November 12, 2005

Danilogate Fails to Crack Gringo Media

Venezuela may be up in arms about the Danilo Anderson case, but the English language media has met the story with a collective yawn. Out of curiousity, I just did a Google News search for "Danilo Anderson". Every story the search yields is from a Venezuela based organization - the DJ, Petroleumworld, (which picked up my highly compressed summary - thanks!) VHeadline, and, of course, Prensa Latina, which more or less counts as Venezuelan by now.

The AP and Reuters wrote a single story each when the first arrests were made and haven't touched it since.

It's strange, the way a story can utterly dominate the Venezuelan press with nary a ripple making it through to English-language readers. In a way it's understandable - Danilogate is too convoluted even for many Venezuelans to understand, so I can well imagine the trouble foreign journos would face in trying to sell it to editors back home. I see the general silence as a function of the tyranny of the 800-word limit - there's no way to explain what happened briefly, so gringo papers just won't run with it.

Still, they're missing a great yarn - L'Affaire Danilo just keeps getting more and more bizarre. Yesterday, El Tiempo, a Bogota Daily, reported that Geovanny Vasquez de Armas, the prosecution's one and only witness, has been in and out of court in Colombia since 1996 on fraud and impersonation charges.

Deliciously, back in 1999 he was convicted to 36 months in jail for impersonating a psychiatrist. Recall that three days ago Isaias tried to puff up the guy's credibility saying "hey, he's a psychiatrist!"

But there's much much more where that came from. Vasquez de Armas got busted in Colombia for faking a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and for faking claims that he was accredited by the FBI and other US authorities as a forensic scientist. In total, Isaias's supergrass has been accused of fraud and related charges seven times in Colombia. Just for good measure, he told Colombian police he was fluent in German - another howler.

As Teodoro pointed out in Tal Cual yesterday, the truly silly thing is that the Venezuelan Prosecutors apparently failed to conduct any kind of background check on the guy they planned to hang their whole indictment on. Curioser and curioser...

November 11, 2005

Anderson Cover-Up Chronicles

Seldom has the ethical rot at the heart of chavismo found a more pungent manifestation than in the Prosecutor General's bizarre cover-up following Danilo Anderson's murder. Teodoro Petkoff masterfully takes apart Isaias Rodriguez's line in this delightful Tal Cual editorial. Miguel has taken the time to translate to some of the inside coverage from Tal Cual, detailing the case's time-line and Isaias's bizarre shifting declarations over the last few months.

I'm not really a Danilologist (and believe me, there are more than a few out there - the Venezuelan press seems to have gone for an All-Danilo-Anderson-All-The-Time format over the last few days), so I am not qualified to write at length on the case. But you don't need to be an expert to recognize the heavy stench of cover-up hanging over this whole sad affair...the bizarre story from the bizarre single witness, the total, almost comical absence of corroborating evidence, the mind-boggling decision to keep Anderson's co-blackmailers at the helm of the investigation into his murder, the opportunistic use of an assassination to jail political enemies, the whole thing is one big fat bucket of shit.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, there's no better proof of the government's calamitous moral bankruptcy than the fact that Isaias Rodriguez is Prosecutor General.

November 8, 2005

The Extremely Abridged Version of the Danilo Anderson Saga

It all started on the evening of November 18th, 2004 when this prosecutor, Danilo Anderson, got blown up. Guy gets into his SUV, the thing explodes, his body is instantly incinerated.

This was a big shock for everyone. I mean, Venezuela is not Colombia, political assasinations are very rare. So people were really stunned when this happened.

Thing is, Anderson was not just any old prosecutor. The guy had been assigned a series of very high profile, highly politically sensitive cases. For sure he was seen as a chavista, and his investigations were suspiciously consistent in always implicating government critics and always exonerating government supporters.

"So the opposition had him killed," you might be thinking.

Well, it sure looked that way at first. Obviously, that was the chavista line. The government made a huge to do about it. The guy was mourned on the floor of the National Assembly. He was decorated post-mortem. Congressmen cried, ministers demanded justice, the prosecutor general vowed to leave no stone unturned in flushing out the evil oppositionists who did it. He became the first bona fide chavista martyr, a rallying cry for the government, definitive proof of how evil and twisted their opponents were.

So far, so good: a nice, neat narrative of opposition evil-doing. But soon, elements started coming out that didn't quite seem to fit in with that story-line.

Two days after the murder, two former cops disappeared off the streets, only to turn up a week later, almost naked and apparently drugged, wandering in the streets of Valencia. The two are brothers, Rolando and Otoniel Guevara, and they claim they were tortured by Disip - Venezuela's secret police. The government blamed them for carrying out the crime. Their cousin Juan Guevara, another former cop, was later implicated in the murder as well. The three were eventually convicted of carrying out the hit and sentenced to long sentences, though the evidence against them was spotty - there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime.

Two other suspects are now dead. Antonio Lopez Castillo, was killed in a strange shoot-out with police on the streets of Caracas. His body had something like 15 bullets in it by the time it got to the morgue. A fourth suspect, Juan Carlos Sanchez, died in mysterious circumstances. The police claim he died in a shootout with them in a Barquisimeto motel nine days after Danilo's murder. The Guevara brothers claim he was with them at the Disip detention center in Caracas, and died under torture.

Then, a series of press leaks showed that a number of eye-witnesses had seen State Security (DISIP) patrols very close to the scene of the explosion less than an hour before it happened. Coincidence?

But it gets even murkier: other highly compromising leaks from the police investigation of the murder started turning up in the opposition press. For one thing, Anderson seemed to have a lot, and I mean a LOT, more money than he could justify from his salary. The guy earned $1100 a month, but he had 3 SUVs, two apartments, two jet-skis, a farm, and stacks of 100 dollar-bills sitting in his apartment. Curious, very curious.

Then a number of bankers started to come forward to say that a group of public prosecutors headed by Anderson had been blackmailing them. 'Cough up $50,000 or face indictment over the 2002 coup.' That sort of thing. Some of the bankers said they were on record making these accusations before Anderson got blown up.

In early 2005, Chavez's own interior minister actually echoed the racketeering allegations. This guy is about as chavista as you can get, he's the guy in charge of the police in Venezuela we're talking about here. Jesse Chacon is his name. Chacon went in front of the cameras and said investigations suggested Anderson had been on the take.

It's at this point that things started to get really screwy. First off, José Cuellar, the police investigator who gathered the evidence on the racketeering angle and the Disip patrol on the scene, was denounced as a "traitor" by the prosecutor general and shifted off the case. Then, all of the evidence Cuellar had collected linking Anderson with blackmail started getting erased from the police record. Worse, it was revealed that the public prosecutors leading the investigation - the ones who had Cuellar bumped off the case - had been accused of taking part in Anderson's extortion racket. "The gang of midgets," they were called, because they were all short.

I know what you're thinking: "Wait, wait, run that by me again!? The other guys who were supposedly blackmailing these bankers were the ones in charge of investigating the murder of their ex-ring leader?"

Bizarre, huh? Well, that's what happened. Thing is, the Prosecutor General has never acknowledged that the extortion allegations even exist, and after a solitary reference to it, Chacon, the Interior Minister never mentioned it again. It's really quite twisted: the gang of midgets is still running the investigation now!

Finally, the government announced they had cracked the case into the "intellectual authors" of the crime - the masterminds. In November 2005, they indicted a weird, mixed group of Opposition and government figures, largely unrelated with one another. The highest-profile indictee was Patricia Poleo, a radical anti-Chavez journalist, who had actually written a book accusing the Guevara brothers of hiding Vladimiro Montesinos in Venezuela. The notion that Poleo could have hired the Guevaras to pull off a hit strains all credulity.

The Prosecutor General innitially proposed to try these masterminds on the basis of the evidence brought forth by a single alleged witness to the conspiracy: a former colombian paramilitary. The guy, Geovanny Vasquez de Armas, became the focus of frenzied media interest. And after just a few phone calls to Colombia, journalists discovered he had an extensive criminal record, had spent time in jail for identity fraud (impersonating a doctor and faking a medical diploma.) Documents they dug up indicate he was in jail in September 2003, on the dates when he claimed to have been planning the murder in Panama. As Vasquez de Armas' credibility started to flounder, the Prosecutor General claimed to have dug up further witnesses.

The reports that DISIP agents were hovering around the scene of the explosion were never followed up. The money in Danilo's apartment, along with all records of its existence, just diappeared. According to some versions, Anderson had a compromising sex video in his safe - obviously, that one vanished as well.

It all seems just too far-fetched to take seriously, I realize. But this is what's out there on the record. Frankly, I have no idea who killed Danilo Anderson. But I'm sure the Prosecutor General is covering something up.

November 7, 2005

Bury FTAA? Easy for Chavez to say!

Chavez was happy like a pig in shit last week, basking in worldwide media attention and lefty adoration for his "principled stand" against one of those gringo proposals everyone loves to hate - the Free Trade Area of the Americas. For all the talk about burying FTAA, one basic fact was mostly ignored in commentary of the summit: it's murderously easy for Chavez to rant at length about this because Venezuela already enjoys most of the benefits of Free Trade.

To explain. Countries engage in trade negotiations in order to improve their access to other countries' markets. If Country A exports mostly shirts, and shirts face high tariffs in Country B's, then Country A has an obvious interest in negotiating better access to Country B's market.

You'll have noticed that Country V's exports are overwhelmingly dominated by oil. Oil already faces low-to-no tariffs all around the world. (It's just too important an input for other countries to tax it at the border.) So oil-exporters like Venezuela are in a peculiar position when it comes to trade negotiations: the basic impetus that drives most countries to negotiate really doesn't apply to them.

It's true that oil products do face high taxes once inside the border, but no country negotiates tax policies in international trade talks, and energy taxes are certainly not on the FTAA agenda. So Venezuela has nothing much to gain from hemispheric trade talks.

This is why it's so easy - but also so fatuous - for Chavez to rant against FTAA. He can talk himself blue in the face, knowing that our access to foreign markets isn't really in doubt.

This also explains why Brazil and Argentina, which are also skeptical of FTAA, were so much more circumspect in criticizing it. Brazil and Argentina's exports are centered on basic manufactures and agriculture, sectors that face serious barriers in the US market. They have much more to gain from negotiating a trade agreements with the US than Venezuela ever will.

In fact, FTAA is an issue taylor-made to Chavez's brand of demagoguery. He can use it to make grand sounding fulminations against imperialism at basically no cost. It's the ultimate risk-free way to position himself as a world leader and get the drooling admirations of ñangaras near and far. Que manguangua!

November 6, 2005

Luis Vicente Leon on Roberto Smith

Closing out his roundup of the four main non-chavista "presidenciables" (the others being Julio Borges, Teodoro Petkoff, and one or the other of the Salases), Luis Vicente Leon evaluates Roberto Smith's chances in today's El Universal.

I'll translate it leaving out Leon's preposterous little Fantastic Four theme...
Many believe that an opposition leader's job is: 1-to give Chavez hell, in order to rouse the peanut gallery, 2-to invoke Article 350 (on civil disobedience) as an expedient to get around the "little detail" of having to put forward an intelligent set of proposals that might rescue the search for an alternative to chavismo.

The results of that strategy are clear: the contender who does best at insulting Chavez (and I don't doubt he deserves it) will be the darling of that 12.6% who define themselves as hardcore oppositionists. Bravo! The problem is that the 46.8% of the population that defines itself as NiNi, plus the 36.7% who define themselves as chavistas, won't even pause to take a look.

Nobody has grasped this better than Roberto "Esmí" Perera. This is the same Roberto Smith from the USB Student Center, the dashing CAP Telecomunications Minister, the former envoy to the European Union and the successful founding CEO of Digitel, it's just that he's spent some time de-gringuifying his background and showing that part of him is as Caroreño as Club Torres. I think it's brilliant.

His biggest strength is that he has a real plan to offer the country, which in the Venezuelan context is almost a miracle. His proposal is intelligent, modern, and geared at bringing people together. He aims to open spaces for all Venezuelans, regardless of ideology or class. He talks about turning Venezuela into a first world country, able to go head to head with the best societies in the world in terms of prosperity, equality, justice and peace. He's put forward the Todos Para Arriba (clunky translation - Everyone for the Better) program: full employment, and zero crime (the central problems people mention in all polls), ending poverty, a house for everyone and a first rate educational system that allows everyone a chance for a high standard of living.

He's been adaptable enough to understand that a head-on confrontation with Chavez would bury him from day one. He explains his strategy with a love metastory: the good girl (the people) who's fallen in love with a low-life (do we really need to spell it out?) If you attack the low-life, you insult her, because she chose him. You need to approach her with subtlety, with tenderness, ask her out, bring her flowers, listen to her problems with absolute respect, and show her what she deserves and doesn't have...but could have.

His proposals and his messages are not improvised. There are many hours of sophisticated study and work behind them, and a first-rate team, which is not usual in national politics.

Some might think his proposal sounds a bit "American". But the facts show it can work. Roberto was a total unknown in Vargas when he decided to run for governor. His biggest link with the state was probably that he used the airport all the time. But during the campaign he deployed his three weapons: his proposal, a fresh team, and his wife, the efficient and well organized engine behind the leader.

This total unknown blew 16 other opposition candidates out of the water, all of them from Vargas. More importantly, chavistas didn't see him as an enemy, but as an option.

But it's not all positive. Unlike the other three (Borges-Petkoff-Salas), few people know him, and I had to spend half this column just introducing him. He sees that as an advantage because his negative ratings are lower that way. I think that's a far-fetched interpretation. Smith needs to improve his name recognition, work his image hard and get some coaching for his media appearances, which are still lackluster. Despite his personal and professional qualities, he can come across as being closed to advise and suggestions, and finally, the political platform supporting him is extremely weak, though the arrival of Cipriano Heredia and Vision Emergente might help.

One way or another, he is a disciplined, smart, organized operative who surprised everyone in Vargas and could do it again nationwide. Today he is in the spotlight more due to his proposal than his leadership. That could be the right way to build a real leader. We'll see.