March 7, 2009

Launching the Caracas Chronicles Tech Advisory Panel

Quico says: First off, I need to take my hat off in googley-eyed, amazed, drooling adoration of you, the reader community.

The response to my plea for support in switching Caracas Chronicles to a more professional track has been nothing short of amazing! An astonishing number of lurkers came forward to offer help in their fields of expertise, and a project is now definitely taking shape. Suddenly, this all looks very doable to me, which only makes it more scary.

I don't want to give too much away at this stage, but I do want to say one thing: Caracas Chronicles has definitely outgrown I've spent the last week assessing options for a new content management system, one I can hack the hell out of.

I've narrowed it down to three options:
  • Drupal: An Open Source CMS with a massive base of developers and zillions of add-ons.
  • TikiWiki: An Open Source CMS run on "wiki rules" with a smaller base of developers but more features and which - get this - was invented and developed largely in South America
  • Wordpress: The grandaddy of net-based blogging-engines-cum-CMSs, commercial, but with zillions of users and developers and able to support some very sophisticated deployments.
My heart says TikiWiki. My brain says Wordpress. Drupal is, probably a decent compromise between the two: still OpenSource, but big enough to be stable.

Whichever CMS I go with, I will definitely need to outsource the actual work of coding the new sites.

This is where you come in, again.

I've been receiving bids from outsourcing companies from all over the place for the project, and I just don't know enough about web technology to evaluate them. I need your help.

So I'm forming the Caracas Chronicles Tech Advisory Panel: basically a Google Group to help organize the work of volunteers able to lend a hand with this stuff.

A few of you have already gotten in touch with me offering tech help: rest assured, I will be recruiting you for sure. But I still need more input and more volunteers.

So, if you have any expertise in this area, if you know your PHPs from your SQLs and can help me assess offers from providers bidding to re-do the site, and manage my relationship with them, please take a minute to write in.

As always it's caracaschronicles at fastmail dot fm


March 6, 2009

Caption Competition

Zombie Capitalism

Quico says: We're in the midst of a Nationalization Blitzkrieg right now: Cargill, Polar, Bodies and Smurfit Kappa have been targeted this week alone, and it's easy to guess there's a lengthy backlog of targets.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is it, the start of a drive towards mass nationalization of basically everything. You'd be wrong. Food Minister Felix Osorio stresses that the government has no intention to do away with the private sector, explaining they don't mean to take over every company, just the bad companies.

Which, in many ways, is worse. Because, how are you to tell whether the government will one day decide your company is bad? You can't. And given that you can't, why would you devote scarce resources to investing in a business that could be taken from you at any time? You wouldn't.

Instead of Socialism, what Venezuela is getting is a kind of Zombie Capitalism: a capitalism of the damned, run by firms that can't invest, can't grow, and can't decide. A schizophrenic capitalism where the state blames the profit motive for all of society's problems in one breath and gives assurances that it has no intention of doing away with private enterprise in the next. A panicky, insecure capitalism where firms get to remain private "por ahora" but managers are keenly aware that they're deeply reviled, endlessly scapegoated, and that they could be expropriated at any time, for basically any reason, and with no prospect of a fair appeal.

Venezuela's businesses are expected to operate under the most inflexible labor market regime in the world. Rather than running their companies, managers spend their days searching for wiggle room within the multiple regulatory straitjackets that have been placed on them: an interminable thicket of pajeric rules and regulations that force their hand over almost every major and many minor business decisions.

Venezuela's private sector isn't dying; it's undead. Firms aren't free to do any of the normal things firms do that generate social welfare. They can't strategize, or innovate, or invest, or create jobs and economic dynamism. But they can't just out-and-out die either, because if they stop operations then they certainly will be expropriated. In fact, all they can really do is keep on lumbering onward like the hyper-controlled, totally emasculated zombies they've become.

In many ways, proper socialism would be far preferable. At least the old Eastern Block, socialist elites grasped that with great power grabs come great responsibilities. As my Hungarian friend always says, the commies knew that if they were going to take away people's economic freedoms, they would have to offer them economic security in exchange. In Hungary, they called this "sausage socialism": as long as you did what you were told, you were guaranteed a job for life and a nice sausage for your dinner each evening. To people whose parents had lived through the deprivations of war, this really wasn't such a bad deal: Hungarians love sausage, apparently.

If you're stuck with Zombie Capitalism, you have no such luck. The chavista state neither washes nor lends out the washtub. It undermines the private sector's ability to create jobs able to provide people a living, but it refuses to take up the slack, taking responsibility for everyone's livelihood.

If, as Winston Churchill is said to have quipped, Capitalism distributes wealth unevenly while communism distributes misery evenly, Chávez has them both beat: Zombie Capitalism spreads misery, unevenly.

March 5, 2009


Quico says: This one is strictly for locals...

[Hat Tip: VUS.]

The "Bodies" Exhibit will now be showing at the Bello Monte Morgue

Juan Cristobal says: - "Attention shoppers: the Seniat has entered the building. To avoid expropriation, have all receipts and ownership papers handy."

I wouldn't be surprised if that had played yesterday over the PA system at Caracas' swank Sambil shopping mall, favorite hunting ground of chavistas a anti-chavistas alike.

But, surprise surprise, the government wasn't in the Sambil to expropriate anything. Turns out the Sambil is where the "Bodies" Exhibition is showing. In case you don't know, the Exhibit takes human bodies, plastifies them and shows them in all sorts of forms: inside out, outside in, digestive system only, nervous system only, con la patita pa'delante, con la patita pa'tras, you name it.

Personally, I haven't seen it. It played in Santiago last year and I didn't go. I found it all a bit too much for my taste, although I can totally understand its educational value.

But I digress. Sure the Exhibit has been mired in controversy everywhere it's played. Apparently there have been allegations that some of the bodies came from tortured Chinese prisoners, and regardless, it's not clear if all participants gave their consent to participate.

So Chavez being Chavez, the Venezuelan government just had to step in, and today we learn via Noticias 24 that the Seniat - yes, the Seniat - is shutting the Exhibit down because, according to God-given brother and Seniat head-honcho Jose Cabello, they "presume these are cuts of human flesh dissected under a special procedure where the polymer is extracted. (!!!) These are dead bodies, and that is going to be determined by a forensic exam and it is in conflict with their advertisements."

Now, never mind the absurdity of a frikkin' tax-collecting agency shutting down an Exhibit because it's about "dead bodies," what exactly are they going to prove? That these are dead bodies? Of course they are! That's the whole point! Are they too stupid to just, I dunno, pick up The Google and find out more about the Exhibit?

It makes you wonder what the Seniat is going to charge them with. They will say the organizers are hoarding up on meat to destabilize the government. Perhaps Nicolas Maduro will denounce a CIA plot to introduce an army of zombies into the country. Jose Vicente Rangel will decry that the bodies are really paramiliaries causing the crime wave. We will hear Carrizalez will call it a ploy to bring dead Chinese political prisoners, interfere with the sovereign, internal affairs of China and undermine the government's efforts to forge an alliance with them.

Will they say the organizers are inciting magnacide? Will we see Mario Silva denounce the Exhibit as being a subliminal ploy to invite people to kill chavistas? After all, the bodies are all red on the inside. Surely the TSJ will say that the injection of polymer violates the dead bodies' rights to free transit. They will ask why the bodies were not curated by cooperativas. They will look into the organizers' papers to decry that they didn't pay the owners of the bodies their prestaciones sociales.

I can't wait to see what they come up with.

March 4, 2009

Headed for another showdown

Juan Cristobal says: - Chavez has just ordered the expropriation of Cargill - not sure whether that means all of Cargill's operations or just its rice facilities. Cargill produces many well-known staples in Venezuela, including cooking oils El Rey and Vatel and Milani pastas.

He also threatened Lorenzo Mendoza, CEO of Empresas Polar, Venezuela's largest private conglomerate and an agro-business powerhouse, with total expropriation. All this because Mendoza had the gall to challenge the takeover without compensation of Primor Rice in court.

Friends I spoke to who own agro-business companies are expecting expropriation (i.e. theft) any day now. Meanwhile, Polar's employees have announced a street protest tomorrow afternoon at Avenida Francisco de Miranda.

Which begs the questions: are we headed toward yet another confrontation we are bound to lose? And if you're the owner of one of these companies, what can you do?

The showcase missions

Juan Cristobal says: - There's not a lot of room for consensus in today's hyper-polarized Venezuela. One of the few, though, is the idea that the Revolution has brought the debate about poverty and exclusion up front and center.

For years, social policy was an afterthought. The continuing slide in social statistics that began in the late '70s was like the pink elephant in the middle of the sarao that nobody wanted to talk about.

That's all changed. Whether we like it or not, getting people out of poverty and empowering them is the central debate in the coming years.

If the opposition is to take power, we will need to have a social message. And any social message, any policy proposal, begins with an assessment of the government's record. We need to ask ourselves what has worked, what hasn't and how we can make it better. And we need answer these questions in voters' minds.

Keeping track of the government's social programs, the Misiones, can be a tough task. Seems like every Simón, Antonio José or José Felix that populates the lore of revolutionary legend gets his or her own Misión. In fact, Misiones are usually named before they have been designed or have actually accomplished anything (Misión Villanueva, anyone?), so it's no surprise that many of them fail to get off the ground.

The other complication is that social policy is not just about what it achieves but how it achieves it. After all, you could design a program to, say, eradicate illiteracy and think it a success, even if it cost hundreds of millions of dollars, even though the same outcome could have been achieved for less, or even though that money could be put to better use by, say, eradicating TB. This kind of thinking is banished from VTV: optimizing the use of scarce resources between different alternative uses being as appealing a concept to chavistas as garlic chokers to the kids from Twilight.

One way to parse this patchwork of policies is to divide them between those that really count, and those that do not. In other words, the Misiones that actually matter and the other ones. In this post, I deal with the first group, the three Misiones that actually matter: Misión Barrio Adentro, Misión Mercal and Misión Robinson.

Barrio Adentro: a Cuban in every octagon, a pill in every mouth
Misión Barrio Adentro was created in 2003 to provide free primary health care to millions of poor Venezuelans. The program consists of a network of outpatient clinics, or modules, placed in the middle of poor neighborhoods, usually staffed by one or more Cuban doctors and Venezuelan nursing staff. For some strange, perhaps holistic reason, the modules are octagonal.

There are no reliable statistics on the actual number of modules opened, the number of Cuban doctors that are working in the country or the number of cases that have been seen. The government's statistics are hard to find, and even harder to believe. For instance, the statistics page in the Misión's website indicates that the Misión staff in the state of Miranda saw 3.1 million cases in January of 2004 alone!

The fact that January of 2004 is the last month to be listed in the web page speaks volumes about the government's whole attitude to evidence based policy. Like much of Misión-world, Barrio Adentro is an accountability-free zone, as though asking questions such as "but are we really getting our money's worth out of these modules?" or "is there a way to obtain better health outcomes out of the same level of spending?" were somehow unpatriotic.

The program's popularity is undeniable, and it ranks high on the list of achievements public opinion credits the government with. Undoubtedly, this is a reflection of the simple fact that people who had probably seldom seen a doctor before now have one right around the corner.

How many of them? Who knows. At what cost? Your guess is as good as than mine.

One of the few independent articles that try to assess the Misiones was published by Venezuelan think-tank ILDIS. The study, co-authored by Yolanda D'Elia, says that by 2006 there were 8,573 modules staffed by 14,000 Cuban doctors and 1,100 Venezuelan doctors. But, again, most of the statistics quoted by the authors come from the government, and are not independently audited.

So are the figures true? Have there really been hundreds of millions of cases? Are there more than 8,000 modules operating?

Nobody knows.

It's also impossible to ignore the frequent reports of problems. Abandoned modules are routinely reported, some Cuban doctors have defected, and the program has been criticized for not being able to care for common emergencies such as gunshot wounds. In spite of this enormous investment, there has been little progress in solving preventable health problems such as TB or maternal mortality. Some Cuban doctors live in precarious conditions, as guests in the homes of neighbors and for little pay. By some accounts, the Cuban government's effective rate of tax on their income is well over 90%. There have been reports of medical malpractice and of administering "pills" in inappropriate ways. Even chavista website Aporrea has joined in the criticisms. It's no wonder that people such as Francisco Rodríguez are calling the government's bluff and framing the achievements of the government's social programs as more "bulla" than "cabuya".

It's important for an assessment of Barrio Adentro to be balanced. While it is true that it has successfully brought health care to a lot of communities that didn't have access to it, serious doubts remain about its scope, impact, cost and, hence, long-term viability.

At the very least, though, thoughtful chavistas have to accept that it would be a remarkable, freakish coincidence if the program's design just happened to be the most efficient and effective design possible, given the government's disinterest in measuring the program's efficiency and effectiveness, let alone trying to optimize it. So long as words like "efficiency" "optimization" and "monitoring" are treated as suspect categories shot through with imperialist ideology, it's easy to see that we'll get mostly inefficient social programs that are not optimized because they receive little monitoring.

Robinson: learning to read, learning to spin
No program typifies chavismo's penchant for hyperbole better than Misión Robinson, the government's literacy program. No government official ever talks about Robinson without repeating the ridiculous claim that Venezuela, in a matter of months, eliminated illiteracy.

But international statistics beg to differ. The UNDP was quick to list Venezuela's literacy rate as somewhere between that of Paraguay and the Phillipines, while Unesco lists Venezuela under "data missing." Not surprisingly, Unesco denies Chávez's claims.

So which one is it? Have there been gains in literacy, or has this been just a bunch of lies by the government? Turns out, a little bit of both.

Francisco Rodríguez again, this time with Daniel Ortega, took a closer look at literacy trends and the real effects of Misión Robinson. They find, at most, a "small positive effect" that is inconsistent with the government's claim. They also find most of the advances in literacy are the result of long term demographic trends - younger people get more schooling than their parents and grandparents, and as the older generation dies, literacy rates go up. They call Misión Robinson another "expensive failure."

So we have a program that costs nobody knows how much and clearly benefits fewer people than the government claims. And we're supposed to sit still while chavismo holds this up as a monumental achievement?

Actually, yes. For a politician, fixating on the statistical analysis and agreeing with Rodríguez and Ortega's conclusion is a dangerous proposition. Such a critical stance is easy to misrepresent as a dismissal of the real achievements the Robinson program for some recipients.

Few things are more empowering than learning to read and write as an adult. Undoubtedly, some Venezuelans have benefited from Robinson, and many more know someone in their family or their neighborhood who has. Denying this program's effect or getting lost in macro-statistics can run you the real risk of appearing out of touch, of dismissing a program that is responsible for transforming the lives of some of Venezuela's most vulnerable people. And that is hard to recover from.

And so politicians point out Misión Robinson's shortcomings at their own peril. Even valid criticisms are easy for chavistas to caricature, and in an era of growing chavista dominance of the airwaves, attacks are difficult for opposition politicos to rebut.

Be that as it may, the government's disinterest in accountability and evidence-based policy making raises troubling questions: had the program's effectiveness been carefully monitored and its efficiency optimized, how many more people could have been taught to read and write for the same level of public spending? In other words, how many Venezuelan adults today are illiterate due to waste and mismanagement in Misión Robinson? We have no way to answer these questions, because the government won't publish credible data.

Mercal: Cheap food for all, if you can find it
The final flagship is also an expensive one. Misión Mercal is a network of mostly government-owned and -operated grocery stores, where goods and staples are sold at very low prices. Through a variety of subsidies and by taking out the middle man and importing food directly, Mercal is allegedly able to offer consumers groceries 50% below competing prices.

It is, undoubtedly, one of the most popular of all missions, and it yields a delicious irony: a socialist government propping up its popularity by subsidizing the cheap consumption of imported food.

Because, after all, that is what Mercal is, a massive handout. This is not bad per se: a lot of poor people in Venezuela can't make do every quince y último, so on that basis alone Mercal could even be deemed worthy social policy.

And yet Mercal is probably the poster child for a good idea gone wrong. In order to assist the poor in their grocery shopping, you have to determine who the poor are and what their basic needs are. Mercal does none of this.

The problem is that anyone can buy from Mercal. In fact the government even boasts that Mercal is beginning to reach the middle class! Even chavista web sites claim the middle class loves Mercal because of its "high quality" and "low prices."

Other problems with Mercal have surfaced. During 2007, the general scarcity in the country hit Mercal particularly hard. Because of its complexity, the distribution chain can break down easily. Time and again, the shelves at Mercal will be empty, while street vendors carry Mercal staples at unregulated prices. This being the Venezuelan military, it was inevitable that corruption would rear its ugly head. Perhaps because of this, the government shifted the responsibility to PDVSA and created PDVAL, a parallel network that is also not immune from hanky-panky.

But as with the other Misiones, Mercal is a story of a glass half-full. In an abstract sense, it is social policy bordering on the insane - cheap food for anyone who wants it, with a bunch of bureaucrats in charge with no oversight. Haven't we seen this movie before? Will we be surprised if this white elephant crashes and burns?

But tell that to the doñita who finds what she wants and has money left over. Denying Mercal's real benefits, or pointing out that it's nothing new, makes you quasi-unelectable.

Disagreeing with policies that are clearly popular and have evidently benefited some people is quite a challenge for the opposition. Perhaps the difficulty in overcoming it is what prevents them from even approaching the subject - they fear opening their mouths and instantly coming across as wanting to do away with the Misiones instead of wanting to improve them.

But criticize they must, because these programs are far from perfect.

March 3, 2009

Juice ad Bellum

Quico says: The Stanford Review's independent blog, Bellum, is running a juicy email interview with yours truly. Check it out.

March 2, 2009

Change You Can Believe In

Quico says: Over the past week, I've been doing some blue-sky thinking about the future of this blog. Here's the skinny:

Caracas Chronicles is at a crossroads. Over the last five years, this blog has been unwittingly made possible by the Dutch tax-payer: i.e., the people paying my scholarship to attend Maastricht University. At the end of this month, however, that gravy train will be coming to the end of the line. On March 31st, I will hand in the final draft of my dissertation, and with that will come two consequences,
1. Y'all will have to start calling me "doctol"
2. Hello unemployment!
Which means we're gonna have to shake things up around here. After much deliberation, I've decided that the way forward is to try to take Caracas Chronicles from semi-obsessive hobby to out-and-out, self-sustaining professional activity.

The reality is, I absolutely love blogging. I find it addictive and strangely fulfilling. And I think I've gotten pretty good at it. If there's even any chance I can make a living doing it, then that's definitely what I want to do.

What this means is that this site has to start to generate some income. Information wants to be free, but my bills want to get paid.

Most likely, this will mean some combination of advertising, grants, and "support from readers like you" (i.e., donations). It will also mean that Caracas Chronicles has to seriously step up its game, in terms of site design (thus, that contest), marketing reach, rate of posting and, as has become agonizingly obvious, commenting platforms.

Enough of this bush league stuff...we're going pro.

Most exciting, we are now actively researching the possibility of launching a sister-site in Spanish, which I envision as a sane-alternative to the NoticieroDigital/Noticias24 duopoloy. And we're looking to do that on the basis of an innovative software infrastructure specifically designed to prevent the rampaging troll wars those sites have devolved into. This is a major project, and it's going to take some work to get it right: look for a launch date some time this summer.

Where You Come In
One thing is clear, this blog's greatest resource is the reader community, an inexhaustible source of good ideas, juicy gossip and unexpected expertise. If we're to pull off this shift, we will need lots and lots of support from you. If you have more time than money, we're going to be asking for you to volunteer. And if you have more money than time, we're going to be asking you for some of that as well.

In terms of volunteers, I've already been in touch with a handful of you, but we need to involve many more. Specifically, we really want you to get in touch with us if you know anything about:
  • Web technology (PHP, MySQL, phpBB, Joomla, PERL or others.)
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Online community development
  • The Venezuelan online marketing/web advertising world
  • Fundraising from first world donors imaginably interested in supporting this site
  • Fundraising inside Venezuela
Please take a minute to write into if you have particular expertise in any of these fields, or if you know someone who does.

Taking this blog pro is one of the scariest/most exciting things I've ever done. There is just so much we could do with Caracas Chronicles if we had a bit of an income stream and the ability to fund the kinds of little side-projects you can easily do with a small budget, but find it almost impossible to do with no budget at all.

Think far more sophisticated community development software undergirding the comments section. Think web-video. Think regular audio podcasts. Think in-depth research into voting trends and new ways of visualizing the results of that research. Think detailed economic analysis and investigative pieces delivered as flash animations.

The sky is the limit. But I can't do it alone.

Together, though?

Yes we can!