September 19, 2008

It's official

Quico says: Hugo Chávez is now fodder for Republican attack ads...

[Have yer damn hat tip, JayDee...]

Quod erat demonstrandum

Juan Cristobal and Quico say: Sometimes, chavismo takes all the fun out of parody by, in effect, parodying itself. Case in point: Human Rights Watch has just published a detailed indictment of the Human Rights situation in Venezuela during the Chávez years. The whole document is worth a read. It's all there: the court-packing, the media, the discrimination, Maisanta, Tascón...and, of course, this bit:
The Chávez government has repeatedly denounced and sought to discredit the work of human rights advocates by making unfounded accusations that they are funded by and doing the bidding of foreign governments.
Right on cue, the government accused HRW director José Miguel Vivanco of doing the bidding of foreign governments and threw him out of the country. They actually had Vivanco and his companion detained by the security forces and forcibly escorted them to Maiquetía to put them on the first plane out of there.

Guy had it coming...spouting off about harassment of Human Rights activists like that! The nerve some people have...

The apple that fell a couple of time zones over from the tree

Quico says: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Wait! The kid who runs El Chigüire Bipolar is Alberto Federico Ravell's son?! HUH?!

September 17, 2008

Northern populist

Juan Cristobal says: - A scenery-chewing political reformer. A bible-thumping banner of books. A pitbull with lipstick. The political heiress to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. A hack.

Sarah Palin has been called a lot of things in the past two weeks, but of all the names, one characterization has stuck with me: right-wing populist.

Webster's defines populism as "antiestablishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies." It goes on to say that populism is a "representation or extolling of the common person, the working class, the underdog..."

Palin fits this definition like few Republicans do. Her folksy demeanor and her Marge Gunderson-accent are an integral part of her charm and appeal as a politician. She routinely touts her small-town, hockey-mom credentials as a way of telling the voters "I'm one of you... only I hunt bears."

But her populist strain is more than superficial. It resides in a deeper place, one rooted in the energy agenda she has carved in Alaska. Looked at more closely, Palin's relationship with Big Oil and the Alaska politicians they were used to commanding is actually kind of interesting.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say it is eerily reminiscent of Hugo Chávez’s banana-republic populism, albeit with some stark differences.

Before going into the details, it is worth noting that Alaska is like a sophisticated, moose-populated version of a petro-state. A portion of oil revenues are distributed to the population according to the rules of the Alaska Permanent Fund, much like it is done in places such as Norway. And while, unlike Venezuela, Iran and the like, the state is not a basket case, the vices of the petro-state pop up from time to time.

Palin’s first foray into statewide politics began in 2002, when she was appointed to chair the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. This body is in charge of coordinating, along with oil companies, the rational exploitation of the state's oil and natural gas reserves.

Palin resigned from that job raising all sorts of hell. She claimed fellow Republican members had conflicts of interest and were in bed with the oil companies they were supposed to regulate. Her grandstanding won her wide notoriety, and resulted in the resignation of her fellow members, one of whom was subsequently fined.

Like Palin, Hugo Chávez was elected on an anti-corruption platform. Anti-corruption is a typical populist stance, although it usually helps if you follow tough stances with actions, something Chávez has so far failed to do. In fact, the last few days have provided us with engrossing details of just how corrupt the chavista regime is.

Partly thanks to her tough stance on this issue, Palin was elected Governor of Alaska in 2006. One of her first measures was to slap oil companies with a huge , quasi-confiscatory tax hike. In fact, Palin increased the oil tax from a 10 percent gross revenue tax to a 25 percent profits tax, with the tax rate rising 0.2% for each dollar the price of oil exceeds $52 per barrel.

The result was a massive influx of cash to state coffers, and Palin gleefully distributed part of it among Alaska's residents. In typical populist fashion, Palin coined her plan "Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share."

The oil companies were being milked, and they were not happy. According to the New Republic, BP, for example, saw its state taxes increase by 480 percent. The company announced the move would "weaken investment" and that they would be "reviewing planned activities." Royal Dutch Shell also fretted, although most were keen to continue participating in Alaska's oil biz.

Hugo Chávez also has a record of raising taxes and royalties on oil companies. However, Chávez's heavy-handed approach has gone further than Palin's. While BP and Shell remain in Alaska in spite of the tax increase, these and other multinationals have diminished their Venezuelan exposure or left the country altogether for friendlier territory. Venezuela relies more and more on state oil companies from friendly countries that have not been expropriated... yet.

Another difference is that part of Palin’s tax increase went directly into the pockets of the citizens of Alaska. Chávez's tax increase has gone to lots of places. Some of it has made its way to Venezuelans’ income (some more than others), but a lot of it has fled the country in the form of imports, subsidies to political allies and even suitcases.

Like Chávez, Palin came into office with grand infrastructure visions. Alaskans had long wanted to build a natural gas pipeline so that its vast reserves could feed into the existing North American pipeline infrastructure. The problem was that oil companies had a differing set of incentives.

The state's long-standing approach had been to encourage oil companies to build the pipeline by offering incentives. But the companies did not want to build a pipeline that was too large, because that would diminish their power to negotiate vis-a-vis the state and their competitors. The prospect of a BP- or Exxon-owned pipeline discouraged gas exploration because smaller companies did not want to have to ship their product through their competitor's pipeline.

Instead, Alaskans decided a series of "must-haves" for the pipeline, one that specified low tariffs and large volume capacity. In the end, Trans-Canada won the right to build the pipeline, in what is being touted as the largest private infrastructure project in North America.

Like Palin, Chávez dreams of pipelines spanning the continent. Yet again, the similarities with Chávez stop soon. Chávez’s pipe dreams make little economic sense and, by excluding the private sector, are incredibly costly to the taxpayer. It's no wonder that most of his proposals end up being shelved.

The comparison between Chávez's and Palin's energy agendas yields remarkable similarities, but also stark differences. While both are guided by populist, anti-big business instincts, Palin's populism remains rooted in the rule of law and in economic rationale.

During my stay in the U.S. in the past few weeks, she was all people were talking about. Experts began laughing at the choice, circling the McCain candidacy like coroners with their pens on their toe-tags, only to see the press begin talking about the "Palin surge." Scorn turned quickly into worry. In a surprising turn of events, feminists began wondering if she was fit to be both a mother and a Vice-president, while Obama began playing the experience card Hillary Clinton unsuccesfully used on him in the primary. To top it all off, Republicans find themselves enthralled by a neo-populist with an anti-big-business agenda.

Whatever you think about Palin, you have to hand it to McCain. That crazy old fart has made an already entertaining election 10 times more entertaining.

One final thing that surprised me was how polarized the US has become in recent months. It is extremely difficult to have an impartial conversation about the election with anyone. Both sides play games with the truth and the important issues are left by the wayside. Palin's selection only heightened the volume of the debate.

Just like in Venezuela... Palin los tiene locos.

My Dinner with Guido

Quico says: So, much as I'd vowed to avoid it, I find myself getting inexorably sucked into the Maletagate Maelstrom. Too much good stuff is coming out of Miami not to have a peek. The latest is this leaked, very long transcript of a 4 hour lunch Guido Antonini and Moises Maiónica had in a Miami restaurant last November the 30th, just two days before the constitutional reform referendum.

First, some brutally abridged background just to bring newbies up to speed. On August 4th, 2007, Venezuelan-American businessman Guido Alejandro Antonini got busted trying to sneak $790,000 in cash into Argentina on a flight from Caracas. Antonini ran off to Miami where he soon began collaborating with the FBI. He told the feds straight away that the money came from Venezuela's state oil company, PDVSA, and was basically an illegal contribution to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's campaign for the Argentine presidency. As Antonini was talking to the feds, senior Venezuelan officials, facing the mother of all tri-national scandals, dispatched a gaggle of operatives to Miami to try to buy his silence. It is one of those operatives, Franklin Durán, who ended up as the focus of the FBI's investigation and, if convicted, faces 15 years in jail for conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent in the US. (The other guys, including Maiónica, eventually copped pleas with the feds and are now testifying against Durán.)

Throughout their attempts to arrange the bribe, Antonini was wearing an FBI wire. The conversations he picked up shed all sorts of new light into the actual mechanics of chavista corruption, filling in the details on shenanigans we all "know" go down but virtually never get to hear specifics about for the simple reason that the authorities in Venezuela never investigate this sort of thing.

On this particular occassion, Antonini had the fried calamari, the cotoletta alla parmigiana and the chocolate chocolate cake for dessert. To drink? A diet coke. With lime. Maiónica shared the calamari starter, then went for the Veal Marsala and finished off with the key lime pie, washing it all down with the obligatory, who-do-ya-think-yer-kidding diet coke. With lime.

The transcript shows clearly that, by November 30th, Antonini's hush money has already been approved in Caracas, but it has not yet been delivered to him in Miami. In fact, the delivery seems to be taking a long time and Antonini makes a big show of his desperation over the delay, saying he's broke, at the end of his tether, and seriously considering just telling his whole story to the press.

Maiónica tries to mollify him, telling him it's just a matter of fine-tuning the final details before the money can be delivered. He warns him not to do anything stupid, telling him that that would be like "finding out your wife is cheating on you and cutting off your own balls to get back at her."

The chat is brimming with juicy detail. For one, it really leaves no doubt that the order to "deal with Antonini" came from Chávez himself, and more than once. Originally, PDVSA boss Rafael Ramírez was put in charge of keeping the whole situation under control, which makes sense since the original delivery-run to Buenos Aires was a PDVSA operation. When it became clear Ramírez was not up to it Chávez flew off the handle, chewing him out and and handing over responsibility for the affair to Disip (secret police) chief Henry Rangel Silva (of bank-accounts-frozen-by-the-treasury-department fame).

Maiónica: Chávez sabe que tú te le escapaste de las manos a Ramírez. Lo sabe. Cuando Chávez llama a Rangel es porque Ramírez te sacó la mano. Y le dijo a Ramírez delante de Rangel, "El que se va a encargar de este peo es él".

Antonini: Le dijo.

Maiónica: Entiendes? Entonces todas la consecuencias negativas que significaste pa' Rafael, ya las sufrió. Y por eso es la arrechera que tiene, adicionalmente, me imagino con Franklin [Durán] y con y con Carlos [Kauffman].
Maiónica: Chávez knows that you slipped through Ramírez' hands. He knows it. When Chávez calls Rangel it's because Ramírez showed your hand. And he told Ramírez, in front of Rangel, "He's gonna take charge of this situation."

Antonini: He told him.

Maiónica: Do you understand? So, all of the negative consequences that you represented for Rafael, he's already been through them. And that's why he's pissed about this in addition to, I think, with Franklin [Durán] and with and with Carlos [Kauffman].

So Rangel Silva was left in charge of getting the $2 million to Antonini in a way that could not be traced back to PDVSA, but at the same time would ensure Antonini effectively got the money and kept suitably mum. DISIP was, apparently, having a lot of trouble figuring out how to pull off the trick, and much of the conversation is a drawn out lament about how useless Venezuelan intelligence is.

When they're not complaining about DISIP, they're talking through the specific mechanics of how to pull off a payment with reasonable deniability. The transcript isn't quite definitive on this - bank details do get exchanged at one point, though it's not exactly clear what for. The overall impression I'm left with is that, at that point at least, they had ruled out using any kind of electronic means to wire the money from PDVSA to Antonini. It was too traceable.

Maiónica: Marico, es que, oyeme, no tienen como. Ellos no tienen como pagarte a ti. La unica ... manera en que Venezuela puede pagar algo con una cuenta de afuera es una transferencia abierta. Y PDVSA no te va a transferir a ti, huevon, eso es, esta clarito. Ni a ti ni a ninguna instruccion que tu des.

Antonini: Claro.

Maiónica: Y eso lo tienes que entender. Porque está de calle.
Maiónica: Dude, it's just that, listen, they don't have the means to do so. They have no way of paying you. The only way Venezuela can pay something with an outside account would be with is an open transfer. And PDVSA isn't going to transfer to you, dude, that's, it's clear ... for you or for any instructions you may give.

Antonini: Of course.

Maiónica: And you have to understand that. Because it's obvious.

Instead, Maiónica talks repeatedly about having a certain "Cristian" in Caracas go fetch Antonini's money. And later, he makes it clear that the "secret fund" the payment will come from is a cash stash:

Maiónica: Pero [funcionar en efectivo] es la unica ... estructura que ellos conocen y, y...ahora que hay miles, si, que tu y yo le pudierarnos dar una clase y enseñarles como, de pinga. Pero es que, no llego a ese nivel de confianza y ademas que, ¿qué hizo el Presidente? Le dijo a Rangel [Silva], "Tú te encargas de este pe'o y tú le pagas". Entonces Rangel tiene una partida secreta, su partida secreta es en dólares en efectivo y va a pagar. Eso es lo que va a hacer.Maiónica: But [dealing in cash] is the only structure they know and, and... sure there are thousands [of things] that you and I could give them a class on, teach them how [to go about doing things]. Thing is, I'm not on that level of trust with, what did the president do? He told Rangel [Silva] "You take charge of this mess and you pay him." And Rangel has a secret fund, and his secret fund is in dollars in cash and he's going to pay. That's what he's going to do.

Which, when you put two-and-two together, sure makes it sound like chavismo's brilliant plan for keeping Maletagate quiet was to send a flunky to Miami with a suitcase full of 100 dollar bills to pay off Antonini!

It's the stuff of comedy this, and I could be misreading it...but it sure seems like this is what they were up to.

To be fair, both Antonini and Maiónica come across somewhat as outsiders to the Bolibourgeoisie...connected, yes, but far from the inner circle. The two talk about the government in the third person. Antonini portrays himself as an innocent bystander, wrongly done in for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and even suggests at one point that he didn't know the original plane to Argentina was carrying large amounts of cash when he got on it. This was a "vaina" (raw deal) David Uzcátegui had shoved off on him.

Maiónica doesn't dispute that characterization. He tells Antonini that, in his other life he's a corporate lawyer, dealing with mergers and acquisitions, corporate law, that kind of thing. Hell, the guy even says he's Alberto Vollmer's lawyer!

It's just that he happened to have a government contact. He was friends with a low-level PPT político, Juan Bracamontes, whom he got close to after - this is the kind of thing you just couldn't make up - Bracamontes stole a student election from Maiónica back in their college days. "We had a fight, which later turned into a I'm Godfather to two of his children."

Apparently through Bracamontes, he later struck up a relationship with then vice-president Jorge Rodríguez, did a major bit of business with him, and that, in his telling, is the only reason he ended up getting roped in to intermediating in this whole mess with Antonini.

What's interesting is that the two really don't seem to have a very high opinion of the bolivarian government folk they're dealing with. There's a huge deal of mutual distrust. Much of the conversation revolves around the fact that Caracas wants Antonini to sign some kind of receipt for his bribe (!!!) and Antonini smells a rat. Maiónica says maybe he himself (Maiónica) can sign a sort of receipt on Antonini's behalf, so that Antonini doesn't have to incriminate himself, but this doesn't quite assuage Antonini's concerns:

Antonini: Pero fíjate tu, tú me dices que no tengo que firmar nada. Tú. Pero tú te pones a ver, o sea, tu amigo, o...o, alguien, el, el mastermind de todo esto, algo quería hacer con una firma mía...o sea, joderme.

Maionica: No te iban a hacer nada. No, pana, estás equivocado. Lo que ellos no quieren es que yo me agarre un millón doscientos mil dolares y te entregue ochocientos. Eso es lo que ellos no quieren, huevón. Pero ese es el peo. Qué y con qué son ellos. Cada quien juzga por su condición. ¿Me entiendes? Y no digo Rangel Silva, Rangel es un gocho A-1. Pero es que si no [se firma un recibo] alguien va a pensar que el que se lo cogió fue Rangel. ¿Estás entendiéndome?
Antonini: But check it out, you tell me that I don't have to sign anything. You tell me that. But when you think about it, your buddy, or...or somebody, the the mastermind behind all this, wanted my signature for a other words, to screw me.

Maiónica: They weren't going to do anything to you. No, buddy, you've got it all wrong. What they don't want is for me to pocket $1.2 million and hand over $800,000 to you. That's what they want to avoid, dude. And that's the rub: who they are and who they mix with. It takes one to know one, understand? And I don't mean Rangel Silva, Rangel is a top notch guy. Thing is that otherwise [without a receipt] somebody will end up thinking it was Rangel who grabbed the cash, are you following me?

This, I think, it's the single most jaw-dropping bit of the whole 4 hour transcript: Maiónica is shocked, shocked at the level of corruption in the Venezuelan government! It's so bad that you can't even serve as the go-between on a simple bribe without people assuming you'll do the normal thing and try to pocket the lion's's comedic gold!

Nonetheless, they seem relieved to be dealing with Rangel rather than with Rafael Ramírez, whom both pour all kinds of scorn on. One of the lovely things about the transcript is that they are, after all, having lunch, so it still includes all kinds of table talk. At one point, as they're sharing an appetizer of fried calamari and talking about their frustrations with PDVSA, we get this gem:

Maionica: Yo lo que creo es que son unos imbéciles. De verdad de verdad. ¿Quieres limón?

Antonini: um hm...

Maiónica: Unos imbéciles, o sea, Rafael sobre todo...

Antonini: No, estoy seguro que son es banana republic...
Maiónica: What I think is that they're a bunch of imbeciles. Really, really. You want some lemon?

Antonini: uh huh...

Maiónica: A bunch of imbeciles, I mean, especially Rafael...

Antonini: Nah, I'm sure they're just banana republic...

Which, when you think about it, is pretty remarkable...even their criminal co-conspirators think the guys running PDVSA are useless!

I could go on. There are 155 pages of transcript, so these are just a few highlights. Some key bits are unfortunately unintelligible or inaudible, and through long stretches Antonini seems so agitated it's hard to make heads or tails of what he's saying. The two agree profusely that the one Venezuelan bureaucrat they can respect is Angel Morales, who runs PDVSA Sur (its Argentina + Uruguay subsidiary), and whom they call on the mobile at one point, speaking in a hysterically transparent medical code because they figure Morales's phone is tapped. (The 'prescription' means the receipt, the 'medicine' is the money, and Antonini is 'our sick cousin.')

Parts of it are startlingly personal. The two bond over their shared, humble Italian roots (Maiónica is a first generation Italo-venezolano - his dad is from Trieste - Antonini's third generation - greatgrandpa was a Florentine). They talk about Antonini's relationship with Franklin Durán (he says that, when they first met, Durán was too poor to date respectable La Victoria girls), about their favorite shops, their new watches, their iPhones and Blackberries and Porsches and Mercedeses, about the strain the whole situation is placing on Antonini's family life, how his little daughter is pissed at him because he couldn't go see her school play, about the reporters camped out on his front lawn and Andrés Oppenheimer's repeated, in-person attempts to get him to give a tell-all interview.

In other words, there's way more material here than I can cover...and this is just one out of over 200 recordings the FBI made!

It reads, at times, like the script for a thriller, at others like the kind of conversation you have day in and day out with friends and associates, interrupted now and again by a bumbling waiter. By the end, it all seems so very natural, you get so drawn into the text, you almost forget what's really going on...until Maiónica gets up to have a pee and Antonini breaks the illussion by talking straight into his wire, addressing the FBI guy who's recording the whole thing from a van outside.

Ahhhh, maletagate! It's the gift that keeps on giving!

September 16, 2008

Chavismo: Guaranteeing total impunity since 1999

Quico says: It seems like ages ago (and it was), but I remember it vividly. Back in those first few months of '99, I genuinely was on the fence about Chávez. I was never a supporter, really, but it did seem to me that flying straight into opposition would be a mistake: too many hopes had been invested, too much energy had been amassed. And absolutely everybody could see the country was in dire need of a shakeup. It made no sense to nay-say from the start.

Chávez had run, basically, on an anti-corruption ticket, and this struck me as a source of real hope. Too many old regime figures had stolen too much money with too much impunity, and it seemed to me that there was no way forward until that rancid history was faced squarely and dealt with punitively.

In speech after speech, the young president vehemently echoed this sentiment. So I sat and waited for the trials to begin. I scoured the papers for news of investigations, fantasizing of turning on the news and seeing Carmelo Lauría doing a perp-walk, or footage of David Morales Bello's house raided by PTJ. It seemed obvious to me that these kinds of images were bound to come sooner rather than later. Chávez kept slamming hard the "40 years of corruption", and I took it for granted the reality was bound to catch up with the discourse sooner or later. Right?

It was 1999. I was young. There was a lot I didn't understand. I couldn't start to wrap my mind around what was really happening, around the possibility that the government could make the gap between discourse and reality permanent, seeing it as an asset rather than a liability.

The investigations never came, of course. And neither did the trials. Some of the perps scurried off to Miami and San José to spend more time with their loot, others were quietly assimilated into the new governing elite.

Towards the end of 1999 it all clicked for me. I grasped clearly for the first time that there would be no trials, that there would be no honest coming-to-terms with the past, because these things were not in the government's interest. That anti-corruption would remain what it has always been, under Chávez and those who came before him: a slogan, a rhetorical strategy divorced from any serious intent to act and, worse, deployed cynically to cover up one's own pattern of graft.

Nine years on, the Maletagate Trial in Miami is giving us a detailed look at the absurdum that Chávez's anti-corruption rhetoric has been reductio'd to. The revolution slowly morphed into a criminal conspiracy, a place where an absolute nullity like Franklin Durán can make a few million dollars on sweetheart deals with the Finance Ministry, buy a major petrochemical firm, become one of the country's leading industrialists, but continue to make the bulk of his money off of bribes and kickbacks for state contracts, in plain view, and with absolute impunity - until he made the rookie mistake of going to Miami, where his higher-ups can't protect him. A country where reams upon reams of evidence can build up showing that the head of the state-owned oil company is illegally siphoning off public money to illegally fund foreign election campaigns, all in plain view, without anyone seriously expecting the official to resign, or even to betray any hint of being aware that he's busted, much less get investigated, prosecuted and thrown in jail where he belongs.

The seeds of today's debauchery were sown a long time ago. When, in defiance of his own wildly popular rhetoric, Hugo Chávez let the old elite get away with decades of plunder without a single high-profile trial, he not so subtly signalled to his supporters his own lack of seriousness on corruption.

After all, if Chávez wouldn't go after his political enemies, against people he made a sport of demonizing, who could seriously believe he would go after his allies? Nobody.

And not, certainly, Franklin Durán.

September 14, 2008

This Peronist presidency is b(r)ought to you by...

Quico says: The Miami Maletagate Trial is the kind of blogging black hole you could get sucked into and spend virtually all of your time covering. I'm mostly letting Miguel Octavio do it, but thought I'd make an exception to link to this explosive report in Argentina's La Nación, reporting that another $4.2 million of PDVSA money flew to Argentina in that same infamous flight that brought Antonini and his $790,000 suitcase.

(La Nación, incidentally, puts the Venezuelan papers to shame when it comes to Maletagate coverage.)