November 16, 2007

Abstentionists in their ink

Katy says: There was an interesting development yesterday in the CNE, one that plays a not-so-minor role in the abstention vs. voting debate. The indelible ink to be used on December 2nd was audited in the presence of the "No" camp.

This issue is not a minor one. As I have said before, the use of indelible ink is a valuable step in the direction of holding fair electoral processes. Of course, it doesn't fix everything, but it certainly takes away some of the arguments for abstaining.

One of these arguments has to do with the Electoral Registry (REP). The story is that the Registry contains too many people who are dead, people who appear several times, have weird information or are suspicious for other reasons. The rationale is that the Registry is screwed up so that chavistas are allowed to vote many times, and that therefore we should not vote because voting would legitimize the fraud being perpetrated.

There is no doubt the REP could use some work. But with indelible ink, this argument becomes moot since nobody physically present in the country the day of the election would, in theory, be able to vote twice. And while there is an issue with votes being tallied without anyone having actually cast them, it would be clear whenever this happened. After all, electoral notebooks and opposition witnesses would be able to tell how many people physically showed up and compare that number to the number of votes being spit out by the machine.

One of the complaints from the last election was that the ink was not indelible after all, and that this allowed chavistas to vote twice. Yet the enormous effort it would require to ship thousands of chavistas to their voting centers, have them erase the evidence of their vote, and then take them to their secondary or tertiary voting center so they could vote with their supplemental identities, repeating the process in between, made this scenario highly unlikely.

Ink also serves as a psychological weapon. There is something about the use of indelible ink that makes people trust the system a little bit more, and make them a tad more confident that the chavistas around them have not double- or triple-dipped their fingers and cast multiple votes.

The ink has now been audited, and the process will continue, with the CNE having apparently agreed to allow for random audits of different samples while the electoral material is being put together. The CNE even allowed the UCV to participate, and it was all controversy-free.

Add to this the fact that the fingerprint machines will not be connected to CNE headquarters, that electronic voting notebooks will not be used, that half the boxes will be audited, and it seems to me that conditions this time around are decent. Obviously, one would want more electoral transparency - the issue of the use of government funds for campaigning is a non-starter - but I find the arguments for abstention becoming thinner and thinner every day.

Sort of like the ink that was used last December.

The Public Sphere is like a Garden

Quico says: Habermas understands the public sphere as that realm of social life where private individuals come together to discuss public matters collectively. The public sphere is actualized every single day on the pages of newspapers, at university cafeterias, around kitchen tables, in union halls and political party meetings as well as on blogs - whenever and wherever private individuals come together to talk about public affairs.

At its best, deliberation in the public sphere is reasoned, focused on arguments rather than personalities, open to all, and geared towards building common understanding. The health of the public sphere is vital to the viability of democracy. The opinion of the majority is democratically legitimate only to the degree that discussion in the public sphere operates as it's supposed to. Only then does "public opinion" embody a process of collective deliberation that honors our nature as thinking beings: and that, deep down, is the whole point of democracy.

But there's no a priori reason to believe the Public Sphere will work properly all or even most of the time. Just the opposite: the habits of mind necessary to sustain critical debate in a democratic public sphere are always fragile, always precarious, always in need of attention. They can't be mandated or legislated or imposed. They need to be fostered and protected.

I've been trying to think of an image, a metaphor to capture what's happened to our public sphere over the last few years. The other day I tried Alzheimer's. But maybe this one works better:

A democratic public sphere is like a garden. It needs tending. It needs attention, care, fussing over. It needs somebody to protect it from all kinds of threats: insects, fungi, storms, frosts, rabbits and weeds. Left to its own devices, it will be slowly overrun. It can't be taken for granted.

Venezuela's public sphere was never particularly tidy. Since 1958, it was always a bit ramshackle, overgrown here and there, encroached on by the surrounding, wild tropical vegetation and besieged by all kinds of plagues - petrostate clientelism, the mantuano discourse, general ignorance, pervasive disdain. Nobody took the job of tending it very seriously - we treated more like a Conuco, really - but neither did it quite turn back into jungle.

Eight years ago, Hugo Chavez sized up our public sphere and took a flamethrower to it. It's a heap of smoldering debris by now, just totally wrecked. Worse yet, many in the opposition figured that the way to fight back was to get flamethrowers of their own. They ended up scorching the parts of the garden that had somehow survived the initial onslaught.

Others (a minority) realized all along the need to try to save what could be saved of the garden, to protect it, to shield it from the devastation all around. But it's a losing battle. Gardening takes time, effort, perseverance. Flamethrowing doesn't. What takes the gardener a year to build takes the flamethrower a minute to burn down. Does it really make sense to try to garden while we're surrounded by people determined to burn down whatever we manage to grow?

One thing is clear to me: if we're going to build a democratic public sphere, winning in December isn't enough. Even getting Chavez out of Miraflores isn't enough, because he can keep wrecking any attempt to build a democratic public sphere just as easily from the opposition as he can from the government. We need to wrestle the flamethrower away from well as from the hotheads on "our" side. And then we need to start gardening.

We need to reinvent the way we talk about ourselves to ourselves. We need to craft a new consensus about what is and what isn't acceptable in public deliberation. We need to enshrine the kind of standards Zapatero was trying (in vain) to explain to Chavez when the King lost his cool ("Se puede estar en las antípodas de una posición ideológica - no seré yo el que esté cerca de las ideas de Aznar - pero el ex presidente Aznar fue elegido por los españoles y exijo ese respeto. Se puede discrepar radicalmente sin irrespetar.") In Venezuela, getting everyone to accept those norms would require a whole new conception of what it means to "do politics." It'll be the work of a generation, or more.

One glimmer of hope: when farmers are looking to clear a field for cultivation, probably the oldest technique to prepare it is to slash-and-burn. It's just imaginable that if one day, somehow, we manage to get the flamethrowers out of our public sphere, we'll find the ground is readier for cultivation than now seems quite imaginable.

November 15, 2007

Got milk?

Katy says: We maracuchas have our own little brands that we like to buy and promote. All else things equal, a true zuliano will always choose the local brand over the national one.

For example, for many years in Maracaibo a "newspaper" was called a "Panorama" because of the now-infamous chavista daily that, at least in our city, outsold all national papers combined; Banco de Maracaibo was the top bank in the city far and away, a title now claimed by BOD; Regional Beer and Cerveza Zulia outsold Polar; and so on...

It turns out that we also have our own supermarket chains in Maracaibo. Two of the most popular ones are Víveres de Candido and EnnE - yes, you've never heard of them, but any maracucho/a has, and they're pretty big.

Today I got a picture my sister took two days ago. Turns out the EnnE closest to her house was selling milk! Shows you what you have to go through to get milk in Venezuela, if you're lucky...

Comments are back...

Quico says: ...sanity isn't.

I've been trying to think of stuff to post recently (no, really, I have) but drawing a string of blanks. The country's too far gone.

Sitting down to blog about Venezuela these days reminds me of going to visit my grandmother during the last years of her life. She had Alzheimer's, poor thing.

If you've ever seen someone battle Alzheimer's you know how gradual and drawn out the descent can be. At first it was just a vague feeling that something wasn't quite right with grandma. Then, as the disease became clearer and deeper, an increasing desperation to communicate, coupled with a growing awareness of the difficulties involved. And then, at some point - years after it had all started, but still years before she finally passed away - that hideous certainty that the line between us had been cut, that she would never again recognize me, that the possibility of communion between us had gone for good. She was still alive but, for me, the process of mourning had already begun.

That's more or less how I see Venezuela's democratic public sphere these days. It's still "going," in some sense, but has reached such an advanced level of dementia that you can no longer interact with it in any meaningful sense. Like my grandmother, it becomes less coherent and more repetitive each and every day. Words that may once, long ago, have made sense are repeated mindlessly, devoid of any context, appearing more and more like symptoms of pathology and less and less like meaningful utterances. Fears that may, arguably, have once been rooted in reality get decontextualized, blown out of all proportion and repeated endlessly.

The process has been slow, cruelly gradual, and it could go on for many years to come. By now, the most we can hope for is a crude imitation of democratic deliberation. And we know it can go on like this, getting a very little bit worse day after day after day until, eventually, there's nothing left to get worse and the patient passes away physically, as well as mentally.

And that, I fear, is what's really original about the Venezuelan Path to Totalitarianism. If the German and Russian and Cuban roads were like massive strokes, ending all free political debate in one violent convulsion, our path is degenerative, gradual, and all the more cruel for it.

The cruelest moment - or, given the nature of the disease, the cruellest string of identical moments - in an Alzheimer's patient's progression is when he reaches a panicked insight into the nature of his own condition. When the terrifying clarity of what is happening strikes him, along with the awareness that there's simply nothing he can do to stop or even slow it. For those who have witnessed it from the outside, it's a moment of indescribable pathos.

As I see it, that's more or less where Venezuela is now. In any case, it's certainly where I am.

November 14, 2007

Just a matter of opinion

Katy says: Yesterday, crackpot Chavista lawmaker Iris Varela threatened to take over private TV station Globovisión. Her complaint is that the station is "conspiring" against the revolution, more or less. No specifics were given.

I've come down hard on Globovisión before. I believe, as I have for a while, that Globovisión's pro-opposition editorial line is damaging to our side because it borders on media manipulation and it does nothing to convince swing voters.

However, Ms. Varela's complaint this time around rings demential, to put it lightly. While Globovisión's coverage is surely biased, the channel is continually used by pro-Chavez figures to broadcast their points of view, something that cannot be said of state TV station VTV.

One of the interesting things I receive in my inbox every day is a summary of all the morning's opinion programs. It lists the guests and what they talked about, and it gives you a glimpse of the type of "balance" Ms. Varela has in mind when calling for "the people" (i.e. chavistas) to take over a private TV station so that it stops conspiring (i.e. airing different points of view).

What follows is a guest-list from morning shows in Globovisión and VTV that have aired in the past three weeks.

Chavista guests on Globovision morning opinion programs included chavistas like Saúl Ortega, Sandra Oblitas, Elvis Amoroso, Alberto Castellar, Robert Serra, Juan José Molina (several times) and Aurora Morales, among others. Their point of view is certainly biased toward the opposition, but I was surprised to see how many chavistas usually go to Globovisión to air their views.

On the other hand, the guest-list on VTV's programs was made up of Luis Bilbao, Jorge Alvarado (Bolivian Ambassador to Venezuela), Vladimir Acosta, Jose Manuel Iglesias (Avila TV), Nestor Lopez (Avila TV), Darío Vivas, Erika Farías, Tibisay Lucena, Jessica Blanco, Cristóbal Jiménez, Andreína Tarazón, Osly Hernández, Rony Prieto, Diosdado Cabello, Carlos Acosta Pérez, José Agustín Campos, José Julián Villalba, Luis Acuña, Zenayda Tahhán, Rafael Isea, Patricia Villegas, Diana Gómez, Hugo Oramas and Jesse Chacón.

If you're wondering what this last list of people have in common, your first guess is right: they are all chavistas. Opposition points of view have been completely been absent from VTV's airwaves in the past three weeks. Let me repeat that: VTV has not aired a single opposition point of view in its morning shows in the past three weeks.

When faced with evidence like this, a blogger is tempted to end the post with a coherent argument about how Ms. Varela needs to look at state-funded VTV and make sure its programming is fair and balanced before complaining about allegedly biased coverage of a privately-owned TV station. But that would be too rational for these people, whose idea of a debate typically involves foaming at the mouth and long firearms.

So I'll lower myself to their level just this once and simply say: Hugo, put your ho on a leash!

November 12, 2007

Baduel hints at ...

Katy says: ... violence?

Ret.Gen. Raúl Baduel gave a press conference this afternoon and read a strange statement. Although at first glance there is not much in the statement one can argue with - aside from all the BS about the oath at the Güere tree - upon a closer inspection, something mildly creepy reared its head.

He says the reform will guarantee "violence", and that the only way to prevent violence is to either withdraw the reform or call for a Constituent Assembly. He says that this is the only way to ensure some form of consensus or democracy in Venezuela.

Sugarcoating the possibility of consensus in the country at this stage of the game certainly raises an eyebrow, but there was one particular paragraph that freaked me out. He says:

"As soldiers we've been professionally prepared to administer the State's legal and legitimate violence, and therefore, we are experts in the topic of violence and what it entails. Our duty, specially during times like these, is to avoid the unleashing of violent processes and come forward as generators of calm and guides so the country can embark on a true path of development and as promoters and maintainers of peace, remembering the peaceful nature of the Venezuelan people which is expressed in Article 13 of the Constitution."

So - if the Reform causes violence, and it is the duty of the Armed Forces to prevent violence and restore peace, what is he getting at? Is it just me, or is Baduel ever-so-subtly calling his comrades to take up arms against the Reform?

Top ten things we learned at the Iberoamerican Summit

Katy says:

10. This year's Summit was on "Social Cohesion", yet more proof that our leaders still have a sense of humor.

9. Today's fortune cookie: If you invite a crazy man to dinner, don't get mad when he takes a dump on your china.

8. New on DVD... European Royals Gone Wild!

7. Daniel Ortega proves once more that Nicaragua is the land where time stopped.

6. Chavista diplomacy: if we're not gonna talk about what I want, I'm gonna piss all over you.

5. You say Fascist, I say Chavist...

4. Had Angela Merkel been hostess, she would have hosed off the little punks.

3. The King can say goodbye to hanging with Naomi, Sean, Eva and the rest of the posse.

2. The reason he won't shut up is Tourette's Syndrome.

and... (drumroll)

1. The only country in IberoAmerica Chavez has not yet insulted is... Andorra!