September 13, 2008

Not a "State Sponsor of Terrorism"...just, y'know, a state run by people who sponsor terrorism

Quico says: In today's WaPo, Juan Forero has the skinny on the Empire's decision to freeze all assets belonging to three top chavista intelligence operatives: the inimitable Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, DISIP head Henry Rangel Silva and the deeply shady Hugo Carvajal, head of military intelligence (pictured), in response to their increasingly documented links to FARC.

Particularly striking is the second half of Forero's piece, where we get pearls like:
The Treasury Department said Venezuela's military intelligence director, Hugo Carvajal, protected FARC drug shipments from seizure by honest Venezuelan authorities, provided weaponry and helped the rebels maintain their stronghold along Colombia's eastern border with Venezuela.

American officials said that in addition to the three Chávez aides who were named Friday, they know of other figures close to the Venezuelan leader who have helped the FARC. Colombian authorities have identified two of them as Gen. Cliver Alcalá and Amilcar Figueroa, who has had a role in organizing Venezuelan civilian militias.

"It's actually a fairly small group of people, but it's larger than three," said the senior American official. "We know who those people are, and we're watching them very closely."

It's worth reading the whole thing.

September 12, 2008

Taking shit from Chávez

Quico says: True Venezuelan politics junkies don't need reminding to check El Chigüire Bipolar on a daily basis. But on the occassion of Chávez's e/scatological expulsion of US ambassador Patrick Duddy, our prozac-popping rodent friend nailed it so perfectly I just have to give up a link. His take? "Government sets off smoke-screen to cover up the smoke-screen it had set off yesterday."
"We were weighing up whether we should reveal an imminent yankee invasion via Rio Caribe, have a black out in the East Side of Caracas or announce that Miquilena is an alien who sucks out people's souls," said our anonymous source, who took the chance to add what a hard time they're having coming up with suitably absurd ideas ever since Rodríguez Chacín left the cabinet. "That bugger had it in his blood."
Insofar as I can add anything to el chigüire's brilliance here (which, lets face it, isn't very far), I'd just say this. For all of Chávez's rhetorical violence, for all his vulgarity and rant-heavy informality over thousands of hours of air time, the guy virtually never swears. Sure, he's perfected the art of ambling right up to the lexical edge before playfully pulling back ("take your newspapers, roll them up real tight, and shove them in your ...pocket!") but, as far as I can remember, before yesterday, he'd only ever used an out and out tabu word in public once.

Read into that what you will...

September 11, 2008

Eat our dust, São Tomé and Principe!

Quico says: So, according to the latest World Bank report on the cost of business regulations, guess which is the only one of the ten worst countries to do business that's not in Africa? You got it!

Some of the jurisdictions judged to be easier to do business in than Venezuela these days include Equatorial Guinea, the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and East Timor.

And, while Bolivia did fight us to a draw, nobody but nobody has more rigid labor markets than we do. Hurrah!

September 10, 2008


Quico says: The government's newfound love-in with Interpol makes for the kind of compare-and-contrast post that more or less writes itself.

I mean, it's too easy. A government that, just a few months ago, was assuring us Interpol was "an ever loyal ally of empire" suddenly went into aw-shucks mode yesterday after Interpol publicly praised its capture of a high-profile Colombian Narco. It's a classic bit of Chávez-style conditional approval. Just this spring Interpol's Secretary General, Ronald Noble, was an ignoble, shameless crook, an "international bum" heading up a scheme to infiltrate gringo spies into Venezuela. All of a sudden, he shows up in ABN stories treated as an impeccable source.

So the barrel was full, the fish had nowhere to hide and my gun was loaded. But then I wondered if there isn't more to this than a chance for some well-deserved but impotent snark. The political scientist in me has to wonder whether there isn't some strategic depth to these screeching turnarounds. Because the government sure seems to be playing tit-for-tat. Which, believe it or not, is a technical term in this context.

Tit-for-tat is a way of securing cooperation from agents that may be tempted to do you wrong. The basic idea is that, in the context of an iterated prisoner's dilemma, you're often best off starting out "nice" and then shadowing the other side's moves. If the other side screws you, you screw him right back. But if your opponent starts cooperating, you don't hold a grudge: you relaunch cooperation as soon as he stops acting against your interests.

Academics have long known that equivalent retaliation along these lines is an effective strategy for eliciting cooperation across a range of non-cooperative games. And you can certainly interpret a lot of Chávez's conflict management through this prism: when you hit him, he hits right back; when you play nice, he's often willing to turn on a dime.

Think of the media. So long as Venevisión and Televen ran hard against the government, Chávez retaliated, assaulting them rhetorically and signaling to advertisers to take their business elsewhere. As soon as they stopped broadcasting so critically, the government changed its stance too, dropping talk of taking away their broadcasting licenses and letting them get on with the business of broadcasting appalling shlock to housewives and raking in the advertising cash in the process.

That's tit-for-tat.

Think of Arias Cardenas, who was let back into the fold after going so far as to challenge Chávez for the presidency. That's tit-for-tat. Think of Baduel, aggressively harassed after literally saving the government from a coup, think of the unending on-again, off-again alliance between Chávez and PPT, of Chávez's eventual "break" with a FARC that wasn't listening to him, of the sad fate of the Villegas Brothers. Tit-for-tat, tit-for-tat, tit-for-tat.

From a blogger's point of view, this sort of thing tends to look like naked hypocrisy and makes endless fodder for cheap compare-and-contrast shots. Still, there's a reason he does it: tit-for-tat works.

Chávez's predilection for this kind of behavior may explain, in part, why he finds any sort of criticism so baffling, so unacceptable. When he says he's willing to work with all sectors (so long as they don't seek to destabilize his government), he may well mean it. The guy perceives himself as forgiving, willing to let bygones be bygones and give people a second chance. He can't for the life of him figure out why the price he demands - abject subservience - is so damn hard for so many people to swallow, and ends up interpreting refusals as grounded in essential evil.

"Nobody has to fight me," you can see him reasoning, "they choose to fight me, despite what's in their own interests. I'd be willing to give them a pass, to turn the page, but there's just no reasoning with some people: they're simply bad."

At the same time, his preference for equivalent retaliation means it's hard to definitively burn your bridges with chavismo. Recant and you can always get back into his good graces. We're miles away here from the strategy of a Saddam Hussein, a J.V. Gómez or a Trujillo, men famous for hanging on for grudges tenaciously for decades on end and prosecuting them long after they've ceased to serve any useful role in cementing their power.

Chávez knows better than to indulge such strategically costly appetites. In Hugoslavia, there's always a bit of carrot mixed in with the stick. The president may rant viciously against you, call you all sorts of unspeakable insults, but you always know that you can get back on the gravy train, simply by offering up your unconditional support once again.

It's a situation Ronald Noble's coming to know from the inside, and one I imagine Vladimir Villegas finds himself mulling over today.

September 8, 2008

i for i-ntimidated

Quico says: One of the few rays of hope I found on my recent trip to Caracas was the rise of Canal i, the most promising of the new batch of all-news channels proliferating on Venezuela's airways. With "equilibrio en la información" as a slogan, Canal i set out to do something shockingly novel (for Venezuela): broadcast news and opinions that aren't wildly partisan. It seemed to good too be true, and it was: last week, Canal i's management pulled the plug on its flagship evening talk show and fired its Broadcasting Director for trying to air a sensitive piece on the Antonini case. The National Journalists' Guild is crying censorship.

There were, to be sure, reasons to be doubtful from the start. Run by PSUV executive committee-member Mari Pili Hernández and funded by the oil-shipping bolibourgeois magnate Wilmer Ruperti, nobody could mistake Canal i for a truly independent channel. Nonetheless, Ruperti had made it clear that he saw the channel basically as a commercial venture, and his business strategy relied on tapping into the badly underserved sick-of-polarization market.

He figured there were advertising bolivars to be made in that space. After all, hardcore chavistas already had a wide and widening set of media choices (from VTV and Vive to ANTV, RNV, and others,) and die-hard antichavistas still had Globovision, alongside as much print media as they could stomach. It was the broad center that was hurting for a source of news, so Ruperti, cunningly enough, thought he'd spotted a gap in the market.

It was, to be sure, one tough balancing act. Canal i couldn't afford to out-and-out alienate a government that Ruperti depends on for most of his cash-flow, but it also couldn't hope to attract an audience if it morphed into a VTV clone. For a while, the channel seemed to pull it off, with newscasts that were broadly sympathetic but not slavishly subservient to the government and opinion shows that made a serious attempt to give both sides of the political divide their say.

The station's flagship program was called Contrapeso - Counterweight - a prime time talk show jointly hosted by one of the more moderate pro-government media figures, Vladimir Villegas, and one of the less polarizing opposition talking heads, Idania Chirinos. Five nights a week, since January, Contrapeso did something that's become shockingly rare in Venezuela: bring together guests with opposing points of view for a heated but insult-free confrontation.

Bizarrely, it seemed to work - largely, I think, because Chirinos and Villegas had real chemistry on the set. They appeared to actually like one another, and had worked out a way to disagree on almost everything but without vitriol. Contrapeso became a kind of oasis in the Caracas media scene, a place where something like a democratic public sphere seemed to be constructed day in and day out.

Here's a taste:

It's no surprise that the government would find this kind of TV alarming. Of course, it couldn't last. Last week, the channel announced it was "restructuring" Villegas and Chirinos off the air. What specifically prompted this decision is not at all clear, though speculation is rife that the decision was made in Miraflores. Certainly, it escaped no one that the decision came soon after Villegas ever-so-gingerly criticized Chávez's recent package of 26 decree-laws and, heresy of heresies, called for a public debate about them. Significantly, Villegas isn't denying that retaliation is at play here, and instead has started to talk himself into the rhetorical corner that all "moderate chavistas" seem to end up in sooner or later.

All of which is more sad than surprising. Every night that Contrapeso stayed on the air was a minor miracle, an aberration that everyone could see could not last indefinitely. A government built on polarization, devoted to a sharp division of society into Good Guys and Bad Guys, couldn't be expected to tolerate a space where the two sides talked to each other respectfully for hours on end. The real wonder, for my money, is that Ruperti ever thought the show had a future.

[Hat tip: Eva.]