July 22, 2006

Making a buck, the North Korean Way

The current New York Times Magazine carries this stunning feature on North Korea's super-sophisticated operation to counterfeit US dollars:
According to defector accounts, Kim Jong Il endorsed counterfeiting not only as a way of paying for covert operations but also as a means of waging economic warfare against the United States, “a way to fight America, and screw up the American economic system,” as the North Korean specialist paraphrased it to me.

In a similar vein, according to Sheena Chestnut, a specialist on North Korea’s illicit activities who has also interviewed several key defectors, counterfeiting was seen as an expression of the guiding idea of the regime: the concept of juche. Often loosely translated as “self-reliance” or “sovereignty,” the idea of juche entails an aggressive repudiation of other nations’ sovereignty — a reaction to the many centuries in which Korea capitulated to its larger, more powerful neighbors. “It appears that counterfeiting actually contributed to the domestic legitimacy of the North Korean regime,” Chestnut told me. “It could be justified under the juche ideology and allowed the regime to advertise its anticapitalist, anti-American credentials.”

By 1984, as North Korea’s planned economy began to fall apart, Kim Jong Il, who by that time was effectively running much of the government, issued another directive, according to the North Korean specialist, who told me he has obtained a copy of the document. It explained that “producing and using counterfeit U.S. dollars” was a means, in part, for “overcoming economic crisis.” The economic crisis was twofold: not only the worsening conditions among the general population but also a growing financial discontent among the regime’s elite, who had come to expect certain perquisites of power. Counterfeiting offered the promise of raising hard currency to buy the elite the luxury items that they had come to expect: foreign-made cars, trips for their children, fine wine and cognac.
From all accounts, superb quality is a feature of much North Korean contraband: methamphetamine of extraordinarily high purity; counterfeit Viagra rumored to exceed the bona fide product in its potency; supernotes. It’s an impressive product line for a regime that can barely feed its people. When I discussed this with Asher, he let out a sigh. “I always say that if North Korea only produced conventional goods for export to the degree of quality and precision that they produce counterfeit United States currency, they would be a powerhouse like South Korea, not an industrial basket case.”

Better yet, read the whole thing - it's always good to be up to date on what Chavez's buddies are up to.

Like Caracas Chronicles, only funny...

In his inimitable style, Harry Hutton nails a point I've been trying to make for a long time. It's just that when he does it, you laugh...

July 21, 2006

The Paleopopulist Approach

Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales finally had a proper presidential campaign launch yesterday, giving a good old fashioned, nasal-toned populist speech to a crowd of fawning supporters at the Ateneo de Caracas.

His discourse is pleasingly focused on some Chavez weak points - particularly his wildly unpopular spending spree abroad - and largely ignores the kinds of abstract questions that rile up the Noticiero Digital crowd while leaving most voters cold. That's smart politics. On the other hand, he said nothing at all about Chavez's single most vulnerable issue: crime.

As for his style...well, I'm too much of a hoity-toity intellectual to openly say I like it. Charismatic he ain't, but when he gets going, and in front of an appreciative crowd, he does a passable impression of an old-style, rabble-rousing adeco. At times, the guy sounds like he's channeling Piñerúa. Could this kind of rhetoric do the trick?

Well, judge for yourself: the podcast of the speech is here.

July 20, 2006

Hugo's Axis of Evil 2006 World Tour: Dreamin' of Pyongyang and Propagandizin' of Beirut

Turns out Hugo Chávez still wants to go to North Korea, but Pyongyang seems to be playing hard to get. Could Kim Jong Il bear to sit around a table with an even bigger megalomaniac than him? We can only hope...GOD I want that picture!

Chávez also took the chance to reaffirm his "strategic brotherhood" (?!) with Iran and, obviously, to blame the US for the latest Middle East crisis. Certainly the American refusal to make even a ritual exhortation for peace is pretty appalling. But trying to pin the entire blame for this tragedy on one side or the other is plainly childish. The US is just about as guilty of this as Chávez, with his sophomore-leftie-style rant exonerating Hamas and Hezbollah of any responsibility at all for the war they conciously provoked and his failure to notice that the missiles that have been raining on the north of the Zionist Entit...erm, Israel are made in Tehran.

Faced with a complex diplomatic situation, Chavez's instincts are tiresomely predictable: find out the US position, then argue the diametrical opposite, whatever the facts. His blithe embrace of indefensible overstatements underlines the guy's basic irresponsibility: "it's the Israeli Army," he said, "that is bombing entire cities, a real genocide, how far this madness will go only God knows."

First of all, there's this "entire cities" business. The contrast between Israel's deliberate targetting of relevant military objectives and Hezbollah's perverse pride in the indiscriminate nature of its attacks is all too evident. With the Israeli Air Force dropping leaflets to warn civilians to evacuate areas they are about to strike, Chavez's suggestion that it's the Israeli campaign that is indiscriminate must count as a grotesque reversal.

Then there's the sheer indefensibility (not to mention extreme bad taste) of the "real genocide" line. So far, 300 Lebanese civilians have died in a week of air raids. That's 300 too many - but think of it this way: Lebanon has suffered 43 fatalities per day so far, and that's just about the same number of deaths we see in Venezuela on any given day, just from street crime. Venezuelan choros don't even need military weaponry to launch their own little tropical "genocide", but somehow that doesn't get Chavez's juices flowing...

Which brings us back to an old topic: the proof of the anti-semitic pudding is in the eating. Who Chavez thinks killed Christ is a side-show. The smoking gun is Chávez's active, ongoing, diplomatic and material support of a holocaust-denying regime that espouses an ideology laden with extreme, explicit anti-semitism and looks forward with glee to the destruction of the State of Israel, whether through proxies or nukes.

July 18, 2006

The Montonera of the 21st Century

It's a point GP keeps making in my comments section, and it's a good one: for most Chavez supporters abroad, Venezuela didn't exist before 1998. Brought into their consciousness more as a screen where revolutionary aspirations can be projected than as a real place, with a real history and a real people, Venezuela remains an abstraction in PSF minds. For this reason, international philochavismo fails again and again to understand the way developments in the Chavez era fit into the long sweep of Venezuelan history.

This is the reason I like articles like the one I linked to in yesterday's post. They show the much neglected element of continuity in a regime that ceaselessly trumpets its radical novelty.

The fascinating thing about the bolibourgeoisie is how closely its rise re-enacts a socio-political pattern that was already well established 150 years ago. Without an awareness of Venezuela's long history of assimilating new moneyed elites, it's impossible to know what to make of the Wilmer Rupertis and Arné Chacóns of the world.

Venezuela's 19th century was marked precisely by a quite similar dynamic. Central governments in Caracas had access to some tax and customs revenue, but never really consolidated control of the rest of the country. Periodically, regional caudillos would cobble together little private armies - montoneras - and attack Caracas. Once every few years, a montonera would succeed and establish a new "national" government. The sordid little war that brought about such regime change would typically be described as a "revolution" by its leaders.

The financiers and logisticians of the victorious montonera then got to cash in, by trafficking on their access to the new governing elite. They would adapt to the lifestyle and spending patterns of the old moneyed elite, and, if the new government lasted long enough before the next successful montonera, they would insinuate themselves gradually into the pre-existing oligarchy.

Sooner or later a new montonera would bring a new caudillo into power and the whole process would repeat itself.

The process stood in stark contrast with the pattern in countries like Peru and Guatemala, where oligarchies were genuinely closed to new members and new money could not buy access into the upper reaches of polite society. In Venezuela, the difference between a zambo and a catire has always been the size of his bank account.

The discovery of oil merely upped the ante in this little game, but didn't fundamentally change it. The AD trienio of 1945-48 didn't last long enough to establish a new moneyed elite, but the Pérez Jiménez era did, as did - much more profoundly - the Punto Fijo regime. War was replaced by elections as a method of choosing the new governing elite, but the tenor of the relationship between the new governing elites and their financiers and logisticians carried on more or less undisturbed.

These days, amid a discourse that obsessively emphasizes change, we see these old, old patterns re-enacted for the Nth time, as though something in our cultural DNA inexorably pushed our society into playing out the same script again and again.

Revolutionaries are everywhere and always blind to the way they renew the structures of the regimes and social systems they seek to replace.

But don't be fooled: not that much has changed. Just like in the 19th century, the new moneyed elite instinctively mimics the lifestyle of the old. Just like in the 19th century, it builds its fortune out of connections rather than producing anything of real value. Just as in the 19th century, it depends on an atmosphere where back-scratching, influence-peddling, rent-seeking and the mutual dependence of politicians and financiers determines your chances to get rich. And, just like in the 19th century, in time it will grow too fat and comfortable to defend itself, too openly putrefact to enlist anyone's loyalty, and it will fall.

July 17, 2006

Reporting the Bolibourgeoisie

The Miami Herald's Steven Dudley adds one more article to a fast growing subgenre of journalism about the Chavez era: The Bolibourgeoisie Color Piece. I think this one is more snazzily written than most, though:
They drive shiny new Hummers and Audis. They wear Cartier and carry Montblanc bags. They buy up luxury apartments and fly private aircraft to and from Miami. And they almost always pay in cash.

They are the so-called Boliburguesía -- short for Bolivarian bourgeoisie -- a reference to socialist President Hugo Chávez's declared ''Bolivarian'' revolution on behalf of Venezuela's poor.

Chávez has seen world oil prices go from $10 a barrel when he was first elected in 1998 to more than $70 today. He has used these windfall billions to finance dozens of social projects on behalf of the poor at home, and provide assistance to regional neighbors from Cuba to Argentina.

But the rising economic tide has not only lifted the poor's boats, bringing back memories of the 1970s, when another spike in oil prices sparked a free-spending boom. Businessmen agile enough to ally themselves with the government have caught the gravy train. Tops on this Boliburguesía list are men like Wilmer Ruperti, one of the few businessmen who supported the Chávez government during a crippling national strike in late 2002 demanding the president's resignation.

It's easy to see why journos find it easy to sell these pieces to editors back home: they're highly visual - all that talk of Hummers and Cartiers - and appealingly man-bites-doggish - who's ever heard of socialist revolutionaries ponying up for yatchs and things?

Personally, I like them because they highlight perhaps the key theme in the Chavez Era: contradiction. There are so many contradictions running through so many aspects of so much of what the government does it makes your headspin.

Bolibourgeoisie - the weird juxtaposition that makes up the neologism itself neatly captures the taste of the incongruities that run through the Chavez era. To my mind, any reporting that helps foreign readers get a feel for the scale of the gap between the official propaganda line and Venezuela's irreducibly complicated, usually contradictory reality is to be commended.