August 15, 2008

My Piedad Córdoba Shame

Quico says: OK, OK, I admit it!

I funnel Venezuelan government money to Piedad Córdoba!

Boy, I never saw that one coming!

Quico says: Guess who Chávez blames for the South Ossetian war? You have three guesses. First two don't count.

Kidnapped Twice

Quico says: Want something new to be alarmed by? Check out the newly enacted anti-kidnapping law - something I'd written about before - which mandates the Prosecutor General's office to freeze all financial assets belonging to kidnap victim's families to prevent them paying ransom.

The rules extend to the second-degree of consanguinity and force banks to disclose any loans made to the family during the freeze. Which means if your second cousin gets kidnapped just before you submit a mortgage or business loan application, you're shit out of luck. The law even empowers a Ministerio Público official to set a kind of "allowance" for you - deciding how much of your salary you're allowed to keep to make sure there isn't a medio left over at the end of the month to pay ransom with.

It may be one of the most shockingly hamfisted policies I've heard in recent years. As though the kidnapping of a relative wasn't traumatic enough, the new law means once that happens, your assets get kidnapped too.

But what if your relative is killed and the body isn't found? Do your assets stay "frozen" indefinitely?

Would you report a kidnapping, knowing what the government would do to your stuff? And, if nobody reports, guess what happens to the kidnapping statistics?

August 13, 2008

Ten reasons why November matters

Juan Cristobal says: In some opposition circles, wanting to get elected to office amid the swirl of inhabilitaciones and decree-laws almost amounts to treason. The conventional wisdom seems to be that only someone completely absorbed by his or her own personal ambition could fail to see this. "It's an outrage! Running for a time like this!"

It's a compelling argument, that one. On the face of it, it's true that the Mayorship of Naguanagua is peanuts next to the advancements of Chávez's "frog-in-the-water" brand of authoritarianism. But taken as part of a medium-term strategy to end this madness, the coming elections are indeed important. When you think about it, we should be glad cool heads in the opposition are focused on November and are not getting overly distracted by the rojo, rojito rags Chávez is waving in our faces.

The way I see it, our current goal should be to do everything we can to tackle the myth that Chávez has a lock on Venezuelans' hearts and minds.

So why are November's elections important? Let me count the ways.

1. We have a shot at winning more votes than chavismo: Before December, Chávez loved to boast about how he beat us eight or nine times in a row. It helped create a notion in the minds of the electorate that he was invincible at the ballot box. The Revolution could not be turned back, or so we were led to believe. "Whine all you want, but this government is backed by an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans," goes the story.

Have you noticed how he doesn't do that anymore? Have you noticed we've stopped being referred to as "the squalid ones" every two days?

While last December's narrow defeat shattered Chávez's unbeaten record, it didn't exactly do in the chavista election machine. We need to work on a streak here...2D, the regions this year, the Assembly in two years' time, you complete the sequence...

Winning in November could be a major step in cementing the view that the opposition is a viable political force. It could also do wonders for the belief in ourselves and for our shaky morale

But winning could also help bring in swing voters. After all, there's a reason Venezuelans support Brazil in the World Cup - we love a winner, we hate losing. Winning in December may create the idea that if you back the opposition, you're playing the winner card.

2. Local governments provide a platform for opposition ideas: I agree with most of the opposition curmudgeons that our politicians have failed to deliver a clear narrative on their aspirations for our country. Part of the reason is because only a handful of them have any ideas at all. But it's also true that the few who do have them don't really have a platform to talk about them, much less implement them.

Holding an elected position gives you a platform, a podium from which you can talk about ideas and actually implement them. And with the chance to put ideas into practice comes visibility.

Think of it this way: if you conduct a political opinion program, who would you rather showcase: the under-secretary general of an opposition political party, or an elected opposition governor? If you're a reporter, what do you choose to cover first: a speech by an opposition politician in a political party's headquarter, or a speech by the mayor of a big city?

3. Local governments keep the party base motivated and employed: We can argue until we turn blue, but all of us agree that our political parties are not what we want them to be. Having strong political parties is a pre-condition for having a viable democracy. And in order to have strong parties, we need to have good people working for them.

As I've
met party activists and volunteers, I've always been impressed by how passionate most of them are about public service. While I share some skepticism toward the bigwigs, I'm a believer in the rank-and-file, the folk who organize the smaller groups who march, distribute flyers, paint walls and devote a lot of time to party activities. Rendered invisible by the cogollo-centered media, these people's energy and idealism perseveres even in the face of the incredibly hostile medium of the broader anti-politics opposition.

But it's hard to keep them motivated and energized when they have to work 9-to-5 and then organize in their off time. And it's really hard to have a functioning political party without a motivated grass-roots organization.

Let's grow up a bit. It's neither the lust for power nor the chance to fill their pockets that's driving some of these people to run for municipal council in Guatire or for State Assembly in Yaracuy. It's their desire to conjugate their love for their country and their faith in the possibility of political action with the need to get a paycheck on 15 y último.

Winning lots of seats in municipal councils and state legislatures for people who have earned it will only make our parties stronger. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to see the morale of the chavista base plummet after lots of them lose the jobs they won in 2004.

4. Local activists can help us reach distant communities: We've talked about it before, but it's worth repeating: nothing beats local knowledge when trying to reach rural bastions of chavismo. Too often, we can't compete in the countryside for a simple reason: we have nobody in any position of influence there at all.

We may not win the governorship of Guárico, we may not win the mayorship of Municipio Juan Germán Roscio, but win a few seats in the municipal council and, little by little, you go from being totally absent from large chunks of the country to having, at least, a beachhead. A concejal's power is, to be sure, very limited, but he can nonetheless serve as a spokesman for micro-level complaints that, today, find no voice whatsoever, a champion for rural people who have, so far, had simply no one "important" at all to support them in the face of chavista excess.

The people who manage to win there, if they do their job right, could deliver that Municipality in the future. Little by little, they can help us eat away at the massive chavista advantage in the countryside that remain the opposition's biggest obstacle to winning nationally.

5. Local governments still get significant funding: We face a behemoth of a financial machine in chavismo, one that constantly bends the rules to not give regions their fair share. Recent moves by Chávez will probably mean state and local governments will face diminishing powers.

And yet...

The Constitution says that state and local government will receive up to 20% of each year's budget (the so-called situado). To shortchange local governments, Chávez has typically passed budget laws that assume oil prices will be much, much lower than the market price. That way, large chunk of oil income do not go through the normal budgetary procedures, and therefore, state and local governments don't get their fair share.

Still, while the assumed price of oil is low, it's still the case that it has been growing year after year, and with it, the funds available to state and local governments.

It's true that the recent decree-law allowing Chávez to name special regional envoys diminishes the power of state and local governments. But Chávez has yet to place a complete stranglehold on their budgets. If he does, and if things in November go well for us, he will have to deal with an army of very committed, very squalid, very pissed-off governors who have the legitimacy his Miraflores-appointed flunkies will never have: the legitimacy that comes from popular election.

6. It gives democratic legitimacy to key opposition figures: It's always surprised me how chavismo has gotten an incredibly easy ride in international public opinion considering the amount of crap it's pulled. To a large extent, the reason is that Chávez has successfully sold the view of his opponents as a cabal of coup-plotting extremists who hold no appeal to the grass-roots. "He might be bad," international public opinon thinks, "but we can't be seen to back another Pinochet."

Winning local elections in places outside the Sifrino Enclaves will put a stake through the heart of this particular canard. Imagine Carlos Ocariz standing in front of the European Parliament, say, or the Brazilian Senate and introducing himself as the elected mayor of the biggest shantytown in Venezuela and the third biggest in Latin America before ripping into chavista authoritarianism. That's rather different than Marcel Granier doing so, don't you think?

One time, I was in a meeting with a bunch of Chilean senators opposed to Chávez. When we asked them what they knew about the opposition, they told me they were fully aware of the opposition because they had met with Henrique Salas Römer a few times.

Did I mention the year was 2005?

Needless to say, Salas Römer was not a factor in 2005, and he is not much of a factor now. But the fact is that by virtue of his (dismal) performance in the elections of 1998, this was the face of the opposition to them.

Foreign political circles can be of help: they can open doors to foreign media outlets, they can put Venezuelan issues on the forefront and they can put pressure on their own governments to moderate their enthusiasm for Chávez. So while foreigners will not come and save us, they can sure be of help.

After all, the group of senators I met ended up being instrumental in putting pressure on the Chilean government so they would not support Venezuela's bid to the UN Security Council.

7. It forces the government to work with us, or at least, through us: Have you noticed how Chávez doesn't usually broadcast his Alo, Presidente show from Zulia or Nueva Esparta? If he does, he usually does it in the confines of a chavista municipality.

Has there ever been an Aló Presidente from Chacao or Baruta? This show requires logistics, an advance team that takes care of security, that sort of thing. Chávez generaly shies away from having to negotiate these and any other aspects with people from the opposition.

The same can be said of infrastructure projects and social programs. If he can avoid having to deal with unsympathetic authorities (and up until now, this was easy to do), he will do it. But if we win half the country, if 65% of the people end up being governed by local authorities sympathetic to our cause, this will force him to acknowledge us as authorities, at least on a basic level.

8. It is one more step in putting together a coalition: We're all pissed about the Inhabilitados, about the constant abuse of power by chavismo. One thing we can do is try to win back the National Assembly in 2010.

Think about what it would mean. Everything, from the passing of Referenda on controversial laws to the replacement of key figures in the TSJ, to the naming of a new Comptroller to convening a Constitutional Assembly - it would all be on the table. After November, winning the Assembly should be our number one goal.

But... in order to do so, we need to build a strong coalition. November will be a crucial test on whether or not our politicians are up to the task.

9. It is crucial in turning out the vote in future elections: This is related to the previous point, but also to any Referenda coming our way, as well as the Legislative elections of 2010 and the Presidential election of 2012.

Last December, our dismal performance in the areas outside major metropolitan areas cast a shadow over our victory. In order to address this, we need to improve voter turnout in these key areas.

There is no doubt that regional and local governments can assist in this. Anything from providing transportation to information to canvassing neighborhoods with activists can be accomplished better if the local government is on your side and not harrassing us, like they usually are. And in a close election, this type of "trabajo de hormiguita" makes all the difference.

10. It would grab the headlines abroad: Last December, Chávez's aura of invincibility was shattered, and international headlines took notice. From that point on, references to Chávez past electoral wins usually carry the tagline that he was "narrowly defeated" in a Constitutional referendum.

That "narrowly" hints at the feeling that Chávez almost won the Referendum, that he is still very popular. Another loss in another election - deemed as crucial by Chávez himself - will work to shatter any remaining doubts about Chávez's hold on popular consciousness.

The Smoking Gun That Went on Nicorettes

Quico says: Here's a question to ponder: what really changed in Venezuela when the 26 laws of the Gacetazo were decreed into effect? We've heard a lot of woolly thinking in the opposition about this, a lot of emotional posturing, and a huge amount of red-rag charging. But if you put your spleen on hold and think with your head for a second, can you tell me what specifically changed when the new laws came into effect?

The standard rap is that the decrees are unconstitutional, and anyway they were rejected in the December 2nd referendum. The logic here seems to be that in order to change, say, the mechanisms for expropriating a farm, you need a constitutional amendment.

There are two problems with that. The first is that in the weeks and months ahead of the Constitutional Reform Referendum, we argued that most of the changes proposed didn't require a constitutional amendment! We protested loudly, saying the government could achieve the same thing by changing the laws and that most of the changes were "cover" for the one real change that did require changing the constitution: removing presidential term limits.

For my money, we had it right the first time: most of the proposed reforms didn't require changing the constitution, they just required changing the laws, which is exactly what the government is doing.

Does this mean the policies in the new laws are good? Hell no! Or wise? Far from! But, unconstitutional? That just doesn't follow.

A lot of the confusion seems to come from a sloppy tendency to just use the words "bad" and "unconstitutional" as rough synonyms. That's childish. Bad ≠ Unconstitutional.

The second problem is the whole sense of irreality as we discuss, in grave terms, the expansion of the government's legal powers to regulate and sanction private actors. But Chávez has never paid any attention to what the laws say in terms of what he can and can't do vis-à-vis society, and it's been years since he's faced any significant institutional counterweights. We speak in horrified tones about how easy it'll be to expropriate farms from now on, but seven years ago I was making films about guys in Barinas who had their farms confiscated with zero notification, zero due process, and no recourse to the courts!

The violations of the constitution these laws allow are nothing new. Take the latest LOFAN (or, erm, LOFANB, as I guess we'll have to call it now) - which blatantly tramples the constitution by creating a praetorianish Militia within the Armed Forces. The semantic trick they use to slip this one in amounts to the barest coating of vaseline: the constitution says the Armed Forces are "integrated by" four components (Army, Navy, Air Force, National Guard) whereas article 5 of LOFANB says the Armed Forces are "organized by" a bunch of bodies that don't show up in the constitution, including the militia. That's some thin gruel, but no doubt the TSJ will drink it up with relish.

Clearly unconstitutional, yes, but does it change anything? Is the constitution more violate today than it was two weeks ago? Not really, because the 2005 version of LOFAN also invented new military components out of thin air. All the LOFANB does is rename the Guardia Territorial and the reserva, calling them the Militia.

In practice, the Gacetazo doesn't really make Venezuela more autocratic than it was before. It doesn't violate the constitution any more than has become sadly usual. That's, of course, cold comfort: the country was already alarmingly autocratic before the new decrees, and the constitution has long been a stomping ground for chavista whims.

The point, though, is that the Gacetazo doesn't appreciably add to the already desperate state of our state. That there's nothing in the gacetazo that substantially alters our situation. They have, indeed, jiggled around some old laws that they were blatantly breaking, and thought up some novel ways to violate constitutional principles they've been violating for years. But if you didn't think an Article 350 adventure was warranted this time last month, there's nothing in the gacetazo to make you think it is now.

From the Art. 350 User's Manual.
Step 1: patronize your way to power.

August 12, 2008

Adopt a Race

Quico says: As November 23rd draws near, Juan Cristobal and I face a special challenge: how to provide meaningful coverage of 24 state and 335 municipal races with no staff, no office, no budget, and from very far away. The only way it's going to happen is if you, the reader community, step up and share your local knowledge.

So today we're rolling out the Adopt a Race Program, where we ask you to be Caracas Chronicles' eyes and ears in places we just can't reach. In practice, we want you to commit to track a particular race that you happen to know a lot about, keeping in touch every couple of weeks with updates. Easy!

We are especially interested in hearing from people who live in, come from, have family in, work in, have slept with somebody from, or otherwise have particular local knowledge about, the municipios on the Oppo Target list.

They are:
  • Mérida
  • Maracaibo
  • Petare
  • El Tigre
  • Coro
  • Puerto La Cruz
  • Barquisimeto
  • Barcelona
  • Maracay
  • Cumaná
  • Los Teques
  • Guacara
  • Ciudad Bolívar
If you know more than the average joe about one of these places, or if you know someone else who does, please send me an email - quicotoro at gmail dot com - to find out more about adopting a race.

August 11, 2008

Caracas Chronicles...CENSORED!

A reader sends in this screenshot...