November 27, 2009


Quico says: In case you haven't noticed, I have been struggling with writer's block for months. Ever since I came back from Venezuela and witnessed the deterioration in the conditions on the ground, the urge to write has been swallowed by a profound sense of pessimism and futility.

In trying to make sense of my block, I realized it was useful to think of it as an actual physical block. My block is located at the intersection of the two latest posts in the blog: Juan Cristobal's on the opposition primary accord and mine on Chávez and blood.

Venezuela's opposition is doing pretty much conventional democratic politics. Our politicians are sitting around a table, hashing out agreements, being careful where they place their commas and building their little empires. Outside, we witness the development of a political system that makes such conventional politics irrelevant.

In fact, thinking about conventional politics in this environment strikes me as vaguely grotesque. The deep despondency in that mismatch is the source of an anguish that has made it extremely difficult for me to write.

Four years ago, this blog made a sadistic little sport out of making fun of people like Hermann Escarrá and Antonio Ledezma, for striking out a ludicrously theatrical pose in their little "Comité Nacional de la Resistencia."

That resistance-fighter pose was easy to mock because, at the time, there was plenty of space for independent political action in the country, in the form of largely unimpeded media access for dissident voices, strong safeguards against electoral fraud, reasonable guarantees that going to a protest march wouldn't land you in jail, and a state that moved to repress dissent only very sporadically.

In those conditions, calling yourself a "resistance movement" was vaguely laughable, as illustrated vividly by the CNR's hilariously self-parodying habit of going back again and again to file injunctions, motions and petitions with the very same authorities they claimed to be resisting.

Fast forward to the end of 2009 and the vast bulk of those spaces have closed. Opposition voices now have extremely limited access to radio and TV, all meaningful guarantees against numerical fraud at election time have been stripped out of the latest electoral law (as the project currently stands), and protesting the government now routinely lands people in jail. The spaces for "conventional democratic politics" are desperately narrower now than they were back in 2005.

In these circumstances, what do Ledezma, Ramos Allup, and the rest of the 2005-abstention crowd do?

They hurl themselves at the train of conventional politics, getting sucked into an orgy of horse-trading over parliamentary candidacies in a way that would be unseemly but imaginably necessary in a normal country, but is vulgarly out of place in 2009 Venezuela.

And that's the real irony today. Venezuela really is getting to the point where the government has to be resisted more than it has to be opposed. But now that a daring, innovative, outside-the-box resistance movement is starting to look like the only viable option to fight an all-powerful petro-crat with a still plentiful wallet, the opposition has gone into a time warp.

They're haggling like it's 1999.

The kinds of arguments that were trotted out in favor of abstaining from electoral politics in 2005 were bogus then, but they cut mighty close to the bone now. Of course, by now, the opposition has shot its abstention wad - there is simply no way it can credibly play that card again next year after the exceedingly traumatic experience of 2005.

But when you go through the reasons people like Ledezma gave for not participating in the elections in 2005 - lack of credible guarantees that votes will be counted fairly, the suspicion that the government will do whatever it takes to win, the feeling that it's nonsensical to participate in a democratic election against an undemocratic government - each of them is much closer to the reality of 2009 than to the reality of 2005.

So the opposition is stuck. Unable to abstain from an election that it has plenty of reason to boycott, it simply has to take the lemons it's being given and make some lemonade, to turn the 2010 National Assembly vote into a "teachable moment," a time when it dramatizes its own transformation into the nation's only hope for democratic renewal. If there was ever a time to showcase its capacity for self-sacrifice, patriotism, and putting nation over personal interest, this is it.

Instead, the opposition is taking those lemons and shoving them up its own ass, leveraging the need to select candidates for a probably about-to-be-rigged vote into an opportunity to show itself at its petty, self-serving, cuarta-republick-esque worst.

The opposition needs to forget about turning itself into an alternative and take seriously the need to turn itself into a real resistance movement, a repository of the nation's moral fiber, an entity able to inspire the kinds of admiration and sacrifice a nation has to make to face down its dictatorial demons. It needs to find its own "fierce urgency of now."

Chavismo's authoritarian escalation this year has dramatically raised the bar in terms of what will be needed from a movement committed to unseating him. The opposition does not, to put it charitably, appear to be rising to the occasion.

And where's the fun in writing about that?

November 25, 2009

Chávez's achievement

Quico says: It's a question people seem to ask me a lot outside Venezuela, and it came up again the other night, in a conversation with an old and dear friend of mine:

"Now, I know you hate the guy, and probably for good reason...but if you had to pick out one achievement, one virtue in Hugo Chávez, what would it be?"

I've known my friend too long and respect him too much to fall back on the old, Teodoresque bromide about how Chávez put poverty at the top of the political agenda, yada yada yada. I'm sure there's something to that, but it feels like a cop-out at this oint. The mood was more reflexive than that, so I tried a more real riff.

"Chávez's real achievement," I said, draining the last of that bottle of wine, "the thing that sets him apart from any other charismatic leftie autocrat I can think of, is that he's put himself in the position he's in today without the massive use of state violence. It really is unprecedented, when you take the long view. Countries just don't get to where Venezuela is today without mass graves ...but we did."

"Think it through: Venezuela today is a society controlled from top to bottom, with practically no spaces left for meaningful independent political action, with a hyper-ideologized army and public administration responding unflinchingly to the orders of one man. The media? Neutered. The priests? Irrelevant. The bourgeoisie? Either cowed, fled or co-opted. The state's power? Virtually unchecked. And all this in a country that was a warts-and-all democracy as recently as a decade ago."

"It took Lenin a pile of bodies from here to Siam to get to this level of political control over Russia. Mugabe had 20,000 Ndebele bodies to bury before he had Zimbabwe by the cojones like Chávez has Venezuela. Tito's secret police had to keep shooting up people on 3 continents for decades to keep Yugoslavia nice and docile for forty years. That's what it takes, normally, to stamp your control over a country in the kind of total way Chávez has."

"But Chávez, what kind of body count does he really have? Juan Carlos Sánchez, from the Danilo Anderson case? Danilo himself? A dozen others, maybe, on the lower end of Avenida Baralt on 11A? And fifty more in jail? A disgrace, certainly, by the standards of a proper democracy...but measured against the kinds of deliriously murderous regimes Chávez loves to praise and lionize, almost embarrassingly little."

"Che Guevara had these many scalps under his belt within a week of the revolution taking Havana. Idi Amin, Khadafi, the Iranian mullahs, the Kims in North Korea these are rulers who pile up body counts and fill up prisons with a speed and efficiency Chávez both clearly admires and absolutely refuses to replicate. So far, anyway."

"And that's the real enigma, because to be sure Chávez's pantheon of leaders-to-be-emulated all have one thing in common: they're on an entirely different plane of murderousness than he is. That's the anomaly, man, the real headscratcher."

"A lot of it, I think, has to do with timing: the revolution's just moved much more slowly, much more gradually than any of the regimes I just mentioned. Classical dictatorships come in by force of arms and keep right on using those arms to maintain their control. Within a year or two, they've spilled all the blood they needed to spill to convince people not to fuck with them. And so people don't fuck with them. That's normal."

"What your normal dictator does in a year Chávez has done in ten. Ten long and miserable years, yes, but also ten years of a bark that far outstrips the bite."

"Maybe our problem is that we keep measuring him up against the standard of the normal democratic regime we'd like, rather than against the bar of the blood-soaked tyrannies he holds himself up against. Chávez has, to his own mind, made a lot of compromises over the last ten years, eaten a lot of shit to get the kind of control over Venezuelan society he has without a spasm of fratricidal violence."

"No other revolutionary that I can think of has been more willing to let opponents stay and grow rich under his watch, so long as they agreed to go-along and get-along. Khadafi had no Gustavo Cisneros, Idi Amin did not rule over a Blackberry boomlet, and Fidel certainly had no Pedro Torres Ciliberto. So the extension of political control here has gone hand in hand with the kind of softly-softly approach to 'class enemies' - in fact, if not in rhetoric - that, while shot through with insecurity, has also seen a huge number of bank accounts bulge very significantly."

"In a way, I think Chávez understands power better than almost any of his historical predecessors. More subtly, more finely. Chávez grasps that you can set up a society where even people who hate your guts get the message that they have no choice but to go along with what you say, and do go along with what you say, without having to shoot up the place until it looks like a Swiss cheese."

"And in that sense, if in no other, I think there really is something to the whole idea of 21st Century Socialism. In the 20th century, all left-wing tyrannies were baptized in rivers of blood. The first 21st century left-wing tyranny has dispensed with all that..."

Por ahora...

November 24, 2009

The people get shoved under the table

Juan Cristóbal says: - A few days ago, Venezuela's opposition announced with much fanfare it had finally reached an "agreement" on how to select candidates for the looming parliamentary elections. The announcement, praised as a positive development, instead sucked the air out of the room. The agreement amounts to the death knell of a nationwide opposition primary next year.

The text was put together by the opposition parties' quasi-umbrella group, unhappily named the Mesa de Unidad (literally, "Unity Table"...). Careful about its comas and couched in language that could only stir a vogon, the text centered on solving the problems of the opposition political class, not of their voters.

As much as it claims to represent the opposition universe, this "table" lacks a few important things: a webpage, a coherent image, and, more importantly, an important group of civil society groups led by Leopoldo López, among others. So right off the bat, serious players in our opposition fauna are not included, putting a big fat question mark over the table's legitimacy and the impact of anything it does.

What this incomplete assembly has done is approve an unwieldy compromise where some parliamentary candidates will be chosen via smoke-filled room haggling consensus, and those that can't be haggled over successfully will be put to a primary vote next year.

What that means is that the mesa's announcement kills the one truly transformational idea on the table, the one proposal able to not just settle the opposition's unity and organizational problems but to re-brand it as a modern, forward-looking, even daring and innovative force in National politics: a nationwide primary.

Instead of viewing popular participation in decision-making as a matter of principle, the agreement relegates primaries to the status of "last resort", just the thing you do when you've argued yourself hoarse and aren't getting anywhere. Voters like you and me are denied a voice, but parties-in-paper-only such as the MAS get a seat at the table. It's clear primaries are the last thing on the mesa leaders' minds, a mechanism they'll be dragged to kicking and screaming after all else has failed rather than an opportunity they'll seize with any kind of strategic vision.

Primaries are to the table like divorce is to a marriage.

What about the rest of the agreement?

Well, there's nothing there. After weeks of talks, most of the important decisions have been postponed. The rules for the fabled "consensus" have yet to be established, and they're giving themselves 15 days for the fifty (yes, 5-0) political organizations around what must be a truly massive table to agree them.

They claim that, by February, they'll have a clearer picture of where they've reached agreements and where they'll need to go to primaries. The actual primaries would take place in April at the latest, and they vow to have a complete roster of unity candidates by April 30th.

The table seemed rather pleased with itself over this agreement, or at least tried its best to present it as some kind of breakthrough. But they're sadly deluded. They're confusing a timeline with a deadline, establishing no enforcement mechanisms and giving no sign of real commitment by the table's players. They provided no details on progress regarding the rules and no hints as to how the table plans to incorporate those who have so far not participated.

The table's spokespeople asked for our trust, reminding us that in 2005 they reached a unity roster, but then gingerly papering over the fact that the 2005 parliamentary election was a disaster and that, had we not refused to participate, we would have lost by a huge margin. And let's not even touch how those agreements panned out at last year's regional elections, when picking unity candidates was a simpler proposition and much less was at stake.

The hazy deadlines, the blind faith in mechanisms that haven't worked in the past and the little consideration given to the idea of primaries are all hugely disappointing.

Worst yet, they've again failed to show the slightest hint of imagination or daring, the least shred of strategic vision, or any hint that they're aware of the need to drastically rebrand, reposition and relaunch a movement that even Venezuelans who detest Chávez have come to see as sclerotic and almost allergic to the idea of a strategic vision.

The principle-driven primary, where the people themselves take ownership of the movement to re-establish democracy in our country, has been sacrificed for the benefit of the smoke-filled-room-failure primary, where the voters are frog-marched out to clean up the messes their putative leaders leave in various bits of the Venezuelan map.

Así seguro ganamos...

PS.- Reader GTAC tells me Leopoldo López is on board with this, and he actually met with the Table. So maybe their decisions are more legitimate - but they are still not the right ones.

The view from your window: Miami

Miami, FL, USA. 3:13 pm.

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November 22, 2009

Alleged news agency allegedly strips the word "alleged" of any meaning whatsoever, sources allege

Quico says: I almost choked on my breakfast burrito this morning when I read Ian James's write-up for the AP of Chávez's lunatic little dithyramb to Carlos the Jackal the other day:
Hugo Chavez has defended the alleged terrorist mastermind Carlos the Jackal, saying the Venezuelan imprisoned in France was an important "revolutionary fighter" who supported the cause of the Palestinians.

Wait a minute: alleged?! ALLEGED?!!!? Is this some twisted joke?

Calling Carlos the Jackal an "alleged terrorist" is like calling Barack Obama an "alleged US president" and Ian James an "alleged AP hack"!

We're talking about a guy who's not just been convicted in open court of killing two French police officers, but who's publically taken responsability for any number of notorious terrorist acts, including classics like kidnapping eleven OPEC oil minister all at once, and who's publicly defended such acts not only at the time, but also in retrospect, in a prison-cell book that accepts responsibility for and stridently vindicates his multi-decade campaign of threats, murders, kidnappings and bombings; a virtual compendium of terrorist acts.

I'm no ranting critic of the gringo MSM, but this article shows it at its spineless worst. Whatever editorial guideline it is that landed that adjective before that word makes no sense at all. The AP's decision to qualify the only profession Ilich Ramírez has ever known drains the word "alleged" of any meaning whatsoever, and tends to cast a patina of respectability on Hugo Chávez recent, full-throated defense of his brand of terrorist tactics.

Inexcusable, guys. Just inexcusable.