March 14, 2009

¿Dónde está el traductor?

Quico says: ONIDEX, Venezuela's INS equivalent, has apparently decided there's no need to wait for visitors to actually, y'know, land in the country before starting to appall them:
"ONIDEX has again changed Venezuela's immigration landing card [the ones they hand out before landing] and this time, in translating the questions, they've taken a few liberties with the language of Shakespeare. Maybe it's a ploy to discombobulate the Empire, or just an oversight, but it was hard to miss that they now ask you for your pasaport number. Vuelo becomes fligh or dlight, depending on the question, but never flight. Apparently, estudiante just looks more genuine when you render it as Estudent, just as "Type of Accomodation" looks more real if you translate it as Tipe. The best one was moneda, which they render literally as coin. Apparently "currency" is a bit of technical jargon normal people wouldn't understand..."
As Teodoro once said, chavismo sees every day as a golden opportunity to unlearn something...

March 12, 2009

The End of Whac-a-Mole as We Know It?

Quico says: You know the old fair game, right? You get a dorky little foam-padded club, and your job is to keep the moles down. When one pops up, you whack it over the head - which is terribly cathartic - but as soon as you do, another one pops up. And another. Faster and faster. No matter how quick you are, you can never win. You only have one club. And there are a lot of moles.

Could this be the perfect analogy for a petrostate in the down part of the oil cycle?

Chávez knows it could go that way, so he's trying some innovative tactics to stay ahead of the game. For instance, this week he sonorously declared that any mole that dares to rise up will be summarily fired.

Which got me thinking maybe my previous writing on the subject has been a little bit naïve. Just because whac-a-mole was the way all previous Venezuelan administrations dealt with the social conflicts that follow spending retrenchments doesn't mean Chávez will do the same. The man is, after all, a committed devotee of the maxim that if something is worth doing, it's worth overdoing. Why would he limit himself to the traditional "stall 'em, water-cannon 'em, tear gas 'em" tactics of the past? That's the old way.

When people protested Luis Herrera's austerity package after Black Friday in 1982, CAP's reforms in the early-90s, or Caldera's Agenda Venezuela in the mid 90s, those leaders had to fall back on traditional mole-whackery because the alternatives just weren't allowed. Much as they probably wanted to, they couldn't out-and-out ban protests, they couldn't dismiss unionized workers en masse: there were rules about that sort of thing. Treaties they couldn't back out of. Law courts they couldn't control.

Besides, in purely political terms, the unions were just too powerful: any politician's survival instinct would tell him loud-and-clear that that stuff was out of bounds.

But we're dealing with Chávez here. He doesn't do "out of bounds". The CTV has already been emasculated; Chavista unions put in its place. Courts packed to ensure they rule the way they're told. And the precedent of mass dismissal, in defiance of legal norms, of workers who strike against state owned enterprises has already been set.

Could it be that Chávez is about to throw away the whac-a-mole club, get a concrete mixer, and just pave over the mole hill?

I wouldn't put it past him. The special hostility the authoritarian left reserves for working class organizations it can't control has long been noted, and chavismo is no exception. Somehow, the dictatorship of the proletariat always seems to end up turning into a dictatorship over the proletariat. Paging General Jaruzelski...General Jaruzelski, please report to the Miraflores Wing.

It could break either way. Chávez has long seemed to realize the drawbacks of traditionally dictatorial actions such as banning strikes out-and-out. He knows if you pave over the mole hill, every mole starts to exert pressure on the concrete at the same time. Suddenly, even a hairline crack threatens the entire structure. Dictatorships turn out to be remarkably brittle little contraptions. They sure look solid, but when they start to fall apart they seem to crumble all at once.

One thing is for sure: going down the path of heavy-duty repression would be a departure for Chávez, a game-changer. This is something the hyperventilatory, Globo-watching opposition has never been able to grasp: dictatorial repression has never really been Chávez's style. His whole thing is selective harassment and intimidation, not blanket prohibitions. It may, however, be that while selective harassment and intimidation is good enough in the up-part of the oil cycle, it's just not tenable in the down-party. And it may be that, looking at the numbers, he's starting to realize that.

But then, isn't it just too late now to build the kind of repressive dictatorship he may come to feel he needs? The other side is already gearing up for a fight, los rusos también juegan. Hasn't Chávez fallen way behind the curve?

And, come to think of it, what makes us think the chavista state is going to be any more competent at repressing striking aluminum workers than it is at producing aluminum?

Way more questions than answers, I realize. But that's where I'm at.

March 11, 2009

The Looming Scrap for Petrodosh

Quico says: Here is a story that has been simmering for days and should probably be taken as a leading indicator, a canary in the proverbial coal mine. The state-owned aluminum sector based in the Guayana region of Venezuela has positioned itself for the looming intramural lobbying death-match that will probably consume the chavista governing elite for the next several years.

The aluminum folk opened the bidding at $6 billion, pressing their case for "new investments" to "sustain production levels." Not surprisingly, they are backing their case up with the inevitable, heart-rending statistics: the 10,000 people they employ directly, the 6,000 affiliated co-ops, the 200,000 guayaneses whose economic security is on the line.

Now, I want you to try a little thought experiment. Try reading that story, only not as yourself. Instead, put yourself in the position of an oil union leader from Anaco. Imagine your members have been breaking your balls for months now because the economato - the subsidized union-run shop - is bare because of delays in the government's subsidies.

Or imagine yourself reading it from the point of view of the manager of Caricuao's Centro Diagnostico Integral, part of the Barrio Adentro II program, who's trying to negotiate with the health ministry to hire some extra staff and pay for the repairs of broken-down diagnostic equipment.

Or picture yourself reading it as a clerk working in the Sanitation Department in San Juan de los Morros' city hall. Imagine you are facing unexpected expenses at home because your unemployed son and his wife have to come live with you, leaving you desperate for better pay.

Picture reading it as one of several million people who in one way or another depend on state spending for their livelihood. The government is in a financial tight spot, and it doesn't take much to come to the realization that you are in direct competition with those Guayana aluminum workers for the distribution of the same finite pool of petrodollars.

How do you feel about that story now?

The realities of life under petrostate populism are about to bite for all these people. For all the talk of radical change, the basic outline of the political economy of chavismo is exactly the same as that of every Venezuelan administration since Gómez.

Our economy is still dominated by the state. The state still does only one thing that makes money. The state also pays for thousands upon thousands of things that cost money, from subsidizing people's shopping, to diagnosing their diseases to milling their rice to cleaning their streets to producing the aluminum foil they wrap their lunch in.

Socially, ethically, politically, environmentally - these things are all wildly different in nature. Some are vital, others totally frivolous; some well conceived, others cockeyed.

But from a purely fiscal point of view, they're basically equivalent. A bolivar spent making aluminum in Guayana is a bolivar not spent feeding workers in Anaco, or diagnosing illnesses in Caricuao, or cleaning the streets of San Juan de los Morros. Whatever the relative social and political merits of these activities, they share one basic trait: they cost money. And, as everyone knows, money doesn't grow on trees; it's pumped out of the ground, instead.

So long as the oil revenue stream is growing, the petrostate model "works" - at least in its own narrow terms of keeping constituencies relatively calm. When oil revenues grow year-on-year, the state can give an extra bolivar to the aluminum mill and the union and the CDI and the city hall. Competition between them is attenuated, or at least the perception of it is. And the peace is kept.

The problem arises from this nasty habit oil prices have of going down some of the time. When that happens - as it inevitably must now and again - the petrostate finds itself forced to take some dosh away from the aluminum mill and the union and the CDI and city hall.

That's when all hell breaks loose. Because, suddenly, the CDI manager can see with absolute clarity that if the Guayana worker gets his way, she can't get hers! And the Union leader finds himself under the absolute compulsion to do whatever he can to grab some cash for his economato before the grubby sanitation man can get his hands on it and waste it cleaning streets.

Try as it might, the state cannot satisfy all of their demands. The budget maker's craft becomes a macabre exercise in deciding who to screw only a little bit and who to screw a lot.

The down-part of the oil cycle takes the lobbying contest over the petrostate's budget from a low-conflict, positive-sum game to a high-conflict negative-sum game. In it, you, me and Maigualida the janitor all lose. The only question is who loses more.

At some point along the line, interest groups find that protesting is their best bet in trying to salvage whatever rents they can. And so protest they do. If there's money for Guayana, why isn't there money for my economato? "Es que todo se lo roban!" you shout.

Except, if one group is thinking along these lines, every group is too. Soon enough, the country is on the fast track to some hellish Nash equilibrium, where convulsion over cut-backs is the norm and people wave placards and burn tires to demand a hearing. That's how petrostate revenue retrenchments pass through into governance crises. We've seen this picture a thousand times before.

Again, the state's response isn't really surprising. If you're the government and you have BsF.100 in the kitty and you have 20 interest groups all burning tires in the streets and pledging to keep doing that until you pay them each 20, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you're probably going to end up having to call out the Guardia Nacional with orders to lob some tear gas and break a few bones. By the time things get to this point, it's hard to fault the minister who orders the get tough approach. Realistically, what else could he do?

It's been clear for years that we'd end up here, and it's clear now where this is all headed. In Venezuela, sharply increased social conflict and state repression follow oil slumps like night follows day.

March 10, 2009

Taxing our way out of traffic

Juan Cristobal says: - A few months ago I was talking to some people at one of Caracas' municipalities about the problem of traffic in the city, one of our pet topics on this blog. I told them that I thought Caracas was not dense enough, and that this was the cause of a significant portion of the congestion problems.

"Not dense enough?" she asked. "Why, the problem is that Caracas has way too many people, we should move people away from the city!"

The comment stuck with me. I was left with the impression that, while our opposition municipal authorities understood the importance of the traffic issue and were implementing good strategies to temporarily ameliorate the problem, they lacked the vision needed to propose long-term solutions.

The conversation came back to me when I read this piece by Harvard economist Ed Glaeser. In it, Glaeser argues that, in order to be green and reduce our carbon imprint, we should all move into energy-efficient high-rises in the big cities. He estimates that moving to the suburbs to be surrounded by nature - in theory, an environmentally-friendly move - dramatically increases the carbon imprint of the average city inhabitant. If you want to be good to the environment, Glaeser argues, stay away from it and live in cities.

Glaeser finds much of the added impact comes from driving. Actually, when you think about it really hard, much of the traffic comes from too much driving too. To reduce traffic, reduce people's need to drive. Should be simple, right?

Well, in Caracas people need to drive because they live far away from their places of work and their schools. In fact, the people living close to everybody's places of work sometimes do very little working.

When I lived in Caracas, I used to visit a retired aunt of mine who lived in an enormous house in Los Chorros. I didn't have a car back then, so I would walk from the Los Dos Caminos Metro station and be there in about eight minutes.

It always struck me as incredibly unfair how my aunt could have a house with a 5,000 square meter plot of land, close to a Metro station, practically in the middle of the city, and yet she lived alone. Why weren't urban planners doing something about it?

Turns out, my aunt was also the President of the Neighbors Association of Los Chorros. Time and again, she would tell me stories of how she was livid with politician Perico de los Palotes because he wanted to change the regulación in the area. It was seen as the job of Neighborhood Associations to apply pressure, influence and - gasp - even organize street protests to prevent changes like that from happening. In a "there goes the neighborhood" mentality, existing homeowners prevented urban planners from making decisions that would benefit all but harm their particular interests. This survives to this day.

Think about it: the Caracas Country Club, Sebucan, Los Chorros, Altamira, La Castellana, Santa Eduvigis, La Florida. These are all places that are centrally located, and yet you see enormous houses where few people live taking up valuable space. And in the meantime, the poor schmucks stuck living in San Antonio de los Altos or Guarenas have to be in traffic for three hours.

What if, instead, like in normal cities, our central locations were places where a lot of people lived? What if, instead of having a zoning ordinance in Los Chorros that allows construction of up to 2 stories, we had one that allowed up to 35 stories? We should support people's rights to have a 10,000 square meter CCC mansion one kilometer away from Chacaíto - that's their right. But why not tax the hell out of them? After all, if we sit and wait for more autopistas to be built, we're gonna be waiting for a long, long time.

So here's my memo to the mayors of Chacao, Sucre and Baruta: Pico y Placa is fine, Canal de Contraflujo is swell. But unless you do something to change the entire tax and zoning framework to increase population density close to our major avenues, metro lines and public transportation lines, our city will never change. No temporary measures will do.

March 9, 2009

Master of the debate

Juan Cristobal says: - Chavez's latest antics include setting up government luxury restaurants and expropriating areperas and doing away with the Bodies Exhibit. Bizarre policies, to be sure, and they are not above commenting on this blog and other places.

But while we're busy chuckling away, the important stuff falls through the cracks. Such as this: last weekend, in the city of Caracas alone, there was one murder per hour. That's right, 65 murders in one weekend alone.

Bailame ese trompo en la uña

Of course, that's how Chavez would want it. Instead of having people debate the country's escalating violence - a direct consequence of his policies, or lack thereof - we argue about the Bodies exhibit. Instead of focusing on the coming economic crisis, we are forced to debate the wisdom of the government taking over fast-food joints.

Chavez not only uses the bully pulpit - he forces it down our throat until we can't think about anything other than what he wants us to think about. His stuff is so outrageous, it pushes the real stuff into minor headlines - witness today's edition of El Universal, where the crime wave gets secondary billing.

And in spite of knowing better, we fall for it every time.

Chez Commandant



CHEvre Chaud on Deep Red Ensalada Rusa


Coop-Raised Chicken Kiev on an Iron Ricebowl

Terrine of Cuban Picadillo à la Carnet de Rationement


Organic Afrodescendant Endogenous Dulce de Lechoza


2003 Tempranillo/Granache "Maisanta" La Rioja Riojita


Musical accompaniment: Simply Red

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