July 17, 2004

Unos versos de Rafael Cadenas...

"Yo pertenecía a un pueblo de grandes comedores de serpientes, sensuales, vehementes, silenciosos y aptos para enloquecer de amor.
Pero mi raza era de distinto linaje. (...)
Mis antepasados no habían danzado jamás a la luz de la luna, eran incapaces de leer las señales de las aves en el cielo como oscuros mandamientos de exterminio, desconocían el valor de los eximios fastos terrenales, eran inermes ante las maldiciones e ineptos para comprender las magnas ceremonias que las crónicas de mi pueblo registran con minucia, en rudo pero vigoroso estilo".
(Just to quote one of the three Venezuelan great poets. Let´s elaborate on the thing about what being a Venezuelan is!).

July 16, 2004

Who cares where the doctors are from?

For a long time, Chavistas have latched on to the opposition's criticisms of Barrio Adentro - the emergency plan to bring Cuban doctors to outpatient clinics in Venezuelan shantytowns - as evidence that the opposition doesn't really care about the health and well-being of the poor. I agree that criticizing a plan like Barrio Adentro is politically silly, even if I share the overall sense of discomfort with the idea of needing to import thousands of undernurished Cuban doctors to do a job Venezuelans should and could do.
Still, the basic chavista retort - Who cares where the doctors come from? - is right on the money. To a poor person in a shantytown, where the doctor that's treating him comes from, who pays his salary, etc. are all clearly secondary considerations. People need help, and they need it ASAP.
The question, then, is where is the philochavista outrage over the treatment of doctors and nurses at the Maternidad Concepcion Palacios? The largest obstetrics center in Caracas, La Concepcion Palacios is managed by the opposition-controlled Metropolitan City Hall of Caracas, but funded by Central Government funds. Central government is months behind on its transfers to the Alcaldia Metropolitana. Chavez has never hidden his disdain for the idea of having to send the constitutionally mandated transfers to the regions in cases where the opposition controls the decentralized governments. The Alcaldia Metropolitana is, of course, on the top of his shit list.
As a result, the doctors and nurses at Concepcion Palacios can and often do go for months without getting paid. Since they did take their hypocratic oath, they continue to work, to help the poorest women in Caracas to give birth. But since they happen to work for a maternity clinic that happens to be run by an anti-Chavez mayor, they have to move heaven and earth to put food on the table.
The question, then, is who is fooling whom here? How can philochavistas slam the opposition for opposing Barrio Adentro but fall dead silent when faced with the outrageous political manipulation of public health funds at a place like Concepcion Palacios? Who is manipulating the desperation of the poor for political purposes here? And who cares where the doctors come from, anyway?

July 15, 2004

Common-place thinking as a way to start...

For Greeks and Romans, paper (the flat papirus invented by Egyptians) was a luxury. So they developed what is called "The Art of Memory" (mnemotechnics).
The idea was this: the man (or woman: remember Aspasia, the hetaira, taught Pericles the art of rhetoric, closely related to the Art of Memory) who was going to give a speech (dis-course, for those who can understand latin languages) imagined a building. The building had a central court, and rooms all about it. So (AS WORDS ARE IMAGES) the man giving the speech just went through his IMAGINARY building leaving certain objects in each room. To remember, he just had to re-course (walk again over) the said imaginary building, collecting the objects he had left in each room, to RE-COLLECT what he wanted to say.
Now to the beautiful part: in that imaginary city of individually built memory buildings, there where COMMON PLACES (PLAZAS, SQUARES). In those common-places, all the inhabitants of the said imaginary city (all of us live in imaginary cities, because cities are just the places where we are ourselves, and by that I mean we as ourselves, with our personal memories) could MEET. That is why they are COMMON places. Tiananmen is one, the Red Square is another, the Mall before the Lincoln Memorial another... the little-intimate-know-by-so-few Plaza Bolívar counts too... in spite of the Esquina Caliente, as Fascist as possible a way to rob a town of it´s own memory as history registers!
So please, don´t fear commonplaces. There we can meet...
(For more information, see Frances A. Yates, "The Art of Memory". It´s a great book, but very difficult, girls and guys... I only got thru 4 chapters before going mad!).

The Citibank Building Affaire

Picture for a second, if you will, a building; a building worth 5 million dollars (US that is, no their Canadian, Jamaican or even Australian counterpart). Imagine, it is owned by an international Bank, which decides to put the building up for sale, because their current needs are not met by an aging building located by the way in a neighborhood, which has, by the way, become less and less desirable. Let's say the bank decides to offer it to the best and richest customer in the country: the Venezuelan Government, in the figure of the Ministry of Finances. "Not interested," is the Ministry's answer, "not interested."

The building in question.

Time passes, the building is put out in the market and within a few days it is bought by a third party for the 5 Million it was going for. In cash. That figure translates into 9.6 Billion Bs. at the official rate or 14 Billion calculated at a conservative black market rate of 2800 Bs per US$. Nothing wrong with that. A simple real estate transaction, right? Well, not exactly, not after what happened next. What if I were to tell you, that the person who bought the building for 5 Million, you know, "the third party", turned that 5 Million purchase into an instant 100% gain on his original investment? How, you ask, could that be possible? How can someone double his original investment within a few days?

Well, here's how (and please tell me if you think there's anything wrong with this): Let's say the investor who bought that magnificent piece of real estate, sold that same block of concrete, steel and glass to ... (fanfare! No, better yet, big fanfare!) yes, you guessed right, the Ministry of Finances. Let's say, hypothetically, that "third party" sells the building for 9.6 Million Dollars to the Ministry. He is paid 5 Million in cash and the rest in government bonds. "Aha, there's something rotten in your story!" you say, "that does not add up to 100% gain! GOTCHA! That is officially only a 92% gain!". Well, I know, I was just rounding numbers, but here's the little detail that throws a monkey wrench into your line of thinking: Imagine the 4.6 Million $ in government bonds, to be paid in hard currency whenever they expire, were not counted at their face value, but at a cool 60%.

"What do you mean?" you ask. Exactly that is what I mean, 60% of its face value: for every dollar owed to that person, he got 1.66 dollars in government bonds. That adds up to 7.64 Million dollars. A 152% return on their investment. Not 52, 152%. "How is that possible?" you ask "How could the Ministry of Finances not figure out there was something wrong with that deal?" My answer to you: there is something rotten in Denmark, and it sure as hell ain't the herring.

Something is rotten in Denmark.

Note: If you do the math, it is not a 7.64 Million gain, it is only 7.636.000 US$, I rounded up 4.000 US$ for dramatic effect.

Satire Alert: This is a piece of satire and does not exactly reflect the facts. I recommend the reading of this to clarify dates and facts.
Appendix: In today's Tal Cual (Jul 16th 2004) I found this little nugget: http://pepemora.blogspot.com/2004/07/como-se-goza-guisando.html

July 14, 2004

Some tips for him

Would you tell the prez to do the following?
-- Learn ways to tolerate emotional distress. Distress usually rises to a peak quickly when you're hurt or upset, but if you tolerate the distress and do absolutely nothing about it, the pain will gradually diminish. Practice making no other response to emotional distress than to just tolerate it.

-- Learn to fail. In other words, practice every day doing the things you find most difficult. Often the things we view as stupid are the things we find most difficult, so practice those things too. Learning that you can fail and survive is important.

-- Play games with people who are better than you, so you can learn how to lose without severe distress.

-- Identify the ways you put other people down. Ask other people to help you do this since it's often easier for other people to see your behavior more clearly than for you to see your own. Once you know exactly how you put other people down, stop doing it.

Well those are recommendations to control Narcissistic Personality Disorder that I found here.

Just to add something to previous lines posted by the owner of this site.

July 13, 2004

CNE discarded more voting centers.(From El Nacional)

More than 1.800.000 new voters will participate in the revoking referendum, he said

(Here in Spanish)

The director Jorge Rodriguez revealed that although the results of the cadastre ordered by the CNE (Electoral National Committee), that he chairs, showed a "clear imbalance" in the location of the voting centers - that works against the citizens of the popular zones "there is no enough time" to open new points for the presidential revoking referendum.

Rodriguez informed in an exclusive interview, granted to the television transmitter Globovision, that, in order to correct the flaw, the electoral organism will make an educational campaign of information that will endeavour to obtain that "those subjects affected by the inequality may massively turn out" to exert their right to the vote.

The director stated that there was a record of signing in the Permanent Electoral Registry that surpassed all the expectations, which means that more than 1.800.000 new voters will participate in the recall of the 15 of August. He said that the organism would dedicate itself in the next days to tune up the automation contract, the verification of digital tracks agreement, as well as to the imprint of acts, ballots and to improve the electoral schedule.

Positive regulation

The chairman of the Andean Electoral Council, Nicanor Moscoso, went to the office of the CNE and guaranteed that they will participate as observers in the presidential revoking referendum of the 15 of August.

Moscoso met with the director Oscar Battaglini and, after the encounter, offered a press conference. He said in advanced that the institution will participate actively in the different phases allowed by the Venezuelan electoral council.

Moscoso was in agreement with the regulation of observation elaborated by the CNE although he did not know his content.

He is sure that the participation of the observers will make the process to be transparent and reliable.

July 12, 2004

Values and Interests

or, the bolivar bond market is soooooooooo boring...

So Justin's whole argument dissolves into what people used to call vulgar Marxism - the assumption that economic positions in society mechanically and automatically dictate people's political position. The rich are against Chavez because Chavez stands against their interests. Anything else is pretext or rhetoric. Moreover, since material position mechanistically determines political positions, Justin actually has a clearer understanding of why Teodoro Petkoff or Miguel Henrique Otero think the way they do than Teodoro or Miguel Henrique.

Good! It's a position that fits neatly into the logic of Chavez's central idea. A neat, morally satisfying ideological position. A position so neat and tidy it does away with the need to consider actual evidence.

Actual evidence, as we know, is boring. The Venezuelan public bond market, in particular, is a source of nearly limitless boredom to a good first world revolutionary. So it's maybe not surprising that Justin hasn't quite inquired into the dynamics of Venezuelan bolivar denominated public debt since 1998, the way it's grown more than six-fold in bolivar terms, coming to take up as much as half of banks' loan portfolios, setting off an interest-rate spiral, and - incidentally, becoming a huge, massive free lunch to the nation's barriga-verde oligarch bankers.

But wait, it doesn't make any sense! How could a government run by someone that talks like Chavez run a financial strategy that ends up yielding a massive redistribution in favor of oligarch bankers? This is not in the chavista script! It falls entirely outside the logic of his ideas. It is not explainable within the frame of reference of chavista ideology. Therefore, Justin's reaction is to assume, as a matter of course, that this must not be true. It cannot be true. It runs counter to his ideology - and when facts run counter to ideology, what does an ideological thinker say? Peor para los hechos...

Yet if he took a bit of time to look through the private banks' financial statements since 1998, he'd notice that while small and mid-sized businesses have collapsed en masse, while over half of industrial employers have folded, while informal employment and unemployment rise to the stratosphere, the banks wallow in pools of government cash, free money generated by the sky-high interest rates generated by the government's hyper-aggressive borrowing stance. This is, if you're willing to look at it objectively, a huge transfer of resources from small and medium employment-generating businesses to huge financial interests. However pretty Chavez's speeches might be, this is the actual legacy of his government.

Interestingly, almost all the bankers who've benefitted from this manguangua are virulently opposed to Chavez. Because they have interests, but they also have values, ideas, principles, and - just as importantly - children and grandchildren. Money is nice - but as any banker can understand, it doesn't do you any damn good to have money in a country with 13,000 murders a year, where you can't go outside at night and where it seems like a civil war could break out at any second.

The danger in exchanging the necessary insecurity of critical thinking for the total explanation of an ideology is not even so much the risk of falling for some usually vulgar, always uncritical assumption as of exchanging the freedom inherent in man's capacity to think for the strait jacket of logic with which man can force himself almost as violently as he is forced by some outside power.

¿Qué carajo pasa con la Coordinadora Democrática?

Sorry the headline is in Venezuelan Spanish, but I think it´s a major worry for all us Venezuelans living in Venezuela. What is going on? Why aren´t they doing something? Tuti: as a volunteer in the movement, can you offer any insights?

July 11, 2004

How Italian bar stool intellectuals come to think the way they think...

I've spent the last few weeks speaking to lots of random Italians about Venezuela - and last night, after asking any number of them what they know about Chavez and Venezuela, I had an epiphany. After talking to the Nth vaguely philochavista Italian bar-stool intellectual, I realized why they all think this way: there's a rarely acknowledged asymmetry in the information about Venezuela available to a news reader here, and in many ways it's exactly the opposite of what you might expect.

Chavista apologists see themselves as embattled purveyors of a truth the mainstream press wants to silence. But in fact, it's the opposition that rarely finds the space to tell its story in full to the newspaper readers of the first world. Unlike the chavistas, the opposition doesn't have an ideologically friendly and journalistically docile set of media outlets willing to tell their story, unadulterated, in full. Instead, they rely on a mainstream press that, though often villified as biased, has no choice but to make an effort at journalistic balance far beyond the norm in the lefty press.

If you read the mainstream papers intently, you realize that they're structurally different from the leftwing press. Whatever their personal feelings - and as first world liberals it's not hard to guess what they are - mainstream journalists are constrained by professional ethics to try to balance their reports and express, even if in extreme shorthand, the perceptions of both sides of the debate. Some do this better than others, but all are bound by the rules of the profession to at least make an attempt in that direction. So right next to the line about how "the opposition accuses Chavez of taking Venezuela on the path to Cuban-style communism" you will always read, "the government blames the opposition for the 2002 coup and the crippling general strike..." It may be extreme shorthand, but both sides are there.

Only the paranoia and persecution complex on the left makes it appear to them as though they're getting a raw deal in the mainstream press. But if you read the mainstream press closely, it's impossible to call it pro-opposition - in fact, the chavista's vision of an essentially oligarchical, privileged opposition angered essentially by Chavez's efforts at wealth redistribution is largely parroted by the mainstream press. The reality of an opposition that includes broad chunks of the Venezuelan left, millions of poor people and even the damn Trotskyite party is almost never acknowledged.

Still - as my good friend Hannah explains - to ideological thinkers, any story line that challenges, or casts doubt on, or complicates or even contextualizes a given ideological interpretation of events is, ipso facto, beyond the pale to an ideological thinker. Even mild criticism must be interpreted in terms intelligible within the frame of reference set out by the logic of their central idea. Put in other words, the structure of chavismo rules out the possibility of critical support or nuanced sympathy. Autocrats just won't settle for it. Patria o muerte.

Luckily for chavismo, the leftwing press, makes no analogous attempt to tell the entire story, to place it in context, to tell the story with all its ifs, ands and buts. There is no pretense in the leftwing press to try to put forward the other side's best argument, to try to understand the points of view of opponents as anything other than expressions of Bushophilia or economic privilege. Instead, Le monde diplomatique, Il Manifesto, The Nation, and the rest of them simply regurgitate the old, worn-out party line peddled out of Miraflores, a line that, as critically-minded Venezuelans know only too well, is riddled with inconsistencies, manipulations, and convenient lacunas of the memory.

A simple, morally satisfying falsification beats a messy, uncomfortable truth any day of the week. There is, of course, nothing new about that. Given the particularly ghastly record of the Bush administration on foreign policy, it becomes particularly easy for chavistas to manipulate the opinion of the well-meaning but underinformed. The mirror-image polarization of Venezuelan and first-world societies - ours around Chavez, theirs around Bush - makes it especially easy to sucker the uninitiated. As Greg Wilpert, Bernardo Alvarez, Ignacio Ramonet et. al. know only too well, half of Americans and 90% of Europeans don't need to know anything about a given story beyond what the Bush administration's position is. They'll adopt the opposite position uncritically, automatically, without the slightest need for consideration. It's a simple, straightforward dynamic, one that Hugo Chavez has gotten damn good at exploiting.

As a result, someone like Marjorie - an interested but ignorant gringa - barely has a chance. On an emotional level, her sympathy for Chavez will be automatic as soon as she hears one of his anti-Bush tirades. Reading the press gives her access only to a strangely warped slice of Venezuelan reality. She knows, in extreme schematized form, the opposition's basic beef with Chavez, and she knows, in quite some detail, the "heroic version" of the chavista revolution. But because there is no real right-wing analogue to the leftwing press in the first world (beyond Mary Anastasia O'Grady's columns in the Wall Street Journal), she really has no access to the heroic version of the opposition, to the detailed story about how and why the opposition has come to be so frontally opposed to Chavez and why, if a government in her country acted the way Chavez has acted in ours, she wouldn't stand for it for 10 seconds! Only a tiny minority who, like Marjorie, happen upon web sites like this one, has even a shadow of a chance to come to understand the problem more broadly and less ideologically.

So it's not surprising that Chavez has, in important ways, won the international opinion battle. First world news consumers have to do wayyy too much work to get a broader picture, including an obligatory turn through Google. The broad majority will simply read a couple of mainstream articles, mistake them for opposition apologism, then read a couple of leftwing press pieces, assume they're the real deal, and accept the pretty, reassuring, soothing, heroic vision of the embattled people's president doing battle against a rogue's gallery of privilege. It's really too much to expect anything more.

All of which brings us back to Orwell, and how truth and history mutate in the retelling. In time, if things keep going like this, the heroic version of chavismo will become the official story in broad parts of the first world. The April 11th cadena and the orden to activate Plan Avila have, in some ways, already been written out of the first world's understanding of that seminal moment in our contemporary history. In twenty years, I'm sure illuminated lefty history books on Latin America will report the glorious day when 8 million penniless people beat the CIA and the oligarchs on the streets of Venezuela.