March 24, 2007

Laureano does Babel

Quico says:
I’ve been finding it more and more difficult to write about Venezuela without sounding either alarmist or flippant, (or even worse, an odd combination of the two.) It’s a sign of the times here, that’s for sure. These days, what I find it hardest to convey to my friends abroad is the strong undercurrent of farce that permeates public life here.
I wrote these words in the very first post I put up on Caracas Chronicles, all the way back in September 2002. Nearly five years on, they're just as topical.

Now, I know full well that translating a funny article is a fool's errand...all too often, humor just doesn't translate at all. But still, nobody conveys the undercurrent of farce that still permeates our public life like Laureano Márquez, and I found his Tal Cual editorial on the purge of Jesús Eduardo Cabrera and six other magistrates from the Supreme Tribunal too delicious to ignore. So here goes nothing:

by Laureano Márquez

How baffling can baffling get? Lets review the bidding: the National Assembly, after handing almost all its powers over to the President, gets pissed off because the Supreme Tribunal, which has been known to alter constitutional provisions with nary a peep from anyone, struck down one article in one law, and accuses it of "usurpation of powers," even though the decision in question doesn't have anything to do with indefinite reelection, which is the only thing the government cares about.

Meanwhile, someone somewhere is working on a constitutional reform that nobody is allowed to know anything about. Really it's an extreme situation, totally bizarre, as if someone accused the Human Rights Ombudsman of being impartial.

Congressman Ionesco takes the floor, calmly saying, "how curious, how strange, what a coincidence," and then adds that the group of 7 magistrates constitutes a "mafia." For someone in this government to accuse someone else in this government of being a mafioso, we have to be talking about something massive (watch your back!)

Because nobody is going to convince me that a bunch of deputies who haven't investigated cases of corruption that even the cats that bum around the capitol know about are suddenly soooo worried about the change of one article because it "harms the public purse." What about the rally in Argentina? Things are loopy here.

But like those gringo infomercials say, "there's moooore!" Dr. Carlos Escarrá, constitutional law expert, asks for a bunch of magistrates - coincidentally, from the Constitutional Chamber - to be jailed because they changed an article in a law, even though - to say it in juridical terms - paragraph six of article five of the Supreme Tribunal Framework Law says that one of the powers of the tribunal is "to declare null, in whole or in part, laws that are incompatible with the constitution." Ejusdem... ejusdem! (sorry, got something got caught in my throat there.)

Meanwhile, the president urges his supporters to break with him, and they respond that daddy is right to kick them out of the house, that they know they deserve a few whacks and, like the prodigal son, tell him: "we don't deserve to call ourselves your children...treat us like you treat the worst reactionary, but let us stay by your side."

Folks, you're not pulling the wool over my eyes on this one: all of this must be part of some sort of strategy. The words being tossed around here clearly mean something different from their usual meaning. Any dictionary is useless, any communication is impossible and each head is a world apart.

After all this has passed and only ruins of the state police headquarters remain, a hard rain will come and wash away the layers of pyroglyphs. But I will stop hear, because this stof seams toobe shyly contra gious. Good buy.

March 23, 2007

Cabrerita en su salsa

Quico says: For the last several years, Supreme Tribunal Magistrate Jesús Eduardo Cabrera has been Venezuela's leading purveyor of tortured and bizarre (but always government friendly) legal interpretations. Whether it was delaying the 2004 referendum, backing the "Las Morochas" voting trick, or weakening proportional representation, Cabrerita has been the government's go-to guy on the tribunal.

So imagine my surprise when the all-chavista National Assembly moved to get him and six other Constitutional Chamber magistrates removed from the Tribunal for, in effect, having the wrong legal opinions. The red slime machine is already in full swing: the party line is that these guys didn't just overstep their constitutional prerogatives, they did so because they're "a mafia."


The final decision on the case rests with the three-member "Moral Republican Council" which, as you'd expect, is neither Moral nor Republican nor a Council, but rather a Miraflores sock puppet. The constitutional kabuki will be followed, but the outcome is foretold.

Turns out that, when it came down to it, Cabrera's long and storied history of licking the government's boots was not enough to stave off his political lynching. So it goes with the revolution: one presidential tantrum is all it takes to turn you from crony to outcast.

What's behind all of this? I have no idea. (Feel free to email me your pet theory.) I can tell you one thing, though: Cabrera and co. did something Chávez didn't like. The Assembly doesn't freelance moves like this; they would not go after these guys without approval from upstairs. The message this sends out is clear enough...the constitution won't protect you, your job title won't protect you, your past loyalty won't protect you, only complete, unquestioning, and constant loyalty will protect you.

March 21, 2007

Defining delivery down...

Quico says:

The sign reads:
The President and the Mayor CAME THROUGH

Construction of the new building for the Pérez de León Hospital and Mother and Child Unit.

Sucre Municipal Government.
And yes, the concrete shell you see is the building they "came through" on.

The ins and outs of zero zapping

Quico says: A few of you have written in with questions about monetary reform. Here's my attempt to clear things up:

First off, the practice of striking zeros from a devalued currency is nothing new. France, Laos, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil have all done it. Just a couple of years ago, Turkey zapped 6 (count 'em, six!) zeros off of the lira, ending the era of the 20,000,000 lira banknote. Certainly, zero-zapping makes day-to-day transactions easier to deal with. There's nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes.

Thing is, Chávez is selling his bolívar fuerte scheme not just as a way to simplify calculations, but as an inflation fighting scheme. And this is where the wheels come off: there's just no logical connection between zero-zapping and the rate at which the new currency loses purchasing power.

Obviously, Chávez has no clue what it is that causes inflation. What's sad is that, outside the chavista anti-rationalist bubble, the underlying cause of inflation is well understood. Inflation is what happens when you have too much money chasing after too few goods. When the amount of money sloshing around an economy grows faster than the stock of goods available for purchase, prices have to go up.

The trick is to think in terms of the ratio of money in circulation to goods in the economy. If there are 100 ounces of gold circulating in an economy and the only thing for sale is 10 horses, you can guess that a horse will sell for 10 ounces of gold. If, suddenly, miners dig up 100 extra ounces of gold but there are still just 10 horses available for purchase, over time, the price of a horse will rise to 20.

It's not some big mystery: when new money gets injected into an economy faster than its output is growing, prices rise. Since 2005, liquidity in Venezuela has more than doubled, while GDP has grown by about a fifth. Which suggests that, if anything, inflation has been too low in the last two you can expect more to come.

The point is that you can strike however many zeros you want off of the bolivar; that does exactly nothing to change the rate of liquidity growth. And if you want to control inflation, you'll have to come to grips with that.

Nothing Chávez has said suggests that he's willing to make the kinds of choices that it would take to slow down liquidity growth. And the main reason liquidity has been growing so fast in Venezuela is that the government spends too much money, and the central bank no longer has the power to say "no" when the government asks it to print up some more. So long as that's the case, prices will keep rising.

Which is a crying shame, because when coupled with sensible reforms, zero-zapping can be a useful ingredient in a broader stew of inflation-fighting measures. Psychologically, it can mark a clean break, a before-and-after marker, a symbol of a government's newfound commitment to sensible inflation-busting policies. But expecting zero-zapping to bring down inflation by itself is like expecting a frying pan to cook you dinner.

Two things

Quico says:
  1. Caracas Chronicles on Noticiero Digital is here.
  2. Chigüire on your dinner plate is here.

March 19, 2007

Who stands up for Maria Campos?

Katy says: Maria Campos came to Venezuela from her native Colombia 33 years ago, looking for a better life. She had three Venezuelan children. One of them, Nay José, 22, was a carpenter. He lived with his mom in a slum appropriately called "Bolivarian Invasion."

Nay José was walking to his girlfriend's house last Tuesday when, according to many eyewitnesses, he was approached by the police and gunned down. Maria told reporters she had to wait in the street with her son's body for more than 12 hours until an ambulance finally came to take him away. During that time, nobody from the police even bothered to show up.

That was probably for the best. Several eyewitnesses blamed a group of officers from Caracas' Metropolitan Police for the murder. Four years ago, the neighbors squatted on the plot of land where they now live in ramshackle houses because the authorities were turning a blind eye to such occupations. Now they regret their move; their settlement is illegal so, despite being almost destitute, they have to pay protection money to the cops to keep from getting evicted. Maria says she wants to move back to Colombia. She would feel safer there.

This is the other civil war, the one you won't hear about on the evening news because it doesn't involve U.S. Marines or exotic jihadists. Last year, it claimed 18,381 lives. From 1999 to 2006, it ended a staggering 90,027 lives.

Of course, your eyes glaze over when you read numbers like those. It's impossible to fathom what they really mean. 18,381 or 90,027 - those are just statistics. What happened to Nay José Campos, though, is a tragedy.

It's a reality strangely absent from our political conversation. Public debate in Venezuela can be high-brow, as when we talk about U.S. policy toward Latin America, or trivial - like when chavista political parties play hard-to-get about joining Chavez's single party. A lot of the time it's just repetitive: each new day we hear a fresh tale of the President handing out millions to his friends overseas.

That's the Venezuela you meet on the front page of the newspaper. The real thing, though, is hidden away in the back. The real Venezuela is the Venezuela of the Sucesos page - our grisly daily newspaper crime roundup.

These are the stories that matter the most, the ones that mark a before-and-after point in the lives of those they touch. Stories about bloodied bodies and lives destroyed, about families ripped to pieces and teenage love affairs that end in a morgue, all on a scale you usually associate with war time. There's no ideology in the Sucesos page - just the unbearable pain of meaningless violence, almost always inflicted on the very poor. These are the stories the government doesn't want to talk about, because they lay bare its failure to deliver the thing people care most about.

Chávez fans overseas marvel at the government's social programs, but these programs didn't really help Romer Romero. Romer was caught in traffic on board his Yamaha motorcycle, the one he used as a moto-taxi to make ends meet. He was gunned down by the two muggers who took his bike, after they had already taken off with it. The same day, four other moto-taxi drivers were murdered. Romer was 23.

If Romer lived in a country with a future, he wouldn't have had to go out into Caracas' dangerous streets to sell rides on his bike. The same could be said of Keni Brito, who was also gunned down by two muggers after taking the sparkling new bike he'd just bought ten days earlier. Keni left behind a six-year old daughter.

At least three moto-taxi drivers are murdered in Caracas each week, thanks to a bustling black market for motorcycle spare parts. If it cared to, the police would be able to tackle this problem: find the spare parts sellers, make your way up to their suppliers, and you've found your killers. But doing so would require political will, something this government simply does not have.

According to Unesco, Venezuela now leads the world in per-capita deaths due to firearms (34.3 per year per 100,000 population). During the Chávez era, the overall homicide figure has more than quadrupled, from 4,560 in 1998 to the 18,381 last year. As the State Department gingerly puts it, "virtually all murders go unsolved."

People are so desperate for resolution they've ended up taking justice into their own hands. Just last week, neighbors in the La Aduana sector of Puerto La Cruz lynched the murderer of a local woman and left his corpse on the street. The state police finally showed up, but only to collect the body. No questions were asked.

Sometimes, the cops make an effort, but their operations are so haphazard, it leaves neighbors feeling even more vulnerable. Take the case of the Giovannito gang. Last week, a commando from the Metropolitan Police ambushed the band deep inside La Vega, one of Caracas' most dangerous slums. While the leader of the band was killed in the shootout, the police's heavy-handed approach - they even used a helicopter - did not prevent nine of the gang members from fleeing and hiding in the nearby mountains. They were never caught, and now the neighbors are terrified as they await their return from the hills.

So while people such as the taxi drivers of San Félix - 28 of them were murdered in 2006 alone, and six have been killed so far in 2007 - protest the government's failure to deal with the threat they face, we debate whether or not Barbara Walters is on Chávez's payroll. While the return of the locha makes the front page, 25-year-old Carlos Martínez's death while going to buy candy for his kids is buried in the Sucesos page, along with the deaths of 27 other people in Caracas over the weekend.

Wide-eyed foreigners think this is a government that cares about poor people. Eating up the propaganda the government feeds them daily, they buy the line that chavismo is all about empowering the poor and honoring their human dignity.

But while you wonder whether there is anything the government can really do, or question whether it is even their fault, ponder the fate of 20-year-old Carlos Hilton. Carlos was gunned down in Petare Saturday night, right in front of an abandoned Metropolitan Police barrack. His murder, like tens of thousands of others, will most likely never be solved.

The creeping criminalization of protest

Quico says: It's a worrying and under-reported trend: protesting in public is increasingly liable to land you in jail in Venezuela. PROVEA, a homegrown human rights NGO, documented nine violently suppressed protests in February alone.

We're not talking about political rallies here; it's protests over bread-and-butter issues by regular people that are increasingly dealt with with a volley of tear gas and a sprinkling of rubber pellets and arrests.

Some examples:

  • On February 2nd, a protest by recently dislocated street hawkers in Charallave was suppressed with tear gas and rubber pellets: one was injured, eight were arrested.
  • On the 14th, five amateur athletes were injured when police broke up a sit-in at Valencia's Villa Olímpica in protest at the lack of funding for coaches and sports equipment. Several of these guys are being prosecuted because the facility sits within a "military zone."
  • On February 16th, two incidents: temporary PDVSA workers protesting over unpaid back wages in Píritu, Anzoátegui were tear gassed off the streets. In Guayana, nine miners were arrested for asking that the government come through on aid promises.
  • On the 28th, it was members of some 30 Community Councils in Cumaná. They were roughed up for demanding a doctor for their neighborhood Barrio Adentro outpatient clinic.
These kind of stories are hitting the press almost daily. PROVEA head Mariño Alvarado tells Tal Cual that "it's becoming standard procedure that if you get picked up while protesting, you can be prosecuted." He said the recently ammended penal code's article 357, which makes blocking a street a crime punishable by four to eight years in prison, has been used more and more often to crack down on these kinds of protests.

As Alvarado notes, prosecuting people for this kind of thing is unconstitutional - not that that's slowing the government down. After all, who's gonna call them on it? The all-chavista Supreme Tribunal? The redder-than-red human rights ombudsman? Right...

That's the thing about autocracy: when one part of the state abuses its power, no other part of the state has the autonomy to check it. As a common citizen, you have no recourse. You're just screwed.

March 18, 2007

The Locha Angle

Quico says: Simón Romero hangs this whole long NYTimes story about monetary reform on the 12.5 cent bit. Seems to me he knows full well that this kind of tokenism is not going to bring down inflation on its own, but he's awfully polite about it.