May 30, 2008

Administering powerlessness

Quico says: I thought I should weigh in on the developing net-spat over opposition party bashing. It's a sin I've been guilty of too often in the past, but one I find increasingly difficult to defend.

The first point I think we need to grasp squarely is our own complete powerlessness.

That, in itself, is an anomaly: in normal democracies minorities retain a measure of political power. Normally, minority parties can block or slow legislation through parliamentary tactics. They can use their access to the press to shame governments into changing their positions. They can appeal to the courts to demand redress when they feel government actions violate the law.

In other words, they have options: things they can do to force the government to act differently than it would prefer to.

One important way in which chavismo is undemocratic is in denying the opposition any of those channels. Even before the (disastrous) 2005 oppo parliamentary election boycott, no less than seven reforms to the National Assembly's internal rules had shorn the parliamentary minority of any power to affect legislative outcomes. The government's pack-and-politicize judicial strategy has been extensively documented. And its obdurate, systematic refusal to change its behavior in any way in response to anything the opposition press publishes is now a central part of its self-image.

I think we need to look at our propensity to fly off the handle at the oppo parties within the context of their complete powerlessness. Take, for instance, this business about protesting the Enabling Law (which allows Chávez to legislate by decree on almost everything.) People are incandescently angry that the opposition hasn't, well, opposed the enabling law more actively. But in the context of its complete lack of power, what would that entail, exactly?

Sure, the opposition parties could call for street protests against the enabling law. We would all go out in the streets. March. Chant. Show off our wit with guffaw-inducing placards. Then a spot of bailoterapia and take the metro back home. (We know the drill by now.)

Would that change anything? Of course not! The government is determined to rub our noses in our own powerlessness: any demonstration of public opposition is merely a cue for chavismo to harden its stance. After all the street antics are finished, Chávez would enact his Enabling Law decrees just as though none of it had happened.

You know that. I know that. The oppo party leaders know that. And it makes us angry.

Of course it makes us angry, that feeling of utter impotence as we face the unchecked power of a lunatic.

And how do we channel that anger? What do we do with it? Where do we direct it? Towards the opposition parties, for failing to do something they manifestly don't have the power to do!

It's a childish, self-defeating attitude. And it repeats itself again and again over a whole range of issues.

Again, I've been just as guilty of this as the next guy. When CNE refused to give out complete results for the Dec. 2nd Referendum, I railed mightily against the oppo parties' silence over the issue. It still, deep down, makes me mad.

But when I think through what would almost certainly have happened if they had chosen to make the Dec. 2nd results issue a Cause Celèbre (CNE ignores them, full results are never announced anyway and they destroy their access to CNE while putting the extent of their powerlessness on full display once again,) I'm forced to concede that anger does not a political strategy make. (That, if nothing else, we should've learned by now.)

And, if I'm honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that my anger at the oppo parties boils down to my rage that there is literally nothing anybody can do to change a deeply abhorrent, entirely indefensible position.

None of this, of course, implies that oppo party leaders aren't often short-sighted, thick, venal, ridiculous, callous and stupid. Many of them - not all - clearly are. But I don't think that's the real reason they get bashed so much. Cuz, lets face it: if they won a tactical skirmish now and again we wouldn't be nearly so bothered by their general unsavoriness.

No, the real reason they get bashed is that we systematically take our anger at our own powerlessness out on them. We've turned them into punching bags in some bizarre internal psychodrama - pagapeos in a fight we're really having with ourselves.

De pana que no la tienen fácil los partidos de oposición.

May 29, 2008

Padre Ugalde, you're wrong

Katy says: - Father Luis Ugalde, SJ, president of my alma mater, is a towering figure in Venezuelan academia. His life experience working with the poor, his willingness to swim against the current and his unique observations on our country set him apart from those who typically talk about Venezuela, including Quico and myself. It's been a privilege of mine to learn from him in class, work with him in the UCAB's Board of Regents and get to know him as a friend.

Which is why it pains me that his latest article is such a disappointment. (Daniel's translation is here)

First, let's deal with the legal issue regarding the people being disqualified from running.

Article 39 of the Constitution reads: "Venezuelans who are not subjected to political disqualification ... exercise their citizenship and therefore have political rights and obligations..." (emphasis is mine)

Right off the bat, the Constitution is saying that political rights and obligations are inherent to all citizens that have not been disqualified for some reason.

Article 42 of the Constitution, the one Ugalde quotes, goes on to say: "The exercise of citizenship or any of the political rights can only be suspended by firm judicial sentence in the cases that the law determines."

What does "the law determine"? One of these is the Organic Law of the Comptroller's Office. It clearly says, in articles 103-108, that the Comptroller can disqualify someone from running for office, and spells out the appeals process to get that overturned.

What do I make of this? That the legal case is not as clear cut as Ugalde would like to think.

Yes, it is unfair, and yes, the law as it is written clashes in some way or another with the Constitution. But it is not clear that the Comptroller is violating the Constitution, as Ugalde is saying. Attempts to make it sound as such are disingenious and, in a way, insulting to the reader.

Which brings me to my other point. In the second half of his article, Ugalde proceeds to blast "the opposition" for not standing up more firmly against this ruling.

Ugalde forgets that the opposition is the main victim of this injustice. Every political party has seen some of its best people disqualified. Ugalde calls them on apparently not fighting hard enough, saying it's partly their fault because they don't have the guts to stand up and fight. This strikes me as inaccurate and grossly unfair.

An indignant Ugalde claims that "some people" in the opposition are making "calculations." Blanket statements like that taint the opposition as a whole and do us all a disservice. If he thinks "some people" aren't fighing hard enough, he should name them.

Furthermore, he simply does not consider the possibility that the opposition will step up the fight once nominations have been settle. Fighting for the rights of the opposition's single candidate in, say, Caracas, carries more weight than fighting for the rights of one of the many pre-candidates. Once everyone agrees that Leopoldo is the man, they will rally behind him and it will make it much more politically expensive for the Comptroller to maintain his stance.

Ugalde continues to blast opposition parties and leaders, saying they don't fight for the Constitution and for democracy - never mind that I have yet to hear the students, the real leaders of the opposition according to him, discuss the issue. He claims, with no basis, that last September "most" political parties had given up the fight against the Constitution, and it was only the students who decided this was a fight worth fighting for. Only then did the parties tag along.

Ugalde knows this is not true. He knows that some political parties in the opposition had to fight tooth and nail, against the current of public opinion, for participating in December's referendum and against abstention. And while it is true that the student movement played an important part in firing people up, his political insight is far too polished to really believe the predominant line that "it was the students who decided to wage the battle and that everyone else followed suit."

Ugalde's article is part of the conventional wisdom in Venezuela that sees everything bad that happens, every disappointment, every false step the opposition makes, as the fault of opposition political parties. I expect that kind of reasoning from Marta Colomina, not from Luis Ugalde.

Venezuelans have a saying, "the just pay for the sins of the sinners." It's a strange kind of justice for a priest to be handing out.

May 28, 2008

Lateinamerika Analysen - sehr gut!

Quico says: Considering my Ph.D. work has nothing at all to do with Venezuela, it's slightly disconcerting that my first academic publication does: this week, my standard rant about the emptiness of Venezuela's debate about Freedom of Expression and the bankruptcy of chavismo's claim to represent a clean break with the past somehow made it past peer review! Co-written with my friend Sacha Feinman, you can pick it up all decked out in Academic garb in the latest issue of Lateinamerika Analysen, a journal published by Hamburg University's German Institute for Global Area Studies.

Unfortunately, these guys don't put full texts online, so you'll have to dig up an actual copy of the journal to read it. You shouldn't have any trouble locating our piece, though: it's the one right before Allan Brewer-Carías densely argued legal tract explaining why the 1999 Constituent Assembly was a protracted coup d'état.

May 27, 2008

Welcome to the sausage factory

Katy says: - I've avoided posting about the opposition lately. We are approaching the moment when we will see if the bone of grand statements about unity will have some meat to it. The process is bound to get uglier as the date nears. My first inclination is to wait until all this has been sorted out, but several readers have asked me to address the issue, so here goes.

Right now, what's happening in the opposition is like a weird, dysfunctional mating dance. Positions are staked out, things are said, principles are laid out, threats of consequences are carelessly uttered.

It's tempting to see Leopoldo's latest fights with Liliana, or Manuel's feud with Julio, and give up hope on the opposition. I think that's a mistake, at least at this juncture.

Forming a coalition can be messy. It involves negotiating with people who do not have your best interests in their mind and, sometimes, the country's best interests don't even figure. What is said today is ignored tomorrow, and today's enemy will be my top supporter tomorrow.

Venezuela's opposition coalition has particular problems. Not only are voters demanding unity, they are demanding it from folks who disagree on crucial issues: the merits of the IVth Republic, the electoral conditions, the recall Referendum, political ideology. The fact that they are even on speaking terms with one another is cause enough to see the glass half full.

Messy is how politics are when there you don't have a single person leading and deciding what to do. All succesful, diverse coalitions go through these same things, whether it's political coalitions like Chile's Concertación or even coalitions of countries such as the European Union. At the end of the day, I think that unity positions will be agreed upon in most of the places where it matters.

We tend to make a lot of noise about how in Chacao there are more candidates than voters, or how there is no clear strategy about what to do with the people whose political rights were taken away from them unfairly. Ultimately, I still see the parties committed to unity and few people questioning the agreed-upon method of consulting opinion polls to decide who to run where.

So, in the meantime, let's not make too much of the day-to-day bashing or the threats of disunity. From what I have seen, there are no serious threats to opposition unity in the horizon, and opposition politicians, despite what you may think, are clear about the real stakes in this election. I would suggest sitting back and waiting for them to meet in smoke-filled rooms and sort all this out.

Sausages are delicious, but you don't want to know much about how they are made. Right now, we're in the process of making sausages. It ain't pretty, but let's hope it's effective in the end.

May 26, 2008

Say it loud, Boris!

Quico says: The guy came through in just a couple of weeks.

Not exactly ambiguous if you ask me

Obama says:

Take the slider to 16:53.
We will fully support Colombia's fight against the FARC. We'll work with the government to end the reign of terror from right-wing paramilitaries. We will support Colombia's right to strike terrorists who seek safe haven across its borders. And we will shine a light on any support for the FARC that comes from neighboring governments. This behavior must be exposed to international condemnation, regional isolation, and if need be strong sanctions. It must not stand and it will not when I am president of the United States of America.