be more transparent than that!

I stress that the process was observed by 55 expert elections observers from the Carter Center/OAS mission dispatched to 20 of Venezuela's 24 states (counting Caracas.) Out of those seasoned observers, 50 of described the signature gathering process as good, while 5 thought it was "reasonable." These observations cannot be faked - Jimmy Carter did not win a nobel peace prize for lying.

What's more, thousands of rank-and-file soldiers, probably about half the army, directly witnessed with their eyes the turnout at each of the two signing processes. Many had not been allowed to watch any TV other than Canal 8 for months. This has to have been a very big eye opener for many of them.

So the chavistas, the opposition, the CNE and the Carter Center/OAS mission all have the same raw data. With the raw data, it's banal to obtain a precise raw signature tally - just a few hours of database work. The reality is that all the main actors know the real number, and it's the same real number they know. So somebody is evidently lying through their teeth.

Now, cross your heart and hope to die, what do you really think the real story is? Was the process 90% clean, or was there mass-scale fraud? Whose version do you believe?

Jimmy Carter's, or Hugo Chavez's?
An Ibsen Martinez tour de force

Rather than boring you with yet more of what I think - which I think is pretty well established by now - I will regale you with a translation of this extraordinary interview with Ibsen Martinez in Tal Cual Today

[Shameless ad: Para los que leen castellano, si no lo han hecho ya les recomiendo suscribirse y leer Tal Cual. These guys are not as cash flush as people think - the business has always been on a feeble financial footing. If you can afford it, and want to support the very best side of the democratic movement, then please subscribe. It's only $30 for six months (cheap!) and it's a daily compendium of sound common sense and keen analysis.]

on with Ibsen's interview, translated and republished very much without permission:

"Chavez still hasn't actually gone to work."

Questioner: Shouldn't we judge the government with a little more forebearance now that the president has confessed that watching TV is one of his daily activities?

Ibsen Martinez: I don't think so. If he is watching Venezuelan TV, he is being submitted to torture because, except for a very few deliciously rawnchy shows, it's really awful.

Among the reams of things that have been written about this political pathology in which we live, it's bears wondering if in all these six years there has been a single real cabinet meeting, in the strict sense of the term. I mean, a meeting that starts, has an agenda, in which ministers are subjected to scrutiny, give explanations, sometimes disagree with the President. I seriously don't think there has been.

What there has been is this agit-prop stuff, the obsession with being on TV. In that sense Chavez reminds me of those guys who go to the TV channels and spend the whole day waiting at the door hoping that some well-known artist might come out to ask for an autograph, and they waste their lives on that idiocy.

The obsession with the media, together with the fact that he never holds a cabinet meeting, make me think that in all these years Chavez still hasn't settled down to work.

Q:Between vicepresident Jose Vicente Rangel, PPT Labor Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias and MVR Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello, the Golden Cynic goes to...? [all three major hate figures for the oppositon now, especially Rangel, whose peculiar brand of rhetorical curlicues often borders on the psychotically detached from reality as the rest of humanity knows it. -ft]

Ibsen Martinez: To the vicepresident. Diosdado is a guy who has never deceived us, he is transparent. But the vice presidents is one of the most sensationalistic cynics of contemporary politics.

It's a topic worthy of study. It's the question that brightens up conversations at parties, when these are dying down: "so what do you think of Rangel?"

Q: And what do you reply?

Ibsen Martinez: For a long time I thought he could be a key factor for moderation and, even, an element that could help teach the chavistas to improve their performance.

Until the last minute we were on speaking terms, after the coup in april 2002, when he was the head of a mis-named "Dialogue Table" that was no such thing, in which I participated very briefly, I still thought he embodied the soul of a moderator. But they tell me that now he defines himself as the most taliban of the taliban, which is a pity. (taliban, folklorically enough, has become established in Caracas Spanish as a synonym for "political extremist." -ft)

Q: Isn't Chavez in power about as dangerous as Michael Jackson let loose in a kindergarten?

Ibsen Martinez: I don't believe so. Chavez is not a dangerous guy, in the sense that we usually give the word in a personality like his, which is authoritarian, ambitious and autocratic.

What I find most harmful in him is his disregard for the rule of law. The absolute absence of a relationship with the world of plato's forms. That is what has exasperated so many Venezuelans.

This is a guy who invents a constitution for himself, made to measure, only to violate it permanently, and to no avail because those violations don't even benefit him, but still he gets into that huge mess. The image is of the cartoon in which a guy draws the floor to a corner and finds suddenly he has cornered himself there. Probably when he is evicted from power, he will not be able to explain to himself what actually happened.

Q: Name three acts of pennance (gawd! catholic country -ft) that any repentant chavista should undertake now that he is on the opposition's side.

Ibsen Martinez: - First, he has to help sustain in a convincing way the democratic calling of each of the members of the G-5 (the five main opposition leaders), and dissert for half an hour about the democratic spirit of AD chief (and, imho, rascal -ft) Henry Ramos Allup. Second, write 150 times that phrase so often used by chavistas when talking about Chavez: "well, that's just his style, that's who he is." The last is to dissert coherently on the word "process" (the tag chavez uses interchangeably with revolution), which he kept talking about when he was a chavista and wouldn't shut up about the process.

(he is cruel!)

Q: Do you still celebrate 4F? (Which is how Venezuelans refer to the coup Chavez led on February 4th, 1992 - not to be confused with 4D, which is an ice cream shop!)

Ibsen Martinez: Yes. It's not that I celebrate it, it's that it seemed to me something like that was going to happen. It shows how bad off we we were with the adecos (the AD government) that I even felt this little frisson just from seeing (AD dinosaur) Morales Bello at the end of his wits. That moment may be one of the few things I can thank Chavez for, having given me the pleasure of seeing some adecos running around like sprinters.

I did not celebrate the violence, rather the inflection point in a political system that just went to hell. Even with all we're going through now, the fact is that we'll no longer have a situation where (AD party chiefs) Lauria and Alfaro decide all of our futures and we hear about it afterwards. Just think, we were kept informed by Gonzalo Barrios! who they wanted us to see as some kind of master tactician but who was so old he couldn't even talk, only mumbled. This, well, I don't know if it is better, but it is different, more entertaining. Now we can feel we will have a recall, but that we will not go back to the days of Alfaro. Can you imagine the country if Alfaro had won, or Irene Saez, the dumb blonde?

Q: In one of your articles you recommended celebrating the "Day of the asslickers." If your motion is accepted, who should preside over the event?

Ibsen Martinez: We've always had great asslickers, but when life gives you one of those personalities they call "charismatic", the other side of the coin is the bash of the asslickers. Otherwise, the chief cannot be persuaded that he actually is. When we were invited to that Dialogue Table, Janet Kelly and I were absorbed looking at the faces at the chavista side of the hall when Chavez arrived and sat down. It was a drooling contest. I remember the girl who used to run CatiaTV, who would succumb to ecstasy, and there was one who was especially ecstatic, a Sidor labor leader, chubby guy. What was his name again?

Q: I can't remember.

Ibsen Martinez: That is the thing with asslickers, you can never remember their names.

But one of the great asslickers, without a doubt, is el negro Isturiz (Education Minister, PPT.) I remember when he was head of the Constituyente and Chavez was traveling, and he felt icky about changing the name of the Republic, and he said so repeatedly. But it didn't take more than one bang of the shoe from Chavez for him to cosponsor the motion. I don't know him personally, but I find him particularly disagreeable.

Precisely for that reason, because he does what he can to be seen as an individual in that amorphous mass, and asslickerism cannot deal with him. He has opinions, he jumps ahead with them. I imagine he must open the doors to the cabinet meetings with Chavez.

Q: Do the members of (young, middle-class, center-right party) Primero Justicia need a bit more whorehouse in 'em? (Venezuelan expression, meaning do they have enough malice to face down the big boys?)

Ibsen Martinez: I don't think so. In general, that illustrated and enlightened right wing that a country needs, I find that they've had a pretty good go of it, and you can see how fast they're progressing. About the proliferation of NGOs and that whole pathology of ours where nobody wants to be a member of a party now but everyone wants to be a neighborhood leader, the fact that they've run away from NGOism and into party political life with a clear electoral goal, that I think is quite positive. And I realize that they've been getting whore housed up, with time.

Q: In this tornado of events, do those who opine much err much?

Ibsen Martinez: Certainly. Since the political environment started to heat up, expressing your opinions has stopped being a cathartic act. The revolution takes us to a space where you don't have opinions, you have pronouncements of faith.

I would rather live in a society where you can have an opinion, retract, think about one thing today, another tomorrow.

Q: Should we have a media contents law? (the politically explosive government proposal that most think would gag the private media.)

Ibsen Martinez: Not at all. I find it futile to write a code that stipulates what can go out over the airways, because their intention is to gag. If chavistas could look towards the past, they would realize that it's useless. The most docile TV in the world was the soviet one, and that was the system that collapsed the hardest. They managed to make TV something so useless, that Russians didn't watch it. Then, these pendejos, Nora Uribe and all the other geiniuses of revolutionary semiology, can't see that such a TV is useless. It's futile that a country that's so uppity, so free-spirited and so stubborn as this one that they could try to make a totalitarian communist revolution.

Chavez should reflect about what these six years have meant, because they've been a real nightmare for him.

[Ibsen Martinez is mathematician, essayist, novelist (in more ways than one!), top notch provocateur, and all around public intellectual...a national treasure.]
The less enlightening face of chavismo writes in...

From: Richard Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2003 2:39 PM
Subject: Back on line

> Francisco,
> I note that Caracas Chronicles is back on line and still peddling the same
> unconvincing "information" and opinions.
> It really is a pity that you are trying to redeem it after all the flawed
> predictions published since you launched the site.

[I wonder if he's referring to my Nov 27th, 2002 prediction that the general strike would fail, or to my April 10th, 2002 prediction that unless a post-Chavez government was scrupulously inclusive it would quickly lose support and collapse? -ft]

> As I wrote to you in one
> of our first e-mail exchanges when are you going to go to the west of
> Caracas, if not just to collect your passport or I.D. card?
> As G. Wilpert says in Venezuela Analysis, Caracas Chronicles is one of the
> best examples of "ant-chavista triumphalism" on the web, which is a certain
> sort of backhanded compliment.
> There is no right and wrong in this situation, just winners and losers and
> it would be good for your morale to exorcize your demons by focussing on
> the political reality of Venezuela, instead of going on another dreamboat
> cruise and ending up in cloud cuckoo land - AGAIN!!.
> Best of luck
> Richard 

From: Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2003 2:49 PM
To: Richard
Subject: It's simple, really.

Hey! It's Richard!

The man who loves to disagree with the strawmen he creates and then calls my position!

The thing, Richard, is that all the bullshit either of us could write would not begin to make a difference. What you think, and what I think, and what Alan thinks and what Greg Wilpert thinks for that matter, all of that is of precisely no transcendence.

The only thing that matters anymore is what the electorate thinks. You're convinced you have the majority. I'm convinced we have the the solution is simple, really: let's vote! Find out who had it right!

CNE: Rediscovering the institutional wheel
(or, more email from Alan)

On Wed, 3 Dec 2003 22:53:28 -0400, Alan said:

> Francisco,
> If I understand correctly, what you're essentially saying is that five
> individuals, all appointed by Chavez, the majority of whom have
> demonstrated marked sympathies for the regime's policies, are in fact, in their heart
> of hearts, impartial arbiters whose first, and only, commitment is to uphold
> the rule of law.
> This in the face of what I expect will be a most brutal exercise in
> political arm-twisting and intrigue -- including the time-honored Venezuelan
> practices of attempted blackmail, outright threats of violence, physical
> coercion and, of course, the crossing of palms with industrial quantities
> of silver --in recent history.
> It's conceivable that, despite all this pressure, the CNE will nonetheless
> Do The Right Thing  -- because the OAS and the Carter Center are watching,
> and because somehow institutions will work this time (even though they've
> been systematically subverted in the past) because the whole world is
> watching and you can't "tapar el sol con un dedo", so to speak -- and that a
> month from now we'll learn that we can expect elections sometime next
> spring. Let's hope so.
> I do agree with you that it's important to publicly give the CNE the benefit
> of the doubt, and egg them on in the right direction, as Teodoro and
> others are doing. They're going to come under more pressure than they've ever
> known in their lives, and they need to know that at least one side of the
> political equation expects them to live up to their institutional
> mandate, and will support their eventual (we hope) courageous decision to defend
> the rule of law.
> But what's at stake for Chavez and his hard-core supporters makes it
> unlikely, in my view, that we will get to fair and free elections any time
> in the foreseeable future. The CNE may prove to be an extraordinary
> surprise, and in this most important decision of its history come down on
> the side of transparency. But you can be sure that Chavez, Cabello and
> Rangel will deploy absolutely every trick in the book and then some
> between now and early January to discredit and torpedo the outcome.
> Let's assume they can't get to the CNE. Or let's assume they beat a
> tactical retreat and figure it will be easier to fix an election (no paper trail)
> than strong arm the petition certification process. After all, vote
> tampering and election fraud is not unknown in Venezuela (hah!), and
> Chavez has used it before (just ask William D?vila and the Cura Calder?n). In
> fact, electronic vote fraud is alive and well all over -- just read Paul
> Krugman's last article on the burgeoning scandal involving the backdoors in
> Diebold's voting machine software which in practice allow one to fiddle the vote
> tally in real time, as the returns are coming in (see
> Krugman's NYTimes editorial on Diebold)
> If the Repubs in the U.S. can do this -- as one could easily surmise
> after reading the immense body of research on the Diebold scandal -- under the
> eye of the FEC, well, hell, it would be a lead-pipe cinch to do the same in
> Venezuela under the Plan Republica, especially when all the CNE
> informatics are in Chavista loyalist hands.
> No, Francisco, the stakes are too high for Chavez to play by the rules.
> Venezuela subsidizes Cuba to the tune of $2 million a day, with 82,000 bpd
> of essentially free petroleum. Fidel can't afford to take a chance on
> democracy, no way. He's not going to let what's left of the life of his
> revolution stand or fall on the whims of Venezuela's electorate -- and
> Venezuelan oil is the only thing propping up his dictatorship today.  And
> do you really think that Chavez's hard core supporters, the ones who depend
> on him for their own political legitimacy, since without him they would be
> nobodies, are going to choose to fight fair instead of resorting to
> badass skullduggery, fraud and even violence, to stay in power? They're in too
> deep. Some of them, the real sleazebags, know the only future they have
> without Chavez covering for them implies jail time, exile or the
> meathook.
> If the OAS airlifted in a complete voting system infrastructure and
> 10,000 well-trained international observers, supported by a U.N.peacekeeping
> force, stood watch over the elections, I'd say Venezuela could expect free and
> fair elections. Otherwise, in the current state of play, nope.
> Let's wait until the fat lady sings. I'll be glad to give you a bottle of
> Santa Carolina if the petition-counting process comes off without a
> hitch. But I'll bet you a Marqués de Caceres Reserva Especial that Chavez will
> "win" the eventual electoral contest.
> Alan


If I sit down and look at the situation coldly and analytically, using past patterns to forecast likely future events, then I have to agree you're right. I mean, everything you write checks out with the nation's sad historical experience. It sucks, but it's true. And if the past is any guide to the future, then granted, your analysis is probably dead on.

My point is that we may just be facing one of those unique situations where real society-wide change can take place; where, uniquely, the past ceases to be a useful tool for predicting the future. Having been pushed to the very edge of survivial, democratic institutions are either shocked into adaptation or they perish. My hunch is that CNE has been well and truly shocked and now it's adapting. The dynamics at play from here on out will be fundamentally different from the dynamics we're used to.

I know, I know, I know. Such starry-eyed idealism probably goes against everything your political gut has taught you over the last 25 years. But if not now, when? If not us, who?

The thing is, Alan, the opposition has learned. The politicians have gotten their Ph.Ds from the school of hard knocks. The country has learned. Things are different.

It may be that the society is undergoing the traumatic process of rediscovering the institutional wheel. Venezuelans are now coming to understand what every society must realize anew every couple of generations - that if one partiality within the political scene attempts to turn 51% popular support into 100% power, with no respect for institutions or the honor of the minority, the resulting system is chaotic and unstable. And, as Venezuelans have found out, if that once-majority becomes a minority but continues to pretend the other side doesn't exist, then the situation can become disastrously unstable.

From this point of view, the rebirth of CNE doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the personal qualities of the five board-members - though surely their character and integrity has been destructively and needlessly maligned over the last few weeks. What's important is not that CNE members have hearts of gold. What's important is that they understand that impartiality and adherence to the rule of law is the most pragmatic, in fact the *only* workable solution to the problem at hand, the only option that holds out a reasonable prospect of stability in the coming months and years.

One thing I'll say, though: the nice thing of debating with you is that the positions stated are always falsifiable! No arcane theoretical speculation here, just testable hypotheses, damn it - like that time in mid 2001 you told me Chavez had six months left, tops! ;)

Four months from now, we'll know conclusively who won that bottle of wine. For my money, a Santa Carolina goes much better with dulce de lechoza than a Marqués de Caceres Reserva Especial. (Though, from the tone of my last few posts, I'll be washing down that dulce de lechoza with a refreshing tossed salad of chrysanthemums, orchids and sunflowers...)


ps: it really is fun!But it's very important to get it right this time. Comeflores al rescate!

December 3, 2003

Greg Wilpert writes...

..a reasonable, if somewhat wishfully thought-out, government-friendly essay in Venezuela Analysis that, nevertheless, contains some valid points.

In my email to him, I called on Greg to call on his side to follow whatever decision CNE might choose to make.

The following exchange is the result:

> > Francisco: Should chavismo pledge now to support any CNE
> > decision with regards to the referendum?
> Greg: Of course Chavistas should do this and I've heard them say that they
> would many times. Chavez, Vicente Rangel, Ismael Garcia, William Lara,
> they have all said that they would respect the CNE's decision, no matter
> what it is. I have not, however, heard anyone from the opposition say
> this. I could be wrong, since I might not listen to opposition
> pronouncements as much as Chavista pronouncements (just as you
> apparently don't listen to Chavistas as much as the opposition).
> > Francisco: For my part, I have spent 2
> > years badgering the leaders of "my side" to accept the rulings of
> > institutions, even flawed ones. Shouldn't your side do the same?
> Greg: I'm glad to hear that you have done so and respect you for that. Also, I
> firmly believe that Chavistas should respect the decisions of all
> institutions that make decisions against them and have no problems with
> reminding them when they should (though, higher level Chavistas probably
> hear me much less than higher level opposition folks hear you).

Francisco: Isn't this just the point, Greg? Your views don't really have a chance of affecting policy on your side because policy on your side is decided autocratically and communicated vertically, a single vector running from Chavez to everyone else. On my side, at least we discuss things, and we recognize no single ultimate arbiter of the truth...which approach strikes you as more democratic?
Email exchange with a doomsday prophet

I will post only one of several emails received in this general vein, especially because my correspondent is a very distinguished observer of Venezuelan politics.

On Tue, 2 Dec 2003 17:43:59 -0400, "Alan" said:
> Francisco, a few questions for you and your readers:
> What happens when the CNE announces that out of 3.8 million (let's say)
> signatures, only 2.3 have been certified as authentic/valid, and the rest
> have been decertfied?
> Let's hope the rowdier elements in the opposition don't exhort their
> political bedfellows "que salgan a la calle!" Because if they do, and
> people pour out into the streets and somebody has the bright idea to
> march on Miraflores, then there will be a massacre; a useless, futile
> exercise in self-destruction.
> I hope Henry Ramos and Enrique Mendoza and Américo Mart?n and Alberto
> Quir?s and Primero Justicia are sitting down right now and thinking and
> talking about Plan B: What to do when the CNE announces the opposition
> did not get the required amount of signatures to have a recall election.
> And Chavez crows victory.
> Because if they don't have a clear strategy and can't keep their followers in
> tow, Chavez can use the ensuing violence as "proof" that the opposition
> was golpista all the time, that the opposition, and S?mate, did engage in
> vote fraud (which was subsequently uncovered by the CNE -- "su palabra es
> santa"), and now, in desperation, are following the strategy they were
> always going to use: employ violence and overthrow the
> democratically-elected government of Hugo Chavez by force.
> That's all his generals need to make sure the troops follow their script:
> go out into the streets and defend the constitutionally-elected
> government from politically-motivated mobs.....and use force, if
> necessary. After all, that's what they're there for.
> What will the rest of the world make of this?
> Those who only read the headlines and/or saw "The revolution will not be
> televised", and are already predisposed to suppport or, at least, give
> the benefit of the doubt to this cleverest of authoritarian regimes,
> these people will follow the dots and conclude that the opposition was
> always more hot air than substance, didn't manage to get the votes, and
> followed their basest, racist/classist/oligarchical/ideological (take
> your pick) instincts, and decided to overthrow the government...just like
> they tried to do on 11.4.02.
> Those who should know better, the presidents of all the Latin American
> countries, Gaviria, and those who know beyond a shadow of a doubt that
> Chavez is an extremely cunning, desperate and thus dangerous man, will
> understand the play. And they'll wonder "How could the opposition do such
> a stupid thing? They've permanently disqualified themselves as democrats,
> and have set Venezuelan history back another ten years, if not more."
> I think that this is the most likely scenario we're going to face a month
> down the line.
> What to do? First, exhaust all the institutional channels of resolution.
> The opposition has to line up its ducks, put feelers out to the supreme
> court, and write the briefs ahead of time that ensure a swift,
> transparent review of the supposedly invalid signatures to determine once
> and for all who is behind the fraud. It's vox populi by now that possibly
> one out of ten names in the Electoral Register (possibly more) have birthdates
> officially ascribed to them that have nothing to do with their real
> birthdates. Well, let's see if that's true, then people have to move
> fast, institutionally, and show where thre real fraud is. There will be
> an immense political/institutional tug of war on to see who can twist the
> supreme court's arm the hardest. Chances are good Chavez will win. But
> it's a crucial step the opposition has to take.
> Marcos took years to oust, and so did Jaruzelski, long after they'd
> openly abandoned all pretense of legitimate governance, and lost all
> political legitimacy. Chavez still hasn't lost political legitimacy, he's
> just teetering on the tightrope. If he shows what I think are his true
> colors and opts for rogue state status instead of international
> recognition, then the opposition has to nudge him off the tightrope
> without pulling itself down in the process.
> Alan

I should start by saying that Alan actually has a lot more experience than me in Venezuelan politics, so you might be well advised to accept his analysis. But experience, shmexperience: I think you're flat wrong on this one, pal. You don't understand the new role of CNE at all!

Only part of the feverish excitement on Sunday and Monday came from the sheer numbers on the streets. Another important element was the realization that the nation's democratic institutions are, miraculously, on the mend.

Again and again I heard people say that amazingly, for once, Venezuelans were acting like Swiss people! The meticulous preparation and strict order that prevailed at many signing centers was in stark contrast to the day to day reality of official chaos and indifference in the face of the citizens. The personal act of signing, the experience of participating directly, in this way, along with millions of co-participants, became a sort of very public statement of belief, with name and signature, in a future where a lunatic does not rule the country.

I mean, people could see with their eyes that it is possible. People could see that it was actually possible to sign, officially, in front of a chavista witness and an opposition witness and a foreign observer, stamp your fingerprint, and go on your way having made a legally binding petition for a legally binding recall referendum. People could see that there is no need for a war, that Venezuelans can work their problems out like civilized people if the voices of extremism are cast aside for a moment.

Like a massive nationwide footbolito game, the episode demonstrated that beneath the surface of bombastic rhetoric and official intimidation, there is a broad stratum of chavistas who do not hate all white people and who want to sit down at the table of democracy alongside all of their compatriots and work things out amicably. This experiential dimension of the reafirmazo as civic education must not be lost sight of.

This was tremendously empowering to millions of people. It changes things.

Evidently, the success of the reafirmazo gives a huge boost in prestige for the institutions that made this possible, the Carter Center, the OAS, but by far most importantly, the National Electoral Council itself, CNE.

[for beginners, CNE is a bureaucratic agency chaired by a 5-member panel that has the final say on all matters electoral in the country, short of a supreme tribunal decision to overturn something it decides.]

The very fact that the Reafirmazo could even take place without any serious violence really does change the rules on the ground, especially for the chavistas. CNE has demonstrated a level of impartiality, wisdom, and technical dexterity that few of us could have believed a few months ago. Both in public and in private all five CNE board members exude a powerful commitment to carry out their legally mandated roles. None of seem to be cowering in the presence of Miraflores, and there is nothing Miraflores can do to change that. This certainly changes the fundamental rules of this game.

For one thing, the nation no longer has a single official institution - the president - now it has two - the president and CNE. The independence of CNE, the birth of the first official institution openly to refuse to cower to the autocrat may be the single most positive development of the last two weeks.

So I don't accept your premise that Miraflores can "girar ordenes" to Plaza Caracas. And the political reality is that the signatures simply cannot be ignored. They would have to proove that 1.2 million signatures were forged, or from the dead, or from the pressured, even though their own eye-witnesses have already signed the forms saying the petition was performed cleanly! It's really an impossible situation to be in.

The absolute torrent of signatures - combined with the stringent security measures and witness signatures that CNE itself had devised, wisely, to close down possibilities for fraud - make it unimaginable to me that CNE will fail to call a presidential recall referendum. And faced with the evident pressure from the streets and from abroad to let the voters be heard, only a kamikaze TSJ would tamper with such a decision. CNE simply has too much prestige right now, and TSJ members might be chavistas, but they are no kamikazes.

But what we don't need now is to start writing or saying or even thinking anything to discredit CNE. They are under a lot of pressure already, and deserve our support, not constant bickering or armchair quarterbacking. Again, CNE is the one and only life-raft that can possibly get us off this sinking ship. There is no use whatsoever in picking holes in it.

So, I'll bet you a bottle of Santa Carolina this referendum will happen.


The cornered narcissist

If you're looking for insight into Venezuela’s seemingly neverending political crisis, section 301.81 of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual would be an excellent place to start. The entry reads eerily like a brief character sketch of Venezuela's embattled president, Hugo Chavez: "Has a grandiose sense of self-importance; is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance; requires excessive admiration; has unreasonable expectations of automatic compliance with his expectations; shows arrogant behaviors or attitudes, etc." Actually, it's the DSM-IV's diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD.)

Venezuelan psychiatrists long ago pegged Chavez as a textbook example of NPD. According to the DSM-IV, a patient has NPD if he meets five of the nine diagnostic criteria. But Dr. Alvaro Requena, a respected Venezuelan psychiatrist, says Chavez "meets all nine of the diagnostic criteria." Dr. Arturo Rodriguez Milliet, a colleague, finds "a striking consensus on that diagnosis" among Caracas psychiatrists. Not that it really takes an expert: you only need to watch Chavez's constant cadena broadcasts, where the president blusters, badgers, sings, reports, lectures, recalls and issues orders live on every TV channel and every radio station in the country, carrying presidential speeches that can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 4 hours – one never knows ahead of time.

Of course, lots of politicians have some narcissistic traits - Washington, D.C. is notorious for the size of its egos. NPD, however, is what happens when those traits run amok, impairing sufferer’s ability to interact with the world in a normal way. People with NPD are so intimately convinced of the crushing weight of their historical significance that they lose the ability to interact with the world in anything like a way that most people would recognize as normal.

Narcissism and political power make an explosive combination. As Dr. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, puts it, "the narcissist's grandiose self-delusions and fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience are exacerbated by real life authority." President Chavez has amassed more real life authority than anyone in Venezuela's contemporary history. When his considerable charisma and oratory ability are added to this mix, the already volatile cocktail described above becomes positively explosive.

Because in the mind of a pathological narcissist, grandiose self-delusion often masking deep insecurities and a fragile sense of ultimate self-worth. The two tendencies co-exist in a sort of uneasy truce. As Dr. Vaknin writes, "the narcissist's personality is so precariously balanced that he cannot tolerate even a hint of criticism and disagreement."

In Venezuela, over the last five years, Chavez’s narcissism has led to a systematic winnowing of the his pool of truly trusted advisors and confidants (other than Fidel Castro, the one voice Chavez does seem to listen to.) People with views that differ even slightly from the comandante’s fall out of favor quickly, often brutally.

At worst, those who come to disagree openly with the president are openly demonized, humiliated and threatened in cadenas in full view of the whole country. Coming from a man with several paramilitary groups at his command, these must be taken as serious threats.

Total loyalty to the cult of personality is demanded, and total loyalty to the cult of personality is obtained. More than evidently, only rank sycophants and yes-men can survive in an inner circle where such dynamics are at work. Also, clearly, no real policy debate can take place: politicies will not be the result of a process of genuine give and take. Instead, they will consist in a series of military style orders that are mutually incoherent, and very often wildly impracticable.

Thus, at different times, we’ve been promised at least three mutually inconsistent futures for the camastron (the 70s era Boeing 737 Chavez inherited and promptly, man of the people that he is, replaced with a much larger $86 million dollar airbus.) According to which side of the bed the president woke up on this morning, the plane will either ferry poor venezuelans so they can visit the natural wonders of the Canaima flat-top mountains, or it will be the first in a fleet of planes for a future Vene-Caribean airline that will eventually penetrate foreign markets, or it will be used to ferry Venezuelan patients to cuba for various operation, or none of these, or all of these at the same time. None of these plans appears financially viable for a state that is broke, but in combination, they present a kind of burlesque of presidential narcissism at work.

What’s most perverse about Chavez’s narcissism is that some people close to him have clearly learned to manipulate it for their personal purposes. Once you’ve caught on that feeding the president’s narcissism is the way to get ahead in palace politics, what’s the reasonable response? Feeding the president’s narcissism, of course.

Over a period of years, this dynamic has left Chavez worryingly isolated. It’s probably been months or years now since the president has been brought face to face with ideas different than his own, with versions of reality that don’t conform to his own sense of grandeur, (except for when he is conversing with foreign leaders, of course.)

Under those circumstances, anyone’s sense of reality would suffer. But if you’ve started out with narcissistic tendencies, that level of isolation is liable to push you over the edge altogether. With no critical thinkers around anymore, no one willing to sit him down and tell him the awful truth, there are no checks left on his pathological relationship with reality.

To a pathological narcissist, reality is little more than a hindrance. This is the heart of the chavista mania for calling what is real virtual and what is virtual real. As Dr. Rodriguez Milliet points out, "Chavez’s discourse might be dissonant with reality, but internally it’s scrupulously coherent." Chavez's only concern is to preserve his romantic vision of himself as a fearless leader of the downtrodden in their fight against an evil oligarchy. If the facts don't happen to fit that narrative structure, then that's too bad for the facts.

So it’s not that Chavez lies, per se. It’s that he’s locked up within a small, tight circle of confidants that feed an aberrant relationship with reality. To lie is to knowingly deceive. Chavez doesn’t lie.

He invents the truth.

Obviously, there are more than a few inconveniences to having a pathological narcissist as president. For instance, it’s almost impossible for narcissists to admit to past mistakes and make amends. The narcissist’s chief, overriding psychological goal is to preserve his grandiose self-image, his sense of being a larger-than-life world historical force for good and justice. Honestly admitting any mistake, no matter how banal, requires a level of self-awareness and a sense for one’s own limitations that runs directly counter to the forces that drive a narcissist’s personality. Chavez cannot, never has, and never will sincerely accept his own fallibility. It’s just beyond him. And it's impossible for the movement he's created to question him.

Once you have a basic understanding of how their pathological personality structures drive the behavior of people with NPD, Hugo Chavez is an open book. Lots of little puzzles about the way the president behaves are suddenly cleared up.

For instance, you start to understand why Chavez sees no adversaries around him, only enemies. It makes sense: the more he becomes preoccupied with“fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance” the harder it is for him to accept that anyone might have an honest disagreement with him. Chavez is a man in rebellion against his own fallibility. "As far as he can see," explains Dr. Requena, "if anyone disagrees with him, that can only be because they are wrong, and maliciously wrong."

People with NPD are strongly sensitive to what psychiatrists call “narcissist injury” – the psychic discombobulation that comes from any input that undermines or negates the fantasies that dominate their mindscape. Chavez clearly experiences disagreement and dissent as narcissist injury, and as any psychiatrist can tell you, an injured narcissist is liable to lash out with virulent rage.

This pattern fits Chavez to a frightening t, if only on the rhetorical level. 95% of his political reasoning is made up of ad hominem attacks on those who dare questioning, along with the paranoid preocupation with plots all around him, a kind of conspiracy mentality the fringier parts of the first world left eat up with relish.

So I wonder. If only. If only those first world sympathizers could sit own and hear him talk, and hear him, and hear him like we Venezuelans have heard him, and heard him, and heard him for hundreds of hours of cadenas spanning back 5 years. If they could know the character like we know the character, after hundreds of hours of forced intimacy through the cadena system. Often, his slurs and insults are almost comically overstated. He insists on describing Venezuela's huge, diverse, and mostly democratic opposition movement as a "conspiracy" led by a tiny cabal of "coup-plotters, saboteurs and terrorists." These attacks not only demonstrate the tragic extent of his disconnect with reality, they have also thoroughly poisoned the political atmosphere in Caracas, creating what's been described as a "cold civil war."

If only they could hear him the way we've heard many of them would earnestly consider someone like Chavez fit to rule their own countries? 3%? More? How many pro-autocracy lefties are there left in Europe?

But we, we have heard him. We've been forced to hear him, we've been obligated to participate in the cult of personality through our state funded TV station and those hundreds of hours of Cadenas. So yes, in Venezuela we know the character well by now.

This is precisely his problem: too many of us know too much about him, about the way he thinks and the way he leads to accept his brand of leadership silently.

Chavez's brand of intellectual intolerance has turned the Venezuelan state into the most autocratic in the Americas short of the one led by his hero, Fidel Castro. It's no coincidence. In Dr. Milliet's view, "narcissism leads directly to an autocratic approach to power." Access to state jobs - a key source of livelihood for millions of Venezuelans - is now openly dependent on civil servant's acceptance of political blackmail. The regime no longer even hides it. Anything is fair when it comes to protecting the narcissist-in-chief's self-image.

The other facts are well known, but they are worth re-hashing one-more time for readers who don't follow all the ins and outs of the democratic process here like we do.

President Chavez has systematically placed diehard loyalists in key posts throughout the state apparatus. When you come to understand his behavior in terms of NPD, that’s not at all surprising: someone who understands the world as a struggle between people who agree with everything he says and does vs. evil will obviously do everything in his power to place unconditional allies in every position of power.

The case of the Attorney General is especially worrying. With nothing like a special counsel statute and no state criminal jurisdiction, the A.G. must approve every single criminal investigation and prosecution in Venezuela. Control this post, and you have total veto power over the entire penal system. For this reason, the A.G. is not a cabinet position in Venezuela like it is in the US. Because of its key role in fighting corruption and keeping watch over the legality of the government’s actions, the A.G. is set up as a fully independent, apolitical office in the Venezuelan constitution. But that clearly wouldn’t do for Chavez. For this most sensitive of offices, Chavez tapped perhaps his most unconditional ally, a doggedly loyal chavista fresh from a stint as vicepresident of the republic. It's like having Karl Rove as attorney general, and no independent council statute!

Not surprisingly, not a single pro-Chavez official has been convicted of anything, ever, despite numerous and well-documented allegations of serious corruption, and a mountain of evidence to suggest the government has organized its civilian supporters into armed militias. The bargain is simple: in return for unrestricted political support, the government remunerates the corrupt and the criminal with total immunity from criminal prosecution. It's quite that simple. The only real requisite for admission into the protection afforded by their control of the state is total submission to the leader's cult of personality. Not surprisingly, many take the bargain.

This dynamic can rise to almost incredible heights. Recently, a former student activist with a murky criminal history and credibly linked with no other than Iraq's Ba'ath Party, for God's sake, was recently named to head an important office at the National Identification Directorate! Can you imagine that? If this is the "model of democracy" Chavez has in mind, he will doubtlessly win the referendum with 100% of the vote and 100% turnout!

And indeed, today, every nominally independent watchdog institution in the state, from the Supreme Court to the Auditor General's office, is run by a presidential crony. With the National Assembly operating like a branch office of the presidential palace, the formal checks-and-balances written into the constitution have become a farce.

Only CNE retains a measure of independent credibility from both sides. Nothing will be possible unless both sides solemnly pledge to accept CNEs eventual decision. They should do this right now.

The reality is that CNE has become a beacon of hope in Venezuelan society. On the verge of the presidential recall, CNE stands as the sole exception, the sole entity of the state that Hugo Chavez cannot control at his pleasure, and my feeling is that, despite, must we recall, it's roughly 3-2 nominal chavista majority, a genuinely independent CNE is the biggest problem in Hugo Chavez's immediate future. All five members of CNE must be uniformly lauded for putting legality ahead of party loyalty so far - a precedent that could serve as the seed for a true democratic awakening in the post-Chavez period.

Some may say I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one

The goal of a new, more dynamic, more participative and much, much more inclusive Venezuela is now within striking distance. The country need not be dominated by a pathological narcissist much longer.