August 17, 2007

This constitution is brought to you by Jolt Cola

Quico says: I just gave Chávez's constitutional reform proposals a closer read and all I can say is I'm laughing my ass off. Not as a political analyst, mind you: as an editor. This thing is so deliriously, comically miswritten you have to go through it a couple of times before it fully hits you.

I'm not even talking about politics here, I'm talking about grammar. Take this bit from the new Article 18:
All citizens [...] shall enjoy and be entitled to the Right to the City, and that right should be understood as the equitable benefit that each inhabitant receives, conforming to the strategic role the city articulates, as much in the urban regional context as in the National System of Cities.
(I swear that isn't a tendentious translation. The original makes just as little sense:
Todos los ciudadanos y todas las ciudadanas [...] disfrutarán y serán titulares del Derecho a la Ciudad, y ese derecho debe entenderse como el beneficio equitativo que perciba, cada uno de los habitantes, conforme al rol estratégico que la ciudad articula, tanto en el contexto urbano regional como en el Sistema Nacional de Ciudades.)
Now, set aside for the moment the unbearable flightiness of a constitutional "Right to the City", look past the sheer cloudy vagueness of a formulation like "the strategic role the city articulates," and focus on the grammar. Is it just me, or is there a clause missing from this sentence!?

Seriously, read it again. It's not just me, is it?

More than ungrammatical, though, the text is by turns deliriously vague, weirdly redundant and bizarrely self-contradictory. Much of it is written in language that's just not lawyerly at all. I'm thinking of bits like the new article 141, the supposedly pivotal inclusion of the misiones into the fabric of the constitution:
The public administrations are organizational structures designed to serve as an instrument to public power, for the exercise of its function and the provision of services. The categories of public administrations are: the bureaucratic or traditional public administrations, which are the ones that attend to the structures foreseen and regulated in this constitution and the laws; and the misiones, constituted by organizations of various natures, created to attend to the satisfaction of the most keenly felt and urgent necesities of the population, whose provision calls out for the application of exceptional or, even, experimental systems, which shall be established by the executive branch through organizational and functional regulations.
Again, you have to read this one through a few times before the sheer lunacy of the text quite strike you. Take your time, chew on it a bit. Turns out the supposedly central misiones are "exceptional"! And, if I'm getting this right, what this article says is that the misiones have the constitutional role of fulfilling duties that are not foreseen by the constitution. Erm...ummmm...whaaa?!

But nevermind that. Look at the language. Closely, the way a lawyer would. The article tells us the misiones are "constituted by organizations of various natures [...] whose provision calls out for the application of exceptional or, even, exeperimental systems"!?

First question: what is the juridical purpose of specifying the misiones are constituted by organizations of various natures? It's a throwaway add-on: legally, it means nothing. It may be perfectly appropriate in a departmental memo, but it's bizarrely out of place in a constitutional text.

And then there's the thing that really caught my eye: that even (incluso). What kind of lawyer writes that way? "Sistemas excepcionales e, incluso, experimentales"?! This is supposed to be a constitution, dude, not an Aporrea post!

It's that "incluso" that gives the game away. An actual lawyer couldn't have written that. What's going on here? Who wrote this thing?

Soon enough, we get our answers. A few hours before his speech to the National Assembly, Chávez told reporters - and I swear I'm not making this up - that everyone was going to say he'd gone crazy because the proposal was full of "extremely innovative" provisions. And why is that? "Because I gave birth to this one in the wee hours of the night" ("porque esto lo he parido en la madrugada").

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!

And it shows. I mean, we've all been there. We all know what happens when you leave an assignment to the last minute, work through the night, and end up handing in a paper you didn't really have time to double check: it's a huge, steaming mess. Grammar mistakes slip through. Chunks of it are just redundant. Others make less and less sense the more you read them, like the borderline hallucinogenic new Article 16*, which will be remembered as a kind of monument to dadaist jurisprudence.

All the pieces fall into place. Now we know why the Constitutional Reform Committee had to work in secret: Chávez's plan all along was to rip up their draft and re-write it, by himself, in his pijamas, in some last-minute caffeine-fueled binge. What we have here is a constitution not just of Chávez and for Chávez but, very literally, by Chávez.

Be very afraid...

* I have neither the time nor the psychiatric stability to translate article 16 without causing permanent damage to my psyche, but for the Spanish speakers out there, here it is in all its bizarre glory:

Artículo 16:

El territorio nacional se conforma a los fines político-territoriales y de acuerdo con la nueva geometría del poder, por un Distrito Federal en el cual tendrá su sede la capital de la República, por los Estados, las Regiones Marítimas, los Territorios Federales, los Municipios Federales y los Distritos Insulares. La vigencia de los Territorios Federales y de los Municipios Federales quedará supeditada a la realización de un referéndum aprobatorio en la entidad respectiva.

Los Estados se organizan en Municipios.

La unidad política primaria de la organización territorial nacional será la ciudad, entendida esta como todo asentamiento poblacional dentro del Municipio, e integrada por áreas o extensiones geográficas denominadas Comunas. Las Comunas serán las células geo-humanas del territorio y estarán conformadas por las Comunidades, cada una de las cuales constituirá el núcleo espacial básico e indivisible del Estado Socialista Venezolano, donde los ciudadanos y las ciudadanas comunes tendrán el poder para construir su propia geografía y su propia historia.

A partir de la Comunidad y la Comuna, el Poder Popular desarrollará formas de agregación comunitaria Político-Territorial, las cuales serán reguladas en la Ley, y que constituyan formas de Autogobierno y cualquier otra expresión de Democracia Directa.

La Ciudad Comunal se constituye cuando en la totalidad de su perímetro, se hayan establecido las Comunidades organizadas, las Comunas y los Auto Gobiernos Comunales, estando sujeta su creación a un referéndum popular que convocará el Presidente de la República en Consejo de Ministros.

El Presidente de la República, en Consejo de Ministros, previo acuerdo aprobado por la mayoría simple de los diputados y diputadas de la Asamblea Nacional, podrá crear mediante decreto, Provincias Federales, Ciudades Federales y Distritos Funcionales, así como cualquier otra entidad que establezca la Ley.

Los Distritos Funcionales se crearán conforme a las características históricas, socio-económicas y culturales del espacio geográfico correspondiente, así como en base a las potencialidades económicas que, desde ellos, sea necesario desarrollar en beneficio del país.

La creación de un Distrito Funcional implica la elaboración y activación de una Misión Distrital con el respectivo Plan Estratégico-funcional a cargo del Gobierno Nacional, con la participación de los habitantes de dicho Distrito Funcional y en consulta permanente con sus habitantes.

El Distrito Funcional podrá ser conformado por uno o más Municipios o Lotes Territoriales de estos, sin perjuicio del Estado al cual pertenezcan.

La organización y funcionamiento de la Ciudad Federal se hará de conformidad con los que establezca la ley respectiva, e implica la activación de una Misión Local con su correspondiente plan estratégico de desarrollo.

En el Territorio Federal, el Municipio Federal y la Ciudad Federal, el Poder Nacional designará las autoridades respectivas, por un lapso máximo que establecerá la Ley y sujeto a mandatos revocables.

Las Provincias Federales se conformarán como unidades de agregación y coordinación de políticas territoriales, sociales y económicas a escala regional, siempre en función de los planes estratégicos nacionales y el enfoque estratégico internacional del Estado venezolano.

Las Provincias Federales se constituirán pudiendo agregar indistintamente Estados y Municipios, sin que estos sean menoscabados en las atribuciones que esta Constitución les confiere.

La Organización Político-Territorial de la República se regirá por una Ley Orgánica.

I'm sorry, but only Chávez could've written that.

Cuna de Bolívar y Reina del Guaraira Repano Chronicles

Quico says: So I cracked pretty early on and read Chávez's constitutional reform proposal. My initial assessment stands: what we're looking at here is seven year presidential terms, infinite re-election, and a bunch of bla bla bla.

As you'd expect, the thing is written in chavismo's trademark style: a wooly, hopelessly imprecise but ever so trendy administrative gobbledygook I like to think of as Bureaucratic Chavistese.

You can always spot Bureaucratic Chavistese by its liberal use of the hyphen to join together disparate abstractions: for chavismo, every plan is strategic-functional, every entity is politico-territorial, every cell has to be geo-human. Compounds like these exude technocratic savoir-faire, they leave you with the unmistakable sense that whomever wrote them must be terribly sophisticated. Of course, they're essentially content-free, but who cares? They sound swish...

Stylistics aside, there's not that much to say - which won't prevent me from saying it at length, bien sur. With the possible exception of the (very vaguely worded) proposals for new forms of territorial organization, there's almost nothing else in the proposal that actually requires a constitutional change. The social policy stuff you can do with a law, a lot of the rest of it (like gutting FIEM, establishing a chavista militia and regulating pay-TV) is stuff they're already doing, and the remainder the state has no administrative capacity to enforce.

The second of those categories - the post-hoc constitutionalization of stuff the government is already doing - speaks volumes about chavismo's attitude towards the Soft Constitution. I mean, if you propose to change the constitution to allow something you're already doing, doesn't that amount to admitting that what you're doing now is unconstitutional? If it isn't, why would you need to change the constitution to allow it? And if it is, how come you're doing it? And how come none of the oversight institutions is stopping you?

To put it differently, supposing the reform proposal were defeated at referendum, do you really think the government would stop regulating pay-TV? Start funding FIEM? Disband the Guardia Territorial? Of course they wouldn't...but in that case, what exactly is the point of asking us to vote on it?

And then some of the reforms are just plain cursi: does the Constitution really need to specify that Caracas will be referred to as the "Birthplace of Bolívar and Queen of Guaraira Repano"?!!?!

(Guaraira Repano is, btw, the indigenous name for that big mountain on my banner.)

There's so much that's infuriating about this last one, it's hard to know where to start: the dime-store indigenism, the grandiloquence, the hubris of trying to dictate to people how they will refer to the place where they've always lived, the absurdity of giving constitutional standing to the equivalent of the city's license plate motto, and the infuriating dissimulation involved in trying to cover up Chávez's attempt to stay in power for life through this kind of minutiae.

Of course, it's also chavismo's Nth little contribution to that age old Venezuelan dysfunction, the chasm between the world of Official Papers and the real world, between legal dictate and actual practice. Because I will eat my hat if, in 2027, caraqueños are going around calling their town the Cuna de Bolívar y Reina del Guaraira Repano. I mean, it's been over 20 years since the government decided that the Cota Mil wasn't the Cota Mil anymore, but do you know anyone who calls it the Avenida Boyacá?

August 16, 2007

Political Terra Incognita

Quico says: As Chávez unveils his Constitutional Reform proposal, it bears stopping to note how very far from convinced the Venezuelan electorate is at the outset.

From July 14th to the 24th, Oscar Schemel's polling firm, Hinterlaces, carried out 1,148 face-to-face interviews with people in 20 of Venezuela's 24 states.

The caveat is that the poll was carried out before the details of the reform were announced, so the poll measures people's general feelings about a notional reform that includes Indefinite Re-election, rather than about the specific proposal Chávez presented last night. I don't think that's a very serious caveat, though: by mid July it was already clear what the reform would be about.

With that in mind, the results look very bad for the Narcissist-in-Chief:

Ouch! These are brutal, brutal numbers for Chávez. It's not actually close at all: really, a 2-to-1 margin.

If the polls stay like this, but CNE turns around and announces the "Yes" won a Constitutional Reform referendum, we will be looking at a very, very unfamiliar dynamic in Venezuela.

Some other interesting results from the Hinterlaces poll:

Chavismo may be far from a majority, but the Opposition 'brand' remains in the utter dumps. People just don't want to identify as that.

This last result strikes me as especially significant. Chávez's approval rating - or Hinterlaces' composite measure thereof - is far from its lowest point. In fact, it's up 10 points on May, when the RCTV episode put a severe dent in his popularity.

Yet that personal bounce hasn't translated into increased support for the idea of Constitutional Reform: in July, 45% broadly approved of the guy, but just 26% approved of the reform.

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.

August 14, 2007

Lonely Planet, petro-state style

Katy says: Pick up a Lonely Planet Venezuela and it'll tell you that one of the highlights of the country's Eastern shore is the seaside village of San Juan de las Galdonas, set on a remote inlet on the breathtaking Paria Peninsula, in Sucre state. Sandwiched between a picture perfect Caribbean beach and a rainforest mountain, it's just a special place, unspoiled by mass tourism.

More than a few foreigners settled there in the last thirty years, convinced they had found a slice of paradise. It's no wonder - Christopher Columbus stumbled across this stretch of coastline 500 years ago and came to the same conclusion.

Having heard all this, my friend Roger decided to drive out there for his vacation this year. The other day he wrote in to tell me about it. He said that, though it sure looks pretty, the mood in San Juan de las Galdonas has changed rather drastically since Lonely Planet last dropped in for a visit. The place might look like it was purpose-built for tourism, but these days, the townies treat visitors more as a nuisance than an opportunity.

To hear him tell it, it doesn't take long before you start noticing something isn't quite normal about San Juan de las Galdonas. The town is overrun with very expensive cars. People behave aggressively toward tourists. A deafening, thumping reggaeton pours out of every car, house and business. Parts of the once pristine vegetation around the town have been squatted on and crime has shot up.

What the hell is going on here? Asking around, Roger found out: the town has become a magnet for smugglers and drug traffickers.

One of the more profitable venture apparently involves the town's only gas station. It's being used as a port of departure for gasoline smugglers, who ship it off to nearby Trinidad and sell it at multiples of its regulated price. Rent-seekers that we all are, it looks like a lot of people in town have decided that arbitraging gas in Trinidad is a much more attractive way to make a living than making piña coladas for tourists. I guess this is what Petrocaribe is all about, right?

Obviously, PDVSA and the National Guard are in on this scam. Roger tells me that several gas trucks have to go to San Juan every day to refill the gas station's deposit. Any marginally awake bureaucrat would have found it odd by now that San Juan "consumes" as much gasoline as Maturín. The National Guard is, in fact, supervising the whole operation.

As for tourists, the town folk are doing what they can to keep them away. People like Roger, who only came looking for a parasol and a cold Polarcita to keep him company on the beach, get in the way of their little operation, and a mean-spirited campaign is underway to drive out the foreigners who run the beachside guest houses (posadas).

Roger spoke at length to the owner of the "posada" he stayed at. She's an older Swiss lady, who came to this place looking for a bit of tropical heaven and built her guest house from of scratch. She has genuine affection for the people, for the country and the overwhelming nature that surrounds her. Her affection does not extend, however, to the squatters who took over the lush, green patch of mountainside directly in front of the entrance to her business. What used to be a wall of green is now a shantytown, and the unending reggaeton serves as a constant reminder that she would be better off leaving.

Ever the Swisswoman, she ventured all the way to the state capital, Cumaná, to speak with the Sucre government's tourism commission about her problem. The official there told he couldn't help her, but that if - cough-cough - she decided to call it a day, he could find a buyer for her guest house in two days.

Roger tells me his vacation left him depressed, as if the general lawlessness that is gripping the country has reached even its purest, most picturesque places. At this rate, it won't be long until we see the walls of Angel Falls covered with graffiti glorifying the revolution.

On his way out of town, he saw a couple of teenagers hitch-hiking and decided to give them a lift to Carúpano. They were awfully nice, as kids tend to be in that part of the country, but they sadly reported that the whole town is being spoiled. In the town's only high-school, the girls' main aspiration is to bed one of the narcos running the show: it's easy to spot them, they're the only ones who can afford the flashy cel phones and showy motorbikes.

There's a book, based on a soap opera, making the rounds in Venezuela and Colombia: Sin tetas no hay paraíso - literally, "No tits, no paradise," set in the Colombian city of Pereira. It's a dramatic take on how the main aspiration of poor girls in Pereira's slums is to get a boob-job and land a nice narco-"Goodfella" to wisk them away from the barrio life.

Just as the lure of easy drug money is proving too much for any prudish Pereira girl to resist, the lure of a 300% return rate for siphoning gasoline is too much for the good people of San Juan de las Galdonas.

Sin tetas no hay paraíso, y sin rentas no hay revolución.

Scandals Generate Terrorism

Quico says: Sometimes, I feel like this blog has turned into a kind of masochistic hunt for the one chavista outrage so bizarre, so over-the-top, so plain in its authoritarian edge and its contempt for decency, that only the criminally insane could find any justification for it. But Carabobo State Governor Luis Felipe Acosta Carlés takes all the fun out of it. The hunt's just not a challenge if he serves 'em up on a platter like this:

Or like this one, ("inciting sex generates rape") which sets out to denounce the evils of showing pictures of cute girls in bikinis by...showing pictures of cute girls in bikinis:

[Added bonus: who do you think Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro blames for Maletagate? I'll give you three shots; first two don't count... give up?]

August 13, 2007

We've been reduced to borrowing our scandals...

Quico says: I'm not going to write in detail about the $800,000 suitcase scandal, basically, because I haven't really followed it. Follow the link if you want the details.

I can't help but feel a bit of nostalgia, though, seeing the way the story's been reported. Time was when this sort of thing filled Venezuelan newspapers. Powerful people who fucked up paid a price: if not a jail sentence, at least social disgrace. It doesn't work that way anymore.

Back in January, I argued that Scandal is not possible in Venezuela these days, because the chavista state elite is, in the literal sense of the word, shame-less. And that's still true.

What really strikes me about this suitcase-full-of-cash story is that it's not really a Venezuelan scandal at all. It's one we're borrowing, from Argentina, from a society that still maintains the pre-requisites for Scandal. Our officials plainly don't care: there are any number of outrages much worse than Antonini's flight around. The only reason this one is getting so much attention is because Argentina's institutions are still sturdy enough to shame the powerful into changing their behaviors - to force resignations, for instance. Our institutions, whether formal or informal, no longer perform that role.

Think of it this way: if Antonini had been busted carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash on a PDVSA flight from Maracaibo to Caracas, would anyone have cared? Would it have stayed in the papers for more than a day?