August 1, 2009

E Pluribus Chigüirum

Quico says: El Chigüire Bipolar long ago cemented its position as the place for the most incisive, wicked and hilarious satire in Venezuela today. But their last few posts - especially adapted to the Ley Contra Delitos Mediáticos (CDM) - have been superlative. That friggin' rat has more chispa in its little toe than most of us have in our whole families.

July 31, 2009

Viva Hillary!

Quico says: Read my little paean to Hillary Clinton for her role in the Honduran crisis over on TNR's mass blog, The Plank.

Want primaries? Join the Facebook group

Juan Cristóbal says: - Remember the idea of opposition primaries? Now there's a Facebook group promoting it. It's never too early to jump on this bandwagon...

The View from Your Window

Dublin, Ireland: 1:53 p.m.

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What God Giveth, Godgiven Taketh Away

Quico says: So, guess who is the first chicharrón to go public with enthusiastic support for Luisa Ortega Díaz's fascist little aberration of a "Media Crimes Law"?

Diosdado Cabello, of course.

It figures. Because, come to think of it, every time I see reports like this one detailing the multiple, well documented corruption allegations facing Diosdado, and then realize that, instead of whiling away his afternoons in a prison the guy is still Infrastructure Minister, in charge of the Telecoms regulations, and, in effect, the second most powerful person in my country, I'm overwhelmed by a powerful "sensation of impunity".

Turns out that, under the new law, writing something that makes me feel that way will land you in jail for two to four very, very convenient!

Pardon me while I retch.

PLOP! Chronicles: Micheletti Asks Arias for Help Reinstating Zelaya

Quico says: And now for something completely different: The New York Times reports that Honduras' de facto president Roberto Micheletti has come around and now favors returning democratically-elected-then-deposed-nutter Mel Zelaya to the presidency, along the lines of the Arias mediation plan. The paper reports Micheletti's biggest problem now is building support for the San José Accords within Honduras's extremely polarized institutions.

Coming just days after Hillary Clinton blindsided the golpista elite by securing a document from the Honduran army ratifying their "unrestricted support" for the Óscar Arias mediated negotiations, Micheletti's U-Turn could constitute one of the most stunning breakthroughs for US foreign policy in the region in a long time.

Of course, putting Zelaya back in office is only half the battle for Honduras's beleagered democracy. Ensuring he can't abuse that office between now and November's elections is, arguably, the trickier half.

Still, we should pause to realize just how much more effective US diplomacy in the region has gotten in the span of just a few months. Without bluster, without threats, without marines or expeditionary forces or provocative gestures, the gringos now seem to be on the verge of squaring the Honduran circle: restoring the democratically elected leader while at the same time safeguarding the nation's constitutional institution from his attacks.

Nobody said it would be easy, and such a settlement still has powerful enemies. But Foggy Bottom is much closer to pulling this off today than seemed imaginable even 24 hours ago.

July 30, 2009

Protecting the poor, defenseless narcopetrostate from its unspeakably horrid citizens

Juan Cristóbal and Quico say: What would you say is the opposite of human rights? These days, in international usage, the defense of human rights seems to refer largely to measures that protect citizens from abuses of power against them by the state.

If we sign off on that definition, then Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Díaz's speech to the National Assembly today must count as the diametrical opposite of human rights. Her speech, and the "Special Media Crimes Bill" she introduced, were nothing less than an impassioned plea to defend the poor, defenseless chavista narcopetrostate from abuse at the hand of its feral citizenry.

In effect, Ortega Díaz is calling for citizens who exercise their right to free speech "wrongly" to face long prison terms. That's not even the rabid escaulido twist on what she said, that's just ... what she said!

Nobody has been a harsher critic of the opposition media's many and serious shortcomings than this blog. But we need to keep our wits about us. What Ortega Diaz is proposing is a system certain to fill up Venezuela's jails with journalists, media owners and bloggers who, in one way or another, anger members of the new governing elite.

The brazenness and scope of her speech is chilling. The thoughtcrimes "media crimes" that the esteemed Ortega Diaz wants to make punishable with jail are expressed in terms vague enough to be essentially boundless.

For Ortega Diaz, journalists should be criminally liable not just for what they write, but also for the perceptions that the things they write create in their readers. Anyone who uses the mass media to communicate something that disturbs "social peace," "mental health" or "public morals" can end up in jail. Her bill calls for the incarceration of anyone who, through their use of mass media, "destabilizes the State's institutions." Anyone who broadcasts anything that may cause "hatred and hostility" toward people based on, among other things, their "ideology or political affiliation" will end up in the slammer.

Standards like those are vague enough to be replaceable by a single word: everything. Every single thing a journalist writes is bound to lead someone somewhere to create a perception different from the one Ortega Diaz thinks is right. Every single opinion a blogger writes that may cause someone out there to hate a specific politician will make us criminal in the eyes of this deranged fanatic.

(Woooops...we just called her a "deranged fanatic"...that's two to four years in jail for us!)

In effect, Luisa Ortega Díaz's bill would outlaw free speech in Venezuela, plain and simple. Her proposal constitutes the most brazen authoritarian leap this country has seen since the days of Pedro Estrada.

The View from Your Window

Houston, Texas - 2:45 pm

The View from Your Window

Caracas, Venezuela: 11:32 a.m.

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Bazooka Hugo

Quico says: The Case of the Swedish Bazookas makes it clear that something very odd is happening in the bonkers-at-the-best-of-times world of chavista foreign policy. The Venezuelan government is no longer in the business of providing explanations, half-assed apologies, or even the odd preposterous-but-face-saving denial in the face of incontrovertible evidence of meddling in its neighbors' affairs. More and more, its response is based on simple force: back off!

To this day, I'm not really clear if the official Venezuelan line is that the Venezuelan-owned Saab Bofors AT4s found in the hands of the FARC got to Colombia before Chávez came into office, or that they got to Colombia after Chávez took office but it was all the deed of some rogue officer and had nothing to do with government policy, or that it's all a big lie and the FARC never had Venezuelan bazookas and this whole story is all just a Colombo-Swedish conspiracy set up in Langley, or that Aliens from the planet Opsidion 5 telepathically transported the AT4s out of a Venezuelan armory and into the Colombian jungle as part of some intergalactic practical joke.

Each of those might be considered an account of what happened. Not all of them, needless to say, can be considered equally convincing. But each, in its own way, could be taken as an explanation.

The problem isn't that we never got a good explanation, it's that we never got an explanation at all.

They can't even say they were blindsided by the revelation. Yesterday, Casa de Nariño - Colombia's Miraflores - announced that, as long as 8 weeks ago, they had disclosed to the Venezuelan government that Venezuelan AT4 rocket launchers had been found in FARC's posession. That means that Jane's public disclosure of the find could not have caught Venezuelan diplomats unaware.

So, if I'm getting this right, Casa Amarilla - Venezuela's foreign office - had two months to think up some excuse, some sort of justification, any kind of marginally-coherent discourse about the find, but they just sort of never got around to it. Which kind of reminds me of that old afroman song...
I was gonna justify those AT4s, but then I got high
I could've lied and patched things up with Colombia, but I got high
Now I'm recalling ambassadors, and I know why
Because I got high
Because I got high
Because I got high
Nowhere in the Venezuelan response have I seen any direct mention of the AT4s themselves, which is odd considering they're at the center of the crisis.

The closest we've gotten is Chávez's oblique suggestion that anyone could stamp any serial number on the side of any gun. Leaving aside the fact that the Swedish government is not likely to be drawn into this controversy if indeed the serial numbers were fake - something that could easily be verified - if the weapons found in Colombia have adulterated serial numbers, the Venezuelan military should have no trouble producing the original weapons with the serial numbers matching those the Colombians reported to Saab Bofors. Logically, if the weapons found in Colombia aren't really Venezuelan, the original AT4s should still be under Venezuelan control, right?

Show me the bazookas!

In the event, Chávez won't get pressed into that discussion cuz he knows he got caught. Which is why his response is basically a tsunami of bile, a rapid fire succession of threats and insults that manage to escalate the crisis without ever offering any kind of account - sane or otherwise - for how it is that high-tech Venezuelan military hardware ended up in the hands of a terrorist organization.

It's genuinely baffling. Once you get over the shock, though, you have to surmise that the very explanation-less-ness carries a message here. It's an implicit admission rolled into a contempt-filled refusal to be held accountable all snugly tied up in the threat to cause a major diplomatic/economic crisis in Colombia if such delicate accusations are ever aired again.

It makes for a worryingly Kim Jong Il-ish diplomatic crouch. Chávez appears ready to simply start cranking up the crazy as a way of getting his opponents to back off.

This time, the threats were strictly economic. Next time?

Hat tip: Lorenzo Albano. You saw it first, man.

July 29, 2009

The View from Your Window

Madrid, Spain - a few months ago.

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What's missing in this press note?

Juan Cristóbal says: - The Governor of Lara, Henry Falcón (PSUV), went out onto the streets of Barquisimeto the other day, got on a steam-roller and proceeded to turn more than 400 confiscated firearms into pancakes. The accompanying press note carried the news, with Falcón stating that the public destruction of weapons is part of a plan to disarm the civilian population and decrease the crime rate. The curious thing? The note says nothing about socialism nor Chávez.

Falcón is a model for how a chavista Governor should behave. He is apparently pragmatic, talks about the issues and thinks about public policies that make sense instead of advancing an abstract ideological agenda only to get on the government's good side. By tacking on to the center and presenting the more human face of chavismo, he managed to get 73% of the vote, by far the best result of any governor elected last November, from either side.

Listen to him talk after being elected and he is crystal clear. Chavismo should "take stock of itself" and stop basing its campaigns on "discrediting other people." He suggested Chávez should focus on tackling crime, more effective social policy and work on infrastructure.

Sure, he's chavista, although for a while last year the government was so mad at him they briefly expelled him from the party. Like a good soldier, he dutifully worked for the Constitutional Amendment.

And yet - I have to respect his autonomy, his willingness to break the mold and follow his own insight. It's a refreshing sight: a chavista who cares about outcomes, speaks his mind, is not afraid of criticizing his own party, and somehow manages to get away with it.

July 28, 2009

The View from Your Window

Oslo, Norway - 8:30 p.m.

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Coming Out FARC

Quico says: Last week's revelation that high tech Swedish anti-tank missiles have been seeping across the border from the Venezuelan military into FARC's hands reminded me of nothing so much as Ellen's much hyped-up coming out in 1997: it's not that it was actually a surprise, it's not as though we didn't all know. It's just that, now, it's official: Venezuela arms FARC.

We have the serial numbers.

The rocket-launchers' Swedish manufacturer confirms the match. We have the emails detailing the entire handover process culled from Raul Reyes's laptop - y'know, the one I'm talking about: the one that Marulanda, in Mono Jojoy's voice, certified as real. We even - deliciously - have Venezuelan General Clíver Alcalá pushing FARC to grab more bazookas than they'd originally agreed.

Maduro's bizarre non-sequitur of an undenial - "these stories are part of a brutal campaign against Venezuela" - smack of the utter loss for words of someone just plain caught with pants in ankle position. No seas comemierda, Nicolás. We have the serial numbers.

Update: Actually, Bill Cosby cracked Madurothink years ago... "I was gettin' a bazooka for you!"

July 27, 2009

Blog The Plank

Quico says: A version of my rant from this morning is now over on The New Republic's mass blog, The Plank.

Check it out.

The View from Your Window

Austin, Texas - 7:50 pm

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The Tenth Anniversary of a Slap in the Face

Quico says: It was hard, this weekend, seeing those images of Hugo Chávez celebrating the tenth anniversary of the 1999 Constituent Assembly. Presidential saches and speeches; pomp and (what passes for) circumstance (in the bolivarian republic.) All this public splendor to celebrate the drafting of a constitution that, as Teodoro Petkoff's bon mot hazs it, reads more and more like a subversive pamphlet, so far removed are its norms from the day-to-day reality of the way power is exercised in Venezuela.

Those of us who like to write about the way the constitution is nullified, day-by-day, in Venezuela have something of a long-tail problem: a relatively small number of flashy, highly visible violations (you know the list: the right to private property, the separation of powers, the apolitical nature of the military) grab all the attention, while a much larger constellation of less spectacular outrages barely merit a mention. Call them the B-List Violations: a long list of also-rans in the unconstitutionality stakes.

My own impotent outrage typically centers on the almost-entirely-forgotten Article 23. It's an article of staggering ambition that, for some reason, you almost never hear anything about. Article 23 actually makes international human rights treaties constitutionally binding within Venezuela, as well as directly applicable by all Venezuelan courts.

That means that, in theory, you should be able to go up to a Venezuelan judge and cite your rights in, for instance, article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights (to wit: the right to free expression may not be restricted via indirect means, such as the abuse of official controls on newsprint, on radio frequencies, or of inputs and goods used to broadcast information, in order to impede the free communication of ideas) and that norm is supposed to have constitutional status, superseding any and all Venezuelan legislation on the matter. Taken seriously, Article 23 would revolutionize Venezuelan justice.

Somehow, though, TSJ never got the memo. Nor did anyone else. It's just weird: nobody seems to know about Article 23. You never hear Marta Colomina all huffed up and horrified at its total desuetude. And Prof. Colomina very rarely passes up the chance to get all huffed up and horrified.

But it's there. Article 23 is. Not because aliens from the planet Zorgon put it there. Not because the CIA conspired to sneak it in. It's there because the 94%-chavista constituent assembly put it there in 1999. You know the one I'm talking about, right? The one Chávez went to commemorate this weekend? That one!

Today in TalCual, Miranda State Education Director Juan Maragall focuses on another of these also-rans. Everybody knows that the Constitution says that tenured judges have to earn their seats through "public competitions" - concursos públicos de oposición - where political criteria cannot be taken into consideration. But did you know that, according to article 104, the same thing applies to schoolteachers? Few outside the profession know that...nor should they, as article 104 has become another serial dust-gatherers.

In practice the main qualification you need to get a nice, steady job warping the minds of small children is a PSUV membership card.

Of course, if you're accepted into the profession without a concurso you don't get tenure. You can only be taken on as a substitute or interim teacher, meaning you can be fired by the Education Ministry at any time and for any reason, or no reason at all. Totally exposed, you end up becoming a kind of lower-court-judge-of-the-classroom: at all times, you are one-insufficiently-chavista-remark away from seeing your livelihood vanish.

In Maragall's phrase, the practice of appointing most teachers as interim or substitutes has started to spawn its own juridical framework: recent Education Ministry resolutions make it a prerequisite to have entered the profession as a sub, or as an interim teacher - that is, discretionally - before you can even go to concurso. So, the status quo is that you can now only opt for tenure if you've been picked discresionally, a dedo, without your credentials ever having been evaluated in open competition.

That's how easy it is to upend the Venezuelan constitution. No need to bother with referendums or amendments or reforms or any of that jazz. An education ministry resolution does the job.

It'd be an interesting, if somewhat morbid, exercise to go through all 350 articles of the 1999 constitution and try to figure out precisely how many have been subverted like this, sotto voce, without anyone much talking about it or acknowledging it out loud or even quite realizing that it's happened.

And amid all this, VTV forces us to watch Chávez celebrating the tenth anniversary of...of what, exactly? It's never been clear to me. Over time, I've come to see the 1999 Assembly as one of the most bizarrely nonsensical public spectacles in these ten years of intensely bizarre public spectacle.

The best way I can make sense of it is that for Chávez, the constitution is a fetish. Not in the contemporary, sexual sense of the term, but in the older anthropological one: a kind of amulet, a magical thing whose powers are embodied in its physicality, in its life as object, and are quite independent of anything actually written inside. It's the little book itself that interests Chávez, the physical embodiment of his claim to legitimacy. But his claim, ultimately, is mystical rather than legal - based on a metaphysical consubstantiation of leader and pueblo that cannot be mediated through anything so humdrum as a set of formal legal rules.

And so the little blue book came to be used as a kind of magic charm, waved around in inverse proportion to how often it was actually read, much less interpreted or - heaven forbid - applied.

In the end, reading the constitution - taking it seriously as text - is a profoundly counterrevolutionary thing to do. It can only lead to the kind of apostasy you keep finding in this blog - hell, earlier in this post, even - where an interpretative discourse is developed to compare the legal standard set out in the text to the reality instantiated day-to-day by those who wield power in Venezuela.

Discourses like those are inherently destabilizing to a regime like Chávez's. They insert human intelligence where it is least wanted, least tolerable, most dangerous. When you take the constitution seriously as text, when you set out to interpret it rationally, you interpose yourself between the caudillo and the masses, limiting and qualifying his claim to authority over them.

To do so is to meddle in the mystical link between them. And chavismo cannot put up with such an affront: it needs to silence it. Because, in the end, to read the constitution with fresh eyes is as close to apostasy as you can come in the secular religion that is chavismo.