August 25, 2007

A couple Chávez missed...

Quico says: In a morbid, quasi-masochistic kind of way, it's intriguing to think through some of the bits of the 1999 constitution Chávez forgot to mess with in the last minute dash to finish his reform proposal. I mean, it seems like some provisions he just kind of missed, like article 145:
Public employees are at the service of the state and not of any partiality. Their appointment and dismissal shall not be determined by their political affiliation or orientation...
(Though, admittedly, the analogous provision concerning the military - in Article 328 - did not escape his attention.)

Then there's article 314, which says:
No type of spending that has not been forseen in the budget law shall be carried out...
Leaving this one intact is particularly eye-brow raising given that the reform explicitly says the "misiones" shall be set up not by law, but by presidential decree. But the Budget is a law so, technically, the constitutional reform bars the misiones from spending public money! (As for Fonden and PDVSA's social spending: they will remain as unconstitutional as they have been for year.)

It's a fairly absurd parlor game, I realize, this kind of close textual analysis. It makes no sense to train a lawyerly eye on a document that was never intended to be interpreted by independent jurists. All it does is highlight the juridical Never Never Land that is chavismo's Potemkin Constitutionalism: but, at this point, that amounts to a fish-in-a-barrel massacre.

Nonetheless, it has its uses. Recently, Luis Miquilena argued that the reform mostly legalizes the constitutional violations the government has made routine. Clearly there's some truth to that, but just as clearly progress on that score will be only partial: a good number of the key constitutional provisions that have been most flagrantly violated in the last few years are not up for reform.

So, since they're not calling for these articles to be reformed, should we infer they intend to start respecting them? Or did Chávez just overlook them in the all-nighter he pulled to finish his proposal?

Quotable quotes

The continuation in authority of the same individual has frequently been the end of democratic governments. Repeated elections are essential in popular systems, because nothing is so dangerous as allowing a single citizen to remain in power for a long time. The people gets used to obeying him, and he gets used to ruling it; whence usurpation and tyranny arise. A proper zeal is the guarantee of republican liberty, and our citizens are more than justified in fearing that the same magistrate, who has already ruled them for a long time, may continue to rule them perpetually.
Simón Bolívar

Anyone who has a different project, a different leader, should leave, here in this party we want people who believe in the leadership of president Hugo Chávez Frías. Brothers, the only option here is called Hugo Chávez Frías and the people, there is no other option here. There will be no revolution in this country if we don't have Chávez, it's as simple as that. Nobody guarantees that this constitution will be followed if we don't have a president like Hugo Chávez and we must organize to defend that proposal.

August 24, 2007

It's the re-election, stupid!

Quico says: I'm frankly disheartened by the way the debate on Constitutional Reform has gone so far. The Opposition has decided to focus on an abstract, procedural and ultimately doomed call for the reform proposal to be voted on article-by-article rather than as a block. Others have taken the government's bait, criticizing the minutiae of the reform proposal: the bits on private property, for instance, or on the six hour work day.

It's not that these issues are not important, it's that they're moot: the government's ability to do these things doesn't depend on what the constitution says. Chávez doesn't need to reform the constitution to nationalize whole sectors of the economy (ask EDC or CANTV). He can - and has - made radical reforms to the labor market by decree, without having to change even the law, much less the constitution.

In fact, most of his stated rationale for constitutional reform is transparently bogus: we're told it's needed so the government can start doing things it has been doing for years, even decades. Reform, we're told, is a precondition for the status quo.

Hay que aterrizar. Chavismo has never recognized the principle of constitutionally-limited executive power. None of the institutions set out in the 1999 constitution to rein in the executive are operational. Without effective limits on executive power, without the rule of law, without any form of functioning oversight, it makes no sense to argue about the specific new powers the reform would technically grant the executive. These are powers he already has, in practice if not in law.

The debate over "soft constitution" reforms is more than just useless, more than just absurd: it's actually counterproductive. It muddies the waters. It plays into the government's hand, propping up chavismo's Potemkin Constitutionalism, its increasingly threadbare simulation of constitutional legality.

The only reform that makes a difference is the abolition of presidential term limits and the extension of the president's term: that's hard constitution stuff. That's the only goodie the government can only get by changing the constitution. In practical terms, that's the only thing that would be different if the reform is approved.

Barely ten days after the reforms were unveiled, the Opposition has already lost sight of this basic reality. They've already turned their focus away from a transcendent, resonant issue that the voters overwhelmingly agree with them on to a dry, lifeless, technical-juridical debate nobody sane could care about. It's not even September yet and they're already out chasing red (very red) herrings.

When this whole thing started, my only question was how the opposition could manage to blow its huge lead in the early polls. The answer should've been obvious from the start: by failing to coordinate, letting the government set the agenda, focusing on peripheral issues and taking the spotlight off of the issues where most voters agree with them. Here we go again.

August 23, 2007


Katy says: Article 345 of Venezuela's Constitution says: "The Constituional Reform project approved by the National Assembly will be submitted to a referendum within the thirty days following its approval. The referendum will be about the reform in its totality, but separate voting will be allowed for up to a third part, if at least one third of the members of the National Assembly approves it, or if were so requested in the reform initiative by the President or by no less than five percent of voters registered in Civil and Electoral Rolls."

Today, chavista legislator Carlos Escarrá said that, since the initiative had not come from voters, the part about five percent of signatures asking for some sort of article-by-article referendum did not apply. According to him, the rule about the five percent of the voters only applies when the voters themselves are presenting the project. Any guesses as to how chavista magistrates in the Supreme Tribunal would interpret this rule?

Sadly, it sounds like this initiative is dead in the water.

PS.- On an unrelated note, Information Minister (for populist power yadda yadda yadda) Willian Lara said today that the New York Times attacks the Chavez government because it is part of the Bush administration's propaganda machinery. I'm sure the editors in New York, not to mention the TImes' readers, are rolling on the floor laughing at the sheer stupidity of this comment.

August 22, 2007

Populism and your health

Katy says: In the past few months, the Venezuelan government has dramatically increased its threats against private health-care providers, repeatedly attacking them for "fleecing" the public and for illegally jacking up prices. Hardly a day goes by without a new threat being hurled at private health-care, doctors or insurance companies. At the same time, the government curiously reiterates something few people believe - that it does not want to eliminate private medicine.

In classic populist style, Pres. Chávez said the other day that "... someone arrives at a private clinic and the first thing they are asked about is insurance, money, savings accounts, and if they don't have it, take them away... This has to be denounced, attacked and eliminated. Whoever has a private clinic and does that, does not have a right to have it."

"We have to reach that point and I am willing to reach it," Chávez stressed, saying that he does not wish to "eliminate" private medicine in the middle of a speech marking the inauguration of a hospital ward named after someone who thought it necessary. lists one of the definitions of populism as "any of various, often anti-establishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies." This definition fits Chavez's vision of health care to a T.

Private clinics are in the business of providing a service called "health care," and resources will only flow towards that activity if investors see a return to their investment. The only way this can happen - the only way private health care can even exist - is if people pay for the service they receive, be it via their insurance, the state or their own pockets.

Charging for health care is a necessary condition for having private health care, and most of us would agree that private health care is better than no care at all. Still, there is something about denying health care to people who can't pay that just seems unethical.

At this point, nobody serious believes the government's agenda toward health-care is anything but ideological. Sure, the government has invested in primary care, and it has recently opened new facilities that give the appearance that we are moving forward. Yet, as we have pointed out before, investment in infrastructure has not yet translated into improved health indicators, and the gains we have had fall short of the money apparently being invested. Health indicators do not suggest any significant departure from the trends they carried prior to Chávez.

Only hard-core chavistas and their foreign pamphleteers would confuse a couple of shiny new hospitals with actual health-care policy that delivers, whose results can be assessed and audited. What these "common men" don't understand is that there is more to public policy than simply writing checks and cutting ribbons. The notion of cost-benefit analysis or thinking about the medium- and long-term financing aspects of providing affordable health-care to millions of Venezuelans is as foreign to PSFs as a Reina Pepeada.

Health-care in Venezuela simply cannot be sustained through the State alone.

A government focused on results rather than rhetoric would keep this in mind and act accordingly. A government interested in improving access, yet conscious of the importance of private providers, would understand that being denied service at the door is caused by either clinics' inability to charge people *after* they have received service, or by people's absolute inability to pay. Any serious government would look to attack one or both of these root causes.

A results-oriented government could sit down with private health-care providers and suggest "good practice" guidelines to ensure that patients first receive care and then billing issues are addressed. It could push for a "patients bill of rights". It could offer to pay for the private provision of health care for poor Venezuelans through some sort of voucher scheme, allowing people to choose whether to go to private or public hospitals.

But these kinds of policies are too boring for the current administration, and working with the private sector to solve a problem that affects us all is something they are genetically unable to do.

Instead, we get threats. Clinics will now have to accept anyone coming to get treatment, and the few patients with resources will end up paying most of the bill. Adverse incentives will run amok, raising the cost of private health care. But the government has already hinted it will not tolerate price increases. In the end, the government isn't out to ban private health care, it's out to bankrupt it.

Private clinics will be expropriated without compensation. Before long, we will have an exclusively state-run health care system for 30 million Venezuelans. Anyone who thinks the system can survive with oil below $45 a barrel - if not sooner - has never been to a public hospital in Venezuela.

Chavez's big-oil policy style is typical of the way military caudillos usually handle things. His ham-fisted, yes-sir approach to complex social problems puts the "tank" in "think-tank." It's our loss that nobody bothers with the "think" part.

Charming, ain't it?

Katy says: This is the Venezuelan Embassy in Peru, as it used to look:

This is the same Embassy, as it currently stands:

Hmmmm...why on earth would Peruvians think such a government would use relief for earthquake victims to score cheap political points?

Revolutionizing Time

Quico says: Sometimes, the revolution feels like one of those confused dreams you have when you eat too much before going to sleep. You know the ones: dreams where time gets all confused, where stuff that just happened hasn't happened, then happens again and again before it happens for the first time. Dreams where time's arrow goes all squiggly on you, doubling over and turning back on itself for no reason.

Reading the Venezuelan press seems to call up that dream-like feeling more and more often. Like when I read this ABN write-up on AN Finance Committee Chair Ricardo Sanguino's feelings on constitutional reform. Sanguino argues that the reform "will end any vestige of the hegemony of private property on the means of production, so that social property over them becomes pre-eminent, on the road to a socialist economy."

It's that "will" that stands out in my mind. Thirty years after nationalizing the oil industry, months after renationalizing the power and telecoms sectors, long after state regulation of every single aspect of business life has left the notion of "property" an empty husk, Sanguino tells us that everything the state has already shown it can do, and indeed done, it will do once the constitution is reformed.

The constitutional reform debate is full of this kind of thing: grand declarations about its absolute necessity in order to enable the state to do stuff that filled yesterday's newspapers. In a way, Chavismo is trying to sell us the Constitutional Reform as a necessary precondition for the status quo.

In this debate, verb tenses seem to come all unhinged. The long ago consummated end of the Central Bank's autonomy becomes a bold new proposal for the future. Language banning "latifundios", which had been written into the constitution all the way back in 1961, is dusted off and hawked as this season's latest arrival. The recent expansion of Conatel's authority over PayTV is served up again, as if it were a shiny new morsel. This must be what Trostkyites mean by Permanent Revolution: the permanent recasting of the routine as revolutionary.

Amid all this craziness, it's almost fitting that Chávez is moving forward with a proposal to fuck even with our wrist-watches: moving Venezuela half a time-zone back into the past. Once there, one suspects he'll set out to undo some of what he had already done so that he can repackage its prospective redoing as a constitutional innovation.

August 21, 2007


Quico says: Sorry, folks, but the comments' forum got too boring to read. I'm calling a general time out.

Catastrophic Absence of Self-Awareness Chronicles, Part Umpteen

Quico says: I loved this bit, from The Economist's piece on Chávez's proposed constitutional reform. After explaining how the proposal would do away with presidential term limits, it notes:
State governors and mayors will still be subject to term limits—otherwise they might become caudillos, Mr Chávez said recently, without irony.

August 20, 2007

Chavismo hits new lows

Katy says: Peruvian portal has a story about victims of Peru's deadly earthquakes receiving canned gods labeled with political propaganda and slogans in favor of Chávez and defeated presidential candidate Ollanta Humala.

The labels on the cans (pictured above) read: "To face the looting, blockages, desperation and chaos (sic). Solidarity towards our compatriots."

It also reads: "In the face of the natural disaster that has struck Peru, and in particular our region Ica, the Peruvian Nationalist Party, along with our sister Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, its leader Hugo Chavez and our leader Ollanta Humala, makes itself present because the Peruvian government acts in a slow, inefficient and heartless manner, not caring about the pain of the victims and leaving them suffering from hunger, thirst and theft."

PS.- Both the Venezuelan government and Humala's party deny being involved. I wonder if whoever sent these cans sent can-openers as well.

Thor in the NYT

Katy says: I don't know Thor Halvorssen personally, and I don't believe I have ever corresponded with him. However, we're all fighting for the same side, so I guess you could say all of us share some sort of cyber-kinship.

I've seen his name come up once and again in the international debate about Hugo Chávez, and I've been struck by his eloquence and his media savyness. Anyway, Thor got a lengthy, mostly positive profile in the New York Times movie section, and I wanted to make sure people checked it out. Sorry, free subscription is required to access it.