October 8, 2005

Election? What election?!

I find it amazing that, with less than two months to go, nobody but nobody seems to be talking about the December 4th National Assembly elections. If the opposition slate has a campaign, it must be one of the best kept secrets in Venezuela.

What little talk there is seems to be stuck in an endless, totally barren debate on the Elections Council. And it's no wonder: the one thing the oppo leadership succeeded at over the last year was in convincing their own supporters that CNE stole the recall referendum. Never mind that the "evidence" of electronic manipulation was circumstantial at best (more like entirely speculative, if you ask me), never mind that the oppo leadership had an obvious motivation to pass the buck after having bungled the RR campaign so badly. They spared no effort to trash CNE. They made their bed, now they get to lie on it.

The opposition leadership's big problem is no longer how to win over chavistas, but how to mobilize a base they've spent over a year demobilizing through their strident claims of fraud.

The tragic part is that all of this comes at a time when Chavez is again sliding in the polls, when the initial euphoria over the misiones has decidedly faded, when the government has launched a radical drive against private property that even chavistas reject, when increasing numbers of chavistas are dissatisfied with the government, when even Lina Ron and Ramon Machuca are getting restive...all of this at a time when a minimally organized, minimally competent election campaign could rock the chavista establishment to the core.

Instead, we'll get a qualified chavista majority in the AN that will waste no time amending the constitution to make Chavez endlessly re-electable.


October 7, 2005

Revolution without institutions

I've been rereading Political Order in Changing Societies, the book Samuel Huntington should be famous for, and would be, if he hadn't gone and mucked up his legacy with the horrid Clash of Civilizations. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on his earlier book, and go back to it now and then for insight.

His chapter on revolutions is pretty lucid. "Revolution," he writes, "is one means of political development, one way of creating and institutionalizing new political organizations and procedures, of strengthening the political sphere. Every major revolution of the twentieth century has led to the creation of a new political order to structure, to stabilize and to institutionalize the broadened participation in politics. It has involved the creation of a political party system with deep roots in the population. The triumph of the revolution is the triumph of party government."

He is thinking of Mexico, the USSR, China, Turkey and Yugoslavia - cases where, love it or loathe it, the political system that the revolution brought about was highly institutionalized and stable.

The problem, though, is that it doesn't always work. "Not all revolutions end in triumph, and not all triumphs are irreversible. It is possible for a society to suffer the agonies of revolutionary dislocation without achieving the stability and integration a revolution might bring."

It's worth thinking about the Chavez era in these terms, because the personalism and institutional fragility of the Fifth Republic is so obvious. For all the dislocation of the last few years, the revolution has not innovated in institutional terms at all. Instead, it has bulldozed all institutional structures in its path and replaced them with Chávez's personal will.

Huntington suggests that revolutions that do not manage to institutionalize themselves usually end up as footnotes in their country's histories. His paradigmatic example of a revolution that failed at the institutional game is Bolivia's MNR period in the 1950s...and who on earth gets worked up about that one anymore?

October 6, 2005

A time honored Venezuelan tradition: botching the oil cycle

Between 1936 and 1978, the Venezuelan economy grew faster than any other anywhere on earth. From 1978 onward, it shrunk faster than almost any other in the world. What happened?

The standard explanation is all about corruption.

Most economists, however, see it differently. The wonkish take centers on the instability of the world oil market. Starting with the 1973 oil crisis, what had been a relatively stable energy market went all out of whack. Prices became much more variable.

For oil exporters, the result was dizzying macroeconomic instability. Money would flood into the country during booms, internal consumption would grow fast, and in time, the economy would overheat. When the bubble burst, demand would collapse and severe recessions followed. Each turn of this merry-go-round would leave people poorer than the last.

The fault is not just with impersonal global forces, though. Since the 1970s, every government Venezuela has had has mismanaged the oil cycle, and all in the same way. Instead of evening out the highs and lows, they accentuated them. Instead of saving during booms, they went into debt to spend even more than they were taking in. Instead of going into debt during busts to stimulate the economy out of crisis, they were forced to spend less because, by then, they had tapped out their creditors.

Lots of petrostates have suffered through this kind of mismanagement, and all have ended up poorer than they started.

Now, it's happening again. Once again oil prices are sky high. Once again the government is rushing to spend every dollar it gets its hands on, and then some. Once again the economy is overheating.

For now, times are good - just like they were in 73, 79, and 91. GDP is way up. Nothing surprising about that. The question is, what happens when the bust comes? Care to hazard a guess?

October 5, 2005

I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried...

Moneda de Plata Pura. Presidente Chavez y Acosta Carles.

Winning bid: Bs. 85,000

Berenjenal Chronicles

Guaicaipuro Lameda's take on the here-and-now...

For now, the opposition trumpets a precarious unity, shorn of political purpose, forced into being by reality and meant only to place a few people in "winning positions" on the election lists, and so much so that only the most daring venture to assure us that they will deny the revolution a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

And so, its clumsiness in the face of traps, its cowardice when the time comes to defend itself against powerplays, its lack of concrete achievements and its naivete when it comes to responding to the nature of its adversary have disqualified this leadership which neither acknowledges past failures nor learns from them and, as a result, the voters who oppose the revolution find themselves fragmented and confused as they drown in a mix of feelings that range from anger and frustration to disappointment and hopelessness.

Today, the opposition people, without a discernible future or a winning spirit and having lost faith in themselves, have given themselves over to prophecizing about coming revolutionary events. Thus we hear people who go as far as to say they'll lose their homes or have to share them with those the revolution imposes. This is a sign that defeatism is imposing itself on the opposition while triumphalism becomes the real adversary of the revolutionaries. They have no one left to fight with, and to cover up their mistakes they're reduced to blaming the problems their incompetence bars them from solving on those who haven't been anywhere near power for seven long years.

And so, and "for now", it seems the revolution is here to stay and to inflict terrible damage on Venezuelan society, enslaving it to a government that deifies poverty as an instrument of domination and subjugation that allows it to keep itself in power. We shall have to see if those who have lived in poverty and exclusion are willing to suffer through such a fate while a revolutionary oligarchy grows in an opulence that magnifies the inequalities that brought forth its own birth.

Groping for a Coherent Stance on CNE

The political opposition (i.e. the anti-Chavez political class) has painted itself into a strange corner over the upcoming elections. After months of saying there was massive fraud in the recall referendum, they've turned on a dime and put together a single slate of candidate for Dec. 4th's parliamentary vote. But there was no very coherent explanation for the turn-around, because they've never renegued on their original fraud allegations. So their line, as it stands, goes something like "CNE cheated last year, and now CNE is even more chavistified, and just a couple of months ago we were telling you not to vote because CNE would cheat again...ergo, please go vote for us on Dec. 4th."


Teodoro Petkoff, who understood the longer-term implications of claiming fraud on not-much-evidence earlier than almost anyone else, is taking a much more constructive position. No grandiloquent declarations about bolichoros at CNE, just a set of basic demands on the elections authorities scrupulously grounded in law.

    1- Quit running out the clock on inviting an EU observer mission.
    2- Open communication channels between local election boards and local opposition representatives (i.e. local boards can't continue talking only with chavistas.)
    3- Enforce the legally-established role of the military at voting centers (i.e. men with guns are there to provide security, not to run the voting center.)
    4- Apply the legal requirement that vote tallying to be open to the public (i.e. no more counting votes behind closed doors.)

This little list will hardly get oppo pulses raising, it just makes some basic demands while forthrightly accepting CNE's right to run the election.


Well yeah...and so do the oppo politicos, from the moment they decide to run candidates in the election.

October 4, 2005

The Strong Oil Card is a Bluff

People see it as the "nuclear option" in Chávez's escalating pissing match with the Americans. Chávez himself calls it his "strong oil card," and likes to threaten to use it. If things get out of hand, the story goes, Chávez could stop selling oil to the US and then the brown stuff would really hit the fan.

Problem is, the story is based on faulty economic reasoning. Oil is fungible. The only way Venezuela can cause a supply shock is by pulling out of the oil market altogether.

To see why, imagine Venezuela cuts off the US tomorrow and starts selling all its oil to China. (Not that the Chinese would go for this, but this is a thought experiment.) China would find itself buying an extra 2 million barrels per day. Logically, they would then buy 2 million fewer barrels per day from other suppliers. And the 2 million barrels the Chinese free up would eventually find their way to the US.

In the short run, this would mean some added costs as US and Chinese refineries are tweaked to process different crudes, and of course shipping would get more expensive for everyone involved. But, in the long run, world supply wouldn't change, so the Law of One Price would kick in. There's no reason to think the "strong oil card" would even push up prices, let alone cause some sort of crisis for the US.

So don't be fooled. The price of oil is set by the interaction of global supply and global demand. The only way Venezuela can cause a supply shock is by selling oil to no one. But this is the ultimate empty threat, because Chávez needs his oil revenue far more than the world needs our oil.

October 3, 2005

Venezuela Feverishly Strives for Axis of Evil Membership

Chavez, we have to conclude, will be bitterly disappointed if Venezuela doesn't make the next Axis of Evil list. Really, he's done everything he can think of:

Make provocative noises about developing nuclear energy? Check

Support Iran's proliferation effort? Check

Support the "creeping coup" to bring the Sandinistas back to power in Nicaragua? Check

Threaten to pull Venezuela's reserve holdings out of dollar-denominated bonds? Check

Build relations with North Korea? Check

What do these items have in common? None of them make any economic or strategic sense, unless you've decided "antagonizing the State Department" is your main strategic goal...

Honestly, I have this image of the guy heading a brainstorming session in Miraflores, pounding the table with his fist and shouting "Come on! people! there must be some other way to piss off the gringos! think damn you! THINK!!"

October 2, 2005

The blog is back!

Partly because I have a bit of time on my hands, partly because I just got a snazzy new net connection at home, but mostly because, erm...how to put this? JESUS H. CHRIST does it look like Chávez is out of control these days!

La Marqueseña, Walter Martinez, urban expropriations, the weird Pyongyang-Tehran-Caracas axis, escalating summit hissy fits, escalating gringophobia...scary stuff.

What I want to do (OK, try to do) is emulate the gringo blogger style by writing much shorter, more frequent posts picking up on little news items that often go unnoticed...I'm thinking of undercommented news like these two gems:

Getting technical on "forced disappearances"

Think Pinochet and Videla invented the "desaparición forzosa"? Think again.

José Vicente Rangel wants us to believe that Rómulo Betancourt invented the "forced disappearance." Not to get too pedantic about this, but isn't it well known that Pérez Jiménez disappeared people too? Adecos and communists and copeyanos together? Why doesn't J.V.R. want to inquire into those deaths?

My guess: there's no political gain to be made from pointing out that once Adecos and Commies made common cause against dictatorship and to establish democracy. The sooner that can be swept under the historical rug, the better.

Psychopath autocrats of the world, unite!

Mindless radicalization, anyone?

Deputy Foreign Minister William Izarra received Yang Hyong Sop in Caracas and discussed the possibility of energy cooperation between Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, and North Korea.

Hyong Sop, who was in Cuba earlier Wednesday, applauded "the important achievements in the process of constructing 21st-century socialism" in Venezuela while the oil-rich country works toward the "economic and political integration of Latin America," the statement said.

North Korea's commerce minister plans to visit Venezuela in November to discuss trade, Hyong Sop said.