April 4, 2009

A step towards dictatorship

Quico says: If you read this blog regularly, you know how the loose use of terms like "totalitarian", "dictator", "fascist", etc. drives me up a wall. After 10 years of overwrought denunciations, Venezuela has come down with a serious case of Superlative Fatigue: we've been throwing so many epithets at the government for so long, we've lost the ability to make distinctions between things that are different.

Superlative Fatigue makes it difficult to get a grip on real movement along the spectrum of authoritarian control, robbing us of the words we need to describe escalations when they do occur. And so this week, when the Chávez government took a series of real steps along the road from mere autocracy to dictatorship, commentators were left scrambling for words to describe what had happened without sounding like the little boy who cried wolf. (I'm lookin' right atcha, Miguel Octavio.)

Lets try for some definitional precision. To me, there's a clear difference between regimes that use violence selectively to repress dissent and those that try for comprehensive repression.

Regimes in the first group, which I call autocratic, generally allow dissent, while semi-randomly selecting a smattering of dissidents for harassment, persecution and violence. Autocratic regimes in this mold rely on intimidation: since dissidents have no way of knowing, a priori, if they'll be in the group selected for intimidation or not, they have compelling reasons to feel insecure, to fear the consequences from stepping over some invisible, indeed permanently changing, lines. Selective intimidation is designed to provoke self-censorship, and it works. Chavismo, until now, has been a classic autocratic regime.

Dictatorship is something different. Dictatorship is not about picking off a few dissidents now and again pour encourager les autres. Dictatorships set out to make repression comprehensive, to go after everyone who challenges the ruling elite's power. While autocracy whispers in your ear "if you dissent, you might end up being targetted for repression", dictatorship shouts out "if you dissent, you will end up a target for repression."

Autocracy is content to keep political dissent suppressed, enfeebled and marginalized. Dictatorship seeks to wipe it out altogether.

Even today, chavismo is very far from being a dictatorship - as people who lived through the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship know only too well. If you're reading this in Venezuela, and you haven't taken elaborate precautions to log on to Caracas Chronicles through a proxy server to conceal your tracks from Disip, you're living demonstration that chavismo is not a dictatorship: real dictatorships set out to punish not just those who write seditious material (like me) but also those who read them (like you).

What the last week has witnessed in Venezuela, however, is a move towards comprehensiveness. The state actions against Rosales, Baduel, the accusations against Teodoro and the stepping up of intimidation against Globovisión certainly suggest a move away from a strategy of selective intimidation and towards taking out all the leaders of the opposition in one go. These moves represent a clear step-change from the kind of selective repression we've seen until now.

The next few weeks will do much to clarify exactly where on the authoritarian control continuum Chávez wants to park his regime. If we see charges brought against the remaining high profile oppo leaders - Borges, Ledezma, Ocariz, Salas Feo, Pérez Vivas - we'll know for sure we've entered a new stage in Chávez's willingness to use his power to control the political life of the nation. If we see prosecution start to reach down systematically from those top leaders down towards the second tier of political activists who oppose the regime, we'll be able to talk about out and out dictatorship.

We're not there yet. But this week has certainly brought us closer.

April 3, 2009

How squeaky clean is Teodoro Petkoff?

Quico says: So squeaky clean that, after what was doubtlessly a detailed investigation into anything and everything the guy's been up to over a half century of public life, the best they could come up with to frame him was a 35 year old inherittance tax dispute!

I mean, Jesus! These charges are older than I am!

April 2, 2009

Criminalizing dissent

Quico says: Nobody could be surprised by Chávez's decision to jail the man who, more than any other, saved his skin in the 2002 coup. The arrest of retired general Raul Baduel marks just one more signpost along the road to the criminalization of dissent. Venezuelans now live under a government that, while it has not quite made it illegal to oppose it yet, is plainly determined to show that trying to lead the opposition to it is liable to land you in jail.

With Baduel behind bars and Rosales enconchao, would you want to be the next to stick out your neck and say "yes, I'll lead the movement against this nonsense"? Would you?!

Yeah...me neither...

Green with envy yet, Hugo?

Juan Cristobal says: - Check out who Barack Obama thinks is the "most popular politician on the planet." Hint: it's not Hugo Chavez.

The scarcity of scarcity

Juan Cristobal says: - Today's edition of El Universal carries an interview with Planning Minister Jorge Giordani, Chavez's economic pater-familias. Giordani is usually a bland, boring guy, but I found this interview fascinating because it showcases, in a nuthsell, the contradictions, twisted logic and reverse priorities of the chavista vision.

Giordani starts off by saying that the problem for the government is that "socialism has never been built on abundance, but rather on scarcity." He hints at the dilemma this poses for the government - on the one hand, its populist nature demands that it increase oil wealth at an ever-expanding pace, but on the other hand, reaching its ideological objectives hinges on the economy crashing, on feeding people's despair.

Giordani can't seem to make up his mind on whether the government actually wants prosperity or poverty.

He seems to believe that only by subjecting the population to hardship and limiting their consumption will you be able to build the socialist state where the new man is born - and the head honchos all have Mercedes Benzes. But the only way to reach that point is by giving a needle to our petro-state junkies and creating a consumption binge that keeps people's minds off of things like marching, human rights and economic freedom. Nobody knows when that point is reached.

Confused yet? Never mind the factions in the chavista movement - I can't keep the factions in Giordani's brain straight.

Not only is the minister confused, he is also wrong about socialism. Socialist experiments have come about from political processes more than economic ones, and they have usually been accompanied by just a dash of force. Scarcity begets revolutions, perhaps, sometimes, but rarely socialist ones. More often than not, socialism is brought about by blood - just ask the Hungarians or the Czechs.

He then opens up about the government's plans to use the commercial banks' reserve requirements, which are kept at BCV, to finance spending. A few weeks ago we talked about this being a real possibility. The parallel swap market agreed.

Giordani basically leaves the door open for that possibility, saying that even though financing is taken care of thanks to our greedy, capitalist banks, the government may come back for more. This puts our banking sector at a real risk of defaulting.

As Quico said before,
"Reserve requirements everywhere act as a source of financial support for the banking system, a backstop against a bank run. Chávez's hint that the revolution might be making a grab for those funds is a sure-fire way to set off a crisis of confidence in the financial system, which may be part of the reason the parallel exchange market is freaking the hell out today, even more than it had been in recent days."
Perhaps Giordani is betting that if the banking sector goes down the toilet, we'll have enough scarcity to make socialism finally viable.

Giordani then talks about how unimportant inflation is. Lucky for him - I figure he wouldn't be sleeping much if he actually cared about it. He says the government cares more about "employment," and in a curious slip of the tongue, he equates "employment" with "social policy." But inflation? Why should that be a problem? If things cost more, you simply print more money and give it to people so they can buy the more expensive stuff.

But employment is trickier. You see, in the mind of the Planning Minister, no private sector employment is worth keeping. Or, to put it in preferred Marxist terms, private sector jobs are bad for society because they put workers' surplus value in the hands of capitalists. Only government jobs are deemed worthwhile because the government is the only one that can ensure that workers are paid the value of the goods they produce. Any surplus value from the fruits of labor goes back to the government who then mercifully distributes it in the form of, you guessed it, social policy.

Funny, these guys disagree with the government being the best employer. So do these guys.

Yet, unlike money, that you can actually print, there is a limit to the number of ghost jobs you can create. The number of government jobs cannot be completely disconnected from the government's financial capabilities.

The inherent contradiction here - there's that pesky word again, contradiction - is that for Giordani to provide employment, he needs oil rents which are, at the moment, scarce. Focusing on increasing the government's payroll is bound to be frustrating for him, since it's really hard to do that in the down part of the oil cycle. Funny how when the government faces scarcity, it's a problem, but when the rest of us do, it's an invitation to revolution.

This disappointing mish-mash of ideas - from our "Planning" Minister of all people - highlights chavismo's lack of coherent vision. Is it any wonder that Venezuela is a country in chaos and turmoil when our government can't decide whether it want prosperity or poverty, employment or unemployment, healthy banks or broken ones?

Perhaps Giordani's cognitive dissonance is just the safety net of a tired old man, the silver lining to the coming failure of his actions. All their policies hinge on an external factor, the price of oil, correcting itself. If it doesn't, whatever they do will surely fail. But hey, in that case, they'll have scarcity and chaos, the perfect breeding ground for socialism.

Then we'll be able to do what we really want to do.

April 1, 2009


Juan Cristobal says: - Kudos to Alexander Cuadros of Slate. While in Caracas, he sought out the foreigners who make the Revolution their home to ask them - who are you people? Why are you here? What do you think?

It's a good read. Somewhere, Jane Goodall is smiling.

Danny's Move

Quico says: Now that Hugo Chávez has come out as a personal supporter of Omar Al Bashir, will Darfur genocide activist Danny Glover see fit to raise a peep? Now that his Chávez-financed $18 million dollar erm, black elephant on Toussant L'Ouverture has fallen apart, he has less of a direct financial stake in standing by Chávez...but which way will he break?

I guess it brings up a weirdly fascinating question: what happens when the two cockroaches inside a PSF's head (one labeled "pro-Chávez", the other "anti-DarfurGenocide") start fighting?!

[Hat Tip: You know who you are?]

Hugo and Omar, sitting on a tree...


Quico says: OK, ok...lets line up our ducks in a row here, Huguito. You got a beef with the politization of the International Criminal Court? You oppose the whole idea of worldwide jurisdiction in war crimes cases? Fine. We could have a debate about that. Non-barking-mad people can certainly disagree about such things.

But when you invite the genocidal nut in Khartoum to come hang out in Caracas? When you go out of your way to personally endorse a man who has mobilized the resources at the disposal of the state he leads for the purpose of physically eliminating a civilian population? That, sir, is when you decisively, unambiguously realign yourself fully with your natural allies: the Barking Mad people.

To deal with your slimy sophism of a rhetorical question directly: why Bashir and not Bush? "Why," in your words, "don't they order the arrest of Bush, who is a genocidal murderer?"

Because, Hugo, intention is a key ingredient in the definitional stew behind the word "genocide".

To illustrate: if I have a gun in my pocket and I punch you in the mouth, you can't very credibly accuse me of trying to kill you. If I intended to kill you, I'd just shoot you. The key here is the mismatch between my capabilities and my actions. On the other hand, if I have no gun in my pocket and I punch you in the face again and again until you're no longer moving, you can certainly sustain a charge of attempted murder.

If George W. Bush had intended to physically eliminate the whole or a portion of the population of Iraq, he had the means at his disposal to do so. If the carpet bombing hadn't worked, he had plenty of nukes in reserve. The glaring gap between what the US did - hamfisted, wrong, and illegal as it was - and what it had the capabilities to do makes the charge of genocide against Bush simple nonsense.

Bashir, while having far fewer resources at his disposal, has systematically deployed them in a way that's fully consistent with the intent to eliminate the entire non-arab population in Darfur. The bombing raids targeted against civilian populations. The systematic use of rape as a military tactic. The premeditated, patient campaign of village burning, each one followed with orders to murder everyone who stays behind. The whole apparatus of state fully mobilized to ensure that only arabs get to live in the region. That, Hugo, is genocide. And that's what you now support.

Enjoy your cafecito with the guy, Hugo...

March 31, 2009

Dear G20, Please Stop Buying Our Oil...

Quico says: My latest piece in the Guardian's Comment is Free site is now up. (Notice: 500 words, and not one of them is "Chávez"!)

The comments thread they've got going so far is too dreary for me to jump into, but maybe some of you are up for a bit of a rumble.

Also, they said they might translate it to German for Die Zeit's website, so those of you who read German...keep a look-out!

Dear Nobel Prize for Economics Selection Committee: Your Search Ends Here

Quico says: In a feat of unparalleled economic mastery yesterday, Hugo Chávez proposed a new international currency to be backed by underground oil reserves: the Petro. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper immediately countered with his own proposal - the Glacio - while Algeria, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Lybia and Egypt joined forces to promote their preferred alternative: the Sandio. Reports suggest that, at this week's G20 meeting in London, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, too, will propose a currency: the Ego.

March 30, 2009

A nice demonstration of her skills

Juan Cristobal says: - Everyone knows Venezuelan women are beautiful and win lots of pageants. Like populists and ball players, beauty queens are one of those things that we seem to produce excellent specimens of, our own "non-traditional exports."

However, with the latest news coming out of Cuba, it seems like we're gonna have to recall some of our exports and apologize to the world.

You see, our very own Dayana Mendoza, the lovely Miss Universe 2008, could not find a better use of her time than to drop by Guantánamo Bay military base for a little tour. This, in and of itself, would be a tricky PR-situation and would likely raise some eyebrows. However, it would not have been scandalous were it not for Dayana's blog entry about the trip.

Gitmo is "incredible." They "took a ride around the land" and it was "a looot of fun!" They got to meet the "Military dogs", who did a "very nice demonstration of their skills." Yeah. Them pooches sure are cute.

Apparently, Dayana disagrees with the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a host of other human rights NGOs. Detainees have, according to Dayana, comfortable facilities, including "showers", and places where they "recreate themselves with movies, classes of art, books."

In the end she found the beach so "beautiful," she found Guantánamo "such a relaxing place," she didn't want to leave.

Just call her a Frenemy Combatant and put her in a cell. She'll love it.

Dayana's fanta-bulous Caribbean-vacation-cum-PR-disaster makes you long for the days when the biggest trouble our beauty queens got into was for being filmed while having sex.

PS.- Don't miss the incensed comments from NYT readers. One of them said, "Ought to send these beauty contest winners to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Maybe killing fields in Cambodia as well. They’re sure to have a swell time bs’ing with local security, seeing the sights, swooning over the natural beauty. Think of the swell souvenirs they can bring home after a day of soooo much fun. In fact, they might not want to leave."

PS2- Huffington Post readers have their say too. My favorite comment: "(Huffington Post) has been orchestrating a sleek campaign against Venezuela for some time now. Don't know why. CIA funding, maybe?" No word yet on whether Quico met Dayana in their Langley training sessions.

UPDATE - Dayana's blog entry was deleted. Instead, there is a statement from the Miss Universe Organization. The New York Times has an update.

Ñapa Valley

Quico says: One source that's quickly becoming a must-read for me is Política de Ñapa: Hernán Lugo Galicia's PSUV gossip blog in El Nacional. Lets be clear here: the vast majority of of the gossip about the government in opposition media is woefully thinly sourced. Much of it is, I suspect, just plain made up on the spot. Hernán (better known as "Ñapa" due to his dimminutive stature) may well be the only exception: an actual reporter with actual chavista sources who actually, you know, talks to those sources before putting pen to paper. (Or, em, keystroke to liquid crystal.)

Last week, Ñapa - who you may remember as the guy behind the infamous "report of shit" after the 2D referendum in 2007 - had the skinny on chavismo's decision to go after Manuel Rosales, casting it as both a ploy to divide the opposition and, at the same time, to build up Rosales's stature. In his telling, AD will never fall into line behind Rosales, and Rosales is the oppo leader the government figures would be easiest to beat in the 2012 presidential election. So building up Rosales's street cred with the Maria Alejandra Lópezes of this world by persecuting him is win-win for chavistas. The report's too long to translate, but be sure to check it out.

[HT: Kep]

As an aside, I need to add that while Ñapi's reporting is great, the format El Nacional has chosen for him is Exhibit A for the oppo papers' abject failure to come to terms with New Media. Misnamed a "blog", it's actually just a weekly (Thursdays) column El Nacional decided to run on its website rather than the print edition. With no links, 10 or 12 topics per "post", stuck away in a submenu of a submenu where you would never find it if you weren't specifically looking for it, and with none of the immediacy and continuous updating that makes a blog a blog, El Nacional shows its total naïveté about the format and wastes the chance to host a truly, transcendentally awesome blog in the process.

Newsflash, Miguel Henrique: a "blog" is more than just a sneaky way to save on newsprint! Get a clue! Let Ñapa blog!