April 6, 2007

Answers from Libreville

Katy says: This article, and the book that it refers to, are not to be missed. The author explores the current oil boom in Africa, and examines what newfound wealth is doing to some of its societies. The stories he tells feel all too familiar.

One passage was particularly illuminating. The author narrates what it is like to travel from Nigeria to Gabon. As you may know, Nigeria is a major oil producer, but its society is mired in poverty, social conflict and unrest. Gabon is a minor player in the oil industry, yet the standard of living is remarkably higher:

"Gone is the sight of legless cripples, crawling on their bare hands through lanes of traffic like teams of crazed, foreshortened gymnasts, competing for prizes of loose change. Gone, too, is the smoke billowing from mountains of trash that have gone uncollected so long that residents have set fire to them. And gone completely is the shouting and the jostling and the barely suppressed rage that seems to flow through Nigeria's streets like a howling flume of molten lava from morning to night. In its place is a distinctly languid holiday feel and an unmistakable air of genteel French provincialism left over from colonial times.


This outward splash of easy prosperity has much to do with Gabon's small population and sizeable oil reserves. In a country that is only a little smaller than Nigeria and pumps 265,000 barrels of oil a day, there are not 130 million people to share the oil wealth, but just over one million, making Gabon's per capita income of $6,500 one of the highest in Africa. (Compare it with Nigeria's $678.)"

People who have not studied Venezuela easily fall prey to the government's oversimplification of the reason for the revolution's apparent popularity, which goes something like this: before, a bunch of rich white folk - and foreign imperialists - were taking all the oil money for themselves, but now, Chávez is distributing oil wealth to the poor. While there may, perhaps, be an ounce of truth in that statement, the real story is that during the 80s and 90s, the price of oil plummeted while the population nearly doubled. The main reason Chavez is popular now is that the price of oil went back up again, and the government once again has the funds required to keep people satisfied. In that sense, Chávez is not doing anything that presidents between Gómez and CAP-I didn't try to do before. If, or rather when, the price of oil falls, his luck (and ours) will begin to run out.

The only solution to this trap is to move our economy away from oil dependency, something the Chávez government is not only not doing but, in fact, is actively fighting against. So while some of my countryfolk may now feel they are Gabonians, it won't be long before the natural cycle of oil prices Nigeria-izes them back to reality.

April 5, 2007

Piece de resistance

Quico says: So, get this. "Comando Nacional de la Resistencia" spokesman Antonio Ledezma (groan) has formally asked Prosecutor General Isaías Rodríguez (double groan) to drop any ongoing investigation relying on the testimony of well-known fantasist Giovanni/Geovany/Jovany Vásquez de Armas (quadruple groan with triple back flip.) You've got to hand it to a story that manages to put the utter dregs of Venezuelan and Colombian public life together in just one sentence!

There's too much idiocy compressed into too little space here to quite go over it all. But indulge me as I rant briefly on the Comando Nacional de la Resistencia. These are the folks who, as you'll recall, "refuse to recognize the Chávez regime" and are therefore "resisting" it - just like Jean Moulin resisted Nazi occupation.

Ummmm, ok. Try to picture Moulin walking up to his neighborhood Nazi field commander to hand him a carefully argued legal brief asking for an injunction to block the next batch of deportations to the concentration camps. Ermmmm... doesn't quite work like that, resistance, does it?

And yet, not a week seems to go by without some CNR blowhard demanding an injunction from one of these courts they don't recognize. You can barely turn on Globo without seeing one of them, implicitly or explicitly, recognizing the authorities they say they are resisting. Worse, the penny never seems to drop for them that the second you file an injunction, you are in fact recognizing a court's authority to grant it.

Am I missing something, or are these guys catastrophically failing to grasp some not-at-all subtle differentiations here? Gandhi did not plead with the High Court in London to overturn British taxes on salt making...he walked to the sea and made salt. That's resistance! Hamas does not file finely argued briefs for the end of Israeli occupation...they blow up Israelis. That's resistance! CNR wraps itself in the rhetoric of resistence...and then goes plead with Isaías to pretty please do his job properly. That's pathetic!

Turning the opposition movement (well, their bit of it anyway, cuz, as they say, "not in my name!") into the same morass of superficiality and empty talk as the government they are un-resisting, they sap the movement of the moral seriousness it would take to either resist or oppose the government successfully.


April 4, 2007

Prohibition makes a comeback

Katy says: In Venezuela, we have a popular saying: "pagan justos por pecadores", roughly "the just pay for the sins of the sinners." This was never more true than with the government’s bonehead decision to ban the sale of alcohol during the Holy Week holiday.

In case you missed it somehow, the Chávez administration made the surprise announcement that sales of alcohol outside the hours of 10 am to 5 pm would be banned throughout the nation in the week leading up to Easter. The justification is the inescapable fact that, every year, hundreds of Venezuelans die in car accidents during the Holy Week holiday, many of them due to driving under the influence.

Now, if you’re a PSF comfortably sitting at home, you’re probably thinking "this Chávez guy is wonderful, he’s going head-on against drinking and driving." That's understandable, since Venezuela has a serious alcohol-addiction problem and it takes thousands of lives each year. But in this area, as in so many others, the government offers a gesture, not a policy, much less a solution.

They could train and equip cops to enforce DWI laws. They could take steps to make sure serial drunk drivers stay off the road. They could run a serious public education campaign through the state-controlled media to make drunk driving less socially acceptable. They could spend some of those oil billions on breathalizers, or drivers's education or popularizing the notion of a designated driver, or on compensating families who've lost loved ones to drunk drivers. If they cared, they could do something substantive about this very serious problem. But they don't.

Instead, they grandstand.

Never mind that banning alcohol sales in the evenings hurts folks such as restauranteurs or bar-owners, who usually make a big chunk of their living during Holy Week. Never mind that this measure impinges on their right to engage in lawful business activities. Never mind that it arbitrarily curtails their customers' right to consume a product that, as far as I know, is not only legal but well-liked by chavistas and opositores alike.

What's really maddening is realizing that it simply won't work, and the cure will probably be worse than the disease. If liquor stores can't sell legally after five, they will do so ilegally, probably through the back of the store at a higher price and probably without paying taxes. A decision like this is basically unenforceable, and you can bet the cops and National Guards in charge of making sure nobody sells booze will make a killing off racketeering. And there's nothing in the decision regarding alcohol consumption - if you want to get plastered, you simply have to buy your booze ahead of time.

Wikipedia lists the effects of Prohibition in the United States:
"A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Racketeering happened when powerful gangs corrupted law enforcement agencies. Stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. The cost of enforcing prohibition was high, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol (some $500 million annually nationwide) affected government coffers. When repeal of prohibition occurred in 1933, following passage of the Twenty-first Amendment, organized crime lost nearly all of its black market alcohol profits in most states (states still had the right to enforce their own laws concerning alcohol consumption), because of competition with low-priced alcohol sales at legal liquor stores."
But chavistas don't learn from history. Their modus operandi has always been to swing policy sledgehammers at social mosquitos - more often than not missing, and smashing anything else that happens to be in the way.

It's a pattern we've seen repeated again and again in all kinds of policy areas. People are drinking and driving? Ban alcohol sales. The price of private health care is going up? Nationalize the clinics. Unemployment is a problem? Ban firings. Things are too expensive? Threaten people who raise prices. Bothered by social protests? Make it a crime to block the street.

Folks, this government is the bull, and we're stuck in the china shop with it.

I think what he thinks, but backwards

Quico says: Phil Gunson writes a delicious bit of Chávez debunkery in Tuesday's Miami Herald. Money grafs:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was on the ethanol bandwagon. Until, that is, President Bush jumped aboard. Now, it seems, ethanol is a threat to the poor.

Until just a few weeks ago, the leftist Chávez was pressing ahead with a five-year project to sow almost 700,000 acres with sugar cane to produce ethanol. With the technical support of Brazil and Cuba, 15 new sugar mills were planned to produce 30,000 barrels of ethanol a day. Even in early March, Havana and Caracas announced an agreement to build 11 ethanol plants in Venezuela, using Cuban expertise. The agreement also included the modernization of 10 plants in Cuba and the construction of a further eight, based on Brazilian production methods.

But after Bush visited Brazil and signed an ethanol deal with President Luíz Inacio Lula da Silva, both Chávez and his close ally, Fidel Castro, converted to the anti-ethanol camp.

''When you fill a vehicle's tank with ethanol, you are filling it with energy for which land and water enough to feed seven people have been used,'' Chávez said. Instead of food, he said, the land was used to fill ``rich people's cars.''

April 2, 2007

Don't term-limit the revolution

Katy says: One of the hot-button issues in Venezuela these days is the upcoming Constitutional reform that will propose lifting term limits on the Presidency and allowing indefinite re-election.

Term-limits are a sign of practically all modern democracies. They're meant to limit incumbents' tendency to take advantage of their position in order to perpetuate themselves in power. They also force periodic political renewals that might not happen otherwise.

While no other Latin American country allows indefinite re-election, none of these countries can be considered a model democracy. On the other hand, countries such as France and Great Britain don't have term limits. Charles De Gaulle was President of France for ten years, and had he not died in 1970 he probably would have run and served out a few more terms. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister for 11 years before a petty scandal brought her down.

Yet these examples cannot serve as arguments for the abolition of term limits, since they are in essence parliamentary or semi-parliamentary systems in which the ability to actually govern depends on maintaining a parliamentary majority.

When I travel overseas, one of the most effective arguments in convincing people that Hugo Chávez is a dictator is precisely this question of indefinite re-election. People abroad definitely don't think that's kosher. I have bumped into more than one PSF whose sympathy for Chávez has been toned down by Chávez's repeated vow to die in office.

But while indefinite re-election will mark a turning point in the slow agony of Venezuelan democracy, perhaps it would not be such a bad thing. This administration has changed the way Venezuelans view politics, and perhaps the only way to leave it behind us is to let it implode for good, to let it run its course without the Constitution putting an artificial shelf-life on it.

Sometimes, to cheer myself up, I think of the day when Chavez himself, in power, is no longer popular nor wanted. When we finally see him leave power, it will be that much sweeter to see him do so as a result of a voter revolt rather than by force of nature or the Constitution preventing him from running again. So indefinite re-election may not be such a bad thing. At least it leaves the door open for Chávez's last election to be one where he loses badly.

Quico adds: Please forward some of the crack you were smoking when you wrote this.

The real reason indefinite re-election does not mark France or Britain as dictatorships is that those countries have functioning, stable, independent institutions. If Jacques Chirac could mobilize the French army to campaign for him, would he be stepping down this year? If Tony Blair could threaten to fire Home Office clerks and secretaries if they refuse to attend marches in his favor, would he be on his way out? C'mon, Katy!

Mutatis mutandi bis

Quico says: This new research, though still preliminary, is certainly eye-popping.
We investigate political profiling by presenting the results of the Prosecutor General's Office's investigation and/or indictment of 375 elected officials. The distribution of political affiliation of the sample is compared to the available normative data.

Data indicate that Fiscalía prosecutors across the nation investigate seven (7) times as many opposition officials as they investigate pro-government officials.

Our paper explores the role of the fourth estate and others in detecting such profiling and concludes that what is really needed is transparency, the highlights of which are noted below. The current government appears to be the first to have engaged in political profiling.

  1. Political profiling makes opposition figures look like they are more corrupt than pro-government figures.
  2. Political profiling of local opposition elected officials attacks the opposition at the very grassroots essence of its personality. Each local case of reported or insinuated corruption by the central authorities eats at and saps the local opposition's energy to be the grassroots leader of the movement and drains his or her resources in defense against the comparatively unlimited resources of the central government.
  3. Political profiling discredits each candidate's persona as a viable leader of and spokesperson for the local opposition.
  4. Political profiling weakens the candidate's ability to raise monies for themselves when seeking re-election and negates their ability to raise money for other opposition candidates.
  5. By keeping political profiling at the local level -- in this way the story is most likely not to be viewed nationally -- it makes it harder for reporters to connect the dots between corruption investigations in say Acarigua, Maturín, La Vega and Maracaibo. Each local report of a corruption investigation appears as only an isolated incident rather than as a central example of a broader pattern created by the Prosecutor General's unethical practice of political profiling.
Come to think of it, wouldn't it put things in perspective if someone replicated this research methodology you-know-where?