December 21, 2009


Quico says: I'm still not over Chávez's speech in Copenhagen last week. It's been a long time since Hugo Chávez has sent my blood pressure to those lofty levels. I know I shouldn't be surprised, but the speech’s mass of contradictions grabs me, calls at me. It is Exhibit A in this blog’s raison d’etre for the future.

Chávez's speech in Copenhagen was no ordinary one. More than a mass of contradictions, it was a kind of discursive black hole: a bulging heap of inconsistencies so unfathomably dense, so tightly entwined and pure, it actually traps truth. It's as though, once past the Chávez Event Horizon, no logic can escape.

If contradicting yourself is an art, COP15 was Chávez's Mona Lisa.

Sheer cynicism is not an adequate explanation for what happened in Copenhagen. While an inborn gift for demagoguery certainly helps, I just can't believe that any thinking human being who is consciously aware of what he is doing could have the chutzpah to deliver such a deliriously self-defeating speech.

The only convincing explanation, for my taste, is that Chávez was genuinely unaware that the industry that keeps his revolution in place is also primarily responsible for anthropogenic climate change. Nobody put those dots together for him, and he failed to put them together himself. It's a thought the man has apparently never been exposed to.

And that's the scary part, because it suggests that, in Venezuela, the mechanisms that normally keep a world leader from making a flaming ass of himself on the world stage have irretrievably broken down.

Here, I'm not talking about "constitutional government," formal checks and balances or any of that. I'm talking about the simple, human process that takes place when you think of an idea, discuss it with the people close to you, weigh up its pros and cons, and refine it to make it better, more useful, more fit-for-purpose. It's the sort of thing you do, unconsciously, all the time.

-"Honey, I was thinking about making chicken for lunch...alright?"
-"Nah, your mom is coming, she hates chicken..."
-"Ah, ok, maybe pasta then."
-"That's a better idea."
By now, anybody willing to engage in the kind of communicative process that might help Chávez avoid evident pitfalls has been purged. Those guys are, for the most part, whiling the years away in Ramo Verde or Miami.

That's communicative action: one of the primary mechanisms human beings have to protect themselves from making really bad decisions on a daily basis. The Chávez entourage appears to have given it up altogether.

Picture that plane ride over to Denmark. At some point, Chávez must have turned to his foreign minister and said something like,

-"So Maduro, I was thinking of giving a pretty tough speech to the conference. Bit of red meat. Blame this whole climate thing on the rich countries, on capitalism and such. Think that'll go over?"
At that point, if anything even remotely approaching Government by Discussion operated in Venezuela, Maduro might have turned to him to suggest that perhaps that wasn't the best tack to take in this occassion, considering Venezuela's deep involvement in the oil business. He might have suggested a different line - perhaps something about the way capitalism had forced countries like ours into the role of primary commodity producers, pigeonholing us into an earth-raping link in the international value chain. He might have suggested to just let Evo do the fire-breathing. He might, in other words, have helped Chávez save himself from himself, in a cooperative process where the two men, together, moved passed the initial, hopelessly flawed idea and onto more defensible territory.

That Chávez gave the speech he did suggests that, in his inner circle, nothing remotely resembling this type of communicative action takes place. Maduro cannot, will not consider suggesting a change in rhetoric to the Comandante Presidente. That, in fact, is the main reason Maduro is where he is now.

What's left is a coterie of people who sustain their positions by treating the president with the unending deference he fantasizes the rest of the country - or the rest of the world - gives him. It's the kind of deference that leaves Chávez totally exposed to the ravages of, possibly, the single most destructive element in Venezuela today: his own mind.

The implications of this state of affairs, on a more abstract level, are far from trivial.

In Chávez’s Venezuela, power’s refusal to hold itself accountable to reasoned debate has become its own Achiless Hell. Power is now its own worst enemy, continuously undercutting itself, fanatically devoted to depriving itself of the safeguards it needs the most. The cult of personality this attitude engenders provides the guarantee of its own failure.

There is a reason why the Spanish version of this site is going to be called What we're seeing in Venezuela today is a form of exercise of state power that can only be sustained where the Public Sphere is critically wounded, marginalized, and shut out of any ability to hold power to account.

The liquidation of the democratic public sphere in Venezuela preceded the establishment of the dictatorship we now have. And unless something like a democratic public sphere can be re-established, unless the habits of thought that sustain Government by Discussion can be re-enshrined, any return to institutional democracy will be precarious.

In a comments link a few days ago, somebody said they were glad there was some kind of initiative to create some space for "rational thinking" about Venezuela. At the risk of picking nits, I have to say I think that's the wrong way to look at it.

Rationality is not a quality of thought, it's a feature of deliberation. Where ideas are presented vigorously, debated openly and adjudicated on the force of the better argument, rationality ensues. Where power and identity trump reasoned deliberation, rationality withers away and dies, no matter how many brilliant individual thinkers may be around.

Reason is the province not of any one intellect but out of the collaborative process that is communicative action.

The goal here is to start making spaces, online, for the kind of public sphere able to sustain the deliberation democracy depends on. Without such a public sphere, democracy is helpless and hopeless, and reason cannot flourish. With it, it's unstoppable.

Feliz Navidad, people. And a happy new year.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

December 16, 2009

Big Oil has landed: Hugo Chávez in Copenhagen

Quico and Juan Cristobal say: What do you think would happen if the head of one of the world's five largest oil companies started lecturing the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen about the evils of global warming?

How do you think the most esteemed delegates to the world's premier forum on the pressing issue of our time would react if a man who's leveraged his control over hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil rents into a spot in Forbes' list of the world's 100 most powerful people started to tell them what they need to do to save the planet?

Why, they'd fall all over themselves cheering him, obviously.

Hugo Chávez’s Copenhagen speech today was such an event, though on its face, the speech itself was boilerplate. The Venezuelan strongman delivered his usual twenty-minute anti-capitalist tirade, full of quasi-religious rhetoric about saving the world and such. Developing world delegates ate it up with mustard, spiraling into rapturous applause each time he blamed the rich countries for "destroying the planet."

It's insane. Cheering Chávez as he lectures you on climate change is like cheering Joseph Fritzl as he lectures you on fatherhood.

As far as Chávez can tell, it's not CO2 that's changing the climate, it's "capitalism." The specific mechanism through which this happens, the whole pesky issue of the actual fuel that generates all that carbon, the bucketfuls of petrodollars he makes out of the whole dirty business...the less talked about such things, the better.

Chávez’s green-standing, echoed by his hapless delegation and the minions in his vast media empire, stands in sharp contrast with the actual policies Venezuela has put in place.

Instead of taxing oil consumption, Chávez has spent a decade subsidizing it, making Venezuelan gasoline the cheapest in the planet. In fact, in real terms, gasoline is 85% cheaper in Venezuela today than it was when Chávez came to power ten years ago. The price of a liter of gas has not moved in ten years, while accumulated inflation is 655%.

This is a leader who subsidizes not just gas but car sales, a man whose idea of foreign aid is giving cut-price fuel oil to people in Boston. A gallon of fuel in Caracas costs less than a lolly-pop, a policy Chávez has no intention of relenting on. The man responsible for feeding oil junkies the world over - that's the guy who brought down the house in Copenhagen?

Talk about a real climate scandal.

In the days leading to the Summit, some in Venezuela wondered what the country's position would be. Chávez has rarely discussed the complexities of how climate change and the policies to stop it can affect Venezuela. You wouldn't expect him to: any decision that seriously cuts demand for oil at Copenhagen would directly undermine the whole material basis of his power.

Although Chávez has famously adopted every third-world, anti-imperialist, "us vs. them" pose in the book, it's not like the developing world was coming to Copenhagen with a unified voice. The Chinese and Indians do not want to sacrifice their development, the Africans are desperate for action sprinkled with a little bit of cash, and the Saudis would prefer the status quo. Countries like Bolivia have a real interest in curbing greenhouse emissions, which is causing melting glaciers. Bolivia’s vast reserves of lithium, which can be used to power the batteries in hybrid vehicles, mean it is poised to reap the benefits of a green economy.

Yet, Venezuela's position was a big question mark.

Chávez’s speech cleared up it up. He embraced the environmental movement and gleefully served as a spokesman for countries such as Cuba and Bolivia, highly vulnerable to changing weather patterns.

But the world would be foolish to confuse rhetoric with values.

Chávez knows the end of the oil era would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. He will peddle his oil while denouncing everyone else for burning it. He will demand a binding agreement but will not tolerate any imposition on his insane environmental policies.

This gasp-inducing pileup of ironies and contradictions can only be interpreted as a joke. Hugo Chávez came into the global warming summit and made a big hot mess of it. Thankfully, at least some of the world’s newspapers took note and shunned him.

The rest of the delegates - at least the ones looking for progress on this issue - should do the same.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

December 15, 2009

Ten Years on From The Stillborn Constitution

Quico says: ...rumors, partly fueled by Aristóbulo's keynote address to the National Assembly, are now heavy that Chávez is considering launching a fresh constituyente - a Constitutional Convention to draft yet another new constitution.

Crazy enough to be true?

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

Where the Maisanta Bodies Are Buried

Quico says: Venezuela is far from the first country where an autocratic regime has used its economic muscle to systematically punish dissidents where it hurts: in their pocketbooks. It may, however, be the first where the government has left an evidentiary trail meaty enough for economists to pick over and analyze.

The following slide is taken from the latest version of a research paper on the costs of signing petitions against Chávez back in 2002-2003 carried out by a team led by Francisco Rodríguez and including Chang-Tai Hsieh, Edward Miguel, and Daniel Ortega. It shows the change in your chances of being employed if you did not sign the third and final petition against Chávez (top line), if you did sign that petition (bottom line) and for the population as a whole (solid line) between 1997 and 2006.

Notice how the top and bottom lines basically track one another...right until the Maisanta List was published.

The authors estimate that the use of the Maisanta list cost the Venezuelan economy as a whole in the order of 3 points of GDP (which, for the non-economists out there, is massive) before concluding, a bit laconically, that:

There is a sense in which this paper’s findings are not terribly surprising, namely, that there are regimes that punish their political opponents and that these costs can be substantial. What is unusual about the case we study is the availability of the voter database actually used to target the opposition, and that the punishment was carried out on such a large scale that we are able to measure the labor market outcomes of the everyday individuals that suffered from political retaliation. We find that one third of Venezuelan voters that signed any of the three recall petitions suffered from an average 5 percent drop in their earnings and a 1.5 percentage point drop in their employment probability. This wage drop is largely borne by the 20 percent of voters who signed the third and decisive petition round, which is suggestive that the main instrument of political retaliation was the widely circulated Maisanta database that contains the list of signers of the third petition.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

ME-O bids adieu-o

Juan Cristobal says: Chile held the first round of Presidential voting yesterday, and since I'm married to the place Quico asked me to pitch in. While most news services focused on the strong showing of right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera and the stiff problems facing the governing Concertación coalition, to me the real story was the abject failure of the two chavista options.

Of the four candidates, two represented variations of the chavista movement. Communist party candidate Jorge Arrate did not hide his sympathy for the Venezuelan strongman. The links between his party and our government run deep, something I witnessed first-hand on numerous occasions. Yet Arrate, polling at 6%, was never a threat.

The real chance for the chavista option came thanks to the at-times surging candidacy of independent congressman Marco Enríquez-Ominami.

ME-O, as he is commonly known, saw his chances grow quickly in the middle of the year as the ruling Concertación candidate, former President Eduardo Frei, languished. A filmmaker by trade, ME-O once gushed about making a documentary centered on Hugo Chávez and he has served as an observer in Venezuelan elections, where he thought everything was excessively normal.

Of course, in a conservative country like Chile, a full on chavista candidate will always face long odds. So ME-O decided to "Correa-size" his chavista past, wrapping it in an attractive package of rebellious populism, rive gauche lefty promises, and pledges of change and "participatory democracy," including a proposal for a Constitutional Assembly. ME-O's curious approach to "moderate chavismo" included criticisms of Chávez's "style" but the endorsement of scandalous policies such as the closure of RCTV.

For a while, it seemed like it could work. The young ME-O surged on the strength of a few high-profile endorsements, and thanks to his appeal to a pseudo-intellectual middle class tired of the same-old faces and smitten by the malaise of politics where the big issues have largely disappeared.

But it only went so far. One of the biggest hits to his candidacy was when opposition research unearthed a three-year old interview, where ME-O called being Chilean "a tragedy" and longed for French or Italian nationality.

ME-O's 20 percent is a much worse showing than was feared, and barely reaches the level of "political phenomenon." He tried to be Hugo Chávez, but he's stuck in Ross Perot territory. Even more damning, ME-O managed to score not a single member of Congress. Like the petulant child raised-by-Paris-lefties that he is, he refused to endorse Frei or Piñera, accusing them of being agents of the past.

The Chilean election has several interesting stories: the renaissance of Chile's right-wing after twenty years and the seeming demise of Latin America's most succesful democratic coalition are two of the most important ones. But this script is yet to be written, in a runoff scheduled to take place in mid-January.

For now, the real story is yet another big defeat for the Espada de Bolívar movement in one of the continent's most significant countries. News organizations love to talk about a "wave of leftist sentiment" sweeping Latin America. Chile is sitting out the narrative, at least this time.

In Chile, the story is ME-O, the phenomenon that wasn't.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

December 14, 2009

Book 'em!

Quico says: As I think about it, the truly newsworthy aspect of the jailing of the judge who freed Eligio Cedeño isn't that they jailed her - hell, that's almost normal - but that they jailed the whole damn court!

We're talking bailiffs jailed for carrying out a judge's order to release a prisoner. Apparently, in the chavista version of Judicial Review, bailiffs are now supposed to act as a kind of first court of appeal: carefully reading through any judge's order to make sure everything's on the up'n'up before carrying our their orders. We're talking - bizarrely - one of Cedeño's defense lawyers, José Rafael Parra Saluzzo, jailed for the unspeakable crime of being in the room as his client was released.

Chavismo now inhabits its new identity as basically unapologetic dictatorship so brazenly, so openly, so shockingly blithely it's hard to imagine how we could sink any deeper. And yet one thing we've learned: we can...oh yes we can.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

Siempre queda por caer

Quico says: The decision to jail judge María Lourdes Afiuni, following a bizarre series of events that saw Hugo Chávez flip out after the judge ordered - apparently without permission - the release of disgraced Bolibanquero Eligio Cedeño (who promptly fled the country), is a timely reminder that, no matter how bad you think things have gotten, there's always farther left to fall.

Judge Afiuni was jailed after a furious Chávez launched the kind of tirade against her that, had anyone made it about him, would immediately have raised howls of "magnicide" from the government side. Saying that in Bolívar's time people who did what Afiuni did would've been shot, Chávez presented his decision to throw her in jail almost as a humanitarian concession.

One way or another, Afiuni must have realized the risk she was taking: the first judge to rule in favor of Cedeño - on a procedural motion in 2007 - lost her job, had her kids almost kidnapped, and ended up having to seek asylum in the U.S. The last judge to do so lost her seat on the court of appeal.

It's easy to forget now that less than six months ago, we were incensed by the sight of Chávez ordering judges merely fired for making judicial decisions he didn't like. Our outrage from that time already looks positively quaint by contrast, and that was this year!

Yesterday, judges paid for handing down the "wrong" decisions with their jobs, today, they're paying with their freedom, tomorrow, they'll pay finish that sentence.

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

December 11, 2009

Making believers out of us...

Quico says: The Latinbarómetro Poll, published by The Economist, always has an eyebrow-raising stat or two to offer. This year's study, for instance, asks the age old question: in which large country in the region do people have the strongest faith in the market economy's ability to help the country as a whole?


Read the whole thing...

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

Technoutopian Chronicles

Quico says: If citizens' ability to reason together on issues of common concern in the public sphere is the cornerstone of real democracy, Venezuela is in more trouble than we know. These days, in Venezuela, the public sphere looks like this.

If we're going to start the long, slow process of rehabilitating our public sphere, reclaiming it as a place for sane interaction between responsible adults, we're going to need mechanisms that allow us to tamp down on pure vitriol and outright ad hominem attacks, to make space for a more reasoned kind of discussion. Caracas Chronicles 2.0 is mi granito de arena: a way to empower an online community to defend itself from the total mayhem on sites like N24.

I've been working on it for a few months, and I really think this software could do the trick - even in Spanish. The system is designed to be self-correcting, marginalizing nutters and empowering people with something to say by using the input of the entire community.

I've thought long and hard about how to make a software platform that's easy enough to use even for the casual, once-in-a-while commenter but that allows people who want to spend more time on a forum to get much more out of it as well. We'll see if it happens.

For now, here's that FAQ.

What is Community Powered Comments?

Community Powered Comments is a new way of moderating the comments section that puts the reader community in charge.

Instead of relying on one or two moderators to decide which comments are good enough to publish and which should be deleted, it asks the entire community to help identify the comments that really drive debate forward. It then makes sure those comments stand out in every comment thread, while it lowers the visibility of comments that add less to debate.

Think of it as the community’s vaccine against gallinerization, a way of protecting Caracas Chronicles as a space for serious debate.

In 2010, we’re going to roll out this system in Spanish, to try to launch a platform for political debate about Venezuela that doesn’t immediately degenerate into the kind of thing we see on Noticiero Digital.

So how does it work?

At the end of each comment, registered users are asked to answer two questions about it:

Do you agree with this comment?


Does this comment add value to the discussion?

All you have to do is answer those two questions fairly and honestly: the software does the rest.

First off, it highlights the comments that add most value to the debate, making them easy to spot in a thread. At the same time, it makes comments that contribute less to the discussion a little harder to read, by displaying them in gray text over a white background. The very lowest ranking comments – plain old trolls – get hidden.

Notice: nothing is ever censored in Community Powered Comments! No comment gets erased outright. Even if everybody hates a comment, you can still click on it and read it.

The goal here is to make trolling relatively unrewarding, by depriving trolls of visibility.

What’s the point of asking people to rate each comment twice?

Sometimes, the comments that do most to sharpen your understanding of an issue are comments that you totally disagree with! So we want you to keep the question of whether you personally agree with a comment separate from the question of how useful it is to the debate.

The point here is to avoid Groupthink: the situation that develops when people just rate up comments they agree with willy nilly. Groupthink bumps off dissenting views merely because they’re unpopular, even when they’re valuable to a debate. Community Powered Comments is designed to avoid that pitfall.

Of course, this will only work if the community really makes an effort to vote fairly on each issue separately. The site asks a lot of you, and gives a lot back.

Do I need to open an account and log in to post a comment?

You don’t: anyone can post a comment, with or without an account. To post without an account, you just have to convince the system you’re a human being by answering one of those captcha word puzzles.

So what’s the advantage of opening an account and logging in?

First, you need to log in to rate other people’s comments. Anonymous cowards don’t get a say on how visible others’ comments will be.

Second, if you don’t log in, the system gives your comments a pretty low visibility setting by default – if you write a good comment and people vote it up, it will become more visible, but to begin with, its visibility won’t be great.

Also, by logging on, you get to decide how choosy you want to be in filtering out comments the community doesn’t like very much. This can range from not choosy at all (“Show me every comment”) to highly choosy (“Show me only the best comments”).

Logged in users get to decide how choosy they want to be.

If you’re not logged in, the system assumes you’re “medium choosy” – showing you most comments but hiding the lowest rated ones (pure trolls).

Finally, you need to log in for the system to be able to track your Reputation Score, which allows it to recognize your contributions to the community in the past and rewards users who add the most value to the community.

What’s my Reputation Score?

Your reputation score is a summary measure of your overall contribution to the community over time. Every time a comment you write is rated by another user, your Reputation Score ticks up or down accordingly.

Write a lot of smart, substantive, interesting comments that drive debate forward and your reputation score will rise over time. Write lot of silly, inflamatory or uninteresting comments that don’t add value to the discussion, and your reputation score will suffer.

Why should I care about my Reputation Score?

The better your reputation, the more influence your ratings have over the way other people’s comments are displayed. The worse your reputation in the community, the less influence you have over others within it.

That’s another reason to really try to write comments that drive debate forward: if you don’t, your reputation score suffers, and if you have a bad reputation score, the system doesn’t take your opinions as seriously as it takes the opinions of your better reputed peers.

There are other reasons, too. If you have a high reputation score, any new comment you write will be highly visible by default. If your reputation in the community is not so good, your new comments will be less visible to start with.

Community Powered Comments sets out to replicates the way these things are (or should be) in the real world. The better your repuation is, the more seriously your opinions are taken. That’s how it is in the real world, and that’s how it is on this site.

How do I improve my Reputation Score?

It’s simple: by writing smart, substantive comments that other community members recognize add value to the debate, and by rating others’ comments fairly, whether or not you agree with them.

Where can I see my Reputation Score?

You can’t, and for a reason. We don’t want people to fixate on an arbitrary number, or to treat reputation building as a game. We want you to focus on contributing as much as possible to the community by writing quality comments and rating others’ comments fairly

What are Trusted Users?

Trusted users are the 10% of users who got the highest reputation score over the previous seven days. The list changes every week, so the universe of trusted users is always changing.

This is all done automatically: every Sunday night, the site analyzes the previous week’s worth of commenting activity to identify the top 10% of contributors to the community over the last seven days. It then automatically contacts them to let them know they’ve been chosen as “Trusted Users” for the next seven days.

Because the set of trusted users changes every week, even if you had a terrible time of it last week, you can still be a trusted user next week if you work hard to contribute to the community. Community Powered Comments believes in giving people second chances.

What are the perks associated with being a Trusted User?

As a Trusted User, the system gives you more say over the way the community operates for the next seven days. Specifically, you’ll get a limited number of “tokens” you can use to promote or demote a given comment.

Think the community is being too harsh on a given comment? You can use one of your tokens to Promote a comment, making it much more visible. Think the community is voting up a really stupid comment? Then go ahead and spend one of your tokens sinking its visibility.

As a trusted user, you have the last word: once you’ve promoted a comment, all voting on it ceases.

And there’s more. As a trusted user, any comment you make on the site will come with a “Trusted User” seal of approval and receive high visibility setting by default. Trusted users are allowed to put images into their comments, and they’re allowed to edit their comments after they’ve posted them.

Can I become a permanent Trusted User?

You can’t. Every Monday morning the system starts compiling data on the following week’s trusted users from scratch.

I have a great idea for improving the system, where can I send it?

Community Powered Comments is very much a work in progress, and we expect it to generate lots of debate – and not a few hiccups.

If you want to contribute an idea or – better yet – code a fix in PHP, we’d love to have it!=

Contact us on caracaschronicles at fastmail dot fm

Comments are now disabled on this site.
Please comment on the new site.

December 10, 2009

Caracas Chronicles 2.0: Sneak Preview

Quico and Juan Cristóbal say: The new software platform for Caracas Chronicles is finally here! After several months of intense work, the site is now presentable enough for everyone to look at.

Check it out!

For now, the new site is at, which we hope will be the URL of the new, Spanish version of Caracas Chronicles. Over the next few weeks, we'll be posting in parallel here and in the new site. Early next year - once we've brought over the archive - we're going to put this old blogger site to sleep.

At the heart of the new site is an innovative system for managing the comments section that, we hope, can solve the age old problem of ceaseless flame-wars in Venezuela's political cyberspace.

The idea, basically, is that Juan and Quico don't get to decide which comments get top billing and which comments get hidden; you do.

With this new system, the community collectively gets to decide which comments get top billing by voting.

The system asks you to vote not just on whether you agree with a given comment, but also on whether it helps drive debate forward. Read all the details in the new system's FAQ.

Remember, you don't have to create an account to comment on the new site, but we strongly encourage you to do so anyway. It's free, and it only takes a minute or two.

By logging on, you allow the system to track your reputation within the community, and the better your reputation is, the more impact you'll have on the way the forum works, the more visible your comments will be, and the more weight the system will place on your opinions. And if you're among the top 10% of commentators in any given week, the system gives you a whole set of additional goodies regular users don't get.

Early next year, we'll be launching Caracas Chronicles 2.0 in full, which will include a Spanish version. This will open up CC to a whole new cast of characters, but hopefully the new software will steer the conversation away from the troll wasteland you find in places like Aporrea or Noticias24.

We look forward to your feedback, but not here.
As of today, the old comments platform on this site will be disabled.

Please comment on the new site.

December 9, 2009

Mental Health View From Quico's Window


(Taken 10 a.m. I'm actually a recent-enough immigrant to Quebec to get excited by this kind of thing...)

Subverting Chavismo's Discursive Standard

Quico says: Judging from the reaction, rather a lot of you misinterpreted my last post as some kind of woolly call to hold a nice, reasonable debate with chavismo.

I want to be quite clear about my position here: no critical engagement with chavismo is possible. And, actually, that's the crux of my problem with the regime.

It's easy to mistake that for a rather shrill, impetuous stance; a kind of misplaced haughtiness masquerading as high principle. But lets be clear about this: it's not that I reject a debate with the people I oppose. It's that I oppose people who reject debate.

Obviously, a lot hinges on how you understand chavismo, how you interpret its discursive essence. Some people see Chávez's tendency to respond to any and every criticism with an ad hominem attack as a kind of curiosity, one trait in a broader political philosophy. Over the years, though, I've come to see it as the lynchpin of the intellectual edifice that is chavismo: a defining trait and organizing principle at the center of a strategy for crafting a totalizing worldview.

For Chávez, and for the cult-like political movement he has created around himself, the world is neatly divided between two sides. The good and the bad. The key thing to grasp - and I think there's a nearly limitless documentary evidence to illustrate this - is that for chavismo, the things that bad people believe are bad by virtue of the identity of the person believing them. Escualidos are not evil because they're wrong; they're wrong because they're evil.

Take, to choose one example out of a zillion simply because the clip is conveniently in English, this interaction between Chávez and a FoxNews journalist at this year's UN General Assembly meeting:

Notice what happens here. Chávez is asked a question that, through its own content, suggests that the questioner does not share his views. The question, in Chávez's hands, becomes merely a mechanism for identifying the questioner as a dissenter. That Chavez will not in engage with its substance goes almost without saying. Instead, the journalist expression of dissent serves as a springboard for an attack on him, on his motives and his affiliations, all by way of explaining - apparently self-evident to Chávez - that his identity as a journalist for a conservative provides all the evidence anybody could need of the evil that lurks in his heart, and exempts Chávez from any duty to account for his actions.

You don't have to be a fan of FoxNews to grasp the dire consequences of extending this mode of reasoning to every single interaction with a dissenting view a leader engages in.

The dirty little secret is that, within the ideology Chávez has stamped on his movement, the sorting mechanism that allows you to determine whether any thought, book, argument, documentary, bank, mural, film, newspaper, foreign leader, TV channel, multilateral institution or person is good or bad is, conveniently enough, whether he will submit to Chávez with unquestioning loyalty. In fact, from the totalizing standpoint chavista discursive standards creates, failing to snap unthinkingly into line is prima facie evidence that you belong to the Evil camp, and immediately voids your right to hold Chávez to critical scrutiny.

To take chavismo's worldview seriously is to see dissent itself as intrinsically evil. How evil? Evil enough to imperil the possibility of life on this planet. That evil.

This absolute sorting of the world into good and evil according to the single, totalizing criterion of loyalty to the boss seems to me both irreducibly authoritarian and absolutely central to the chavista system for organizing reality and making sense of the world. Manicheanism is not "an aspect of" chavismo; it is chavismo.

That there is no serious possibility of a frank and open exchange of views with people who hold on to such an ideology seems to me perfectly self-evident.

It's definitional, actually, because within the worldview chavismo espouses, the willingness to treat an idea that Chávez personally rejects as potentially valid is wholly incompatible with revolutionary principle. But real debate, genuine, free and open debate, can't accept such arbitrary exclusions. If you begin by sectioning off whole provinces of reality and declaring them out of bounds before you've critically engage them, what you are doing is not debating. It may look and feel like a debate, but it's not.

The hopelessly flattened discursive standards chavismo espouses - Chavista = good, dissident = evil - is not one we could engage through the practice of public reasoning, even if we were minded to. Instead, the habits of mind chavista ideology is built on are precisely that which we need to subvert through the practice of public reasoning.

When we hold the government to account, when we point out the absurdities of its exchange rate regime, when we rail against the injustice of its repressive actions, when we demand a justification of its spending priorities, we are doing it not to engage chavismo but to subvert it, because when you are facing a totalizing ideology, demanding an explanation is in itself a subversive act.

When we cultivate the habits of mind that allow people to think critically about the actions of those in power, to question them and demand they account for their decisions, we're keeping alive the possibility of democracy for future generations, because we're keeping alive the modes of interaction that we will need to sustain a discursive democracy at some point down the line.

The question, for me, is how we can exploit the particular characteristics of the internet to carry out this kind of subversive work. I think there's a ton to be done in this regard. And, personally, I intend to do it.

December 8, 2009

Dictatorship means never having to say "the reason is..."

Quico says: One thing all critics of the Chávez regime seem to agree on is that democracy in Venezuela is pretty much dead. But what exactly do we mean by that?

When we talk about democracy we're usually talking about two separate but related ideas.

On the one hand, you have the institutions of democracy. We mean parliaments and banking regulations; election day rules and procedures; habeas corpus and constitutional principles of due process; decentralization, and all that. When we say that Venezuelan democracy has died, we mean that none of these institutional mechanisms is operating the way the constitution says they ought to. This, alarming as it is, is not all there is.

There's another level where democracy has been dying, a much more intimate level that manifests itself in the ways we communicate when political matters are at stake. I call it the "discursive level" in that it concerns itself with the kinds of arguments people in the political sphere find compelling at any given time. It's about the habits of thought of our political actors.

This distinction is not trivial.

One thing is the National Assembly and another is the quality and style of the debates that are held within its chambers. The question, from a discursive point of view, is what constitutes a "powerful reason to act" in the eyes of its members? Alongside any abstract principle and any formal institution there are the tacit rules actual people use to apply them the world.

Political systems are democratic to the extent that they maintain possibility of holding reasoned debates in the public sphere that tend to generate consensual understandings. On the contrary, they are authoritarian to the degree that appeals to straight-out authority - jefe es jefe - are enough to secure compliance from political decision-makers.

Venezuelan intellectuals tend not to distinguish clearly enough between these two levels, the institutional and the discursive. We tend to be much clearer, more explicit, and more eloquent talking about what has gone wrong institutionally than what has gone wrong discursively.

But if our institutional democracy has died it's because the discursive habits of mind that support it have been hunted to extinction. Chavista discourse was dictatorial long before chavista government.

In Venezuela, a return to democracy will entail much more than a return to institutional democracy. It will mean focusing on the discursive realm as well, on re-establishing a certain set of unwritten rules and expectations about what is "normal" behavior in the public sphere. These rules, which Habermas calls "discursive standards," are the criteria people use to decide if an argument is persuasive or not. When the rules of engagement in the public sphere are democratic, what you get is what Amartya Sen calls "government by discussion."

Discursive democracy is what you get when the main question asked of a given political argument is: "does that position make sense?" Discursive authoritarianism is what you get when the main question asked of a given political argument is: "who put that argument forward?"

An escualido?! Booooo! A chaburro?! Hisssss!!!

Democracy in Venezuela has collapsed in the face of a full frontal attack not just at the institutional level, but also in that deeper, discursive sphere. So subverting chavista hegemony requires liquidating the discursive standards that sustain its power.

Bringing discursive democracy back to life means putting in place policies hashed out in real debates, where ideas are grappled with, confronted and crafted into consensual roads forward by people more interested in the content of a position than the identity of the one expressing it.

This is not an easy thing to do. Building a discursive democracy runs counter to some very old habits. Throw yourself into a genuine discussion and, suddenly, you've made yourself vulnerable. In a genuine discussion, you go in without any guarantee that you'll come out on the winning side. Discussion requires humility, flexibility, a willingness to learn and an acceptance that you may be called on to alter your positions in the light of what the other side says. This may be one of the reasons true architects of democracy have, to some degree, possessed a healthy dose of greatness.

Dictators will not subject themselves to genuine debate, because genuine debate is risky, unpredictable, dangerous. A dictator will join no communicative interaction in which he (and it's usually a he, isn't it?) is not guaranteed the upper hand from the start. This is why Chávez simply refuses to be questioned by journalists who will throw anything but the softest of soft balls at him.

The sad fact is that unless the opposition shows it's better than Chávez at engaging with ideas, doing away with Hugo Chávez will do almost nothing to re-establish democracy in this deeper sense. If we fail to enshrine genuinely democratic discursive standards, the return to institutional democracy will be as shallow, fleeting, and incomplete as the system we had until 1998.

More than an adherence to constitutional standards, more than respect for the forms of the democratic game, what Venezuela's democratic movement needs to develop is the frame of mind needed to engage with an opponent (even chavista ones) in genuine debate, in the understanding that the power of the strongest argument will carry the day.

That's the habit of mind that creates the social underpinning of democratic government. Without that attitudinal bedrock, that basic predisposition to accept discussion as the arena where decisions are made, there is no possibility of democracy.

Faced with a government that experiences debate as a threat, merely creating spaces for genuine debate constitutes a subversive act. As long as Venezuelans sustain spaces where matters of public policy are subjected to free and open debate, chavista autocracy will never be complete and will never be secure.

The internet offers tremendous possibilities for this kind of subversion, possibilities that are not yet being fully exploited. The democratic movement needs to step up its game in this regard, creating spaces where genuine debate can take place. Who's up for it?

December 7, 2009

The three-legged stool

Juan Cristóbal says: Lately, this story about the 1988 Referendum that ended the Pinochet dictatorship keeps coming to mind.

(Translated from Spanish Wikipedia):
"At 12:18 AM on October 6th (the night after the Referendum, when results were trickling in), Pinochet meets his cabinet and informs them: "Gentlemen, the referendum has been lost. I want your immediate resignations. That is all."

An hour later, he finally meets the other members of the Military Junta. On his way up the steps of La Moneda Palace, Chile's Commander of the Air Force, General Fernando Matthei, tells journalists: "It's pretty clear the (opposition) No has won, but we are calm." General Matthei's statement was transmitted by Radio Cooperativa at 1:03 AM on October 6th.

In the meeting, [Interior] Minister Sergio Fernandez recognized the government's defeat and expressed the high percentage obtained was, in any event, a source of pride, to which General Matthei ironically replied: "Why don't we bring in some champagne to celebrate?"

According to Matthei's memoirs ("Matthei, my testimony"), Pinochet then handed the members of the Junta a decree through which he assumed all the country's powers and disavowed the results of the Referendum. This threw the Junta's members, specially Matthei, into a rage, and Matthei himself ripped the decree with his own hands.

"After that," Matthei recalls, "and without insisting on the decree, the President informed us that he would leave Santiago for a few days to get some rest, and the meeting was adjourned."

Right at that moment, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff suffered a heart attack, presumably caused by the heated confrontation among military leaders. After the meeting, Pinochet accepted the situation and ordered the release of the third electoral bulletin."
Someone once said that Hugo Chávez's support is like a three-legged stool. Those legs are
  1. Popular support
  2. Oil money
  3. The military
Our goal, to obtain power and reinstate democracy, can only be met once all three pillars of support have worn away.

One out of three, two out of three - those don't seem to cut it anymore.

Chavismo has engineered a state system where alternation is tantamount to regime change. Under those circumstances, consolidating a majority and winning an election are not going to be enough. Popular support is just one of the legs of the stool. Our recent history confirms this.

In April of 2002, Chávez's popularity was waning and his oil income was shaky. With PDVSA momentarily paralysed, the military tried to overthrow him, and for a second it looked like all three legs had gone.

It turned out that his popularity was not as low as all that and, in fact, reaction to the coup quickly raised it. The popular support pillar still had some life in it.

Then it also turned out that the military leg was not broken either - the military's unity cracked, as we all know, and a good chunk of the Armed Forces backed the President. And so, ultimately, the stool regained its balance.

Later that year, the opposition led an (ill-advised) Oil Strike. The subversive act of shutting down PDVSA entirely chopped off one of the legs for a good six or seven weeks. But by that point, the Misiones were starting to work and Chávez's popularity was on the rise. More importantly, the military did not support the strike, and the people turned against the oil workers. A few weeks after the strike began, oil income began to recover and PDVSA was operational again.

The assault on one of the legs was over.

Fast-forward to Chávez's shock electoral defeat December of 2007. We showed, at the ballot box, that dissent could be more popular than the chavista status quo even amidst a dizzying oil boom. Unlike in normal democracies, that reality was a subversive act - a "golpe electoral", as José Vicente Rangel would say - surprisingly spearheaded by a group of students.

Did it work? Partially. It took considerable military pressure, spearheaded by jailbird Baduel, for Chávez to accept defeat, and then only for about two seconds. But a few days later, he appeared - not coincidentally - in front of the military high command, and practically announced to the country the referendum results did not mean anything. Two years out, most of the things he'd been denied the power to do at referendum have become law.

Why? Because after an initial wobble, military support of the regime resumed, the dissidents were purged, and the oil boom kept going for another few months.

Fast-forward to next year.

Imagine that Chávez becomes really unpopular and, by some act of God, the opposition gets its act together and manages to win a majority of seats in the AN, fair and square.

Will the CNE accept the results? Will our friend Socorro stand by and validate an opposition-controlled National Assembly, with all that entails? Maybe, maybe not.

And even if that miracle panned out, can't you just see the AN, through an act of its outgoing majority, stripping itself of most of its powers? Do we have any doubt the almighty, reverential Constitutional Chamber of the TSJ would rubber-stamp such a monstrosity in the blink of an eye?

Some last minute re-think is not entirely impossible, but it's looking increasingly foolhardy to gamble the country's future on the democratic scruples of the chavista State.

Hanging on to power without regard to the majority's rejection is the distinguishing trait of authoritarianism. Chavismo is an authoritarian regime.

And that, in the end, is what it means to come to grips with chavismo's inherent authoritarianism: for our side, majority support is not enough.

Necessary? Yes. Sufficient? Not by a long shot.

At some point, all of this makes us very uncomfortable. We are democrats, and part of the normal game of a democracy is that you don't tip stools over or smash them with an axe. You work with the stool you're given and do what you can to adjust it. And certainly, the chavista Venezuelan military nomenklatur is so disgusting to some of us that the thought of accepting and even embracing them as political players is mighty unappealing.

But the reality of the chavista dictatorship is that, in the unlikely event the CNE recognized our victory in an election, we would find it all but impossible to work with the stool we're given. By now, it's Chávez's stool: made to order and able to accommodate only his fat ass. The kind of 2009 Antonio Ledezma has had is living proof of that.

The upshot is that we need a three-legged strategy.

One of the legs - oil income - is pretty much beyond our control, especially after the PDVSA purge. But, despite the fantasists' fondest daydreams, the global oil market is beyond Chávez's control, too. Still, it wouldn't hurt to have a strategy for countering the vast difference in disposable income between them and us. For the moment it's enough to note that, even with oil prices well above $70/bbl, Chávez can't raise enough cash to finance the level of public spending it would take to keep GDP growing.

What's clear is that any serious attempt to subvert the Chávez dictatorship will require concerted action on the two other legs.

Yes, we need an effective political strategy. There's no way out of this without people's hearts and minds.

But given the conditions chavismo has created, there's just no way out of this hole without a military strategy, too.

Before chavistas out there go postal and begin crying "golpista," we should clarify. That doesn't mean having a strategy for rebellion. A mad idea like that would only lead to a bloodbath. It means having a strategy to challenge the unconditional support the military gives Chávez, in very much the same way as the Chilean democracy movement's rising clout created the key cracks needed at the right time to force Pinochet's hand.

The Chilean democrats of 1988 had a political strategy that led them to a convincing electoral victory. But without a military strategy resulting in Matthei & friends willing to subvert the Pinochet regime, the Chilean stool would have been left in place.

We should be crystal clear about this: a military strategy is not a para-military strategy, and it's not a call to golpismo. It means making sure that, when the chips are down, the military support for the dictatorship is not unconditional. It means having the guts to remind the military that the loyalty they swear is to a Constitution, not an autocrat, and that that constitution's article 333 creates clear obligations they, sooner or later, will be held accountable for.

The Chilean democrats, Corazón Aquino, Boris Yeltsin. In key moments, they all had military strategies in place that helped propel their movements to subvert dictatorial regimes. In all three cases, the military played a fundamental role in knocking down the status quo forces.

Without it, popular support is easily mocked. The Burmese monks did not have a military strategy. They now rot in jail. Back in 1928, Venezuela's students didn't have one either, so they spent the next eight years in La Rotunda.

This is how it goes, folks. It sucks, but it's how it goes.

December 4, 2009

Mental health break for the weekend

Juan Cristóbal says: - It's easy to forget, but before we were oligarchs, squalid ones and betrayers of the homeland, we were simply - his invisible friends.

I can't think of a better tonic to Hugo Chávez's vulgarity than the warm lessons of Arturo Uslar Pietri.

See you all Monday.

Rules for Subversives

Quico says: "Opposition" has become an obsolete concept in Venezuelan politics. Opposition is what you do to governments capable of being opposed: those that see the practice of periodically alternating in power with their critics as normal.

Chavismo has denormalized alternation, crafting a state system where the practice would imperil regime stability. Chavismo can't be "opposed" in the normal sense of the word, because it doesn't conceive of itself as a temporary occupant of executive branch. Instead, it claims ownership of the state as a whole.

What can you do if you dissent from a government that is not opposable in the normal democratic sense? A government that has repeatedly stressed that it does not conceive of alternation in power as a normal feature of the system, and explicitly vows never to allow it to happen?

There's only one thing you can do if you don't wish to submit to a government like that: subvert it.

I think Chávez himself grasped this long before those of us who disagree with him did. Maybe his obsession with plots and conspiracies all around him speak not so much of paranoïa as of a dirty conscience. A kind of "if they knew what I know, they'd be trying to subvert me."

Me, I never set out to become a subversive. Never chose that. Doesn't really fit my personality in any way. But like everybody else who opposes the vision of state power chavismo represents, I have now been made, effectively, into a subversive.

There is a long, deeply unsettling set of consequences that flow out of this realization. A set of consequences Venezuela's anti-chavista establishment really hasn't quite processed yet. It's hard to see our movement having any success until we come to grips with our new condition, a condition that is no less ours because we never chose it.

Subversion is the game the entire anti-chavista country is now engaged in, whether consciously or unconsciously.

To dissent from the hyperleader is to subvert the state system he has crafted, a system based on mindless obedience, complicit sycophancy, and an essentially limitless willingness to lie to the public for political benefit. It's a system you won't find described in any official document, certainly not in the 1999 constitution. It is the state of The State in fact, not in law.

And article 333 of that same document tells you all you need to know about your duties in such an eventuality.

Subversion is not a road we've chosen, it's a road that's been chosen for us. The only question now is whether we can subvert the chavista state creatively, effectively and constructively, in a way that helps us lay out the basis for something better down the road.

I think subversion of the current regime will need to take place along many axes. Some overt, some covert. Obviously, as bloggers, we can't do much about the latter, other than hope for their success. But we can, in our small way, contribute to the former.

Because subverting the chavista state is also about subverting the habits of mind that sustain it: the endless willingness to subjugate reality to political convenience, the mindless cult of personality that raises a single man's will above the law. It means challenging the cognitive cornerstone of the entire chavista system: the out and out refusal to submit the leader's dictates to critical scrutiny, to hold them up against the measuring bar of reason.

Call it cognitive subversion. That's the business this blog is in. Time we faced up to it.

December 3, 2009

Chavez throws hissy fit, your savings lose 15% of their value

Quico says: Reuters is reporting that the parallel bolivar plunged as low as Bs.6.2 to the dollar today in response to Chávez's bank nationalization histrionics. Funny to think how just a few weeks ago Nelson Merentes was pledging the Voldemort rate would climb to Bs.3.45:$ by the beginning of December (i.e., now.)

You almost have to pity the guy...the bureaucratic equivalent of a hired shopkeeper in a china shop owned by a wildebeest.


Juan Cristóbal says: - A reader in Caracas told us yesterday that he was disappointed in Caracas Chronicles. He usually came to CC to find information and solace, but lately, there's been no solace.

He got that right.

Quico and I have always tried to find the proverbial silver lining in current events. But lately, that's been hard to find. I blame it on El Niño.

So, bloggerfam, this is a cry for help. We demand an intervention!

Is there any hope? And if so, where do you find it? 'Cause the light at the end of the tunnel seems to have flickered out with the latest blackout.

I think of my friend Rafa, who years ago told me something that has stuck in my mind: "Este país es una mierda, pero como se goza!"

Maybe he's right. I should give him a call.

PS.- Quico read the previous version of this post and hated it. He asked me for a re-write, demanding I make it short and funny. Short I can do, but it's hard to make a post about how depressing everything is ... funny!

December 2, 2009

Picking up on new memes

Juan Cristóbal says: - Way back in the early days of 2005, Hugo Chávez declared himself a socialist.

These were the lazy, hazy days of the post-Recall Referendum. The government had consolidated power, and was fresh off a sweeping victory in the 2004 Regional Elections. In the words of then-Vice President José Vicente Rangel, chavismo had the highway "all to themselves."

That was the moment Hugo Chávez decided to amp up the rhetoric.

It's easy to forget, but Chávez didn't say he was a socialist prior to then. His rhetoric was wrapped in a vague, nationalistic, state-centered, pseudo-Bolivarian, militaristic shtick that was hard to define. Only in 2005 did he reveal himself to be a socialist.

We all know what came afterward.

I started thinking about this when, today, Chávez reiterated something he has been saying a lot lately: his Revolution is about "class struggle," about "poor versus rich."

It seems clear this is chavismo's new meme. This is how they will frame the next phase.

Perhaps this is the reason why they are moving against the kleptocrats within their own ranks. Perhaps this explains why Chávez has his sights set on the nations' banks, who have, so far, escaped the wrath of the autocrat and have played silent partners to his policies.

Long gone are the days when chavismo would say there was space in his Revolution for the middle class, when he would try and forge an alliance with the business elite that was willing to work within the bounds of socialism. Will we soon long for the days when he would kid around with Juan Carlos Escotet? There is no space for these shenanigans in class warfare.

The questions Juan Carlos Zapata and others asked ourselves back in 2006 - well worth revisiting here and here - stemmed from the contradiction between the "socialist" rhetoric and the cozy government/business clique operating on the ground.

Perhaps this new meme signals chavismo's willingness to purge this alliance.

If so, a lot of people should be shaking in their Ermenegildos.

Annals of the Vulture Meat Guardianship Corporation

Juan Cristóbal says: -

"I will be in any corner the fatherland demands me to be in, fulfilling my duty, fighting from my trench, backing the President and his political process. I will join in battle, whether from the most humble place or from the most decisive one. We all know we are of value to the Revolution, to the country, to the transformation of society and to the chances of saving the planet. Because I believe that without socialism, life will not be possible."

Socorro Hernández, former Minister of Telecommunications, former head of CANTV, chavista sycophant. May 15th, 2009.

Yesterday, Ms. Hernández was named as one of the five members of the board of the CNE, Venezuela's supposedly impartial elections arbiter.

This is the person in charge of counting our votes.


A useful illusion?

Quico says: Watching this video, I can't decide if Ciudadanía Activa is performing a valuable civic service by keeping alive the pretense of constitutional government or if this is the discursive equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight.

What do you think?

December 1, 2009


Juan Cristóbal says: - It's not every day that you learn something about your own country from the New York Times. So do yourself a favor and don't miss Simón Romero's article about the people of the upper Caura river in Bolívar state. It's a tour-de-force.

The article focuses on the daily lives and current struggles of the native Ye'kuana and Sanema peoples, centered in a tiny hamlet called Edowinña. Anyone venture to guess how you pronounce that correctly?

It's also about conservation efforts, the clash of civilizations and how these people are caught in the middle. While you're there, don't miss the accompanying audio slide show.

One of the many surprising passages is this one:
More recently, the Ye’kuana and Sanema fought a brutal war in the 1930s, apparently over Sanema raids for metal and women, forcing the Sanema into a subservient role in some Ye’kuana villages.
Personally, I knew nothing about these people, this region or even this war, so a big thank you to Romero.

PS.- Along these lines, Kepler pointed me to a great blog written by a capuchin friar working in the Gran Sabana. It's worth a read (in Spanish).

November 30, 2009

Hondurans go rogue

Juan Cristóbal says: - I should know better than to post about Honduras given how badly it went the last time, but here goes: by electing a President yesterday in imperfect but legitimate elections, the Honduran people have decided their fate, rest of the world be damned.

Good for them.

President-elect Porfirio Lobo has been recognized by the US, Peru, Panama, Colombia and Japan. Spain has announced it will soon re-visit its tough stance.

Brazil is leading the guys with the pitchforks, a group that includes our very own Hugo Chávez, Cristina Kirchner, Michelle Bachelet and the OAS. That Brazil's Lula da Silva has refused to recognize this election when, just last week, he embraced the illegitimate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks volumes about his idea of democracy.

Lula's stance toward Lobo is even more hypocritical given how quick he has been to rubber-stamp Hugo Chávez's elections. Tainted elections are OK, as long as the Left wins, nao é verdade companheiro?

Tancredo Neves must be rolling in his grave.

As for Chávez, it has been quite the sight to see his diplomats grasp for straws, questioning the legitimacy of this election because of supposedly high abstention. 2005, anyone?

Regardless of Brazil's claims to leadership in the region, they really have zero leverage when it comes to Central America. The Honduran people couldn't care less what Lula, Cristina, Insulza and the rest of the gang think of their elected leader. With the US and its allies on their side, they are fine.

So much for Brazil being the region's giant. The Emperor has no clothes.

Come to think of it, the Lobo administration should not even try to get in the good graces of this gang. If the region's left-leaning governments refuse to recognize their democratically-elected President, so be it. Honduras is probably better off not being in the empty shell that is the OAS anyway. Good riddance!

Fun with Skype

Juan Cristóbal says: - Ta-da-dun... ta-dun...

I'm sitting in my ofice. It's Friday afternoon. I'm waiting to finish a report, and the familiar Skype bell interrupts me.

Damn, bad timing. Should I take it?

It's Rafa, my best friend from college, godfather to my oldest daughter. We haven't spoken in a few months. In between my schedule and his newborn twins, we haven't found the time.


We talk a little bit about everything. Family stuff, mostly. Then, as it must, the conversation veers toward ... la situación.

Rafa is in Caracas, and he's doing really well. The son of a "pick-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps" Cuban immigrant, he's the local manager of a multinational, living in an Altamira condo, as well as it's possible to live in one of the most dangerous, politically unstable cities in the world. Sure, in the last few years he's had to adapt to the situation. He had his car armor-plated for security and he hired a bodyguard. But all in all, he's doing fine.

"You know what? Sometimes, I understand ninis. It's just so damn difficult to like the opposition!" he says.

I ask him to elaborate.

"Well, take the Chacao municipality. You know how our offices are in Altamira, in one of the swankiest buildings in the city? Well, it took us five years to get the paperwork from the Chacao municipality cleared up. Their reason for holding up our permits was that an internal door was, according to them, not where it should be."

I tell him that speaks well of them, that they are taking their job professionally.

"No, you don't understand, they were wrong," he explains with more than a tad of frustration. "Chacao firemen came to the office and verified everything was correct. That meant nothing to City Hall. One day, municipal workers showed up at my doorstep to shut down my offices. All because a door communicating a couple of offices was in the wrong place! I swore to them if they didn't back off and let us do our work, I would go down to VTV immediately and denounce their abuse of power."

"As it happened, they were wrong about the door. It took them five years to figure that one out, fess up and give us our permits. No apology was provided."

"Here comes the annoying part: they were on the brink of shutting me down, but our office building is where Trios, one of Caracas' poshest whorehouses, does its business."

Huh? I ask him to explain.

"Yes, it's right there where Le Club used to be. This is not a love motel, mind you, it's a burdel. You don't bring your date, you pick your date. Actually, you pick two or more - hence the name of the joint. It's the most exclusive place in the city - and they have all their permits! In fact, all of the city's poshest brothels - D'angelo, Divas - they're all in Chacao, they all have their permits, granted by our very own opposition. All of them are prominently advertised all over the city. And yet companies like mine doing legitimate business - we are the ones that have to stand City Hall breathing down our neck."

"Is it any wonder people are fed up?"


I hang up with Rafa a bit disheveled, trying to concentrate on my report that centers on how competition favors consumers and fosters innovation. The Skype ring interrupts me again.


It's Patricia, my second cousin. Last year, Patricia graduated from high school and came to live with us a few months to learn English and help us with the girls. A few weeks ago, she went back home, unsure about her future.

When Patricia came to the States, she did not know what she wanted to study or where. Her parents are not wealthy, and certainly could not afford the private universities all of Patricia's girlfriends were going to. They, and the rest of the family, were strongly steering her toward Maracaibo's public university, LUZ.

Patricia had convinced us that she was going to go to URBE, an expensive private university in Maracaibo that acts as a magnet for kids looking for an easy, uncomplicated BA. The place is the epicenter of the MMC (mientras me caso) crowd that many of Patricia's friends belong to.

We could understand her not wanting to push herself too much - she's no brain surgeon, and has the grades to prove it. Still, LUZ seemed like the only choice available to her.

Patricia would have none of it. With the unbridled confidence of a teenager who thinks she knows everything, she announced she would get a scholarship and go to URBE.

"How?" we all asked. "You don't have the grades, you are unsure of what you want to study, and neither you nor we have any connections."

"That's what you think," she would say. "I'll have you know one of my best friends is dating one of Manuel Rosales' kids."

As it happens, the Zulia state government has a scholarship program called "Programa de Becas Jesús Enrique Lossada," established under the leadership of former governor Manuel Rosales as a smaller, supposedly better-run version of Chávez's Misiones. The scholarships pay your tuition in the university of your choice. Rosales spoke a lot about this program during his brief run for President back in 2006, and I was not surprised to find out it was still working under the new Pablo Pérez administration.

While the state government claims all scholarships are given out randomly, it turns out there is a back door. And it was through that back door that Patricia got in, which was why she was calling me.

"They gave me the scholarship!" she beamed. "I'm going to URBE for Media Studies. I begin in January!"

In a matter of three weeks, Patricia managed to talk herself into an expensive government scholarship, covering the tuition on her fluff-choice of a career in a less-than-serious institution. And this is supposed to showcase the opposition's approach to public policy?

I speak to my cousin, Patricia's mom, and ask her if she thinks it's right for Patricia to accept that scholarship. "Of course it is," she says. "We couldn't pay her tuition if she didn't have the scholarship. She deserves it."

I ponder that while I remember her yearly Cadivi-subsidized trips to visit us.


I go back to my report on competition, wondering if we will ever have true competition between our opposition political parties.

Because of this consensus that favors "consensus" over all else, opposition voters are shielded from a healthy competition between our parties. All our darts are directed at Chávez, so we end up being duped into accepting the Chacao municipality's pimping and the Zulia scholarship program as sensible public policy, forced to look the other way.

Opposition primaries would have been the perfect time to highlight those shortcomings among our own, but that idea turned out to be a non-starter. UNT is not about to let pesky voters foray into their domain in Zulia, and whichever party Leopoldo López is in this week will protect its Chacao turf. Suggest that a bit of competitive pressure might just do those areas some good and you're seen as some kind of wild-eyed radical.

Just like in business, lack of competition between parties engenders lazy institutions full of petty bureaucratic vices. The result is that instead of being the repository of the nation's moral fiber, we end up giving permits to high-end brothels and handing out scholarships to friends of our friends.

Rafa is right. Some days, it's easy to understand ninis.