April 21, 2007

YouTube: Broadcast your crooks

Quico says: Well, we may not have a freedom of information act, or any kind of working oversight institutions...but, thank God, we do have YouTube.

For the non-Spanish speakers, the clip relays a recorded phone conversation between Carlos Romero Anselmi - CEO of the relentlessly propagandistic State TV network, Venezolana de Televisión - and Carlos Bardasano - CEO of private TV network Venevisión. Owned by Venezuela's richest man and erstwhile capo di tutti i oligarchi Gustavo Cisneros, Venevisión mysteriously "switched" its editorial line from hard-core anti-Chávez to increasingly pro-Chávez in 2004.

Since then, we've all assumed there is some kind of implicit understanding between Cisneros and Chavismo, but this clip demonstrates that their collusion goes way beyond "tacit."

In the clip, we hear Venevisión's Bardasano excitedly relaying to VTV's Romero Anselmi the excellent ratings the two networks received during their joint "special operation " (operativo) on election day last December. Romero Anselmi sounds thrilled, and tells Bardasano that "all of my guys are saying that the alliance with Venevisión was fundamental." A bit later, Romero Anselmi asks Bardasano if he got that nice new "red, very red" car he sent to his office. Bardasano confirms and thanks him for the gesture. He then brags about all the flack he's gotten over a glowing profile of Chávez that Venevisión ran on election night, and revels in how much it ticked off the opposition.

All of which adds a bit of context to Chávez's decision to shut down Venevisión's main competitor - RCTV. As well as silencing a key medium for dissent, getting rid of RCTV will bring Venevisión lots of new viewers - and, of course, the advertising revenues that come with them. Two for one, then!

Stomach churning stuff. I wonder if these guys will even bother to deny it...

April 20, 2007

Good reading...

Quico says: There are lots of blogs and websites that bring together news content about Venezuela, but today I want to point you to my favorite: Venezuela Real.

I don't actually know who edits it, but I love it: they have a great eye out for the best journalism in and about Venezuela, eye-opening stories that too often fall through the cracks. Unlike Noticiero Digital and most such sites, the focus is on news rather than comment - though they also include some particularly good opinion pieces.

Mostly what they do is pick out a story and post a few paragraphs and a link. The design is admirably minimalist - no graphics, no BS - which is great if you have a slow net connection. The point is that you get to read all the little gems stuck away in the inside pages of the papers that you would probably miss otherwise.

If you only have a few minutes a day to catch up on Venezuela news, and you can read Spanish, do yourself a favor and bookmark Venezuela Real.

(Also, don't miss Weil's all new, super-snazzy website...the guy is a genius.)

April 19, 2007

The government's red, very red measles problem

Katy says: The following is an excerpt from an article by my friend, health policy expert and USB professor Marino González. I thought it was worth translating - it provides a simple benchmark with which to judge Chavez's under-performing health policies. My apologies for not providing a link - it was published in Tal Cual and it's subscription only.


From "The government's red, very red measles problem"

In his last address on the State of the Union to the National Assembly, President Chávez said, "today we can say that Venezuela has what it had always lacked: an integral public health system..." Previously, he had stated, "in Barrio Adentro I, we reached 56.9 million medical consultations..." To top it all off, he said, "we have expanded the hospital system, now we are moving to Barrio Adentro IV, Barrio Adentro continues to advance..."


There is a simple way to verify the above. If we had the best health care system we wouldn't have any cases of measles in Venezuela. However, we have the most reported cases in the entire Western hemisphere, according to reports from the Ministry of Health and the Weekly Measles Report published by the Panamerican Health Organization.

The incidence of measles is an excellent indicator of a health system's quality and penetration. Measles is a disease that can be completely erradicated: it is caused by a virus and can be avoided through immunization. The vaccine is affordable and has proven to be effective. Through adequate planning, it is possible to reach the entirety of the population at risk.

Latin America's Ministers of Health set the goal in 1994 to erradicate measles by the year 2000. Many countries in the region have been succesful in this area: the last case reported in Nicaragua was in 1994, in Honduras it was in 1997, in Guatemala in 1998. In Colombia, the last reported case happened in 2000, and in Peru in 2002.

In the red, very red years of the current administration, Venezuela has become an island of measles. In 2002 alone we had 2,392 cases. After no cases between 2003 and 2005, measles made a comeback in 2006 with 92 cases. This was the highest number in Latin America, higher than Brazil's 14 cases or Mexico's 23 cases. No other country in Latin America reported cases of measles.

We have had cases of measles all over the country: in Zulia, Carabobo, Guárico, Amazonas, the Metropolitan District, Miranda and Nueva Esparta. In 2007, there have already been 23 cases reported, four times as many cases as in the United States. No other country in Latin America has reported measles cases in 2007.

President Chávez's government has not passed the measles test. We have a health system that is impotent when faced with simple problems, some of which have been solved in poorer countries. If the National Assembly were truly worried about people's well-being, they would have already launched an investigation. Is the vaccine ineffective? Does it not pass quality controls? Why does the government say the vaccine's coverage is high, and yet we still have cases? Is something similar happening with other vaccines? What is happening with vaccinations in Barrio Adentro? Why is the government not informing about this? There's no doubt about it: the red, very red government's incompetence is behind the surge in measles.

April 17, 2007

You may be through with the myth, but the myth isn't through with you

Quico says: Today, it's part three of my exchange with Greg Wilpert, of Venezuelanalysis fame, about the April 2002 coup.

His original essay on the coup is here.
My open letter to him is here.
His reply is here.

Today, my reply to his reply...

Dear Greg,

Well, I'll start by noting the part of your letter I agree with. Obviously, the opposition is not free from the urge to mythologize the April Crisis. All the old canards about a "vacuum-of-power", about how it was "too dangerous to send out reporters on April 13th", are still floating around out there. They are no more credible and only slightly less fantastical than the stories about 13 million people demonstrating for Chávez's return. If I had the power to set the opposition line that Chávez has to set the government's, I can assure you they would've been buried long ago.

In the absence of a credible investigation, though, it was always likely to be so. Exactly five years ago today - just one week after the 11A massacre - Teodoro Petkoff could already see this dynamic taking hold:
What we had feared has started to happen. The sad events of April 11th have already been turned into projectiles tossed back and forth between the various political parties, who accuse each other of responsibility for the deaths. Instead of waiting for the result of an investigation from a Truth Commission, in Parliament each side went straight for "its" videos and "its" photos to sustain "its" truth. This road is totally barren and, from the start, demonstrates an unwillingness to get to the truth. Each side seems to want to keep the affair in a cloud of uncertainty, seeking to keep the events confusing enough to use as a political argument in future debates. This would be a calamity for the country.
And a calamity it has been.

Looking back, I think the central legacy of the April Crisis has been the way all the parallel mythologizing cemented the fracture of society. The failure to produce a shared understanding of what happened became a festering wound, just as Teodoro predicted. It underpinned all of the stupid confrontation that came afterwards and deepened the extremism on both sides. It confirmed the opposition's sense that Chávez had to go by any means available, as well as the government's sense that no holds are barred when it comes to protecting itself against "people like that."

And that's why my own write-up on the crisis stresses so heavily the fact that no credible investigation was carried out in the weeks and months after the coup. Because we could sit here and argue all day and all night about what Plan Avila was or what Otto Neutsaldt did or didn't say about what when. But the reality is that we'd be basically guessing, because the Truth Commission was never set up, the conflicting testimonies were never systematically confronted and the evidence was never rigorously weighed by a credible, independent body. That's why a single version of events never arose.

Definitely, yes, both sides have mythologized, but the moral equivalence between the government's mythologizing and the opposition's only takes you so far. Because only the government could've organized the kind of investigation that might have been able to prevent these parallel mythologies from becoming entrenched. Globovisión doesn't have subpoena powers; Primero Justicia can't put people under oath. Only the state has the power to do that; only the state has the responsibility to do that.

From the start, though, it was clear that chavismo was much more interested in imposing its own version of events than in creating a shared history. Neutsaldt's account was used not as the basis for an impartial investigation, but as fodder for propaganda videos repeated incessantly on State TV for openly partisan purposes. The official criminal inquest was pawned off to an openly partisan prosecutor who used it to extort money from the people he was investigating, and who ended up being murdered in circumstances the state also failed to investigate credibly and that, in a macabre twist, itself became grist to the mill of partisan mythologizing.

Under those circumstances, it's no wonder that the actual story got buried so deep under a mountain of obfuscation: when the state abdicates its obligation to flesh out the facts, the myth-makers have the field all to themselves. Who needs a truth commission when you have The Revolution Will Not be Televised?

For me, the question of why the April Crisis was never credibly investigated is as important, as revealing, as the crisis itself. I think there was no credible investigation because everyone in the ruling clique realized that uncovering facts that ran counter to the Official Version could be a career-ending offense. Worse still, the official version keeps shifting: there's no guarantee that today's ideologically correct account will not become tomorrow's heresy. Nobody (other than you) has been willing to take that risk.

Chávez wanted his own Bay of Pigs, Greg. He needed to win a defining battle for the soul of the people against the gringos to flesh out the epic arc of the revolution. And if the evidence out there fit that narrative arc rather awkwardly, too bad for the evidence: he sure as hell wasn't going to take the risk of setting up an investigation he couldn't control, and that might end up contradicting his version. As early as April 18th, 2002, that drive to seize symbolic control of the crisis had already trumped the petty concerns of people like you and me who care about what actually happened. Up against Chávez's steadfast commitment to subordinating reality to ideology, the "evidence" never stood a chance.

Had there been any official institution with the autonomy to hold this drive in check, something like a shared understanding might still have arisen. But there wasn't, because even back then chavismo treated "state," "government," "nation," and "Chávez" as synonyms. The ruling ideology flattens the distinctions between these concepts, making it impossible for those in positions of authority to imagine that something that's in Chávez's interests may not be in the National Interest.

So it's not surprising that those called on to investigate quickly fell into line: an ideology that can't tell the difference between the National Interest and factional interests and that interprets every call for impartiality as a subterfuge to empower the class enemy can't see the value in institutional independence, whether it's in order to investigate the April Crisis or for any other purpose.

When it comes down to it, it was Chávez's authoritarianism that made it impossible to generate a shared understanding of what happened in April 2002. And here, I mean more than just his run-of-the-mill political authoritarianism. I mean a deeper, more sinister drive to dictate the official understanding of the past, a kind of epistemological authoritarianism that dismisses "dissident historical facts" with the same virulence chavismo has always shown to dissident political figures.

From the start, Chávez intuited the need to assimilate the April Crisis into the revolution's storyline, to turn April 13th into a symbolic milestone along its historical path, just like February 27th, 1989 and February 4th, 1992. Dates suffused with such symbolic resonance they can be summoned with just a number-letter combination (27F > 4F > 13A ), the three were threaded together into a compelling narrative of national redemption, with Chávez himself cast in the indispensable role of redeemer. When that's the game you're playing, facts are just a nuisance.

In the end, Chávez won the power struggle his symbolic hijacking of the April Crisis helped configure. His myth won. This might be a "non-issue" for you, but the fact remains that it's his mythologized version - with its gaping omissions, delirious exaggerations and outright falsifications - that kids will learn in school. It's the one that will enter the popular consciousness.

And it's this power over our collective memory-making process that ultimately alarms me. By taking on enabling powers to re-write history, Chávez exerts ultimate control over our collective identity: the control over what we think we know about the past that Orwell understood so clearly as the key to sustaining power permanently.

You may not see that as your problem now but, in time, it will be. As Chávez's power continues to grow, he will silence more and more dissenters and he will imposes stricter and stricter loyalty tests on his followers. The scope and depth of his epistemological authoritarianism can only grow, Greg, because there's nothing in the structure of his ideology to limit its growth.

And while we're not there yet, the day will come when an account of the coup like the one you wrote will mark you out for suspicion. It might seem far fetched to you now, but we're approaching the era of indefinite re-election, so you have to adjust your time horizon: the future lasts a long time, you know?

If there was anything in Chávez's conception of power that could lead him to think, at some stage, "this much power is enough power, this much control is enough control" then you might have some room for comfort. But that's just the thing, Greg,...there isn't.


April 16, 2007

Greg Wilpert says...

Dear Quico,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments on my coup article and for giving me the opportunity to reply to your letter.

First, indeed, it is a shame that there is no Chavista version of my account in Spanish, but I guess you could say the same about there not being an opposition version, unless you consider the La Fuente & Meza book to be an opposition version (which I basically do, but I thought you did not).

You say, "What a mess you're putting yourself into by telling the story this way, Greg!" As I have told you on several occasions before, I think you give Chavistas far less credit than they deserve. You seem to think that there is a monolithical Chavista thought-police out there that censors or banishes anyone who doesn't fall into the party line. You'd be surprised how much tolerance there is for dissent. Not from everyone, obviously, but the Chavista side is far more diverse than you seem to think. So, in a nutshell, I'm not worried at all about putting my side out there. As a matter of fact, I might even find a state institution that will be willing to translate it into Spanish.

Next, you say, "your problem is that the official version keeps changing." This too is a non-issue for me. My version only changes with new evidence that becomes available.

As for Chavez saying that those who died on April 11th died for him, you of course interpret this statement in the least favorable way. Which is, of course, your right and to be expected from an opposition commentator. Unsurprisingly, there are more favorable interpretations to that comment. That is, all Chavez was saying is that the battle on the streets was about him and that, therefore, all who died (opposition and Chavistas - he explicitly acknowledged both) died "for" him. The opposition supporters died for him in the extended sense that they were cannon fodder of the coup conspirators.

I don't know what Celia Flores said, but a few days ago, on the 13th, VTV showed the documentary "Claves de una massacre", which goes into excruciating detail just how far opposition marchers got on Avenida Baralt (about 350 m. from Puente Llaguno) (have you seen it? If not, you really should). The video has been highly praised by Chavistas, which clearly shows that Chavistas generally agree that they did reach Baralt, but just not close enough to be the targets of the Puente Llaguno shooters, as opposition mythology claims.

I find it pretty amazing that you seem to think that my glossing over Chavez's knowledge that the PDVSA board resigned is comparable to La Fuente & Meza's (and your) omission of the Otto Neutsaldt testimony. To me, there is just no comparison. True, I could have said something about Chavez knowing that about the board and not telling it (perhaps I will in an updated version), but I don't think it makes all that much of a difference for the overall development of the coup. In any case, it makes a hell of a lot less difference for our understanding of the coup than the Neustaldt testimony does, which you and La Fuente & Meza leave out.

As for Plan Colina and Chavez's so-called "admission" that he planned the coup and the PDVSA strike, this has become one of the cornerstones in opposition mythology of the Chavez era. It is awfully convenient for the opposition that Chavez takes full responsibility for these events. As many Chavistas say, it's probably one of the main reasons he's so popular in Venezuela - he's the only politician who will take responsibility for bad things that happen in Venezuela. So far practically no one in the opposition has taken responsibility for the coup (most are they are still denying that there even was one) or for the disastrous shutdown of the oil industry or for having lost the recall referendum (Rosales' taking responsibility for the loss of the presidential election was thus a milestone in opposition discourse).

However, you completely exaggerate and over-interpret Chavez's taking responsibility. Just because he admits (and perhaps exaggerates the extent of his foresight in the process) that he consciously contributed to these crises, does not mean that he bears more responsibility for these events than the opposition. I admit, though, a complete account should include this admission, but, as you can tell, I don't think it's as big a deal as you make it out to be (another addition for a future version). You are probably right that Chavez "let the coup roll" despite hi foreknowledge of it, precisely in order to flush his opponents out of the system. That strategy sounds quite smart, actually. Unfortunately, he clearly miscalculated. I don't think he knew that there were going to be people shooting from buildings into both demonstrations, which would cause the deaths of 19 people. Also, he clearly thought he could stop the full unfolding of the coup before it was too late, that is, before he was actually deposed. Part of the reason he underestimated the coup plotters here is because he did not know as much about the coup or the extent of the betrayal as he thought he did. I seriously doubt he imagined that Rosendo would be part of it. All indications were that he thought Rosendo would stick by his side and implement Plan Avila, which would have prevented him being held hostage the way he was. Chavez was visibly shaken afterwards by the extent of the betrayals against him.

I don't know why you seem to think that my conceding that Chavez contributed to the crisis is something too dangerous for me to do. After all, Chavez himself has "admitted" to having done so. The real question in my mind is, who had more responsibility - the coup plotters or the one who is trying to figure out how to outmaneuver the plotters?

At the time of the coup, I really thought Chavez could have done something to prevent the coup and that he should have done so back then (my articles from the time confirm this). However, what I have learned since then has convinced me that it is highly unlikely that the coup organizers would have shifted course. Besides, if preventing the coup had meant giving in to the opposition's demands, despite Chavez having a mandate to carry out radical changes in Venezuela, I now think that he should not have given in an inch. After all, by what right was this minority making demands? I guess you could say that the coup and the events that followed radicalized me just as much as they radicalized Chavez.

Finally, with regard to your gratefulness about my having presented an account of the coup based on evidence, all I can say here again is that you know Chavistas a lot less well than you think. Not only that, you also seem to think (or at least you imply) that your side is somehow immune to the problems of mythologizing the history of the Chavez presidency. Come on - has your horse gotten too high for you to get off? You used to be much more critical of the opposition than you have been ever since you re-started your blog.

Thanks again for providing me this opportunity to respond!

Best wishes,

Wilpert in his labyrinth

An Open Letter to Greg Wilpert

Dear Greg,

I read your piece on the April Crisis with interest. While, obviously, I disagree with your overall interpretation, I'm really glad you wrote it. I found it really refreshing to read a serious effort from the chavista side to come to grips with the actual evidence that's out there. To this day, it amazes me that no similarly evidence-oriented account of the chavista version of events is available in Spanish. But, y'know, there are reasons for that.

As I read your piece, I couldn't help dwelling on those. What a mess you're putting yourself into by telling the story this way, Greg! Re-introducing facts that have been gradually scrubbed off the Official Version - the Plan Avila order, the hushed resignation of the new PDVSA board, the government's advance notice that the march would be re-routed, the scant, fragmentary and circumstantial evidence of US involvement - your account leaves you way out of step with the canonical chavista version of events. It's a re-telling that casts you in the role of "independent-minded supporter," and I know full well that's no bed of roses. You're an independent-minded supporter of a government that, these days, feels almost as threatened by independent-minded supporters as by outright opponents. Seriously, ask Diaz Rangel, or López Maya, or Miguel Salazar, or Ismael García or Jesús Cabrera.

Partly, your problem is that the official version keeps changing, departing more and more from the facts in the public domain, the facts that make up the basis of your post. You tell us that seven opposition members died on April 11th, along with five bystanders. But official mythology has moved on: Chávez now says that everyone who died that day died on his behalf, as martyrs to his cause. You may remember making your way through the opposition crowd on Avenida Baralt, up through no-man's-land, to Puente Llaguno, but Cilia Flores has already announced that the opposition march was never on Avenida Baralt in the first place. So should a principled revolutionary believe you, or the presidents of the republic and the National Assembly?

It doesn't much matter that you're right and they're lying - they have power, and all you have is a keyboard. You may be shielded for a while longer by the fact that you write in a foreign language, but sooner or later they'll figure out that you believe the evidence more than you believe the official story. And the revolution has no use for people like that, Greg.

What's funny, though, is that your retelling goes both too far and not far enough. You're way out ahead of the constantly morphing, increasingly sanitized, mythologized official version, for sure, but your allegiance to evidence has some limits as well. I had a nice chuckle when I got to that delicately balanced bit about how, "unbeknownst to the general public", PDVSA's new board resigned on April 10th. That was some fancy syntactic footwork, gingerly obviating the fact that it was Chávez they'd tendered their resignations to, so if the public didn't beknow it, it's because he didn't betell them!

Most of my quibbles are along those lines: you note the speck in La Fuente and Meza's journalistic eye but never notice the log in yours as you exempt Chávez from his very obvious responsibility for egging on the crisis. You write that Chávez's "style" helped deepen the conflict throughout early 2002, but you write it as though this had been some kind of unwitting byproduct. You omit mention of Plan Colina and the Grupo Colina he set up to execute it. Remember those? Chávez himself, speaking to the National Assembly in 2004, acknowledged (or is the right word 'bragged'?) that he had set them up precisely to precipitate a crisis, to sharpen the contradictions as a way to finally turn PDVSA from a state institution into an instrument of personal discretion.

Not that such an explicit acknowledgment was really needed. Back in 2002, anyone with a pair of open eyes and a TV set could tell that Chávez, as much as the opposition, was working to antagonize the other side as acutely as possible. Unless you think he's plain dumb, you realize he knew this would provoke a showdown. This, when you think about it, is not even really a controversial point.

Thing is, if there's something Chávez knows a thing or two about it's the dynamics of coup management in the Venezuelan military. He was socialized in the AD-era military, where standard operating procedure when the authorities caught wind of a plot was to "let it roll" - to monitor it as it developed in order to flush out as many unreliable elements as possible. Certainly, without provoking an extreme situation, Chávez couldn't have gauged if he could really rely on Rosendo, on Camacho Kairuz, or on Baduel. (No, no, yes - turned out to be the answers.) Already by April 7th, Rosendo's panicked pleas for him to find a negotiated solution, to sit down and talk, and to avoid placing armed civilians around Miraflores must have given him pause. There were, in the two weeks preceding the coup, any number of opportunities to stem it. Chávez passed them all up. Ever wonder why that is?

Of course, here I start to flirt with ideas too dangerous for even an "independent-minded supporter" to countenance. Some taboos are more taboo than others. The notion that Chávez is essentially blameless, que el tipo no rompe un plato, is not really one I can expect you to question. To acknowledge Chávez's obvious - indeed, self-confessed - interest in accentuating the crisis would set you down a slope that is just too slippery, both to your position within the movement and to the precarious internal balance you've had to build to justify your support for a leader you have, on occasion, acknowledged is inclined to authoritarianism.

But still, I'm honestly glad you wrote that piece. I may interpret things differently, but the point is that, surely, we could have a conversation about it. Because what you do is something nobody else on your side seems to do: you present reasoned interpretations based on factual claims backed by the available evidence. You don't just screech generic accusations; you don't just hurl insults at those who disagree with you.

And that makes all the difference. Because it means I can do what I've done here: reply by contrasting your interpretations with different interpretations that are also based on factual claims and backed by the available evidence. And if you choose, you can do the same back to me. So we can go back and forth, in an iterative process that could, little by little, lead to us constructing a shared understanding of what actually happened. Ta-daaaaa: communicative action!

Actually, when I think about it in those terms, your coup piece is the most subtly but profoundly counterrevolutionary thing I've read in months.


Tomorrow: Greg's response.