April 29, 2006

Unconstitutional decisions #4,931,674 and #4,931,675

It's a detail, but telling: three of the "substitute National Electoral Council members" elected by the National Assembly are party hacks: Freddy Díaz, who worked on Chavez's campaign steering committee in 1998, Luis Salamanca - who was a Causa R adviser, and Pedro Díaz Blum who was actually a Proyecto Venezuela assemblymember until a few months ago!

Substantively, it doesn't much matter: substitute CNE members are mostly ornamental figures. Still, article 296 of the best-constitution-on-earth is explicit: CNE appointees must be "people not linked to organizations with political ends."

Which brings me back to an old theme: chavistas violate the constitution just for sport.

I mean, think about it: two of the three aforementioned party hacks are opposition people. Maduro & Co. are not even violating the constitution for petty political advantage here. They just do it from this weird mix of insouciancee and scorn. From a kind of deeply ingrained disdain for written rules that's unrelated to any particular political calculus. They have the assembly to themselves, the nominations committee virtually to themselves, they have no reason at all to violate the constitution just to toss the opposition some token CNE subs. But still, they do. They do.

Addendum from my inbox: The smart money says Diaz Blum is not there just because the chavistas enjoy violating the constitution. In fact he is a 'ficha' of MVR heavyweight (and onetime power-broker) Francisco Ameliach.

I'm not sure at which point he switched sides, but it would be interesting to learn a little more about his fellow 'opposition' suplente, to see if a small, but perfectly-formed pattern should emerge.

Curiously, though, it seems as if Ameliach is losing power within the chavista hierarchy. He appears to be out of the CTN, and indeed, the fact that the best his cne manoeuvrings could produce was one miserable suplente suggests his star is waning.

Sovereignty is in the eye of the beholder...

Is it just me, or have Chavez's lunatic outbursts been getting exponentially weirder? Yesterday, Chávez ripped brutally into Peruvian presidential candidate Alan García - calling him corrupt, a thief, and vowing to break diplomatic relations with Peru if he wins the election.

Showing for the Nth time that he doesn't grasp the fact that "Hugo Chavez" and "the Venezuelan State" are not synonyms, he said "if García wins, I will withdraw my ambassador" (not Venezuela's ambassador, mind you, or our ambassador, no: my ambassador.)

He capped off his unhinged little rant with a stirring "¡Viva Humala!"

(Of course, between you and me, there's no question that Alan Garcia is a derranged charlatan. Hey, that's ok for me to say, and for you to say, and for a drunk at a bar to say, but not for a damn foreign head of state to say!)

In the last seven days, then, Chavez has decided it's his job to tell the Colombians how to run their trade policy and the Peruvians who they should elect president. Charming!

This is all enormously fresh from the guy who blows a gasket any time anyone anywhere makes any comment that could even obliquely be seen as in some way impinging on Venezuelan sovereignty. Meddling, I suppose, only violates sovereignty when the bad guys do it: when Chavez does it, it's revolutionary solidarity.

April 28, 2006

By their fruits ye shall know them...

Well, we finally have a new CNE. How does it look? At first sight, not great:
  1. Tibisay Lucena: Only re-appointed CNE member, has always voted faithfully alongside Jorge Rodriguez. Government cadre.
  2. Sandra Oblitas: Until now head of CNE's Caracas office, she signed to ask for the recall of opposition Assembly-members and has contributed to pro-Chavez newspaper Proceso. Government cadre.
  3. German Yepez Contreras: UCV history prof, current subsitute CNE member, Aporrea poster, nominated by the "Moral Branch." Government cadre.
  4. Janeth Hernandez: Maracucha political science prof, some of her academic writing makes her seem sensible. Hard to pin down.
  5. Vicente Diaz Silva: Sociologist, Noticiero Digital poster. Token opposition guy. The new Solbella Mejias.
So, that's the score...three chavistas, one opposition, one not-immediately-peggable-downable.

How will this fearsome fivesome act? We'll have to see. The widely rumored choice of Lucena as chairwoman is not a good sign. But I'd say to watch the voting pattern: if you start seeing a lot of 3-to-2 decisions, that's bad. If they start holding meetings without letting Diaz Silva know (like they were doing with Solbella) - that's bad.

(Incidentally, Noticiero Digital had great fun noting that pro-Chavez daily Panorama scooped the National Assembly on its own vote!)

April 27, 2006

Jurassic Trade Policy

You can always count on Maria Cristina Iglesias to come up with aggressively ill-conceived policies. While her boss promises to further the cause of Latin American integration by threatening to break up the Andean Community unless Peru and Colombia do what he wants, the Minister of Light Industries and Trade delivers the coup de grace: a not-particularly-veiled threat to resort to massive protectionism, perhaps going as far as banning imports of all products currently produced in Venezuela.

There's so much wrong with this idea it's hard to know where to start to pick it apart. Lets try...

Under WTO-rules (GATT article XIX), Venezuela is only allowed to break its tariff-lowering commitments temporarily and surgically, as a response to an import surge in a specific product that "causes or threatens serious injury to domestic producers" of the same product. That's called a "safeguard measure" and it's perfectly WTO-legal.

But Iglesias doesn't seem to be talking about targetted, temporary safeguards for specific products facing import surges: she's talking about across the board protection for all Venezuelan industries. (As far as I know, no development economist has ever advocated such a thing - not even List.) If Maria Cristina wants Venezuela to break its WTO commitments on this scale, she's calling for Venezuela to violate its international treaty obligations on trade. (Nevermind that under the best-constitution-in-the-world's article 23, Venezuela's international treaty obligations are constitutionally binding.) If Venezuela does that, all its trade partners have the right, under GATT article XXIII, to retaliate by withdrawing their own tariff concessions to an extent equivalent to Venezuela's violation.

Iglesias may be banking that no one is going to slap punitive duties on oil - and she's probably right about that. But all other Venezuelan export products would likely face serious market-access difficulties abroad. The result, if it plays out this way, would be to further deepen Venezuela's already highly disruptive reliance on a single, volatile commodity for export revenues...turning us from a country that exports almost nothing but oil into a country that exports nothing but oil.

But, in fact, the WTO-angle is not even the worst of it. The truly damaging part is what such a policy would do to Venezuela's political economy. By limiting imports on this scale, we would be sliding back 30 years in terms of industrial policy - all the way back to the halcyon days of CAP I, when high import barriers produced a pampered class of rent-seeking local industrialists growing ever richer while producing sub-par, over-priced products that didn't have any prospect of ever becoming internationally competitive and survived only because Venezuelan consumers had no choice but to buy them. The massive waste of resources such a policy entails not only makes the poor poorer, but it tends to established a new industrial elite that depends on state favors to survive: blanket protectionism breeds blanket corruption.

This is a film we've seen before, and frankly it doesn't deserve a sequel. The more the bolivarianos heaps scorn on the 4th republic, the more their policies recreate its worst aspects.

April 26, 2006

A CNE prediction

Katy says: Venezuela's National Assembly (AN) will elect a new Electoral Council today. The board will be elected from a list of 126 candidates filtered by a Committee mostly made up of government representatives. While this may be a routine appointment in normal democracies, it is hard to over-estimate how key this decision is for the future course of political developments in Venezuela.

The 100% chavista AN has been showing a bit more openness than expected the past few days. It has even gone so far to meet with teams from the current opposition presidential pre-candidates. Tomorrow, Borges, Rosales and Petkoff are due to meet the AN representatives.

If this spirit of cooperation prevails, we may get a CNE that is accepted by all parties and the ghosts of massive abstention will be held down - for now. However, if the AN decides to appoint people perceived to be blatantly pro-government to the board - such as current CNE board members Oscar Battaglini, Tibisay Lucena, Oscar León or even current CNE attorney Andrés Brito - it is not hard to foresee what the reaction from the opposition camp will be.

In this scenario, the pressure from the radical wing of the opposition on the pre-candidates will be enormous. Opposition primaries may be dealt a death-blow, and all bets would be off.

As Quico has pointed out before, mistrust in the CNE has been the root cause of an almost total demobilization of opposition political forces in the past few years. Many in the non-chavista camp see this as a deliberate effort on the part of the government - to create enough mistrust to demobilize opponents, but maintain international standards so that foreign observers can still validate your work.

Tomorrow's decision, if it comes, will give us an indication of whether the government wants to continue playing this game or not.

Judging from the track record of AN appointments, this guest-blogger thinks any combination of the four mentioned above will make it to the final board, hence seriously damaging its credibility from the get-go. Let's hope this doomsayer is proven wrong.

(With apologies to Quico, who is not terribly fond of CNE discussions lately)

You've heard of fat-free...

...now, a USB team has developed fart free beans.

April 25, 2006

The outlines of a three horse race...

The three main opposition pre-candidates to challenge Hugo Chavez in December's election held a press conference today and vowed that only one of them will be on the ballot against Chavez. They did not say how they intend to decide which of them gets to challenge Chavez, leaving open the possibility of a primary or a backroom deal.

It was a slightly strange situation, given that Rosales hasn't officially announced his bid yet, but it sure looks like the race for the oppo nomination is turning into a three-way race between these guys. Their pledge that only one of them will face Chavez in December must count as a rare instance of grown-up behavior in the Opposition leadership, and their pragmatism about methods also strikes me as uncommonly far-sighted.

All of this is good news, but before striking off in some hyperventilatory spree of misplaced euphoria, it's important to keep the fundamentals in context:

The challenges an eventual candidate will have to face are formidable. Chavez will enjoy an obscene funding advantage - not just in terms of paying for the actual campaign, but also through his ability to manipulate the flow of petrodollars to his political clientele for political impact. An asymetrical campaign, is what Teodoro calls it.

Plus Chavez is still personally popular, and GQR reports that 43% of poll respondents think the country is on the right track against just 29% who think it's on the wrong track. And that's without even mentioning everyone's favorite hope-crushing three-letter acronym...

Decisive Deadline Dropped: Doha Deal Deemed Deader Dan Dodo

Breaking news for the one or two of you who give a rat's ass about trade negotiations: with a week to spare, trade ministers have already given up on the April 30th deadline for a new WTO agreement.

With his archetypically French flair for the eyebrow-raising quip, WTO Director General Pascal Lamy told reporters “we may have missed the deadline but we are not in deadlock.” Of course, it's his job to put the best face possible on setbacks big and small; everybody knows that missing this deadline makes it virtually certain that no WTO agreement will be signed before 2009, and possibly for much longer.

Trade ministers have already shifted their attention to a Byzantine debate about whether it would even be helpful to set a new deadline at this point. Of course, a good number of them have surrendered to the by-now-traditional pleasures of the post-missed-deadline round of bitter recriminations (read that last link with an eye out for how incredibly annoyed the Americans are getting at Mandelson's famously smarmy brand of public relations.)