June 12, 2009

Roger and out

Juan Cristóbal says: - My friend Roger used to be my mole in the government. A committed escuálido working undercover deep inside chavista bureaucracy, he somehow managed to tolerate the mind-numbing paper-pushing and the constant backstabbing from colleagues and underlings alike, to say nothing of the forced participation in chavista rallies.

But over the last year, Roger also got a crash course on the true nature of chavista bureaucrats, people for whom corruption, inefficiency and amateur Machiavelianism are the norm.

Unwilling to play along, Roger got fired last month.

Roger is a classic example of the underpaid overachiever. After getting his law degree in Venezuela, he went to Switzerland on a scholarship and got his doctorate. There, he specialized in an obscure area of international law that, luckily, is also incredibly relevant for Venezuela.

As it happens, he never got around to signing the recall petition against Chávez so he's not in the Tascón or Maisanta Lists. Long story short, that meant he could get a job in the government institute that handles the exact area of his expertise, doing the things he was actually trained to do. His legal knowledge and his ability in three languages became important assets and helped him stand out in the many international conferences he went to.

"Deep inside," he fesses up, "I kidded myself with the idea that I was giving something back."

These days, Roger whiles away his afternoons in his apartment in La Urbina, where he lives alone with his computers, his books and his view of Petare. He hasn't worked in weeks and is living hand to mouth.

And yet, he's at peace with himself. When I ask him the story behind his firing, he is almost wistful, disconcertingly zen about the whole thing.

He says the beginning of the end of his public service career came when his institute got a new chairman a few months back, his fourth new boss in as many years.

"This last guy took part in the 4-F military coup," he says. "The fact that he was dispatched to a relatively obscure technical outpost of chavista bureaucracy as compensation speaks volumes about his performance that day."

From day one, the chairman decided he didn't like Roger one bit. His language skills, the depth of his knowledge and his personal demeanor all rubbed him the wrong way.

"The problem is that you don't fit in with the culture," one of his assistants told Roger.

How so? he asked.

"Well," she said, "you don't socialize, all you do is come in, do your work and you're out. You don't joke around with everyone, you don't seem to like us. You're very Swiss that way."

Roger spent six months trying to get a meeting with the chairman, trying to get him to read his reports. In six months, he got nothing.

Well, not quite. He did get a lot of work on weekends.

In the months leading up to last November's State and Local Elections, Roger got dragged to election meeting after meeting and rally after rally. On several occasions, he was part of special PSUV cleanup operations in the squares and plazas of Caracas.

The demands on public employees before elections became difficult to put up with. Right before February's referendum, Roger was forced to sell BsF. 1,000 worth of raffle tickets to raise funds for the PSUV's campaign. Needless to say, Roger couldn't think of anyone who would want to buy his tickets, so he had to pay for them out of pocket.

"Did you at least win anything in the raffle?" I ask, all hopeful.

Hardly. As it happens, the raffle tickets were fake. The real ones were supposed to have a serial number and a bank account where the funds should be deposited. Roger's had none of that. The chavistas in the office forcing him to sell them had given him tickets chimbos.

Under the new chairman, office life soon took a turn to the bizarre. One Saturday, the guy decided to stage his own little backyard version of "Aló, Presidente." He made all senior and middle management go to work and sit in a conference room, from 8 to 4, hearing him talk about whatever was on his mind.

His secretary, who is actually his mistress as well as the niece of one of Chávez's ministers, was in charge of filming. During the proceedings, she would point the camera and focus on managers who looked bored, were staring at the ceiling or sending text messages. The chairman would review the tape and reprimand managers who weren't devoting 100% of their attention to the boss.

The level of paranoid control just kept getting ratcheted up. During regular weekdays, all managers had to text message the chairman every time they left the office. The Saturday seances soon became compulsory, with attendance strictly enforced. One Saturday, Roger arrived an hour late and was asked to provide the reasons why he was late ... in writing. Needless to say, he had to suck it up and say it wouldn't happen again, just like ministers do on Aló, Presidente when the big guy humiliates them.

In the Chávez administration, imitation has gone from highest form of flattery to outright obsession.

One of the problems Roger faced was the lack of personnel. Even though he was technically a manager, he never got an assistant or a secretary, so all his department's work fell on his lap.

Conveniently, the 28-year old daughter of his longtime nanny was looking for a job. Thanks to her mother's hard work, Judith had received a technical degree and had just arrived from a stint living in London.

Since she was bilingual, qualified and available, Roger pushed hard to hire her as his secretary. After many interviews and even after sucking up to all the right people, he was told they couldn't hire her because she was in the Tascón List. Roger was forced to apologize, saying he didn't know and simply forgot to check. Had he known, he said, he never would have insisted.

Judith is still unemployed.

In the weeks leading up to his firing, Roger got assigned an "advisor." Edgar, a PSUV apparatchik, had a simple job: sit across from Roger's desk every day and make his life miserable. While Roger tried to focus on his work, Edgar would talk on his cell phone non-stop, only pausing to bark at Roger demanding he finish his reports so he could take them up to the chairman and pass them off as his own. Roger later found out Edgar was making twice as much as he was.

The day Roger was fired - by Edgar, of all people - he received several anonymous text messages. "The institute is rejoicing," one read, "so much for your fancy degrees and your languages. Go eat shit, you show-off."

I ask him what the source of so much animosity is. It turns out that, with Roger being in charge of international legal analysis, his office was responsible for most of the trips abroad. The decision of who to send in each delegation frequently fell on Roger, and he obviously preferred sending the few qualified people available.

This, of course, did not sit well with the rest of the sprawling bureaucracy. Thanks to Misión Cadivi, going to one of these international trips was a quick and easy way of landing some hard currency in the form of juicy per diems, which everyone simply kept and later sold in the black market. Plus, you could have a good time abroad too. Roger recalls one particular conference in South Africa where the head of the delegation simply did not show up for the meetings, preferring to go on safari with his mistress instead.

I ask Roger about the laws Chávez has passed, banning the firing of employees. He tells me he really isn't an employee. Since the institute is relatively new, they have not established the positions and their role in the larger picture of the government's bureaucracy.

This is on purpose. Done this way, everyone is under contract and can be fired at any time. Plus, this allows the institute bigwigs to bypass regular budget laws and just hire all their friends, giving them cushy jobs as payback for political favors.

These days, Roger is reinvigorated. Leaving all those negative vibes behind, he says, he's starting to enjoy life again. He'd gotten to the point where he was spending most of his energy thinking up ways to outscheme the schemers out to get him. Now, he says, he's glad to have the time off, getting in touch with his friends again, teaching.

"It's funny," he says, "but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Of course the government doesn't work. My former boss is an ex-con, a convicted felon, an anonymous military man whose sole claim to fame was to break the very oath he had taken and violate the democracy he had sworn to defend. Of course they don't believe in building institutions! Their only talent, the thing they spent years planning, is how to do away with them. What was I supposed to expect - decency?"

My sense is that Roger is going to be OK. He may have lost his job, and may well end up having to live abroad, but he is well on his way to getting his life back.

June 10, 2009

The Pundit

Quico says: The Pundit feels at home here. We're in one of the restaurants he promotes on his show. The waiters greet him by name. He sits down and orders a rum with orange juice, but my feeling is that the order is superfluous. They know that's what The Pundit drinks.

Me, I'm launching into my pitch. I'm telling him about Caracas Chronicles 2.0, telling him about my plan to relaunch it in two languages, explaining to him the need for a Noticiero Digital For Sane People, an online space where cool-headed people can come and have a real debate about political events and ideas that doesn't immediately get drowned out by the usual hyper-polarized shit. I'm telling him I see a massive gap in the market, an odd mismatch between Venezuelans' confirmed taste for discussing politics and the lack of online spaces where they can do so without getting drowned out by the chaos. I'm telling him about the need for news in Spanish that digs beneath the superficial crap we get on El Universal, El Nacional and Noticias 24 on a daily basis.

The Pundit smiles. "Yeah," he says, "it would be great to have a news outlet in this country."

It's a provocation, and he knows it.

"A news outlet?" I say, walking right into it, "I mean, I do realize this country is already crammed full of news outlets..."

"Except it isn't," he says. "This country is crammed full of news, yes. And this country is crammed full out outlets, certainly. It's just that the outlets we have don't actually publish any of the news that happen here."

With this, the pundit launches into a rant I can sense is well rehearsed, but one his broadcast listeners never get to hear. Frustration pours out of every orifice in his body as he gets going.

"The media here have built a fence around democracy - around the possibility of democracy. That's the thing. The opposition media is full of black spots, of taboo subjects that you're just not allowed to touch. The newspapers are vast silences - sheets crammed full of words but drained of content. Because they have no sense of news, no feeling for what actually constitutes news, as opposed to politically useful information."

"Think," he says, "of yesterday's story on the opposition's Unity Table. An actual news outlet might have told you what that was about. They might have told you that the opposition parties were under such pressure from a few powerful interests to show some unity they really had no choice but to come together and make a statement together. They might have mentioned the actual power politics behind the whole shindig, the news behind the news event. But it turns out that those powerful interests are the media owners themselves. So the story, the actual news of what happened yesterday, doesn't get told. It can't get told. Because the media is structurally barred from reporting the news. In its place, they give us Interested Opinion packaged as news, passed off as news, treated as news, smuggled as news."

He's grabbing my arm now, peering straight into my eyes.

"Los medios le tienen un cerco a la democracia, chamo...but you can't say that without immediately getting creamed, written off as a chavista, or blacklisted by Ravell."

The pundit is in a position to know. He's been working inside the oppo media establishment for too many years to dismiss. A mass of frustration shines through as he speaks. This stuff gets to him.

"The escualido media is a minefield of taboos. On almost every story, there's a pre-determined interpretation you can tell, you can get through. Stray beyond that, and you walk into a thicket of taboos. Even on totally banal subjects, on topics where you might think the heterodox position is too well establish to really sting anymore."

"One time," he recalls, "I got invited to do one of the morning talk shows on TV alongside Manuel Felipe Sierra and Armando Durán. I argued that the Paro Petrolero (back in 2002 and 2003) had been a failure, deluding myself in thinking this was too obvious to qualify as controversial anymore."

"The other two lost it, turned on me like I'd just started chanting 'Uh! Ah! Chávez no se va!' All I'd done was say something anyone with a pair of eyes already knew. Cuz hell, Chávez is still there: by friggin' definition the paro was a failure.

"But I'd stepped on one of their taboos. They couldn't deal with it, turned on me like I'd just said the Holocaust never happened. The opposition media has become a mechanism for furiously repressing truths everybody already knows, and for preserving and upholding the hysterias of a tiny slice of people living in the East Side of Caracas."

"Coño, pundit," I say, "I thought I was critical of the media, but my stuff is mild compared to this."

"Son vainas que no se pueden decir," he says, turning bitterly ironic, "cuz apparently the defense of freedom of the press demands that they be hushed up. But the problem we have, fundamentally, is only secondarily about chavismo's intransigence. The underlying problem with political discourse on our side is that the opposition media son una mierda."

These days people think Chávez made it up. They think that, because he says it, it can't be true. But how did elections use to get decided in this country? RCTV would have their guys and Venevision theirs. And they fought it out, in those terms. Los nuestros contra los de Uds. Our guys against yours. Chávez, of all people, knows how that system works - how do you think that presidential seat got warmed up for him?"

A lady from a nearby table comes by to talk to him. "Muy bueno, Pundit, I love your show" she says, "keep sticking it to the government like you do." She obviously hasn't been listening in on us. Pundit is gracious, but annoyed. She's broken his flow. She seems on the verge of asking for an autograph, but doesn't.

As she walks off, he turns back to me,

"Convéncete," he says, "the way the private media operates in this country is incompatible with the exercise of democracy. Chávez knows that, by attacking it, he makes it certain that the opposition will reflexively align itself with the private media. So he has every incentive in making the opposition line up behind a media system that makes democracy impossible. It's win-win for the guy. For the umpteenth time, he's playing us."

Settling back out of rant mode, he seems to remember that this was supposed to be a business meeting, of a sort, and comes back to my pitch.

"But seriously, the thing you want to do with your blog," he says, "it's viable. You could do it without too much money. And it will reach a few thousand people, a smallish but influential elite that wants to, needs to, look beyond the tiny little horizons the escuálido media serves up to them. And that, in itself definitely makes it worth doing, because like you say, those people don't have a place to turn to online."

"But your idea can't drive the news cycle. It can't challenge the wall of normal news consumers get. For that, you need a newsroom, a staff, a bunch of journos dedicated full time to breaking, one by one, the layers upon layers of taboos that the oppo media elite is dedicated to protecting. And that, that you can't do with a few thousand dollars. You just can't."

And The Pundit, I realize, is absolutely right.