May 30, 2009

BlackBerry Nation

Quico says: So I flew into Maiquetía yesterday and man, what a let down. Not one dirty look, or extra check or even the vaguest hint of intimidation. Buenas noches - stamp - in you go. And that was after I'd announced I was coming, right here on CC!

My Q-Score must really be in the dumps. Or maybe el-que-te-conté's not so scared of the mouse as some would have you think.

First impressions are the usual jarring juxtaposition of an extremely visible consumer society still trying desperately to convince itself that everything's gonna be alright with the just-as-unmissable-signs that it's really not.

At the luggage pick-up area in Maiquetía Airport, a gigantic "Building Bolivarian Socialism" sign looms over the Banco Federal ATM (Maestro & Cirrus welcome.) On the highway into town, massive billboards for Heinz Tomato Ketchup (¡Picante!) jostle for space with others lauding the takeover of transnational corporations' assets by the revolution.

Just to look at it, you can't avoid the sense Venezuela suffers a bizarre case of social schizophrenia: it's half all-encompassing state-control-of-everything, half wannabe-Miami-mall-culture.

The state-control-of-everything part is the one we always hear about, but it takes coming back here to be reminded that, after all these years, bits and bobs of the professional middle class is still here, still rich, still totally weirdly disconnected from the country's problems.

Caracas is still a place where thousands of people wear suits to their offices five days a week and make a comfortable living in investment banking, or corporate accounting, or software consultancy. And they're not the least bit shy about flaunting the money involved, either. Turns out that, per capita, Venezuelans are the second highest buyers of BlackBerries in the world. (If your model is more than 9 months old, you're a nobody.)

It's also a place where the most visible initial sign of the revolution is that the bulbs lighting up the shanty-covered hillsides around Gramoven are now an energy-saving pale blue rather than the traditional yellowish-white. Es que el país cambió...

I should add that, media-wise, the first thing you notice is just how relentless the campaign against Globovisión has gotten on State TV. It's become the new obsession on VTV: just about every other spot is a furious rant against JunkBroadcasting and the dangers to your mental health of watching heterogeneous ideas on the toob. Softening up the base for a manotazo, it seems to me.


May 28, 2009

Mad with Power Chronicles

Quico says: I swear when I first heard that Chávez wanted to do a 96-hour marathon version of Aló, presidente to celebrate the show's 10th anniversary on the air, I just took it for granted the story was a Chigüire Bipolar-style spoof.

But no. He's really doing it. It just started...runs through Sunday night.

Radicalism and its consequences

Juan Cristóbal says: - In the last few months, the Chávez administration has gone into overdrive radicalism. Whether it's the forced takeover of vast sectors of the economy, the harassment of private opposition media, the passage of draconian new legislation, the attacks on opposition politicians or the massive tax increases recently passed, there seems to be few aspects of public or private life that are safe from the government's scorched-earth approach to governance.

But has it hurt Chávez's standing in public opinion? Yes, to a point.

Alfredo Keller's latest survey shows a couple of interesting trends. One of the most important one is the graph on whether people think things are going well or not. (click on image to enlarge)

For the first time since the middle of last year, more people think things are going badly than well. This is a flip from the first quarter of 2009 of almost 20 points. And lest you think this is not important, remember that the 59-40 margin in the fourth quarter of 2006 roughly coincided with the 63-37 margin of Chávez's election that year. Also worth pointing out that in the fourth quarter of 2007, when the opposition won the Constitutional Referendum, a majority of Venezuelans thought things were going badly, but by the first quarter of 2009 when the government won, a majority thought things were going well.

Is this margin reversible? Certainly. Nothing is set in stone. But the trend is there.

Another interesting result came about when people were asked whether or not their problems had gotten better or worse.

A large majority of Venezuelans think the country's problems have either stayed the same or gotten worse in the last year. Crime is, of course, the main concern, and deteriorating safety conditions are clearly being felt by everyone. The government's bright spots are "poverty", "housing" and "the economy," and even there the percentages of people that actually think things have gotten better are a paltry 27, 35 and34% respectively. Keep in mind those are the issues most vulnerable to the current economic downturn.

One of the arguments being bandied about is that Chávez is much more popular than his government. There may be some truth to that. A slim majority of Venezuelans now think Chávez is becoming a dictator, as can be seen in this graph.

Likewise, a less slim majority think Chávez is doing things the wrong way, mostly because they are starting to realize Chávez wants to mold Venezuela after Cuba's communist system.

The troubling thing about this is that a whopping 47% of Venezuelans don't think Chávez is becoming a dictator, and 45% of them think he is doing things right, even though all the major problems in our society have gotten worse.

Clearly, the teflon effect is still there, though not quite as strong as it used to be.

Finally, people were asked who they would vote for in a hypothetical election - for Chávez, or for someone else.

This is always a tricky question. It's one thing to say "the other guy/gal", it's quite another to actually go and vote for, say, Antonio Ledezma. Nonetheless, there is something to be said about the fact that, for the first time since the IVth quarter of 2003 (six years, though the graph is abbreviated), a majority of Venezuelans would rather vote for a hypothetical other than for Chávez by a six-point margin.

Clearly, the government's radicalism has not gone unnoticed. The challenge (protracted sigh) is for our current opposition leadership to capitalize on this. Will they be able to? Will this even be a possibility? Who knows, but don't keep your hopes up.

May 26, 2009

Cubanization is a process, not an event

Quico says: A year ago, when I went to Caracas, it seemed as if everyone I met had a single thing on their minds - Cadivi. Every conversation seemed to circle back to it: how to get dollars, the latest tips and tricks on how to skirt the bureaucratic hassles and reach that promised land of a greenback for just over dos bolos.

Now, as I get ready to travel back home next month, there's a new obsession in town - getting out. Everyone I talk to seems to be at some stage in the process of getting a visa, or a scholarship, or digging up a Spanish grandparent's birth certificate so they can try to claim citizenship, or find some other subterfuge to allow them to become balseros del aire.

Times have changed. It's no longer "shit, I gotta get my assets out of here". Now it's "shit, I gotta get my ass out of here".

I am, of course, already out. As I stroke my Canadian permanent resident card, I feel enormously lucky. Talking to friends back home, I'm only too aware of the desperate straits they face, the oxygen-zapping sense of living in a place where the future has been canceled, shut down, expropriated. Where the price of entry to anyone still harboring aspirations of a better life is to check his principles at the door, to file away his capacity for independent thought, to just conform.

It puts a knot in my stomach just thinking about it, and I don't even have to live it.

These are the aftershocks of The Barrage, and as Juan puts it, the strategy is practically out in the open. It's taken Chávez 10 years to get to a stage Fidel Castro reached in less than one: crafting a society where most people who dissent feel it a matter of pressing necessity to get out.

Then again, Chávez is doing it all without firing squads, those great expediters of emigratory alacritude.

In the end, the result is not so different. First came the oil professionals, who left en masse following the catastrophic 2002-03 strike. Joining them now is a steady stream of the professional classes, university educated Venezuelans determined to resist assimilation into the revolutionary hive mind.

It's now possible to envisage a Venezuela where the bulk of the dissidence has thrown in the towel, run off to the safety of Weston, or Madrid, or Montreal. I am, obviously, in no position to judge. Still, it makes me terribly sad.

These are the worst of times, the vindication of Maria-Alejandra-Lópezismo. The moment when we're forced to confront the reality that what we saw as the shrillest, most reactionary, most unhinged of Chávez's critics got to core truths that the rest of us couldn't bear to see. That cubanization - the endlessly-abused C-word, for so long the province of whacked-out, unhinged reactionary fears - really was the logical end-point of the chavista onslaught.

Por ahora, we can still say that Venezuela is no Cuba. Not yet, anyway.

I am, for instance, still able and willing to travel there, and reasonably assured I'll be left alone to get on with my business in Caracas. Which is why I'm spending most of June in my home town - hopefully meeting some of y'all, and getting on with some projects I've been cooking for some time.

That kind of thing is still possible. Just. But my confidence that it will remain possible indefinitely into the future has crumbled.

There's a new urgency to my trip, this time. A desperate sense that this kind of happy-go-lucky, get-on-a-plane-and-go travel may or may not be possible for me a year or two for now.

May 24, 2009

The Buffoon Meme

Quico says: Here's a sobering thought: it's a good bet that this month worldwide many more people have heard about Hugo Chávez giving a state-produced cel phone a vaguely cock-associated name than about his moves to silence dissenting broadcast media, strip most elected opposition politicos of any real power, steal dozens of private businesses ("nationalize" is such a spineless euphemism) and declare people who criticize him "un-human."

Not that it's surprising. The Buffoon Meme is highly contagious. Stories about Chávez doing totally ridiculous stuff are much more "email-this-story"-friendly than reporting about dictatorial moves. When Chávez calls a gringo president an illiterate donkeys, breaks out into song in the middle of addresses to the National Assignments or demands an urgent coroner's investigation into a 180 year old death, he makes natural water-cooler fodder: the kind of stuff an editor for a regional newspaper looking to plug a hole in an inside page will be irresistably drawn to.

No matter how much or how well we write about it, the looming-dictatorship stuff just can't compete. Sober-minded accounts about the rise of an ideologically extreme authoritarian regime in the heart of the Western Hemisphere are just no fun.

But the buffoonery beat? Everybody wants in on that game.

The Buffoon Meme has warped international perceptions of the Chávez era. I'm often surprised, when writing in international fora, at how large the Meme looms in readers' minds. First world lefties who are not taken in by the temptations of PSFery too often come to see chavismo as one big joke, a light hearted rump at the hands of a zany Apatowcrat too bumbling to really harm anyone.

None of which is to imply that Chávez isn't a buffoon. Of course he is.

What I mean, instead, is that the Buffoon Meme conceals much more than it reveals. It impedes the rise of a clear-eyed understanding of chavista autocracy in international public opinion. It makes the whole macabre experiment seem fun and harmless and wacky, rather than scary and mindlessly destructive and atavistically oppressive. It doesn't help.