July 18, 2008

After All These Years, Dan Burnett Still Doesn't Get It

Quico says: Here's a riddle for you: when is a post-chavista awakening not a post-chavista awakening? When it's formulated as though failed policies had nothing to do with autocratic politics...in other words, when it's Dan Burnett's post-chavista awakening.

Burnett - a.k.a. "ow" - and I go back a ways. Time was, back in 2003-2004, when Dan used to while away his afternoons on my comments section fighting the good fight against the bolivarian revolution's detractors. Calmer and more thoughtful than your average foaming-at-the-mouth foreign based PSF, he nonetheless went to considerable lengths to defend aspects of chavismo I considered plainly indefensible.

In time, Dan got tired of the torrent of abuse he was getting in my blog and set up camp on his own, starting OilWars, nominally a blog about Venezuela and Iraq, but in practice mostly about Venezuela. For me, it was a case of good riddance, though I did sporadically check in to read what he was writing.

Long story short, after a long, unrequited infatuation, Burnett's come down with a heavy case of the repentant chavista blues. For the last few weeks, his blog has turned into one long gripe about the revolution's economic policies, its idiot defense of an absurdly over-valued currency, the general insouciance of its spokesmen and the utter absence of anything that could be considered a long-term development and diversification strategy. He sums up his new position saying,
A different government, WITH ITS HEART IN EXACTLY THE SAME PLACE, but with its feet planted firmly on the ground could do much, much better both for Venezuelans and the Left internationally. [emphasis his.]
You'd think I'd be happy about all this, and certainly I can't hide a certain schadenfreudish frisson at his belated jolt of sanity.

But as I read his recent posts more closely, I can't shake the feeling that, deep down, Burnett still doesn't get it. His impassioned critique of chavista economic bumbling comes in a political void, divorced from any kind of critical evaluation of the way the politics of the Chávez era made it not just entirely predictable but ultimately inevitable.

As far as I can tell, Dan doesn't write much about politics, preferring to concentrate on what he sees as the more consequential matters of longer term development strategy. Any acknowledgment of Chávez cult of personality is thin on the ground over at OilWars. When, rarely, they do come, they come heavily hedged with ritual bowing toward the leader's great charisma, determination and dynamism. For Burnett, the economic gríngo-la is well and truly off; the political one is still firmly in place.

Hugo Chávez equates dissent with treason. He has made promotion within the Bolivarian political establishment wholly dependent on continual shows of unconditional obedience. He's instituted a militaristic leadership style where all collaborators, ministers included, are expected merely to implement his orders without question.

Catch him on one of his good days, and Burnett's even capable of accepting that. It's the link between that leadership style and the government's dysfunctional economic policies that seems to elude him.

And yet, it's clear. The one setting where Freedom of Expression and openness to debate have been most badly eroded in the Chávez era is around the cabinet table. Under Chávez, policies are dictated to ministers, Aló Presidente style, rather than discussed with them. Add to this leadership style the guy's delirious, near-comical economic illiteracy and the result isn't really a surprise: misguided, contradictory, short-sighted policies with vague evaluation criteria, little follow up, multiple opportunities for rent-seeking, no long-term coherence and major incentives for ministerial dissembling.

Burnett takes out his frustration over all the silly policy on Chávez's hapless cabinet ministers, but in doing so he puts on display his legendary abilities for seeing-and-not-seeing, completely missing the point that anybody who shows the independence of mind it would take to tell Chávez his policies make no sense got weeded out of the upper echelons of the chavista establishment long ago.

So it's absurd to see the government's economic haplessness as a kind of historical contingency, an accident unrelated to the deep structures of its policy-making practices. When you fully grasp the implications of Chávez's criteria for promoting people to cabinet level, you realize it couldn't have gone any other way. Chavista ministers make senseless policies because, under Chávez, only senseless people stand a chance of becoming ministers.

This thought is a bridge too far for Burnett, por ahora.

The guy says he's burnt out, so he's taking some time off of blogging. Which, of course, is a sentiment I've shared now and then in the past. Sometimes, it takes some time away from the day-to-day to come to grips with painful realizations, with thoughts too long resisted that can no longer be ignored. Maybe, during his break, Dan will put two and two together and start grasping that a leader who demands blind obedience from his collaborators systematically cuts himself off from the mechanisms he would need to correct the mistakes he makes. Maybe, in time, even OW will come to see that under Narcissism Leninism, wrongheaded policies are no accident: they're an inevitability.

July 17, 2008

Compare and Contrast, Macroeconomics Edition

Quico says: How a professional economist understands inflation:

How a chavista minister understands inflation:
"If we all start to haggle, speculators are going to start feeling the pressure. If millions of consumers exercise that kind of pressure, to insist that prices drop and for some supply to remain, imagine what could happen!"
UPDATE: Watch Jaua's outburst morph from isolated inanity into government policy.

July 16, 2008

Reading the Readers

Quico says: A hearty thanks to all 280 of you who took the time to fill out the Readers' Survey over the last few days. There's some eye-popping stuff in there, so lets dig right in.

First, the ugly. I sort of figured that there would be more men than women reading this stuff, but a 4-to-1 split?!

That's crazy stuff. Gals, if you have any handy tips on how to make Caracas Chronicles more appealing to the XX Chromosome set, do let me know.

The age breakdown is less surprising:

Nor were there that many surprises about where people live:

The nationality question threw up some interesting results, though. I really wasn't expecting so many readers with dual citizenship:

As for ideology, you can see "center-left" takes it by a substantial plurality. I was heartened, though, by the preponderance of relative moderation - 70% of you describe yourselves a "center-something" - and by the popularity of "it's complicated", cuz of course we all know that trying to sum up one's political views in three words is an absurd exercise:

One that really surprised me was the "how-well-can-you-read-Spanish?" question. I'd always figured a relatively large proportion of you couldn't read much Spanish...why else, after all, would you spend your time on an English language blog about Venezuela?

Turns out that's not at all right: just 5% of you can't read Spanish, and more than 80% can read Spanish "very" or "quite" well:

The next question also gave fairly surprising results. I wanted to get a feel for how large the blog looms in readers' information gathering routines. I always thought of it as a kind of supplementary thing, a source you'd turn to for comment on news you'd already heard about elsewhere, rather than a source in itself. But that's not how a lot of you see it:

(Note to the 6.1% of you who use this blog as your main source of information about Venezuela: get your heads examined.)

More surprises came in the Types-of-Posts question. While most of you like most of the posts (I guess that's why you come), it turns out that posts on the Economy are the most popular of the bunch. Who knew? I guess we'll have to write more of them:

I did a simple Word Frequency Analysis on the open-ended question on what you like most and least about the blog. The most frequently used words in describing what you liked the most about Caracas Chronicles were Analysis, Well Written/Good Writing, Style, Perspective, Comments, Smart/Intelligent, Honest and Insight. Here's a taste for what they were like:
How it digs beyond the headlines - e.g., the disconnect of the discourse vs the reality.

Gives me news I might not otherwise find.

The analysis, not just reporting, of events.

Multi-theme, high caliber, English language.

Contemporaneous and genuine debate about the issues that matter most to Venezuelans abroad.

Good, thoughtful writing, good analysis and often interesting comment streams, helps me keep up with things I would miss elsewhere.

Seriousness, thoroughness, historical perspective.

Katy, before she became a man.

The quality of the writing, the intelligence of the posters and the lively comments section.

Sublimation of frustration into humor.

How Venezuelan news is viewed with a us format yet with a venezuelan perspective
The words that came up most often in describing what you liked least about the blog were Comments, Long, PSF, Spanish and Arrogance. A selection of responses:
Few spanish, but I understand it reaches more people in english... in spanish it could affect voting


The Chavista nutters who hang around the comments

Its randomness.

Lack of an educated Chavez supporter who uses intelligent and logical conversation to prove points.

Would like more posts but realize you have a life.

Can float off into theoretical wonkland.

Very long comments in comments section.

The sycophants in the comment section and the alleged superior intellectuality of its creator. Otro hijo de vecino and all that...

the language conundrum -- is this read by the same 10 folks who can dance between criollo spanish and perfect english (like myself)?

Sometimes the blog gets stuck on one single topic.

Katy is actually a hairy dude

Sometimes it's too Chavez centered as if he was the only responsible for what we have now

Comments section - too heavily moderated.

Its arrogance.

That there is no spanish version. There should be one!!! And you know it.

Not too consistent, sometimes there is nothing interesting for several days.
Finally we come to the Comments section. Here, the results were especially eye-catching.

As I'd long suspected, the people who tend to dominate the comments threads are a very small slice of the readership. In fact, 3 out of 4 survey respondents seldom or never post comments:

What's interesting is that the chart is reversed when I asked y'all how often you read the comments section:

It turns out we have a huge proportion of lurkers here: folks who come in, read the blog, read the comments, but don't join the fray. In fact, 35% of the readers who never comment still say they read the comments section "often."

I thought that was pretty interesting, and I'd love it if some of you lurkers broke the habit and piped in at least to say hello in this post's comments thread.

Overall, most people seem to appreciate the Comments Section, with a substantial minority seeing it as "a big reason to come to the blog". Again, it's interesting that while just 6.5% of you comment "often," a quarter see comments as a major reason to keep coming back:

I was also gratified that not many of you think this whole comments thing is a waste of time, though I admit that's how I feel sometimes having to moderate it!

And on that topic - comment moderation - it was nice to know that a very large majority thinks Juan Cristobal and I are in Goldilocks Territory on the issue of deleting obnoxious comments:

Thanks so much, once again, for taking a the time to answer the survey. In the coming weeks, we'll be unveiling a second, much more detailed questionnaire dealing with readers' political opinions and attitudes. Hell, I gave that surveymonkey 19 of my hard earned CADIVI dollars, I will get my money's worth!

Creative Use of the Imperialism Card #12,294,833

Quico says: "The problem," my friend told me, "is that the National Guardsmen don't really control the jail. I mean, they control the door, yes, but once inside, the prisoners are pretty much on their own."

This was a few years back, as my journo friend was telling me of all the craziness she'd witnessed on a reporting visit to a Venezuelan prison.

Venezuelan jails, in her account, are dominated by the day-by-day Hobbesian struggle for survival: places where extreme violence is simply routine, rehabilitation non-existent, and the morale (and morals) of prison guards have collapsed catastrophically.

"Sometimes, on paydays," my friend explained, relating some inmates' statements, "the guards get drunk and taunt the prisoners for fun, waving pieces of fried chicken in front of them after going days without feeding them. They'd eat the chicken and then toss the bones in, letting them scramble over the scraps. We even heard stories that sometimes the guards grab their shotguns and take target practice on them, randomly shooting into the prisoners' area in an alcoholic stupor."

Of course, National Guardsmen are never prosecuted for inmates' deaths - it's enough to say they had to use violence to put down a riot to get them off the hook, any hook.

Food is a major problem for Venezuelan inmates. The prison my friend went to didn't have enough money to feed them every day: meals were served on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The rest of the time, they had to rely on family members bringing stuff in from the outside. But most prisoners are poor, many desperately so, and a good number of them just didn't have anyone they could rely on for deliveries. For them, the choice was simple: steal or starve.

Which is certainly a major reason why extreme violence is so prevalent inside. Prisoners have to join strong, feared prison gangs simply to keep themselves fed.

But getting food inside was just the beginning of the problem. Once there, they still had to cook it, but the areas where inmates live just aren't equipped with kitchens. Electric hotpots are one solution, but when dozens of them get plugged in to a system that's not designed for such loads, the result is predictable: they kept tripping up the circuit breakers, shutting down power for the entire prison.

At that point, inmates would be forced to look for anything that would burn to make a cooking fire, and before too long they'd made their way through all the wood inside the place and had to start stripping out the tar weather-proofing from the jail's roof to use as fuel. Result? Whenever it rained, the prison took in water like a sieve.

Not, of course, that leaky roofs are anywhere near the top of inmate's concern list. Last year, 498 of the nation's 21,000 inmates were murdered in jail, and another 1,023 injured with knives or guns. That's one death for every 42 prisoners each year, and a one in 20 chance of serious injury.

Hearing these stories, I remember thinking that bringing Venezuelan jails up to Gitmo standards would represent a dramatic improvement for inmates' human rights.

Given the conditions inmates face, it's hardly surprising that their families and leading prisoners' rights NGOs are desperate for an improvement. So inmates' families have had to resort to ever more creative, ever more extreme ways of pressing the authorities for improvements.

The most eye-catching is the "self-hostage taking" (autosecuestro), where family members turn up during visiting hours and then refuse to leave the jail until certain conditions are met. That people would voluntarily subject themselves to the insane conditions inside Venezuelan jails speaks, to me, absolute volumes about the sheer scale of their desperation.

You'd think that anyobody half-way sane would come to a similar conclusion. But not, of course, Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín who prefers to just blow the whole thing off as an imperialist plot, put on by US lackeys to cover up the revolution's "great strides."

See? It's magic! You just invoke the words "US imperialism" and any intractable social problem just vanishes in a puff of logic! It's no wonder these guys are so into it...

July 15, 2008

A parable

Quico says: Imagine a baseball team that's not like other baseball teams. This baseball team doesn't have a manager, or a single uniform. Basically, all they have is a roster: 25 guys all dying to go out there and play.

Thing is, only nine of them can play at any given time. So, before each game, all 25 of them have to sit down together and negotiate who's going to be on the starting line-up.

During these line-up negotiations, players cluster into little cliques of friends to rally to one another's support. Coordination failure is rife. Everybody wants to bat clean-up, and the first instinct, for anyone who looks to get stuck on the bench, is to storm off in a huff, or to just head out into the field when he decides it's "his turn" to bat - even if he's not on the agreed upon line-up.

The fans in the stands hate the other team like a Red Sox fan hates the Yankees: they want to win. But they have no direct influence on who'll be in the starting line-up. A few of them might be asked what they think, but there's no guarantee they'll be listened to. They find the whole situation deeply frustrating.

Meanwhile, the players know that no matter how exasperated the fans might get with them, no matter how much they may boo them, how disgusted they may feel with the whole freak show, they're basically stuck with this set of players.

A lot of the fans suspect that it's only for them that winning the game is the main thing, that for most of the players, the real goal is just to play. The brinksmanship that comes to dominate line-up negotiations doesn't do much to dispel that feeling.

For at least some of the players, the perception's probably not wrong. After all, they figure, who knows? Maybe they can elbow their way to the plate ahead of the "agreed-on guy" and hit a home run. By the time this is all over, they could be the heroes!

Would you call a bunch that behaves that way a "baseball team?" Sure...a horribly screwed up team, certainly, but a baseball team nonetheless.

Now, would you call the Venezuelan opposition a "political party"? Sure...but one with very, very deep-seated problems.

I've long thought there's a basic conceptual problem in the way Venezuelans talk about "opposition parties" - like that, in the plural. Entities like Primero Justicia, UNT, AD, MAS and that long etc. may be legally constituted as parties, but their role in the political system is really more like that of the "cliques" in our little parable.

In baseball, the whole point is to win baseball games, and it's 9-player teams that do that, not the cliques of friends they form in the dugout. In electoral politics, it's getting elected to office that's the whole purpose of the activity, and Venezuela's mis-named "parties" long ago realized that the only way they can do that is if they band together and present a unified slate of candidates at election time. But coordinating the ambitions of many contenders into a single slate of candidates is the essence of what a political party is.

In important ways, then, the Venezuelan opposition is a party...it's just a deeply dysfunctional one, one that hasn't figured out an institutionally stable way to settle on a starting line-up and make it stick and therefore can't limit destructive competition between contenders or punish defection from the ranks.

In baseball, that institutionally stable selection mechanism is called "the manager". In politics, there are all kinds of possibilities, from a strong Secretary General figure able to play the manager's role, to asking the fans their opinion (primaries) to district-by-district nominating conventions to local association committee meetings to drawing lots to a thousand other possibilities.

This is not, as you may be fearing, foreplay to a pitch for primaries. For my money, the specific mechanism chosen is less important than the fact that a credible mechanism is chosen. The real question is its level of institutionalization, of perceived legitimacy, of "taken-for-grantedness". After all, even a totally zany, on-its-face absurd selection mechanism - say, a system of region-by-region contests, each following its own rules, costing hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars and stretching out over six months - can "work" so long as everybody takes it for granted that the eventual loser will have to support the winner, through gritted teeth, even though absolutely everybody understands she hates Obama's guts.

What's "institutionalized" about the US primary system is not so much the specific set of formal rules that make it up as the informal, tacit, taken-for-granted set of expectations about what constitutes appropriate behavior on the part of aspiring politicians. Nobody has to write down in a statute book that Hillary has to pretend to be thrilled at the prospect of an Obama presidency, because everybody "already knows" that it's the end of the world if she doesn't. What it means for a norm to be strongly institutionalized is that nobody needs to spell it out.

In Venezuela, we already have a united opposition political party, we just have to start showing it a little lovin'. Thing is, it's a hard to love little bugger we ended up with: it's so weakly institutionalized, it doesn't even recognize itself as a party. Instead, it insists on treating its component factions as though they themselves were parties - they aren't - and causes a huge amount of confusion in the process. It's not surprisingly, when you consider all this, that our party has the hardest time finding an effective mechanism to select candidates and punish defection from the official slate.

It's already clear that we will not get the complete starting line-up that Oposición Democrática had promised us for July 15th. It's also clear that the fans in the stands are increasingly disgusted with the spectacle of their players squabbling like children over who gets to play third base. What's not clear at all is that opposition politicians grasp the need to put an end to the hijinx by working to institutionalize a mechanism for unity. If they don't, our "inevitable victory" in november could turn into a vale of tears.

July 14, 2008

The Reason Juan Cristobal Hasn't Been Posting Much

Quico says: Meet Lily, apple of Juan C.'s eye.

July 13, 2008

EXCLUSIVE: Chávez Steps Up Mafia Ties!

Quico says: In the wake of his extraordinary meeting with a notorious Colombian drug-runner and paramilitary chieftain earlier this week, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has stepped up cooperation with the criminal syndicate he leads.

Caracas Chronicles
can exclusively report that the Venezuelan leader is now personally advising the Bogotá Don on personnel management and tactics.

Referring to his new criminal co-conspirator as "my friend" for the first time, Chávez advised him to rein in or replace his chief military lieutenant, who hours earlier had breached protocol in celebrating the two men's meeting. The Colombian leader quickly accepted Chávez's advice.

"It certainly represents a step-change in the intensity of collaboration," Caracas Chronicles sources said. "For the first time we see Chávez going beyond broad rhetorical flourishes and involving himself directly in the day-to-day running of this sprawling criminal enterprise across his western border."

"'This goes well beyond the realm of 'personal affinity' between these two men," our source added. "Chávez is now micromanaging the affairs of the most blood-thirsty institution in the most violent country in the continent."