June 6, 2009

Caracas Chronicles @ 360

Quico says: Mark your calendars. On Wednesday, June 17th, I'll be hosting a Meet & Greet at 360, the skybar on top of the Altamira Suites hotel. Come one, come all.

If you've never been there, the 360 is simply gorgeous. If you get there early enough, you get to see the most spectacular sunset over Caracas. So I'll be there from 6:00 p.m., if the weather permits on the roof terrace, eager to meet lurkers and regulars alike.

Altamira Suites is on the 1era Transversal & 1era Avenida in Altamira, one block Northeast of Plaza Altamira, just next door to CAF. The scheduling is after-work-drink friendly. But stick it out 'til the bitter end and you'll (likely) get the extra bonus of seeing me drop-down drunk.

June 5, 2009

"The rich are not human"

Quico says: In Caracas, sleeping through the constant ringing of car alarms can be a challenge. It seems as though every half hour an alarm goes off and the sound bounces from the walls of the Ávila, echoing through the entire city. When you think of the sounds of Caracas, you think of the sapitos at night, and of car alarms.

But it's the alarms coming off of the political world that are most worrying. And nothing is as alarm-worthy as Chávez's straightforward, dehumanizing discourse against his critics.

In this clip, we hear Chávez argue, repeatedly and vehemently, that "the rich are not human", to the applause of his accolytes. It's not something that slipped out. It's something he says four or five times, underlining it by saying "and I take responsibility for this" just before repeating it yet again.

The rich man, we're told, is an animal in human form. It's not just that "being rich is bad." It goes way beyond that.

The use of superheated, over-the-top rhetoric against anyone who fails to toe the President's ideological line has been one of the mainstays of chavista rhetoric from the very beginning. But the final step, the out-and-out denial of the humanity of those who criticize him, that step is new.

I think at this point we at least owe the President the courtesy of taking him at his word. He has told us, many times, that Venezuela's Constitution is second to none in protecting human rights. We note with some concern, however, that the constitution is silent on the topic of the rights of animals in human form.

Once certain groups are stigmatized as evil, morally inferior, and not fully human, the persecution of those groups becomes more psychologically acceptable. Restraints against aggression and violence begin to disappear. Not surprisingly, dehumanization increases the likelihood of violence and may cause a conflict to escalate out of control. Once a violence breakover has occurred, it may seem even more acceptable for people to do things that they would have regarded as morally unthinkable before.

Parties may come to believe that destruction of the other side is necessary, and pursue an overwhelming victory that will cause one's opponent to simply disappear. This sort of into-the-sea framing can cause lasting damage to relationships between the conflicting parties, making it more difficult to solve their underlying problems and leading to the loss of more innocent lives.
The spread of dehumanizing discourses are a typical feature of pre-genocidal situations. We know that the Rwandan genocide was preceded by a long and dedicated campaign by Hutu extremists to convince their people that Tutsis were not human in the same sense they are.

We know that a decade of Khmer Rouge propaganda on the dehumanizing effects of urban life was necessary to prepare its followers to accept the need to empty the cities and kill their inhabitants.

We know that Sudan's arab militias are bombarded with messages equating Darfuris with apes and slaves to soften them up to commit acts of mass murder.

We know how important the dehumanization of Japanese people, their portrayal as a subhuman race of near-chimps, was in American military propaganda ahead of the decision to indiscriminately firebomb Tokyo and to use nuclear weapons against civilian populations.

And the German example is too notorious to need more than a mention.

Dehumanizing discourses are a necessary - if not sufficient - precondition to genocide. Hugo Chávez declares that he takes full responsibility for a discourse that explicitly denies the humanity of his critics.

I hate to sound alarmist, but you do the math.

June 4, 2009

"Nos fueramos quedao con las contratistas"

Juan Cristóbal says: - (Note: An anonymous reader gives us a first-hand impression of what is going on in the eastern shores of Lake Maracaibo after Chávez nationalized most of the local economy - see here for background).

The situation is dire. Ciudad Ojeda, traditionally a city with lots going on, looks like a ghost town. There are few cars out on the street, few people in the local banks. Friday the 8th of May, the day everything was nationalized, right before Mother's Day, they were practically empty. This past weekend, end of the month, there were fewer than 20 people in each of the three banks I went to. Normally, these are so crowded that ATMs drop out of the network due to congestion.

Everyone owes everyone else. Yesterday, during the protests, local TV showed a few people saying "Nos fueramos quedao con las contratistas" ... "we should have stayed with the contractors." Another said, "I support 12 people, my wife, my children, my parents, and I haven't been paid in three weeks. I want to be paid so that I can at least sell Panorama in traffic lights."

(Translator's Note: In Zulia, people refer to "newspaper" as "Panorama", the name of Maracaibo's leading daily)

My students at the University are terrified - they are being affected, either directly or indirectly. Their parents either work in some of the expropriated companies, or in the services sector that is seeing their customers disappear. Many of them are on scholarship and believe at any moment the state government will stop paying them. Two former students who are doing their internships and dissertations in some of the expropriated companies were literally crying to me yesterday, not knowing what to do because PDVSA won't acknowledge the work they have done, and if the employer doesn't validate their work, the University won't deem it sufficient to graduate.

Two students told me yesterday about how workers haven't been paid since Chávez took over. Another one told me his father made BsF 4000 a month (about US$700 at black-market rates), and now he will struggle to reach BsF 1500. The few that got paid were paid roughly the same, BsF 340 for the first week with PDVSA, and they weren't paid on Friday as is customary but the following Wednesday. Private clinics don't want to see them because they don't have anything to pay with, drug stores won't fill their prescriptions for the same reason, and the latest rumor is that Chávez is going to take over the region's three private clinics in retaliation.

Many service boats have burnt-out engines, other have been "cannibalized" in order to sell the spare parts. Many boats haven't been out yet because PDVSA has not complied with the customary logistics (water, ice, food for employees, etc) and the workers refuse to board.

The picture is bleak.

June 3, 2009

Clueless in Caracas

Juan Cristóbal says: - President Chávez canceled a trip to El Salvador last Monday, alleging concerns regarding a possible assassination attempt. The finger points to the usual suspects - the CIA, Luis Posada Carriles, the opposition.

Normally, this wouldn't deserve the slightest of interest. We've lost count of the number of times Chávez has denounced someone was *this close* to killing him, and by now it's pretty clear to everyone that he's bluffing.

Why do we think that? Are we that naive? After all, Interior Minister Tarek El-Aissami came out today saying that the plot was in the later stages of development, and that forensic work indicates the plan was "almost perfect."

What he didn't give were details. In fact, nobody in El Salvador, Venezuela or the US has been arrested for this foiled "conspiracy," no details have been given, and no evidence has been presented. That's probably because they have nothing. That, or they're still cooking up the evidence.

A couple of things set this staging of the President's "they're-out-to-get-me" kabuki apart from past ones. First of all, it marks the first time he is accusing the Obama administration of trying to kill him.

Sure, Chávez may say that he believes Obama has good intentions and isn't involved. But how can anyone with a minimal knowledge of how the US government works believe the CIA would be planning to kill a head of state without the President's knowledge?

Perhaps he thinks Leon Panetta has gone rogue on Obama. Perhaps he thinks the CIA behaves like the Disip, with a mind and an agenda of its own.

But the CIA is no ISI, and Obama is no Zardari. Furthermore, it would make no sense for the CIA to be acting on its own toward a country the administration is actively seeking to mend fences with. The administration has had its run-ins with the CIA and it may be true that the agency is doing a few things on their own, without the White House's knowledge. But the imperial bureaucracy in Langley would never go so far as to risk their necks for Hugo Chávez. He's just not that important.

So if you believe the plot was real and that the CIA was behind it, you believe Barack Obama is trying to have Hugo Chávez murdered. There's no two ways about this. Good luck selling that one.

Still, the information is filtering out in bits and pieces, exactly as the government wants it. Yesterday, it was Chávez denouncing the plot. Today, it's El-Aissami saying basically nothing. Tomorrow, they will show pictures of some random machine gun that was supposed to knock down Chávez's plane. Friday, it will be an unfortunate member of a mara who will be blamed. Saturday, the government will threaten the media for not taking this seriously enough. Sunday, Chávez will insult Hillary Clinton.

Just like that, a made-up story has given the newspapers a week's worth of news, a week in which they don't talk about the economy, labor problems, shortages, inflation, crime. The whole thing is so transparent it almost plays out like a game of Clue - this week, it's Posada Carriles, in El Salvador, with a bazuca. Next week, it'll be Guillermo Zuluaga, in Los Chorros, with the stuffed head of a moose.

There is no ridicule they will not touch to distract us from the real issues.

June 1, 2009

The Most Important Story Nobody's Talking About

Quico says: While Caracas is consumed by gossip about whether Chávez stood up Vargas Llosa or Vargas Llosa stood up Chávez, some serious trouble is brewing on the Eastern Shore of Lake Maracaibo, the so-called COL (for Costa Oriental del Lago) which is still Venezuela's number one oil producing area.

Last month, the government seized control of a wide array of oil service contracting companies in the region, vowing to absorb the workforce into PDVSA. But of the nearly 8,000 workers who should've been put on the state oil giant's payroll, fewer than 300 have apparently been processed so far. That leaves a huge floating workforce, suddenly out of a job, all concentrated in a single area, milling around and getting increasingly pissed off by the delays.

The knock-on effects of all those de facto layoffs for the local economy are pretty severe. For instance, Union Radio reports that 80% of Lagunillas municipality's income was directly related to the service companies, meaning their effective confiscation sets off, among others, a local fiscal crisis that threatens to force the municipal government to make drastic budget cuts.

Today, the situation was tense on the COL, with the main thoroughfare (the "Intercomunal") closed down, rumors of a "paro cívico" making the rounds, stores shutting down early to avoid trouble, groups of protesters milling around, and military patrols rumbling up and down the street.

And unlike 2002-03, it's not just a white-collar problem over there anymore. This time around, everyone's mad.

Thousands of families have seen their livelihoods collapse in the last few weeks, making for a volatile stew of labor unrest that the Caracas-centric media really ought to be covering, but isn't.

How PDVSA can continue to operate in the area even though they're short by thousands of service suppliers and amid this level of social tension is anybody's guess.