November 30, 2009

Fun with Skype

Juan Cristóbal says: - Ta-da-dun... ta-dun...

I'm sitting in my ofice. It's Friday afternoon. I'm waiting to finish a report, and the familiar Skype bell interrupts me.

Damn, bad timing. Should I take it?

It's Rafa, my best friend from college, godfather to my oldest daughter. We haven't spoken in a few months. In between my schedule and his newborn twins, we haven't found the time.


We talk a little bit about everything. Family stuff, mostly. Then, as it must, the conversation veers toward ... la situación.

Rafa is in Caracas, and he's doing really well. The son of a "pick-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps" Cuban immigrant, he's the local manager of a multinational, living in an Altamira condo, as well as it's possible to live in one of the most dangerous, politically unstable cities in the world. Sure, in the last few years he's had to adapt to the situation. He had his car armor-plated for security and he hired a bodyguard. But all in all, he's doing fine.

"You know what? Sometimes, I understand ninis. It's just so damn difficult to like the opposition!" he says.

I ask him to elaborate.

"Well, take the Chacao municipality. You know how our offices are in Altamira, in one of the swankiest buildings in the city? Well, it took us five years to get the paperwork from the Chacao municipality cleared up. Their reason for holding up our permits was that an internal door was, according to them, not where it should be."

I tell him that speaks well of them, that they are taking their job professionally.

"No, you don't understand, they were wrong," he explains with more than a tad of frustration. "Chacao firemen came to the office and verified everything was correct. That meant nothing to City Hall. One day, municipal workers showed up at my doorstep to shut down my offices. All because a door communicating a couple of offices was in the wrong place! I swore to them if they didn't back off and let us do our work, I would go down to VTV immediately and denounce their abuse of power."

"As it happened, they were wrong about the door. It took them five years to figure that one out, fess up and give us our permits. No apology was provided."

"Here comes the annoying part: they were on the brink of shutting me down, but our office building is where Trios, one of Caracas' poshest whorehouses, does its business."

Huh? I ask him to explain.

"Yes, it's right there where Le Club used to be. This is not a love motel, mind you, it's a burdel. You don't bring your date, you pick your date. Actually, you pick two or more - hence the name of the joint. It's the most exclusive place in the city - and they have all their permits! In fact, all of the city's poshest brothels - D'angelo, Divas - they're all in Chacao, they all have their permits, granted by our very own opposition. All of them are prominently advertised all over the city. And yet companies like mine doing legitimate business - we are the ones that have to stand City Hall breathing down our neck."

"Is it any wonder people are fed up?"


I hang up with Rafa a bit disheveled, trying to concentrate on my report that centers on how competition favors consumers and fosters innovation. The Skype ring interrupts me again.


It's Patricia, my second cousin. Last year, Patricia graduated from high school and came to live with us a few months to learn English and help us with the girls. A few weeks ago, she went back home, unsure about her future.

When Patricia came to the States, she did not know what she wanted to study or where. Her parents are not wealthy, and certainly could not afford the private universities all of Patricia's girlfriends were going to. They, and the rest of the family, were strongly steering her toward Maracaibo's public university, LUZ.

Patricia had convinced us that she was going to go to URBE, an expensive private university in Maracaibo that acts as a magnet for kids looking for an easy, uncomplicated BA. The place is the epicenter of the MMC (mientras me caso) crowd that many of Patricia's friends belong to.

We could understand her not wanting to push herself too much - she's no brain surgeon, and has the grades to prove it. Still, LUZ seemed like the only choice available to her.

Patricia would have none of it. With the unbridled confidence of a teenager who thinks she knows everything, she announced she would get a scholarship and go to URBE.

"How?" we all asked. "You don't have the grades, you are unsure of what you want to study, and neither you nor we have any connections."

"That's what you think," she would say. "I'll have you know one of my best friends is dating one of Manuel Rosales' kids."

As it happens, the Zulia state government has a scholarship program called "Programa de Becas Jesús Enrique Lossada," established under the leadership of former governor Manuel Rosales as a smaller, supposedly better-run version of Chávez's Misiones. The scholarships pay your tuition in the university of your choice. Rosales spoke a lot about this program during his brief run for President back in 2006, and I was not surprised to find out it was still working under the new Pablo Pérez administration.

While the state government claims all scholarships are given out randomly, it turns out there is a back door. And it was through that back door that Patricia got in, which was why she was calling me.

"They gave me the scholarship!" she beamed. "I'm going to URBE for Media Studies. I begin in January!"

In a matter of three weeks, Patricia managed to talk herself into an expensive government scholarship, covering the tuition on her fluff-choice of a career in a less-than-serious institution. And this is supposed to showcase the opposition's approach to public policy?

I speak to my cousin, Patricia's mom, and ask her if she thinks it's right for Patricia to accept that scholarship. "Of course it is," she says. "We couldn't pay her tuition if she didn't have the scholarship. She deserves it."

I ponder that while I remember her yearly Cadivi-subsidized trips to visit us.


I go back to my report on competition, wondering if we will ever have true competition between our opposition political parties.

Because of this consensus that favors "consensus" over all else, opposition voters are shielded from a healthy competition between our parties. All our darts are directed at Chávez, so we end up being duped into accepting the Chacao municipality's pimping and the Zulia scholarship program as sensible public policy, forced to look the other way.

Opposition primaries would have been the perfect time to highlight those shortcomings among our own, but that idea turned out to be a non-starter. UNT is not about to let pesky voters foray into their domain in Zulia, and whichever party Leopoldo López is in this week will protect its Chacao turf. Suggest that a bit of competitive pressure might just do those areas some good and you're seen as some kind of wild-eyed radical.

Just like in business, lack of competition between parties engenders lazy institutions full of petty bureaucratic vices. The result is that instead of being the repository of the nation's moral fiber, we end up giving permits to high-end brothels and handing out scholarships to friends of our friends.

Rafa is right. Some days, it's easy to understand ninis.