March 7, 2008

Caption Competition, Rio Group Style

Quico says: Is it just me, or did that meeting today make no sense at all? After a half-day summit where they called one another everything from green-belly on up, this! I thought I was hallucinating!

It's made to order for a Caption Competition, this one...

March 6, 2008

La Vanguardia deconstructs Chávez's Mechanized Reality Show

Quico says: Have you noticed yet? I love good journalism. There isn't much that gives me a bigger thrill than finding a perfectly crafted bit of reporting. Like, for instance, this piece by La Vanguardia's Joaquím Ibarz deconstructing the Venezuelan military im-mobilization in La Guajira. Gorgeous. For the record, I've never met the guy, but wish I had.

(Por ahora, it's available in Spanish only.)

Gay marriage in Venezuela

Katy says: In a little noted decision, the Supreme Tribunal of Venezuela recently rejected the possibility of legalizing gay marriage in Venezuela. The majority opinion by Justice Pedro Rondón Haaz was hardly surprising: Article 77 of the Constitution explicitly says that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that it is to be protected under the law. The dissenting minority, however, seemed befuddled by the court's restraint, highlighting a court culture where any and every issue is seen as fair game for judicial action.

The case arose because, though the constitution's article 77 is pretty clear, it exists alongside Article 21, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, the court ruled that Article 77 excludes gay people's inability to get married from the list of factors that amount to illegal discrimination.

Of course, gay marriage is a famously emotive and divisive issue. Whether you're for it or against it, you can't help but notice that in the societies where it has become politicized, the debate has always come at the tail end of a long process of social and political change, shifting attitudes, and growing tolerance for gays and lesbians in the public sphere. Venezuela is very far from such a point.

A move like legalizing gay marriage should be the result of a serious, open democratic debate, where society comes to an agreement with itself about the best course moving forward. That's the province of politics, not court rooms, so any such reform needs to be taken through either Executive or Legislative action.

Supreme Tribunal justices are not held accountable to society: Mayors, Governors, Presidents and Congressmen are... por ahora. Sensitive topics such as this one should ideally be brought forward by accountable members of the State, so that its pros and cons are weighed, society can have an informed debate, and attitudes have the chance to change organically. Democracy assures that those processes can take place: when those who want change realize they have to answer to the voters, they will realize that for change to stick, the people have to be convinced.

These are not arguments our very red Supreme Tribunal is much aware of. The one dissenting opinion, by Justice Carmen Zuleta de Merchán, highlights a judicial culture where judges think they can do it all, as though they could change not just the law, but also the most intimate feelings and prejudices of the people through a court order.

Justice Zuleta regrets that the majority opinion,
"...decided not to solve legislative black holes, such as matters related to what happens when a gay union is dissolved by separation or death, the legal obligation to mutually help each other, guardianship by a permanent companion, the right to constitute a home, the issue of social security benefits for same-sex couples, the right to protection from saying anything against a permanent companion, the constitutional clause that prohibits friends or relatives from occupying similar posts, the possibility of a permanent companion to acquire citizenship, the right to adopt and protection against intra-family violence."
Clearly debatable topics, and important ones at that. In fact, they are so important, it makes them hardly suitable for a simple judgement on something the Constitution is very clear about.

Justice Zuleta seems to be advocating for judges who are not only activists, but who legislate from the bench on sensitive topics and related issues. What she envisions is not a ruling on whether the Constitution allows for same-sex marriage or not, but basically a ruling that reads like an entire section of the Civil Code. That is a strange position to have in today's Venezuela.

Chavistas have complete control of the National Assembly. The President has an Enabling Law that allows him to dictate whatever law he pleases by simple decree. Chavistas appoint all of the country's judges at whim. And yet chavista judges lament that they don't have enough power, that they don't go far enough.

In a country such as the U.S., with its layers upon layers of checks and balances, it is understandable for some to want to see a role for judges wishing to shape legislation. Legislative work is made slow by the many parties involved, the numerous interest groups and the incredible differences between, say, local, regional and federal legislative bodies, and between the two equally powerful groups that share power in each of those instances.

This is not Venezuela's case. All the power in the country - judicial, economic, executive and legislative - is concentrated in one man. Zuleta's plea for judges to do more does not mesh with the fact that the group in power is the same group that appointed her and, basically, writes her paycheck. This is a group that does not believe in consensus and does not believe in finding common ground with the other side because there is no other side. It's a group that believes reality changes automatically when laws change, that society will do what it's told because it is told to do so.

Chavez's Venezuela is a country where the laws are changed at a whim. Don't like the Constitution? Call an Assembly and change it. Don't like a law? Pass one in thirty days. Thirty days is not enough? Ask for an Enabling Law and write it yourself. The dizzying rate at which new legislation and regulations are passed in Venezuela makes it hard for the ordinary citizen, businessman or judge to keep up.

And yet some people think this is not enough. Perhaps Justice Zuleta can ask at the next PSUV meeting why chavistas haven't simply steam-rolled this law through the Assembly, or why Chávez hasn't decreed gay marriage to be legal on Aló, presidente.

Her beef should not be with her fellow justices nor with the conservatism of society. Her beef should be with the guy on top.

March 5, 2008

Movimiento 1,373

Quico says: Colombia has taken a justified pounding over the way it flouted International Law in attacking Raul Reyes's Ecuadorean jungle hideout. The states brandishing the sanctity of International Law in that case, however, appear far less inclined to cite UN Security Council Resolution 1,373 - through which the security council:
1. Decides that all States shall:

(a) Prevent and suppress the financing of terrorist acts;

(b) Criminalize the wilful provision or collection, by any means, directly or indirectly, of funds by their nationals or in their territories with the intention that the funds should be used, or in the knowledge that they are to be used, in order to carry out terrorist acts;

(c) Freeze without delay funds and other financial assets or economic resources of persons who commit, or attempt to commit, terrorist acts ...


2. Decides also that all States shall:
(a) Refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts, including by suppressing recruitment of members of terrorist groups and eliminating the supply of weapons to terrorists;

(b) Take the necessary steps to prevent the commission of terrorist acts, including by provision of early warning to other States by exchange of information;

(c) Deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts, or provide safe havens;

(d) Prevent those who finance, plan, facilitate or commit terrorist acts from using their respective territories for those purposes against other States or their citizens;


(f) Afford one another the greatest measure of assistance in connection with criminal investigations or criminal proceedings relating to the financing or support of terrorist acts, including assistance in obtaining evidence in their possession necessary for the proceedings;

(g) Prevent the movement of terrorists or terrorist groups by effective border controls and controls on issuance of identity papers and travel documents, and through measures for preventing counterfeiting, forgery or fraudulent use of identity papers and travel documents...
Resolution 1,373 was approved under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, and is therefore legally binding for all UN member states, much like the principle of territorial integrity.

Of course, chavismo argues the resolution is irrelevant, because planting bombs, kidnapping people, using indiscriminate weapons such as landmines, etc. do not constitute "terrorist acts." Trouble is, a later UN Security Council resolution (1,566) defined terrorism as:
...criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.
(In one of these weird twists of international law, turns out this definition is not binding on the international community...but still...)

The Eudomarian Republic of Venezuela

"Como vaya viniendo, vamos viendo..."
Eudomar Santos, character in the legendary 1990s soap opera Por Estas Calles
Katy says: Venezuelan President Chávez recently announced that he was deploying thousands of soldiers to the border after Colombia bombed a FARC base in Ecuadorian territory. His government also announced the land border would be closed to all traffic, and expelled all Colombian Embassy officials while it announced it was bringing home all personnel from the Venezuelan Embassy in Colombia.

It remains to be seen whether all these announcements are part of an actual policy and consistent with some established policy goal. It's not clear what objectives Venezuela is pursuing with this unilateral action, or how long all this is going to last. The reason given so far, "to ward off a possible Colombian attack," has little to do with what has actually transpired, which differs from what has been announced.

Take the military mobilizations. Reports abound in Caracas that this is all a bluff. General Baduel said yesterday that it was all part of a "reality show" and a "media event." Stories from Caracas and the Pentagon hint that troop movement has been minimal, and that the little there is was put on just for show since, the story goes, the Venezuelan army does not have the plan, the logistics nor the operational capacity to mobilize thousands of soldiers to its border in three days.

In the meantime, Interior Minister Rodríguez Chacín blasts local media for reporting the troop movements, threatening to charge them with treason. Apparently the Minister thinks that the media should shut up about the movement of tanks in heavily populated areas during broad daylight.

Perhaps the Minister should ask himself why Chávez announced the troop mobilizations on national TV if they were, in fact, supposed to be secret. Perhaps they should have declared some sort of media blackout to prevent this sort of thing from getting out. Perhaps they should ask themselves if it's reasonable to allege the Colombian army, an institution with the technology to identify guerrilla camps inside Ecuador and pinpoint an attack, an institution aided by the technology of the US government, is relying on Globovisión to know where Venezuelan troops are headed.

But it's all just a show.

There is an undeniable whiff of improvisation in everything the government is doing. The Foreign Ministry, for example, is acting like a teenage child, making up responses on the hoof to the Colombian government's serious allegations like, well, like a country that doesn't need diplomacy and brains because it has oil.

One of MinPop Maduro's most embarassing responses was his claim that $300 million was simply too much money, suggesting it would take four rooms the size of the National Assembly to store that amount of cash. Maduro thinks this shows that the Colombian allegation of Chávez's financing of the FARC was a lie. Apparently the Minister thinks the whole world operates in cash.

Sounds like the kind of reasoning you overhear on a bus. "En la parada por favor!"

The Agriculture Minister announces the borders have shut down, which is akin to the Environment Minister announcing troop deployments (come to think of it, we may live to see the day). Meanwhile, people in the border say that, while traffic has slowed, it has not closed completely. Today, Chavez's burly Defense Minister said that he has received no orders to close the border.

No policy details are offered, no clear goals are set out, no end date is provided, no two spokespeople can agree. It's all dependent on Chávez's next whim. It's all improvised, it's all a show, unless... well, unless things change.

Como vaya viniendo, vamos viendo.

PS.- The legendary Zapata hits a homerun with his latest cartoon. Thanks to loyal reader Juantxon for pointing it out to us.

March 4, 2008

The kind of war we're going to have...

Quico says: As we all take to hyperventilating about the looming war with Colombia, it's worth pausing to ponder the kind of war footing the country is really on.

Two days ago, President Chávez ordered 10 mechanized batallions to the border in preparation for who-knows-what...but the mobilizations from Caracas ended up getting delayed yesterday because taxi drivers in La Victoria blocked the strategically critical Central Regional Highway for seven hours as they protested the crime wave that grips their town.

March 3, 2008

Now we're cooking without gas

Quico says: One thing I always struggle to convey is the nearly complete divorce between revolutionary discourse and practice, the yawning, widening gap not just between what is said and what is done, but also, more and more, between the staples of the chavista discursive diet and the kinds of issues that actually concern normal people in their day-to-day lives here.

Long the province of the hysterized opposition media, this divorce between media-reality and real-reality has become pervasive in the official media, to the point where serious social problems are basically blacked out (and I use that term advisedly) by a state media focused like a laser-beam on Chávez's highly abstract and mystifying ideological agenda.

A shocking case in point is the deepening supply crisis surrounding cooking gas canisters. Now, unless you live in a third world shantytown, you probably associate portable gas canisters with camping. Not so for the Venezuelan poor. While legally constructed housing gets its cooking gas delivered through a pipe, just like households in rich countries, Venezuelans who live in self-made housing have to buy their cooking gas in heavy metal canisters that they have to wheel into shanties.

Except, due to price controls, they can't. There's a serious cooking gas canister shortage. Reports from some barrios all around Caracas say cooking gas trucks haven't been up there in weeks. The government has pledged to set up Canister filling stations in downtown Caracas, but that's no solution: you're not allowed to take bombonas onto public transport (for obvious safety reasons) and for people living high up on hillside barrios, lugging a heavy canister up the cerro to their houses is never easy and sometimes not really possible. (Think of the elderly.)

Without trucks, there's no gas, and without gas, you can't cook: that's pretty much the situation thousands upon thousands of poor households face today in the Western Hemisphere's premiere energy exporter.

When you think about it, this is really a disaster for poor people: if rice is in short supply, you can always switch to pasta or cornflour, if milk is in short supply you can more or less do without, but if you can't get gas, you can't cook anything. People are having to resort to fire-wood, which they have no safe way of burning and no easy way of obtaining. This is a major problem for people already living in precarious circumstances, the kind of thing that can turn your life pretty much upside down...and, guess what? You won't hear anything about it on state TV beyond generic assurances that don't pan out and never get followed up.

It's not hard to understand why...if VTV, or Vive, or ANTV, TVeS or any of the growing constellation of chavista mouthpieces on the tube were to touch the subject, the people involved would find themselves out of a job pretty fast. The shortage brings up too many questions: not the least of which is why this is happening just after PDVSA spent $125 million to take over Vengas and Tropigas, the leading private sector gas canister distribution companies, precisely to "forestall speculation and hoarding" of gas canisters. (The respective purges apparently have not paid off.)

This morning, thousands of poor urban families in Venezuela woke up to mull the irony: now that, finally, the government has managed to get some staples back on store shelves, they can't cook them. Having milk, which has reappeared on the market, is nice and all. But the iconic "café con leche" you can forget about: there's no way to make coffee without cooking fuel.

But what, I imagine, will piss them off the most is that when they turn on their TV channels, the ones their taxes pay for, the ones that bill themselves constantly as belonging to all Venezuelans, they'll hear obsessive, wall-to-wall coverage of a shootout in some jungle hideout a thousand miles away that bears no relation whatsoever with their ability to fry an empanada.

Quiarrechera, mi hermano.

March 2, 2008

Chavez raises the stakes

Katy says: Hugo Chávez is playing a dangerous game with Colombia, and indirectly, with the US. Today he announced that he was shutting down Venezuela's Embassy in Bogotá, unilaterally plunging diplomatic relations to its worst level since the Gran Colombia split in 1830. He also announced a large buildup of troops alongside the border, and insulted Pres. Uribe for the n-th time, calling him a "criminal" and the head of a "narco-government."

The only reason for this is the murder of the FARC's No. 2, Raúl Reyes in what is apparently Ecuadorean territory. Not even Ecuador has reacted this way.

This is serious stuff. Neither Venezuela nor her interests have been attacked, and they are not at risk of being attacked, and yet the President is acting as if they were. No Venezuelan in their right mind should support this unjustified unilateral rush to war.

Let's hope cool heads prevail and that the Colombian government continues to ignore Chávez. If there is a war, the losers will be the Venezuelan people, specially those who live close to the border, whose day-to-day problems once again take the backseat to Chávez's obsession to see the FARC triumph in Colombia.