December 4, 2009

Mental health break for the weekend

Juan Cristóbal says: - It's easy to forget, but before we were oligarchs, squalid ones and betrayers of the homeland, we were simply - his invisible friends.

I can't think of a better tonic to Hugo Chávez's vulgarity than the warm lessons of Arturo Uslar Pietri.

See you all Monday.

Rules for Subversives

Quico says: "Opposition" has become an obsolete concept in Venezuelan politics. Opposition is what you do to governments capable of being opposed: those that see the practice of periodically alternating in power with their critics as normal.

Chavismo has denormalized alternation, crafting a state system where the practice would imperil regime stability. Chavismo can't be "opposed" in the normal sense of the word, because it doesn't conceive of itself as a temporary occupant of executive branch. Instead, it claims ownership of the state as a whole.

What can you do if you dissent from a government that is not opposable in the normal democratic sense? A government that has repeatedly stressed that it does not conceive of alternation in power as a normal feature of the system, and explicitly vows never to allow it to happen?

There's only one thing you can do if you don't wish to submit to a government like that: subvert it.

I think Chávez himself grasped this long before those of us who disagree with him did. Maybe his obsession with plots and conspiracies all around him speak not so much of paranoïa as of a dirty conscience. A kind of "if they knew what I know, they'd be trying to subvert me."

Me, I never set out to become a subversive. Never chose that. Doesn't really fit my personality in any way. But like everybody else who opposes the vision of state power chavismo represents, I have now been made, effectively, into a subversive.

There is a long, deeply unsettling set of consequences that flow out of this realization. A set of consequences Venezuela's anti-chavista establishment really hasn't quite processed yet. It's hard to see our movement having any success until we come to grips with our new condition, a condition that is no less ours because we never chose it.

Subversion is the game the entire anti-chavista country is now engaged in, whether consciously or unconsciously.

To dissent from the hyperleader is to subvert the state system he has crafted, a system based on mindless obedience, complicit sycophancy, and an essentially limitless willingness to lie to the public for political benefit. It's a system you won't find described in any official document, certainly not in the 1999 constitution. It is the state of The State in fact, not in law.

And article 333 of that same document tells you all you need to know about your duties in such an eventuality.

Subversion is not a road we've chosen, it's a road that's been chosen for us. The only question now is whether we can subvert the chavista state creatively, effectively and constructively, in a way that helps us lay out the basis for something better down the road.

I think subversion of the current regime will need to take place along many axes. Some overt, some covert. Obviously, as bloggers, we can't do much about the latter, other than hope for their success. But we can, in our small way, contribute to the former.

Because subverting the chavista state is also about subverting the habits of mind that sustain it: the endless willingness to subjugate reality to political convenience, the mindless cult of personality that raises a single man's will above the law. It means challenging the cognitive cornerstone of the entire chavista system: the out and out refusal to submit the leader's dictates to critical scrutiny, to hold them up against the measuring bar of reason.

Call it cognitive subversion. That's the business this blog is in. Time we faced up to it.

December 3, 2009

Chavez throws hissy fit, your savings lose 15% of their value

Quico says: Reuters is reporting that the parallel bolivar plunged as low as Bs.6.2 to the dollar today in response to Chávez's bank nationalization histrionics. Funny to think how just a few weeks ago Nelson Merentes was pledging the Voldemort rate would climb to Bs.3.45:$ by the beginning of December (i.e., now.)

You almost have to pity the guy...the bureaucratic equivalent of a hired shopkeeper in a china shop owned by a wildebeest.


Juan Cristóbal says: - A reader in Caracas told us yesterday that he was disappointed in Caracas Chronicles. He usually came to CC to find information and solace, but lately, there's been no solace.

He got that right.

Quico and I have always tried to find the proverbial silver lining in current events. But lately, that's been hard to find. I blame it on El Niño.

So, bloggerfam, this is a cry for help. We demand an intervention!

Is there any hope? And if so, where do you find it? 'Cause the light at the end of the tunnel seems to have flickered out with the latest blackout.

I think of my friend Rafa, who years ago told me something that has stuck in my mind: "Este país es una mierda, pero como se goza!"

Maybe he's right. I should give him a call.

PS.- Quico read the previous version of this post and hated it. He asked me for a re-write, demanding I make it short and funny. Short I can do, but it's hard to make a post about how depressing everything is ... funny!

December 2, 2009

Picking up on new memes

Juan Cristóbal says: - Way back in the early days of 2005, Hugo Chávez declared himself a socialist.

These were the lazy, hazy days of the post-Recall Referendum. The government had consolidated power, and was fresh off a sweeping victory in the 2004 Regional Elections. In the words of then-Vice President José Vicente Rangel, chavismo had the highway "all to themselves."

That was the moment Hugo Chávez decided to amp up the rhetoric.

It's easy to forget, but Chávez didn't say he was a socialist prior to then. His rhetoric was wrapped in a vague, nationalistic, state-centered, pseudo-Bolivarian, militaristic shtick that was hard to define. Only in 2005 did he reveal himself to be a socialist.

We all know what came afterward.

I started thinking about this when, today, Chávez reiterated something he has been saying a lot lately: his Revolution is about "class struggle," about "poor versus rich."

It seems clear this is chavismo's new meme. This is how they will frame the next phase.

Perhaps this is the reason why they are moving against the kleptocrats within their own ranks. Perhaps this explains why Chávez has his sights set on the nations' banks, who have, so far, escaped the wrath of the autocrat and have played silent partners to his policies.

Long gone are the days when chavismo would say there was space in his Revolution for the middle class, when he would try and forge an alliance with the business elite that was willing to work within the bounds of socialism. Will we soon long for the days when he would kid around with Juan Carlos Escotet? There is no space for these shenanigans in class warfare.

The questions Juan Carlos Zapata and others asked ourselves back in 2006 - well worth revisiting here and here - stemmed from the contradiction between the "socialist" rhetoric and the cozy government/business clique operating on the ground.

Perhaps this new meme signals chavismo's willingness to purge this alliance.

If so, a lot of people should be shaking in their Ermenegildos.

Annals of the Vulture Meat Guardianship Corporation

Juan Cristóbal says: -

"I will be in any corner the fatherland demands me to be in, fulfilling my duty, fighting from my trench, backing the President and his political process. I will join in battle, whether from the most humble place or from the most decisive one. We all know we are of value to the Revolution, to the country, to the transformation of society and to the chances of saving the planet. Because I believe that without socialism, life will not be possible."

Socorro Hernández, former Minister of Telecommunications, former head of CANTV, chavista sycophant. May 15th, 2009.

Yesterday, Ms. Hernández was named as one of the five members of the board of the CNE, Venezuela's supposedly impartial elections arbiter.

This is the person in charge of counting our votes.


A useful illusion?

Quico says: Watching this video, I can't decide if Ciudadanía Activa is performing a valuable civic service by keeping alive the pretense of constitutional government or if this is the discursive equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight.

What do you think?

December 1, 2009


Juan Cristóbal says: - It's not every day that you learn something about your own country from the New York Times. So do yourself a favor and don't miss Simón Romero's article about the people of the upper Caura river in Bolívar state. It's a tour-de-force.

The article focuses on the daily lives and current struggles of the native Ye'kuana and Sanema peoples, centered in a tiny hamlet called Edowinña. Anyone venture to guess how you pronounce that correctly?

It's also about conservation efforts, the clash of civilizations and how these people are caught in the middle. While you're there, don't miss the accompanying audio slide show.

One of the many surprising passages is this one:
More recently, the Ye’kuana and Sanema fought a brutal war in the 1930s, apparently over Sanema raids for metal and women, forcing the Sanema into a subservient role in some Ye’kuana villages.
Personally, I knew nothing about these people, this region or even this war, so a big thank you to Romero.

PS.- Along these lines, Kepler pointed me to a great blog written by a capuchin friar working in the Gran Sabana. It's worth a read (in Spanish).

November 30, 2009

Hondurans go rogue

Juan Cristóbal says: - I should know better than to post about Honduras given how badly it went the last time, but here goes: by electing a President yesterday in imperfect but legitimate elections, the Honduran people have decided their fate, rest of the world be damned.

Good for them.

President-elect Porfirio Lobo has been recognized by the US, Peru, Panama, Colombia and Japan. Spain has announced it will soon re-visit its tough stance.

Brazil is leading the guys with the pitchforks, a group that includes our very own Hugo Chávez, Cristina Kirchner, Michelle Bachelet and the OAS. That Brazil's Lula da Silva has refused to recognize this election when, just last week, he embraced the illegitimate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks volumes about his idea of democracy.

Lula's stance toward Lobo is even more hypocritical given how quick he has been to rubber-stamp Hugo Chávez's elections. Tainted elections are OK, as long as the Left wins, nao é verdade companheiro?

Tancredo Neves must be rolling in his grave.

As for Chávez, it has been quite the sight to see his diplomats grasp for straws, questioning the legitimacy of this election because of supposedly high abstention. 2005, anyone?

Regardless of Brazil's claims to leadership in the region, they really have zero leverage when it comes to Central America. The Honduran people couldn't care less what Lula, Cristina, Insulza and the rest of the gang think of their elected leader. With the US and its allies on their side, they are fine.

So much for Brazil being the region's giant. The Emperor has no clothes.

Come to think of it, the Lobo administration should not even try to get in the good graces of this gang. If the region's left-leaning governments refuse to recognize their democratically-elected President, so be it. Honduras is probably better off not being in the empty shell that is the OAS anyway. Good riddance!

Fun with Skype

Juan Cristóbal says: - Ta-da-dun... ta-dun...

I'm sitting in my ofice. It's Friday afternoon. I'm waiting to finish a report, and the familiar Skype bell interrupts me.

Damn, bad timing. Should I take it?

It's Rafa, my best friend from college, godfather to my oldest daughter. We haven't spoken in a few months. In between my schedule and his newborn twins, we haven't found the time.


We talk a little bit about everything. Family stuff, mostly. Then, as it must, the conversation veers toward ... la situación.

Rafa is in Caracas, and he's doing really well. The son of a "pick-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps" Cuban immigrant, he's the local manager of a multinational, living in an Altamira condo, as well as it's possible to live in one of the most dangerous, politically unstable cities in the world. Sure, in the last few years he's had to adapt to the situation. He had his car armor-plated for security and he hired a bodyguard. But all in all, he's doing fine.

"You know what? Sometimes, I understand ninis. It's just so damn difficult to like the opposition!" he says.

I ask him to elaborate.

"Well, take the Chacao municipality. You know how our offices are in Altamira, in one of the swankiest buildings in the city? Well, it took us five years to get the paperwork from the Chacao municipality cleared up. Their reason for holding up our permits was that an internal door was, according to them, not where it should be."

I tell him that speaks well of them, that they are taking their job professionally.

"No, you don't understand, they were wrong," he explains with more than a tad of frustration. "Chacao firemen came to the office and verified everything was correct. That meant nothing to City Hall. One day, municipal workers showed up at my doorstep to shut down my offices. All because a door communicating a couple of offices was in the wrong place! I swore to them if they didn't back off and let us do our work, I would go down to VTV immediately and denounce their abuse of power."

"As it happened, they were wrong about the door. It took them five years to figure that one out, fess up and give us our permits. No apology was provided."

"Here comes the annoying part: they were on the brink of shutting me down, but our office building is where Trios, one of Caracas' poshest whorehouses, does its business."

Huh? I ask him to explain.

"Yes, it's right there where Le Club used to be. This is not a love motel, mind you, it's a burdel. You don't bring your date, you pick your date. Actually, you pick two or more - hence the name of the joint. It's the most exclusive place in the city - and they have all their permits! In fact, all of the city's poshest brothels - D'angelo, Divas - they're all in Chacao, they all have their permits, granted by our very own opposition. All of them are prominently advertised all over the city. And yet companies like mine doing legitimate business - we are the ones that have to stand City Hall breathing down our neck."

"Is it any wonder people are fed up?"


I hang up with Rafa a bit disheveled, trying to concentrate on my report that centers on how competition favors consumers and fosters innovation. The Skype ring interrupts me again.


It's Patricia, my second cousin. Last year, Patricia graduated from high school and came to live with us a few months to learn English and help us with the girls. A few weeks ago, she went back home, unsure about her future.

When Patricia came to the States, she did not know what she wanted to study or where. Her parents are not wealthy, and certainly could not afford the private universities all of Patricia's girlfriends were going to. They, and the rest of the family, were strongly steering her toward Maracaibo's public university, LUZ.

Patricia had convinced us that she was going to go to URBE, an expensive private university in Maracaibo that acts as a magnet for kids looking for an easy, uncomplicated BA. The place is the epicenter of the MMC (mientras me caso) crowd that many of Patricia's friends belong to.

We could understand her not wanting to push herself too much - she's no brain surgeon, and has the grades to prove it. Still, LUZ seemed like the only choice available to her.

Patricia would have none of it. With the unbridled confidence of a teenager who thinks she knows everything, she announced she would get a scholarship and go to URBE.

"How?" we all asked. "You don't have the grades, you are unsure of what you want to study, and neither you nor we have any connections."

"That's what you think," she would say. "I'll have you know one of my best friends is dating one of Manuel Rosales' kids."

As it happens, the Zulia state government has a scholarship program called "Programa de Becas Jesús Enrique Lossada," established under the leadership of former governor Manuel Rosales as a smaller, supposedly better-run version of Chávez's Misiones. The scholarships pay your tuition in the university of your choice. Rosales spoke a lot about this program during his brief run for President back in 2006, and I was not surprised to find out it was still working under the new Pablo Pérez administration.

While the state government claims all scholarships are given out randomly, it turns out there is a back door. And it was through that back door that Patricia got in, which was why she was calling me.

"They gave me the scholarship!" she beamed. "I'm going to URBE for Media Studies. I begin in January!"

In a matter of three weeks, Patricia managed to talk herself into an expensive government scholarship, covering the tuition on her fluff-choice of a career in a less-than-serious institution. And this is supposed to showcase the opposition's approach to public policy?

I speak to my cousin, Patricia's mom, and ask her if she thinks it's right for Patricia to accept that scholarship. "Of course it is," she says. "We couldn't pay her tuition if she didn't have the scholarship. She deserves it."

I ponder that while I remember her yearly Cadivi-subsidized trips to visit us.


I go back to my report on competition, wondering if we will ever have true competition between our opposition political parties.

Because of this consensus that favors "consensus" over all else, opposition voters are shielded from a healthy competition between our parties. All our darts are directed at Chávez, so we end up being duped into accepting the Chacao municipality's pimping and the Zulia scholarship program as sensible public policy, forced to look the other way.

Opposition primaries would have been the perfect time to highlight those shortcomings among our own, but that idea turned out to be a non-starter. UNT is not about to let pesky voters foray into their domain in Zulia, and whichever party Leopoldo López is in this week will protect its Chacao turf. Suggest that a bit of competitive pressure might just do those areas some good and you're seen as some kind of wild-eyed radical.

Just like in business, lack of competition between parties engenders lazy institutions full of petty bureaucratic vices. The result is that instead of being the repository of the nation's moral fiber, we end up giving permits to high-end brothels and handing out scholarships to friends of our friends.

Rafa is right. Some days, it's easy to understand ninis.

The view from your window: The big apple

New York City, New York, USA. 10:00 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.