April 28, 2007

One for the Reader's Guide

Quico says: Talk about making my blog superfluous. This article by Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold in the April issue of the Journal of Democracy condenses material that's taken me hundreds of posts to cover into a single, clear, stylish and theoretically-cohesive gem of an academic article.

I tried trolling it for a few "key paragraphs," but you can't really do that: the thing is too tightly written to pick apart without losing the overall sense. Definitely one for The Reader's Guide.

Maistoian in outlook, Corrales and Penfold focus on what the government does, without getting bogged down in an analysis of Chávez's discourse. You could call that a flaw, until you realize the way it allows them to discuss the realities of power in the Chávez era. The move frees them up to chronicle chavismo's toxic mix of plentiful oil revenue, polarization, clien­telism, opportunities to engage in corruption with impunity, and discrimination in favor of supporters when filling government-con­trolled jobs without getting distracted by the mountains of rhetorical BS the government shovels out day after day.

Overall, a deeply insightful article you should definitely read.

Addendum: When I edit the Reader's Guide, I usually take a few minutes to check that all the links still work, and to re-read some of the outstanding material there. Check out this devastatingly prophetic shard from Guido Rampoldi's bulldozer of an article for Italian daily La Repubblica in December 2005:
Made public by a pro-government web site, the list of the 3 and a half million Venezuelans who signed the petitions for a referendum against Chavez has become a tool of political discriminition in the hands of the public administration. Through new laws, they've tamed the fury of the private TV stations, which until two years ago were arguably even worse than state TV, but are now either circumspect or indifferent (because they risk hyperbolic fines and shut downs.) They've also aimed straight at the journalists: they risk 30 month jail sentences if they criticize too strongly even a National Assembly member or a general, up to five years if they publish news that "disturb public order." In the new Penal Code, blocking a street can land you in jail from 4 to 8 years, and according to the Supreme Tribunal there is nothing illegal about prior censorship.

Until now, the government has resorted these pointed weapons only rarely.

But when the time comes, they'll be ready. In October, the Bush administration added Venezuela to the list of five enemies of the United States, even if it's on the third tier. In response, Chavez ordered his armed forces to prepare for "asymetrical warfare", to be taken to the enemy through "non-conventional tactics, such as guerrillas and terrorism." Whether or not he really believes in the prospect of a power play by Washington, trumpeting the possibility is extremely useful as a way to keep his country underfoot, and, in a few years time, to launch a more explicit authoritarianism: if the nation is under attack, who could protest if the president arrests the traitors, crushing the enemy's fifth column?
...sin vaina...

April 26, 2007

Venezuela's two constitutions

Quico says: Anonymous sources inside the Presidential Committee for Constitutional Reform say their proposals are almost ready, and await only Chávez's final go-ahead before being presented to the nation. The centerpiece? The government's long anticipated plan to abolish term limits on the presidency, paving the way for Chávez's indefinite re-election. The rest? It doesn't make a difference.

Why? Because of something everyone in Venezuela knows, even though no one ever quite says it out loud: in fact, we have two constitutions.

First, we have the Hard Constitution, which sets out the legitimate ways of becoming President of the Republic. This is what's called the hilo constitucional in Spanish - you'll find it in articles 227, 228, 230, 233 and 234 of the 1999 text. Then there's the Soft Constitution, the litany of pious intentions and solemn hypocrisies that pads out the other 345 articles.

In practice, the Hard Constitution is mandatory; the Soft Constitution isn't.

To be fair, this situation isn't really new: the 1961 constitution was treated pretty much the same way. And the one before that too, and the one before that, and, well, pretty much all of the 26 constitutions we've had since 1811. There's very little reason to think the 27th will be any different. The gaping chasm separating constitutional norms and the practice of power is part of our political DNA.

The exception is the handful of constitutional articles setting out the hilo constitucional. That's Hard Constitution stuff, and that stuff is serious.

So February 4th, and November 27th, 1992 as well as April 12th, 2002 are considered coup attempts not because they violated the constitution, but because they violated the constitutions Presidential succession clauses. But nobody calls any of the hundreds upon hundreds of violations of the Soft Constitution dating back to 1811 "coup attempts" because, implicitly, everybody understands that some articles are more equal than others.

Our current Soft Constitution outlines a kind of Alpine utopia that has almost nothing in common with the country as it actually is; a chimeric wunderland where everybody gets due process, all state services can be accessed equally in indigenous languages or Spanish, the government never spends a bolivar without the authorization of the National Assembly, everyone has the right to a nice house, a decent job, vacation pay and maternity leave, civil servants can't be fired for their political opinions, military officers have nothing to do with politics other than the right to vote, the Prosecutor General is entirely above the political fray and on and on and on.

Sounds like a great place to live, don't you think? Entirely unlike Venezuela, granted, but splendid nonetheless...

The point is that in practice, if not in juridical theory, the constitutional articles guaranteeing vacation pay are just not like the ones on presidential succession. The Soft Constitution's role has always been to chronicle our collective aspirations more than to serve as a binding legal framework.

Nobody really believes Chávez needs to alter the Soft Constitution to achieve this or that social, economic or political goal - and for good reason. Many of the things the reform will "constitutionalize" are things Chávez is doing already - bossing the Central Bank around, ignoring the FIEM law - with or without constitutional change. And why shouldn't he? That's Soft Constitution stuff, so it's fair game.

In the end, there's just one thing Chávez wants to do but can't do without reform: stay in power forever. Everyone in Venezuela intuits that. Which is why indefinite re-election is the only part of the proposed reforms anyone cares about. We've been around the block a few times, you know? Long enough to understand that reforms to the Hard Constitution are serious business, and changes to the Soft Constitution are fluff.

April 25, 2007

This paycheck will self-destruct in 30 seconds

Quico says: Never is the Chávez regime on shakier footing than when it's talking about money. Never is its thinking more muddled, simplistic, contradictory and counterproductive.

In the last few weeks, the regime has proposed not one, not two, but three new currencies. These proposals, of varying degrees of lunacy and incompatibility with one another, illustrate better than any other the staggering collapse of economic common sense among the people who rule us.

The first of them, the plan to zap three zeros off the bolivar, is the more innocuous of the three - though, in its mangled presentation, it already flags the scale of the government's monetary illiteracy.

The "bolivar fuerte" is also, one should note, in direct contradiction with the second proposal, a call for a common, Latin American currency modeled on the Euro. This one, I admit, might actually do the country some good. It would remove control over monetary policy from Chávez's bumbling cronies and pawn it off to some hemispheric moneycrat, presumably in Brazil. It has, alas, no chance of being implemented, since it could only succeed if states surrendered sovereignty over fiscal policy and financial, product and labor markets on a scale that nobody in Latin America - and least of all Chávez - would seriously consider.

But it's the third proposal - Chávez's pet call for "local barter vouchers" to extract part of the economy from the cold grip of capitalism - that best illustrates the dizzying extent of Chávez's pecuniary delirium:

I can't think of a clip that better captures the tragedy that Chávez's sophomoric utopianism is preconfiguring. The plan here is to "pay" people with barter vouchers that can be used only to buy things from other local producers and within a specified period of time.

These vouchers, the video announces proudly, "rust." Their value declines over time, so you're better off spending them right away. Of course, we already have a word for that: inflation. Most people think of it as a bad thing. Chávez, though, trumpets it as the next Big Thing in development economics. You'd think it's a joke, a bit of mischievous opposition agit prop, a reductio ad absurdum send-up...but no, they're actually doing it.

The goal here is to introduce a form of money that can't be accumulated so it can't be saved, and it can't be invested. It has a nasty, cold, capitalist overtone, that word "investment," so it's not surprising the government would dream up plans to prevent poor people from doing it. But when you unpack it, what does it really mean?

All it means is choosing to consume a little bit less today so you can consume a little bit more in the future. When you invest, you reshuffle your consumption preferences over time. You trade less now for more later.

Now, can you think of a clearer definition of poverty alleviation than being able to consume more in the future than you can consume today? In some fundamental, definitional sense, poverty can only be overcome through investment.

A farmer setting aside part of his harvest for seed. A buhonero foregoing a beer today so he can save to fix up his house. A parent walking to work instead of taking the bus so he can afford schoolbooks for his kids. That's the popular face of investment in Venezuela today.

Such behavior, Chávez informs us, is counter-revolutionary, infected with the germ of selfishness and individualism that lies at the root of capitalism. What you earn today you have to consume today, or within the few months before your barter voucher expires. Accumulation is banned, working for a future better than today is treason.

As the big man says: "¿Saben cómo se llama eso? Socialismo."

April 24, 2007

Three blimps, and Barreto makes four

Katy says: What's in my inbox? First up: Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto's purchase of three blimps equipped with security cameras to monitor criminal activity (read the BBC's take on this here).

Now, I won't bother you with an explanation of why this is a silly publicity stunt more than anything else - the revolution is long past the point where reasoning counts for anything. Suffice to say that it's going to take more than three blimps to tackle Caracas' murder rate.

Let's instead have fun discussing the irony of the massive Barreto buying hot-air balloons. Or perhaps we can wonder how long it will be before Yoldan-hoodlums with time on their hands use the balloons for target practice, and the things come crashing down on the unsuspecting citizens of our fair city.

I'm also left wondering what use it will be to record, say, a mugging or a murder if the recording is to be made from so far above that the perpetrator will hardly be recognized. Certainly the police won't show up for hours, and we know the court system is useless in a country where 97% of the tens of thousands of murders that happen each year go unpunished.

To top it all off, the balloons are apparently covered in government propaganda saying something like "we are watching you." I wonder if the balloons' cameras recorded the councilmembers receiving the zepellin-sized kickbacks they obviously got for approving this purchase.

Oh well. At least the blimps got Barreto some publicity in both the BBC and this blog.

Another reader sends me links to Manny Lopez's columns from Venezuela. Lopez, a columnist for the Detroit News, holds nothing back when writing about his impressions of Chavez's Venezuela. Here's an interview with Lopez; here he talks about prohibition and scarcity; here he riffs on Barbara Walters; here he discusses oil-for-propaganda and Joe Kennedy. He also discusses crime, the RCTV case; Venezuelan cuisine and talking-head-for-hire Eva Gollinger.

It's nice to see a major US media outlet doing such a thorough job of covering Venezuela.

It's a tough choice, but I guess I'll take "patria"

Quico says:
Don't miss this important Open Letter to Chávez from Teodoro Petkoff, now playing on Miguel's blog. Money grafs:

In a recent speech at Fuerte Tiuna you expressed the following concepts: “The so-called institutionality of the Armed Forces was a way of hiding, of taking a position opposed to that of the Government (…) All unit commanders are obligated to repeat it from the bottom of their soul, to raise the flag with the slogan: “Fatherland, socialism or death,” without ambiguities (…) If someone feels uncomfortable with this, it's better that they request a discharge.”

Those phrases happen to be a grave violation to the Constitution of the Republic, which in its Article 328 establishes that the Armed Forces are “an essentially professional institution, without political membership, organized by the State to guarantee its independence as a Nation and insuring the integrity of the geographical space via military defense, cooperation in maintaining internal order and active participation in national development”. Similarly, Article 330, which gives the military the right to vote, but forbids them from “participating in acts of political propaganda, membership or proselytism.”

When you affirm that the Armed Forces as an institution is “roja, rojita” (red, very red) and when you ask its commanders to voice the slogans of a political party, you place yourself outside constitutional norms and, as if that wasn't enough, you demand that active military officers do so as well.
So what do you call it when a political leader uses the armed forces to cement his grip on power in violation of the constitution? Isn't that what we used to call a coup d'etat?

[Hat tip to Feathers for that lovely image.]

Ah, well, if they say so...

Quico says: Couldn't resist posting this screenshot:

For the headscratchers out there - Prensa Latina is Fidel Castro's propaganda mill-cum-news agency. As their own "About Us" page inimitably puts it:


April 23, 2007

New toy

Quico says: Over the last 24 hours, this blog has gotten hits from:

(And no, it's not dynamic...it's just a screenshot, so don't take it personally if you're not on it. Actually, it's not that snazzy a toy.)

April 22, 2007

Chávez vs. Putin - ¿Quién es más peligroso?

Quico says: Here's one that's been keeping me up at night: who's more dangerous to his country's freedom, Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chávez?

The question occurred to me as I read this genuinely bizarre story about Putin's latest move to control the Russian media: a twisted uno-por-uno scheme where radio stations will be forced to run one "positive" news item for each "negative" item they put on the air. And how do you know if an item is "positive"?
“When we talk of death, violence or poverty, for example, this is not positive,” said one editor at the station who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. “If the stock market is up, that is positive. The weather can also be positive.”
There you have it, enforced good cheer!

When it comes to taming the media, Putin is way ahead of Chavez. He already controls all the TV networks, which ignore the opposition and never criticize him. With the new "50% rule" he guts news radio, leaving only the newspapers to scrutinize him. Worse, critical journos get whacked at an alarming rate in Russia these days.

By just about any standard, today's Russia is more authoritarian than Venezuela. Putin's oil kitty is bigger than Chávez's, and he controls it just as discretionally and secretively. Small-scale protests are brutally crushed by the police in Russia and their leaders jailed, while in Venezuela the authorities grumble but they still let us march. Russian opposition groups are shut out of the electoral process in ways that would make Jorge Rodríguez blush.

Most striking is Putin's willingness to shed his citizens' blood for partisan advantage: probably over 100,000 Chechens died during his PR exercise cum brutal war against separatists in their province, including the near total destruction of Grozny. There's no parallel in Venezuela's contemporary history. I mean, however much you may loathe him, you can't accuse Chávez of firebombing Maracaibo.

So it's an open-and-shut case: Putin is far more authoritarian than Chávez's, right?

Well sure, but that's not the question we started with. We were talking about which of the two is more dangerous to his nation's freedom. And here, the situation is more complex.

The first thing I notice is that you never hear people described as "Putinists." There's no Russian equivalent "bolivarianismo," no parallel to "socialism of the 21st century." Putin has no time for outsized ideological fantasies, his sense of the ridiculous precludes him from vowing to save humanity. No one in the Kremlin wants to export the Russian model. Putin's ideology, if you can call it that, is modest: a kind of national security state aimed at providing stability as a basis for prosperity.

As a result, Putin hasn't developed a real cult of personality. Polls show he's very popular, but you don't see his photo on billboards all over Russia. His aphorisms are not rammed down the throats of schoolkids and factory workers. He has rebuffed calls to amend the constitution to stay in power after next year, which he easily could do.

What I'm getting at is that where Chávez's authoritarianism is ideological, Putin's is functional: he'll use as much power as he needs to meet his political goals, no more. His is the mafia don's authoritarianism: it's never personal with Putin, it's business. Chávez dreams of utopia in his lifetime; Putin never dreams at all.

Why does this matter? Because his instrumental view of power places a kind of "cap" on the danger Putin represents for the future. He takes an expansive view of raison d'état, for sure, but not an unlimited one. He has limited goals and he doesn't want more power than he needs to achieve them.

Chávez's goals, by contrast, are basically unlimited. Venezuela is just the start: he wants to redeem humankind. He wants as much power as it takes to achieve this. But since the aim itself is unlimited, there's no evident cap to the amount of power he'll accumulate to achieve it.

It's Chávez's messianic streak that ultimately makes him so dangerous. The history of self-appointed messiahs gone horribly wrong is too long, too well documented. Over the last two-hundred years, every single calamity of world-historical proportions has come at the hands of people so suffused with good intentions they could see no nobler goal than to accumulate as much power as possible so they can impose them on the world. As Adam Gopnik put it, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions because the people doing the paving think they've found a shortcut straight to heaven."

Combined with his rampant statism, Chávez's messiah complex makes his movement tend towards totalitarianism. Because nothing in his conception of power, nothing in his understanding of his role in history could make him curb his quest to amass still more power. And that makes all the difference. Putin's regime, by contrast, doesn't tend towards anything: it is what it is.

As we approach the era of indefinite re-election, the gap between Chávez's regime as it is and the regime as its habits of thought and conception of power will tend to make it becomes ever more alarming. If anything, the real puzzle in Venezuela these days is Chávez's excess of tolerance - the way his actions still lag behind the autocratic logic of his discourse.

So yes, Putin has been worse, far worse. Nonetheless, Chávez is more dangerous.