January 24, 2004

More notes on CNE...

I'm not sure what's up with Venezuelanalysis.com's weasel tactic of not giving their write-ups by-lines. They just say "by Venezuelanalysis.com" and leave it at that. Hmmm...leaves me unsure who to yell at when they write things like this:

Government officials and political groups that support the Chavez administration have made numerous claims of alleged fraud committed by the opposition in the signature collection process to call for a recall referendum on President Chavez. 2.5 million valid signatures are required to trigger the recall. The opposition officially claims they collected 3.4 million. However, opposition political figures have privately commented that only 1.9 were collected.

Hmmm...ok, so if you're willing to use the illegally obtained, unconfirmed and unsubstantiated Escovar Salom 1.9 million figure, how is it that you're not citing the internal MVR report leaked to El Universal where they admit they think the opposition handed in just over 3 million signatures? The line between newswriting and propagandizing gets real thin on some of these things...

More importantly, why don't you guys spend some staff resources fleshing out exactly how the megafraude happened? As Cesar Miguel Rondon insightfully points out, the government's strategy in this regard seems to be mostly to scream itself hoarse repeating the word "megafraude! megafraude!" without ever giving a detailed explanation of the actual mechanics of the fraud, of how the megafraude actually happened. Who signed illegally? When, where and how? We want details, not slogans!

I understand MVR handed in a report on the matter to CNE, but I haven't seen any of the details yet. And many of the charges made in Tarek's little presentation make little sense: if foreigners, children, or dead people signed, or if people signed more than once, that'll be automatically weeded out by cross-checking the signatures against the Electoral Registry database anyway! So really, the question is what part of the megafraud was done in a way that it can't be caught by the checks already planned?

The only candidate I can think of is massive, gigantic scale identity fraud. The government would need to prove that between 600,000 and 1,000,000 people got fake cedulas to go sign. The only way to catch this would be through the fingerprint - basically, at least one in five signatures would have to be shown not to correspond to the fingerprint it sits next to.

Which brings us to this whole fingerprint hubbub. We really need to be clear about it: 40% of the fingerprints are uncheckable. They got smudged because CNE, under pressure from the government, chose to print the forms on Central Bank safety paper that was never designed to take fingerprints. Still, you can work with the other 60%, I suppose.

People in the council are talking about testing a "representative and exhaustive statistical sample" of fingerprints, which reads like a contradiction in terms to me: it's either representative or exhaustive. Still, if they get working on it now, I suppose you can do it. What kind of sample size would you need to get a sufficiently small margin of error, to determine conclusively whether 20% or more of the signatures are a result of identity theft? Couple of thousand? How long would that take to do? It does sound doable, at first blush.

But on this subject, at least, I do understand the opposition's skittishness. Who's to say the government won't lean on the "exhaustive" part more than on the "representative" part and say they test 150,000 fingerprints? Kooky, yes, but this is Venezuela we're talking about!

For my part, I still think we need to rally around CNE - no use poking holes in the only life-raft we've got. One thing I know for sure: Carter Center/OAS has much more access, expertise, and credibility than I do.

I am not prepared to write against CNE until they do.

January 23, 2004

Time to get off CNE's case...

Today, OAS head of mission Fernando Jaramillo (pictured) said there is no basis for the skepticism surrounding CNE. He said the Carter Center/OAS mission has closely watched every part of the verification process so far, and it seems to be going well.

Given the mission's unparalleled access, impartiality, and international credibility, it's senseless to contradict them. The opposition should realize that it only undermines its own credibility if it keeps criticizing the agency at this point. If and when the observers say that CNE has gone off track, then our suspicions will have credibility.

Until that happens, better for the opposition to shut up.

Jaramillo also asked for similar, wide-ranging access in the upcoming, highly sensitive, parts of the verification process.

Let's hope they get it.

It's the inequality, stupid

It struck me yesterday, in the middle of a late-night email back-and-forth with Greg, that this racial debate is a distraction from another, much more important debate we ought to be having about Venezuela. My criticism of the charge of racism is right, but kind of beside the point. Venezuela has its own, home-grown mechanisms for systematic exclusion. It just happens that they're based not on skin color, but on class.

Racism may be a cannard, but classism is very real, alive and well in Venezuela.

Rich people in Venezuela relate to poor people in deeply prejudicial ways. I've seen it, up close, many times - and I haven't always had the confidence or clarity to object to it.

Venezuela is an outrageously unequal society, there is no debating that. In a way, it's not surprising that people like Danny Glover or Greg Pallast come here, see the very evident social gap and the very negative attitudes that the rich have about the poor, notice that the rich are mostly light-skinned and the poor normally darker-skinned, and Q.E.D! Racism!

The line of reasoning is wrong, for the reasons I wrote about before, but the social gap is real, the stereotypical negative attitudes the rich have about the poor are real, and the poor are evidently excluded from most of the institutions of a decent society. Their grievances are real, and justified.

If I'm forced to play the game of finding something good to say about Chavez, this is what I'll fall back on: so far as diagnostics go, I agree with 95% of what he said in 1998. The Chavez of 1998 is a far cry, needless to say, from the Chavez that runs the country now. Back then, it was hard to object to his critique: his style might have been too shrill and pugnaceous by half, but he wasn't making this stuff up.

What's more, he put the problem front and center, he burst through layers of upper class denial, he made the social divide the issue - which is a good thing, because the social divide really is the issue. And for all of that he is to be commended.

It's just a shame his policies in power have made all of the problems concerned far worse.

Social exclusion exists on two levels: the social and the economic. Socially, exclusion is a system of customary ideas and practices about the role of the poor in society, about the institutions and spaces and opportunities are open to them. And there's no doubt that the poor are excluded, excluded from all kinds of institutions, excluded from access to decent schools and well equipped hospitals, to all basic state services, to things like water and social security and a shot at the army officer corps. And there's no doubt that this has terrible psychological effects on people: it has to be devastating to not only be poor, but to be poor alone, faced with the contempt of the powerful. The result was a lot of justified frustration, of a deep sense of grievance at those who were not so excluded.

The question is, why are the poor excluded?

To my mind, it's obvious the reason has everything to do with money. If you're too poor to live in an area with electricity, water, or gas, if you're too poor to afford a private school place, if you're too poor to buy insurance or at least medicine for the hospital staff, if you're too poor to have time help your children with your homework, if you're too poor to even eat properly, you can't even begin to overcome the barriers that keep you excluded from those institutions.

I realize my view here is oddly Marxist. I think the economic substructure determines the ideological superstructure - it's the fact that the poor have no money that causes exclusion, not the fact that the rich don't like them. In fact, the economic substructre explains the superstructure: it's the stress of a deeply unequal society that generates the mutual distrust and negative attitudes. Economic differences cause bad blood - always have, always will - and if you want to build inclusion, you have to start by making positive steps to reduce inequality.

Chavez's view, seems to be the reverse: that the symbolic exclusion, the negative attitudes, the stereotypes, the use of language the poor could not understand, the callousness of the rich towards the suffering of the poor, that these are the root causes of social exclusion. Therefore, if you want to include the poor, what you do is you forcibly remove the symbolic privilege of the rich - especially their control of any part of the state aparatus - and then talk to the poor for 4 or 5 hours every Sunday making strenuous efforts to pet their collective ego, telling them they're revolutionary heroes and that the state is there for them and that the most powerful man in the country is singlemindedly devoted to them and to their interests, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum (for me, literally) You privilege the "social" over the "economic", which seems to me another way of saying you privilege rhetoric over results.

What Chavez has proposed to his supporters, has never been a poverty fighting strategy. Not a serious one, anyway Ð certainly not one with the least possibility of success. What he's proposed is a- a hodge podge of ad hoc programs done with no long term planning, no transparency, and no strategic focus, and b- (far, far more importantly) talk therapy. In important ways, Chavez intends to talk the poor out of their exclusion.

That poverty has increased seems to me like a matter of simple common sense: thereÕs no such thing as poverty reduction amidst rising prices, falling formal employment, a shrinking economy and an informal sector that grows and grows.

But even in terms of inequality, the government has made things worse, despite all the rhetoric. As even pro-Chavez observers tacitly acknowledge, a salient feature of Chavez's five years of management of the economy has been an odd series of giveaways to the some of the richest people in the country.

For 3 years (1999-2002) the government pursued a policy of deliberately overvaluing the currency, in effect selling dollars at a discount to holders of bolivars, as a way of trying to control inflation (the "inflation anchor" of Giordani fame.) The strategy worked in the short term, but it was patently unsustainable: you can't keep selling 1.2 watches for one watch vouchers forever without running out of watches. That wave had to break sooner or later, and when it did, it was obvious that the result would be higher inflation - which only drove people to trade even more of their bolivars for dollars. Every businessman in the country that had the money to buy dollars, did.

The policy was an incredible giveaway for anyone who had any savings at all to protect - they could buy hard currency at very attractive rates, and escape the hideous country-risk of having your savings in a country Hugo Chavez runs. Of course, the poor didn't have that benefit - without enough money to eat, much less to save, they remained nailed to the cross that is the bolivar, at the mercy of the terrible price rises that Chavez's unsustainable forex policy would inevitably spring on them one day.

(Oh no, he's talking technocrat again! Ugh!)

To translate: the rich got out, the foreign reserves went down, the exchange rate finally collapsed, inflation jumped, the poor got screwed, and the rich got away unscathed. Worse still, this is what VenEconomy - VenEconomy, for christ's sake, that most unremittingly right wing of rags - had been warning consistently for literally years!

They didn't listen.

The poor got screwed.

Our readers made a ton of money.

The record is even more scandalous when you look at the banks. The government's strategy to finance itself solely with bolivar-denominated bonds was a boon for the bankers. They got to lend huge portions of their portfolios at very attractive interest rates with minimal risk. The debt came in the guise are government paper: zero risk, if the textbooks are to be believed.

The strategy was a huge giveaway to the banks, many of which did quite nicely for themselves by more or less abandoning the business of providing consumer or small business credit and dedicating themselves mostly to buying government bonds. Again, the fat cat bankers walked off with wads of cash, but the poor sap who owns a textile factory in Aragua and wants to borrow money to buy more sewing machines to employ more people is squeezed out, and the people who might have gotten jobs at that factory got screwed. It's called crowding out.

All of this was happening against a backdrop of dropping PDVSA production capacity, faltering state finances, a shrinking economy, a huge wave of industrial bankruptcies, a bloody crime wave, growing unemployment, rapidly growing informal sector "employment" (street-hawking and odd jobs), falling average household incomes, and falling food-consumption and calory-intake statistics - which are just sanitized ways of talking about hunger. A bankrupt government ruling over a bankrupt nation. Ideal.

There is no doubt in my mind at all that the gap between rich and poor has widened. There's no doubt in my mind that for the vast majority of the poor, the material conditions of life have deteriorated. Indeed, due to the extreme polarization of the classes now, there's no doubt in my mind that the cultural manifestations of the gap, the negative attitudes and stereotypes, have also gotten much worse. If the rich feared the poor before, how much more do they fear them now when they see large numbers of them in a frenzy of hero worship towards an evident charlatan who only makes them poorer.

The conjunction of economic obscurantism, scorn for technocratic expertise, indifference to long term planning and a near-suicidal unwillingness to listen to critics - all liberally sprinkled with corruption - pushed the government to do things that are not just bad for the country, but worse for their own supporters than for anyone else. Ad hoc social programs are fundamentally unable to overcome the force for exclusion that growing poverty and inequality generate. It's putting the horse before the cart.

The country does need a radical program of long-term reform, one that will change the socio-economic structure permanently, that'll open opportunities to the poor and the excluded and improve their standard of living slowly but surely over a generation.

Instead, what it's getting is talk, lots and lots and lots of talk, redemptive talk, stirring talk, but talk nevertheless.

The fundamental problems are not being addressed, and they're getting worse.

January 22, 2004

I have a funny relationship with Greg Wilpert...

...who's one of the of the Venezuelanalysis.com people. We don't agree on anything, but we ought to. We're both academics who want to address a broad audience. We share a basic concern for the poor; we make genuine efforts to write with integrity. I think he's a bit naive, but then he thinks I'm a bit naive too. We've never actually met in person, but probably ought to. Most importantly, we seem to be able to hold a debate across ideological lines, which is rare enough to be valuable in Venezuela these days.

His latest piece in Venezuelanalysis.com is, in part, a response to my earlier post on racism. As so often happens, I find myself surprised and slightly confused with Greg's line of argument. He starts with a frank admission that 95% of Venezuelans don't see race as a problem, which is a good start. But then he goes on to say they're wrong, that a hidden form of racism is prevalent in Venezuela. He urges us to believe Greg Pallast and Richard Gott (even though they're a-not venezuelan b-don't live in venezuela and c-are white,) over the judgments of the vast majority of dark-skinned people in Venezuela.

I'm afraid this strikes me as insulting, and highly implausible. How is it that two gringo lefties are able to magically peer through this veil of appearances and get at the deeper racial dynamics at play? Does he really mean that 95% of Venezuelans (including, by statistical necessity, a huge number of dark-skinned Venezuelans) are either too stupid or too ideologically brainwashed to notice a major reason for their oppression? Greg, man, if you really think Greg Pallast and Richard Gott understand more about race relations in Venezuela than 95% of the people there, you're less aware of your own cultural blinders than you imagine.

The Transafrica Forumsters got it wrong. The editorial cartoons calling them "quemados" (burnt ones) were not racist. Even to decry them as racist demonstrates a serious inability to get to grips with the way race works in Venezuela.

Racism is a system of social control, a social and psychological framework for keeping a given ethnic group subjugated, scared and excluded. Racism is the mechanism whereby one ethnic group controls and oppresses another ethnic group.

All of that is absent in Venezuela, and you know it.

When race does not map onto ethnicity neatly - which you've admitted is the case in Venezuela - a cartoon like the "tour de los quemados" is a commentary on skin color, on appearance, not on ethnic identification. It's worth noting that "quemado" has the secondary meaning of "having lost their credibility" in Spanish - the cartoon had is supposed to be a humorous double entendre. Ask 100 black people on the streets of Caracas if they were offended by it, and how many do you think will declare themselves oppressed by it?

Venezuela, thankfully, does not need the skittishness about discussions of race that dominate the US. Because race is so much less important, so much less divisive, it's possible to talk about it in a depoliticized way, even in a humorous way, without stirring the tidal waves of social conflict that similar talk unleashes in the US

It's only when approached from the standpoint and using the mental categories of race relations in the US that a cartoon like that is re-interpreted as racist. Outside the context of an ethnic struggle like the one in the US, a cartoon like that loses all its bite. The undercurrent of menace, of deep foreboding that a racist remark has in the US is absent in a place where 95% of the people just don't think about themselves or those around them in racial terms.

So what I would say to the Transafrica Forum is simple: the US is not the whole of the world. You spend two thirds of your time telling George W. Bush precisely that, it stuns me that it's so hard to convince you of it. The mental categories, the norms and understandings that govern race relations in the US are not fixed and universal. They are particular to your country. Please don't shove them down our throats.

In order to understand Venezuela - or indeed any foreign culture - you need to put that mental framework aside for a minute and learn, really open yourself and learn, how a different society operates. And once you do, you might, just might, come to realize that some things that seem perfectly unquestionable in one cultural framework - that a cartoon making a reference to skin color is necessarily racist, for instance - actually don't hold in another cultural context.

If you don't make a commitment to learn about and understand the particularities of a given country's social and cultural system, I just don't see where you get off pontificating about it. (That goes for Amy Chua also.) This is why I try to write only about Venezuela in this blog: it really bugs me when people write about topics they don't understand, and I refuse to do it.

To my mind, people like Gott, Pallast and Chua have failed to understand the dynamics of our mestizo society. They and the Transafrica Forumsters end up exercising a funny sort of reverse cultural imperialism on us: foisting their highly politicized, divided and divisive racial framework on a society that has no use for it at all, and in fact would do much better to export its model than to accept any imports! Sure, their rhetoric makes for delicious chavista propaganda in the first world, but it adds pathetically little to an audience's understanding of what's actually happening in this country.

So Greg, please, if you want to have a discussion of income inequality, social exclusion, and privilege, let's have it. I think I can show Chavez has deepened each of those, not with rhetoric, but with statistics. But please don't falsify Venezuela's reality by making claims about race relations that are not only wrong, but destructive.

January 21, 2004

So, why doesn't the attorney general ever investigate political violence?

Because he's too busy implementing a kind of freelance foreign policy, that's why.

Honestly, Venezuelanalysis.com should be embarassed even to invoke Isaias Rodriguez's name...but no. Appropriating some of the boss's chutzpah, they revel in his revolutionary exploits while gently sweeping under the rug his spectacular failure to enforce the law - his job, one would've thought.

January 20, 2004

Planning for the worst case scenario...

I'm increasingly worried about the climate of deep skepticism in the opposition about the National Electoral Council's impartiality. Too many people seem to think Chavez owns the council, that the stitch-up is in place, that the referendum will die at in some smoke-filled backroom in the CNE and that the time to start making some unorthodox "Plan B" is now.

The council may have a nominal 3-2 chavista majority, but people who know the board members well are adamant that most will put country above party and vote with their consciences. The government may count on them for some relatively minor favors - like the timing of regional elections - but can Chavez really order them to stop the recall against the objections of their consciences? I really doubt it.

Too many of the anti-CNE opinions making the rounds are just shrill and uninformed. These attitudes are dangerous. They undermine CNE's ability to do its job, they undermine the credibility of the one institution we can't do without. They push the country into confrontational maximalism, the attitude that has already yielded two major debacles over the last 20 months.

It's time for the opposition to sit back, take a deep breath, and think about its options. Venezuela's best ally in the search for a peaceful solution to the crisis, the Carter Center's Francisco Diez, assures that their monitoring mission of the signature validation process continues apace, and that the council is rapidly overcoming the obstacles that have come up.

In the Carter Center/OAS monitoring mission, the country has an exceedingly prestigious witness, a truly honest broker that has no reason at all to lie, to shill for either side. If the Carter Center/OAS mission starts making anti-CNE noises, the opposition's skepticism will acquire unprecedented credibility. Until it does, our skepticism only makes us seem immature and unwilling to accept a contrary decision.

Yes, I understand that, as usual, Chavez's threats and blusters make it much harder to keep an even keel here. But this is crunch time, and the opposition has to understand that it makes no sense for us to demand that the president accept any CNE decision if we aren't willing to do the same.

So the opposition needs to think very carefully about how we would react if - heaven forbid - CNE does rule against the recall vote. The anger that would seize all of us in that scenario would be hard to control. But anger is the single worst source of advice possible in this case. Knee-jerk responses will lead us where they've always led us in the past: up the garden path.

Until the Carter Center/OAS mission says otherwise, it's counterproductive for the opposition to write off CNE.

So, here's a heretical proposal: if the CNE rules against the referendum and if the Carter Center/OAS mission does not condemn that decision as clearly fraudulent, we should keep our cool, accept the ruling, and declare that we will treat the August 1st regional elections as a "virtual referendum."

This is not as crazy as it sounds: now that the opposition seems to have reached a consensus on the thorny topic of how to select candidates to those elections, the way is clear to "referendumize" the regional elections. And with the pent up anger people would feel due to the failure of the recall petition, antichavez turn out would be sky high, provided the opposition is smart about campaigning.

Trouncing the government in our first chance to go to the polls, right after being denied a referendum, would send a powerful message about the resilience, patience and maturity of the opposition. Losing our cool and starting to push for an unorthodox solution would only substantitate the government's charges of golpismo.

Chavez can't keep us away from the ballot box forever, and as soon as we get there, he's doomed. His one shot at staying in power is making us blunder, making us lose our cool, goading us out onto his territory: violence, confrontation, aggression.

We can't win on that level; we shouldn't try.

But the Carter Center/OAS mission will be the key. Keep your eye on Francisco Diez. Only the Carter Center/OAS observers have the access and the credibility to denue an illegitimate decision as such. If that happens, we're in a Milosevic/Fujimori/Shevardnaze scenario, and all bets are off.

January 19, 2004

The Unspoken Amnesty

This morning, it happened again.

A group of MAS activists - anti-Chavez socialists - was attacked by a small mob of government supporters as they tried to - sin of sins - lay a wreath to the memory of Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's independence war hero.

Shouting "get out of here, escualidos" and "you can't come here, this is our territory" the attackers used mostly sticks and stones.

However, some were armed and some fired at a car carrying a Globovision camera crew. (It's on video.)

Four people were sent to hospital. One MAS supporter was badly hurt after getting his head bashed in with a tube.

A Globovision camera crew got video footage of a group of government supporters approaching the scene with weapons.

The message from today's attack is simple: we own Bolivar. In revolutionary times, Simon Bolivar cannot be the simbol of national unity it has always been: Bolivar has been appropriated by the president's cult of personality, hijacked for petty political gain.

It's as though Republican mobs started attacking Democrats for wanting to pay homage to the memory of George Washington.

This is how one MAS activist's car ended up. The owner was driving the car, trying to escape the area, when it was attacked.

When the car carrying the Globovision camera crew was spotted, the pro-government group turned and shot at them. The camera was running as the car sped past a group of them, and you could hear shots ring out after them (great footage - dangerous!)

The Guardia Nacional eventually arrived at the scene - but instead of arresting the attackers, they had a nice chat with them to ask them to cool it. As Miguel points out when the Guardia has dealt with peaceful opposition protests in the past, it's often tear gas and swinging batons. But when it's an aggressive chavista mob?

Velvet gloves.

Globovision car's windowsill.

It's difficult to overstate how destabilizing episodes like this are. But what's even more destabilizing is the authorities' ongoing passivity (complicity?) in the face of this violence. The climate of impunity that surrounds these episodes are a major reason why the country is teetering on the edge of civil war.

Any decent government presented with this much evidence would move against the assailants, regardless of which side they claim to support. If the government refuses to put a stop to this kind of violence - and after witnessing its track record over dozens of similar incidents, there's no reason to think they're about to change - the only possible conclusion is that it's deliberate, that at some point a high level political decision was taken to protect anyone who uses violence to defend the revolution.

This unspoken amnesty is at the top of my list of reasons for opposing the government. To my mind, nothing makes the Chavez regime so stomach-churningly unacceptable as this blatant double standard.

Reading news like today's, it's hard for me to contain my anger. I have friends who work for Globovision, I can't help thinking about them in situations like this. So yes, it is personal, but it's also eminently political.

Today's attacks demonstrate all over again the depths of the government's cynicism, of its ethical bankruptcy and old fashioned thuggishness.

More than anything, the fact that events like today's have become "normal", routinized, almost banal betrays the chavistas' deep contempt for the principles they claim to espouse, for the basic ideas repeated again and again in the constitution they themselves wrote and exalted again and again in the president's speeches. It's a big lie.

There is no excuse for allowing today's assailants to get away with this. If the chavistas took their own claims to being progressives and democrats seriously, they would know this. After all, the attack was hardly detective novel stuff: it happened right in the center of the city, less than a block from congress, in broad daylight, and there's video footage of some of the assailants. There is no excuse for the fiscalia to sit on its hands. It's an open-and-shut case.

But will the attackers be prosecuted?...

Let me put it this way:

Challenge to any government sympathizer reading this

I'll bet you $100 that the people who roughed up the MASistas and and shot at the Globovision camera crew, whoever they were, will not be prosecuted for this so long as Chavez is in power.

Hell, I'll make it doble contra sencillo - my $100 that they'll be protected vs. your $50 that they'll be prosecuted.

Any takers? Greg Wilpert, if you're reading this? Danny Glover? Dr. Weisbrot?...anyone at all?