January 24, 2008

The slippery slope

Katy says: It's always a challenge to write about Venezuela from abroad. Much of what happens in the country depends on moods: the mood of the government, the press, the opposition, the voters, and obviously tapping into them is more difficult when you're not there.

However, I get the feeling that the government is slowly entering into panic mode. Increasingly, the tone I get - from the scandals, from what bureaucrats are saying in public, from what chavista talking heads say on the air - is that the revolution is in trouble, perhaps more trouble than we on the other side acknowledge.

Repeated defeats at the hand of chavismo have taught us not to have high expectations. But it's hard to shake the sense that chavistas are on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Take, for instance, the case of former Finance Minister Tobías Nóbrega. Yesterday the Prosecutor general's office, in an unprecedented move, indicted Nóbrega on some pretty serious accounts. These include paying millions of dollars above budget for hospital renovations and the construction of a market in a poor area, projects that were never completed.

Nóbrega's slimy dealings have been the talk of the town for many years now. What is surprising is that chavismo is willing to open up this can of worms at this particular juncture. There are a lot of important people in the government involved with Nóbrega and in similar schemes (Antonini, anyone?), so this could ignite a turf war that could cause serious damage to chavismo. Can more scandals be on the way? You bet.

Take the fresh new scandal involving Maracaibo mayor Giancarlo DiMartino (PSUV). A video posted on YouTube allegedly shows DiMartino supplying Colombian guerrillas with food and other basic stuffs inside Venezuelan territory.

Whether or not the video is a montage is not clear. However, the Colombian government - all the way up to President Uribe - is taking this very seriously.

I have no doubt that chavismo's knee-jerk reaction will be to blame the opposition or the CIA for this. The underlying story, though, is more likely related to the rivalry between DiMartino and former Finance minister Rodrigo Cabezas. The latter has always wanted to be Governor of Zulia, and effectively resigned from the Cabinet in order to run. However, the mayor - who is popular with independents and moderate chavistas - has hinted at running for years now. This has the look of a smear operation guided from inside chavismo itself.

Chavista heavyweights have been sounding downright panicky as of late. Yesterday, for example, Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto admitted the revolution was "stuck". He even went on to praise the opposition, which he claimed was showing itself as "wide" and "diverse" and willing to put "fresh voices" center stage, whereas chavismo was looking "tired", "sectarian", "uniformed" and "bureaucratic."

This has been echoed in other quarters. Every day, I get in my Inbox the transcripts of the main chavista opinion programs, and some of the things they have been saying are really surprising. Two days ago, on the VTV program "Dando y Dando ("Give-and-take"), Ministers and former Ministers talked about how the government's aggressive stance toward private industry was coming back to bite them, and how it was in part causing scarcity. They were extremely critical of Mercal and the Mercalitos, which are showing serious signs of breakdown. They went on to say that chavismo had to go back to its popular roots because it had lost touch with people's problems.

These developments would have been unthinkable two months ago. The monolithic essence of chavismo and its unreflexive triumphalism were shattered December 2nd, and it's not clear what it's being replaced with. It's extremely unlikely that chavismo can adapt and become a modern, effective, pluralistic, moderate movement. The pile-on of problems and scandals is starting to look like an increasingly slippery slope for the government, and the polls are starting to show it. Trouble is, with a looming world recession in the horizon, it's not clear they will have the means to recover.

January 23, 2008

Opposition agrees on...

Katy says: Today the opposition to Chavez signed an agreement on 10 points for the future of the country. The 10 points they committed to are:

1. Rescuing public institutions and respecting their autonomy
2. Respect for ideological plurality
3. Descentralization
4. Security, the defense of human life and the end to impunity
5. Respect for private property
6. Fighting against poverty
7. Education without ideology, respect of the freedom to teach and autonomy in universities
8. Foreign policy based on solidarity with neighboring countries and a return to the Andean Community
9. Institutionalization of the Armed Forces
10. Unity to reach changes

Here are my first takes on this:
a) Everything seems awfully vague, so its long-term effects - aside from the effect it may have on public opinion - may not be important.
b) Who was the genius that thought that the first word in the agreement should be "rescue"? Probably some adeco.
c) Weird that the Andean Community is mentioned, weird that solidarity with neighboring countries should be in there given that people are fed up with Presidential "gifts". Perhaps they meant solidarity with Uribe.
d) Where's their oil policy?

Anyway, it is what it is. Not much else in there to quibble about.

Post-Referendum Blues

Quico says: How big a hit did Chávez's popularity take after his referendum defeat last year? According to Datos, by the third week in December just 30% of Venezuelans were expressing confidence in Chávez personally, and a paltry 21% still had confidence in the government. That's just dismal. We haven't seen numbers like these since the height of the hyper-polarization period in 2002 and 2003.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa thinks he knows why that is: the misiones have basically fallen apart.

If this keeps up, OD will be shooting at an open goal in October. Can they miss?

January 22, 2008


Quico says: I'm on record complaining bitterly about the fragmentation of Venezuela's opposition into more and more tiny and ineffective parties. But recently, I've been wondering how new this structure really is...and to what extent can we think of these little parties as real parties?

It was this story that got me thinking: a spokesman for MAS, one of the parties that has been most comprehensively splintered into insignificance, just announced it wants to negotiate "unity candidates" with the other oppo parties ahead of October's state and local elections.

Hardly earth shattering stuff. Pretty much everyone in the oppo galaxy grasps the arithmetic realities of first-past-the-post elections: it's coalesce or perish. This is not controversial.

But if MAS, Causa R, Primero Justicia, UNT and the others recognize that they will have to put forward a single candidate in most places, in what sense are they really separate parties anymore?

After all, agreeing on a single candidate to represent you in elections is pretty much the defining trait of a political party. That's what parties are for! From the moment all agree to nominate a single "unity candidates" per district, don't they become, de facto, one big meta-party? And, at that point, doesn't each of the "little parties" come to look more like an internal faction within that larger, unacknowledged party?

For the sake of clarity, I think we should give this phantom party a name. I propose "Oposición Democrática". Its internal organization is tacit, yes, and remarkably fluid, (a euphemism, perhaps, for "chaotic".) Its most striking characteristic is factionalism: OD's faction leaders seem to spend nearly as much time trying to outmaneuver one another as they spend fighting the government.

For those leaders, jockeying for internal position is an engrossing blood sport. Anything goes, albeit with one important proviso: when the dust settles, only one odeco gets to be nominated in any one district.

The obsession with internal jockeying is no accident. When it comes right down to it, everyone knows it'll be the OD faction bosses who will decide the unity candidate in any given district. At the end of the day, the backroom horse-trading session that will make or break younger politicos' careers is one only OD faction-heads get to attend.

And so, an aspiring politico's career prospects depend entirely on finding a powerful cacique to fight their corners at that meeting. And a cacique's willingness to fight hard for a given protegé depends on a calculation about how useful the protegé is likely to be to him in the neverending factional fight within OD.

Unless you're clinically brain dead, you catch my drift by now. In many ways, the structure of the current opposition ressembles nothing so much as the heavily factionalized Acción Democrática in the 70s, 80s and 90s. The only difference is that, these days, instead of calling them factions we call them parties. We no longer call the forum where caciques argue the CEN, but we fully realize that it's in that setting that ultimate decisions are made. And we don't have disciplinary tribunals to enforce loyalty to the broader party because we've finally gotten honest enough to accept loyalties are focused on patrons, not on the Oposición Democrática.

The incentives pushing politicos to concentrate on strengthening their clientelistic bonds with patrons hasn't changed one bit. And just as in the era of the AD factions, the current opposition spends so much time obsessing about its relative strength within OD it seems to have totally lost sight of the public. Jockeying for position inside OD is a full time job: it leaves no time for extra-curriculars like articulating a vision for the future that resonates with voters' concerns and wins them over to our side.

The more I think about it, the more I think the virulent anti-party mood in much of the opposition base has to do with this. People intuit the isomorphism between AD and OD. The government exploits that intuition ruthlessly. And oppo politicians are so deeply immersed in the world of OD factional jockeying, they scarcely realize they are repeating the mistakes that destroyed AD in the first place.

Update: As if to confirm my thesis, Copei has just announced that OD will sign an agreement to present a single slate of candidates in October. Note that even to "announce unity" one of the factions gets out ahead of the curve, making the announcement on its own! Happy 23 de enero, everyone...

January 20, 2008

Confessions of a Militant Heisigista

[Quico warns: I don't usually allow this blog to stray too far from its core subject - Venezuelan politics - but every so often I do indulge one of my subsidiary obsessions. Today, it's Japanese study. If your computer doesn't have a Japanese character set installed, much of the punchline will be garbled - sorry in advance.]

So, I made a New Year's Resolution: this year, I will learn the meaning and writing of all 1945 "general use kanji" - the basic Chinese characters needed for high school level literacy in Japanese.

During my entire first year of Japanese study I avoided the Kanji like the plague. But I realize shooting for illiteracy is no way to learn a language, so this year I'm honkering down and working on the writing system.

Learning the Kanji is easily the scariest part about learning Japanese. For a westerner, there's something deeply alienating about staring at a page of Kanji: a wall of senseless little squiggles that all look pretty much the same. To my eyes, their very look on the page epitomizes foreignness.

You instinctively feel it's impossible to get to grips with kanji, and the strong temptation is to give up before you start. After all, it takes Japanese schoolchildren 9 years of grueling schoolwork to learn to write their own language: what chance could a foreigner possibly have?

Kanji - (or 漢字 - which literally means chinese () characters () - since the Japanese adopted them from China about 1350 years ago) work in a fundamentally different way than an alphabet. While each alphabetic letter represents a sound, each Kanji represents a meaning, which is why they're sometimes referred to as "ideograms".

So the relationship between image, sound and meaning is just sliced up in a fundamentally different way. Alphabetic writing links the image of the word on the page with a sound and leaves it up to us to memorize its (arbitrary) meaning. Ideographic writing links the image of the word on the page with a meaning and forces us to memorize an (arbitrary) sound.

The easiest way to explain this is to notice what happens when you run into an unfamiliar word. In English, when you see an archaic word you often have no idea what it means, but you have some notion of how to say it. Take a word like "sibilate". Even if you don't know what it means, you know more or less how it will sound just by looking at it on the page. (Actually, it means "to whistle.")

In Japanese it's the other way around: looking at archaic kanji, Japanese people can more or less figure out their meaning by looking at them. But more often than not, they'll have no idea how to actually say it.

The most conspicuous feature of the Kanji, of course, is that there are a lot of them. How many, exactly? It's surprisingly hard to get a straightforward answer to that.

Studies show that the 500 most common kanji account for 80% of the characters in a typical newspaper, but the subtler you want your writing to be, the more unusual kanji you'll probably use. The most comprehensive dictionary in Japan lists just under 50,000, but the vast majority of those are "dead kanji": archaic scribbles from China that fell out of usage centuries ago. A standard computer these days recognizes about 6,350 kanji, but even most of those are pretty arcane: the kanji equivalent of "sibilate".

Now, I know everybody loves to hate gringo imperialism, but I'll put in one good word: it was the American occupation authorities after World War II that finally brought a measure of order to the madness, drawing up a list of the most commonly used 1,945 kanji and decreeing that compulsory education would include only those. Henceforth, newspapers, official documents and the like would include only these "General Use Kanji". This is some (but not much) consolation to that uncommonly disconsolate bunch: the poor, beleaguered western student of Japanese.

Enter our very own patron saint. His name is James W. Heisig. In 1977, Dr. Heisig pulled off a feat that, as he puts it, "raised more eyebrows than hopes" at the time: he memorized the meaning and the writing of all the General Use Kanji in less than two months.

Though dismissed as a freak with a photographic memory, Dr. Heisig insisted anybody willing to study Kanji full time could replicate his achievement. To prove it, he wrote up his method and published it as Remembering the Kanji I: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters, an instant classic in the torpid world of Japanese literacy acquisition methods.

The key, he said, is to divide and conquer. First, divide the easier task of learning the meaning of Kanji from the harder task of learning their pronunciation, and focus on the former initially. Then, divide the Kanji themselves into their parts, and learn to associate those elements through mnemonics.

Why? Because, though they typically look utterly inscrutable to the uninitiated, Dr. Heisig realized that most kanji are really just combinations of other, simpler kanji. The key, then, is to work from the simple to the complex, learning to take them apart in your mind and understanding them on the basis of the elements that make them up.

Take a typical, initially terrifying kanji:


Now, how the heck are you supposed to remember that that means "inscription"!? At first sight, it looks like one big jumble...just weird lines jutting this way and that with no rhyme or reason.

But look at it closely. Notice how the big jumble is actually made up of smaller, simpler jumbles? As it turns out, each of those sub-jumbles has its own meaning:

= "gold"


名 = "name"

Suddenly, the big jumble becomes that much less inscrutable.... After all, what's an inscription if it isn't a name written on gold?!

This same process of decomposition works for each of those two elements as well, though you need a bit more of an active imagination to take them apart. Start with the character for gold. Nothing about it immediately suggests "gold", but what if you knew this:

王 = "king"

Suddenly, you can imagine a "king" with two bars of "gold" in his pockets (below his belt) sitting underneath an umbrella. Of course, there's no particular reason why a king should keep his gold in his pockets and sit underneath an umbrella, but the very arbitrariness of the image is what makes it effective as a mnemonic: it "shocks the memory" into recognition, as Dr. Heisig puts it.

Similarly, "name" (
名) is really just made up of two simpler kanji:


Here, the leap of imagination needed is more challenging still. Why would evening + mouth = name? Dr. Heisig encourages us to think of the customs of the Dinka tribe in Sudan. In order to "name" their children, Dinka fathers sneak into their newborn babies' huts in the middle of the night and whisper their names into their ears. By using their "mouths" in the "evening", they give their babies a "name."

It's a fairly convoluted explanation, granted...but that, Dr. Heisig insists, is its strength rather than its weakness. After all, I guarantee that, having read this, you'll never forget how the Dinka name their babies. And that's the miracle of mnemonics: out of seeming senselessness, a clever mnemonic can establish connections between disparate signs that become actually very difficult to forget.

The Heisig method is all about extending this logic to cover all of Japan's General Use Kanji. Starting from a limited number of simple primitive elements like "mouth", "evening" and "king", it creates silly little stories that build up into Kanji. By the end of the book, initially terrifying monsters like:


...completely lose their ability to intimidate you. You just take one glance at 'em and identify the primitives, in this case: "awe" and "team of horses". Then you make up a story to link them, like, "people watch in awe as a team of horses is skillfully driven by Stevie Wonder . 'Wonder how he does it?' they say." With minimal effort, the story and the image are linked indissoluble in memory.

After a while, this way of thinking comes to seem perfectly natural. Flower + bound up + rice? Must mean "chrysantemum" (菊). Soil + reclining + mouth + dish? That's "salt" (塩), of course.

For me, Dr. Heisig is a genius. He makes learning the kanji not just approachable but actually quite fun. His method engages the imagination in a way that renders the whole task more like a game than a chore. Personally, for the last few weeks, I've been "hooked on Heisig" kind of the way I was once "hooked on Tetris". You can spend hours and hours, pencil in hand, going through these little stories and scribbling kanji...there's just something addictively entertaining about it. And, unlike with Tetris, at the end of the session you're left with solid knowledge of how to write a new batch of kanji, instead of that vaguely guilty feeling of the tetris addict.

It's only been four weeks since I've started, and I'm already on Kanji #327. That still leaves lots of kanji to go, but at this pace it should take less than six months to memorize them all.

Of course, learning the "meaning and writing" of Kanji is not the same thing as learning to read and write Japanese. At the moment, what I'm doing is closer to memorizing the letters of a very, very long alphabet. Letters duly memorized, I still face the much tougher task of remembering how to pronounce all these little beasties, to say nothing of learning how they go together to make up words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.

But Rome was not built in a day. Like learning the language itself, Japanese literacy is a long term proposition. It's unlikely I'll be able to read even children's books before the turn of the decade...but hey, the future is long.

[One last note: anyone who stumbles on this write-up as they consider whether to give Heisig a try really must check out Reviewing the Kanji. It's a beaaaautifully designed, free companion website to the book. In fact, though inspired by the Heisig method, Reviewing the Kanji is arguably better than the book...and did I mention it's free?]