December 16, 2009

Big Oil has landed: Hugo Chávez in Copenhagen

Quico and Juan Cristobal say: What do you think would happen if the head of one of the world's five largest oil companies started lecturing the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen about the evils of global warming?

How do you think the most esteemed delegates to the world's premier forum on the pressing issue of our time would react if a man who's leveraged his control over hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil rents into a spot in Forbes' list of the world's 100 most powerful people started to tell them what they need to do to save the planet?

Why, they'd fall all over themselves cheering him, obviously.

Hugo Chávez’s Copenhagen speech today was such an event, though on its face, the speech itself was boilerplate. The Venezuelan strongman delivered his usual twenty-minute anti-capitalist tirade, full of quasi-religious rhetoric about saving the world and such. Developing world delegates ate it up with mustard, spiraling into rapturous applause each time he blamed the rich countries for "destroying the planet."

It's insane. Cheering Chávez as he lectures you on climate change is like cheering Joseph Fritzl as he lectures you on fatherhood.

As far as Chávez can tell, it's not CO2 that's changing the climate, it's "capitalism." The specific mechanism through which this happens, the whole pesky issue of the actual fuel that generates all that carbon, the bucketfuls of petrodollars he makes out of the whole dirty business...the less talked about such things, the better.

Chávez’s green-standing, echoed by his hapless delegation and the minions in his vast media empire, stands in sharp contrast with the actual policies Venezuela has put in place.

Instead of taxing oil consumption, Chávez has spent a decade subsidizing it, making Venezuelan gasoline the cheapest in the planet. In fact, in real terms, gasoline is 85% cheaper in Venezuela today than it was when Chávez came to power ten years ago. The price of a liter of gas has not moved in ten years, while accumulated inflation is 655%.

This is a leader who subsidizes not just gas but car sales, a man whose idea of foreign aid is giving cut-price fuel oil to people in Boston. A gallon of fuel in Caracas costs less than a lolly-pop, a policy Chávez has no intention of relenting on. The man responsible for feeding oil junkies the world over - that's the guy who brought down the house in Copenhagen?

Talk about a real climate scandal.

In the days leading to the Summit, some in Venezuela wondered what the country's position would be. Chávez has rarely discussed the complexities of how climate change and the policies to stop it can affect Venezuela. You wouldn't expect him to: any decision that seriously cuts demand for oil at Copenhagen would directly undermine the whole material basis of his power.

Although Chávez has famously adopted every third-world, anti-imperialist, "us vs. them" pose in the book, it's not like the developing world was coming to Copenhagen with a unified voice. The Chinese and Indians do not want to sacrifice their development, the Africans are desperate for action sprinkled with a little bit of cash, and the Saudis would prefer the status quo. Countries like Bolivia have a real interest in curbing greenhouse emissions, which is causing melting glaciers. Bolivia’s vast reserves of lithium, which can be used to power the batteries in hybrid vehicles, mean it is poised to reap the benefits of a green economy.

Yet, Venezuela's position was a big question mark.

Chávez’s speech cleared up it up. He embraced the environmental movement and gleefully served as a spokesman for countries such as Cuba and Bolivia, highly vulnerable to changing weather patterns.

But the world would be foolish to confuse rhetoric with values.

Chávez knows the end of the oil era would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. He will peddle his oil while denouncing everyone else for burning it. He will demand a binding agreement but will not tolerate any imposition on his insane environmental policies.

This gasp-inducing pileup of ironies and contradictions can only be interpreted as a joke. Hugo Chávez came into the global warming summit and made a big hot mess of it. Thankfully, at least some of the world’s newspapers took note and shunned him.

The rest of the delegates - at least the ones looking for progress on this issue - should do the same.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

December 15, 2009

Ten Years on From The Stillborn Constitution

Quico says: ...rumors, partly fueled by Aristóbulo's keynote address to the National Assembly, are now heavy that Chávez is considering launching a fresh constituyente - a Constitutional Convention to draft yet another new constitution.

Crazy enough to be true?

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

Where the Maisanta Bodies Are Buried

Quico says: Venezuela is far from the first country where an autocratic regime has used its economic muscle to systematically punish dissidents where it hurts: in their pocketbooks. It may, however, be the first where the government has left an evidentiary trail meaty enough for economists to pick over and analyze.

The following slide is taken from the latest version of a research paper on the costs of signing petitions against Chávez back in 2002-2003 carried out by a team led by Francisco Rodríguez and including Chang-Tai Hsieh, Edward Miguel, and Daniel Ortega. It shows the change in your chances of being employed if you did not sign the third and final petition against Chávez (top line), if you did sign that petition (bottom line) and for the population as a whole (solid line) between 1997 and 2006.

Notice how the top and bottom lines basically track one another...right until the Maisanta List was published.

The authors estimate that the use of the Maisanta list cost the Venezuelan economy as a whole in the order of 3 points of GDP (which, for the non-economists out there, is massive) before concluding, a bit laconically, that:

There is a sense in which this paper’s findings are not terribly surprising, namely, that there are regimes that punish their political opponents and that these costs can be substantial. What is unusual about the case we study is the availability of the voter database actually used to target the opposition, and that the punishment was carried out on such a large scale that we are able to measure the labor market outcomes of the everyday individuals that suffered from political retaliation. We find that one third of Venezuelan voters that signed any of the three recall petitions suffered from an average 5 percent drop in their earnings and a 1.5 percentage point drop in their employment probability. This wage drop is largely borne by the 20 percent of voters who signed the third and decisive petition round, which is suggestive that the main instrument of political retaliation was the widely circulated Maisanta database that contains the list of signers of the third petition.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

ME-O bids adieu-o

Juan Cristobal says: Chile held the first round of Presidential voting yesterday, and since I'm married to the place Quico asked me to pitch in. While most news services focused on the strong showing of right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera and the stiff problems facing the governing Concertación coalition, to me the real story was the abject failure of the two chavista options.

Of the four candidates, two represented variations of the chavista movement. Communist party candidate Jorge Arrate did not hide his sympathy for the Venezuelan strongman. The links between his party and our government run deep, something I witnessed first-hand on numerous occasions. Yet Arrate, polling at 6%, was never a threat.

The real chance for the chavista option came thanks to the at-times surging candidacy of independent congressman Marco Enríquez-Ominami.

ME-O, as he is commonly known, saw his chances grow quickly in the middle of the year as the ruling Concertación candidate, former President Eduardo Frei, languished. A filmmaker by trade, ME-O once gushed about making a documentary centered on Hugo Chávez and he has served as an observer in Venezuelan elections, where he thought everything was excessively normal.

Of course, in a conservative country like Chile, a full on chavista candidate will always face long odds. So ME-O decided to "Correa-size" his chavista past, wrapping it in an attractive package of rebellious populism, rive gauche lefty promises, and pledges of change and "participatory democracy," including a proposal for a Constitutional Assembly. ME-O's curious approach to "moderate chavismo" included criticisms of Chávez's "style" but the endorsement of scandalous policies such as the closure of RCTV.

For a while, it seemed like it could work. The young ME-O surged on the strength of a few high-profile endorsements, and thanks to his appeal to a pseudo-intellectual middle class tired of the same-old faces and smitten by the malaise of politics where the big issues have largely disappeared.

But it only went so far. One of the biggest hits to his candidacy was when opposition research unearthed a three-year old interview, where ME-O called being Chilean "a tragedy" and longed for French or Italian nationality.

ME-O's 20 percent is a much worse showing than was feared, and barely reaches the level of "political phenomenon." He tried to be Hugo Chávez, but he's stuck in Ross Perot territory. Even more damning, ME-O managed to score not a single member of Congress. Like the petulant child raised-by-Paris-lefties that he is, he refused to endorse Frei or Piñera, accusing them of being agents of the past.

The Chilean election has several interesting stories: the renaissance of Chile's right-wing after twenty years and the seeming demise of Latin America's most succesful democratic coalition are two of the most important ones. But this script is yet to be written, in a runoff scheduled to take place in mid-January.

For now, the real story is yet another big defeat for the Espada de Bolívar movement in one of the continent's most significant countries. News organizations love to talk about a "wave of leftist sentiment" sweeping Latin America. Chile is sitting out the narrative, at least this time.

In Chile, the story is ME-O, the phenomenon that wasn't.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

December 14, 2009

Book 'em!

Quico says: As I think about it, the truly newsworthy aspect of the jailing of the judge who freed Eligio Cedeño isn't that they jailed her - hell, that's almost normal - but that they jailed the whole damn court!

We're talking bailiffs jailed for carrying out a judge's order to release a prisoner. Apparently, in the chavista version of Judicial Review, bailiffs are now supposed to act as a kind of first court of appeal: carefully reading through any judge's order to make sure everything's on the up'n'up before carrying our their orders. We're talking - bizarrely - one of Cedeño's defense lawyers, José Rafael Parra Saluzzo, jailed for the unspeakable crime of being in the room as his client was released.

Chavismo now inhabits its new identity as basically unapologetic dictatorship so brazenly, so openly, so shockingly blithely it's hard to imagine how we could sink any deeper. And yet one thing we've learned: we can...oh yes we can.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

Siempre queda por caer

Quico says: The decision to jail judge María Lourdes Afiuni, following a bizarre series of events that saw Hugo Chávez flip out after the judge ordered - apparently without permission - the release of disgraced Bolibanquero Eligio Cedeño (who promptly fled the country), is a timely reminder that, no matter how bad you think things have gotten, there's always farther left to fall.

Judge Afiuni was jailed after a furious Chávez launched the kind of tirade against her that, had anyone made it about him, would immediately have raised howls of "magnicide" from the government side. Saying that in Bolívar's time people who did what Afiuni did would've been shot, Chávez presented his decision to throw her in jail almost as a humanitarian concession.

One way or another, Afiuni must have realized the risk she was taking: the first judge to rule in favor of Cedeño - on a procedural motion in 2007 - lost her job, had her kids almost kidnapped, and ended up having to seek asylum in the U.S. The last judge to do so lost her seat on the court of appeal.

It's easy to forget now that less than six months ago, we were incensed by the sight of Chávez ordering judges merely fired for making judicial decisions he didn't like. Our outrage from that time already looks positively quaint by contrast, and that was this year!

Yesterday, judges paid for handing down the "wrong" decisions with their jobs, today, they're paying with their freedom, tomorrow, they'll pay finish that sentence.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.