September 25, 2008

The emerald city

Juan Cristobal says: - One of the biggest challenges in writing this blog is bridging the disconnect between our perception of Venezuelan politics and the day-to-day reality on the ground. While I firmly believe that distance isn't an impediment to staying well informed (in fact, it's a huge plus), I realize it tends to deaden our feel for the ironies and contradictions of life in revolutionary times.

Sure, distance allows us to provide a different perspective, but what if we end up becoming a bunch of curmudgeons? What if the Revolution is, deep down, just another cague de risa? What if our focus on the trees that are the day-to-day outrages prevents us from seeing the farcical forest that is Chavez's Venezuela?

A few weeks ago I was in Caracas for the wedding of a college buddy of mine. The wedding was held at La Esmeralda, the flagship of the prestigious Agencia Mar, Venezuela's top provider of quality, conspicuous, over-the-top, unabashedly in-your-face-expensive entertainment. La Esmeralda had long been the premium spot for Caracas social life and a fixture in big events for the past twenty years, but I somehow assumed it was past its prime.

I remember my first wedding at La Esmeralda. It was back in 1989, in the weeks following El Caracazo. You could sense the country was changing, but here I was, a college sophomore, fresh out of Maracaibo, with my date, in a lavish ballroom, being treated like a king. The canapés were succulent, and they just kept coming. The Scotch was 12-year-old Black Label, of course, and the champagne was French, obviously. The live orchestra was on fire, and I remember we danced til 5 in the morning. It was, for lack of a better word, memorable.

But there was also an eerie feel to the proceedings, as if we were waltzing in the Titanic oblivious to the icebergs all around us. I wasn't aware of it then, but I can't help recalling those days without a certain sense of dread. It's as if 37-year-old me wanted to go back in time and warn 18-year-old me about how fake it all was, how it was all going to go up in smoke.

I didn't know what to expect this time around. I hadn't been to La Esmeralda in years. In the interim, fortunes have been made and lost (and remade and relost) and the Revolution plows through, taking no prisoners. I was expecting it to be the decadent reminder of better times, a lonely ballroom waiting to be nationalized.

Silly me, I found myself in the middle of a swank party unlike any I'd ever seen: a bonche worthy of the dizzying petroboom we're having.

There was champagne like the last time, only it kept flowing until 5 in the morning. The band was on fire as well, only it, too, played until the wee hours. There was a sushi bar, a Chinese chef, and a dessert bar to kill for, with thousands of individual chocolate-and-cream concoctions I don't even have names for. I left at close to 6 in the morning, and there was enough food left over to feed a small orphanage for days.

As I was soaking it all in, having a great time, I suddenly remembered: wait, wasn't this supposed to be a Revolution? Don't these people read the newspapers? In which chapter of Das Kapital is the bit about the sushi bars? I haven't had this much fun in years!

The dissonance, she is strong. Somehow, nine years into the Cuban revolution, I don't think Fidel's opponents were throwing bashes where the towels in the bathroom were monogrammed with the initials of the bride and groom. And I just have a strong feeling that, by 1927, anti-bolsheviks in Russia were not getting married in mansions that gave away baskets upon baskets of cosmetics, sewing kits, hair accessories and glossy magazines in the ladies' room.

I told my friends how impressed I was with the lavish attention and how cool the party was, but also how weird it felt to be there when this was supposed to be a socialist revolution. They smiled back at me, saying that I hadn't seen nothin': one time they went to a boliburgués wedding in La Esmeralda where the bride's mother had demanded furniture be flown in from France to enhance the art-deco motif they were gunning for.

The more things change, the better they get. Chávez may throw out the American Ambassador, milk may be hard to come by, crime may reach unheard-of heights and war with Colombia may be imminent..."pero como se goza...!"

As long as the gush of petrodollars keeps swamping the country, a good time can be had by...a few.

PS.- As I was writing this, I got this gotta-see-it-to-believe-it video showcasing the wedding of chavista ideologue William Izarra (Information Minister Andrés Izarra's dad) and his very young, very pregnant wife. Chavistas, like the rest of us, enjoy a good bonche, [UPDATE: Ooops, turns out the wedding was held not in Quinta Anauco, as I'd first thought, but in the Casona Anauco Arriba, a related property that doesn't house a museum.] except they have permission to hold it in Caracas' historic Quinta Anauco, a 400-year old architectural gem that houses the nation's Colonial Art Museum.

(I wonder if they bothered to move the museum collection out before the big bash, or if they just partied with the Marqués del Toro's stuff.)

I don't know if, like Freddy Bernal says, it's the first wedding to be held there in 400 years, but I sure hope it's the last.

Chávez : Bush :: Peas : Pod

Quico says: Oh Hugo, if only you knew how right you have it.

[hat tip: dorothy]

September 23, 2008

Plato and the paranoia of power

Quico says: In a previous post, I started citing great big chunks of Plato's republic. Strange as it seems, it isn't just some gratuitous outburst of pretentiousness (though, of course, there's a bit of that). What grabbed me was the way Plato treats the concept of tyrannicide.

Plato doesn't beat around the bush. Writing at a time when power politics was out in the open and there was less need to blush about such things, he came straight out and said it: as the tyrant consolidates his power, his enemies plot to assassinate him.

The fear of slavery will push them to it, and the tyrant will realize this. He will start to think more and more about his own safety and less and less about his people's, surrounding himself with thicker and thicker layers of security and plundering his country to finance it.

I don't know if anyone is actively plotting to kill Chávez. It's easy to dismiss the whole thing as an unseemly crying wolf shtick, just a desperate ploy for attention that's now running into a serious problem of diminishing returns. Certainly, the melodramatic, media-centered hissy fit we've seen this and the Umpteen previous times an imminent magnicide has been announced should give us room for pause. At least this time around, some people have actually been detained.

And yet I get the sense Chávez is honestly convinced that somebody is trying to kill him, that his dread is real. Whether the people around him are ginning up his fears for their particular ends or whether Chávez's jitters need no ginning up isn't clear to me, but neither is it especially relevant. The regime's paranoia is right there on the surface, and even approaching this subject can cause any blogger a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.

The government's jitters are plain, and they illuminate a deep well of fear and loathing, a heavily burdened conscience, an awareness that he's pushing society to an extreme where an attempt on his life would in no way be surprising. Chávez knows he's turning into a tyrant, and he knows what happens to tyrants.

Tyrants are terrified of assassination, and for that reason they surround themselves in byzantine layers of security.

Think of Ghadaffi, too scared to even sleep in a concrete building, carrying crowds of super hot, heavily-armed young girls to guard him wherever he goes, out of pure fear. Think of Saddam Hussein, of PolPot, of Idi Amin, of Castro, of García Márquez's automnal patriarch - each of them all-powerful within his domain but at the same time permanently terrified, withdrawn, convinced that death could come at any time.

This is the unique fate of tyrants.

Of course, democrats also get assassinated now and then, but the fear of a violent death rarely dominates a democrat's entire experience of power like it does for tyrants. History shows that, for the most part, democrats get assassinated by madmen. The sane have little reason to kill them. Democratic governments come and go: if you oppose one, you can challenge it, and if your challenge fails, you can just wait it out.

But a tyrant's fear of assassination is different in that it's structural. Tyrants are typically assassinated not by the deranged, but by people who've done their sums, who've added up the pros on one side of the ledger, the cons on the other and calculated they're better off acting than not acting. What Plato saw so clearly is that tyranny makes assassination rational.

Chávez may never have read Plato's Republic, but he understands this in his bones. From his point of view, the fear of assassination makes eminent sense.

Chávez is determined to shut down the legal means of challenging him. He understands that the strategy he's pursuing whittles down his opponents' options, cornering them little by little, until the only choices they have left are slavery, exile or tyrannicide. And while most will choose the first two, it's hard to believe that nobody at all will be tempted by the third.

And while Chávez is not yet a full-throttle tyrant, he is headed that way. As he keeps shutting doors and eliminating options for the opposition, he knows the probability of engendering his own demise increases. The paradox is that the more unassailable his power becomes, the more justified his fear seem to become.

Not, of course, that it takes the mind of a Plato to put two and two together. During his long lunch with Antonini last November (which, recall, took place just two days before the Constitutional Reform Referendum), that great Venezuelan philosopher Moises Maiónica reconstituted Plato's train of thought with some precision.

"We're with the government," he tells Antonini, "and we're doing great." But if we want this government to stay in power and remain stable, the best we can hope for is for the "No" side to win:

Maiónica: Es más, yo no se cómo Chavez no se la piensa. Si yo tuviera aspiraciones políticas, sí? Dentro del gobierno de Chávez, si yo fuera un Diosdado Cabello, lo mejor que me puede pasar es que gane el "Sí". Y la unica manera de que salga Chavez es matándolo. Yo no se como el no identifica ese peo. O sea, le está poniendo una firma al contrato de sicariato.Maiónica: In fact, I don't see how Chávez fails to put it together. If I had political aspirations, within the government, if I was a Diosdado Cabello, the best thing that could happen to me is for the "Sí" to win. Then the only way to get rid of Chávez is to kill him. I don't see how Chávez has failed to notice that. I mean, he's putting his signature on his own hitman's contract.

The math is not hard here. Even an intensely mediocre mind like Maiónica's has no trouble at all grasping it...and grasping that the danger, for a tyrannical Chávez, comes as much from his putative friends as from his declared enemies.

Which is why we have good reason to worry every time Chávez resurrects the magnicide-paranoia shtick. Because what he says is "they're trying to kill me", but what he means is "if I was in their shoes and I knew what I know, I'd be trying to kill me too."

September 22, 2008

Chavismo Foretold

Quico says: We tend to think of chavismo as shiny and new: all 21st Century and postmodern. But the basic mechanism whereby democracy gradually morphs into tyranny? Plato foresaw it 2400 years ago.

Substitute "adecos" for "drones" and "Chávez" for "protector" and, well...
There is a law of contraries; the excess of freedom passes into the excess of slavery, and the greater the freedom the greater the slavery.

You will remember that in the oligarchy we found two classes—rogues and paupers, whom we compared to drones with and without stings. Now in a democracy, too, there are drones.And there is another class in democratic States, of respectable, thriving individuals, who can be squeezed when the drones have need of their possessions; there is moreover a third class, who are the labourers and the artisans, and they make up the mass of the people.

When the people meet, they are omnipotent, but they cannot be brought together unless they are attracted by a little honey; and the rich are made to supply the honey, of which the demagogues keep the greater part themselves, giving a taste only to the mob.

Their victims attempt to resist; they are driven mad by the stings of the drones, and so become downright oligarchs in self-defence. Then follow informations and convictions for treason.

The people have some protector whom they nurse into greatness, and from this root the tree of tyranny springs.

The protector, who tastes blood, and slays some and drones others with or without law, who hints at abolition of debts and division of lands, must either perish or become a wolf—that is, a tyrant.

Perhaps he is driven out, but he soon comes back from exile; and then if his enemies cannot get rid of him by lawful means, they plot his assassination.

Thereupon the friend of the people makes his well-known request to them for a body-guard, which they readily grant, thinking only of his danger and not of their own.

Now let the rich man make to himself wings, for he will never run away again if he does not do so then. And the Great Protector, having crushed all his rivals, stands proudly erect in the chariot of State, a full-blown tyrant: Let us enquire into the nature of his happiness.

In the early days of his tyranny he smiles and beams upon everybody; he is not a 'slave master,' no, not he: he has only come to put an end to debt and the monopoly of land.

Having got rid of foreign enemies, he makes himself necessary to the State by always going to war. He is thus enabled to depress the poor by heavy taxes, and so keep them at work; and he can get rid of bolder spirits by handing them over to the enemy.

Then comes unpopularity; some of his old associates have the courage to oppose him. The consequence is, that he has to purge the State; but, unlike the physician who purges away the bad, he must get rid of the high-spirited, the wise and the wealthy; for he has no choice between death and a life of shame and dishonour.

And the more hated he is, the more he will require trusty guards; but how will he obtain them? 'They will come flocking like birds—for pay.' How will he support that rare army of his?

First, by robbing the temples of their treasures, which will enable him to lighten the taxes; then he will take all his father's property, and spend it on his companions, male or female.

Now his father is the people, and if the people gets angry, and says that a great hulking son ought not to be a burden on his parents, and bids him and his riotous crew begone, then will the parent know what a monster he has been nurturing, and that the son whom he would fain expel is too strong for him.

'You do not mean to say that he will beat his father?'

Yes, he will, after having taken away his arms.

'Then he is a parricide and a cruel, unnatural son.' And the people have jumped from the fear of slavery into slavery, out of the smoke into the fire.

Thus liberty, when out of all order and reason, passes into the worst form of servitude...

September 21, 2008

Gustavo MarWHO?!

Quico says: State-level polls are likely to be thin on the ground over the next few weeks, and published polls even thinner. So I'll jump on whatever I can get, even if I can't really vouch for the identity of the pollster (caveat lector).

Since beggars can't be choosers, here're the results of an Anzoátegui state poll conducted Sept. 5th through the 10th (sample size = 1000).

The headline figure? Chavista governor Tarek William Saab is ahead of the Primero Justicia Mayor of Lecherías, Gustavo Marcano, by 31% to 22%.

The punchline? A staggering 38% are undecided on the open question.

Meanwhile, 6% want to vote for El Conde del Guacharo Benjamin Rausseo - is he really running?

In the closed question, with just Tarek and Marcano's names given as options, Tarek is ahead 46% to 43%.

The real problem is that just 31% of Anzoategui voters polled were able to identify Marcano as the oppo unity candidate. 65% answered that they "don't know" who the unity candidate is. This is discouraging, but not surprising: the oppo unity guy was supposed to be the dinosaurish Antonio Barreto Sira, who ended up getting disqualified by the Comptroller General. Marcano is Plan B man: he has to run twice as hard.

You could call that a glass-half-full (it's never good for an incumbent if he can't reach 50%) or a glass-half-empty (less than three months out, the oppo candidate is still an unknown). Either way, it's clear Marcano has a lot of work to do on name recognition... but will he have the resources and the access to the airwaves it takes to catch up?

Note: The poll is conducted by a firm called Varianzas that I'd never ever heard of before, and published by Globo, so do douse liberally with salt before consumption. A quick Google search shows that these guys have been around - all low-profile like - for a few years, and apparently did the field work for Evans/McDonough back in 2004 - so it's not a total fly-by-night operation.