March 31, 2006

Educational collapse

Katy says: This article shocked me; read it and weep. The author is a friend of mine, and he may be visiting the comments section. He gave me permission to translate it.

Educational collapse

By Marino González, Universidad Simón Bolívar professor

Tal Cual

It's not just bridges that collapse in the Chávez administration. The collapse of Viaduct No. 1 is shocking because it was easy for all to see, and because we witnessed the fall of one of the masterpieces of global engineering. However, another dramatic collapse is happening, one that is close to us but not so easily perceived by our eyes, and one that could undermine the viability of Venezuelan society in this century of knowledge.

The future of a country’s education system figures in more or less every government’s agenda. Many governments implement substantive reforms to increase the coverage of education, but many also try to improve its quality. History shows that guaranteeing universal coverage is not enough. Classrooms need to be full of students, but they also need to be full of students who want to learn, students who can participate actively and create their own education, without distinctions. Moreover, one of the prime concerns of a democratic government should be that poorer children seek and find in public schools the tools to lessen or eliminate the differences and socioeconomic disadvantages inherited from their parents. In other words, public education is the antidote par excellence against poverty and lack of opportunity.

Obviously, improving quality requires an instrument to measure it, a yardstick to hold up to policy to help correct its flaws, as well as to provide education administrators with the information they need to improve the performance of students, teachers and schools.

This idea was implemented in Venezuela through the National System for Measurement and Evaluation of Learning, or Sinea (after its Spanish acronym.) The first run of Sinea was done in 1998. The results showed that 36% of all third-graders were below the minimum standards in language-related tasks. The share below the minimum for ninth-graders was 40%. Only 9% of ninth-graders reached a fully satisfactory score.

In math, performance seemed even worse. 54% of ninth-graders did not meet minimum standards in that area. Only 2.9% reached a satisfactory score. Among sixth-graders, the percentage failing to reach the minimum was 34.7%.

It seemed evident that an education system with performance levels like these was clearly lagging. It was also clear that improving the quality of education should have been a key goal of the current administration.

As in many spheres of public policy, the results in this area are not known. Looking through the Ministry of Education and Sports' web site, you find lots of rhetoric and no data. We're told that Sinea provides “timely, valid, serial and trustworthy” information, but nowhere do they list percentages or data on achievement. There is lots about the benefits of Sinea, but these are merely words.

We know that the second set of Sinea tests were carried in 2003. Its results are probably the best-kept secret in the Chávez administration; nobody has seen them. Regrettably, without this kind of information, it is simply not possible to evaluate the performance of our students, teachers and schools. We are undoubtedly left with an educational system set adrift in a sea of missed opportunities and wasted resources.

This situation is certainly not the international norm. For example, Chile’s Ministry of Education website shows that, on average, eighth-grade students increased their performance in math by three points and language by six points between 2000 and 2004.

While others move ahead, we don't even know where we are. This is especially serious when the ones getting left behind are our kids and young people. It is a manifestation of incompetence at the highest level.

The Viaducto According to Quino

OK, it's not so topical anymore, but looking at this picture:

really reminded me of this Quino strip:

[Yes, it's true, we ran out of money again, but you can't deny that getting this far is a breeze now...]

How to demolish the revolution in 12 minutes flat...

Britain's Channel 4 put together this remarkable news spot on Venezuela, which has pulled off the ultimate coup: it impressed both me and Alek.

The report, really a mini-documentary, makes Chavez look ridiculous merely by playing some of his more outrageous outbursts on Alo, presidente. It covers a lot of ground in a limited amount of time with real finesse. Really it's pretty devastating.

I don't think it's possible to do a better job than this in 12 minutes.

Mismanaging the Looting

I like Juan Carlos Zapata's style...
The decay of the powerful seems unstoppable
Since there are no parties, there are cliques, and within the cliques some subcliques dominate. With the subcliques the situation is just about uncontrollable. There are no bosses able to make deals. No leaders to sustain agreements. The lack of leadership becomes a problem, it's hard to control the cliques to the point that you see them starting to use mafia methods.


We used to have parties and so power could always find ways to solve problems by talking. Today, there are no parties, not even in the government. The fight is between cliques, and cliques fighting over loot. That's what the struggle inside the governments boils down to. There is no ideological struggle. There is no political struggle. There isn't even a struggle for control of the party machine. There's a struggle over deals. Over booty.


It used to be that the money men, the people who make deals placing government deposits in private banks, were known entities, few in number, and playing by recognized rules of the game. Today there are any number, answering to different interests and each applies his own methods that can go from breaking their word to blackmail and police or judicial threats. Not long ago a bank had to hire a police expert to get rid of not one but several cliques threatening its stability. Those cliques have offices in Caracas luxury buildings.

Since the government is like an incompetence tournament, those in powerful positions hurry the pace to divvy up contracts, to grab funds, to help their families, their friends, to open up bank accounts abroad. Of course, in public each speaks vehemently about the moral health of the nation, to make sure people keep buying this story about a revolution. And yet, the contractors, the money men, the experts on how to do business from abroad develop links with people from the world of intelligence gathering, of the police, elements whose culture is one of pressure, blackmail and even crime. And that's how they come to form networks, "midget tribes", run by a "donna" or by a civilian or military bigwig. The party becomes a second thought. The government a third thought. The country their last thought.

And so the internal fight is onto death. What few leaders there are can't control the dynamics of corruption or the methods that come to be used in the scramble for loot. The actors themselves can't sleep at night. They feel they're being recorded. They're being followed. That there are conspiracies afoot to displace them from a governorship, a mayor's office, a ministry, a deal. When paranoia reaches such heights, controls whither and cliques rise up. Then the game takes on a new hue. And so, fear runs rampant. Nobody, in power, can sleep easy at night.

March 30, 2006

The chavista solution to barrio violence...more guns!

Finally, the Bolivarian government is starting to react to the epidemic of violence in Venezuela's slums. And what oh what is Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto planning to do about this terrible scourge? He wants to flood the barrios with decommissioned police guns!

No, really, I'm serious, that's his plan: take the old .38 caliber revolvers being decommissioned as the Metropolitan Police upgrades to 9 millimeter Glocks and distribute the older guns to reliably chavista barrio vigilante committees.

Hmmmm...have they really thought this one through? Guns aren't exactly hard to get in Caracas as it is. And it's not hard to guess that a good number of these .38s are going to end on the black market. If you boost supply like that, the price falls, making guns even easier for the bad guys to get.

How many Glock-toting cops are going to get shot with their old .38s by the time this little experiment is through?

March 29, 2006

Dutch Parliament Scared of Chavez

Nobody in Venezuela seems to have noticed, but in The Hague they think they're having a diplomatic crisis with Venezuela. It all started a few weeks ago, when Chavez said he feared the US would use Curacao - which is a self-governing part of the Dutch Kingdom just 40 km. from Venezuela's coasts - as a forward base to invade Venezuela. This right-royally spooked the Dutch, who worry Venezuela could freak out and invade the Antilles pre-emptively.

Yesterday, members representing a majority in the upper house of the Dutch parliament called on the defense and foreign affairs ministers to get on top of the Chavez threat. Citing Chavez's recent arms purchases, Liberal (in euro-speak, right-wing) member of parliament Zsolt Szabo called Dutch defenses on the island a "swiss cheese" and urged the government to take control of defending the islands.

Two weeks ago, the defense minister, Kamp, called Chavez an unreconstructed populist with a lot of money "who casts big eyes on the scraps by the coast of Venezuela which form part of the Netherlands Kingdom," but then backtracked somewhat, telling parliament that there is no chance of a Venezuelan invasion of Curacao.

My super-secret Dutch source think this is more about domestic political posturing in Holland than about any real threat to Curacao. But it's still interest to see Chavez playing the role of bogeyman in Dutch political wranglings...

Calgary, Edo. Monagas

Katy says: This NY Times article on the current oil boom in Alberta, Canada is worth a look. (Free registration required.)

As has been reported before, the high price of oil is encouraging the development of alternative sources of energy that were previously considered too expensive. Alberta is now growing at a rapid pace thanks to heavy investment in its oil tar belt, which has now become profitable.

Canadians seem to have decided that:
a) they want to produce as much oil as they can;
b) they want private companies to provide technology, capital and skilled labor; and
c) they will position themselves as a long-run, risk-free source of energy to the US.
The result is that Alberta and its neighboring provinces are booming, and incomes in those places are rising.

The Orinoco Tar Belt holds a similar, if not better, promise. Now, why can't Maturín be more like Calgary and less like Calcutta? Could it be that in Venezuela, a), b) and c) are anathema to the Bolivarian revolution?

The kind of journalism Venezuela needs, and isn't getting...

Lost amid the polemics on media bias and government intimidation in Venezuela is a fundamental observation about our journalism: it sucks.

Chavista or anti, Venezuelan journalists do shockingly little beyond stenography - just copying down what one politico or another has said.

What's worse, we don't even notice. Consumed with questions about who's intimidating whom, who's more biased, who's gutsier, we hardly stop to wonder why Venezuelan newspapers hardly ever produce actual reportage, proper descriptive writing meant simply to expose us to realities we aren't familiar with.

Think of it this way: for all the buckets of ink spent on polemics about Chavez's new Territorial Guard and Reserve, how many of us have a feel for what those new institutions look and feel like from the inside? Aside from participants, very few, simply because the Venezuelan media just doesn't produce that kind of story.

In fact, it took a Colombian paper, Vanguardia Liberal to produce this remarkable reportage about how the Territorial Guard and the Reserve train.

Vividly written, description-led, suffused with the feel of the reality it reports, this story showcases the kind of journalism Venezuela needs and isn't getting. And it shows how sterile, how far off track, the debate on the Venezuelan media is. Because independence is important, yes, but competence matters more.

March 28, 2006

LVA's incriminate-a-thon and the perils of rocking the boat

The scandal developing around not-yet-quite-ex-Supreme Tribunal Magistrate Luis Velásquez Alvaray (LVA) speaks a ton and a half about the dynamics of corruption-busting posturing in the Chavez regime. While the inside-story is undoubtedly much meatier than what's been made public so far, even the shards that are now in the public domain are highly revealing.

The first thing to note about LVA's barrage of counter charges is the timing. A month ago, before Interior Minister Jesse Chacón accused him of corruption, LVA was a model of revolutionary circumspection. Suddenly, finding himself on the back foot, he "discovers" not just that Chacón's banker brother is a crook, but also that there are any number of high level narco-corrupt dealings in the court system...which is ever so interesting because, lest we forget, this whole telenovela started when LVA was dismissed from his post as head of DEM, the Executive Directorate of the Magistrature.

The irony here is that DEM is the body in charge of supervising the court system, with extensive powers to investigate and sanction corrupt judges. Which begs the question...what was LVA doing about all this judicial corruption back when it was his job to stop that sorta thing? Nothing at all...except hoarding incriminating files on regime big-wigs as insurance against any future investigation.

"If I go down," he seems to have calculated, "a whole lot of people go down with me." Well, he's going down now, and he's not going down by himself.

First victim, MariPili Hernández, who will have to give up her job as vice-minister of Foreign Affairs after the Supreme Tribunal "disabled" her yesterday in a ruling penned guessed it, Luis Velásquez Alvaray (cuz that's the other thing, as allegations fly back and forth, LVA is still a working Supreme Tribunal magistrate...por ahora.) Is MariPili guilty of whatever she's been charged with? Who can tell? Is the timing of LVA's ruling coincidental? Not a chance...

What's interesting, from an analytical point of view, is the way the whole culture of corruption inside the revolution makes it perilous to try to pick off individual figures. Too many people know too much. Deciding to crack down on a single baddie is dangerous, because he knows he can take down a dozen others, and he knows you know he can take down a dozen others, and he uses the fact that you know that as a "vaccine" against any probe.

Any number of high officials seem to be caught up in this dynamic, which is only stable if everybody stays quiet. And as corruption extends more and more throughout the upper echelons of the state, Chávez finds the only way to keep the whole apparatus stable is not to rock the boat. Because if you move against one player, one revelation leads to another, which leads to two more, in a metastasizing progression that doesn't have a natural limit.

We already saw something similar, though in a smaller scale, with the CAEEZ scandal, when an initial set of revelations about corruption in the Sabaneta sugar mill led on to revelations about state funding of Chavez's referendum campaign (Comando Maisanta) in Barinas. In that case, the government seems to have been able to limit the damage. But it's a precarious nature, corruption investigations tend to grow in unsuspected new directions.

And that's a risk chavismo can hardly afford. The revolution may be able to survive one LVA/CAEEZ-type scandal, or two, or three. But if they start to multiply, eventually you can see how they might reach some critical threshhold where the whole of the upper government is implicated. And that's in no one's interest.

How very regal of him...

I try not to pick silly fights with Venezuelanalysis these days, but this headline is just too much...

March 27, 2006

Conceptual Precision Chronicles

I think this 1997 Foreign Affairs article (warning: large PDF file) by Fareed Zakaria is a really helpful read for anyone trying to understand chavismo. Stressing the conceptual difference between constitutional liberalism and democracy, The Rise of Illiberal Democracy is a cautionary tale about what happens when you keep the latter but lose the former.

For Zakaria, democracy as such is merely a way of selecting governments (e.g. through elections.)
"Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government's goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual's autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source - state, church or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain, beginning with the Greeks, that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it rests on the tradition, beginning with the Romans, of the rule of law. Constitutional liberalism developed in Western Europe and the United States as a defense of the individual's right to life and property, and freedom of religion and speech. To secure these rights, it emphasized checks on the power of each branch of government, equality under the law, impartial courts and tribunals, and the separation of church and state."
The piece is strewn with provocative little observations. Zakaria notes that all the now-advanced liberal democracies in Western Europe and North America developed constitutional liberalism before they instituted democracy. "The 'Western Model,'" he writes "is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge."

Moreover, contrasting the pattern in East Asia, where "liberal autocracies" have gradually given rise to democracy, with the pattern in Africa, where democracies have done little to establish the rule of law, he quips "constitutional liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism."

Really, it's worth reading the whole thing. Or, you can buy the book...

"El nuevorriquismo derrochador y rastacuero desaparecerá de las costumbres oficiales!"

Hat tip to Feathers for pointing me to Viejas Fotos Actuales, a stunning archive of Venezuelan historical sound recordings and film clips. Good for hours of kitsch/nostalgic fun.

Don't miss this (unfortunately too short) fragment of a Romulo Betancourt speech, stuck at the end of some old style adeco Internationale singing and the 1950 Perez Jimenez propaganda clip on the making of the Caracas-La Guaira highway (in corny 50s style English, even)...really amazing stuff.

There's also a very cool, larger archive of historical photos only...

March 26, 2006

From my inbox: Dissecting the CNE gordian knot

A reader writes: It's important to separate out two quite different strands of this issue, which tend to get confused:
  1. Whether or not there is any chance that the Asamblea Nacional will appoint a halfway decent CNE, and

  2. What the opposition's response to the answer to question (1) should be.
Since the government has total political control of the process, the answer to question (1) is that it will do so IF and ONLY IF that is in the interests of the government. The individuals and groups involved have a solid record of placing the interests of the "revolution" above the interests of the nation. Many of them genuinely believe that is the correct thing to do.

If that is the case, the next point in the discussion is whether or not an honest (or partly honest) CNE directorate would be in the government's interest. And the answer seems to be that the government very much wants the new CNE to be perceived as worthy of confidence, because the presentational issues are very important. When the rubber hits the road, some time into Chavez's next government, he wants to be able to point to a 'free and fair' election, with an international seal of approval, as proof of his legitimacy of origin.

But the key word in the last paragraph is "perceived". Remember Carrasquero? Fiel de la balanza? Praised by the opposition? I would put good money on the proposition that the power in the next CNE will be held by individuals that will bow to government instructions.

Why? Because of the parable of the frog and the scorpion. It's in their nature. Even if the government could be certain that it would win a totally free, fair and transparent election, it would not run one. Chavez is not about to surrender control over a key branch of government at this stage in the proceedings.

That leaves question (2) - how should the opposition react? The biggest problem here is the one they've been faced with ever since the RR: how do you fight what's happening in the CNE without leaving your potential voters ever more convinced that it's not worth voting because the process is utterly viciado?

Unfortunately for the opposition, their inability to answer that question is not their biggest problem. Their biggest problem is that they have no leaders worth following and no political programme to offer as an alternative to the current government.

I don't precisely share your view that there are only four ways the chavez government can come to an end (election, heart-attack, coup or invasion.) I think the most plausible scenario is a political implosion of the regime. But to end up as the beneficiary, the opposition has to lay the groundwork, create a movement and find a leader, and -preferably - prove its worth by getting more real votes than Chavez in an election.

None of these conditions yet exists. If they go into december's election with a 'unity' candidate like arias cardenas in 2000 or salas romer in 1998 they will be left in 2007 with nothing, even assuming they get the 'ya tradicional' 40%. Because, as we know, that 40% is an anti-chavez vote, not a pro-opposition vote. If they pull out, not only do they surrender yet more space, they leave themselves in the sub-basement as far as international opinion is concerned.

Revolutionary Spirit Chronicles

Honestly, I can't follow all the ins and outs of Supreme Tribunal Magistrate Luis Velasquez Alvaray's defenestration saga, but some of the crap coming out is really eye-popping.

The Interior Minister tells us the guy who used to be in charge of the entire court system (as head of the Executive Directorate of the Magistrature) was "stewing" (guisando) with some shady construction contracts for new courthouses. Going on the counteroffensive, the guy who used to run the entire court system tells us Military Intelligence is run by drug traffikers (!) backed by Caracas-circuit drug-baron midget judges (I wish I was making this up) protected by Jose Vicente Rangel. He says the Interior Minister's banker brother has been accused again and again of abusing his political connections to land lucrative contracts. He helpfully suggests bombing Caracas's main court building as a means of judicial prophylaxis(!!!!!).

I have no idea who's telling the truth here - though it does look more or less like a fight about integrity between Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone, so it wouldn't precisely shock me if all the allegations are true.

Just one note: if a tenth of the charges flying around Velasquez Alvaray are true, this web of scandals is 10 times worse than the PT bribes scandal in Brazil. But are there any consequences? Is there any sense of crisis? Political fallout? None at all...ah, the joys of autocracy.