August 8, 2009

The View from Your Window: Washington

Washington, DC - 12:39 p.m.

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August 7, 2009

Ending the Tsunami of Paja on Gringos in Colombia

Quico says: First things first: under current geostrategic realities, the notion that the US could mount an invasion of Venezuela (or Ecuador) from Colombia is nuts. Bonkers. Plain crazy.

Nobody with a passing acquaintance of the Obama administration's foreign policy, or the US's budgetary constraints, military capabilities, political realities or strategic interests could take such an idea seriously. There's so much that's wrongheaded and bizarre about the claim, there's very little point in even going through all the various reasons why it's simply not believable.

We need to be perfectly up-front about that as we dissect Hugo Chávez's claim that the recent US Military Agreement with Colombia (which does not open US military bases there and does not lead to a sharp spike in the presence of US military personnel there) is some kind of prelude to a US invasion of Venezuela.

Once we discard the pretext, I can think of two possible reasons why Chávez might react quite as strongly as he has to a stepped up US military presence in Colombia. It's one of two things. Either,
A- He's planning to do something drastic that fundamentally alters the US geostrategic calculus in the Andean region.


B- The talk of invasions and cross-border wars is a rhetorical smokescreen: really, he's trying to help his allies in the Colombian conflict (hint: not the government.)
The first possibility, while not quite impossible, strikes me as far-fetched. There is only one action Chávez could undertake that would alter the US geostrategic calculus sufficiently to make an invasion exit the realm of straight-out science fiction and enter that of strategic possibility: making a serious attempt to produce nuclear weapons.

This is not impossible, and certainly Venezuela's otherwise-difficult-to-fathom alliance with the Ahmadinejad/Khamenei regime in Tehran should give us pause. Nonetheless, the technical barriers involved are massive, and the risks seem too big for anyone to face.

I think the much more likely scenario, therefore, is B-: the latest hissy fit about a gringo invasion is cover for an ulterior motive.

Lets review the bidding, here:
  1. Chávez's alliance with FARC is an open secret.
  2. Chávez arms FARC.
  3. Chávez allows FARC to use Venezuela as its rearguard.
  4. High ranking chavista officials aid FARC's narcotics operations.
This we all pretty much know, and the US and Colombian intelligence services know for sure....from that, it's no stretch to conclude that Chávez's end-game vis-à-vis the Colombian conflict, his ultimate goal there, is for FARC to win the war and establish a friendly government in Bogotá.

That's - to put it mildly - an unrealistic aim. But within the bubble of hyperleftist lunacy Chávez has created around himself in Miraflores, the possibility of FARC eventually winning the war in Colombia and toppling the democratically elected government has obviously not been discarded. Indeed, it sure looks like this is Chávez's end-game for Colombia. And it's because that's Chávez's ultimate goal there that preventing any escalation of US involvement there is a priority.

In raising a stink about the recent military deal, Chávez is simply going to bat for an ally. Not at all unlike what he's tried to do for Zelaya in Honduras. His ally is threatened, so Hugo tries to use the power resources at his disposal to help out. No more, no less.

But, from the Colombian point of view, should the fact that your neighbors are allied with the narcoterrorists on your soil count as a reason to back down? I really don't see it.

The View from Your Window

Washington, DC: 11:30 a.m.

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August 6, 2009

Uribe and Obama should scrap their deal

Juan Cristóbal says: - As you probably know, the recent controversy surrounding Venezuela and Colombia has to do with an agreement allowing the US Armed Forces to use 7 military bases inside Colombian territory. The deal has caused a diplomatic firestorm. The combination of hot air coming from Miraflores and the carbon footprint from Uribe's seven-countries-in-five-days tour will probably cause significant chunks of the polar ice caps to disappear. More significantly, Chávez’s threats to cut off all trade with Colombia should be taken seriously. The question begging to be asked is whether it's all worth it.

I think it isn't.

Breaking commercial ties with Colombia would be terrible for Venezuelans. Not only would the price of everything from cars to blumers increase by having to find other, more costly partners, but the distance and the lack of established distribution chains means these hikes would likely be accompanied by significant shortages. Chávez’s further threats to respond by going shopping in Moscow for even more military hardware would only add to Venezuelans' misery.

Let's face it, there is nothing Venezuelans gain from this policy and, quite frankly, little Colombians gain. Many commentators, from Andres Oppenheimer to National Security Adviser Jim Jones, have said the agreement is no big deal and would not add to the number of troops already in Colombia. If that's the case, why push for it then?

Colombia also has a lot to lose. Uribe is being forced to explain domestic policy to friendly neighbors, and usually balanced Presidents such as Uruguay's Tabaré Vásquez have come out unconvinced his idea is a good one. More importantly, Uribe's move would embolden the more disagreeable sectors of Colombia's opposition. Just today we learn Chávez is holding high-level meetings with Colombia's disgraced former President Samper, and tomorrow he meets the Colombian opposition. And besides, it's not like Uribe owes the US many favors after the Democrats in Congress have essentially shelved the Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

This is a bad move for the US as well. Whatever extra mobility they gain by placing themselves in Colombia's bases is offset by the credibility they lose in a region that has shown much goodwill toward American policy in the last few months. Is it really worth it to anger its allies in order to appease its military establishment who persist in fighting a misguided war on drugs that, frankly, is not showing much in the way of results? Can't they simply do whatever they were meant to do with this agreement, only do it using some other, more informal arrangements, without so much pomp?

This deal is bad for Uribe, bad for the US, bad for the US's image in the region, and most of all, bad for Venezuelans. Let's see, that's four bads, no goods.

The agreement gives Chávez the perfect excuse to rally around the flag and ignore the important domestic issues he should be paying attention to. Uribe and Obama should scrap it.

The View from Your Window

Taunus, Germany: 7:18 p.m.

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The Other Media Crisis

Quico says: Everyone knows that the Big Crisis affecting Venezuelan journalism is that the news business just doesn't gel with a government congenitally allergic to criticism. Chavismo now openly advocates substituting a free and vibrant press with a subservient, quasi-statist "community media". But the open intimidation and harassment the private media faces is only one aspect of the problem, and perhaps not even the biggest one. The biggest one is that, today, essentially every news-gathering organization in the country - except for one - is losing money.

Circulation figures for major newspapers are a tightly held secret in Venezuela. Reliable sources tell me that El Nacional, for instance, is now circulating fewer than 20,000 copies every weekday. Yes, you read that right. El Universal I don't know about, but is unlikely to be far above that.

In fact, the only Venezuelan newspaper that is financially viable these days is Ultimas Noticias, which rides its tabloid sensibility to a respectable (yet far from awesome) circulation tally in the low-to-mid six-figures on weekdays. That allows them to break even while everybody else is losing money.

Tal Cual? A money hole. Globovisión? A charity case. Notitarde? Beyond hopeless. Every news organization in the country except for Ultimas Noticias loses money.

In effect, this means that organizations lacking a powerful financial backer - like Tal Cual - operate under insanely tight constraints. Our newspapers are precarious operations run on a shoestring by badly underpaid staff perennially one fine away from going under.

Meanwhile organizations enjoying the support of powerful, deep pocketed backers can keep operating, not as commercial enterprises but rather as personal projects. El Nacional exists purely because Miguel Henrique Otero subscribes to the kamikaze school of financial management, no other reason. El Universal survives because Andrés Mata thinks poking Chávez in the eye is good fun. If these products were run as by purely commercial standards, they would've closed years ago. And however outsized their martyr complexes might be, even the Zuloagas and Oteros of this world will run out of money eventually.

Except, of course, if your backer has the largest oil reserves in the Western hemisphere. One of the scary things of this phenomenon is that soon we may face a reality where the only newspapers that survive are Ultimas Noticias and Chavez-propaganda pieces such as Diario Vea, supported by the inexhaustible budget for government advertisement and its barely-hidden policy of rewarding favorable editorials.

While tempting to blame this, too, on Chávez, the financial crisis afflicting our newspapers is merely the Venezuelan expression of a worldwide phenomenon. Circulation is falling everywhere. Advertisers who can go on Craig's List for free have no reason to hand over their hard earned cash to a newsroom. Eyeballs are moving off the page and onto the web, and this would be happening even if Luisa Ortega Diaz had never been born.

Underlying global trends in media consumption patterns could be doing as much to doom Venezuela's traditional news organization as Chávez is. And the Venezuelan media - barely able to survive in the incredibly hostile atmosphere chavismo creates - just don't seem to have a plan to deal with it at all.

To be fair, they're not alone. The SF Chronicle and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer couldn't crack that nut either. When even Conde Nast is closing magazines and firing staff, it's clear that the media can run, but they can't hide.

Over the next few years, people worldwide are going to have to get used to a radical shift in the way news gathering is financed and organized, and a lot of commentators are talking in horrified terms about a kind of "gap": a period after the legacy-model is dead and buried but before anything rises up to replace it.

How that shakes out, I don't know. I do know that, if we're to survive the twin onslaughts of chavismo and the Other Crisis, "Citizen Journalism" is going to have to kick it up a notch and complete the transition from meaningless catchphrase to working model of news gathering in a big hurry.

Juan Cristóbal and I will do our part. Will you?

August 5, 2009

Lingering questions from Chávez’s press conference

Juan Cristóbal says: - Hugo Chávez gave an off-limits-to-the-locals press conference today. In it, he went in depth about the AT-4 missile launchers belonging to the Venezuelan Armed Forces and found in the hands of the FARC.

He gave a few explanations. What follows are his explanations as I understand them, and the questions that I'm still left wondering about.

I obviously wasn't there, and it's entirely possible these questions were answered, so if you have more insight or if you saw the ghastly thing, please share your info.

Chávez says: "The rocket launchers were stolen in 1995."
I ask: If that's the case, why didn't you tell the Colombians two months ago when you were alerted of their finding? Why did you not share this information with the Swedish government? And why wasn't the Colombian government aware these weapons had been stolen? Are the Venezuelan Armed Forces in such a state of disarray that it takes more than two months and a diplomatic incident with two countries to simply locate the precise fate of military weaponry? Who is going to take the blame for this delay?

Chávez says: "The rocket launchers had already been used and were useless."
I ask: Did the FARC not know this? Why would they be careful to stowe these weapons in remote parts of the jungle if they were basically useless military junk? How do you know they had been used already? And if that is the case, why is the Colombian government concerned? Are you suggesting the Colombian government doesn't know the rocket launchers were useless/had been used? Or are you suggesting they are feigning outrage over nothing?

Chávez says: "Serial numbers can be easily manipulated."
I ask: So, are you saying the serial numbers were manipulated in this case? If so, what are the real serial numbers of the rocket launchers? And if so, how do you know the ones Uribe found were the ones stolen in Cararabo? Are you saying the Swedish government is looking for an explanation based on fake serial numbers? And if they can be easily manipulated, who are you claiming manipulated them? Have you communicated all of this to the Swedish government? Have they accepted your explanation?

I'm just wonderin' ...

The View from Your Window

New York, NY: 1:35 p.m.

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August 4, 2009

The View from Your Window

Heidelberg, Germany: 3:23 p.m.

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Prominent chavista pans new Media Law

Juan Cristóbal says: - Former Constitutional Assembly member and former Ambassador to Mexico Vladimir Villegas wrote a stinging op-ed piece trashing the new Media Law under discussion in the legislature. Villegas, who is also a former president of government mouthpiece VTV, sensibly blasts the law for "legalizing censorship" and "criminalizing journalism."

He claims the law is not needed because current Venezuelan libel laws are sufficient, and the Constitution has additional provisions regarding the right to respond to information broadcast by the media. He also blasts the government for closing 34 radio stations, saying that the excuses given by Communications Czar Diosdado Cabello about this being "an administrative decision" are bunk.

Read the piece here . The only question one is left with is why Villegas still calls himself a chavista.

Our Insane New Cycle

Quico says: Can you believe that the revelation that Venezuelan army AT4 rocket launchers were found in FARC's possession is less than one week old!?

After Twittergate, the Ley CDM, the closing of three dozen radio stations, Chávez's groin injury, Rangel Silva trying to get FARC anti-aircraft weapons, the P.R.-destroying, constitution-defying Electoral Processes Law being passed (boy that one flew under the radar), CNB broadcasting via loudspeaker (wait, doesn't sound count as a public airwave?!), Lina Ron's toilet emergency, and the 700 other important-but-not-flashy stories swept under the rug by all this mayhem, the AT4s story already seems positively ancient!

Cré hasn't even been a week.

There's just no keeping up.

Sometimes I amuse myself by trying to imagine how the U.S. media might deal with any one story of comparable magnitude stateside - Michael Moore leads tear-gas raid against FoxNews! or Federal elections commission to Gerrymander all congressional districts nationwide to favor democrats! or Attorney General calls for Michelle Malkin to be jailed! - can you imagine?!

Any one of those would get wall-to-wall coverage on the cable news channels for weeks on end, setting off a constitutional crisis and a spate of resignations. Here, we're expected to take all that in in a single do things like laundry and brushing our teeth as's not possible, I tell you.

Our news cycle is as hyperactive as our presi. Amid the ongoing crackdown on the media, the government fails to grasp that the way you really screw the papers is by...being boring!

Seriously, a government that generates this volume of news is, objectively speaking, a journalistic God send...bad for sanity, granted...but Venezuelan newsrooms don't know the meaning of the term "slow news day".

August 3, 2009

Gas del Bueno

Quico says: A group of some 35 pro-Chávez thugs, have just stormed Globovisión and tossed multiple tear gas canisters into the building. The group, led by notorious Chavista shocktroop leader Lina Ron, subdued the station's security personnel using firearms and wounded two people: a guard, and a local cop.

I don't like to throw words like this around. But on this occassion, it doesn't really feel like I have a choice:
What we're seeing here is fascism.
Fascism is a method for administering state violence in order to intimidate, harass and, if need be, jail, exile or kill dissidents into submission. What happened today in Globovision was a crime. The systematic use of such crimes on the part of the state as an intimidatory tactic to suppress dissent, that is fascism.

Funny how, in Venezuela, the word's lost its edge. It's been drained of meaning through overuse - together with a fair dose of deliberate propagandistic misuse - to such an extent, I have to wonder if it's even possible to rescue the original horror it conveyed.

You can't hear the word tossed around happily 300 times per day on VTV without it dulling your sense for its gravity. Its true meaning may be beyond our collective reach by now. But then, deforming language is part of the Chávez recipe.

Make no mistake about it, it is extremely grave.

#freemediave and the boiling media war

Juan Cristóbal says: -The government's takeover of 34 radio stations over the weekend has gained considerable attention. In spite of the bad PR it is getting and bound to continue getting, the assault on free speech is picking up speed. More closures have been announced, and the National Assembly will begin studying the Media Law as soon as Tuesday.

The remarkable thing is that since Venezuela's opposition is using tools such as Twitter to get the message out (under the topic #freemediave), the government has begun a hilarious, adolescent campaign to discredit that, too.

This press release from the government's ABN propaganda outlet should go into the Hall of Fame of chavista unintentional jokes. It childishly boasts that "#freemediave" has lost its spot in the top 10 Twitter topics - and yes, some poor chavista sap is actually tracking this stuff.

It claims the lack of popularity is probably due to the oppposition "not having solid arguments" or because they defend "illegal" radio stations instead of proposing "alternatives."

To those who have endured the government's eight-hour cadenas without a single coherent thought, blasting the opposition for not making solid arguments in 140 characters or less sounds like a joke. But in reality, it's the government's futile attempts to pretend this onslaught has anything to do with "arguments" what makes us chuckle. It's like a school bully saying, after beating the crap out of you, that he simply didn't find your logic all that convincing.

ABN informs its readers that Twitter's "official language" is "English" and suggests this non-fact is partly to blame for #freemediave's perceived lack of traction. It claims the problem is that the Twitter campaign is "aimed" at higher-income Venezuelans who represent less than 10% of the population, and ignores poor Venezuelans, who compose the majority of Internet users. In the government's eyes, poor Internet users do not use Twitter because ... just because (and, damn it, this guy will make sure that stays that way!.

It's not clear whether the point of the article is anything but boasting about ... something. What is clear is that the government does not understand Twitter nor its power yet.

The government's assault on free speech marches on, and it will use all the tools available (oil, media, judicial repression, undeserved hubris, bad grammar) to fight the coming backlash.

Moratinos = Franco

Juan Cristóbal says: - Over the weekend, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos opined that the freedom of expression situation in Venezuela is "satisfactory." Reports linking that view to the sweet deals the Venezuelan government recently signed with Spanish company Repsol YPF are...well, "destabilizing the State's institutions."

(Kudos to the brilliant Rayma Suprani for that cartoon).

Mutatis Mutandi

George Orwell might have said: In our country, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the abolition of Proportional Representation, the arbitrary seizure of private firms , the open politization of the judiciary and the closure of opposition radio stations, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of chavismo.

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. An electoral law is approved to ensure 51% of the votes land you 95% of the seats in parliament, and this is called "deepening electoral participation." Armed troops arrive unannounced to seize a firm a family has spent a lifetime building and hand it off to a clique of well-connected chavista bureaucrats: this is called "establishing the social property system". Judges are harassed, physically intimidated, threatened and eventually fired for resisting pressure to rule against regime opponents, and this is called "revolutionary justice". Hundreds of dissident radio stations are shut down, their employees lose their jobs, and the views they broadcast are silenced: this is called "democratizing the radioelectric spectrum" or "ending the broadcasting latifundia." Journalists are threatened with long jail sentences for stepping over any one of a dozen loosely defined, desperately blurry lines in criticizing the regime, and this is called "protecting the mental health of media users."

Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Luisa Ortega Diaz's Ley CDM. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in censoring dissidents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
‘While freely conceding that the Chavez regime exhibits certain features which imperialist champions of bourgeois free speech may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods...’
[The original text.]

August 2, 2009

The View From Your Window

Tokyo, Japan, 34th floor, 4:15 PM.

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Play it again, S.A.M.

Quico says: Simón Romero's NYTimes story today detailing new evidence of Venezuela's continued, close cooperation with FARC will send a chill down your spine.

We learn that he-who-shall-soon-have-the-power-to-block-access-to-Caracas-Chronicles, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, was involved in helping to provide FARC with Russian made, man-portable SA-7 Surface-to-Air-Missiles (SAMs).

If true - and the Times says it doesn't know whether the deal went through in the end - this would be exceedingly sensitive. Because, think about it: how many tanks actually see combat in Colombia?! Not a lot. Those unguided Swedish AT4s - while certainly cool to look at and exceedingly unpleasant if fired in your general direction - were never going to be game-changers in the Colombian conflict.

But everything the Colombian army does it does with helicopters. Give FARC the means to shoot down choppers and the Colombian conflict changes dramatically, which is why having SAM-toting guerrillas running around below the forest cover is basically the cachaco brass's worst nightmare.

In the end, the part that alarms me the most is that a bichito brutish enough to help FARC get its hands on guided missiles is soon going to be running the State Telecoms company.

May Diosdado agarrate us confesated.