September 25, 2009


Quico says: So, just one day after Presidents Obama, together with Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, warned Iran that they've determined that "the size and configuration of this [their newly disclosed nuclear facility at Qom] is inconsistent with a peaceful program", the Venezuelan government drops a diplomatic bombshell, as Mining Minister Rodolfo Sanz confirms the longstanding rumors that Iran is also helping Venezuela prospect for Uranium in Southern Bolívar State.

“Iran has helped us on the aereal-geophysics fly-overs, and on geochemical analysis," the chavista minister said, adding that initial evaluations "have allowed us to detect radiometric anomalies that indicate that Uranium is present in the west of the country as well as in Santa Elena de Uairén”.

Honestly, the stories about Uranium-hunting Iranians in the jungle always seemed so far fetched to me I've been reluctant to run with that story. I always guessed, along with Robert Morgenthau, that the Iranian presence in Venezuela was basically about skirting US financial sanctions.

But no, this one's made the journey from urban legend to government confirmed fact in a big big hurry. And, together with the crisis brewing over Qom puts Venezuela in increasingly dicey geostrategic straits.


The Thicket

Quico says: The fine landed like a bombshell in this well-appointed east-side building's condo board. The government was fining them for BsF.60,000 - some $10,700 at the no-joke exchange rate - for "workplace safety violations."

None of the residents was prepared for this. Sure, labor inspectors had been to the building some weeks before and made a big deal over the fact that the main electrical breaker boards were inside the caretaker's apartment - a workplace hazard in their book. But the condo board had already spent a considerable amount of money relocating all the electrical equipment to the common areas, so they thought that would be the end of it.

A couple of panicky phone calls to the building administrator later, they had their culprit.

"Oh yeah," the administrator said, sizing up the situation, "it's probably because you forgot to make the conserje sign her occupational hazard disclosure papers. They'll throw the book at you for that."

This only confused the condo board more. It was the first they had heard about occupational hazard disclosure documents. The administrator did what to he could to reassure them. "It's ok," she calmly reassured them, "we have some on file here, we'll fax them over."

The fax came bearing an official form that, it turns out, the condo board is now legally mandated to present to the caretaker for her to sign. It listed every kind of injury a conserje could imaginably suffer doing her job, asking her to certify that she'd been made aware that, for instance, the dust that she kicked up when sweeping the building's common areas could cause allergies, and that mopping the floors made them dangerously slippery and a potential accident hazard.

The condo-board head rushed to have her sign the statement, which the conserje did with some understandable bewilderment.

"Who doesn't know that wet floors are slippery?!" she mused as she signed the paper the doñita had just put in front of her.

It was slightly embarrassing for all involved; it all seemed too stupid for words. But getting that document signed was the first step in filing an appeal against the over-sized fine.

Turning up at the labor inspector's office, the condo-board head found herself at the far end of a queue that snaked up three flights of stairs, into the offices on the third floor. Hundreds of people, most of them fined for similar banalities, were camped out for a long, sweaty day of waiting, the bureaucratic obstacle course you're forced to navigate if you want to appeal a fine such as this.

They might as well put up a sign saying "Welcome to the insane world of LOPCYMAT". To you and me, that stands for Framework Law on Prevention, Work Conditions and Environmental Standards in the Workplace - chavismo's kafkaesque worker "health and safety" law.

Shielded by the unobjectionable aim of protecting workers' health and safety, LOPCYMAT has created a mad thicket of mostly superfluous regulations guaranteed to create a mass of mostly useless paperwork, all backed up by the threat of heavy, often crippling penalties.

In the event, our condo-board head wasn't even in that deep. For violations judged more severe, LOPCYMAT specifies draconian criminal penalties that can range up to four years in jail if a worker is temporarily disabled at work. Regardless, the bread and butter of the law's punitive regime is its system of hefty fines, liberally handed out for failing to comply with any of dozens of rules, whether substantive or procedural.

Predictably, the stench of corruption hangs over every LOPCYMAT enforcement measure. The long queue to file an appeal delivers you to the hands of a foul-tempered bureaucrat that, more often than not, resolves the labor dispute with a not-particularly-oblique request for a bribe, "y dejamos eso así"... literally, and we leave it at that.

In effect, the interminable line outside any given labor inspector's office these days is filled with people waiting patiently for their turn to be shaken down by a corrupt bureaucrat.

And yet, LOPCYMAT is merely the tip of the chavista regulatory iceberg, a regulatory amuse-bouche.

An even more punitive new anti-drug law threatens company managers with criminal penalties if their employees are found holding illegal drugs on the job. In other words, if somebody you hire turns up to work with a baggie, he goes to jail for one year; you go to jail for four.

Seniat - the government's tax collection agency - can rightly claim title to having started this trend. This famously penalty-happy agency can and will fine you for misspelling a supplier's name on a tax reporting form, and can shut you down temporarily or permanently for almost any violation, no matter how technical or banal, with little to no chance of appeal.

IVSS - the Social Security Administration - and Indepabis - the Consumer Protection agency - add in their own layers of regulatory harassment to the mix, each reserving the right to fine or shut down firms or jail their owners for a bewildering variety of violations. Even the fire department can shut you down if you fail to cross every t and dot every i in their rulebook.

The whole edifice of stifling regulations locks in on itself to create a kind of iron fence around the private sector. Create hundreds and hundreds of arbitrary rules and you can be sure that, at any given time, even the best, most conscientiously-run of businesses will be in violation of at least some of them.

Layer in the potential for heavy fines for every broken rule, and you get a private sector gripped by a justified paranoia, certain that at any time somebody from the government could turn up and flip their operation on its head.

Not surprisingly, regulatory compliance takes up an ever growing share of private firms' resources, with medium to large firms forced to set up their own in-house compliance departments to try to stay ahead of the ever-growing thicket of nuisance rules.

Assailed by a government that doesn't hide its contempt for them, private firms in Venezuela are merely in the business of keeping their heads above regulatory water. And new regulations come online all the time, with each new rule bringing its own compliance costs.

But if private firms are getting pinched on the production side, they're getting pinched on the marketing side as well. Each day, more industries find themselves in a market where the prices they can charge customers as well as the cost of their inputs are also set by the state. Not only does the government control costs via regulation, it controls the sales price as well. And so, as the cost of staying ahead of the regulatory thicket inevitably starts to exceed the revenue they can raise by selling at controlled prices, firms shut down, leaving the space to be filled by a public sector that, deep down, sees no good reason for the private sector to exist in the first place.

None of these rules apply in the public sector. This means that if you have the misfortune of working for a state-owned firm, none of these "protections" apply to you.

As more and more workers are injured or killed due to workplace accidents in the nationalized industries in Guayana, the labor inspectorates do nothing. When a chlorine gas tanker-truck overturns in Clarines setting off a chemical poisoning emergency that leaves twelve people dead and hundreds injured, the government blames the truck driver.

And if PDVSA decides to unilaterally cut your wages, or the Metro de Caracas openly announces its intentions not to abide by its collective bargaining agreement, you're shit out of luck. The thicket is to be applied against evil capitalists only. The virtuous public sector makes only innocent mistakes, it never commits crimes.

This unrelentingly hostile business climate has left Venezuela ranked as one of the world's hardest countries to do business in. Amid this chaos, chavismo is now proposing the coup de grace: a sprawling, antediluvian labor law reform that would force hundreds of firms that are now just barely getting by to shut down.

It's not just that chavismo is pushing a paleolithic Severance Pay regime that creates massive disincentives to hiring and will wreak havoc with company balance sheets by creating, out of the blue, huge new labor liabilities. It's that they're pushing for an even shorter workweek coupled with a tripling of statutory paid vacation time, from 15 days to 45. It's that, on top of that, they are adding in worker co-management statutes that will strip entrepreneurs of what last remaining shards of control they once had over the companies they've created. All this in a country where two-thirds of formally employed workers are in the private sector.

Chavismo's war on the private sector is all-encompasing and unrelenting, organized around an unambiguous objective. The government has set out to create a system where private industry doesn't need to be expropriated to disappear over time, because the regulatory thicket itself guarantees its inviability.

Think of it as collectivization via bureaucratic hassle.

The View from Your Window: Virginia Water

Virginia Water, Surrey, England.

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September 24, 2009

Non-Traditional Exports

[In a provocative journal article on Chávez's strategy to project power abroad...]

Javier Corrales says:

If a foreign government or politician accepts Venezuelan aid, what follows is more than just clinics. Recipients are free to use the money as they see fit. Rarely can politicians receive this amount of aid unconditionally. Venezuelan aid, therefore, often functions as a blank check for any type of domestic spending, not necessarily pro-poor spending.

Venezuela has thus developed a new export model. It is not so much the export of war, as Cuba did during the Cold War, or the export of weapons, as Russia still does. It is certainly not the export of technological know-how as OECD countries do or the export of inexpensive manufactures as China does. It’s the export of corruption. Venezuelan aid is billed as investment in social services, but in fact it consists mostly of unaccountable financing of campaigns, unelected social movements, business deals, and even political patronage by state officials. In this era in which elections are fiercely competitive almost everywhere in Latin America, Venezuelan-type aid is irresistible.

Clarifications on Bocarandagate

Quico says: Oh, I do enjoy riling you all up once in a while. But since the general level of up-rilery appears to be a bit higher than usual this time, I thought I would clarify.

I condemn any move by any government to silence media voices merely for reasons of political expediency. I mean, of course I do. Among minimally liberal, half-way modern people, that just goes without saying. (Which, incidentally, is why I didn't say it.)

Moreover, I have no doubt whatsoever that that's the reason Nelson Bocaranda is being silenced. I think the government's campaign to bully the media in general - and the radio in particular - into a bobalicón silence is utterly contemptible, as is this instance of it.

What I cannot abide and will not accept is that extra-step, the cry-me-a-river session where the opposition mono-neuron automatically jumps straight from the premise "the government is repressing this man" to the conclusion that "this man must be an ardent champion of truth, justice and the Venezuelan way."

Ni es lo mismo ni es igual.

Nelson Bocaranda was an embarrassment to Venezuelan journalism before his show was canceled and he remains an embarrassment to Venezuelan journalism now that his show's been canceled. Merely being repressed by a brutish, authoritarian government does not magically earn you a halo, Nelson. Nor does it turn you into a minimally respectable journalist.

It just makes you an appalling hack who happened to step on some powerful toes within a brutish, authoritarian government. That's all.

The View from Your Window: Paris

Paris, France.

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September 23, 2009

He can run run, but he can't hide...

Quico says: So we're all supposed to be sad now that oppo radio-broadcaster Onda la Superestación has canceled Nelson Bocaranda's long-running political gossip show, "Los Runrunes de Nelson Bocaranda".

Sorry, but count me out. With Bocaranda's Freedom of Speech martyrdom, the very worst in the opposition's victim complex is coming to the fore.

All of a sudden, we're supposed to overlook the fact that Nelson Bocaranda has made a career out of pissing all over the code of professional ethics that makes up the backbone of journalism as a profession and rush to celebrate him as a brave voice speaking truth to power.

A guy who took a perverse pride in publishing rumor, speculation and innuendo as fact, who never ever made any discernible effort to confirm any of the hundreds of tidbits he put in the air, who ruined any number of reputations over decades of publishing stuff he'd just sort of heard somewhere is, suddenly, elevated to the role of brave, persecuted dissident simply because a few of the hundreds of people he blithely slandered on the air happened to be extremely powerful chavista insiders who made up their minds to silence him once and for all.

Gah. There's something about this story I can't beging to stomach.

Something nausea-inducing about the head-on collision between the opposition's outsized sense of its own virtue and its underlying willingness to tolerate any level of mediocrity so long as it flies under an anti-Chávez banner.

Something about the sheer polarized blindness with which people rush to the defense of our indefensibles in the same knee-jerk fashion as the other side rushes to the defense of their indefensibles...about the sheer malodorous parallelism between their stupidity and ours.

Sorry, but count me out.

The view from your window: San Antonio

San Antonio, Texas, USA. 11:20 AM.

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September 22, 2009

Contempt of Vote

Quico says: If the Chávez regime retains some patina of legitimacy in international circles beyond the know-nothing lefty fringe, that sense arises almost exclusively from one source: its electoral mandate. In our era, the vote is sacred: simply noting that Chávez governs by the will of the people is a powerful legitimating discourse.

But, last Sunday, Chávez showed once again just how shallow his commitment to the electorate's will really is by naming six of his usual-suspect cabinet ministers to the totally made-up office of "vice-president". In effect, each vice-president becomes a kind of super-minister with ill-specified new powers over broad areas of policy-making like "territorial development" (Ramírez) and "economic-financial affairs" (Giordani.)

You might mistake this for a bit of (relatively harmless) semantic chicanery until you remember that, in fact, the proposal to create these kinds of vice-presidencies was first put forward in 2007 as part of Chávez's proposal to reform the constitution (specifically, article 225.) And that proposal was rejected by the electorate via referendum.

So it's not just that there's no constitutional basis whatsoever for these appointments, it's that they're being carried out in the face of the electorate's explicit rejection of the idea, expressed through the ballot box less than two years ago.

So much for electoral legitimacy.

In fact, if you follow these things closely, you already know all about Chávez's only-if-they-vote-right attitude to the electorate's decisions. The right to elect Caracas's Metropolitan Mayor belongs to the soberano...but only if they vote for his guy. The voters' decision on whether we should have vice-presidents is sacred...unless they get it wrong. In that case, Chávez gets to decide.

Which comes down to the same thing. Cuz, after all,

Of drunks, fights and empty bottles

Quico says: I've been in a bit of a funk, lately. What can I say? Caracas got me down this time. There's something about life in this incredibly hostile, constantly on-the-brink city that wears away at you. I'm sure it would, even without all the political BS. But it's the layering of BS on top of BS, the kind of bovine-scatology milhojas, that really wears you down.

The thing that's been weighing on me lately is the disconnect within the political opposition. It's something else, our oppo political class. After ten years facing a government that openly wants to repress their movement out of existence, you would think these guys might have re-thought their way of doing politics, if nothing else, out of the sheer need to survive.

If the threat of Chavista repression was not enough to jolt them into some semblance of life, you'd think the sneering contempt in which most anti-chavistas hold their putative leaders would serve as a final safeguard, some kind of reason for them to get their act together, subsume personal ambitions for the greater good, act the way their natural supporters are begging them to act.

No such luck.

Just in the last couple of weeks, we've had a public row between what remains of MAS and Acción Democrática over how to select candidates for next year's National Assembly elections. We've had Leopoldo López tossed out of UNT by a party leadership clique that felt threatened by his popularity. And now, we have a kind of sotto voce civil war inside what remains of Copei as different factions - one lead by Secretary General Luis Ignacio Planas, the other by Roberto Henríquez, Enrique Naime and Carlos Melo - play all kinds of dirty tricks on one another, with each trying to seat only its own supporters ahead of a National Party Convention to secure leadership of the party (TalCual dixit, but behind their subscription wall.)

The only positive thing we can extract from this fight is that at least Copei still has enough members for them to split off into factions and fight one another. One suspects that some other opposition parties (I'm lookin' right at you, ABP) could only fracture if their caudillo developed a sudden-onset of Multiple Personality Disorder.

It's not hard to see the way this is going to go. One faction will keep control of Copei, the other will whimper off and form their own rump party, and the bizarre political disease of never-ending fragmentation within Venezuela's political opposition will continue until we reach the inevitable logical outcome. Because my theory is that, one day, Venezuela will simply have as many oppo political parties as it has oppo voters. 4,302,173 oppo votes for 4,302,173 oppo parties. It can happen no other way.

There's a lovely criollo saying for the kind of political fight we're seeing in Copei: two drunks fighting over an empty bottle. The sheer, visceral disgust that political fights like the one in Copei set off in the people the party needs as supporters is enough to totally vitiate the supposed "prize" of securing a leadership spot. And the layers and layers of disgust - the mille-feuilles de nausea - that the accumulation of such internal fights sets off in the opposition's natural supporters explains what I see as perhaps the most startling aspect of Venezuela's political life today: the utter and complete collapse in confidence that the political opposition can mount a credible challenge to chavismo.

It's, of course, a self-reinforcing belief. When nobody at all believes you have even the slightest chance of one day unseating the government, nobody at all will take a chance on you. No radio station will sell you advertising space, because why risk angering the government to help out people who will never be in government? And even if you could find a radio station to sell you time, you couldn't afford to pay for it because nobody at all wants to contribute money to a party that has zero chance of forming a government. And with no money, you can hire no staff, and run no campaigns, or do any of the other things you might need to do to start to turn around the perception that you have zero chance of one day forming a government, which, as a result, becomes more and more entrenched every day.

Faced with this absolutely bleak panorama, opposition political leaders choose instead to aim for more manageable goals: secure a spot or two in the National Assembly, which at least come with a salary and a chance to get a bit of free media coverage now and then. But to secure the nomination you need to obtain that spot in the National Assembly, you absolutely need control of a party, which is why the fight for party leaderships becomes an knives-drawn affair, a deplorable spectacle that further entrenches the absolute certainty people feel that this opposition will never ever mount a credible challenge to the government.

This is the closed loop the opposition political class is locked into: a vicious circle that would guarantee Chávez's continuation in power for many years to come even without the openly authoritarian repression his government is deploying.

The view from your window: Maputo

Maputo, Mozambique. 11 am.

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September 21, 2009

Neither here nor there

Juan Cristóbal says: - The soap opera continues.

Hugo Chávez announced today that Manuel Zelaya was back in Honduras. In reality, he is hiding in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa which, if I'm not mistaken, is Brazilian territory. So he's not really in Honduras, but he's not really out of the country either.

Furthermore, he has now illegally entered the country, giving more ammunition to his opposition.

So ... now what?

Saved by the Gong

Quico says: This one is straight from the Annals of News Whose Relevance To Us is Downright Depressing. TNR, in an article about the weird confluence of interests between Chinese hippie cultists and Iranian liberals, notes that,

When dissident Iranians chatted with each other and the outside world [after Ahmadinejad's fishy re-election], they likely had no idea that many of their missives were being guided and guarded by 50 Falun Gong programmers spread out across the United States. These programmers, who almost all have day jobs, have created programs called Freegate and Ultrasurf that allow users to fake out Internet censors. Freegate disguises the browsing of its users, rerouting traffic using proxy servers. To prevent the Iranian authorities from cracking their system, the programmers must constantly switch the servers, a painstaking process.

The Falun Gong has proselytized its software with more fervor than its spiritual practices. It distributes its programs for free through an organization called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIFC), sending a downloadable version of the software in millions of e-mails and instant messages. In July 2008, it introduced a Farsi version of its circumvention tool.

While it is hardly the only group to offer such devices, the Falun Gong’s program is particularly popular thanks to its simplicity and relative speed. In fact, according to Shiyu Zhou, the deputy director of GIFC, the Farsi software was initially so popular that the group shut it down soon after introducing it. Iranians had simply swamped their servers, even outnumbering Freegate’s Chinese users.

It terrifies me to realize that, in the coming years, these kinds of technologies are likely to go from novelty to necessity for Venezuelan liberals.

But with Henry Rangel Silva taking charge of CANTV, it's a reality we all need to start getting used to.

The view from your window: Haarlem

Haarlem, The Netherlands. September 18, 6.30 pm

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