July 26, 2008

Primaries and the Oppo Brand

Quico says: Tomorrow, the Venezuelan opposition is going to do something we have never done before: choose a gubernatorial candidate through a primary election.

As it turns out, Aragua's pioneering experiment, which is being organized by a re-invigorated Súmate, isn't exactly a cliff-hanger: absolutely everybody seems to take it for granted that Podemos's candidate, Henry Rosales will win comfortably. After all, the guy has Didalco Bolívar's machine behind him. And it sure helps that his only viable competitor, UNT's Hiram Gaviria, is not participating.

Amusingly, Jurassic specimen AD head honcho Henry Ramos Allup, during his vicious little press conference yesterday, said his party is supporting Rosales...even though AD has its own candidate on the ballot! You gotta feel for José Trujillo: rumors that his wife is gonna vote for Rosales too could not be confirmed.

Rosales's only other institutionally backed candidate was put up by the Comando friggin' Nacional de la friggin' Resistencia - apparently now morphed into a full-fledged political party - so no, the outcome isn't really in doubt.

In fact, the Aragua experiment is more a logistical demonstration than a political decision-making mechanism. Aragua became a kind of lab where oppo Election-Obsessive types got to run their own Fantasy CNE, one that says Yes to every item in their election wishlist, from see-through ballot boxes to hand counts to a circular ballot that won't give the candidate listed first an unfair advantage. Certainly, María Corina Machado isn't shy about pitching it that way (starting on 6:04):

(the rest of the interview is worth watching too, btw, for different reasons.)

Personally, I've been on the fence about Primaries for a long time. It's not that I'm against them, it's that I worry that people project their fantasies of a well-functioning, united opposition onto them. As MCM herself notes, every method for selecting candidates has advantages and disadvantages. But, to many in the opposition, the idea of primaries has become a kind of fetish, a magical solution allowing them to sidestep the painstaking institutional reforms we need if we want to become organizationally cohesive and effective.

We need to keep our wits about us. Gaviria's decision not to participate in Sunday's vote illustrates the limits of primaries in coordinating the aspirations of politicians when institutions are weak. Primaries work - when they work - because they are embedded in a set of institutional practices, both formal and informal, that even Súmate can't impose. In their absence, primaries can't even guarantee unity. Ask Hiram, he'll tell you.

The question, though, is whether it's possible to do worse than we're doing now. I think that would be hard. Fairly or unfairly, the survey-augmented backroom deal method the opposition settled on to choose our candidates, and particularly the very public bickering it generates, are making us look horrible.

To my mind, much of the criticism is unfair and immature. A lot of the time, aspiring oppo politicos are getting crucified simply for wanting to get elected to office, as though aspiring to elected office wasn't the dictionary definition of a politician's job. But whether it's fair or unfair isn't really the point, the point is that tremendous damage is being done to our ability to get our people elected to office.

An electorate weary of personal ambition, primed to think the worst of anyone who would step up to the plate and try to run for something, is being treated to an unending display of the kind of political behavior it hates most. How does this help us, again?

The thing to latch on to in that last passage is the pronouns: the bickering is making us look horrible, it's hurting our chances in November.

One thing I've noticed more and more is that opposition supporters almost never speak this way. People who swear up and down that they hate Chávez, people who would do anything to kick out the chavista tool running their states and municipalities, bizarrely switch to the third person when they start to discuss the people who should replace them: it's always they who look ridiculous with all their bickering and shortsighted personal ambition. Reductio'd to its absurdum, the view verges on a kind of hazy, semi-conscious anarchism, where what people really want is for states and cities to run, without anybody specific running them.

This unwillingness to identifywith the people who must run the country if we don't want it to be run by chavistas stands in sharp contrast with what happens in the US. Up north, even after an enormously bruising primary campaign, democrats were still under extreme pressure to think of the party as "us". Refusing to do so came to identify you as a raving crank.

¡Que envidia!

The depth of anti-chavistas' resistance to identifying with the opposition came through very clearly in my latest survey. Asked about your views on Venezuelan politics, a staggering number of readers who detest chavismo simply refuse to identify with in any way as "pro-opposition":

Looking through those "it's complicated" answers, it's clear that y'all are basically anti-Chavista NiNis. Some typical comments:
Strongly anti-chavista but not finding much solace in the viable opposition

Not necessarily pro-opposition, but strongly anti-Chavez

Sympathetic towards the opposition but knowing things are never so bad they can't be made worse.

While the opposition is better than the government, it’s appalling

Pro Venezuela, which chavismo is not but opposition is not doing much better either
As far as I can tell, these kinds of views are very widespread. The opposition "brand" is pretty much in the dumpster, widely reviled even by - especially by - its natural base.

The opposition just doesn't offer an emotional "hook" we can hang a first-person pronoun on. There's nothing about it you could feel good identifying with. As Juan Cristobal knows only too well, declaring your enthusiastic support for an opposition party in Venezuela is sort of like declaring yourself a Nudist at a polite cocktail party: there's something off about it. It's just not something normal people do, certainly not something normal people do proudly. Worse yet, our leaders seem not to grasp that, not to have any sense that this is a problem that demands their attention.

We shouldn't think of primaries as a magic wand able to lift the Oppo brand out of the dismal slump it's in. But they could be a start: one step in a much longer road to repairing the relationship between anti-chavistas and the people who represent us.

For this year it's too late, but in a couple of years, we face National Assembly elections. When that time comes, we can't afford to keep pissing on our own brand by shutting our voters out of the process for choosing our candidates. And agreeing to be chosen through primaries could play an important signaling role on the part of our leaders, sending a clear message that the opposition has turned a decisive corner.

So here's hoping that the Aragua primary goes off without a hitch tomorrow, and definitely establishes the method's viability down the road. It's no magic bullet. It can't replace the arduous task of rebuilding the opposition's image. But it's not nothing.

July 24, 2008

Poverty beyond the spin

Juan Cristobal says: - If you didn't know anything about Venezuela and you stumbled upon this AP story, you would think Hugo Chávez's management of the economy was producing quasi-miraculous results. In it, the President of the National Statistical Institute Elías Eljuri says that poverty in Venezuela is decreasing dramatically. But it turns out this is a case of Lying with the Reference Period because, while overall poverty did decrease between 1998 and 2007, the INE's own figures show the trend starting to reverse.

Abelardo Daza, an economist at ODH Grupo Consultor (a firm that I'm also associated with) has been sifting through the data. The numbers confirm the government's story: there was a sharp drop in poverty in the last four years.

This is not all that surprising. Poverty has been falling in every petrostate in the last four years. What's surprising is that, as the graph above shows, the trend started to reverse in the second quarter of 2007, with the poverty rate climbing even as the price of oil reached unprecedented new highs. That's the real story here.

The story of poverty abatement through the latest oil boom is really not that controversial. You can grasp the gist of it looking at a single graph:

In the midst of a dizzying oil boom, the government opened up the fiscal spout, flooding the streets with cash and boosting aggregate demand and overall economic activity. Between 2002 and 2006, Central Government spending more than quintupled in nominal terms, going from Bs.22 trillion to Bs.115 trillion - and that's without even counting Fonden, PDVSA Social Spending, and Chávez-only-knows how many other parallel budgets the government is running.

Through social programs such as the Misiones, as well as subsidies and other schemes, the government has indeed channeled more resources directly to poor families, who have seen their purchasing power rise. With that much money around, and considering the severe economic problems we had prior to 2003, it was never really controversial that poverty would fall.

The government measures poverty by counting the number of households whose income is less than twice the cost of the "typical food basket," and dividing it by the number of households. The ratio you get is your poverty rate. Figured this way, it's true that by the end of 2007 the percentage of households below the poverty line was 28.5%. The same data indicate poverty was 43.9% in 1998, (curiously, still lower than the eye-popping 80% often quoted by Chávez way back when he was thin, and lower than the 55.1% we had after four years of Chávez)

But hold the blue ribbons. As Quico once put it, Chávez's not-so-secret recipe for poverty abatement consists of discovering enormous deposits of stuff everyone desperately wants, pumping it out of the ground and selling it at ever-increasing prices.

The question isn't whether poverty is lower in Venezuela at the peak of the oil cycle than it was at the bottom of the cycle: that's just obvious. The real question we should be asking is how efficient the government has been at leveraging the oil windfall as a poverty-fighting instrument. In other words, how much poverty-reduction bang we're getting for the petro-buck.

As it turns out, economists have a technique for measuring just that: the "income elasticity of poverty reduction."

To non-economists, "elasticity" sounds like what you're doing when you're trying to sttttrrrreeeetch your paycheck to get you through to the end of the month. But the income elasticity of poverty reduction is just a measure of the relationship between economic growth and poverty reduction. Each time GDP goes up 1%, how much does poverty fall? That's the basic intuition (though, of course, the technical detail is a bit hairier.)

Francisco Rodríguez has looked into this in detail. His conclusion? "However one calculates it, Venezuela’s income elasticity of poverty reduction is below typical values for developing countries." In other words, gifted the kind of frenzied petro-boom we've been having, the typical developing country would've reduced poverty more than we have. It's not that we're doing worse than the Norways of the world in reducing poverty - we're doing worse than the Dominican Republics of the world.

That's bad enough, but what the INE's updated figures show is that we may have stopped reducing poverty altogether. The economy is still growing (albeit more slowly), but poverty has begun rising again. This is no CIA plot, this comes from the government's own statistics.

The reason is quite simple: inflation - a problem that's also eroding earlier gains in other petrostates. The growth of people's income has not kept up with the fast rise in the cost of food, so households are actually falling below the poverty line in the midst of an oil boom.

To highlight this point, Daza has looked into how many "food baskets" the minimum wage buys. While in May of 2007 a minimum wage bought you 1.24 baskets, the minimum wage in June of 2008 would buy you 1.05 baskets.

And that's after accounting for the mandatory increase in the minimum wage...

So the poverty statistics are not good for the government. They keep saying that, compared to 1998, we have far less poverty, but that's a bit like bragging that your driveway has 95% fewer dead leaves on it today than it did just nine months ago - when it was Fall - without noting it has a few more dead leaves now than it did last week.

This kind of top-of-the-cycle vs. bottom-of-the-cycle comparison is alright for spinning reporters, but close to meaningless from an economic point of view. Worse, it's politically irrelevant: when voters step into the voting booth in November, it'll be how they're doing compared to a month or a year ago that'll matter, not how they're doing compared to a decade ago.

The problem for the government is that the economy is cooling, inflation shows no sign of abating and the conveyor belt that once linked rising oil prices to falling poverty rates is breaking down. If this pattern keeps up, come November the government may find itself on the receiving end of another dose of electoral whoop-ass.

Who loves ya?!

Quico says: Here's an innovative take on the budding Chávez-Medvedev lovematch:

Neither Medvedev nor Chavez were being very direct about why they are deepenig the relationship, and I find myself in disagreement with other analysts who say that it is only about the business deals.


According to some lawyer colleagues I have spoken with in Venezuela, government officials have paid close attention to how Russia acted to protect Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe following a democratic collapse, and it is believed that by extending such favorable energy deals to another state (rather than another private company) that Venezuela is purchasing future political insurance and potential veto in the United Nations.

Russia is not just exporting tanks, jets, and kalashnikovs to Venezuela, it is exporting legitimacy.

And don't miss Chávez's latest implausible Media Conspiracy Theory, this time blamed for maliciously spreading false reports that he had agreed to host Russian military bases in Venezuela. (In fact, he merely said he'd welcome Russian navy ships to Venezuelan ports with flags and drums and songs, so you can see how that's all different.)

The trouble with the conspiracy-theory view of this little fracas is that it wasn't some bastion of imperialist media that got this particular ball rolling, it was Interfax, a Russian news agency with deep ties to the Kremlin.

How do you get around that one? Easy: instead of blaming the organization responsible for producing and circulating the story, you rail against those who saw it on the news wire and - shockingly - thought it was news.

Personally, I'm still puzzling through how you can pick up a wire story "hasta con saña."

July 22, 2008

The forgotten trailblazer

Juan Cristobal says: Take a look at this picture. Quick: can you tell me who this man is?

If you can't - and I bet you can't - stop to ponder the fact that you've failed to identify Venezuela's first popularly elected president, Manuel Felipe de Tovar.

No reason to feel bad. I had no idea who he was either until pretty recently, when I picked up a copy of Rafael Arráiz Lucca's "Venezuela: 1830 a nuestros días." The book is a compendium of the major historical events of our history as a free nation, almost by necessity broad in scope and yet shallow in the treatment of most topics. It was perfect for me.

I picked it up half embarrassed, realizing the last time I put any sustained effort into learning Venezuelan history, I was a stonewashed Maracaibo teenager. Reading the book, it was remarkable how some things seemed as familiar as daylight. But I also stumbled on a few surprises.

Case in point, the man in the picture. Manuel Felipe de Tovar was the true precursor of Venezuelan democracy, but he's now almost completely forgotten. Here's what Arráiz has to say about him:
"In accordance with the Constitution passed in 1858, elections were held in April of 1860, and the winner was Manuel Felipe de Tovar, with 35,010 votes, for the 1860-1864 constitutional period. No immediate reelection was allowed. Pedro Gual was elected Vice-president for two years, with 26,269 votes... For the first time, Venezuelans directly elected their leaders, and they did so in the midst of a cruel war that had already cost thousands of lives and was sowing the country with misery and desolation."
It's strange. Somehow my brain had assimilated the notion that we had to wait until 1948 to elect a President for the first time, a certain Rómulo Gallegos. Could I have been wrong all along? Was I simply the victim of my own ignorance, or was this all an adeco fairy-tale, further proof of their penchant for rewriting history? Could it be that Arráiz got it wrong?

No, it's true, Tovar was the first. Sure, he was elected on the basis of a limited franchise, but then, so was Jefferson. Even the Chávez government acknowledges he was the first, which is strange since Tovar was elected as a Paecista, and we know how much Chávez loathes José Antonio Páez. (Recent reports suggest the government even desecrated Paez's grave.)

I wonder how Tovar's achievement was received in Venezuela's mid-XIXth Century political circles. Being an elected, civilian President in Venezuela in those days had to be quite a handful, calling for equal measures of luck, naiveté and chutzpah. Tovar must have been a dreamer of gargantuan proportions to think he could pull it off.

Elected in the middle of a notoriously cruel civil war, Tovar faced serious military and economic challenges from day one. The government was bankrupt, so he instituted our first income tax. He freed up imports of scarce agricultural products and froze the salaries of government employees. He pardoned some political prisoners while waging war against guerrilla-style militias determined to overthrow him. The complaints about the civilian Constitution not being strong enough to deal with the rising insurgency grew louder by the day, and they eventually paved the way for the subsequent Páez dictatorship that ended Tovar's stint after only 13 months in power.

I'm no expert on Venezuelan history, I'm just a guy who read a book. But in the midst of the turbulence of the country's early years, I found a lot that's familiar.

To understand Venezuela's beginnings as a country, it's important to ponder the nature of those in charge at the time. The War of Independence was a traumatic military event. Contrary to popular myth, it was not won by a unified army with a clear line of command. Instead, it was waged and won by a semi-coordinated bunch of militias composed mostly of illiterate peasants, each led by its own caudillo. With rare exceptions, when I say "caudillo" I mean warlord.

Immediately following the war, the caudillos and their followers found they had to submit to a government in faraway Bogotá headed by an unelected President-for-life. Naturally, they pushed to break away from Colombia. After all, they'd had to cross the Andes to go free Colombians, Peruvians and the like; it's not surprising they felt they were getting the short end of the stick having to bow to a bunch of snobs like the Santanders and Nariños of the world.

In spite of their disparate interests and personalities, they joined together and fought the common cause of secession. One of the movements they started was called "La Cosiata", a derisive neologism for a group not unlike the recent Coordinadora Democrática.

Emboldened by their hard-won military victories, and drunk from the success in achieving secession from "Gran Colombia", it's no wonder chaos ensued. During the first thirty years of our existence, Venezuela endured one failed government after another. Constitutions came and went, as did the military coups. The only intermittent periods of relative calm came when Páez reluctantly made himself dictator and managed to quiet things down a bit. When circumstances allowed, he would retreat to either his farms in the Llanos or to New York, where he eventually died.

So the nation was built by a hodgepodge of ambitious latifundists-turned-generals looking to get rich quick, men who felt entitled to the spoils of war, perhaps understandably after risking their lives and their lands for the patriotic cause. Against that backdrop, it's not surprising that the few attempts to establish civilian rule, institutions and a functioning state were utter failures. But they did exist.

The early history of the republic is dominated by all things military, while the exceptions such as the civil-minded Tovar or José María Vargas lie half-forgotten in the dustbin of history. It's no surprise that Tovar himself was buried in a random Paris cementery instead of in our National Pantheon, and that instead of celebrating him in plazas or streets, we are quickly running out of boondoggles to name after psychopath-murderers-cum-half-failed caudillos.

But are we doomed to keep repeating that history again and again? Will bloggers 60 years from now be surprised to dust off a history book that informs them that Hugo Chávez was not the first popularly elected president, like their schoolteachers said?

Not at all. Because the remarkable thing about men like Vargas and Tovar is not that they failed, but that they ever had a shot. They saw disorder, yet they were bold enough to dream of a different country. That's as much a part of our heritage as the caudillo strain.

Fast-forward 180 years and picture yourself in 2013. Suppose for a minute that Chávez leaves power.

After wiping the smile off your face, think of all the people, all the groups that are going to feel entitled to the spoils of victory: businessmen, students, politicians, unions, ex-PDVSA folk, the Plaza Altamira gang. Think of the effort it's going to take to keep everyone's interests at bay and put the nation's interests first.

It would be easy to picture this and conclude, as many swing voters do, that while Chávez may be bad, the opposition is worse. It's only natural for our fears to be confirmed by the intense tussling the opposition is currently embarked on. Is it any wonder, then, that Chávez plays on this fear with slogans like "No volverán"?

But the apparent anarchy in the opposition is not always real, nor does it necessarily imply that we are doomed to fail. Against Chavismo's ambition to "get Bolivar's dream right", maybe we should oppose a decidedly more modest goal: vindicating Tovar. The civilianist current he pioneered is just as Venezuelan as caudillismo, and much, much more relevant in today's world. We are Doña Bárbara, but we are also Santos Luzardo.

It's useful to keep this in mind next time we see the opposition behaving like a sack of cats with no clear goals in sight. It takes a lot of effort to be organized when bochinche is embedded in our DNA. The thing to remember is that it's not just bochinche that's in there: the determination to do away with caudillos and bring the country together behind an elected civilian on the basis of the law is just as embedded in us, just as Venezuelan. Which is why we should celebrate whenever civilians manage to talk out their differences and bring us closer to realizing that vision.

So next time you feel a vein is about to burst at the sight of Saady Bijani, spare a thought for Manuel Felipe de Tovar, a man who, irony of ironies, took the oath of office one April the 12th. And if you dare to dream that yes, we can overcome our history, take comfort in the fact that greater Venezuelans have harbored the same dream when facing even longer odds than us.

New Survey!

Quico says: Following on from that very enlightening Reader's Survey last week, Juan Cristobal, Lucia and I put together a second, much more detailed survey of readers' political views.

Here's your chance to spout off on everything from what to do about crime to Hugo Chávez's mental state.

Realistically, this one will be of interest strictly to Venezuelan politics junkies, but good fun nonetheless.

Click here to take the Readers' Views Survey.

July 21, 2008

81% of you

Quico says: So if my Readers' Survey is to be trusted, 81% of you won't mind if I post a link to a piece in Spanish. This one y'all really need to read. On it Chuo Torrealba shows himself as not just an uncommonly lucid political strategist, but also an uncommonly talented writer and rapporteur. The story will make your heart shrink. Don't miss it.

Extra! Extra! Opposition Fails to Shoot Self In Foot!

Quico says: The opposition political class is held in dismally low esteem by most of our readers, but sometimes this has its advantages. For one, it makes it extremely easy to exceed expectations. Any time an oppo politician does something marginally altruistic - or even just not patently self-destructive - we're thrilled and amazed.

Take this presser by notorious microphone-whore William Ojeda. I almost choked on my corn flakes this morning when I heard the longstanding Petare mayor wannabe (and shortstanding UNT member) would bow out of the race in favor of Primero Justicia's better-placed Carlos Ocariz.

This is a big deal. Petare is, by some counts, one of the three largest shatytowns in South America. The area shocked everyone by voting 62% "No" in December's referendum. Getting an oppo mayor elected there, of all places, would make a very strong symbolic statement...one which Ojeda's decision makes likely.

Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles...these sporadic outbreaks of oppo sanity are getting more and more common! What's next, a coherent message?!

The Caracas-Tehran Axis, but not as you know it

Quico says: The World Mayor project has just released the shortlist of 11 finalists for its 2008 award. Among them is Leopoldo López alongside Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, mayor of Tehran.

Sweet Tooth for Punishment

Quico says: After eight years (four over schedule), half a billion dollars, one corruption scandal after another after another, and still not a lump of sugar produced, would you show your face around CAAEZ, pledging still more money and urging campesinos to volunteer their time for your boondoggle?!!

July 20, 2008

Photo of the Day

[The accompanying article, btw, shows pretty clearly that it's not just the opposition that's having trouble agreeing a single slate of candidates. It's just that the government has mechanisms for punishing dissent and for signaling to voters who its "real" candidate is, which prevent its vote from splitting too much between competing aspirants. Que envidia.]