April 25, 2008

The calm before the storm

Katy says: Just how strong is Chávez these days?

The answer is not so obvious. If you judge by the opposition conventional wisdom, he's at the helm of a boat with no rudder, a President in name only. Yet our side has continually shown conventional folly instead of wisdom on these questions - our track record in sizing up the government's strengths and weaknesses is pretty dismal.

The government may have lost in December, but it still has a ton of money, as well as the support of a sizable chunk of the population. There is no sign that it is losing confidence. December's referendum drained a lot of Chavez's political capital, but Chávez acts as if he didn't get the memo.

Moreover, the government has that all important, barely-touched Enabling Law. Remember what happened the last time Chávez faced an over-confident opposition that had "forgotten" all about his enabling powers? It was late 2001, and what followed was not pretty.

The opposition's confident streak was made clear in my recent trip to Caracas. Six months ago, the general feeling in the opposition was one of high anxiety. The Constitutional Reform was viewed as inevitable, and much talk around town was devoted to ways of getting your money and your family out as quickly as possible.

Now, people seemed unusually relaxed. People still talked about the weather, the traffic or the scarcity, but Chávez was not major part of the conversation. It was as if December's referendum had made him irrelevant, a lame duck with five years to go.

The media reflects this mood to a point. Op-ed articles talk about Chávez's defeat last December as perhaps being a "definitive" one. Even the New York Times talks about Chávez's "political trouble" and suggests Venezuelans are "fed up" with him.

Stories abound that he is so depressed he is flying to Cuba every week for advice and that his popularity is almost in the single digits. Some people suggested that he wasn't in control of the army, or Congress, or both. Several hinted it was only a matter of months before a coup ends this collective nightmare.

This is all wrong, and believing it would be a crucial mistake.

We quickly forget Chávez controls his country's purse strings like few world leaders. His unending desire to milk the petro-cow and the unstoppable rise in the price of oil are a perfect match.

Chávez continues to control every institution that matters in the country, whether it's the National Assembly, the Armed Forces, the Supreme Tribunal or the Comptroller's and Prosecutor's Offices. Since December's referendum, there hasn't been a single, significant defection from chavismo's inner ranks.

Part of me thinks that the government itself is planting this idea of vulnerability in our heads as a way of testing the waters. Last month, for example, the Education Ministry pulled a highly controversial proposal to change the national educational curriculum. The excuse was that the country was not ready for it.

I don't really know the details of what was contained in it, but I do know that opposition educators were incensed with the proposal. Not only were they being forced to attend a 300-hour long course (without pay) to learn the new curriculum, its content was politically biased in favor of the Revolution.

And just as things were starting to heat up, just as families were getting organized and the street was "warming up," the government yanked the proposal in a unusual move.

You may think this is more evidence that the government is weak. I think it was a trial run for what's coming: the proclamation of new legislation contained in Chávez Enabling Law.

It's easy to forget, but 14 months ago the President was granted sweeping powers to change every significant law in the country. At the time, Quico called Chávez's power to rule by decree his definitive transformation into a dictator, in the Roman sense.

Yet something odd happened on the way to the Coliseum. It's hard to disagree with the idea that Chávez has underused his Enabling Powers. The only significant law he has passed has been the recent National Police Law. Judging by opposition criticism, the law is a muddled mess, ineffective at best, interventionist at worst.

This can only mean one thing: the government is going to pound the country with a coñazo of new legislation in the months to come. With three more months to go on his Enabling Power and with all the institutions at his command, I have the vague feeling that we won't be talking about Chávez's weaknesses in a few months time.

Things are relatively quiet right now. There are no major protests, economic crisis has been temporarily averted and even the government's rhetoric has toned down. But a major showdown is looming.

The opposition believes it mortally wounded the government last December. The government believes it still has a mandate to implement socialism, and it has the power and the resources to attempt it. A recipe for high drama if I ever saw one.

Compare and Contrast

Chávez says:

“My opinion has always been - and I still hold this - that the new National School Curriculum should not be called 'bolivarian' because that word has very strong political connotations."

April 24, 2008

Another one bites the dust

Quico says: Another guilty plea in the unending saga that is Illegally - Diverting - Venezuelan - Public - Money - to - Illegally - Fund - Cristina - Kirchner's - Election - Campaign - And - Then - Illegally - Covering - Up - The - Whole - Thing-gate, the tri-national trifecta of treachery more commonly known as El Maletinazo.

This time, it's Rodolfo Wanseele's turn to take the fall: the guy'll be spending more time with his jail cell after pleading guilty to acting as an unregistered DISIP agent in the US. The chump never suspected that Guido Antonini was wearing an FBI wire as he tried to buy his silence about his infamous suitcaseful'o'cash.

The thing that gets me here is that Wanseele's not going down for, you know, offering Antonini $2 million in hush money. He's going down for doing so without registering as a foreign agent first!

The FBI's message seems to be something like: "I don't know what y'all get up to in South America, but we have rules and procedures for bribing people around here, mister!"

As usual, though, it's Weil who best expresses what we've all been thinking:

(Also, notice the headline the New York Times slapped on the story they took off the wire. Granted, this whole affair is particularly resistant to snappy headlinization, but "Smuggling Case"!?? These guys don't have the foggiest what this is about!)

April 23, 2008

The Trouble with ALBA

Quico says: Turns out it's not only Venezuelans who are finding out that taking Hugo Chávez's promises at face value can be a problematic strategy going forward...
Venezuela's state oil company has failed to fulfill promises to make badly needed investments in Bolivia's natural gas fields. This has contributed to a lack of new production under Bolivian President Evo Morales, which in turn, has had huge ramifications throughout the Southern Cone. Brazil, Argentina and Chile, which all were depending on more gas from Bolivia for their growing economies, find themselves facing energy shortages that seem likely to pinch consumers, businesses and economic growth during South America's upcoming winter months.
What proportion of Chávez's investment commitments abroad actually get implemented? I really wonder.

Thanks to JRAY for the tip.

April 22, 2008

Piñata! Piñata!

Bloomberg says: Venezuela plans to sell $3 billion of dollar-denominated bonds to local investors, the latest move in a push to shore up the currency in the black market and rein in Latin America's highest inflation rate.

Quico notes: Another batch of bolivarian insta-millionaires, coming up!

April 21, 2008