December 17, 2007

2007: The year in review

Katy, Quico and Lucia say: What a year it's been. Just twelve months ago, Hugo Chávez strode Venezuela's political scene like a colossus and the opposition was worn thin, worn down and worn out. Now, it's chavismo that's looking dazed and confused, after a year that saw everything from Al Qaeda threatening PDVSA to crime fighting blimps to commie subsidized Swarovski figurines to an outbreak of Locha nostalgia.

So take a trip down memory lane with us as we explore 2007 as seen through the eyes of Caracas Chronicles...


2007 kicked off with news of Chávez's decision to name Jorge Rodríguez Vice-president, shunting legendary evil genius José Vicente Rangel to the side. At the time, Quico mused,
It may be that, in time, we'll come to see JVR's rampant cynicism with something akin to nostalgia, that we'll come to remember him as a moderating figure once no such figures are left in Chávez's entourage.
Emboldened by his decisive victory in the previous month's presidential election, Chávez was at the height of his power and ambition, unchained:
With power centralized absolutely, with no more institutional restraints in place, without even a looming election to impose a modicum of caution, we finally get to see chavismo the way Chávez wanted it all along: free to implement all of his utopian fantasies with utter, gleeful abandon.
Straight away, he pledged to nationalize the power and telephone companies, though, as Quico noted at the time, he never really explained why that was a good idea. He asked the National Assembly the power to rule by decree on pretty much all major aspects of national life. And, of course, to suspend RCTV's broadcasting license.

Towards the end of the month, Katy flipped out over a badly misjudged, commie/hippie BBC photo essay on "urban organic farming" in Caracas.


Greater Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto started February with one of the more brazenly phallic attempts to suck up to Chávez we'd seen all year.

Continuing with the surreal theme, Central Bank director Domingo Maza Zavala told us he had no idea how much money the state was spending.

Quico then started boring readers with the first
of several philosophically minded posts on the role of deliberations in democratic decisionmaking. Zzzzzzzz...

It was around that time that TalCual was fined for publishing a front page editorial that alledgedly violated Rosinés Chávez's childhood privacy, and Quico urged readers to send in their donations to help cover the fine.

The next day, Al Qaeda said the way to fight the US empire was to attack facilities supplying oil to the US, wherever they may be found. Chavismo called it - wait for it - a CIA conspiracy.

The following week, Katy passionately defended Primero Justicia after a set of high profile defections to Un Nuevo Tiempo.

On February 28th, 18 years after the sadly famous Caracazo, Katy noted that too many of the military men responsible for the massacres are now in the upper echelons of chavista power.


Quico wrote a series of articles on monetary issues, beginning with the new currency, the bolívar fuerte, set to make its debut January 1st, 2008. He wasn't really convinced by the attempt to erradicate devaluation by decree while ridiculing the government for thinking it could make the currency strong just by naming it the strong currency. He posted a nifty Powerpoint presentation on the Bono del Sur scam.

March also saw the beginning of the end of the honeymoon between the international press and Chavez, which had started with his landslide December victory. Media outlets and thinking heads overseas began to realize that the inminent closure of RCTV was non-kosher, but Quico was having none of it. Tarde piaste, pajarito!

The Barbara Walters interview with Chavez showed that there was still some love left for Chavez in the international media, although it did not play well in Caracas Chronicles.

In March we continued to see Chavez everywhere, and comparisons were a dime a dozen, whether with Idi Amin Dada or with Ann Coulter. It did give us the chance to include a nifty spoof on Chavez's rants done, surprisingly, by The Nation.

Perhaps the Amin analogy was the final push Quico needed to get a gig posting over at Noticiero Digital, showing once again that radicalism can be fruitful once in a while.

The end of the month proved low on inspiration. The country seemed on the verge of something, yet Chavismo's looming radicalization did not hit us yet. Quico continued musing about the change in our currency, but he also ventured into translating Venezuelan humour and pondering the imminent firing of Supreme Tribunal magistrate Cabrera, something that did not end in anything with Cabrera still safely in his position.

Katy, in the meantime, came back to remind people that you need only to turn to the Sucesos pages to find the inspiration needed, and post on the tragedy playing out in Venezuela's streets. Quico found his inspiration in comparing Venezuela's institutional decay to Italy or Washington.


In April, we began
heatedly debating the issues that would come up in the next few months. Katy made the case against term limits, saying that the revolution should run its course and live in the disasters it has created. Quico pitched in on this post, making sure people understood that no, if Venezuela had no term limits, it would not resemble France nor Britain.

We highlighted particularly bonehead chavista measures, such as Chavez's whiplash inducing about-face on ethanol, and the ban on the sale of alcohol during Semana Santa (Easter week). Was this the decision that showed the government had started losing touch? It's hard to say.

In April we also took digs at one of CC's favorite punching bags, the Comando Nacional de la Resistencia and its spokesman, Antonio Ledezma. It was a year of follies for these guys. They continually introduced petitions into the Supreme Tribunal while denouncing the Tribunal's illegitimacy. They maintained a rigid stance against the vote on December, only to do an abrupt about-face in calling for the vote two days before the election that left even Hermann Escarrá scurrying for the nearest exit. Their credibility is in shatters, which can only mean we will continue seeing these guys give us their wise opinions on Globovisión every two days or so.

In April we also looked back, once again, at the events of April 2002, with Quico giving us a reprisal of his masterful post on the subject, as well as a fresh new take on Chavez's own. We also reminded readers that the causes of 2002 are still very much present. Quico took the time to exchange impressions of April 11th with Greg Wilpert, chavista apologist par excellence.

Yet April was not all about remembrance. We still found the time to post about measles, the excellent website Venezuela Real, and the now-forgotten scandal of a taped conversation between the head of VTV and the head of Venevisión.

We admired a journal article by Corrales and Penfold, took shots at Chavez's ideas for a barter economy and Barreto's blimps (whatever happened to those?), and compared Chávez to Putin, once again.

Yet the highlight of the month was a short and sweet post by Quico on Venezuela's two Constitutions. Even now it helps shape
our understanding of what the whole idea behind the failed Reform proposals was. We ended the month by updating our Reader's Guide on Venezuela.


The month was, of course, dominated by the news of RCTV's imminent closure. As the date approached, we began discussing the PR war being staged. Quico mused about the international implications of the shutdown, the unfairness of singling out RCTV, chavismo's international spinning machine, international condemnation of the closure, and rhetorical U-turns international apologists of chavismo had to engage in to justify this decision. Katy pitched in with a post on Human Rights Watch's position on the closure.

As the date of the closure approached, the streets got in on the action and we witnessed the rebirth of the student movement, which has quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with. We had mixed feelings about the RCTV closure: while we condemned it, we had no love for RCTV's extreme editorial line. Quico wrote a great post on the right to propagandize. Katy discussed how RCTV fit into the bigger picture of Chavez's ultimate goal: ensuring indefinite reelection. Little did we know it would come back to haunt him.

We worried about the students and about further repression, while we decided to turn the comments section back on for a while. The comparisons to the student movement of 1928 were apparent from the start.


June started with Chávez complaining about the massive international conspiracy to make it look like shutting down a dissident TV channel is bad for freedom of speech somehow, and then denouncing the 1999 constitution's fundamental principles. Days later, he invoked Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci to defend his position on RCTV, prompting Quico to rant at length.

Foreshadowing the effect the RCTV shutdown would have on Chavismo's electoral viability, the following week the government got its ass kicked in a mayoral by election in Catatumbo, in southern Zulia state.

Katy immensely enjoyed a little gotcha post when Chávez messed up and used the black market exchange rate on Aló, Presidente, and then added a schadenfreundish post on the defenestration of Tobías Nóbrega. Her mixed feelings on the Student Movement and its lionization were clear from the start.

Quico took a break from bashing the private media and bashed the public media for a change.

Katy traveled to Caracas in June and wrote a genuinely inspired first person account of the simmering discontent already brewing in chavista ranks after she infiltrated a progovernment rally. One of the year's highlights.

Quico closed out the month by posting his 2003 documentary about polarization in the countyside, Law of the Land, alongside two detailed posts about the movie. Like the movie, the essays develop the themes lawlessness and the inability to make written rules operative that come back again and again in his writing.


Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabezas acknowledged the government would miss it's 12% inflation target for the year (the final figure was double that) and announced a fiscal retrenchment plan that doesn't seem to have been implemented.

Still processing her trip, Katy wrote about the generalized state of breakdown she encountered due to the state's general inability to make sensible policy.

Quico posted a fascinating if somewhat PSFish Dutch public Television documentary on the barrios called Caracas: The Informal City.

Quico then wrote a detailed set of essays series on the petrostate's inability to get paper based governance right, on its general dysfunction, and on the way to fix it, suggesting all oil revenues be shared out to Venezuelans through a tax credit scheme.

Those three were awfully serious, so then he lightened it up a bit, making fun of PDVSA's diversification plans.

Quico then found out what 206 million bucks looks like in $100 bills and was totally floored. He proposed the Mexican Drug Cash Pile as a new unit of fiscal measurement.

Katy noticed the first signs that the government realized its constitutional reform proposal might not be so easy to pass, as they started to object to the term "indefinite re election."


Early on we saw signs of chavismo's nervousness regarding its Constitutional Reform proposal. In early August we learned that since indefinite re-election was bombing in the polls, chavismo would include the misiones in the proposal. Yet, through it all, chavismo kept showing that what it really was about was controlling all aspects of society, including labor unions.

August also marked the beginning of a truly awful semester for Chavez in the international sphere. Forget all the recent spats with Spain, Chile or Colombia: it all started with Chávez lashing out when the Brazilian and Paraguayan parliament showed signs they would not just rubber-stamp Venezuela's entry into Mercosur. In August, in a fit of narcissistic rage, Chávez basically gave Mercosur an ultimatum (one that he seems to have forgotten about), and immediately went ballistic on anyone who dared call his ultimatum, ultimatum.

This trend continued with Maletagate, a mega-scandal that just won't go away, seriously implicating the Venezuelan and Argentinian government in some decidely gangster-like shenannigans. Quico lamented how our press is not doing its job, and how now we must resort to borrowing scandals from abroad.

In the meantime, Katy wrote a lovely, lyrical, but deeply upsetting post on a scandal of a diferent type: how the picture-perfect town of San Juan de las Galdonas has sold itself out to gasoline smuggling.

The unveiling of the Constitutional Reform package was only hours away, and polls began to show up saying the government was in some trouble. Quico really nailed the government's predicament when he prophetically wrote:
Chávez has a mountain to climb to win over public opinion here. If he can't turn these numbers around, the scale of the cheating it would take for him to claim victory would simply be unsustainable.
Caracas Chronicles was thus one of the rare media outlets giving the opposition a chance on this one right from the beginning. In the spirit of the holidays, we think a smug, self-congratulatory pat in the back is in order.

Then, the Reform itself was unveiled, and our collective jaw hit the floor at the sheer lunacy of some of the proposals. While we laughed at the plan to rename Caracas the Queen of Guaraira Repano, we were simply astounded by the fact that the whole thing made no sense. One of Quico's best lines of the year came in this post, in which he wrote:
Suddenly, it all makes sense! The reason the text looks like it was written by a lunatic at three in the morning is that it was written by a lunatic at three in the morning!

It's no joke,'s not an exaggeration at all. I really think he wrote it - or at least big chunks of it - by himself. The guy literally pulled an all-nighter the night before it was due. In fact, he told us so!
The Reform served as fodder for several posts that month. While Quico talked about a few articles Chavez missed in his rush to push through the reform, we were disheartened at the level of discussion from chavistas such as Diosdado Cabello or Carlos Escarra and from the opposition. Mostly, Quico couldn't figure out why they were selling us a reform full of stuff they were already doing:
These days, chavista discourse is full of grand declarations about the absolute necessity of constitutional reform to enable the state to do stuff that filled yesterday's newspapers. In a way, Chavismo is trying to sell us the Constitutional Reform as a necessary precondition for the status quo.
But it wasn't all about the reform. We discused the government's bonehead plan to change the country's time zone, mess around with private health care and even engage in some embassy re-decorating in Lima:


Quico began the autumn with
a look back at the Chávez of September 2004, the one who stopped an indefinite re-election proposal in its tracks with these words: “I am neither a caudillo, nor indispensable.” El Presidente’s current histrionics in response to arguments he himself had once made, a scant three years earlier, are not simply a matter of political tactics, Quico writes, but also clear evidence of mental , um, issues:

He hints darkly about their allegiance to foreign powers, blusters at length without addressing the substance of their points, all without ever betraying the slightest whiff of understanding, the most oblique hint of self-awareness about the scale of the rhetorical U-turn involved.

But if Chávez himself has seen the light, the people of Venezuela have not – Quico unveils his first poll chart of the referendum season, showing early evidence that indefinite re-election is going to be a tough sell.

But in what will become an enduring lament from the Caracas Chronicles bloggers, Quico wonders whether another oppo harakiri is in the making – early Hinterlaces tracking numbers point to substantial abstention among those opposing the reforms. “Abstentionism isn't politics,” he writes, with no small amount of frustration, “it's a vocación de martir...”.

Quico also lures us on a trip to the dark side, showcasing Chris Kraul’s LA Times article on tomb-raiding, black magic and macabre burial rituals in some Venezuelan cemeteries. The piece was not without reference to politics, either – a priest from El Hatillo accused Chávez of promoting Santeria in order to diminish the power of the Catholic Church. (Hat tip to Kraul – this definitely does not qualify as follow-the-pack journalism).

While work and travel overwhelmed Katy and Quico in mid-September, loyal readers and PSFs were undeterred, and with Mommy and Daddy away, a raucous debate ensued in the comments section, with, it must be admitted, some highly creative epithets flung across cyberspace.

On the 20th, Caracas Chronicles' fifth anniversary came and went...but none of us actually noticed.

Katy had left us to our own devices because she was doing some family bonding in Panama, where her Venezuelan relatives were free to spend their Mision Cadivi dollars…she does the math, and figures Uncle Hugo’s subsidies to her relatives could feed a family of twelve for a year in Venezuela. What a revolution!

Meanwhile, on another continent, Quico had an adventure of a different sort -- a rendezvous in Paris with J.M. Briceño Guerrero, Venezuela’s most revered classicist, and author of The Labyrinth of the Three Minotaurs, a book that has long held a special place in Quico’s heart.

Quico writes movingly of the encounter – the post is a tour de force, moving smoothly from the great gentleman’s childhood Palmarito memories to his late-in-life taking up of Chinese – the better to read the Tang Dynasty poets -- and stopping in between to measure his love for teaching and his distaste for shallow political debate. It’s a post of both charm and depth, well worth re-visiting. It inspired oohs and ahs from readers, and perhaps not a small amount of self-reflection, given JMBG’s admonition to go beyond the day’s headlines, look deeper, think independently.


October was a strange month. While the country was two months away from an election with enormous implications, CC was in a funk. Katy, Quico and Lucia were all extremely busy, so posting was light, but when it happened, it was also Hamlet-esque.

Katy tried to give a general sense of what the status of the fight was. She pointed out what each opposition party's main points were, listlessly underestimating the strength of the student movement and having no idea that the future oppposition would include people like Raul Baduel or Ismael García.

Quico set the tone for the ensuing debate by throwing the towel on the whole abstention vs. participation debate. It was the beginning of a long series of exchanges between the bloggers and between them and some of our readers. Much as we tried, our dread for the debate itself ended up dragging us into it.

Katy responded by saying that she and Quico agreed. Quico retorted that, na-ha, they weren't talking about the same thing.

It was the first of a series of posts lamenting the state of the public discourse. Quico began quoting political scientists like Jeffrey Friedman and Phillip Converse in search of some insight. He even threw in a Japanese lesson, leaving many of our readers befuddled.

Katy and the New York Times came to the rescue, the former with a post on the dangers of the media's manipulation of the student movement, and the latter with a brilliant exposè of the Petrostate in the Times Sunday Magazine. As the country was heating up, we began getting our groove back.

As October drew to a close, Quico was still mired in a navel gazing funk and sadistically taking it out on readers through a series of incomprehensible posts. Katy was still in "maybe eternal re election is not so bad" sour grapes land. Only Lucia had caught on that the month ahead was liable to bring some surprises.

The funny thing is that, with little over a month to go before the referendum, we really weren't in election mode at all: Katy was still ranting about her favorite hobby horse ("Misión Cadivi") and Quico didn't even attempt to be topical.


November was the month when everything changed...not that that was apparent early in the month.

It started w
ith Katy confirming what we'd suspected all along: she's a party girl in a party world. Her insider's look at Primero Justicia's "ideological congress" (basically their party conference) nicely balanced the party's diversity and vitality with a frank avowal of a degree of ramshackle disorganization. She followed her party post up with another critical look at the overblown expectations being built around the Student Movement.

The first inkling we had that the government's constitutional reform proposal could run into serious difficulty came on the 5th, when former Defense Minister and chavista folk hero Raul Baduel stunned the entire country by coming out strongly for a No vote.

The next day Lucia, who had been reading the blog for years and sending us some really juicy scoops for a long time, finally got itchy fingers and wrote her first post, pleading with abstentionists to turn out and vote. She followed it up with a chilling "post from the future" illustrating how the international press would cover the story if the opposition shot itself on the foot again through abstentionism.

On the ground, the students' No campaign was catching on and generating a terrifying chavista backlash.

But Katy's reaction took comeflorismo to a whole new level. Not that her peace, love and understanding shtick could withstand its first encounter with Iris Varela on full rant mode.

Even at this late stage, with a tightening race and voting only a couple of weeks ago, Quico refused to drop the whole German philosophical thing. He noticed the blog's hit count collapsed every time he started writing that stuff, and vowed to try to keep within limits.

Katy brought things back to earth with a nicely pictorial, maracucho-nostalgic post about milk shortages. On the 16th, she noted with some relief that CNE's "indelible ink" (the stuff you stain your little finger with on election day so you can't vote twice) had been audited and approved by opposition witnesses, blowing a large hole in one one of the key abstentionist arguments.

On the 19th, Lucia had her first proper post as a member of the team...henceforth, she would stop being obnoxiously right all the time in the comments section and start doing so on the main page. She addressed the weird disconnect between the Sí's rapidly falling standing in the polls and international journalists' ongoing tendency to portray a government win as a foregone conclusion. Later that week she posted some notes on Chávez's
deeply dishonest campaign strategy.

On the 23rd, a mere nine days before the vote, Quico finally got the message and posted on the now very real chance the No would win, because Comando Zamora was fighting the last war.

During the week before the constitutional reform referendum, the blog went hyperactive. We wrote Scenarios on what a Sí win would mean, what a No win would mean, and what a fraudulent Sí win would mean. Quico waded into the neverending controversy, trying to explain why CNE would not be able to cheat without it being really obvious.

And, as you've come to expect, we posted lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of polls, most of them showing a more comfortable No win if turnout was high, and a very tight race if it was low. Seriously, we posted a lot of polls.

If we had to pick just a couple of polling slides that "tell the story of the referendum", we'd go for these two. First, Datanalisis showed that about half the people who self identified as chavistas ahead of the 2006 presidential election were self identifying as NiNis ahead of the 2007 referendum:

...which is facinating, when you think about it, because it maps directly onto the drop in the government's vote from 2006 to 2007.

And then this slide by Consultores 21, who clearly called the election, and who knew all along that low turnout meant a tight race:

Somewhere in there Iris Varela flipped out yet again, Comando Nacional de la Resistencia were forced to come out of their abstentionist bunker with their hands in the air, and Jens Erik Gould dissected chavismo's appalling financial opacity.

Basically, a lot happened in November.


The weight anticipation had made us all slightly loopy by the time December rolled around. On the day before the referendum, we linked to the sheerly incongruous sight of General Baduel publishing an anti-Chavez rant on the pages of the NYTimes. We posted one last poll, and asked readers to tell us how they thought the next day's referendum would turn out.

Only amieres and 'marc in calgary' guessed right: good going, you two!

Votin' day was sheer hell on the nerves. As usual, the blog's hit count went through the roof, as gossip seekers from all over the world went looking for information online. There was the usual mini-storm of alarming, over the top rumors, which we didn't post, and an antsy, too long wait for an official result.

At 9:53 p.m. Caracas time, we called the result on the basis of multiple reports from within CNE.
The comments section went berserk, with 418 people all posting at the same time at one point. Katy and Quico realized they're both in their 30s, and they'd never before actually been on the winning side in a national vote. By the time Tibisay Lucena showed up on TV to announce what we already knew, readers were pretty drunk.

For the record, Caracas Chronicles was 2 hours and 31 minutes faster than CNE...and we didn't even cost the Venezuelan treasury $100,000,000 like those guys did. Admittedly, we were almost 3 and a half hours slower than Reuters. But then, we did get the result right the first time.

For me, the Photo of the Year was taken that night, at the ca
nceled chavista victory party in front of Miraflores Palace, by a photographer for El Mundo:

The next day, battling a fierce hangover, Quico raised questions about CNE's slow announcement, and the narrow margin. Rumors were beginning to go around about Chávez "negotiating the margin" of the No's win, and we demanded to see the actas.

Katy and Quico debated what the opposition should do next, with Quico wanting the opposition to spin this as a victory for the constitution chavistas wrote, and Katy urging the opposition to stand up and claim its win. We also examined Chávez's election night concession speech, noting that while his tone of voice had been conciliatory, his message hadn't. And we got a big kick out of Heinz Dieterich's half sensible, half deranged, half incendiary postmortem.

CNE kept on rationing out results information with an eyedropper, to Quico's enormous annoyance. Soon, reader amieres figured out a way to extract the underlying databases from CNE's results website, setting off a brief flurry of statistical analysis. The results stunned us, suggesting the real advantage for the No side will have been narrower than CNE announced on voting night, not wider as everyone in the opposition figured. However, CNE's second results bulletin raised more questions than it answered, and then those guys went on christmas vacation before publishing complete results. To our disappointment, the opposition parties weren't organized enough to provide precise answers.

For his part, Chávez was able to sustain his "gracious loser" shtick for less than 72 hours. From the start, he'd said he intended to press forward with his reforms regardless, making it sort of quizzical why he bothered with a referendum in the first place. By Wednesday afternoon, the guy's problem with narcissistic rage was shining through in all its splendor. He stormed an Armed Forces' press conference and called the opposition's a "shit victory," prompting Escualidus Arrechus to coin the pun of the year: The shit hits the F.A.N. The next day, he was in full loony ranting mode again, blaming the loss on his ungrateful supporters. Needless to say, we found the spectacle immensely enjoyable.

We were just about ready to close the year with thoughts on the opposition's problem with rurality, calls for better organization of election monitoring from the oppo parties, and ruminations on Belorussian cuisine. But then maletagate resurfaced again, prompting Quico to one last angry tirade about our totally useless contralor.


Well, that's about as much blogging as you're going to get out of us this year! It was great fun...thank you all for reading.

Merry Christmas, everyone...see you again in the new year!