September 30, 2006

Jagshemash, dear legislators...

This one's crazy enough you could pass it off for a Borat skit,
"In US and A, first you go to university and then you become congressman. But in Kazakhstan, first you go to parliament, and then to university!"
Turns out that the Chavez government, shocked by the ignorance of the people they nominated to the National Assembly, has given the nation's legislators marching orders to go back to school. In this case, it'll be the Armed Forces Experimental University (UNEFA) that will in charge of indoctri...erm, teaching the new parliamentarians such cutting edge topics as Marxist Analysis.

Pedro Carreño, we're helpfully told, will go study Law, while Cilia Flores has set her sights on a doctorate.

Now, the questions this poses - to say nothing of the comedic possibilities - are almost endless. Precisely how ignorant do you have to be before Francisco Ameliach thinks, "christ, this guy needs some schooling!"? What criteria did chavismo use to pick its Assembly candidates? If as Chavez keeps saying, Socialism for the XXI Century is nothing to do with old style Marxist socialism, why do A.N. members need instruction in, erm, Marxism? And what exactly happens if an Assembly Member flunks his Marxism course? Do they get to repeat, or is their mandate immediately revoked?

Horrified snickering aside, the serious subtext to this latest bit of revolutionary dadaism is the Nth low point of parliamentary oversight in the Chavez era. The history of the world's Marxist legislatures is not exactly known for the muscular exercise of their watchdog duties, to say nothing of proper debate over legislation. With no exceptions I can think of, Marxist legislatures limit themselves to rubber-stamping executive dictats and convening once a year to shower the leader with applause. Petty bourgeois concerns over the separation of powers and such and such are openly scoffed at.

And so Article 187, Paragraph 3 of the best constitution in the world (The assembly shall exercise oversight functions over the government and the Public Administration...) joins the long list of openly mocked constitutional promises.

Certainly, this has pretty much been the situation in Venezuela for years already. It's just that now National Assembly members will have the diplomas to prove it.

September 29, 2006

Baffling Chavista Imbecility du Jour

El Universal sez:
The Venezuelan Central Bank, the National Institute of Statistics and various executive branch agencies are developing new mechanisms to measure the impact of the government's social programs.

Referring to the effects of Mision Mercal on inflation, Minister for Nutrition Erika Farías, said "the current indices and methods are neither ours nor caribbean. They are imported from elsewhere." On that basis, and following the head of state's innitiative, "we have to invent the indices to measure the revolution." She added that this is a very complicated matter, and they will have to take into account variables such as "mathematics and love."

The Antidote to Petropopulism

Here's a question I've been mulling: is Mi Negra, Manuel Rosales' plan to hand out a portion of Venezuela's oil rents directly to poor families via a debit card, a populist proposal?

That, certainly, is how Vicepresident José Vicente Rangel, feigning unawareness of the massive glass palace chavismo inhabits on this topic, described it: "pure populism." Is that so?

Petropopulism: as Venezuelan as papelón con limón
In Venezuelan political economy, populism has a specific meaning. It describes the quid pro quo whereby politicians dole out oil rents selectively to their supporters in return for, well, political support. This is what I've called the Petrostate Trick: "turning oil money into political power - or, more precisely, turning control of the state’s oil money into control of the state - in a self-perpetuating cycle."

That chavismo's power is based largely on this sort of petropopulist arrangement seems really, really obvious to me. But that's nothing new: every Venezuelan government since at least the Trienio (1945-1948) has sustained its support through some twist on the petrostate trick. Medina and Pérez Jiménez had the Banco Obrero, CAP had Corpomercadeo and Chávez has Mercal. The cronies have changed over the years; the underlying mechanism hasn't.

The system works by distributing oil rents selectively, channeling the money primarily to your own political supporters. In this way, you set up an incentive structure that helps perpetuate the party in power, rewarding support for the official line and punishing dissent.

Mi Negra's sotto voce radicalism
By this reckoning, Mi Negra is not a populist proposal. Just the opposite: as billed, it constitutes a radical challenge to the deeply entrenched petropopulist mindset.

If oil rents are distributed following objective rather than political criteria, the incentive structure that underlies the petrostate model crumbles. By delinking recipients' political views from their claim on oil rents, a properly implemented Mi Negra would represent the start of a truly revolutionary change in Venezuela's political economy and political culture.

Under a scheme like Mi Negra, people would stake their claims on the nation's oil rents as citizens, not as political clients. And, all the prickly implementation issues aside, this is its most appealing feature. It would end the indignity too many poor Venezuelans now suffer of having to pimp out their political beliefs for a Mision check. It would end the implicit threat that now hangs over too many transactional chavistas that to Think Different could mean risking your livelihood.

For all of Chavez's revolutionary rhetoric, the fact is that delinking political support from oil rent distribution would constitute a far more radical break with the country's political traditions than anything his government has done in eight years.

September 28, 2006

Chavez and his seven friends

Katy says: This has been a hectic week for me here in Caracas, and I will be sharing my impressions with you next week. But this little news item made me want to give you a preview. It is about the Portuguese government's displeasure with the use of its Prime Minister's picture in Chavez's presidential campaign.

Other foreign ministries should take notice of this other sign, since it greets you while driving up from the airport into Caracas. I wonder what the governments of Uruguay, Paraguay or Chile think of their presidents' image being used in signs for Chavez's election paid for with taxpayer money.

PS.- The sign is similar to the one with the Portuguese Prime Minister, and it reads "Breaking the blockade - Venezuela deserves respect!" It's anyone's guess which blockade he is referring to.

"Though President Chavez maintains in excess of 50 percent support, only 16 percent of Venezuelans agree with his confrontational style with the US"

In this excellent introduction to the politics of Chavez's US-bashing, Vinod Sreeharsha skillfully brings gringo readers up to date...

A taste:
While many Americans may have heard President Chavez's extreme rhetoric for the first time last week, William Brownsfield, the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, carries a list with him of all the accusations President Chavez has leveled at the United States. The tally exceeds 30, including blame for deadly floods, a local bus driver strike that never occurred and the bombing of a regional Electoral Committee office.

One often-repeated claim of Chavez's is that the United States is about to invade Venezuela. Following the 2005 U.N. General Assembly session, President Chavez, while interviewed on "Nightline," cited as evidence documents referring to an Operation Balboa. But Balboa turned out to be a war-game exercise run by Spain. The original documents were not even in English.

Venezuelan Frieda Lopez, when asked if she supports her president, says, "For now, but my problem is economic." Assessing the threat of a U.S. invasion, she says that, "It is not credible."

If economic relations with the United States were to rupture, President Chavez's supporters would be among the most directly impacted. Many of their social programs are funded directly by oil revenue, and the United States still accounts for 50 percent of Venezuela's oil exports, according to Veneconomia, a Venezuelan economic consultancy.

And Che Guevara T-shirts notwithstanding, Chavez supporters depend on U.S. products as commerce between the two countries has skyrocketed in recent years.

Eduardo Garcia lives in Petare, one of Caracas's largest barrios. When he looks around his neighborhood, Garcia says, he sees many Motorola cell phones and GE televisions. Garcia says his Chavista neighbors, like all good Venezuelans, "like to buy things, especially imported products."

Garcia is positive about the Chavez government. "I like the change it is generating," he says. When asked if he fears a U.S. military invasion, he laughs. "No, you really think the U.S. will invade Venezuela?"
Better yet, read the whole thing...

September 27, 2006

Chavismo as Slapstick

In this New Republic piece, Sacha Feinman has a look at the zanier side of boliparanoia. Great reportage. Great fun.

"It isn't a secret as to who might come. Venezuela is oil-rich, and the imperialist countries have kept an eye on our natural resources for some time now," explained Captain Jose Nuñez of the Bolivarian Naval Police.

It was eight o'clock on a Wednesday morning in June, and I was seated, sweaty and barely awake, along with a group of 20 other journalists at a naval base in La Guaira, Venezuela. Packed into a sparsely furnished conference room, we listened to the captain explain why the government of President Hugo Chávez had decided to invite the press to a week's worth of war games. The military wanted the world to know that Venezuela was ready to greet the "imperialists" should they decide to stop by for a visit.

This day's demonstration had been billed as the largest and most action-packed of those scheduled. A mock invasion was set to take place on the beach, with the government using tanks and companies of "elite amphibious fighters." "Seven hundred and twenty-five professional naval combatants and approximately 2,200 civilians will be involved in the day's activities, and we will show how we have integrated the people with the military," the captain stated.

To "get it" you really have to read the whole thing...

September 26, 2006

Focus, damn it, focus!

Sorry to carp, but seeing this story about Rosales's campaign on Globovision's website made me despair all over again.

The Globo journo had to write up five - count them, FIVE - different themes in a five paragraph piece to cover what Rosales had said. So what's a poor voter to make of it? Is this campaign about how much Rosales loves Jesus? Or is it about maintaining the misiones? or opposing the fingerpring scanners? Or about public employees' pay? or is it about poll numbers?

The problem is that Rosales doesn't have an elevator speech - he has six or seven of them, which he mixes and matches in a not-very-coherent way. The guy needs to settle on ONE elevator speech, and he needs to be much, much more focused on it as he campaigns.

Because the torrent of different themes, with no connecting thread running through them, just dillutes his message. It stops him from imposing his vision of what this campaign is about. And it wastes the very narrow window of opportunity he has to win over people outside his already committed base.

Message discipline is as much about what you deliberately don't say - to avoid drawing attention away from your elevator speech - as it is about the elevator speech itself. No doubt many voters will find it heartwarming that he intends to govern under divine guidance, but that is not in his elevator speech so he should not be talking about it.

Staying on message when fielding questions
Granted, Rosales was fielding questions at an impromptu press huddle. Still, if he can't wrestle control of the agenda when talking to stenographing journos, what chance does he have against Chávez? A key part of message discipline is learning to answer any question anyone throws at you in a way that brings the discussion back to your elevator speech.
Q: Do you think Bush is the devil?
A: I think Chavez said that to distract our attention. After all, he promised to distribute oil rents to everyone's benefit, but he didn't follow through. Too much oil money is going to other countries and to corrupt officials, and common people only get their hands on it if they wear a red t-shirt...

Q: What about collective bargaining for public employees' pay?
A: The public employees have been subjected to the same political exclusions everyone else has. In my presidency, we will make sure that oil money is distributed fairly and cleanly, with no exclusions.

Q: What about the fingerprint scanners?
A: The government still thinks it can intimidate people into voting the way they want, because no one wants to risk their mision money. They're holding the people's oil money hostage, and that's wrong. Venezuelans are tired of this kind of exclusion, they're tired of having to put on a red t-shirt just to make ends meet. With Mi Negra everyone will get an equal share of the pie: chavistas, non chavistas, and everyone in between.

Q: Will you keep the misiones?
A: Of course we will, but they will be better. Everybody knows that too much Mision money is being stolen by corrupt officials, or funding hospitals and housing in other countries. In my presidency, we will make sure that doesn't happen.

Q: How about the polls?
A: The polls show that every day, more people agree that Chavez did not keep his promise to spend our oil money for every Venezuelan's benefit...etc.

This is a basic political skill, folks, almost a stereotype. A candidate should never answer the question he's asked; he must always answer the question he wanted to be asked.

Looking at it from Pepe Apolítico's standpoint...
Why is this important? Because the vast majority of people - and especially of NiNis - spend far less time thinking about politics than you and me.

The people Rosales needs to win over do not sit down to read the newspaper, much less a political website. When the news comes on the radio, they instinctively reach for the dial to scan for music.

They do not seek out political information, and they do not absorb it in big long chunks. They get it in little shards. A few seconds of news overheard on the radio. A glimpsed headline. A couple of soundbytes from the TV news report. That's your window of opportunity for reaching them. And you can't waste even a second of that, because CNE has limited paid ads on TV to just 4 per day!

Unless you focus on a single storyline, the information such voters get becomes totally muddled.

In today's little shard, Pepe Apolítico hears that guy from Zulia talking about how much he loves Jesus. The day before, he heard him going on about some voting machines. Before that, something about some black girl in his family - didn't understand what that was about. Maybe tomorrow he talks about collective bargaining for public employees - but hell, he's a buhonero, collective bargaining has exactly no meaning for him.

Messages conveyed in this way do not help to build up a narrative, a coherent storyline that answers, in Pepe Apolítico's mind, the question of what this campaign is about.

Only if the message is focused can Pepe Apolítico really take on board the storyline Rosales wants to establish as THE thing that's at stake in this election. And if Rosales can't seize control of the agenda, it'll be very hard for him to win.

September 25, 2006

Bush and what army?

This NYTimes piece on the sorry state of the US Army's Third Infantry Division is as good a place to start as any if you're trying to grasp what a swindle Chávez's the-gringos-are-coming scare tactics really are:

The enormous strains on equipment and personnel, because of longer-than-expected deployments, have left active Army units with little combat power in reserve.

Other than the 17 brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan, only two or three combat brigades in the entire Army — perhaps 7,000 to 10,000 troops — are fully trained and sufficiently equipped to respond quickly to crises, said a senior Army general.

Most other units of the active-duty Army, which is growing to 42 brigades, are resting or being refitted at their home bases. But even that cycle, which is supposed to take two years, is being compressed to a year or less because of the need to prepare units quickly to return to Iraq.
The groovy-rebel-lefty ideology chavismo has built treats US military power as essentially inexhaustable - but it only takes a marginally competent reporter to chronicle how silly that view is. So on top of the fact that if Chávez really wants to get invaded that bad he has to wait in line behind bigger threats to US security like Iran, North Korea and Syria, there's the reality that the US military doesn't have the resources to sustain another large-scale offensive right now. Poor Chávez, he'd be so disappointed to hear it...

September 24, 2006

Role reversal

Electioneering in the television age is really a matter of fixing a series of symbolic associations in voters' minds. Candidates do this by composing a very simple story, a kind of "elevator pitch," designed to answer the question "what is this election about?" The trick is to answer that question using a very simple story that resonates with voters more than your opponent's little story does.

For the Rosales camp, this election is about the best way to redistribute oil rents. His very-simple-narrative goes something like this:
Chávez promised to distribute oil rents to everyone's benefit, but he didn't follow through. Too much oil money is going to other countries and to corrupt officials, and common people only get their hands on it if they sign up for the Chávez cult of personality. Vote for me because I have a plan (Mi Negra) to put the nation's oil money in your pockets in a fair and transparent way, with no political exclusions.

Chávez's elevator speech, on the other hand, goes something like:
I am good and the United States is evil. People who oppose me are U.S. stooges, so voting against me is an anti-patriotic, nearly treasonous act. A vote for Chavez is a vote for multipolarity. Vote for me so, together, we can defeat the US's hegemonic threat to world peace and stability.

Practically every newspaper headline Chávez has generated this year plays on some variation on this theme. The guy seems to think about very little else these days. Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro's little catch-and-release routine yesterday at JFK, and the diplomatic spat it caused, reinforces once again Chávez's choice of strategic positioning for this election.

Frankly, I'm staggered that Chávez is sticking by this theme. I don't have the research to prove it, but it seems really, really obvious to me that a discourse that's so abstract, so detached from people's day-to-day concerns, so obviously of interest to ideological partisans only, can't possibly get many Venezuelans' blood pumping.

So compared to the situation leading up to the Recall Referendum in August 2004, the roles are almost exactly reversed.

Back then we had an opposition that kept droning on about abstract categories of very limited relevance to poor people's everyday concerns (i.e. "freedom," "tolerance," "checks and balances," "voting conditions," etc.) and a government focused narrowly on the here-and-now of what poor people need (i.e. money, distributed through misiones.)

In the three months leading up to the recall vote, the polls turned around dramatically, as people abandoned an opposition whose discourse just didn't resonate with their concerns in favor of a government whose actions did.

That was then. Today, it's the government that's struck off on some weird, abstract tangent, talking about things that just don't put an arepa on the table. And it's the opposition that has rediscovered the theme that first propelled Chavez into power all those years ago: oil rents, and how to share them out.

Can Rosales pull off some unlikely come-from-behind win? Well, Chávez still has a very comfortable lead, and Rosales has serious shortcomings as a candidate. But there's no question that Chávez is trending down, and Rosales up. If Chávez doesn't snap out of it, if he doesn't realize that his strategic positioning this time around is way off track, anything could happen.