May 24, 2008

Love that rodent

Katy says: - My new favorite website. Sorry to those who don't speak Spanish - its content is both hilarious and untranslateable. Thanks to Daniel for the tip.

May 22, 2008

Your strong bolívars at work

Katy says: - I have the utmost respect for physical therapists. They are hard-working professionals who deserve to be compensated for their work just as much as the next person.

But do we really need a Physical Therapy Act in Venezuela?

According to our useless National Assembly, we do!

See, this is a Revolution. Every profession needs a law, and our "wise" lawmakers are there to grant professionals the right to "freely exercise their profession." Free, that is, except that the government sets wages, imports Cuban physios who unfairly compete with you and harrasses private health-care providers.

The Law conveniently says that Physical Therapists have to meet professional standards and guidelines set by academic institutions and competent administrative authorities. I wonder if they also included that, if they work for a government hospital, they have to don a red shirt and march whenever the fat man in the palace feels like it.

In a country with rampant inflation and corruption that knows no bound, where thousands of people die each year at the hands of crime - this is what our National Assembly chooses to discuss and (unanimously!) pass.

Next up on the Legislative agenda: a National Hairdressers and Manicurists Law. I've seen some awful haircuts on some of these lawmakers, and if there is a sector begging for regulation, that one's it.

May 21, 2008

There's no accountability without accounting

Quico says: A few days ago, Katy posted a link to this Rory Carroll piece in The Guardian, to mixed reactions. Personally, I thought it was a pretty good, up-to-date primer. But the bit that really caught my eye was this paragraph on Land Reform:
Nobody had a clue how much this was costing. Government agencies hum with young helpful staff in red T-shirts who consult maps of farmland with swooping arrows showing the next phase of "recovery". But queries about budgets are met with blank looks. In Barinas I visited the auditing agency Superintendencia Nacional de Cooperativas (Sunacoop), the National Land Institute, the credit agency Fondafa and the agriculture ministry. Not one could say how much money was being ploughed into the land. Was it $5m, $50m, $500m, $1bn? Shrugs. The lack of accountability is astonishing. Even petro-boom Venezuela has finite resources.
This kind of thing always baffles and fascinates me. There's a limitless pathos to this little anecdote: the inviability of the revolution condenced into a single paragraph.

It seems to me that behind all the anti-capitalist rhetoric, what lurks is a knee-jerk aversion to accounting. The revolution thinks it below its dignity to work through such grubby concerns as, y'know, whether its economic initiatives cost more than their product is worth.

"Capitalist values!" they'll scream. "The bourgeois fixation with profit!"

These people are revolted by the very thought that a cost and benefit calculus can ever be a basis for action. But, when you think about it, what is profit if not an accounting expression of what happens when the things you produce are worth more than the things you use to produce them with?

What can you expect from people who lionize the principle of indifference to profits other than unchecked waste?

I guess what I mean is that it's anything but a surprise that the revolution consistently uses up Bs.5 worth of lemons to make Bs.3 worth of lemonade. Just the opposite: that's more or less the cornerstone of its economic vision.

May 20, 2008

Care to explain, Mr. Gott?

Katy says: - Talk about old news: turns out the recent hubbub over Chávez's support of FARC was a given for Chavistas in-the-know even eight years ago. Hell, one-time KGB-junketeer Richard Gott even put it in print!

Well-known in PSF circles for his many laudatory books and articles on Hugo Chávez, Gott ("affectionately" known as Pol Gott for his longstanding support of loony left causes) published his first Chágiography all the way back in 2000. As he researched it, Gott had tremendous access to the President and his leading ideologues as early as 1999.

The book is called In the Shadow of the Liberator, but one has to wonder what the Liberator would think of Gott's startling admissions regarding Chávez and the FARC and his apparently dishonest backtracking.

On page 201 of the 2000 edition of his book, Gott writes:
"More significantly, the new emerging forces in Colombia, associated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the Farc) and the National Liberation Army (the ELN) express similar Bolivarian views to those of Hugo Chavez. There is today an identity of attitude between the Venezuelan government and the 'Farc government' that controls perhaps a third of Colombia. Officially, this interest is disguised behind Venezuela's public desire, expressed to the 'official' government of President Andres Pastrana in Bogota, to assist in peace negotiations between the warring factions in Colombia. In reality, Hugo Chavez and his government are on the side of the Farc.

Chavez wants the Farc to win, or at any rate to be so successful in the peace negotiations that its incorporation into the government will entirely change the political complexion of Colombia. Were that to happen, Chavez's dream of recreating Gran Colombia - the old nineteenth-century alliance of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, devised by Bolivar - would come true. The Bolivarian project that lies at the heart of his hopes for the continent would be well on its way."
(the emphasis is mine)

So here we have a guy with unparalleled access to Chávez writing back at a time when even Alfredo Peña was a chavista and finding it clear that Chávez was on FARC's side. The episode fits the classic definition of a gaffe: the accidental uttering of an unacceptable truth.

Sources tell me that, during 2000-2001, people close to Chávez's inner circle expressed concern with the above passage, and spoke to Gott about it. The paragraph was modified, apparently to appease those who thought the previous admission was, how to put it, politically incorrect. The fact that the Venezuelan government directly financed publication of the Spanish edition may have had something to do with Miraflores - ahem - editorial leverage here.

So in the 2005 edition of the same book, now called Hugo Chávez: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela (obviously Gott didn't deem Chávez worthy of anyone's shadow at this point), the corresponding bit, on pages 192-93, reads:
"More significant, the new emerging forces in Colombia, associated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC) and the National Liberation Army (the ELN), express similar Bolivarian views to those of Hugo Chavez. Venezuela's public desire is to assist in peace negotiations between the warring factions. In private, Chavez leans towards the FARC. Chavez hopes that it will be so successful in the peace negotiations that its incorporation into the government will entirely change the political complexion of Colombia. Were that to happen, Chavez's dream of reuniting Gran Colombia - the old nineteenth-century alliance of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, devised by Bolivar - would come true. The Bolivarian project that lies at the heart of his hopes for the continent would be well on its way."
See, before Chávez wanted the FARC to win, but now, oh no, he's simply leaning toward the FARC.

Perhaps Gott simply had a mistaken impression in the first version regarding Chávez wanting the FARC to win. Perhaps he then chose to correct himself in the second edition.

But it's unlikely, for two reasons. First, the paragraphs were cut instead of expanded - not the usual thing to do when you want to clarify a point or make it more nuanced. And second, Gott clearly admits that Chávez himself provided some of the opinions in his book when he writes in the acknowledgements to the first version:
"President Chavez took considerable interest in this book, and I was privileged to have a long interview with him in Caracas, as well as the opportunity to travel in his company into the Venezuelan countryside."
Seems to me Mr. Gott owes his readers an explanation.

May 19, 2008

Over the radar, under the radar

Katy says: - Lots is going on that we should probably touch upon. Some of it is happening over the radar - literally, as in the case of the US plane - but other issues are slipping by, and merit a closer look.

1. Ze plen, ze ple-e-e-e-en! A US plane apparently got lost and flew without permission over the island of La Orchila, a violation of Venezuelan airspace. The Venezuelan government had a fit, as was expected, but we haven't heard yet from the fat man in the palace. Expect more histrionics and little substance in the days to come. The Defense Minister (pictured right, in his uniform) immediately concluded it had been intentional.

Perhaps the US government was looking for more pictures of Hugo Chávez, Jr. and his friends livin' la vida güisky in La Orchila, courtesy of Venezuelan taxpayers. To paraphrase Daddy, if being rich is bad, then Hugo Jr. is baaaaaaad.

2. No spam zone. Prestigious Colombian weekly Semana had a summary of some of the emails contained in the Raúl Reyes laptop. Some of the highlights include a secret meeting between FARC bigwig Iván Márquez, Piedad Córdoba and Chávez. They discuss Márquez's testimony saying that Chávez wanted to set up mobile hospitals in the border to tend to the FARC's wounded. They also openly discuss Chávez's support for Piedad Córdoba's presidential run in 2010.

3. Sé cómo duele ... ser guerrillera. The Colombian government landed one of its biggest fish since the death of Iván Ríos earlier this year. Comandante Karina, the legendary head of the FARC's 47th front, who for years had kidnapped and harassed the entire western portion of Colombia, turned herself in. In dramatic testimony, Karina confessed that the FARC's western front was on its last leg. Apparently, she was almost starving and was simply exhausted from life in the jungle.

4. Blackmail? Moi? The Ecuadorean government said that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Colombia will depend on the Colombian government's willingness to stop disseminating false information about Ecuador. In other words, file the laptop and nothing has happened.

Funny how Ecuador has been saying that laptop was all lies and that the Colombian government had zero credibility, and now it is desperately trying to make it go away.

5. Guisocaribe. The Economist reports a scandal brewing in Belize. President Hugo Chávez sent former Belizean Prime Minister Said Musa $10 million as part of the Petrocaribe scheme where Venezuela exchanges millions of dollars for political support. The money apparently ended up in the Belize Bank, to whom Musa owed a significant amount of cash.

One of the ironies is that the chairman of Belize Bank is also the deputy chairman of Britain's Conservative Party.

6. That's quite a shopping list. The Associated Press reported recently on Chávez's current planned purchases of weapons. To estimate the cost to Venezuelan taxpayers, come up with an estimate of the value of this stuff and multiply by 2, to include the necessary commisions, fees and bribes.

7. PSFs of Seattle, drop your double-tall soy lattes and unite! Finally, the great Miguel sends me this link of a guy who probably has some major checks coming his way. Don't miss the platform of his political party. It advocates, among other things, the protection of the environment.

Now I've heard it all!

May 18, 2008

The nightmare that is INTI

Katy says: - I’m in Maracaibo, walking up 72nd street. Everything is flooded.

I'm with my aunt Isabel, only she's twenty years younger and considerably taller than me, odd 'cause she's five-foot-three. The sky is the color of plums. We're walking from one friend’s house to the next when we fall into a puddle, only it's not a puddle, it's an enormous pool of mud.

There is mud everywhere but my aunt Isabel is smiling and telling a charming story that I can't quite make out. I try and warn her that we're sinking, but she seems oblivious to the goo that surrounds us. All of the sudden, I grab her arm …

Beep-beep ... Beep-beep ...

I open my eyes and my cell phone light illuminates the corner of my bedroom with an artificial shade of blue. I slowly wake up. Beep-beep... Beep-beep... Is it time to get up? So soon? But no, it’s not my phone’s alarm.

Someone is texting me. Someone is texting me? What time is it?

I look at my phone and I can’t understand the number. I look at the clock and it’s 4:00. Yes, as in AM – I’ve gotten used to that obnoxious habit in this country where 4 PM is 16:00. My clock says 4:00, so it’s AM for sure.

I press the green button and read: “I’m stuck at Inti and I’ve been here since noon.”

My dream made more sense than this. I go back to sleep.


The following morning, I text the number back. “Who is this?” I write as soon as I wake up, not sure if the message had been part of my dream or not. I face the morning traffic, drive the girls to school, and as I plunk down on my computer, I see I have an email message from my friend Roger. It says "I just spent 16 hours at INTI, call me in the afternoon and I’ll tell you about it. I’m off to sleep now." It was sent at 4:45 in the morning.

Roger's wife is the daughter of a Puerto La Cruz restaurant owner. Fifty years ago, he bought 100 hectares between Puerto La Cruz and Cumaná. The land is made of cliffs and beaches and the sole reason for buying it was to, someday, take advantage of the area's unique natural beauty and open it up for tourism.

Forty-five years ago, the adecos fostered the invasion of the land. A group of thirty families settled in a small area of his property, and the town of Ocoa was born. Most of Ocoa's new residents lived off of subsistence agriculture and handouts from the government, since there were no other sources of income.

Luckily, Ocoa was not founded on the beach but rather on a steep valley about 3 kilometers away from the shore. This meant that most of the shoreline on the property was untouched by squatters and the ubiquitous piles of garbage that mysteriously appear any time our landscape and our citizens collide.

Thirty-five years ago, the government created Mochima National Park. When they created the park, the government did not compensate the owners of the land, nor did they establish clear property rights. Part of Roger's property fell within the boundaries of the park, but a large chunk of it (including Ocoa) did not. Ocoa’s population grew to 150 families and they cleared away even more of Roger's land for cattle grazing.

Five years ago, Roger’s father-in-law had a crazy idea: to take a piece of his seaside property and construct a group of cabins, a posada where tourists could come, relax, feel welcomed and enjoy the breathtaking scenery. He decided he would only employ Ocoans, something they welcomed with open arms since, after all these years, they still had no jobs. The posada began doing brisk business, and the townspeople were mostly grateful and excited to be part of a nascent project in their hometown.

One day Roger’s father-in-law walks in and asks Roger to help him: he wants to give the people of Ocoa the titles to their land. So off they go and set up a foundation that would receive the titles to the land, only to distribute them among the townspeople, according to the informal property rights that currently exist.

Townspeople were thrilled. 124 of the 150 families signed up, and attendance to town meetings generally exceeded 75%. Only one group wasn’t happy: communal councils.

Roger's father-in-law began to receive strange visits. One day, the Environment Ministry came and shut them down because they had no working sewer system, only a septic tank. The next week, construction of the pool was stopped per order of the state government. Finally, the maitre’d of the restaurant confided that communal councils were pissed because "his Foundation is spreading capitalist values on the population."

The day after this conversation, Roger’s father-in-law got a visit from INTI, Venezuela’s state regulator of land ownership. He was told he was being investigated for hoarding land, and that he had to prove ownership of the land going all the way back to the war of Independence if he had any chance of keeping it.

Luckily, the records were intact. With a bit of hard work and a side-order of bribes for local officials, Roger was able to prove ownership of the land going all the way back to 1796, a remarkable feat. He called INTI and set up an appointment in Caracas last Wednesday, at 12 noon.

Roger and his father-in-law met downtown and went together. They arrived at 12 sharp. They were told to wait. The hours went by. They did not move, for fear that a trip to go grab a bite would mean losing their hearing. Finally, at 3:30 in the morning, they were invited in.

The official, the same one who had visited him a few weeks earlier, looked remarkably alert given the time. "INTI is run by a shift of vampires during the evening hours," he told me, "in charge of harassing honest landowners and sucking them dry of their rights and their dreams."

The vampire asked to see the papers. Proudly, trying to contain his urge to smack him over the head with the folders, he handed them over. The vampire looked at them, and brushed them aside.

"Tenemos un problema."

OK, here it comes. As it turns out, the vampire told them that during Venezuela’s Second Republic, the government issued land decrees that certified that land ownership acknowledged by the colonial authorities was going to be respected by the newly independent nation. Apparently, Roger and his father-in-law did not have this certificate.

Roger informed him that, yes, he had heard of that, but that was only in the case when land was transferred or sold during that period. Since the land had been in the same hands until its first sale in 1872, he was OK, right?

No. He had to come up with the certificate from the Second Republic, or else he runs the risk of losing his land on account that it is idle agricultural land. Never mind that it’s a nature preserve, 80% of which is cliffs and shoreline not apt for agriculture.

Roger’s father-in-law offered to grant the government part of the land in exchange for them leaving him the piece where the posada is. The vampire said they would consider that option, but that it was likely that if they could not find the paper from the Second Republic, they would lose it all. The piece of land Roger’s father-in-law offered the government is the part that lies within the National Park – the part that the government took forty years ago without compensation.

In the meantime, the posada continues to do well. The people of Ocoa are in legal limbo, and the Communal Council continues to pressure the government to take it all away.


I suddenly remember my aunt Isabel and my dream. If only someone had told Roger’s father-in-law not to invest. If only someone had shook his arm and warned him of the dangers of investing in Venezuela. Now, he’s sinking, and he still harbors hope that things will work themselves out. If only ...

(Note: the above is based on a true story. Names and places have been changed for obvious reasons)


Katy says: - Rory Carroll wrote a terrific article on Chávez for yesterday's edition of The Guardian. Thanks to Kepler for the heads up.