November 12, 2009

Chávez names his price

Juan Cristóbal says: - This buried little nugget in state-owned wire service ABN is startling in its honesty.

In it, Under-Secretary Francisco Arias Cárdenas very clearly declares what Chávez wants in exchange for returning relations with Colombia to a semblance of normalcy: a face-to-face meeting with Barack Obama.

According to Arias, the region's diplomats should not waste their time organizing summits with Uribe. The OAS, Lula and the rest are all barking up the wrong tree, Arias says, because Chávez's beef is no longer with Uribe but with Obama. Only Obama, he claims, can give Venezuela the guarantees it needs regarding the military agreement between Colombia and the U.S.

In criollo, "yo no vengo a hablar con los payasos, vengo a hablar con el dueño del circo."

After much huffing and puffing, after declaring wars and announcing troop movements on national TV, after $4 billion+ in weapons purchases, we now know it was all the price we needed to pay to get Chávez his much-desired photo-op in the Oval Office.

Remarkable, ain't it?

November 11, 2009

Not red enough for VTV: Squalid media and revolutionary discontent

Juan Cristóbal says: Many of Venezuela's public servants are mad. They, the red-wearing base of the Revolution, are mad because they don't get paid, because their places of work are under-equipped and they don't have benefits. Mostly, they're mad because they've been promised collective bargaining that never materializes and because their dignity is being trampled on.

But if you didn't watch Globovisión, you probably wouldn't know this.

The list of ironies and internal contradictions of the Bolivarian Revolution is long. One of the more notable recent additions is the fact that Globovisión, one of chavismo's most overused scapegoats, has become the outlet of choice for rank-and-file chavistas with an itch to bitch against the government.

A brief scan of what's been in the news lately could give you a flavor of massive dollop of irony involved.

Here we see a video of the very angry employees of the government-run Hotel Alba Caracas (what used to be the Caracas Hilton before Chávez ... never mind). The employees, more than 400 of them, are incandescent because they haven't been paid and are being harassed by management. They complain about their appalling working conditions - chefs decry the lack of butter, laundry attendants fret over washing machines that don't work. And Globovisión is the only channel there, listening and reporting.

Government oil workers in Anzoátegui State, in eastern Venezuela, are also causing a ruckus. They denounce the government for not signing a new collective bargaining agreement. Union leaders are quick to point out that they will defend their rights just like they "defended the industry during the oil strike of 2002-2003." Globovisión is there to air their frustration.

The government's postal service is also in upheaval. Workers carp that their rights are being trampled upon, saying that "socialism is not being applied here." Unions are being harassed and so they are sending a message to "Comrade Hugo Chávez" ... in case he's watching Globovisión. The union leader interviewed rues that all media has been invited, but only Globovisión came, bitterly singling out a State media that won't air their views.

Apparently, chavismo has not grasped just how dangerous a disgruntled postal worker can be.

Workers from the El Algodonal hospital, west of Caracas, also criticized the government recently for their terrible working conditions. They talk about the crime spree inside the hospital, the lack of doctors and the scarcity of supplies. The person interviewed alerts us that the hospital's Emergency Room has been shut for a year. Another group of workers says they haven't been paid in more than two months, that there's no water, and that sewers run openly next to the hospital.

Retired National Assembly workers also aired their beef in downtown Caracas recently. More than a thousand former workers made a fuss because their pensions haven't been paid. Again, Globovisión carried it prominently.

Even in far-off Portuguesa state, Health Ministry workers use Globovisión as a vehicle to air their grievances about the capacity of their manager and their working conditions. At least these workers managed to get the attention of a chavista Assembly-woman.

And this is just a flavor from the past few days.

But scan VTV's web page and there is no mention of the hotel maids, the oil workers, the El Algodonal ladies, or any of the other government employees who are up in arms. Off-script revolutionaries are strictly verboten on "the channel of all Venezuelans".

The workers' gripes stick to a well-defined script. Worker says she is "with the process", a necessary qualifying statement in order to keep her job. Worker then pledges allegiance to Comrade Chávez and to socialism. Worker goes on to complain that the government is a mess and demands a piece of the petro-pie. Worker reminds the viewer that she and her compañeros are with the process - just in case it wasn't clear. Worker hands it off to fellow worker with a different gripe. And so on...

Once in a while, the worker on the screen will express their surprise and disappointment at the fact that Globovisión is the only channel willing to listen. In a way, Globovisión has become the de facto voice of the proletariat. One would hope the proletariat would ask themselves where they will take their grievances if their beloved "comrade" fulfills his pledge to shut down the only TV channel willing to take them seriously.

This bizarre pattern underscores the vital role that independent media plays in a well-functioning society. On VTV, revolutionaries are useful as props, as abstract tokens of support for the whim of the leader. The second those revolutionaries transcend that role and acquire any depth, any complexity, any individuality, they become dangerous provocateurs to be silenced rather than citizens to be served.

We've been very critical of Globovisión's harsh, strident anti-Chávez content on this blog. But when the channel does what it should - report the news and tell the stories nobody else is telling - it plays a pivotal role in the preservation of what little democratic space we have left.

Villa del Tukiti

Quico says: Don't miss Mac Margolis's epic mauling of Villa del Cine, Hugo's vanity movie studio, in the current issue Newsweek. To wit:
Just inside the studio gates, a man-made canal leads to an artificial stream and lakebed—but there was no water in them when I visited recently. Indoors, the corridors and edit bays are vacant except for one or two stray techies in jeans and tennis shoes. Rows of sewing machines lie idle under dust covers in the costume atelier. An electrical fire earlier this year knocked out most of the studio's work-stations, forcing producers, editors, seamstresses, carpenters, and engineers to relocate. "Here is Studio 1. Six to eight different film sets can fit in here," a perky Cinemaville PR aide chirps, opening the door to an empty warehouse.
The entire thing is couched in this kind of hyper-acerbic tone. Just brutal. Great fun.

[Hat tip: EC]

November 10, 2009

The Universal Yawn

Quico says: The really remarkable thing about the reaction to Chávez's latest obscene little warriorist hissy fit against Colombia is the sheer universality of the disinterest it elicited. You'd think that when the head of state of a country that's just come out of a five year weapons buying orgy openly announces imminent war on his neighbor people would worry, at least a little bit. What's bizarre and, in a way, heartening, is the extent to which that didn't happen following Sunday's loon-a-thon.

With the exception of this alarmist little rant from no-less-discredited-a-figure than former president Carlos Andrés Pérez (still, remarkably enough, alive and kickin'...his foot into his mouth) reaction to the war that-exists-only-in-Chávez's-head has been remarkably clear-eyed: the equivalent of a national roll-of-the-eyes, swiftly followed by speculation that the guy must be really hurtin' for a way to rally the faithful if we've entered the Rhetorical Galtieri phase already.

This is certainly Teodoro's reading, and the main vibe I get from scanning oppo responses. Nobody seems to be in any doubt that this is a smoke-curtain: what passes for an official response to the overlapping water/electricity/crime crises now buffeting the country.

The whole narrative about a virtual US occupation of Colombia and the imminent threat of gringo-prodded invasion is too weird, too unhinged to take at face value. This may, indeed, come to be remembered as one of the most catastrophic misreadings of a declared presidential intention in the Chávez era, but I really don't think so.

Instead, what I'd say to my Colombian friends is this: Hugo Chávez has decided to cast you in the role of villain.

He's been pushed into it for lack of a better alternative: Barack Obama doesn't really make a credible bogeyman, and the Venezuelan opposition is too disjointed and threadbare to really work in that role anymore. That's a real problem for Chavismo. By its nature, chavismo needs an enemy: an external threat it can vilify and rail against and use to justify any and every authoritarian excess at home. (How long until protesting students are arrested on suspicions of working for DAS?)

Chavismo's internal logic demands an enemy: a totally evil other to put flesh on the bones of the little Manichaean melodrama inside Huguito's head. And now, you're it.

It's not a pleasant fact, but it's a fact.

For Chávez, it's not important that an enemy be real, or recognize itself as an enemy, or even be much interested in what happens in Venezuela at all. The only thing really required of you in this role is that you be - that you exist long enough and semi-plausibly enough to play Dr. Moriarty to his Sherlock least in his supporters' eyes.

As we in the Venezuelan opposition can certainly tell you, it's not a nice role to be cast in. And yet, it's a role. He can't force you to really inhabit it, and the only way you can lose is if you take the bait. So try to grasp the dynamic at work here, and take a deep breath. A very deep breath. In fact, for your own sake, my advice is to join the universal yawn.

The view from your window: Parque Central

Caracas, Venezuela. 11 am.

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

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November 9, 2009

War games

Juan Cristóbal says: - Once in a while, Quico and I get emails from readers in Colombia asking about Hugo Chávez’s latest antics vis-a-vis their government. Since yesterday Mr. Chávez decided to up-the-ante on the war talk and spent several minutes saying everyone should get ready for war, I assume Colombians' anxiety over their neighbor to the East is on the rise. The question that begs asking is where this is headed. Are we going to war with Colombia?

The short answer is no.

It's easy to talk about war when you don't bother explaining the specifics of how that war is supposedly going to take place.

In the modern world, there are many ways you can wage war. You can wage a war the old-fashioned way like Saddam did in the early '90s, or the modern way, a-la Donald Rumsfeld. You can do what the VietCong did, or what Al-Qaeda is doing now. But whether by air, by land, by sea, by the Internet or by an army of renegade militants willing to blow themselves up, there is one thing all these tactics require: a plausible course of action.

As it stands, it's hard to conjure up a plausible scenario where all these winds of war translate into an actual, palpable guerre between the two sister countries. Because, what exactly is it that Chávez is telling us to prepare for? And after we're ready, what next?

An air war? Really? Venezuela doesn't have the air power to make a serious dent in Colombia's military infrastructure, and if it did, Colombia has the US covering its back. Starting an air war with Colombia would be suicidal.

A ground war? Most Venezuelan generals have a hard time summoning the strength to stir a glass of 25-year old Scotch with their pinky. The Colombian army is much larger and better equipped than the Venezuelan army.

A guerrilla war? Yeah, like that's gonna work. The Colombian army has been waging a guerrilla war for almost fifty years now. They triple us in experience. As the saying goes, cuando tú vas, yo vengo.

Militant war? Check. Technological war? Check.

The only plausible reason to take the President seriously is if the government expected Colombia to invade Venezuela. But really, does anyone outside the Kool-Aid drinking left believe Colombia (and the US) are going to invade Venezuela any time soon?

Think of the headlines - Nobel Peace Prize-winning US President launches invasion of Venezuela. Makes perfect sense, right?

The only question that remains is why The Fat Warmonger in the Palace would be talking about this.

Easy - the more you talk about war, the more you get the Evos and Lulas of the world to worry about you. Cheap talk of war keeps the talking noggins at Globovisión busy for a couple of days and provides a welcome respite from all the talk about flashlights and buckets. Firing up the guns of war gives you insight into the barracks, and may ultimately provide clues as to who is with you and who is not.

It's understandable that Chávez's words cause discomfort in Bogotá's political circles. Cachacos are, after all, a cultured lot, genetically programmed to be repulsed by the ordinary antics of Veneco power players. But you shouldn't let your prejudices guide your perception of what is real and what isn't.

So my message to my Colombian friends is this: ignore him. It's not about you. When un certain bouffon starts talking crazy about war, the only war that should concern you is the shouting match between the voices in his head.

Chávez is part crazy, part astute political animal. So while the crazy voice may be asking for a war, the rational one knows that would be his doom, just like it was for Videla and Galtieri. That's the voice that is likely to prevail, the only one you really need to pay attention to.

The view from your window: Chicago

Chicago, Illinois, USA. 4 pm.

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