October 2, 2009

An Oppo Fit For Primaries

Quico says: Throughout the day yesterday, Juan and I had a sprawling big fight about his Primaries post, all revolving around the question: is there any way the oppo leaders we have can be imagined signing on to an agreement like this?

After sleeping on it, here's my view: it's imaginable. Hard to imagine, but imaginable. But only, only, if there is very substantial pressure from below. In fact, it's going to take a virtual intra-opposition insurgency to get it done.

Right now, the calculus for the party bosses - Omar Barboza, Ramos Allup, Julio Borges and whomever-ends-up-least-maimed-by-the-COPEI-dust-up - is straightforward. Select candidates in a smoke-filled room - como toda la vida - and your own power, standing and status within the opposition is strengthened. Let grubby voters select them via primaries, and you start to become superfluous. Ergo, if possible, avoid primaries.

Simple stuff. These guys are weighing up costs and benefits and coming to their own conclusions. That what's best for them doesn't happen to coincide with what's best to the opposition (or the country) is neither here nor there. That's public choice for you.

So it's not enough to say you want primaries. You have to spell out what you're going to do to get them. Convincing us primaries are the best thing from your point of view or from the country's point of view isn't good enough, because it's not you or "the country" that's going to make this decision. This decision is going to be made the day Barboza, Ramos Allup, Borges and COPEI-survivor-man (plus assorted hangers on) sit up in bed, weigh up their costs and their benefits and conclude, "shit, if I don't support this primaries thing estoy jodido..."

How you do this, operationally, is an open question. I have no specific idea how it is that you create a climate where saying you're against primaries is seen as utterly unacceptable, tantamount to coming out against motherhood and apple pie. I guess making sure these guys get asked about it every single time a microphone is put in front of them is a good start.

The second consideration here - and I think this one is too easily dismissed - has to do with resources. To an extreme that I think most oppo supporters find difficult to comprehend, the oppo parties are just flat broke. I mean, really broke. Not-sure-how-I'm-going-to-pay-my-mobile-phone-bill broke. Can't-actually-afford-to-implement-any-of-the-thousands-of-good-ideas-people-come-to-me-with-every-day broke.

The natural base of donors you might expect them to go to for funds are tapped out: terrified of Disip finding out they finance the opposition and utterly certain that a bolivar given to the opposition is a bolivar wasted because these guys are just never going to come to power.

Now, campaigning costs money. The travel costs money, the ads cost money, the billboards cost money, the events cost money, everything costs money. The opposition doesn't have it. And organizing the actual primary costs money. Voting stations cost money. Ballots cost money. Counting infrastructure costs money. Information campaigns cost money. The opposition doesn't have it.

Now sure: when you're not the one having to write the checks that are going to bounce all over town like vulcanized little tokens of your pelabolismo, it's easy to sort of wave that away, to figure "well, c'mon, they just gotta do better," or even "hey, the excitement a primary campaign would create will be its own financing boom." Maybe. What's for sure is that, from the insiders' points of view, they've been working their butts off for years now trying to step up their fund-raising and have been finding an extraordinarily, unprecedentedly hostile atmosphere for it.

So the demand for primaries is, at this point, a little bit like shouting at a homeless man again and again at the top of your voice demanding that he go get a suite at the Ritz-Carleton and then rolling your eyes in disgust when he starts to tell you about the obstacles.

Which comes back to saying that what we need is not so much primaries as such. What we need first is something subtly different: an opposition political establishment able to hold primaries, in two senses. First, because its leaders are drawn to them as a result of their own, hard, cold cost-benefit analyses, and because the material resources are in place for candidates to actually compete and the event to actually be held.

But then, the debate needs to be different. The question isn't "primaries/no primaries." The question is "an opposition able to hold primaries/an opposition unable to hold primaries."

The indefatigable push for primaries

Juan Cristóbal says: - As most of you know, I've become a strong supporter of holding opposition primaries. In my view, they would be good for our chances of winning the upcoming Parliamentary Elections, good for the country, and good for the ultimate goal of stopping Chávez.

But the idea, first proposed by Leopoldo López and now supported by Yon Goicoechea, among others, is not getting a ton of traction.

Part of it has to do with the lack of details, but a big chunk of it has to do with the typical laziness in our political class, with their whiny attitudes and their disgraceful tendency to get discouraged at how haaaaaard it is to be the opposition to a dictatorship.

Their knee-jerk reaction to reject proposals that takes power away from them and puts it in the hand of their constituents is, in a way, totally understandable. If things keep going the way they are, the decision over the Assembly elections will likely evolve into a huge fight between those who want popular participation and those who want to preserve the power that the status quo gives them.

Still, it’s early enough in the process to believe a rational discussion can still take place.

An op-ed piece today by Eugenio G. Martínez goes a long way toward focusing the discussion. Martínez lashes out with abandon, listing a barrage of questions for this and other proposals. Are we going to have 167 primaries?, he asks. Who can vote in the primaries? Is a "consensus better"? Who will make the decision in this "consensus"? Who will make the ultimate decision?

And on he goes, circling around one basic question: do we have our s**t together?

Well, we don't. But one way to start getting it together is by asking the right questions, and that is what Martínez gets right.

The next step consists of knowing what we are discussing, bringing down our options from the terrain of the hypothetical to the realm of the concrete, and arguing about that.

It's easy to dismiss primaries as overly complicated, expensive, ill-defined behemoths when they have not been properly defined. It's much harder to do that when you're discussing a very specific, limited proposal.

So, in light of his fair questions, and in view of the fact that a lot of the opposition's traditional talking heads have proposed a vague and uninspired combination of primaries and consensus, I have the following proposal that tries to reach some sort of middle ground. Here goes.
  1. We hold primaries by state.
  2. Súmate is in charge of organizing the logistics.
  3. Primaries are open to any and all voters.
  4. Each voter chooses one political party.
  5. Parties do not have to be restricted to official organizations recognized by the CNE and, in fact, can be open to anyone. For example, we can think of "Movimiento Estudiantil" as one of the options available.
  6. Voting is manual, following the successful experience in Aragua last year.
  7. Ahead of the vote parties make proposals to the voters, pointing out who their likely candidates and platforms will be.
  8. Campaign are based on these personalities and proposals, with the understanding that by voting for these parties, people are really voting for these people.
  9. Once results are in, the parties come together in state-wide "Mesas de Unidad."
  10. Each party gets votes in the "Mesa" in proportion to the votes they got in the primary. So if, say, in Zulia, UNT gets 45%, Movimiento Estudiantil gets 30% and PJ gets 20%, then those would be the proportion of votes in the Mesa de Unidad for each party or group.
  11. The Mesa then determines unity candidates for that state, with the "order" in which they are listed based on party negotiations, opinion polls and natural leadership.
If we did it this way, the rosters of candidates would broadly reflect the results obtained in the primaries, plus or minus a few "special cases."

Each party would decide who their eligible candidates are according to their own internal rules. The decision of which "tarjeta" to list the unity roster under would be based on a more detailed understanding of electoral rules, and acknowledging the fact that if a party does not register candidates, it may be deemed illegal.

The way I see it, this makes the process simpler and faster. You don't turn primary voting process into a complicated disquisition on the merits of individuals, and you get a mix of popular participation and political negotiations.

Most importantly, you weed out parties that don't really count for much.

You don't like this proposal? Fine - lay out your reasons.

Think Súmate is not capable of organizing this? Let's hear from them, or let's propose an alternative organization.

Do you think it's too expensive? Ok, give me a cost estimate. But keep in mind that opinion polls are expensive too, and the Scotch that will be served in those closed-door meetings where this mythical "consensus" will be reached ain't gonna come cheap either. If we're going to argue the merits of each proposal on the basis of costs, let's! But let's do it with actual figures. And be prepared to argue why we can have a potazo for Globovision but not have one for a more organized, better opposition.

The discussion should also center on the benefits. One of the main obstacles holding the opposition back is lack of organization. By allowing the electorate to decide who should get a seat at the table and, more importantly, who shouldn't, we would go a long way in streamlining the decision-making process while at the same time giving it some much-needed legitimacy.

Primaries aren't a panacea, but the lack of primaries will be our undoing. While some of the points against primaries (cost, complications) are valid, they are surmountable. Pushing the idea of primaries aside in favor of doing what we've been doing so far and which, frankly, simply has not worked - that's just suicidal.

Folks, this is not rocket science - if Colombia's opposition can have primary elections, there is simply no reason why we can't have ours. It's one thing to be a naysayer, it's quite another to propose real arguments.

October 1, 2009

A hunger for change

Juan Cristóbal says: - There is one news item we have neglected and we really shouldn't have: Venezuelan students and political prisoners held a massive, successful hunger strike during the past week.

The strike caught the attention of the opposition media, but more importantly, of the OAS. Secretary Insulza was sufficiently moved to oh-so-politely ask the Chávez administration to let the Interamerican Commision for Human Rights come to Venezuela for an inspection and see what all the fuss is about (pretty please). The strike also resulted in the liberation of Julio Rivas, a student leader, unjustly jailed for protesting a couple of weeks ago.

The Commission itself agreed to give the students a fair hearing and listen to their concerns. So far, Venezuela continues to refuse the Commission permission for a visit, and by doing so, bolsters the notion that it has something to hide.

I still have a problem understanding our side's love-hate relationship with the OAS. While some of us correctly decry the organism as an ineffective bureaucracy, devoid of moral authority and completely in the pocket of the hemisphere's neo-despots, others go to great lengths to get their attention.

Still, the students came across once again as committed, effective and untainted.

Doubts about their long-term staying power remain. The government's strange acquiescence to Rivas' freedom and their snickering glee in seeing the students take the spotlight away from politicians may signal they prefer them as potentially weaker, less experienced, less organized rivals.

Regardless, their hunger strike was a big hit and a PR bulls-eye, so hats off to them.

PS.- While we're on the topic of the young'uns - check out the newest member of the Venezuelan blogosphere, the student-centered No Goat and No Rope (in Spanish only). There's good stuff in there.

Any union you want, so long as it's mine

Quico says: There is one thing we can be sure about ahead of today’s oil-sector union elections: chavismo is going to win. Of the ten slates on the ballot, nine are broadly pro-Chávez. This should shock no one - virtually every anti-Chávez PDVSA worker was purged from the payroll following the 2002-03 oil strike.

So the question isn’t whether the opposition’s marginal Slate #5 or critical chavista slates like #1 and #9 are going to win. The question is which of the broadly pro-Chávez currents is going to take control of this key slice of the labor movement. And here things get murky right away, because there are chavista slates and then there are government-controlled slates, and the two are far from one and the same.

It's useful to recall that to be a pro-government aspiring PDVSA union leader is, in effect, to side with the boss. While broad ideological alignment with the government is the norm inside PDVSA, even the most ardently chavista of workers are understandably leery to vote for union representatives who are going to automatically side with the boss.

As it turns out, management appears to be spreading its money widely, trying to keep some financial links with whomever comes out on top. But management’s clear preference is for slate #7, (representing VOS, the "Socialist Workers' Vanguard") which has received aggressive, unembarrassed backing from management, helping out with money and logistics, threatening workers who don't toe the line, pulling down all other slate's advertising, stacking voting centers with VOS-friendly witnesses, working to "disqualify" 41 opposing slates' candidates, and even going so far as to enable a deliciously fake little sit-in by Slate #7 workers in PDVSA headquarters in La Campiña a couple of weeks ago.

The campaign has been full of mishaps. The actual election date has been pushed back no less than four times, as the government has struggled to define CNE’s specific role in the elections. In the event, the government’s gone so far as to activate a mini-Plan República, calling out military personnel to oversee the balloting and ensuring a National Guard presence is visible at every polling site.

The intimidatory edge of this kind of military presence is clear, and in a company that’s already established its willingness to throw the book at workers who prove insufficiently docile, it’ll take real bravery for workers to come out and support any slate other than Plancha 7.

It’s not easy for an outsider to get a read on the dynamics inside a campaign like this. Some labor watchers suggest an overwhelming win for Slate #7 would lack credibility inside the oil industry, and could set off the kind of acephalous labor unrest the government is keen to prevent. It may be more likely that a number of the most government-influenced slates will end up taking the cake. Or it may be that the independent chavista slates fight the government-controlled slates to a draw, thanks to the proportional representation system being used.

One way or another, oil-sector unions are a key asset for the government, and it’s easy to see Ramírez mobilizing the resources at his disposal to make sure he ends up with a labor movement that toes his line in contract negotiations.

One thing’s for sure: the vitality of independent labor within the oil industry is at stake today. So today’s elections are worth watching, even if there’s no proper way to forecast a result.

The view from your window: Lilongwe

Lilongwe, Malawi. 5:48 PM.

Send us the View from Your Window: caracaschronicles at fastmail dot fm, or nageljuan at gmail dot com.

Please ensure the window frame is visible, and tell us the place and time the picture was taken. And don't try to "pretty it up" - just show us what you see when you look up from the seat where you typically read the blog. Files should be no bigger than 400 KB.

September 30, 2009

The Shadow of Eligio Cedeño

Quico says: “Take Eligio Cedeño,” The Contact says, “to this day, I’ve never been able to figure out exactly how he fucked up.”

We’re sitting in one of these swank East Side restaurants whose ongoing existence don’t seem to jive at all with the extremist discourse coming out of Miraflores. After another sip of his diet coke, he goes on.

“It’s bizarre what happened to him. One day Eligio Cedeño is, as far as anyone can tell, a made guy, running his bank, you know, Bolívar Banco, doing business with the upper echelons of the bolibourgeoisie. Next thing you know he’s rotting away in a Disip cell, stuck there for years on end, with no formal charges, just sitting there. I mean, it’s been three years and they haven’t even charged him yet. I guess they’re talking about bringing down some bullshit ‘ilícito cambiario’ charge, but that’s after three years like that, detenido.

The place is quiet on a Monday night. We’ve finished eating now and are now waiting for the coffees we’ve ordered.

“So what happened? Common sense would suggest he screwed up big time with someone you just plain don’t mess with in this regime. But who? How? Nobody I know has a reasonable explanation...”

The Contact is driving at a larger point here. He’s just getting going, really.

“What I’m getting at is that it’s easy to overegg the parallels between this elite and previous ones. Everybody in the bolibourgeoisie these days is an Eligio Cedeño en potencia: one slip away from winding up behind bars, with no recourse, nobody to call on for help.

“And that’s the thing, these guys – the Fernández Barruecos and Arné Chacóns and Torres Cilibertos of the world – none of them can sleep easy at night. Sure, they’re making obscene amounts of money today. But...that’s today. Tomorrow? Nobody can guarantee them any kind of continuity. Nobody can tell them for sure that some internal enemy isn’t going to go and whisper a few bits of nastiness in Chávez’s ear and he’s going to get pissed off and the next thing they know they’re going to wind up across the hall from Eligio Cedeño at Disip.”

“That makes all the difference, because the kinds of agreements, the kinds of guarantees the bolibourgeoisie enjoys, they’re all tacit; shot through with insecurity. You hear these casual parallels drawn with Putin's Russia, but it’s really not like that.

“I mean, think about it. In Russia the cards were on the table. It was explicit. Putin sat down with a handful of favored businessmen and layed out the ground rules: ‘You’re going to stay out of politics, support me when I call you for a favor, and in return I’m going to stay out of your hair.’ See? Clarito.

"Those may not be formal property rights the way an academic thinks of them, but it comes to the same thing: they can rest assured. Which means they can plan for the future. Invest. Think about going abroad to invest, even. In a way they were more like the American robber barons at the turn of the last century: maybe they got to where they are through unspeakably coño’e’madre tactics, but once there, they could transition, become real businessmen, think strategically, invest, plan. Our new elite can’t do that, because none of them has a real guarantee that Chávez isn’t going to throw the book at them for one offense or another, or that some rival isn’t going to pull a Cedeño on them.

Our coffees come, but The Contact barely looks at his. He’s in full flow now.

“And in a way, it’s much worse this way. Because if you’re in a kind of Russian situation, if you started out as a gangster but you have some kind of stability, some kind of certainty to your property rights, self-interest propels you to start acting in ways that create value for society as a whole. So, there you have Lukoil: a product of plunder, no doubt, but also a proper multinational corporation now, a real, professionally run company that does R&D and surveys its investment opportunities and works purposefully to grow and develop and expand and create value and power for Russia.

“Our new elite never acts like that. Cuz it wouldn’t make any sense for them to act like that. They’re in a position to make money today, but next week, who knows? So their time horizons get compressed: the incentive structure they face is pushing them to try to make as much money as they can as fast as they can and two weeks from now is already the ‘long-term’ as far as they’re concerned. That’s the tragedy here, that’s why our brand of corruption tends to settle into all-out kleptocracy rather than mutating into a productive elite.

The Contact leans back and pauses to take a long breath.

"The entire bolibourgeoisie lives under the long, dark shadow Eligio Cedeño throws from his Helicoide cell. That’s the thing, man.

The view from your window: Stockholm

Stockholm, Sweden. 5:49 PM.

Send us the View from Your Window: caracaschronicles at fastmail dot fm, or nageljuan at gmail dot com.

Please ensure the window frame is visible, and tell us the place and time the picture was taken. And don't try to "pretty it up" - just show us what you see when you look up from the seat where you typically read the blog. Files should be no bigger than 400 KB.

September 29, 2009

Roy Chaderton: manipulative liar

Juan Cristóbal says: - These days, chavista diplomacy goes from one embarrassment to the next.

On the heels of giving Lybian dictator and major headcase Muammar Gaddafi our country's highest civilian honor, Venezuela's Ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, has falsely accused Venezuela's opposition of officially recognizing the Micheletti administration in Honduras.

Speaking in no less a venue that the OAS's Permanent Council, Chaderton claimed the Venezuelan opposition "had officially recognized the Micheletti administration through their shadow foreign Minister (Milos Alcalay)."

Chaderton is lying, and he knows it. Venezuela's opposition has been clear in rejecting the coup as well as Zelaya's illegal moves which prompted it. The Venezuelan opposition does not have a "shadow" foreign minister, and Alcalay does not speak for the opposition. Regardless of whether or not Alcalay was recognizing Micheletti (and even that is not clear) it's clearly a personal position.

If Roy Chaderton's staff did its work, it would not give him blatantly false information to spread in the halls of the Panamerican Union. Instead of slandering fellow Venezuelans and dragging us into a hemispheric fight that has nothing to do with the Venezuelan government's serious human rights violations, Ambassador Chaderton should do his work and stop playing politics in front of the hemisphere's diplomats.

Chaderton's objective is clear. By creating this straw man, he is trying to taint the Venezuelan opposition to Chávez just when opposition students wage a hunger strike in the OAS's offices in Caracas to call attention to the plight of Venezuela's political prisoners.

OAS diplomats would be fools to not see through this shameful ploy.

Cadiva Chronicles

Juan Cristóbal says: The government's multi-billion dollar subsidy to the upper-middle classes, in the form of artificially cheap dollars, is an ongoing focus of this blog. This twisted social program we like to think of as Misión Cadivi has made billionaires out of a handful of arbitrageurs and seeded distortions throughout our economy. But one point we've neglected is the way Cadivi degrades those who decide to play along, wasting their time while limiting their freedom and their ability to move about the globe.

Cadivi's new regulations highlight how far the government is willing to go to control just where you can travel and how much you can spend. According to El Nacional, starting January of 2010, here are some of the rules you will have to comply with in order to participate in this social program which, let it be said, is the only legal way to purchase foreign currency:
  • You will be assigned a maximum of $2,500, but only if you are traveling to Europe, Asia and some cities in the US (says nothing about Canada or Australia). It's not clear what cities in the US this covers, but you can be sure none of them are in Florida. The banks are doubtful if there's a realistic way to implement this.
  • You need to apply for dollars each time you travel.
  • You will have to notify your bank and Cadivi of the dates of your trip, as well as the precise location(s) you're planning to visit.
  • You will only be allowed to use your credit card abroad during the dates that your bank expects you to be abroad.
  • If you receive approval for, say, a 10-day trip, and after the fourth day you have maxed out your allocation of cheap dollars, Cadivi will audit you and you can be charged with "exchange rate crimes."
Some of these rules may already be in place, some of them may indeed be an improvement. I honestly can't keep track of all the regulations. There just isn't enough space in my RAM for this stuff.

I should consider myself lucky, I guess. Venezuelans wanting a vacation abroad obsess about their Cadivi allocation. It starts with the mad process of getting your bank to even accept your application papers. People can (and do) get their applications rejected for placing the identifying sticker on the wrong place of the specified application file folder - the very center, say, instead of the upper third. No violation is niggling enough for a Bank to let slide. After all, processing your Cadivi app is nothing but cost to your bank. They have no incentive at all to be helpful.

Once they've gotten through all that and left the country, Venezuelans will talk to each other incessantly about whether or not their credit card "worked." They go to great lengths to find an ATM that will give them the permitted amount of cash per trip. Some of my relatives are experts at knowing the rules and maxing out their benefits. My sister in particular has become such a pro that we've begun calling her "Cadiva" - whatever your question about Cadivi, she has the answer.

For those of us who don't live in Venezuela and are lucky not to be in Cadivi's system, it's a sad sight: grown men and women reduced to having to account for their every moment abroad to Papá Gobierno, subjected to numerous restrictions, always fearful that if they step a tiny bit out of line, they will be plucked from the system and never allowed back in. It's kind of like a holiday version of Nineteen Eighty Four.

It's a stark reminder that no matter how much distance you try and put between yourself and Chávez, he is always there. Because no matter how far you go, there's really no escaping the Revolution.

The view from your window: Harare

Harare, Zimbabwe. 8:30 AM.

Send us the View from Your Window: caracaschronicles at fastmail dot fm, or nageljuan at gmail dot com.

Please ensure the window frame is visible, and tell us the place and time the picture was taken. And don't try to "pretty it up" - just show us what you see when you look up from the seat where you typically read the blog. Files should be no bigger than 400 KB.

September 28, 2009

Tightening the noose

Juan Cristóbal says: When the government's "Media Responsibility Law" forced all radio stations to allocate five and a half hours of broadcasting per day to programming made by "independent national producers," many decried the move as one more step toward the end of press freedom in Venezuela. Since this didn't pan out quite so dramatically, last Friday, the government upped the ante and announced plans to directly assign three and a half hours (of their choosing) on every radio station to the specific programs and specific producers they like.

In effect, the rule would turn Information Minister Blanca Eekhout into a kind of nationwide Programming Director, with complete control over what can be heard on any given station for hours every day.

The new regulations appear to relate only to the radio, but are fuzzily drafted enough to have TV stations worried.

This, together with the shutdown of dozens of radio stations, as well as the muzzling of prominent opposition journalists Nelson Bocaranda and Marta Colomina and the increasingly evident rash of self-censorship, points the way to the media landscape of the future. It's not just TV it's after. The government won't rest until the radio is as accommodating as Venevisión.

The government's target audience is clear: people in Venezuela's urban centers, who spend two to three hours a day stuck in traffic, and who have begun voting against them. Pretty soon, all those voices telling them the Revolution is a failure will be gone.

Think about this the next time you hear Chávez or his fact-free, for-hire apologists rave about freedom of expression in Venezuela.

Graduating Out of the Axis of Annoyance

Quico says: It's tempting to dismiss Rodrigo Sanz's revelation that Iran is collaborating with Venezuela in an effort to secure high grade Uranium in Santa Elena de Uairén as mere posturing, or even just a slip of the tongue. That would be a serious mistake.

I believe Friday's announcement will come to be remembered as a turning point in the history of the Chávez era. When the time comes to partition our recent past, it will be remembered as the moment when Venezuela graduated out of the Axis of Annoyance and entered a geostrategic space it's never held before.

Here's why. For the last five centuries, a kind of Iron Law of Geopolitics has dictated that what happened in Latin America only made it onto the Big Powers' radar screens when events here got enmeshed in broader geo-strategic concerns.

For example, our Wars of Independence would've been of little interest to the great powers if it hadn't been for the Napoleonic upheaval, followed by the post-Metternichtian shake-out in European great power politics.

In the same vein, what Guatemala chose to do with its government in 1954 or Chile with its affairs in 1973 would've been of no particular interest to the rest of the world, but seen through the prism of the Cold War, they became important. And, of course, Fidel Castro never would've been anything more than an also-ran in the region's long history of megalomaniacal caudillos if he hadn't immersed Cuba in the USSR's global strategy to confront the US.

In the absence such trans-oceanic entanglements, what happens in Latin America should matter to Latin Americans only. Sporadically, an idealistic American president or a plunder-happy US company might decide to dip its toes in the region's politics as a way to burnish his credentials or fatten its bottom line, but only in ways that matter little beyond the borders of the country involved. In the event, Latin America only graduates to the first tier of geo-strategic concerns when it gets sucked into fights cooked up in the other hemisphere.

Whether he realizes it or not, Mining Minister Rodolfo Sanz did exactly that. It injected Venezuela right into the pre-eminent security challenge of the era. For the last 10 years, Chávez has been shadow boxing with the US. On Friday, Sanz shoved him into the rink.

Because we shouldn't fool ourselves: a nuclear armed Iran under the control of an aggressively anti-semitic, proudly extremist Islamic theocracy led by a man known to favor apocalyptic fantasies is a scenario none of the Western Powers can begin to countenance. The potential for Tehran to effectively hold the entire Middle East hostage, dictating terms to the entire region under the implicit threat of nuclear attack is too grave for Europe and the US to accept.

Some might argue that, during the Cold War, having two nuclear armed adversaries facing off against each other served as a stabilizing factor, helping keep the war cold. But there's one fatal flaw in that analogy: the Soviets did not have a death wish, the Iranians do.

That may sound over-dramatic, but the cult of martyrdom is one of the central tenets of Shia Islam, and the absolutely extreme version of Shiism the Iranian mullahs espouse has already led them to send hundreds of thousands of their own citizens to certain violent death. (If you think I'm exaggerating, read this.)

For people genuinely convinced that death in jihad is how you get to heaven por la puerta grande, the possibility of massive nuclear retaliation could easily come to be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. After all, if you were seriously convinced that you had the chance to guarantee everyone you rule over a privileged spot in Paradise, wouldn't you take it? Wouldn't you feel you had a responsibility to take it?

It's the kind of calculus Israel's military planners are having to weigh every night before they go to sleep.

In the wake of the brazenly stolen presidential elections earlier this year and the grave disclosure over the facility at Qom, the sense of urgency over the Iranian regime's intentions is considerably heightened. Couple that with an aggressively nationalistic government in power in Israel, and the Western Powers could well be drawn into a military confrontation with Iran through no decision of their own, merely as fall-out from a go-it-alone Israeli attack.

This is the scale of the international crisis that Rodolfo Sanz - of all people! - delivered us into with his announcement on Friday. Preventing an Iranian bomb is the number one policy goal of the United States today. That's two. Venezuela is actively helping Iran secure the most critical input needed for such a bomb. That's another two. Two and two make...?

What we have in our hands is a game changer. The west simply cannot laugh off Friday's announcement as just another of Chávez's folkloric eccentricities, and the Chávez administration lame attempts at backtracking ("oh no, he meant the Russians were helping us!") are not believable. Helping Iran get the bomb isn't on a par with helping FARC smuggle drugs to Europe or with financing Ollanta Humala's campaign. It's not an annoyance. It's a first-tier strategic threat.

Chávez knows it. The Israelis know it. The Iranians know it. The Pentagon certainly knows it.

We're sailing into uncharted waters here.

The view from your window: Austin

Austin, Texas, USA. 7:45 AM.

Send us the View from Your Window: caracaschronicles at fastmail dot fm, or nageljuan at gmail dot com.

Please ensure the window frame is visible, and tell us the place and time the picture was taken. And don't try to "pretty it up" - just show us what you see when you look up from the seat where you typically read the blog. Files should be no bigger than 400 KB.