June 10, 2006

Where in the world is Luis Velasquez Alvaray?!

Well, LVA was a no-show at his National Assembly hearing. Guy was promptly, unanimously sacked and the rumor going around over at Noticiero Digital is that he skipped the country. His right-hand guy, Antonio Barazate - the same guy who tried to do an end-run around the Maduro faction by buttering up Chavez's mom - shot himself in Barinas when it became clear LVA was throwing in the towel. Barinas faction chieftain Pedro Carreño conspicuously also failed to show up at LVA's hearing, suggesting his clique is quickly reaching an Ameliachesque level of disfavor.

How to read this? Well, my conjecture is that this signals the ascendancy of the Maduro faction. It's just imaginable - though staggering in its implications - that the barely literate former rabble-rousing bus driver is really succeeding in establishing his people as the dominant force in the chavista faction wars. Which is good news for midgets near and far - and for their white-powder dealing higher-ups. It's interesting thinking through this development alongside Jack Sweeney's piece on the changes in the State Department staff dealing with Venezuela. Jack notes that more and more counter-narcotics types are getting assigned to Foggy Bottom's Venezuela desk. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Day 2: England-Paraguay, Argentina-Ivory Coast

Three games today, including two good ones.

England-Paraguay: England is my pick to win the tournament, so I'm eager to see them playing a credible team right from the start. Paraguay has a history of advancing, but they'll have to get results against England and/or Sweden to get to the second round, which will be hard. England - and spare me the anglophobe comments - is flat out fantastic this year. Especially in mid-field - where futbol matches are won - the concentration of talent is frightening. Steven Gerard, Joe Cole, David Beckham and Frank Lampard are, all four of them, just show-stoppers. And their reputed striking difficulties are overblown - Owen is fit, and injured wunderkind Rooney's replacement Peter Crouch (all 6 feet and 7 inches of him - and as good with his feet as with his head) has been terrorizing defenses all year. (My pet theory is that Rooney will get fit by the second round and then have trouble earning a place back from Crouch.) I say England 2 - Paraguay 0.

Argentina-Ivory Coast: Play starts in the "group of death" tonight with Argentina taking on the best of the first-time participants. The BBC had an excellent report on World Cup fever in the war-torn Ivory Coast (click here and slide to 33:16) and, frankly, it's hard not to root for them. The Ivorians have at least three top-level players - Chelsea's intimidating striker Didier Drogba and Arsenal's on-form defensive duplet Eboué-Touré - whereas Argentina is still relying on Riquelme after all these years, and on the over-hyped teenager Messi. I say Argentina 1 - Ivory Coast 1. (Still, with Holland and Serbia-Montenegro - a talented team without a country - also in the group, the fight to qualify will be a cuchillo.)

There's also Sweden-Trinidad & Tobago, but that one's barely worth watching. The Trinidadians - who are only in the world cup cuz they're in the absurdly over-represented Concacaf qualifying group - will be aiming merely to prevent humiliation. I say they'll fail, and call it Sweden 3 - T&T 0.) Sweden, incidentally, could get pretty far in this tournament with a little luck. They have two of my favorite players (Lundberg and Zlatan - the class!) and Larsson to boot. It'll be important for them to try to actually win Group B (which also has England and Paraguay) because the second-place team in the group looks sure to end up playing Germany in the second round: not a pretty prospect.

June 9, 2006

Gangland stuff

Thinking about the way Venezuela is perceived abroad, perhaps what's hardest to convey is the way gangland tactics have colonized the regime. Europeans, used to thinking about politics as a struggle for control over the institutions that make and apply laws, can't begin to fathom the extent of their collapse in Venezuela. Their understanding of "politics" has no room for the aggressive pursuit of state loot we're seeing. And I'm not talking about mere corruption here. Because the opposition keeps framing the issue in corruption terms, but the word badly mischaracterizes the problem - if it was just corruption, it wouldn't be so bad.

It isn't, though: it's out and out gangsterism.

Corruption, in itself, need not be a social disaster. Italy, Greece, Brazil and even South Korea show that it's possible for an economy to grow consistently over decades, creating a massive middle class, even with a lot of corruption in the system. Once institutionalized in a stable way, corruption can be made compatible with long term growth and social development.

In Italy, the Christian Democrats institutionalized an elaborate system for distributing corruption rents between insiders - longstanding officials in key posts within the party acted as gate-keepers to the loot, harmonizing the interests of the various party factions and bringing a measure of order and predictability to the looting. Mexico's PRI institutionalized a system of 6-year "turns" for various factions to get their hands on the goodies, with the understanding that each new government would cover up for the last. Both systems lasted for decades, and both were compatible with growing incomes and rising living standards.

Every corrupt regime that stands the test of time realizes sooner or later that no amount of money is enough to satisfy every player's craving for state rents if everyone's scrambling for the loot at the same time, because it's never in a parasite's interest to kill the host organism. To make the system work, to make the system last, you need some informal institutionalization. You have to establish a stable set of unwritten "rules of the road" for corrupt officials and wannabes to bring a measure of predictability and stability to their actions. You need some widely-shared understandings of the Dos and Don'ts - if the standard kickback is going to be 10% of the contract's value, you need to apply that consistently, both to give the payers a measure of predictability and, more importantly, to make sure that no faction in the regime feels like it's getting a worse deal than any other.

Much of it is about regulating relations between top-level crooks and the class of aspiring bandits a step down from them on the organizational ladder. A stable corrupt system has to have a way to reassure second-tier thieves that, if they go along and get along, if they follow the implicit rules without raising a fuss or trying to jump the queue, they will, in time, get their shot at being first-tier pillos with access to the really big bucks. Without an implicit, stable seniority system, there's no way to control the competition for spoils between factions.

Even chickens understand that they need a pecking order.

What's new and scary about kleptobolivarianism is that there seems to be no stable pecking order, no institutionalized system for regulating and stabilizing the looting. Without it, the scramble for loot all too easily succumbs to gangland logic.

The Luis Velasquez Alvaray scandal provides a startling glimpse of chavismo's serious difficulties in institutionalizing corruption. Even in the upper echelons of the kleptocracy, you can never feel quite safe in your position. At any time, some other faction could make a play for your faction's racket. You may be getting obscenely rich, but you have to sleep with one eye open.

In such circumstances, your only insurance is to be more aggressive than the other guy. To steal more, faster in order to secure your position before you find yourself in trouble. To stash away enough compromising material on the other guy to make sure you can blackmail him in case he decides to go after you - (hell, LVA said explicitly that that was his game!) And, increasingly, to be willing to turn to violence if that's the only way your short-term interests can be secured.

Only problem is that if every faction starts following this logic at the same time, the result is pretty much anarchy. We end up with what we're seeing more and more: gangland stuff.

In this sense, the Danilo Anderson murder really was a watershed moment in Venezuela's recent history - an event whose full impact we are only now starting to appreciate. More and more, I think that the laughably amateurish cover-up was not merely a matter of incompetence. That somebody high up wanted to send a message - you can and will be killed if you cross me - and could only send it effectively if everyone in the country could SEE that the murder had been covered up. There's just no other explanation I can fathom for the opera buffa starring Giovanny Vasquez de Armas.

Because we can sit here and argue for months. But the reality is that the top, say, 3,000 people in the regime, they know. They know exactly who killed Danilo Anderson, and they more or less know why. They got the message. They understand that in the absence of any stable mechanism to institutionalize the looting, disputes will end up getting settled at the point of a gun. Just ask Luisa Coronel, Francisco Ameliach's assistant.

So this is what it's come to. The opposition keeps talking about corruption, but the reality is that corruption, in the old sense, is something for Venezuela to aspire to these days. It sounds morbid, but a system for looting state resources in an orderly fashion would be far preferable to what we're getting now.

June 8, 2006

The consumption boom and how he told it...

It's a challenge that every reporter assigned to cover the economy has to face: how to write about an irreducibly complex topic without either dumbing the story down or sending the reader into a boredom-induced catatonic comma. Jens Gould demonstrates how it can be done well in this piece in yesterday's New York Times:
With oil revenue flowing into its coffers, the government is spending like never before on social development programs that free up cash for the poor by providing free education and health care and cheap food. Wage increases and infrastructure projects also fill the economy with money that filters down to Venezuelans' pockets. As a result, consumers are buying more each year, helping Venezuela post growth that exceeded 9 percent last year and in the first quarter of 2006.

But economists here and abroad say that such rosy indicators are part of an artificial economic boom that could later hurt the country; the spending spree, they say, is masking the fundamental limitations of an economy propped up by spending, but failing to generate enough new private investment to sustain longer-term growth and job creation.

It's worth reading the whole thing. The only thing I would've done differently is that I would've leaned on the we've-been-here-before-angle more - cuz the current boomlet is such a 1975 redux it makes you weep. On the other hand, I my reporting probably wouldn't have been as good...

Teodoro Petkoff still hasn't understood what draws the poor to Chavez

Picking up where I left off yesterday, I wanted to comment on this bit from Teodoro's interview in El Mundo on Tuesday:

Q: At first, president Chavez also campaigned on the importance of work with dignity. Thousands of people ran to Miraflores to look for jobs. And what happened?

A: It's true. He took power with that goal in mind. He announced that his great enterprise would be to attack poverty. And I have to recognize that he succeeded in making the social question the great topic of national debate. Today, no one doubts that that's the issue...

Teodoro has been playing on variations of this riff for some time: Chavez's one merit is that he put poverty at the center of the national debate. I think that's wrong, in a subtle but deep way.

For as long as I can remember, the "social question" has been at the center of Venezuela's national debate. It's not like Luis Herrera beat Piñerúa in the 1978 election because Piñerúa didn't talk about poverty. It's not as if Lusinchi campaigned on a platform of abolishing inherittance taxes. No! Every government in the democratic era has come to power with a discourse about poverty. There's nothing innovative about that...

Chavez's discoursive innovation was something quite different: Chavez talked to the poor, not about them. While the old elite talked about the poor, using technocratic language that made sense within elite conceptual categories, Chavez talked to the poor in their language, using their conceptual categories, and saying things that made sense to them.

This, I think, it's the crux of his considerable success in engendering fierce loyalty among his poor supporters. Chavez's discourse treats them as subjects, not as the objects of the debate. Though I'm convinced this is a purely rhetorical ploy, the emotional impact of the strategy has been startling, and continues to be effective. Poor people feel included by Chavez's discourse - and, politically, that feeling is worth a thousand realities.

Teodoro doesn't seem to quite grasp the distinction. In his little riff, he always credits Chavez for having launched a debate about poverty. In his 30-second talking-head spots, he seems to think he's matching him. But he isn't - because he's subtly but badly misunderstood the nature of Chavez's discoursive innovation. Teodoro is trying to counter a guy who talks from the gut and to the poor with a discourse from the head about the poor. It won't work.

June 7, 2006

Like an over-caffeinated grandpa reading a bedtime story...

My unbridled enthusiasm for Teodoro Petkoff's politics is matched only by my dismay at the guy's abysmal electioneering skills. A little bird put this campaign ad and this other one in my inbox. It's stunning - after all these years, the guy still manages to come off as both condescending and over-intellectual when he panders.

I can't exactly put my finger on why I think these ads are so terrible. It's not the message; though it could be better phrased, it's what we've come to expect from him. Partly, it's that - bizarrely - he's dressed like a mortician.

Mostly, tough, it's the impression you're left with after watching them, the taste they leave in your mouth. There's something about his intonation that makes him sound like an over-caffeinated grandpa reading a bedtime story. It's terrible. You don't feel like you're watching a leader in waiting, you feel like you're watching a pundit, a fantastically entertaining insider maybe...but not a leader.

One thing actively horrified me: he uses that ghastly formulation - "los más pobres" - to refer to the poor, and so unwittingly ends up talking about them, rather than to them - a estas alturas del partido! Teodoro, pana, you're not at the Ateneo: you can't talk to people whose votes you desperately need as though they're not in the room!

My source isn't sure if these ads are already running on Venezuelan TV, or if they're just screen-tests. Note to Teodoro's people: Teo is a disaster reading into a camera. You'd do much better going for more produced, voice-overed ads like this one.

Want s'more free advice? Get it through your heads: you can't beat Chavez with brilliant analysis. You can sell a lot of newspapers that way, yes, but it won't win you an election. Teo needs to use his ads to establish an emotional connection with the audience - because elections are won in the gut, not the head. That's true not just in Venezuela, that's true everywhere.

So show the guy walking through the Sur del Lago town where he grew up, show him emoting as he sees the conditions there, show him talking to poor folks, not about them. That might get you somewhere. But these ads - especially the first two - are seriously off on the wrong track.

June 6, 2006

Makarem's Recadi Past

Delicious tidbit on North American Opinion Research Big Cheese Julio Makarem: according to the Diccionario de la Corrupción en Venezuela, Volume III, Makarem was indicted way back in 1989 for his role in a complicated scam to bilk millions of subsidized dollars out of Recadi.

(Recadi being the 1980s corruption sink-hole in charge of administering rationed, subsidized dollars under the Lusinchi-era Currency Controls.)

Makarem fled the country to avoid trial.

June 5, 2006

Garcia wins Peru by 10 points - NAOR poll off by 28

Heh...sorry, couldn't help the headline. Not a week ago, chavista briefcase-pollster North American Opinion Research was saying Humala would win in Perú by 18 points. In Lima, NAOR's "tracking poll" through May 31st had Ollanta beating Alan by ten points, but official results show Alan beat Ollanta by 62% to 38% in the capital.

But on more subtantive grounds: God it was great to see Chavez's unhinged meddling in Peru backfire spectacularly. A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the internationalization of hemispheric politics in Latin America. Yesterday, for the first time possibly ever, a newly elected South American leader chose to portray his own election as a direct rebuff of another South American leader. Alan García is defining his presidency via its antichavismo, from the start.
LIMA, Peru, June 4 (Reuters) - Ex-President Alan Garcia, who leads Peru's runoff election, said on Sunday he had defeated plans by anti-U.S. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez to increase his influence in Latin America.

"Today, Peru has sent a message of national sovereignty and has defeated efforts by Hugo Chavez to incorporate us in the expansion strategy of his military and backward-looking model, which he's tried to implant in Latin America," Garcia told supporters after exit polls showed him winning the election.

Interesting stuff. I have this sense that, in 20 years, we could look back on the summer of 2006 as the time when the wheels fell off of Chavez's hemispheric project. But it's early days still...all eyes now have to go on the big prize: México.

June 4, 2006

Anatomy of a Scoundrel...

The more folks look into it, the longer Julio Makarem's "rabo'e'paja" looks. You know who I'm talking about...Mr. Makarem, chairman of that most respectable polling firm North American Opinion Research, he of the Humala-will-beat-Alan-Garcia-by-18-points poll, the very same two-bit would-be intimidator of Venezuela's English-language blogosphere, our ever-popular alleged Belkys Cedeño gopher and shady Petrotulsa/Vatramafia influence-peddler extraordinaire...well, according to the Diccionario de la Corrupción en Venezuela, Volume III, the guy was indicted way back in 1989 for his role in a complicated scam to bilk millions of subsidized dollars out of Recadi. He fled the country to avoid trial.

Una joyita, el tipo.

Light Summer Reading

A couple of months ago, Harvard's Center for International Development hosted the second conference on Venezuelan Economic Growth 1970-2005. I'm really sorry I didn't get to attend, but I've been reading the conference papers (all linked to from the conference web page) and many of them are really fascinating.

Everybody who is anybody in the inbred little world of Venezuelan political economy research seems to have presented. We're talking Ricardo Hausmann, Francisco Rodríguez, Osmel Manzano, Dan Levy, Roberto Rigobón, Jonathan DiJohn, Javier Corrales, Michael Penfold, Francisco Monaldi and a number of others who are maybe not so well known, but are doing really high level work on why the Venezuelan economy tanked from 1977 onward.

Many different points of view were put forward (it was the labor laws! no, it was the clientelism! actually, the crappy financial system! no, the oil policy!) and your head more or less spins after reading a few of the papers. I would really love to interview some of the authors for the podcast...actually, thinking about taking that on as a summer project.

Have a look!

Quotable Vegas

Thanks to Katy, I got my hands on a copy of Falke, Federico Vegas's remarkable novel about the ill-fated "invasion" of Venezuela by anti-Gomez exiles in 1929. I'm just starting it, but the book is so quotable you can hardly help yourself. I can't imagine Vegas is, erm, unaware of the contemporary overtones when he writes passages like:
No hay quien se salve del gomecismo...unos están a favor y otros en contra mientras nuestro verbo gira desde hace demasiado tiempo alrededor del mismo sátrapa. Es un caso de vampirismo. ¡Nos ha chupado hasta los sesos!...La palabra "Gomez" anula esos inesperados vericuetos que le permiten vagar a una imaginación libre, y por lo tanto, su persistente efecto acaba tarde o temprano con las buenas conversaciones.

Nobody's safe from gomecismo...some are in favor and others against while our words have been centered for too long around the same old fox. It's a case of vampirism...he has sucked us down to our brains!... The word "Gomez" annuls those unexpected byways that allow a free imagination to wander, and so its persistent effect puts an end, sooner or later, to good conversations.