August 11, 2006

Literature as a revolutionary propaganda tool

Katy says: Venezuela has just announced that it will not participate as the guest of honor in the La Paz Book Fair. Our country's representatives allege that this fair supports a "mercantilistic" view of literature, and that instead Venezuela will host a counter-fair through which 25,000 books will be distributed freely, courtesy of Venezuelan taxpayers.

The director of the National Book Center said that "books are not merchandise, but an instrument in the struggle for freedom", and that he wants literature "to stop being a privilege for the elites." (sic)

Oh, how noble. If only this were a reflection of the government's actual policies at home. It is well known that, in Venezuela, books are outrageously expensive, thanks in part to high taxes and import tariffs.

To drive this point home, I did a little experiment and compared some of the prices listed in Venezuela's Tecniciencia chain of bookstores with the primary bookseller of the empire and Satan himself, Amazon.

Here's a sample:

On Tecniciencia's website, a copy of Mario Vargas Llosa's "Travesuras de la Niña Mala" will set you back 45,000 bolívars, roughly US$21.42 at the fixed rate. I'm not sure this includes the Value-added tax or not, but let's be conservative and assume it does.

The same book on Amazon costs you $13.57.

Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" sells for Bs. 55,000 ($26.19) in Venezuela, and for US$7.99 in the US.

Laura Restrepo's "Dulce Compañía"? Bs. 40,000 ($19.04) in Venezuela; $10.62 in the US.
Laura Esquivel's "Malinche"? Bs. 50,000 ($23.80) in Venezuela, $15.61 in the US.
J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"? Bs. 24,500 ($11.66) in Venezuela, $8.99 in the US.
Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Teheran"? Bs. 58.000 ($27.62) in Venezuela, $9.72 in the US.

Now, dear reader, I realize you are entitled to be skeptical about this back-of-the-envelope comparison. What about Venezuelan authors?

Federico Vegas' wonderful must-read "Falke" (another post on this some other time) sells for Bs. 55,000 ($26.19). I couldn't find a price quote overseas, but Vegas' "Venezuelan Vernacular" goes for $11.95 in Burbank, CA (according to Abebooks) so the price for Falke probably won't be that far off.

Chavista intellectual and author Luis Britto García's "Por los signos de los signos", published by our very own state publisher Monteávila Editores, sells for a healthy Bs. 30,000 on Tecniciencia, or $14.28. Perhaps Bolivians will get to read Britto García for free - and in the process find out what a piece-of-crap author he is.

In fact, one of the few instances I found of books being cheaper in Venezuela was über-communist (and anti-chavista) author Domingo Alberto Rangel's "Gómez, el amo del poder". This book sells for a modest Bs. 20,000 ($9.52) at Tecniciencia. The same book is not listed in Amazon, but according to Abebooks, you can get a copy in Llibres de Companyia in trendy Barcelona, Spain, for a mere US$11.86. At least there appears to be some consistency to Rangel's values. Perhaps chavistas would do well buying the book, sitting at a café in the ramblas, buying themselves a Café Latte or some churros con chocolate and railing against capitalism when compared to chavista altruism. In the process, they should try and learn some communism from people who actually try to practice it.

You see, you can't go around telling people you believe books should be available to all when your own country's tax policy prevents all but the rich from affording books.

This, of course, is by no means a scientific study on the Venezuelan books market. It is a simple gimmick to llustrate the hypocrisy in giving away books in Bolivia while heavily taxing them at home. It's the world upside down, but if you are gullible enough to believe official propaganda, it's the dawn of the new man.

August 10, 2006

Retaliation chronicles

Katy says: Wednesday, August 1, 3:50 AM: Former CNE President and chavista figure, Jorge Rodríguez, goes to Clínica El Ávila (one of Venezuela's most prestigious private medical centers) for a checkup after a car accident. He ends up in Clínica La Floresta where he is diagnosed with two apparently small fractures in his ribs and a bump in his head.

Wednesday, August 1: State news agency ABN reports the incident with the unbiased headline "Clínica Ávila refused medical attention to former CNE President". The news item does not include the clinic's response to these allegations.

Thursday, August 3: El Universal says that the Prosecutor General's office has begun an investigation into the reasons why Rodríguez was denied treatment at Clínica El Ávila. Medical staff at the clinic allege that Rodríguez was taken to La Floresta in one of their ambulances after a woman accompanying Rodríguez (presumably his sister, Minister Delcy Rodríguez) went ballistic on the attending physician, who had to lock herself up in a room.

Thursday, August 3: Clínica El Ávila President Mario García says that Rodríguez was taken care of like any other emergency patient, that his vital conditions were stable but that the attending physician had recommended a CAT scan to rule out internal problems. The physician informed Rodríguez that the Clinic's CAT scan was broken, and they suggested he go instead to Clínica La Floresta.

Thursday, August 3: Venezuela's tax authority shuts down the administrative offices of Clínica El Ávila for 48 hours, apparently due to errors in some of the paperwork. There is no allegation of tax evasiuon or tax fraud. The procedure was done by 15 employees from the tax office, who inspected the Clinic accompanied by 42 inspectors from the Ministry of Health, who apparently inspected everything from medical machinery to the medicines being administered.

Thursday, August 10: El Universal reports that the Health Ministry has shut down the Clinic's lab, pharmacy and three of its operating rooms. No word yet on whether the CAT scan machine was or was not in working conditions.


- Why are tax authorities called on to investigate what is, by all accounts, a case of apparent medical malpractice?

- Why is the government so keen on meddling in a private dispute between a private citizen and a private health-care facility?

- Why is the Health Ministry so keen on inspecting one of the country's most presitigious private clinics, when public hospitals in Venezuela are in such shabby conditions?

- Is there any truth to reports that Rodríguez had a portion of Clínica La Floresta vacated for his security personnel?

- What ever happened to figuring out whether or not the CAT scan machine was functional?

- If the machine wasn't functional, what role does the CADIVI roadblock play into it?

- Why would the clinic that is supposedly denying medical treatment allegedly take Rodríguez to another clinic in one of its ambulances?

- Do all tax/health inspections require a commando-style operation by 57 employees?

August 9, 2006

Man(uel) of the hour

Katy says: Manuel Rosales, two-term governor of the state of Zulia, in Western Venezuela, has just been confirmed as the single presidential candidate of a substantial portion of the opposition to Hugo Chávez's pseudo-socialist revolution. The announcement was made today in Caracas, after Venezuela's CNE decided yesterday that Rosales did not need to resign from his governorship but rather take a temporary leave of absence.

Zulia (where I am from, by the way) is Venezuela's most populous state. It is the home of a big chunk of Venezuela's oil wealth, as well as some of the best agricultural land in the country. It is also the home of some of Venezuela's most distinctive cultural manifestations, such as gaitas and the cult of the Virgin of La Chinita. Maracaibo, the state capital, is Venezuela's second-largest city. Once a sprawling big town riddled with problems, it has sort of come of age, and the city looks cleaner and more prosperous than many other places in the country.

Both Quico and I have expressed our misgivings about Rosales on several occasions. Both of us have come forward in favour of other candidates, such as Rausseo or Borges. However, today is not the time to dwell on these issues. I think it is a good moment to pause and reflect on all that is positive about this announcement.

Rosales' announcement is the product of intense political negotiations that began several months ago. This process involved lengthy discussions between three main candidates, several less popular ones, and Venezuela's NGOs. The fact that these people could sit down, see the urgency of what is coming to us, understand that unity is of the utmost importance, and come up with a reasonable solution at the right time is an enormous step forward for the opposition. Long gone are the extensive deliberations of the extinct Coordinadora Democrática, where nothing was ever solved, nobody had the lead voice, there was no vision and the message was never clear.

Some people have expressed misgivings about Rosales being the product of negotiations and not the product of primaries. There are several reasons why this criticism rings a bit hollow:
a) It was well known that the organization of the primaries was facing numerous logistical problems;
b) enthusiasm for the primaries was dwindling;
c) voters were afraid of participating in the primaries and ending up in some government list where they would be punished;
d) Súmate was being distracted from its role by the government's continuous harassment; and
e) the primaries would have probably yielded a Rosales victory anyway.

The way that Rosales was selected is a positive development. It is possibly the first time that different factions in the opposition have sat down, discussed what the country needs and come up with a solution. It is a big step toward proving that the opposition is capable of governing Venezuela in spite of its heterogeneity.

It was also refreshing to see the way Teodoro Petkoff, Julio Borges and the rest of the candidates came out and supported Rosales. Special mention goes to Borges, who was Rosales' main challenger and who has immediately put his party's logistical and intellectual resources at his disposal. There are rumours Rosales will announce in the next few days that Borges will be his vice-president should he win, but the fact that Borges' support did not come with a quid pro quo is certainly positive for the future.

What does Rosales bring to the table? His two main assets are an efficient record as a public servant and two electoral victories over Chávez and his barrage of tricks. His record is evident in Zulia's improvements in roads and public services. Rosales has also shown political deftness, working with both the federal government and, especially, with Maracaibo's chavista mayor. All over Maracaibo, you see a healthy competition between the public works sponsored by city hall and the works sponsored by the governor (the competition reaches somewhat tacky levels, given the enormity of the colourful signs announcing this or that sidewalk is being brought to you by either the mayor or the governor).

Rosales has skilfully hung on to his job in spite of the CNE's tricks and opposition voter apathy. He is very popular in Zulia, and it is likely he will carry this state in the election, tricks or no tricks. Zulianos are Venezuela's most region-proud bunch, and we tend to be more pragmatic in our ideology. It's my impression that, as a whole, Zulianos seem to be less prone to left-wing populism. We believe in entrepreneurship and in private property more than the rest of the country, and we can be sure that Rosales will bring these issues to the table.

As for Rosales' proposals, we'll have more time to discuss these later. From what he has already said, they combine most of the proposals brought forward by Petkoff and Borges, including a direct mechanism to hand out oil rents and the improvement of the misiones. He has also come forward against the war-like mentality that seems to pervade in the government lately, even borrowing some of Rausseo's lines by saying that airplanes will be changed to schools and missiles will be changed to hospitals.

Finally, Rosales is the product of decentralization, a complex political process started in the late 80s that has not quite achieved as much as promised in spite of its popularity. Decentralization has come under attack from the current administration. Chávez, as all good military men, hates independent subordinates, and he has implemented numerous initiatives destined to take away what little power regional and local governments had. Rosales is sure to propose further decentralization as a way of bringing power back to the communities and the states.

As I said before, today is not a day to criticize. The opposition is showing great maturity in coming up with a concerted solution at this stage of the game. Let's wait and see what happens with other candidates such as Rausseo or Smith, as well as what AD decides to do. In the meantime, let's celebrate the hope of putting a zuliano in Miraflores for the first time in our history.

August 8, 2006

Holy bus drivers, Batman!

Katy says: Nicolás Maduro is apparently going to be named Foreign Secretary. Comments thread is now open...

August 7, 2006

Not Rosales, pleaaaase!

From the road, Quico says: I don't know that much about Manuel Rosales - in itself a bad sign, given what a political junkie I am - but here it goes all the same: I think the guy is hopeless as a candidate, worse even than Borges.

Here's why: There's one message that comes through loud and clear in all the public opinion research that's been done over the last few years: no volveran - they shall not return - is one chavista slogan that has legs. It's the one thing that chavistas and NiNis concur on, this deep seated disgust with the pre-Chavez political system. But it's a message Rosales seems not to get at all.

By all accounts, Rosales is a retread adeco. His discursive style is as much a throw-back to 70s style AD populism as is his political organization. Isn't it fair to presume that if the guy looks like an adeco, sounds like an adeco, smells like an adeco and talks like an adeco, voters will conclude he's an adeco?

His campaign launch line about Chavez's misiones being basically the same as the social programs of the pre-Chavez era underlines the basic problem with his whole approach: while, substantively, he may be right, the line catastrophically fails to realize the way Chavez's discourse of radical popular empowerment have changed the rules of the political game. As everyone knows, el pais cambio, ...everyone, that is, except for Manuel Rosales.

The key political fact is that even if the misiones are just souped-up social programs, they don't feel that way to their recipients. That makes all the difference, because in politics perceptions are realities. Chavismo has moved the goal-posts of Venezuelan politics not just by mobilizing oil resources for the poor, but by going all out to ensure that the poor feel that state resources are mobilized on their behalf. I just don't see how a politico who doesn't understand that has a chance in December.

People tell pollsters again and again that they want an alternative to chavismo that is, at the same time, an alternative to the legacy of puntofijismo. Rosales seems very far from being channelling that desire. As a candidate, I can't see how he could reach out beyond the traditional hardcore anti-chavez vote and win over the broad, politically homeless center that's so clearly the key to mounting a credible challenge in December. To say nothing of winning over wavering transactional chavistas.

So, we'd be stuck with the same 40% that keeps voting against Chavez - and that's a best case scenario, because we know many of them will abstain on principle.

This is not what the opposition needs. What the opposition needs is a candidate able to turn this race upside down, one able to innovate discursively, to mount an anti-Chavez discourse that is clearly, patently distinct from the pre-Chavez political tradition, that has a chance to make a serious bid for NiNi and wavering transactionals' votes. I don't think I need to spell this one out any further...

The accidental candidate

Katy says: Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales is in a bind. He is mulling whether to be or not to be the opposition's main presidential candidate. Many people consider Rosales somewhat of an enigma. A man of few words, he has managed to be an effective local governor without the benefit of traditional political alliances. However, the thing that says most about the presidential aspirations of this Zulian Hamlet, is the fact that this is a dilemma at all.

Rosales is in the position he thought he wanted. Polls show him leading (by a razor-thin margin) Julio Borges as the opposition's main hope. Teodoro Petkoff has cleared the race, and Borges himself has hinted that he is ready to work for Rosales should he decide he wants the banner. Rausseo has, so far, not become the overwhelming phenomenon that people feared he would. And yet Rosales still wonders.

Venezuela's Supreme Tribunal said a few days ago that Chávez would not have to resign in order to run for President, but that other public servants would. However, in yet another judicially obscure ruling, it seems some people are still doubtful whether or not Rosales would have to resign or simply detach himself from his Governorship temporarily. Rosales seems to have the faint hope that the government would let him go back to his governorship should he run for President and lose.

Rosales is now in the position of deciding whether he wants the Presidency enough to renounce everything he has achieved so far. The decision to run carries lots of risk: he risks losing control of the Zulia Governorship, losing the Presidency and, ultimately, losing his freedom because of the government's open case against him for signing the Carmona decree. And yet... the fact that he is mulling this issue when many cards are lined up in his favor says tons about his commitment to the cause, or lack thereof.

If he is still doubting, perhaps he doesn't want it badly. Perhaps he is an accidental candidate, someone who is called upon to fill the void but has never really had Miraflores as his goal. Perhaps Venezuelan voters deserve better. If he really is that scared to lose his governorship, perhaps he should step aside and let Borges be the candidate. At least we know he really wants it.