March 9, 2007

Monetary literalism

Quico says: Say a long history of devaluations, interest rate swings and double digit inflation has left people skeptical that your currency can function as a reliable store of value. Say you want to make it strong again, but you're not sure how.

What do you do?

Well, you could clamp down on the runaway government spending that's causing runaway liquidity growth. Y'know, that boring stuff that actually affects the bolivar's value.

Would that work? Yes. Could you sell it to Chávez? Not a chance. To carry it through, he'd have to alter his behavior, and God knows he won't consider that.

What you need is not a policy so much as a gesture...preferably one feeble minded enough to get Chávez on board. Like, you could knock three zeros off of the bolivar, put the word "strong" in front of it and leave it at that!


See, that way it has to be strong...hell, it's right in the name!

Whoever thought of pitching this idea to Chávez is a genius. It's just the kind of vaudeville the guy continually mistakes for policy; he must've loved it!

Addendum: Google "Bolivar Fuerte" and what you find are these...

Turns out, before it was a stupid chavista idea, Bolivar Fuerte was a brand of cigars - Cuban cigars, no less. Coincidence? You decide.

(Or maybe this is what we'll be using for cash come about your money going up in smoke.)

March 8, 2007

From my inbox...

Quico says: An old and dear friend writes in from Washington:
Hey, um, sorry your country's officially crossed the line into People's Republic territory...

AU finally managed to reschedule "Venezuela: An Inside Look" with Ambassador Alvarez. I did manage to ask a pointed question, which he wasted many perfectly good and innocent words in not answering. You will be pleased to know that although the AU School of International Service community tends to lean WAY left, the atmosphere was markedly - well, not hostile exactly, but verrry skeptical. I was a bit surprised. I think it was the Radio Caracas TV shutdown that did it.
Hey you! Hmmmmm...Álvarez, huh? I don't know whether to thank you for grilling him or nudge you towards psychiatric examination. You spent time in the same room as that man...WILLINGLY??!!? I've met dentist's drills more pleasant than Bernardo Álvarez.

I think, in your situation, I would've approached it differently. Maybe tried to organize a "Sulk in bed in your grottiest pajamas while Hugo's enablers gab" counterprotest. Every bit as useless, granted, but way more enjoyable.

Sorry, sorry, I don't mean to be glib. I'm just deeply bitter. It's not that I'm upset that the tide of opinion in the leftish academic north has finally started to turn, how could I be? I've been working for that for years.

It's just deeply frustrating to see it finally start to happen precisely when it's least useful. Five years ago, when there was something to play for, then your email would've made me happy. Back when Chávez was still struggling to establish autocracy, when the oil market had not yet left him floating on an ocean of cash, when parts of the state still had the capacity to check some of his more delirious excesses...five years ago, sure, then it might've meant something.

But Christ, I was in Caracas five years ago. I remember the look that would come over foreign journos' faces when some over-wrought oppo talking head tried to persuade them that, the way things were going, in five years we'd be pretty much in People's Republic territory. You could see the journo's one eyebrow rise, you could see that condescending smirk come over his face, and you just knew that talking head was being inexorably filed away in the "cranks and obsessives - ignore" folder of his mental rolodex. So OK, sure, it's some minor comfort that those names are gradually being re-filed in the "prescient observer" folder, but big fucking whoop. There's nothing left to do now.

So yeah, I'm pretty ambivalent towards messages like this one (gotten a bunch of them this year, so pardon if I vent collectively on the pretext of yours.) I guess the penny was never likely to drop for first world audiences - focused as y'all are on the Middle East - until Chávez took a big, symbolic, visible step like the RCTV-shutdown, and Chávez wasn't likely to take such a step while a big loss of international legitimacy could still undermine his control of the state. By this January, though, with every nook and cranny of the state under unquestioned control and with no elections to worry about for years, he had nothing left to lose and nothing left to fear. So he moved, and he got away with it. For the Nth time, he played us and he played y'all up north. So it's authoritarianism on five engines from here on out, hurrah!

And now - after all the shit we've seen - NOW we're supposed to feel better because El Pais in Madrid and some grad students in DC finally wised up? Sorry, dear, but it's not the bon pensant left's sympathy I want, it's my democracy back.


March 7, 2007

The one thing chavistas love more than Chávez

Quico says: I never thought I'd see the day. The three most significant pro-government parties other than Chávez's own (Podemos, PPT and the Commies - which together got 14.6% of the vote in Dec. 2006) have balked at Chávez's calls to merge into the emerging United Socialist Party of Venezuela. It's definitely a man bites dog moment. Will wonders never cease?

Me? I find it frankly baffling. After years of rolling over and playing dead at every presidential demand, Podemos's Ismael García suddenly discovers the horrors of Single Think. Mind you, this is a party that has never once had a significant policy difference with Chávez. I mean, you couldn't beat a programatic difference between MVR and Podemos out of Ismael García if you tried . The call to "make an honest woman" out of his party by folding it into a single Leninist juggernaut is the only chavista thought the guy's ever dissented from.

Same goes for PPT and PCV, parties that long ago realized that even the mildest of political contrasts with the Chávez party line risked tainting them as fifth columns, parties that have gone to extraordinary lengths to homogenize their views with the official line, parties that long ago ceased to have any independent political identity apart from their allegiance to Chávez. Suddenly, when their residual control over patronage opportunities (by selecting candidate slates and such) is challenged, they become committed pluralists. Please!

Turns out there is one thing that chavistas love more than they love Chávez: seeing the words "Secretario General" on their business cards.

The development seems even more extraordinary because the consequences seem sure to be dire: Chávez broaches no dissent, and is more than likely to kick them out of the government and purge their supporters from decision-making posts. That's how much these guys love their parties.

Chalk it up to that extraordinary aberration of Venezuelan political culture: the seemingly irresistible momentum towards ever-increasing party fragmentation. The virtual impossibility of merging programatically identical groups knows no ideological boundries in Venezuela, and the tendency to sequential splits is often taken to fantastical extremes, with parties splitting into factions splitting into grouplets splitting into subgrouplets again and again and again for reasons that defy any kind of political rationality until our election ballots look like this:

It's just madness!

March 6, 2007

chutz·pah (noun)

also chutz·pa or hutz·pah or hutz·pa /'hut-sp&, '[k]ut-, -(")spä/
[Etymology: Yiddish khutspe, from Late Hebrew huspAh]
1. unbelievable gall; insolence; audacity
2. Rodrigo Cabezas.
e.g. "Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabezas described the emision of the Bono del Sur as a 'smashing success', noting it attracted a large number of requests from 108 Venezuelan and foreign banks; a historic record."

March 5, 2007

Two Sukhois in the skies over Caracas

This is my translation of a piece by Ibsen Martínez, published last month in Buenos Aires' La Nación:
Last Friday, February 2nd, I was crossing Caracas's Avenida Miranda, just outside Parque del Este metro station, when the rumble of combat jets made me stop and look up. It wasn't the first time that Caracas has been overflown by fighter jets. On November 27, 1992, as an aftershock of the failed coup attempt by then Lieutenant Colonel Chávez against president Carlos Andrés Pérez, which took place on February of that same year, several units of the air force rebelled and brought us, for the whole day, an air battle in the skies over the city.

We saw all kinds of things from our balconies that day, and also on TV: pilots ejecting, for instance. A reconnaissance and attack Bronco was shot down by government anti-aircraft batteries placed, at the last minute, on the roof of a nearby shopping center, and crashed on the runway at La Carlota airfield, which sits right in the center of Caracas valley, alongside the highway that traverses it from east to west, next to upper middle-class neighborhoods.

Some of the bombs used that day never went off and stayed there, roped off with yellow police tape, for weeks, while somebody got around to dealing with them. We were thankful, for once, for the corruption in our armed forces that ensured we payed over the odds for bombs that would under no circumstances explode.

At the time, all the aircraft used by the rebels and the loyalists was made in the US. By the end of the afternoon, the rebellion was put down. One of the rebel pilots decided to cause a sonic boom over the capital before landing and giving up. He said he did it because he'd always fantasized about it, ever since he was a cadet, and he realized that, once he turned himself in, he would never again have the chance to do it.

This time, the fighters that caught my attention were two brand new Sukhoi SU-30s, recognizable by the twin tail fins, a distinctive design of soviet military aeronautics. They are the first to make it to Venezuela; just two of a squad of 24 whose purchase was announced a while back. But what really surprised me was the attitude of the pedestrians around me: nobody seemed to stop to look at them.

Why are two Russian-made fighters flying over my city? What did these people know that I didn't, how could they ignore the almighty roar of these war planes?

That's when it dawned on me that the flight was a rehearsal to the military parade announced for two days later. With the parade set for Sunday, February 4th, Chávez would mark his failed coup attempt of 15 years earlier. Just one week before that, our single-party parliament had handed over to the top leader the right to legislate by decree - "just for 18 months" - by approving an Enabling Law. The special powers Hitler asked of the Reichstag enabled him to legislate by decree for just four years: he stayed in power for 12, until the time of that final gunshot in May 1945. With all that this parade implies, the Venezuelan army - whose name Chávez has changed once again - becomes the armed wing of the recently announced Unified Venezuelan Socialist Party.

Chávez has also ordered that the date of that early morning putsch, perpetrated without the knowledge of any of his countrymen, to overthrow a legitimately elected president should, henceforth, be celebrated as a national holiday. Suggestively, he has done so through his first decree-law. In practice, this means that, starting next year, Venezuelans will be legally obligated to fly the national flag - itself, modified by the national assembly to humor a historicist whim of the comandante - from our homes and workplaces, to commemorate a failed coup attempt that our particular dystopia has re-christened a "civilian-military rebellion."

February 4th, 1992 has been consecrated, beginning this year, and for all Venezuelans, including those who oppose Chávez, as "Dignity Day," and must be celebrated as such in all our elementary schools. The spectacle of the parade was galling: pennants with the face of our homegrown Kim Il Sung, huge billboards with phrases from his vague ideology. Elite battalions jogged with their brand new AK-47 assault rifles shouting "homeland, socialism or death". Ministers, Supreme Tribunal justices and the Attorney General shouted party slogans in unison along with Chávez. And my two Sukhoi 30s flitted above the city. The public in assistance didn't know it was witnessing the creation of the armed wing of the will of the strongman.

In the opposition, the prevailing feeling these days is acquiescence. That's why, while I watched the parade on and off on TV, I thought of Sebastian Haffner. Haffner (1907-1999) was a Berlin resident who fled to exile in England in 1938, considering himself an Aryan victim of the Nazis. After his death, a never-published manuscript finished in 1939 was found among his papers. Published for the first time more than 60 years after it was written, Haffner's posthumous book needed just a couple of years to become an indispensable text to understand one of the mysteries of human collective behavior: the gradual acquiescence with which an open society accepts to live under dictatorship.

Haffner was not the only European writer of the 20th century to linger over the intellectual move and the moral contortion that allows a kind of political stupor to take over an individual, making him think he can somehow survive without being seen or touched by a mass dictatorship. He begins his book saying, "the history about to be told deals with a kind of duel. It's a duel between two very unequal adversaries: a tremendously powerful state, strong and ruthless, and a particular individual, small, anonymous and unknown. This duel does not take place in the field of what's usually considered politics; this man is in no way a politician, much less a conspirator or a 'public enemy.' He is at all times on the defensive. He aspires only to safeguard, as best he can, what he sees as his own personality, his own life and his personal honor. All of that is attacked relentlessly by the state in which he lives, through brutal - if somewhat clumsy - means.

Writing about the start of 1933, with the Nazis already in power and working amazingly fast to take control of all the institutions of the German state, Haffner noted: "The situation of non-Nazi Germans, during the summer of 1933, was certainly one of the most difficult a human being could find himself in: a state of total submission. All institutional reference points had collapsed; any kind of collective resistance had become impossible and individual opposition was a kind of suicide. The Nazis had us completely in their hands. And at the same time, each day they entreated us no longer just to give up, but to go over to their side. Just a small little pact with the devil was enough to stop belonging to the band of the prisoners and the persecuted and to become one of the winners and persecutors."

Living in Venezuela today, you would think these words were written last week. It's here that, I think, one of his most suggestive observations fits in, recalling the idea of an unequal duel between the state and the individual: "one is always tempted to believe that history is made by a few dozen people who 'rule the fate of their peoples' and whose decisions and acts result in what, later on, will come to be called history. But, paradoxical though it may seem, it's a simple fact that truly historical decisions and events happen within us, within anonymous people, in the guts of any person, and that faced with massive and simultaneous decisions even the most powerful dictators, ministers and generals are totally defenseless."

Lets hope that Venezuela's huge opposition masses will not give up and acquiesce to what Alvaro Vargas Llosa once called "contented barbarism."