January 4, 2008

A goat, a black jenny, a white mare and a good mother-in-law

Katy says: And a happy 2008 to you! After a well-deserved break, this blog is back in action. Things were quiet toward the end of the year but are starting to pick up quickly. So ... what has the Fat Man in the Palace been up to?

Well, in the continuing saga of Chávez's unwelcome involvement in Colombia's civil war, the President put on a show for the release of three FARC hostages, only to see the whole thing blow up in his face. Oliver Stone was on hand to direct a documentary, but they should have called Christopher Guest instead - it was a tragedy disguised as farce.

Today we learn that the Colombian government's hypothesis was correct: the boy in custody is indeed Clara Rojas' son, Emmanuel. Still, the Venezuelan government stupidly clings to conspiracy theories and questions the procedure carried out to analyze the boy's DNA, demanding instead access to the boy so they can carry out their own test.

Nicolás Maduro acts like he has a moustache for a brain. Leaving aside the fact that the Venezuelan government has no business whatsoever demanding participation in the custody proceedings of a three-year old Colombian boy, what does Venezuela seek to gain with all this?

What's more, if the Colombian government had indeed manipulated DNA samples to show that the boy was Clara's son when he was not, wouldn't it be made public sooner or later? How long would they be able to support a lie like that? What interest would they have in spinning something as clearly demonstrable as that?

Once Clara Rojas' mother was granted custody of the child, wouldn't it be easy for her to conduct her own DNA analysis? Somehow, Mrs. Rojas the elder doesn't seem like the type of person who would be comfortable raising a child as a grandchild knowing he is someone else's child instead.

At this point it's pretty clear the boy is Emmanuel, but the Venezuelan government insists on calling into question the procedures instead of acknowledging the FARC played them like a top. Instead of being legitimately pissed at the FARC for publicly embarassing Chavez when he least needed it, they continue picking fights with Colombian authorities.

(After writing the above, the comedy of errors continued. The FARC put out a press release acknowledging that the boy is, indeed, Emmanuel, but accusing the Colombian government of - get this - kidnapping the boy in Bogotá to prevent the FARC from turning him over to Chavez along with his mother and Consuelo González.)

At any rate, I didn't want to comment much more on this ongoing tragedy, since it doesn't really affect Venezuela. The only thing it accomplishes for us is to further show Chavez as a fool in the world stage, but after Chávez's annus horribilis this hardly merits mentioning.

The other big news of the day is Chávez's new cabinet. Although the extent of the changes are not known yet, we do know that Jorge Rodríguez leaves the Vice-president's post to redder pastures at the PSUV.

His replacement is current Housing Minister Ramon Carrizales. Other cabinet shuffles are being mentioned, but most of them are simply placing old faces in new positions. Some, as in the case of Andrés Izarra, consist of former Ministers taking up posts they used to occupy. Finance Minister Cabezas is rumoured to have resigned only days after the implementation of the new currency, but this has yet to be confirmed.

Other replacements raised eyebrows. Failed FARC negotiator Rodríguez Chacín is now back at the Interior Ministry - one wonders how many fake cédulas he'll print for himself this time around. Communist ideologue Haiman El-Troudi, someone I had the "pleasure" of listening to, will take over the Planning Ministry.

But back to the Vice-president's office: Rodríguez's departure is not a surprise. The government failed badly in December's referendum and this, along with Rodríguez's deep involvement in the Maleta-gate scandal, looks a lot like reckoning.

His replacement, though, is a curious one at first glance. Carrizales is the current Housing Minister, or rather, "Minister for Popular Power for Housing and Habitats" (I kid you not). Even though public housing construction picked up last year, it did not accomplish the goals the government set out for itself. By any objective standard, Carizales's tenure at the Housing Ministry was a failure, doing very little to solve Venezuela's severe housing deficit. He is also weirdly unknown, a guy with a relatively low profile until now.

However, Carrizales' previous position was not as much of a failure: he was the Infrastructure Minister in charge of finishing the new La Guaira Highway bridge on time and overseeing the massive new stadiums built for the Copa América. In terms of public infrastructure, those constitute some of the government's few relative successes.

Chávez words yesterday reveal what's behind some of these changes. He said that they couldn't let themselves be portrayed as extremists because they are not extremists. He talked about forging alliances with the middle class and even with the oligarchs. He said they were wrong in trying to eliminate private property, because this has failed the world over. Yes, I too choked on my dulce de lechoza when I read all this.

He talked about relaunching relations with the government's allies. He talked about the need to be more pragmatic and less ideological, saying that if the front of his house was covered by garbage, he, too, would protest, shut down streets and consider ideological discussions superfluous.

In other words, Chavez is hinting his goals for the year are to provide a sensible government that takes care of people's needs instead of forcing ideology down people's throats, Haiman El-Troudi notwithstanding. As a sign of this new approach, he passed a law at the beginning of the year granting amnesty to some of the political prisoners and politicians being prosecuted, a list that included names such as Cecilia Sosa, Leopoldo López, Maria Corina Machado and the Táchira prisoners, to the great annoyance of many of his most radical supporters.

Chávez may or may not be honest about this conversion, but that is beside the point. With his stunning defeat of last December and the series of very public embarassments in foreign affairs, with scarcity, inflation, people's annoyance at the new official time and the new currency, he had to change something. The big question is whether he can pull this transformation off and deliver "efficiency minus ideology" in time for the Regional elections in October.

His initial, narcissistic tirade as a reaction to defeat surely didn't win him favors with moderate supporters. The current moves are more mainstream, but serious questions remain. Let's not forget that Chávez finds day-to-day issues such as "governance" and "delivering public goods" as appealing as root-canal. What he most enjoys is ideological confrontation, so it remains unlikely that he will be able to focus on practical matters for more than a week.

Venezuelans usually dance to a song on New Year's Eve that talks about what the Old Year left us, things we are grateful for. The list of things includes "a goat, a black jenny, a white mare and a good mother-in-law."

I always found the lyrics absurd, but at least they invite the listener to ponder the passage of time and the lessons it leaves them. Perhaps Chávez has reflected on the lessons from the last year and decided to change course.

If his "goat" is a realization that he needs to tone down the crazy talk, if his "black jenny" is a purpose to work efficiently, if his "white mare" is a desire to provide better public services and if his "good mother-in-law" is an honest pledge to talk less about ideology, then it will be a happy new year indeed.

But don't count on it.