February 29, 2008

The opposition's identity problem

Katy says: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is not my favorite. Still, I make it a point to read her since a lot of people do. Sometimes, when she's good, she taps into what many people are thinking but haven't really said before.

This week Dowd picked on one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton's campaign seems to be floundering. She claims that Clinton seems desperate to reinvent herself all the time, conveying to the voters in the process that either they don't know her that well or, worse, that she doesn't know who she is or who she wants to be.

For example, she says,

"The fact that Obama is exceptionally easy in his skin has made Hillary almost jump out of hers. She can’t turn on her own charm and wit because she can’t get beyond what she sees as the deep injustice of Obama not waiting his turn. Her sunshine-colored jackets on the trail hardly disguise the fact that she’s pea-green with envy.

After saying she found her “voice” in New Hampshire, she has turned into Sybil. We’ve had Experienced Hillary, Soft Hillary, Hard Hillary, Misty Hillary, Sarcastic Hillary, Joined-at-the-Hip-to-Bill Hillary, Her-Own-Person-Who-Just-Happens-to-Be-Married-to- a-Former-President Hillary, It’s-My-Turn Hillary, Cuddly Hillary, Let’s-Get-Down-in-the-Dirt-and-Fight-Like-Dogs Hillary.

Just as in the White House, when her cascading images and hairstyles became dizzying and unsettling, suggesting that the first lady woke up every day struggling to create a persona, now she seems to think there is a political solution to her problem. If she can only change this or that about her persona, or tear down this or that about Obama’s. But the whirlwind of changes and charges gets wearing."
Time and again, our own opposition politicians judge themselves against the bar of Hugo Chávez. If they are not as charismatic as Chávez, they think that is a problem. If they are not as populist as Chávez, they think that is a problem. If they are not as vulgar as Chávez, they try and make up for it. It's as if they have internalized that Chávez changed the political landscape only in terms of what kind of wrapping makes a candidate electable. They've forgotten how important it is to just be who you are, with no apologies.

Take Manuel Rosales, for example. I think one of the key mistakes that Rosales made (and continues to make) is that he wants to copy some of the things Chávez does in ways that appear non-sincere.

One day he is signing the Carmona decree, the next day he is launching Mi Negra. One day he is denoncing populism, the next day he is handing out bags of food. And while we can quibble about the theoretical pros and cons of a scheme like Mi Negra, two things are clear:
a) it was a half-baked idea; and
b) the voters didn't buy it at all.

It was perceived as an insincere pledge, like Rosales was pandering.

The issue of the use of public funds for personal promotion is a good example of how opposition politicians confuse the voters. This has long been a pet-peeve of mine, and it should be yours as well. It is an egregious show of corruption, one that says "look what I can get away with, in your face!"

Chávez and his minions have long used this tool. But the reason it doesn't backfire on them is that they are completely unapologetic about it.

When Rafael Ramírez, the PDVSA President, was caught in a clandestine video telling state workers that they all had to vote for the President, Chávez didn't apologize. He basically said "that is who I am, deal with it." Attempts to turn this episode against him backfired. In hindsight, this bold-faced strategy was brilliant.

Maracaibo is one of the places where these low-level political tactics are mostly used. Street signs are enormous and they all have some political figure's face painted on them. As you drive through the city, brightly colored red buses pass you by, painted with the faces of the mayor and the President lest you forget who you need to thank at the ballot box for that comfortable ride to work.

I was writing a post in my head railing against this when I realized I couldn't, in all honesty, blast Chávez for this particular offense without bringing to task Manuel Rosales for doing the same thing. True, Rosales' ads are not as pervasive, and his picture is not used as much as his name. Yet that may be more a reflection of the State government's budget constraints than his philosophical respect for institutions.

This is illegal, wasteful, counterproductive and devoid of content. After all, what does "the true strength of the people" actually mean? That Rosales is a strong leader? That he is backed by the people? That bus makes me want to vote less for Rosales, not more.

What this reflects is an identity problem. If Rosales believes that this is an acceptable way of doing politics, then he is not as different from Chávez as he claims to be. If he doesn't believe in it but thinks he has to do it because Chávez does it, then he doesn't really know who he is. Either way, it conveys weakness and insecurity, two traits you don't want in a leader.

Think about that the next time you fly out of Maracaibo. Think about why it is that right there, in the stub for the airport tax you just paid, there is a message from Manuel Rosales wishing you a merry journey.

Think about how long it's been since we had a national politician in the opposition who was truly comfortable in his or her own skin.

February 28, 2008

Leashing the unhinged can be hard work

Katy says: Yesterday, celebrity terrorist and chavista fanatic Lina Ron forced her way into the offices of the Archbishop of Caracas.

There, she demanded that the government cease harrassing chavista subversive groups in the "23 de Enero" projects. She also announced that Globovisión was "a target of the Revolution" - in case you didn't know - and promtply declared that the late Héctor Serrano, a government spy who blew himself up last Sunday as he was innocently setting up a bomb outside the main building of business umbrella-group Fedecámaras, was "a martyr of the Revolution."

I was not surprised by Ms. Ron's latest travails into the public arena. The grande-dame of chavista nomenklatur is so unbalanced, I would have to see her applying for US citizenship or auditioning for Venezuelan Extreme Makeover to be surprised.

The crazyness ensued when Chávez himself phoned his pet TV show "La Hojilla" and promptly denounced Ms. Ron for displaying "revolutionary indiscipline," as if "indiscipline" was a noun in need of a revolutionary adjective. (If all revolutionary things are good, shouldn't "revolutionary indiscipline" be a good thing?)

Chávez also scolded former PSUV congressman Luis Tascón, of Tascón List fame, for denouncing corruption schemes without any evidence of malfeasance. And to top it all off, he publicly berated Bolivarian Circles camped outside opposition TV station Globovisión as being "anarchic" groups that do not respond to anyone, leaving out the fact that he created them in the first place.

Ms. Ron, Mr. Tascón and the Bolivarian Circles are all part of Chávez's inner circle. They have, until now, enjoyed the trust of the President and, more importantly, served as his first line of attack in harrassing everyone from the church to political parties to students. His attempts to put distance himself from them are laughable, and Chávez knows it.

We are used to Chavez's Orwellian-talk being directed at our side, the opposition. But now, in an interesting twist, Chávez appears to be directing the crazy at some of his most loyal followers. He seems to be trying to convince the public that he is reining in his loonies. If only they would obey.

This is a dangerous game, one the public is not going to buy easily. The rift between the moderates (led by Miranda Governor Diosdado Cabello) and the extremists (Ron, Tascón and the Bolivarian circles) in the government seems severe and its consequences unpredictable. Insulting the ladies of Altamira may get you some pots banged in Eastern Caracas, but insulting the Tupamaros or the Franken-bride of the Revolution may well get you shot. This is not the position you want your party to be in when the election you have once again labelled as "crucial" is only a few months away.

But then again, it's all possible in Chávez's Venezuela. The President lamely trying to play the wolf in sheep's clothing is not new, but his belief that it's going to work this time is simply nuts.

Logic 101

Katy says: Leopoldo López is the brilliant, popular, telegenic Mayor of Chacao and one of the opposition's most promising politicians. We haven't talked about him in quite some time, but we should, because he is apparently the overwhelming favorite in the race for Caracas Mayor.

Leopoldo is also in a heap of trouble. As it turns out, Clodosbaldo Russián, Chavez's Comptroller General, decided a few years ago that due to some alleged shenanigans that Leopoldo was supposedly involved in - charges for which he was never tried, never sentenced and from which he was never able to defend himself in court - he is not eligible to run for any office until 2012.

Regardless of the merits of the case, the way it has proceeded has been grossly unfair. No individual bureaucrat should be entitled to strip any Venezuelan of their political rights without the issue being vented in a court of law, and the allegedly illegal acts that are motivating this measure have not been proven either.

And yet, the defense strategy outlined yesterday is troubling. His main argument seems to be based on Article 65 of the Constituion. According to López, Article 65 says that "people cannot be elected to public service if they have been sentenced by a court of law." He goes on to say that since he has not been sentenced by a court of law, he can run, and any artificial impediment to prevent him from doing so is unconstitutional.

Here is my translation of what the article says:
"Article 65.- People who have been found guilty of crimes comitted during public service and of other crimes that affect public property, cannot be candidates for positions selected by popular vote for the period of time specified by law, starting from the moment the person begins serving his or her sentence and in accordance with the gravity of the matter."
I'm no lawyer, but to me the article says that if you have been found guilty you cannot run. It doesn't say this is the only way somebody can be stripped of their political rights, which seems to be Leopoldo's argument here.

It's Logic 101 folks. "All whales are mammals. I am not a whale, therefore I am not a mammal."

Leopoldo's strategy makes no sense. Someone needs to point this out to him.

PS.- Teodoro Petkoff suggests a more coherent legal strategy here.

February 26, 2008

Sinamaica Chronicles

Katy says: "That one over there, that's my mother's house. The house next to it also belongs to my mother, but she's loaned it to make a Barrio Adentro module. That's where the Cuban doctors work and live."

With these words, Rolando, our boat driver in the Sinamaica lagoon, hinted that he was a hardcore chavista. He's an Añú, one of the several indigenous groups from the Guajira peninsula shared by Venezuela and Colombia.

I took a deep breath and asked Rolando how he had voted on the December 2nd referendum. He said that, after thinking about it, he'd voted "No". While President Chavez had done a lot for his community, he felt what they needed now were jobs, a hospital and better security. He thought the reform would not help accomplish these goals.

I didn't believe him. I was sure he was saying what I wanted to hear. Yes, Zulia tends to lean against Chávez: it has one of two opposition governors in the country and the "No" won in the state by a large margin. But Chávez has an inmense lead in rural areas, especially indigenous ones. I knew I was in red country.


Sinamaica is a unique place. Right in the middle of the Limón river delta's mangrove lagoon, you find a town of 5,000, mostly living in huts built on stilts in the water. The town is poor and jobs are hard to come by, but the mystique of the place remains: it was these houses that Américo Vespucci was looking at when he first blurted out "little Venice!", or, in Genoese dialect, "Venezuela"!

I was visiting relatives in Maracaibo last week, along with a Chilean friend. When I told them we were planning to take our friend to Sinamaica, they warned against it. They said we'd get kidnapped, that the lagoon was dry, that the boats couldn't navigate and that there was a dengue fever epidemic. My relatives hadn't ventured to Sinamaica in quite some time, so their warnings were based on hearsay. With a wee bit of hesitation, we decided to go and headed North.

The day was as cool and crisp as Zulia can get - picture a mild summer day in the North. The boats were there just like they had been the last time I visited this place, twenty years ago. They all had life-vests and a rustic yet functional canvas canopy to shield us from the searing midday sun.

We set off upriver and the beauty of the place started to sink in. While some things had barely changed, others were noticeably different. There is a new hostel in town, next to a brand new school that, according to Rolando, is teaching the Añú about their heritage and their language. The huts have had electricity for as long as I can remember, but now some have Direct TV satellite dishes too.

While a few of the huts had "No" scribbled in graffitti on their walls, I saw a lot of "Si - con Chávez" signs. And while I managed to see a couple of health-care facilities run by the state government, Chávez's presence was overwhelming.

"See," I thought to myself, "this is Chávez territory."


When I got home, though, I was surprised. The place is more complicated than I'd thought. Turns out that the No won in Sinamaica last December, 52 to 48, a larger ratio than in the nation as a whole. Maybe Rolando was telling the truth.

Twenty years had passed since my last visit and the place now looked better, not worse. Schools, doctors, Añú language classes...surely the good burghers of Sinamaica were grateful to the President for all that, right?

Yet there were many signs that suggested something wasn't right. Take, for instance, the road trip. On our way there we passed at least ten military checkpoints. I thought this was usual, but for the people of Sinamaica that has to be uncomfortable.

Not only does the military drive away the tourists, they also hamper the lucrative smuggling business that some of these communities have long thrived on. The National Guard is notorious in Venezuela for muscling in on the trade, so rather than stemming the flow of cheap gasoline across the border, they divert some of the funds away from the community and into their own pockets.

At the same time, the region is notorious for its FARC presence. Some of the people here are large cattle and goat-herders, and small fortunes have been made from this trade. Yet the military presence has done precious little to turn the tide on the many problems safety poses for legitimate businesses such as these.

On our drive up there, we noticed dozens of brand new cars parked along the road with serial numbers painted on their windshields. We didn't know what this all meant, but it made us uneasy. I thought it could be some sort method whereby stolen cars held for ransom are returned to their owners.

Not to be. This is what is called "tripletear", a common way to make money out of the thousands of inefficiencies in Chavez's Venezuela.

Due to foreign exchange controls, it now takes about six months on a waiting list to buy a new car in Venezuela. Some people in the Guajira who manage to score one have figured out a way to cash in on the distortion. They raffle the new car away by posting serial numbers on the windshield on the side of the road. The numbers are a subset of the possible winning numbers of that week's state lottery - if you buy a ticket from the car's owner and the lottery draws that number, you win the car.

When the only local industry that is booming is a makeshift pyramid scheme, people won't be happy. Guajiros want jobs and security just like anyone else, and the Barrio Adentro module is old news.

Rural Venezuela is more complex than I'd assumed, plus it's changing. The government is still very strong, but in the eyes of many, Chávez has turned a corner. And while first impressions can make you think that, yes, things are better now, the few improvements you see are things the locals see as either old news or just unfinished.

It all brings me back to the importance of November's state and local elections. A lot of Chávez's votes from rural areas come because the opposition simply has no presence in these out of the way places. Some towns have probably not seen an opposition politician in years, and it's hard to make credible promises when you've been shut out of local government for decades. In light of the positive impact an opposition local government can have, it seems clear to me that boycotting the regional elections four years ago was a huge mistake. It's a view all but the most extreme slivers of the opposition now seem to share.


When we were getting off the boat, I asked Rolando how to say "thank you" in the Añú language. He was embarrassed to say he didn't know, but added that they're trying to recover their language and their culture with the government's help.

"At least that is what the government has been saying all these years," he said.

He couldn't say "thank you" in his ancestor's tongue, but the disappointment in his tone said enough.

More from that Francisco Rodríguez piece

Quico says: ...which is now available online here.
Indeed, Cháveznomics is far from unprecedented: the gross contours of this story follow the disastrous experiences of many Latin American countries during the 1970s and 1980s. The economists Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards have characterized such policies as "the macroeconomics of populism." Drawing on the economic experiences of administrations as politically diverse as Juan Perón's in Argentina, Salvador Allende's in Chile, and Alan García's in Peru, they found stark similarities in economic policies and in the resulting economic evolution. Populist macroeconomics is invariably characterized by the use of expansionary fiscal and economic policies and an overvalued currency with the intention of accelerating growth and redistribution. These policies are commonly implemented in the context of a disregard for fiscal and foreign exchange constraints and are accompanied by attempts to control inflationary pressures through price and exchange controls. The result is by now well known to Latin American economists: the emergence of production bottlenecks, the accumulation of severe fiscal and balance-of-payments problems, galloping inflation, and plummeting real wages.

Chávez's behavior is typical of such populist economic experiments. The initial successes tend to embolden policymakers, who increasingly believe that they were right in dismissing the recommendations of most economists. Rational policy formulation becomes increasingly difficult, as leaders become convinced that conventional economic constraints do not apply to them. Corrective measures only start to be taken when the economy has veered out of control. But by then it is far too late.
Read it. No, seriously, read it.