January 14, 2006

All aboard the Failure Express !

It's hard to take chavistas seriously when they try to hide the Chávez government's obvious failure in terms of infrastructure.

We know the government has failed in terms of housing. We know it failed to provide a solution to the slow and well-announced deterioration of the Caracas-La Guaira highway. We know the remodeling of the Maiquetía airport is still more than five years behind schedule. We know they are way behind in the repairs of Central Park's East Tower. And, thanks to the Internet, we are reminded they are way, way, way behind in finishing the Tuy Railroad. But then, what can you expect when you have such incompetent fools drilling the tunnels through which the train is supposed to pass?

The train of history seems to have passed them by.

January 13, 2006

World Social Forum Files: The Housing Crisis

With the World Social Forum meeting due to be held in Caracas later this month, I figure at least some of the 80,000 kids planning to travel to Caracas for this shindig will be scurrying around the Internet looking for information on the revolution. My next few posts go to them, with the heartfelt hope that you'll read them with an open mind. The piece below is an "oldie but a goodie" - written in June 2004, it tackles an issue that has, sadly, only become more relevant in the last few weeks. Keep it in mind as you travel that long, slow road from the airport up to Caracas.

No Magic Solutions for Venezuela's Housing Crisis
One of the most interesting articles I've written about Venezuela grew out of a meeting with five privileged white men who had held positions of some prestige under the old regime. They harshly condemned Chavez's performance and called for policy to take a radical new direction. They threw their hands up in frustration as they considered the government's folly, shook their heads gravely as they described how they'd been excluded from the spheres of power, and generally despaired over their powerlessness to influence policy in the slightest.

The five were members of Alemo, a think-tank dealing with Venezuela's urban housing crisis. Professional architects and urban planners - most are professors at the Universidad Central de Venezuela - they have spent two decades in in-depth study of the challenges posed by Venezuela's mushrooming shantytowns, known as barrios. With a bureaucrat's fastidious concern for for detail, they have documented the problem, thought through the policy alternatives, costed the various possibilities, and published the lot. In their view, the rock-bottom, lowest-imaginable price-tag for bringing all of Venezuela's urban dwellers to a basic standard of safety and comfort would come to a harsh $60 billion.

The price-tag is astronomical - over 60% of GDP, over twice the government's global yearly spending. Even if, as Alemo urges, the cost is spread over 10 years, a $6 billion/year price tag would require quadrupling the country's housing budget.

It's hardly a surprise, since Alemo's study just quantifies the disastrous housing shortage you can see in any Venezuelan city. One-third of the country's housing stock consists of ranchos - shanties. However, fully half of all Venezuelans live in ranchos. Thousands of ranchos need to be bulldozed and replaced - they sit on geologically unstable ground, and could give way at the next rainstorm - while hundreds of thousands require investment to bring them up to minimal standards of safety and crowding. Moreover, hundreds of barrios need major investments to bring in basic urban amenities - from electricity and sanitation to schools, infermeries, playing fields and roads good enough for buses to use.

How did Alemo arrive at its $60 billion figure? The process was long and involved, but the innitial question was simple enough: what would it take to build a Venezuela where everyone who lives in a city has access to basic urban services, nobody lives at very high-risk areas for flooding or mudslides, nobody lives in extremely crowded or dangerously deteriorated housing, and the housing stock grows quickly enough to absorb the new families looking for places of their own as they hit their 20s?

To keep costs more or less reasonable, Alemo applied deep cost-cutting measures in their calculation, including a radical plan for the state to construct "proto-houses" (with all services, but minimal construction area) that residents would subsequently expand and complete, as well as financing mechanisms that would split costs between the state and beneficiary families. So the $6 billion/year tag is a rock-bottom figure, the very least the state could spend and still hope to meet its goals. Spend much less than that, and the problem deepens rather than receding.

"Normally," I remember them telling me, "you'd need to build at least 100,000 new low-income houses a year - not to reduce current levels of crowding, but just to keep up with population growth - just to stay even. To start to make some headway against the truly appalling level of crowding in some ranchos, you'd be talking about 120,000 houses a year, at least. Since the start of the Chavez era, we've never seen more than 60,000 houses a year. So, in effect, we're going backwards: every house that you come up short from that 100,000 target means another family forced to choose between squatting on an empty plot of land and building a rancho with their hands, or staying put and living in increasingly intolerable crowding with their relatives."

Serious Planning
Of course, this is just one area of concern: expert NGOs could (and have) come up with similar analyses for hospitals, schools, social security, the fire-fighters, the police, prisons, essentially any part of Venezuela's huge, overbloated but underfunded state. Alemo's approach is based on a long, hard, careful, uncompromising look at the policy problem followed by specific proposals for budgeted, thought-through solutions. These are soft-hearts and hard-heads at work - their conviction is that the more urgent a human problem is, the more down-to-earth and meticulous the planning for a solution should be. You can call their outlook technocratic if you want, but in my book Alemo's outlook represent a hard-bitten marriage of idealism and pragmatism that eschews magical solutions and urges the state to tackle these matters with eyes wide open.

Now, how has the Chavez administration responded to Alemo's calls? The answer goes a long ways towards explaining my despair about the government. First, the chavistas purged Alemo members from all state institutions dealing with urban housing - putting the state's housing bureaucracy in the hands of doctrinaire chavistas that would neither produce independent estimates nor raise troubling questions. Then, it set out to confuse the issue, making oversized claims for its decidedly undersized achievements.

At no point since 1999 has Venezuela come anywhere near to building the 100,000 low income housing units per year that it would take to keep up with population growth, let alone make headway into the housing crisis. Yet the government, conscious that very few people know this, continues to obfuscate, touting its house-building totals - just 25,000 units in 2003 - as major revolutionary triumphs! Stop and think about what this means: 25,000 new houses built means 75,000 poor Venezuelan families were forced to either build themselves a shanty or stay on in impossibly cramped quarters...and the revolutionary people's government brags about this as a success.

What's the purpose of this detour into the minutiae of the Venezuelan low-income housing crisis?

Government supporters tend to start from the assumption that the only reason anyone might oppose Chavez is class self-interest. What's most irksome about Chavez to many of us, however, is the magical strain in his government's thinking: its blanket rejection of any kind of independent advice, criticism, or debate, and its outright disdain for specialist know-how and hard-knuckled planning. Its dogmatism, its deep suspition about the motives of critics, locks the government into stances that not only cannot solve the problems at hand, but, even worse, close down the spaces for genuine debate about them, banishing people like Alemo to the ranks of counter-revolutionary elements.

The results is a politics of social inclusion that remains confined to the rhetorical realm - Chavez's discourse certainly makes his constituents feel included - while deepening the country's social problems. Point out that Chavez's housing policy will force 50,000 families to squat and build shanties next year and you're condemned as a Bush-collaborator, an escualido fifth column that needs to be purged from the state.

It's hard to overstate the chilling effect the resulting climate of intimidation has on free and open debate, on honest deliberations of the country's problems. If you know the truth and the truth doesn't fit the party line, you learn to keep quiet just to protect yourself. Debate on a matter as seemingly apolitical as housing becomes deeply politicized, and those who question the government's policy are dismissed as CIA agents or coup-plotters before their criticisms are even considered.

This "management style" consistently rewards ideological conformity and magical solutions over serious planning. In such an environment, pleasing fictions are always preferable to uncomfortable facts.

So long as criticism is seen as prima facie evidence of treason, so long as critics' voices are ignored as a matter of principle, so long as the worst of motives are automatically ascribed to all who dissent, the government will continue to make policy inside an ideological bubble where loyalty counts for far more than serious planning. Instead of no-nonsense social policy, instead of budgeted estimates and effective projects, instead of serious plans aimed solving longstanding problems, we'll continue to get what we've been getting: ad hoc measures aimed at short-term political advantaged and divorced from any kind of serious analysis of what needs to be done in the long term.

Or, to say it in a single word, populism.

Chart contributed by Torres.

January 12, 2006

Killer Facts on Iran's Blogosphere...

Iran has an estimated three million to seven million Internet users, the most in the Middle East. Between 65,000 and 100,000 Iranians post blogs, many of them evading government filters by jumping from server to server. In 2004, however, the hard-liners began cracking down on Internet dissent, using both filtering technology and old-fashioned harassment. By October, twenty-one Iranians were imprisoned in connection with blogs. Most were technical administrators of Web sites, but seven were political writers.

Though it ranks 28th in number of overall-speakers, Farsi is the second most often-used language for blogging, after English.

Much more on the Persian blogosphere...

The flip-side of the oil boom...

Erm...ahem...[wipe away egg on face] cough-cough...post eliminated because it was all wrong...

January 11, 2006

Context, context, context!

Think too much has been made of Chavez's "christ-killer" remarks? The devil is in the context...

1. Iran said it will resume nuclear fuel research today,
despite Western warnings it could jeopardise any efforts to end the long-running standoff over Tehran's nuclear programme. The EU has warned the move would jeopardise any resumption of wider talks on ending the crisis with the West over Iran's nuclear activities.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the usually cool-headed boss of the UN's nuclear watchdog, said that by resuming nuclear fuel research in defiance of previous agreements, Tehran could have crossed a "red line" that made a tough response inevitable. "We are at a stage where what is happening this week could turn into a major crisis," ElBaradei told the BBC.

2. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was expected to convene a conference in Iran within a few days dedicated to denying the Holocaust.
In response, Israel began preparing for a campaign targeted at eliciting international condemnation of the conference.

The Israeli Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Centre said Wednesday it viewed with 'growing concern' what it termed Iran's continued Holocaust denial and called on the international community to act 'to prevent genocidal intentions from becoming genocidal capabilities'.

3. Venezuela and Iran have agreed to explore setting up a joint shipbuilding operation
in the South American country, Venezuela's state oil company said Friday. The preliminary agreement signed Monday envisions jointly building oil tankers, liquid natural gas tankers and other vessels, and training Venezuelans in shipbuilding technology.

Ties between the two oil-producing countries have tightened as President Hugo Chavez has sought to build international alliances to counter U.S. economic and political dominance. The two governments have signed dozens of agreements, including plans for a cement company, an auto parts plant and a project to build 10,000 homes in Venezuela. On Monday, they agreed to jointly survey and certify heavy crude deposits in Venezuela's oil-rich Orinoco river belt.

January 10, 2006

Goose? Check! Gander?...ummmm...no check...

Barquisimeto, Jan 09 2006. ABN.- The National Council for the Protection of Children and Adolescents in Barquisimeto opened an administrative procedure against Tal Cual over the article entitled "Dear Rosinés" by Laureano Márquez, published on November 25, 2005...for violating the honor, reputation, self-image, privacy and intimacy of child Rosinés Chávez Rodríguez, the youngest daughter of President Hugo Chávez.

Quite right. Dragging the president's kids into political diatribe is so disgusting...I say throw the book at the lot of them...

Burning bridges leaves you an island

If there's one thing we should've learned from watching Chávez tumble his way to a dictatorship, it's that there's a price to pay for the things you say. It seems that some in the opposition lack the strategic sense to know when to shut up.

I was thinking about this while reading the communiqué published by several hundred prominent opposition intellectuals and activists and sent to OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. While everything in it is true, and while the language has obviously been tersed down from what was probably a more indignant first draft, I think this document is a mistake. Frankly, it's ruder and more condescending than it needs to be. It also fails to note the key point made in these reports: that current voting technology in Venezuela does not safeguard the secrecy of the vote.

When the OAS monitoring report came out, the Venezuelan government was furious about it. While the report considered the actual election process clean (rightly so - after all, there's no need to cheat when there is only one party competing), it also pointed out the many irregularities that prompted opposition parties to withdraw, including the damning recognition that the technology currently in place in the Venezuelan system compromised the secrecy of the vote.

When Mr. Insulza talked about this in a summit in Bolivia, Chávez went after him like the rabid dog that he is. Insulza then made his best effort to tone down his rhetoric and cool down the government hotheads.

This communiqué is a response to an interview Insulza gave to the influential Chilean daily El Mercurio. I read the interview, and although I was disappointed that he didn't give more weight to the numerous irregularities, it was clear to me that he was trying to get on the government's good side in order to continue working on fixing the flaws the Mission witnessed.

It's sad that so many in the opposition don't understand that for the OAS to play any constructive role in Venezuela, its leadership must be seen as impartial by the government. If the government does not like the OAS negotiator, then it will simply not participate in any sort of constructive dialogue.

Let's think of the opposite scenario: suppose that Insulza had publicly restated all the irregularities noted in the OAS document. Suppose, also, that Insulza had gone as far as saying that a Parliament without an opposition is not legitimate, and that therefore Venezuela must restore credibility by accepting the OAS Mission's recommendations. It doesn't take a genius to see that Chávez would have reacted virulently, denounced him as an agent of imperialism and started maneouvering to end his tenure in the OAS. It's not far-fetched to believe Chávez has that kind of power, given how he's become the hemisphere's Santa Claus. So the opposition would be left with the support of a jobless Insulza, and that's of no use to our cause.

The only way international bodies can be of any use in the establishment of democracy in Venezuela is if the current government does not see them as agents of the opposition. Sometimes that is going to require that the middle-man show Chávez some respect.

Denouncing this as treason or implying Insulza sold out to Chavez is an exercise in counter-productive reductionism, which will only deepen the opposition leadership's amateurish image. What Insulza is doing is diplomacy at work. Let's remember that Insulza managed to convince the British to let Pinochet go home, and he was the key architect in negotiating with Chile's far right for the dismantling of the most un-democratic aspects of Chile's constitution. He's no chavista, and he knows what he's doing. Now, can the opposition be a little more constructive and not get in its own way?

January 9, 2006

Credibility Stakes

Prominent Jewish rights group, the Simon Wiesenthal Center,
accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Wednesday of using what it said were anti-Semitic remarks and demanded an apology.
In a televised Christmas Eve speech, Chavez, a left-winger and a former soldier, said that "minorities, descendants of those who crucified Christ ... have grabbed all the wealth of the world for themselves."
Chavez, a Catholic, did not mention the Jewish people and in the same comments referred to the betrayal of Venezuelan liberation hero Simon Bolivar. But the group said his remarks represented central arguments of anti-Semitism -- accusing the Jews of killing Jesus Christ and associating them with wealth.
"Both elements have served as a perfect excuse to justify the most cruel persecution and killing during two millenniums," the Wiesenthal center said in a statement.

Justin Delacour opines,
as for Chavez's supposed "anti-semitic remarks," that story is entirely fabricated. He didn't say anything about Jews. As I pointed out at TPMcafe, Chavez often refers to Jesus Christ as the first socialist. When Chavez speaks of "minorities" that "crucified" Christ and Bolivar, he's referring to minorities in a political and socio-economic sense, not in an ethnic or religious sense. He's not directing his comments at Romans or Jews. He's referring to exactly what he says he's referring to: "minorities" (i.e. oligarchies, aristocracies, ruling classes, etc.) that have "appropriated the riches of the world" and "concentrated wealth in a small number of hands."
Now, for some folks, Chavez's populist discourse may sound a bit wacky, or it may smack of class warfare, but there's nothing anti-semitic in what he's saying.

But of course Justin knows more about anti-semitism than the Simon Wiesenthal Center...