October 3, 2008

The Suicidal Dream of Becoming an Immense Parasite that Feeds off of our Oil

Esta gran proporción de riqueza de origen destructivo crecerá sin duda alguna el día en que los impuestos mineros se hagan más justos y remunerativos, hasta acercarse al sueño suicida de algunos ingenuos que ven como el ideal de la hacienda venezolana llegar a pagar la totalidad del Presupuesto con la sola renta de minas, lo que habría de traducir más simplemente así: llegar a hacer de Venezuela un país improductivo y ocioso, un inmenso parásito del petróleo, nadando en una abundancia momentánea y corruptora.
-Arturo Uslar Pietri, 1936
Quico says: Sembrar el petróleo - "sowing our oil" - is the central cliché of Venezuelan public life. Used, misused and abused by governments of the left, right and center virtually since the day it was penned, the phrase has been progressively drained of its content, slowly coming to mean pretty much the opposite of what Uslar Pietri had in mind in those heady days right after Gómez's death.

It takes going back and reading the chillingly prophetic essay the phrase originally came from - an exercise all Venezuelan public figures should be required by law to undertake at least once a year - to quite grasp that "sembrar el petróleo" is more a statement about morals than economics!

For Uslar Pietri, the real issue wasn't what oil dependence would do to our wallets; it was what it would do to our souls. Diversifying our economy was a means to the end of inoculating our society's moral fiber against the fecklessness and depravity that comes from unhinging consumption from hard work.
The great portion of our wealth of non-renewable origins shall doubtlessly grow once our mining taxes become fairer, and bring us closer to the suicidal dream of some ingenues who hope one day to pay for the whole of the national budget with mining rents alone, which we could restate more or less as: to one day make Venezuela an idle and unproductive country, an immense parasite feeding off of our oil, swimming in a momentary and corrupting abundance.
It's in this passage that it comes through most clearly, but the entire piece is only superficially about economics. Dig down just a bit and you see that Uslar's real game is to use economic categories to illuminate questions of morality. (Indeed, he turned out to be far more competent as a moralist than as an economist: the relevant metric for petro-dependence turned out to be oil's share of exports, not of government revenue.)

Uslar's essay stands as a stark warning about the corrosive influence of the petrostate: a buzzword that hadn't yet been coined for a condition we hadn't yet experienced, but that Uslar Pietri could see clearly just over the horizon.

It's interesting to speculate what might have been if "el sueño suicida de convertirnos en un inmenso parasito del petróleo" had become the take-away cliché from that piece, instead of that other one.

Because for much of the following 72 years, Venezuelan governments have taken turns missing Uslar's central point. One after the other, they've interpreted the call to sow the oil as a justification for dumping oil money into a succession of boondoggles requiring a never-ending infusion of petrodollars to stay afloat, a practice that entrenches the corrupting petro-dependence Uslar wanted to protect us from.

The results were clear from the start: a society where values like thrift, industry, and prudence come to seem quaintly out-of-place, the schoolmarmish admonitions of prudes who haven't the faintest clue how the copper is really beaten around here.

What's sad is how the grand old man's bon mot ended up being turned in against itself, used to give a patina of respectability precisely to the kinds of parasitic accommodations he was so keen to forestall. The irony is that now we have realized the suicidal dream of becoming an enormous parasite that feeds off of our oil, and we've done it under the banner of sowing the oil.

For eight decades, we've done little but plumb the depths of Uslar Pietri's greatest fear: not that oil would make us poorer, but that it would make us worse.

October 1, 2008

Taking judicial activism to a whole new level

Juan Cristobal says: - President Chávez today inaugurated a meeting of Presidents of Supreme Courts of South American nations. In his address, he urged justices, not to do their job and apply laws, mind you, but to be warriors in some imaginary struggle against capitalism.

"It is important in the world today," Chávez said, "to go to the deep roots of justice and the law ... to achieve our liberation and stop the expansion of capitalism that is destroying the world."

Funny - I thought the job of judges was to apply the law. In fact, I think even the most liberal thinkers out there, those who view judges as social activists, would find it troubling for a judge to be at the forefront of the struggle to change economic systems. But that, nakedly put, is how Chávez views the judiciary - as just another tool in achieving political goals.

Chávez continued his string of gaffes, saying that "laws and institutions must generate social and political equality," apparently unaware that he was speaking to members of the judicial power, not the legislative power. He also likened the financial meltdown in the US to "an elephant drowning in a pool," unaware perhaps that elephants make pretty good swimmers and that, given its size and the fact it has a trunk it can breathe through, an elephant would probably not drown in a pool.

September 30, 2008

One Simple Thesis on the Theme of Magnicide

Quico says: Juan Manuel Santos, Marta Colomina, Leopoldo Castillo, Heinz Sontagg, Miguel Henrique Otero, Nelson Mezerhane, Marcel Granier, Alberto Federico Ravell, even Cesar Miguel Rondón (!!)...have you noticed how pretty much everyone Chávez accuses of plotting to kill him is a household name in Venezuela? (Well, ok: as long as the household in question is top heavy with politics junkies...)

Does this really raise no eyebrows within chavismo? I mean, ¡que casualidad! - only famous people want to bump the guy.

Lets be clear: I have no way of knowing if someone is plotting to assassinate the president, though I can understand why Chávez is worried. Be that as it may, the government's story - that Mario Silva has proof of an active conspiratorial cabal made up entirely of celebrities - is beyond ridiculous...it's insulting.

In that spirit, here's a simple thesis to try on for size:
If Chávez is assassinated, he'll be assassinated by someone you've never ever heard of before.
If you think about it, that's obvious...it's never going to be the high-profile, obsessively-spied-upon TV-talking-head demographic that's going to be in a position to pull off something like this. If it goes down, it'll be a Maiónica-type who'll set it up: some low key, well-connected, under-the-radar operator with the modicum of common sense it takes to realize that lunging for every microphone within a ten-mile radius, fronting every organization you get involved in and media-whorery in general are not exactly conducive to successful plotting.

After all, how many morning talk shows and Ateneo de Caracas events did you see Hugo Chávez speaking at in the months ahead of February 4th, 1992?

September 29, 2008

Someone needs to get a grip

Juan Cristobal says: - Quico and I were talking today about running a "whatever happened to?" You know, as in whatever happened to Alfredo Peña, Juan Fernández, Carlos Fernández, Carlos Ortega, Ibéyise Pacheco, Efraín Vásquez Velasco, Manuel Antonio Rosendo... where are these people?

Just by chance, Miami-bound muckraker and opposition comecandela extraordinaire Patricia Poleo has a column today about Carlos Fernández, who was head of Fedecámaras during the wild and crazy days of the general strike of 2002/03.

Now, before I go on a rant, I have to say I don't really have a strong opinion on Patricia Poleo. She's the type of journalist who takes no prisoners and elicits outsized passions on either side of the spectrum. Personally, I've been reading Venezuelan news long enough to take whatever she (or anyone else) says with a huge dollop of salt. True, she's been persecuted for political reasons, and she did nail l'affaire Montesinos, but it's not like she hasn't spent years cultivating enemies left and right. She generally shoots before she asks questions, and that can have consequences.

But her latest column, well, that's just offensive. Not on a political level, mind you, but on a literary one.

Poleo goes way, way over the top trying to elicit sympathy for Fernández, laying on the violins as she explains the horrible hardships of his squalid existence in Miami,
"From the deep pain caused by the injustice of leading you to jail or exile, what weighs the heaviest is the injustice within injustice."
O... kay...

She gripes about how Carlos Férnandez went from being someone who risked everything in the 2003 strike to an anonymous life in Miami. She complains that poor Mr. Fernández spends his days caring for his kids, getting up at
"... 5 in the morning, fixing breakfast for the kids before they go to school."
Never mind that one of them is in college, apparently on a "soccer" scholarship paid for... by the US government! Who knew the US government paid for soccer scholarships? Who knew "soccer" was the Spanish term for ... "soccer"! Who knew fixing breakfast could take up to two hours? What is he making them, pabellón con baranda from scratch?

His wife apparently cannot get an L1 visa - Poleo doesn't say if she can travel as a tourist, and it seems like they haven't explored the possibility of meeting in a third country where no visa is required. Still, in between fixing breakfast for his college-age kids and missing his wife, he mopes. Mr. Fernández's horrible existence is filled by his attempts to "try and sell houses in a country where nobody wants to buy houses." In other words, Fernández has a job in real estate.

Well, Poleo think this is just awful, and she vainly attempts to pin the blame on all us ingrates who didn't show Mr. Fernández his dues for the disastrous strategy he pursued back when he was in charge of Fedecámaras. And she lays it on thick. The sob-story is laced with phrases like,

"... Fernández lives his days avoiding sadness, loneliness, counting one by one the days without his partner and without her support (sic) and struggling to put his family back together."

"He still thinks Venezuela is worth the suffering of all those who struggle to live in freedom, in Democracy (sic). Nothing makes him desist from his longed-for return, when he shall be able to reunite his family, whatever is left of it, to reunite with his friends (sic) if they still remember him and with a country that will be very different to the one we left, but that still smells like no other country: Own, Fatherland, Ours." (sic ... sic ... sic ... lordalmighty that's just sick!)
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not that much of a sourpuss. I'm sure it sucks for Mr. Fernandez, being separated from his wife and all. But do we really have compassion to spare for him? Is this really one of the world's great injustices? Afghan office boys caught up in Guantanamo Bay, Aung San Suu Kyi under House Arrest, Mumia Abu-Jamal on Death Row and...Carlos Fernández, Single Parent in Suburban Exile?!

Couldn't he fix breakfast for his kids the night before? Couldn't they make their own damn bagels? And sure, the housing market in Florida is pretty crummy right now, but how many of the people the guy left jobless in Caracas wouldn't kill for a Real Estate franchise in the States these days?

Come to think of it, I'd rather not know what all these people are up to. This story took up all of my yearly allowance of maple syrup - I don't think I could take any more.

September 28, 2008

Residual memories

Quico says: I'm a bit late to this story, but didn't want to let it pass without a comment. About a week ago, Luisa Ortega Díaz, Chávez's prosecutor general, told reporters that no laws were broken in the summary expulsion of Human Rights Watch's team from Venezuela.

As they say in England, "well, she would say that, wouldn't she?"

These kinds of ritual declarations of lawfulness hold a weird sort of fascination for me. Of course, like most of them, this one was entirely bogus: articles 39 through 46 of Venezuela's Aliens and Migration Law set out in intricate detail the procedure the authorities must follow to expel a foreigner from the country. According to the law (which, incidentally, was drafted by chavistas less than five years ago), aliens slated for expulsion are entitled to be notified of the government's intentions ahead of time, to retain counsel, to prepare a defense, to present their arguments orally at an administrative hearing, and to appeal any decision to the courts.

On the day he was seized by fifteen or twenty heavily armed members of the security forces, Vivanco wasn't even allowed to make a phone call, let alone an appeal.

All of which adds yet another layer of irony to the episode. Because, bear in mind, Vivanco was expelled for presenting a report that praised the extensive human rights guarantees enshrined in Venezuelan law but also criticized the government for failing to honor those guarantees in practice.

By now, the impudent relish with which chavismo breaks its own laws can no longer shock or surprise: the novelty wore off a long time ago. What gets me is that Ortega Díaz still felt the need to come out and argue that the government's actions were legal.

Maybe "argue" is the wrong word here: no one who has even glanced at the Immigration Law's Article 43 could really argue that Vivanco's expulsion was lawful without her brain turning into mush and oozing out of her left ear. Still, the Prosecutor General felt the need to at least assert the legality of Vivanco's expulsion. This far into the game, she still didn't feel like she could just say, "suck it up: it's, raison d'état...so we expelled him ¿y qué?"

To me, that's a thing of wonder.

It's as though somewhere hidden deep inside her reptilian brain, a couple of neurons are still firing away, irrepressibly saying "laws have to be followed!"; as though somehow this sense that "written rules ought not to be ignored" can't be completely extricated from our political psyche. Trampled, debased, battered, humiliated and serially ignored? Yes...but not completely extricated, not even from the most abject apparatchik's mind.

There's a tiny smidgen of hope locked in there somewhere. A realization that the residual memory of the value of the rule of law is incredibly resilient in Venezuela, that the sense for the legal is as much a part of our national identity as is our outsized capacity to ignore it. That, despite how it may feel sometimes, we are not Mbutu's Zaire or Gomez's Venezuela, places where the category of the "legal" had not even established a conceptual foothold into the vocabulary of power. Ramshackle and partial as it was, some aspects of our long, 20th century flirtation with the democratic rule of law left lasting imprints on our collective psyche.

Think of it this way: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, even countries that had been incredibly brutalized by communist tyranny were able to regain the path of democracy in less than two decades...so long as they had a history of real democracy before becoming Soviet satellites to refer to. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic...their democratic DNA had laid dormant for 45 years, but it had not been extirpated. It was the countries with no real history of democracy to fall back on - Russia foremost among them - that just couldn't manage the transition to democracy.

All I'm saying is that when this whole long nightmare is over, Venezuela will look a lot more like the Czech Republic than like Russia.