July 27, 2007

Rhetorical about-face

Katy says: As we eagerly await the unveiling of the Constitutional Reform that we will hopefully get a chance to vote on, it's strange to see the government, from Chavez on down, engage in a rhetorical battle with the opposition over the name of its key component: the end of presidential term-limits.

Under the current Constitution, Presidents can only be re-elected once for a second, consecutive six-year term. This means that Chavez, barring any changes, would not be able to run for President in 2012 no matter how much the TSJ tries to "interpret" the Constitution to allow him to do so.

The main reason underlying the reform of a Constitution tailor-made by his supporters a mere eight years ago is to do away with this limit, an idea I'm on the record as supporting. I'm probably on the wrong side of the fence on this one, given how everyone else seems to be panicking about the possibility of this reform passing. However, there's something appealing about the idea of letting chavismo run its course until people have finally tired of it once and for all.

Last year, when this idea was first floated by Chavez, he had no qualms in calling it "indefinite reelection." After all, that is what it is - the ability of a President to be re-elected as long as he wants, i.e., indefinitely. Yet in the past few months, coinciding with polling data showing the public strongly opposing the idea, the President has gone to great lengths to say that it's not an "indefinite re-election" because that term has "negative connotations," that what he is proposing is a "continuous re-election."

This is one of the rare instances of Chavez changing his rhetoric to appease the public. I would have expected him to plow through and continue using the term to sell his idea, to boast about it just like he boasted about PDVSA being a "red, very red" company when, during the campaign, the hidden video of the President of PDVSA using this term threatened to hurt him for about a second.

Yet the fact that the Revolution is trying to re-brand the idea of indefinite re-election indicates that the polling data is probably right, and chavistas are aware of it. Will the opposition continue using this term? Will chavistas manage to cloud the proposal with other stuff that may alarm the opposition, so as to confuse them and take the focus off indefinite re-election? Will chavistas re-brand the proposal succesfully? Will there be an election? Will we win? Will the CNE acknowledge the proposal's defeat? Stay tuned.

July 26, 2007

RCTV The Sequel: Scarier than the original

Quico says: So, as most people know, having gotten kicked off the public air waves, oppo broadcaster RCTV made a Freddie Kruegeresque return to haunt the government's dreams through cable and satellite.

You could've been forgiven for thinking that this was the government's goal all along: to slam this dissident voice in a gilded ghetto, limiting its reach to the 42% of relatively upscale Venezuelan homes that get pay-TV, and kicking it out of the other 58% of homes, where Chávez supporters tend to live.

Oh, but no. Even this politically declawed RCTV was more than the government was willing to tolerate.

Just today Conatel, the national telecoms regulator, ruled that, just like public broadcasters, pay-TV operators must carry cadenas: live propaganda broadcasts, usually of Chávez ranting, that all channels are forced to carry simultaneously, with little or no advance notice, for as long as the big guy feels like hearing the sound of his own voice.

(Which is deeply ironic: pay-TV's growth in the middle class has been fueled by the sense that it was the last televisual refuge from the ranting comandante...but now, Our Master's Voice will follow us even there.)

The point, of course, is that Cable and Satellite systems were never set up with cadenas in mind, so there's no obvious technical fix to the problem of putting the same thing on every channel at short notice. Nevermind that: Conatel now says that if RCTV doesn't join the cadenas, it'll have to be shut down all over again.

Now, think this one through. In a way, this is worse than the original decision to take RCTV off the air.

Back in May, when we all saw Chávez vs. RCTV: The Original, the government made a big deal of the distinction between shutting down a TV channel and getting it off the public airwaves. Communications Minister Willian Lara threatened journalists who incorrectly reported news of a "shut down" - no such thing, he said, a mere "non-renewal of a license to broadcast over the public airwaves."

Because, of course, the public airwaves are just that, public, and according to the constitution, state-controlled. That's why even Katy and I had to admit that, in some narrow legalistic sense, the state surely has the right to decide who does and doesn't get a broadcast license: the radioelectric spectrum is not infinite, and it's the state who decides who can and can't use it. (That, in shutting down RCTV, the state exercised that right arbitrarily and with total contempt for due process of law is another matter.)

It's precisely because the radio spectrum is public that the state has the right to "take it back" from its licensees whenever it wants to broadcast cadenas. It's the public character of the airwaves that was the government's rationale for the authoritarianish Law of Public Responsibility in Radio and Television: "so long as you publish over our airwaves," the argument went, "you gotta follow our rules."

Distasteful? Yes. Tone-deaf to basic freedoms? No doubt. And yet, not totally absurd, because the airwaves really are public.

The point, of course, is that there's nothing public about the strip of rubber-coated copper that runs between Intercable Headquarters and your bedroom wall. It's purely private. You pay for it. Nobody forces you to put it there. Nobody who doesn't want to have it is forced to get it just because they own a TV. Nothing in the constitution gives the state to interfere with it.

Surely, the government has no more right to impose cadenas on pay-TV than it has the right to put cadenas on phone calls. (Though, come to think of it, at this stage in the game, I really shouldn't put ideas into their heads...)

The point is that, with its behavior in The Sequel, the government shows that we were right all through The Original: it was authoritarianism, simple intolerance of dissent, that was driving them. And it still is.

July 25, 2007

Brother, can you spare $49,665,810,000?

Quico says: According to people idle enough to actually keep track of these things, in the first half of the year the Chávez government announced plans to spend at least $49.7 billion dollars on projects abroad.

I write "at least" because the figure doesn't include the many, many foreign spending promises made "loosely," without announcing a specific price tag.

49 billion verdes is about one and a half times the government's total (oil and non-oil) revenue over that same period: these guys are literally pledging the country's money away faster than it comes in.

It's hard to get a gut level feel for exactly how much money $49.7 billion dollars is.

To give you a sense, here's what $206 million (mostly in $100 bills) looks like.

[This fearsome stash was confiscated from a drug cartel in México just recently.]

Now, the government has, on average, been pledging to spend this amount of money abroad every 21 hours. Indeed, between January and June, the Chávez government pledged to spend this amount of money 240 times over on projects abroad.

So, actually, $49.7 billion would look more like:

Nice, huh?

Actually, I propose the Mexican Drug Cash Pile (MDCP) as the standard unit of account for Bolivarian Foreign Spending.

The conversion rate would be 206,000,000 $ : 1 MDCP.

Bolivia got pledges for 6.4 MDCPs worth of new spending (mostly for energy exploration,) China 9.7 MDCPs (new refineries), Argentina - 15 MDCPs (for bonds), Cuba 21.9 MDCPs (for all kinds of stuff) , Russia 22.3 MDCPs (weapons), Nicaragua 23 MDCPs (refinery), and Iran gets a scrumptious 43 MDCPs (for super secret stuff).

But it's Ecuador that tops the bill with a whopping 46 Mexican Drug Cash Piles worth of new spending: some 9.5 billion of your and my dollars to build a shiny new refinery at Manabí.

Now, does anyone actually follow up on these pledges? Do they ever get audited? How many of these projects will actually get built?

And, erm, how many "commissions" can you pay with 49 billion bucks?