October 18, 2008

The chats of others

Quico says: A few nights ago I was blown away by Florian von Donnersmarck's brilliant 2006 film, The Lives of Others. In a quiet, methodical way, the film profiles the East German secret police's system of internal espionage and repression, yielding a chilling, sobering portrait of the mechanics of totalitarian control.

It's the kind of movie you can't get out of your head for days after you've seen it; my new favorite film.

As a thriller, it's damn good entertainment, but it's the detailed observation of the nuts and bolts of totalitarianism, and the portrayal of the atmosphere of sheer, throat-clenching Fear it inspires, that set the film apart.

The very first sequence in the film will give you a sense of what I mean:

At first, what we witness is an act of injustice: a coercive interrogation premised not on physical blows but on sleep deprivation. The scene is brutal. As an insomniac myself, I'm especially tuned in to how much not being able to sleep messes with your mind.

Though it's certainly well executed, the Nasty Interrogation Scene is nothing new. Hollywood has inured us to this sort of thing. If they'd thrown in a Good Cop, you'd call it boilerplate.

But then, we get something we're not used to seeing. Just after the two minute mark, von Donnersmarck pulls back. Suddenly we're in a classroom, and we see that this interrogation has been, as it were, recorded for training purposes. It's being used to teach new Stasi recruits how to conduct their own interrogations.

Suddenly, we're made aware that we were not witnessing an individual injustice. What we're seeing is a system at work. We realize the Stasi was about more than just interrogating suspects and recruiting informants. It was about creating and preserving the institutional capabilities you need to sustain a system of pervasive surveillance. In this, the film is unique. Time and again, von Donnersmarck invites us to witness not just the Stasi's operations but also the institutional infrastructure that supports them.

What strikes you about the film is how methodical, how detail oriented how...well, how German they were about it. The Stasi we're shown doles out its brutality in scientifically calculated portions. To this end, it had its own research arm, carrying out the kind of sober, detail-oriented investigation it takes to really beef up an organization's capabilities.

The point is brought home in a chilling scene, where an elated Stasi middle-manager hands his colleague a thick stack of papers and says:
I have to show you something: "Prison Conditions for Subversive Artists: Based on Character Profile". Pretty scientific, eh? And look at this: "Dissertation Supervisor, A. Grubitz". That's great, isn't it? I only gave him a B. They shouldn't think getting a doctorate with me is easy. But his is first-class.

Did you know that there are just five types of artists? Your guy, Dreyman, is a Type 4, a "hysterical anthropocentrist." Can't bear being alone, always talking, needing friends. That type should never be brought to trial. They thrive on that. Temporary detention is the best way to deal with them. Complete isolation and no set release date. No human contact the whole time, not even with the guards. Good treatment, no harassment, no abuse, no scandals, nothing they could write about later. After 10 months, we release. Suddenly, that guy won't cause us any more trouble.

Know what the best part is? Most type 4s we've processed in this way never write anything again. Or paint anything, or whatever artists do. And that without any use of force. Just like that. Kind of like a present.
In scenes like this one, Von Donnersmarck shows the Stasi as, first and foremost, a rational bureaucracy, complete with its own standard operating procedures, training programs, career-advancement paths, petty office politics and institutionalized absurdities. The violence it perpetrated was never the random brutality of a goon, it was always strategically calculated, meted out with the fastidiousness of an accountant.

Its task was to interpose state power between one person and the next, to lodge the state into the most intimate crevices of personal life as a way of ensuring that nothing East Germans said or did would ever catch the state unaware. To these ends, it had almost unlimited resources, and was constrained by no institutional counterweight.

The result is something Hannah Arendt considered the cornerstone of totalitarianism: the criminalization of intimacy. In a society where there is no privacy, where a careless bit of pillow-talk can land you in jail, where the state can do with you pretty much what it wants, in such a society intimacy becomes an unattainable luxury.

To have a friend, to confide in someone, is to place not just yourself but also your friend in danger. Elementary caution dictates that people will keep their own thoughts hidden. Even more corrosive, it compels them to go to great lengths to avoid knowing their friends' and neighbors' intimacies as well. When intimacy is complicity, the only way to protect yourself is to isolate yourself.

The man being interrogated in the clip above, notice, hasn't actually done anything wrong. His mistake was merely to know. In this case, to know the name of the man helping his friend escape to the West. If he became an enemy of the state - and make no mistake about it, he now is an enemy of the state - it's because he allowed himself to be confided in.

It's this criminalization of intimacy that makes totalitarianism unique, that sets it apart from "normal" dictatorship. A totalitarian state is one that atomizes individuals, isolates them by raising the cost of intimacy to the point where any personal bond stronger than one's bond to the state becomes dangerous, a luxury normal people are unwise to indulge.

Once implemented, such a system hardly needs to call attention to itself. It exists. Everybody knows it exists, and it is pervasive. In East Germany, "Stasi" became almost taboo, a word one whispered, as though merely saying it out loud was dangerous in itself. Certainly, the Stasi had no reason to bluster, to make a big show of its power. Its bite was infinitely worse than its barely perceptible bark.

It was with these kinds of thoughts buzzing around my head that I sat down behind my computer, clicked on Noticias24, and found this startling exemplar of our own, criollized internal spying operation.

(I can't seem to embed the clip - but it shows Alberto Nolia on VTV exposing a wire-tapped conversation between Teodoro Petkoff and Luis Miquilena, where they discuss how they might pressure politicos in Barinas State to agree a unity candidacy.)

Fresh from watching The Lives of Others, stumbling upon this clip left me at a loss for words.

My first impression, as I listened to it with my Venezuelan-pundit hat on, is that there's a huge, jarring disconnect between the fairly innocuous stuff on the wire-taps and the utterly unhinged rambling Nolia sandwiches the clips with. The formula seems to be something like:
  1. Nolia says he's about to show us something unimaginably shocking, something that lays bare the fascist opposition at its most conspiratorially horrid.
  2. We hear a wire-tap clip of Luis Miquilena and/or Teodoro Petkoff having a perfectly vanilla political conversation in private that more or less reflects what they say in public all the time.
  3. Nolia comes back on and asks if we can friggin' believe how horrible these people are.
But perhaps we should back up a bit. The truly bizarre thing about these recordings isn't so much what's on them, it's that they're on TV! State TV, to be precise.

And that, right there, tells you as much as you need to know about the real different between real Stasi-style totalitarianism and the banana republicized, made-for-TV knock-off we get nightly on channel 8.

I have to wonder what your average Stasi interrogator would make of Los Papeles de Mandinga. My guess is, they wouldn't be able to make heads or tails from it.

Chavismo doesn't seem to get it: you don't need VTV and a wire tap to find out that, these days, Teodoro Petkoff's is all about knocking opposition heads together to ensure we get unity candidates in November. You can just go down to your local kiosk, buy a copy of Tal Cual, and read it for yourself. The wire tap tells us nothing we don't already know.

But then, what's the point really? The Stasi spied on people to make sure they followed the party line in private as well as in public; if they didn't, they got thrown in jail. Chavismo, on the other hand, spies on people, finds out that what they say in private matches what they say in public, and then sensationalizes the non-findings by throwing them up on VTV.

What are they looking to accomplish with this? Where are the consequences to these self-described blatant acts of destabilization?

The real gap here is, I think, about professional ethics. Stasi agents took their jobs seriously. The organization carefully built up the institutional expertise needed to monitor all of East German society quietly, invisibly, but omnipresently. It had a vision, a mission and a goal.

Contrast that with the chavista Disip, which is content to put taps on a handful of high profile politicos' phones and sporadically throws some of the stuff they record on the air, seeking to intimidate them but succeeding only in humiliating themselves.

As we watch Nolia rant, it's easy to grasp that chavismo doesn't take its own domestic spying operation terribly seriously. It's impossible to imagine somebody in the Disip trying to advance his career prospects by writing a thick, scholarly dissertation. In fact, in Venezuela you're more likely to hear the word "Disip" as the punchline to a joke than as a terrified whisper.

It's history repeating itself as farce.

Instead of Fear - capital F fear - all the Chávez government's spying really provokes is a kind of bemused revulsion. Forced to listen in on the private conversations of politicians doing their jobs, we are only disgusted at the rampant mediocrity of the people who govern us.

Nolia's obscene flaunting of the impunity that chavistas enjoy tells us much more about him and the regime than it does about Petkoff, Miquilena or the many more whose conversations have recently been aired publicly. It shows a regime that is dimly aware that surveillance can be used as a mechanism of control, but hasn't the slightest clue exactly how to pull off the trick because it disdains the professional ethos that it would take to achieve this, or any other, substantial task.

It's something that bears keeping in mind before we go around blithely describing chavismo as "totalitarian" - eso es una falta de respeto...¡con los totalitarios!

For all its rank disregard for the rule of law, chavismo doesn't have the wherewithall to criminalize intimacy in Venezuela. In revealing innocuous private conversations with no strategic objective in sight, all it does is reinforce the sense that the revolution abhors anything that even resembles rigor and discipline.

The Bolivarian Republic of East Germany we are not.

October 17, 2008

The unity fetish

Juan Cristobal says: Sometimes, when I’m bored, I like to indulge in a bit of political S&M and lurk in the opposition comment boards on Noticiero Digital and Noticias 24. You know, just so I can say I have my finger on the pulse of the opposition’s lunatic fringe.

Because, let’s not beat around the bush here, those places are scary. The clichés, the insults, the bad grammar and the SHOUTY ALL CAPS POSTS!!! come at you thick and fast. Going by what you see there, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking that the opposition consists of people who are either insane or stupid or both.

One of the more baffling rants that I keep running into has to do with the campaign for mayor of Chacao.

As you probably know, UNT, the party of the very popular incumbent mayor Leopoldo López, decided to nominate Liliana Hernández. López, prevented by term limits from running again, had a fit and sided with his hand-picked dauphin, city councilman Emilio Graterón. When UNT threatened to sanction Graterón for breaking party discipline, he fled the coop and is now running as an independent. Primero Justicia, meanwhile, launched the telegenic Ramón Muchacho. Muchacho argued that if UNT couldn't get its act together, he would not withdraw.

So we're running three solid candidates. And the natives are getting restless.

The anger has to do with the fact that none of the three candidates seem all that enthusiastic about stepping aside for someone else. There are several proposals for unity out there, but none have stuck. The latest one is a primary that only one candidate appears to be willing to take part in. So by all accounts, it’s looking like we will be running with not one, not two, but three strong, viable opposition candidates in Chacao.

Well, the good folks on the comments boards have made this a casus belli. They don't seem to care that the opposition has achieved unity in an overwhelming majority of states and municipalities, including most of the genuinely competitive ones. The Chacao experience is enough for them to conclude that oppo politicians are simply a lost cause.

In fact, some of them sound like they're parroting the chavista party line. The government, in another example of the outrageous use of public resources for partisan purposes, put out a press release commenting on the state of "opposition disunity in Chacao," noting in the end that the PSUV supposedly selected its candidates in a primary - brushing over the fact that internal fights within chavismo are reminiscent of Jerry Springer.

Chacao is much more important than its nominal value would suggest. With barely 72,000 residents crammed together into a tiny 13 square kilometers, it is, by any measure, tiny. Hell, the Chavez clan has farms that are bigger than that!

However, Chacao’s budget is the envy of many a mayor. With the heart of Venezuela’s business community and some of Caracas’s poshest neighborhoods within its boundaries, the budget constraint for Chacao is not binding, at least not relative to the rest of the country’s municipalities.

Chacao is also important for a symbolic reason: the place is a crossroad for anyone criss-crossing Caracas. Whether you are taking a bus from Petare to Capitolio, going to work as a maid in Altamira or taking your kids for a weekend stroll at the Sambil, you gotta go to, or at least through, Chacao.

Its budget and its location give Chacao disproportionate strategic importance. Chacao is the place where the opposition can show the country’s less well-off how it can govern when given the chance and a hefty budget. It is no coincidence that Chacao’s last two elected mayors have become prominent national political figures.

So, is the opposition in danger of losing the crucial Chacao election because of disunity? Hardly. According to the polls I've seen, Chavez’s candidate, the hapless, unknown Wolfgang Torres, is polling at around 2%. In some polls, his name doesn't even show up.

There is a strong case to be made against primaries in Chacao. For one, they are expensive. For another, they artificially stifle competition between opposition programs and ideas. Because, if we're honest, the only reason “unity” has become such a buzzword is because we fear that without it, we'll lose all kinds of races against chavismo.

But in Chacao, we just aren't vulnerable. It’s not even close. There's really no compelling reason to compel a unified slate there. And yet, the hounds of opposition unity are after the three main candidates, and they're hungry for blood. It's like there's an eagerness, a need, to jump all over opposition politicos and slam them almost as virulently as we slam chavismo.

This makes no sense. The good people of Chacao will have their primary: it will be on November 23rd. Bring your cédula laminada, aún vencida.

(Disclosure: I went to high school with both Muchacho and Graterón.)

October 16, 2008

Brent < $68/barrel

Quico says: Y ahora, ¿quién podrá defendernos?

Extra! Extra! New York Review of Books in bed with the CIA!

Quico says: When even a bastion of the Upper West Side intelligentsia such as The New York Review of Books decides to run with the Human Rights Watch expulsion story, you just know that whatever credibility chavismo may once have had with the respectable northern left has been put through a blender, mushified, then nuked, dynamited and buried in a deep sea pit.

Vivanco and Wilkinson's piece is meticulously, understatedly brutal in a way that's far more damaging to the government's image than any amount of Colominesque hyperventilatory ranting could ever be. It's great fun to read. I'll cite just one particularly effective graf:
Human Rights Watch does not and has never accepted funding from the US or any government, directly or indirectly. But we are accustomed to such false accusations, especially coming from authoritarian governments. Venezuelan officials have repeatedly denounced us as CIA stooges, right-wing partisans, and, more commonly, "mercenaries of the empire." (By contrast, in neighboring Colombia, officials have repeatedly sought to discredit us with labels like Communist, guerrilla sympathizer, and even terrorist.) Once, after releasing another report in Caracas, one of us was publicly and falsely accused by Chávez's vice-president of having collaborated with former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. This time, a close Chávez ally in the legislature suggested on national TV that the two of us had been sharing a single hotel room where we were indulging our "weaknesses."

October 14, 2008

¡Viva Edo!

Quico says: For a country where the standard of political commentary is, erm, not always what one might hope for, Venezuela sure produces a freakish number of really brilliant editorial cartoonists.

Starting with the Grand Old Man of Venezuelan pictorial satire, Pedro Leon Zapata, the country's cartoonists have occupied a strange cultural netherspace somewhere between low- and high-art.

In Venezuela it's perfectly normal for the guy who scribbles the newspaper funnies to get commissioned for a vast roadside mural and sell his more "serious" work in super fancy galleries, where art collectors compete for signed originals of their more celebrated strips. It's the editorial cartoonist as public intellectual, in the sense Edward Said envisioned,
According to Said, an intellectual's mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo. At the same time, Said's intellectual is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible. Thus Said's intellectual is constantly balancing the private and the public. His or her private, personal commitment to an ideal provides necessary force. Yet, the ideal must have relevance for society.
There's something refreshingly original, distinctly Venezuelan, in elevating our editorial cartoonists to occupy this cultural space. It's a role pictorial satirists haven't played in the first world since the days of Hogarth.

Zapata may be our most famous editorial cartoonist but, for a long time, I considered Roberto Weil the undisputed master of the art. His style is equal parts Matisse and Gary Larson, his sense of humor halfway between Laureano Márquez and Monty Python. There's just a crazy vitality to his work I've always found infectious.

Here's a taste:

Weil will always be my first cartooning love. But there's no way around it: there's a new kid in town.

El Mundo's cartoonist, Eduardo Sanabria (nom de toon: Edo), has been drawing some of the most wildly imaginative, pitch-perfect editorial cartoons you're ever likely to see.

His signature depictions - the jurassic bolibourgeois, that angular Chávez and his red-berret wearing sheep-followers - are becoming as instantly recognizable as Weil's Comandante Boot-Head and Zapata's mecate-tugging toads. And his take on the Chavez-PPT/PCV spat the other day? It was just perfect.

Here're a few more:

It's well worth your time to go through his web-site. Great stuff.

October 13, 2008

What part of "wiped off the map" don't you understand?

Quico says: When the historians of the future come to write the history of the Chávez era, no part of the whole dadaist zarzuela will strike them as quite so bizarre as the government's relationship with PPT and the Communist Party.

The whole thing is psychiatric: Chávez has made it painfully, abundantly, explicitly, scatologically clear that he wants no part of PPT and PCV's support...but they insist on backing him!

Over the weekend, Chávez went off on his nominal "allies" again...this time calling them lyin', disloyal and manipulative and pledging to "wipe them off the political map for good."

PPT's answer? "We will patiently wait for the president to think again. We believe all forces are needed for the election."

The commies'? "We've stood side by side with the revolutionary process for a decade, and we will keep at it, because this doesn't depend on the president's will, it depends on our members' will."

Is there no way to get these people to take a hint?!

I dunno about you, but I adore that cartoon!

Jujitsuing the Populist Binge

Quico says: Primero Justicia's candidate in Petare, Carlos Ocariz, has finally put a snappy tag on a thought all of us have had at one point or another: faced with a pre-election barrage of handouts by the incumbent, why don't people just grab the freebies and vote for the other guy anyway?

Misión Agarre (Mission Grab It) is what he's calling it. Noting that the president and PSUV are planning to disburse some BsF.300,000 to local community councils in the coming days, he said:
Our message is clear: have no fear, grab that money, invest it in public works to benefit everyone in the community, but lets make the urge for change felt by voting for unity and democracy.

A few weeks ago, the people of Petare, with their heads held high, launched Misión Grab It 1. The neighbors accepted the home appliances that government supporters handed out in different communities, but they didn't sell their votes. And our organized groups will do the same thing, by grabbing the cash that's being offered to them in the vain hope of buying their votes and their consciences.

So starting this weekend, Petare's community councils commit themselves to Misión Grab It 2 with no fear, and with their heads held high, so that those resources can be invested, put to work on specific projects to improve public services and the quality of life for each citizen. But, of course, on November 23rd, we're still going to come out and vote for change and unity.
It's great to hear this sentiment expressed so crisply, even if you couldn't really call it new...

I remember it like it was yesterday, the first time I got involved in Venezuelan politics, as a 21 year old, back in 1996. Groovy leftie thing that I was back then, I was volunteering for Victor Moreno, a trade unionist and Causa R's candidate in a special election for governor in Bolívar State.

In barrio after barrio we heard the same story: the AD incumbent, Governor Jorge Carvajal, was going around handing out bags of groceries on his recorridos. In hindsight, from the perspective of chavismo's freebie washing machines, it seems almost quaint now that a bag of groceries is all the adecos used to hand out. In 1996, though, those shopping bags were a major challenge for the Causa R campaign.

Time and again, Moreno would plead with folks to grab the groceries and vote for him anyway.

They grabbed the groceries. And voted for Carvajal.

Will they do the same this time around? Two recent polls (here and here) suggests Ocariz will have better luck.

Stay tuned.

October 12, 2008

Social Bookmarking comes to Caracas Chronicles!

Quico says: So I've just set up AddThis: a one-button gateway to any number of social bookmarking services. I'm impressed! This thing makes sharing something you read on Caracas Chronicles about as easy as catching Chávez contradicting himself.

Digg one of our posts? Find it del.icio.us? Wanna email it to a friend? StumbleUpon it? Facebook it, Propel it, MySpace it, Furl it or even just add it to your browser's Favorites menu?

Just mouse-over the "Bookmark" button after each post. It's dead easy.

(Still confused? watch this...)