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Friday, December 05, 2003

This blog... about to go more or less quiet, since I'm off to Romania for the holidays starting today. I may post from net caf�s now and then, but obviously not as often as I'm doing now.

It's really been a historic week in Venezuela, and even though I'm far away now, it has been a lot of fun to chronicle it blow-by-blow. Do keep writing in, though, even if you don't hear back from me right away (which you won't.) I especially enjoy reading emails from people who have a coherent argument against something I have written - from any direction. (Philochavistas with integrity are my favorite correspondents.) Your feedback has been enormously stimulating over the last week. I think the possibility to exchange views is really one of the best things about a blog as a medium. So thank you for writing in, it has made this intense bit of blogging that much more interesting.

Also, please write in if you notice any factual mistakes. One of the joys (and challenges) of blogging is that you don't have an editor, but this does mean that mistakes are far more likely on a blog than if you read a newspaper (caveat lector.) I want to thank everyone who wrote in to point out mistakes. They are acknowledged when appropriate, and I do make an attempt to correct factual errors.

So I will read all mail when I get back, and respond to a selection. Please tell me explicitly if you want me to keep your correspondence private, or if you want your name and/or email address omitted. Unless you request otherwise, I will assume that anything sent to the CaracasChronicles fastmail address is meant for public consumption. Similarly, I will assume things sent to my personal address are not for publication.

I do intend to write a long (probably excruciatingly long) and detailed post about what actually happened on April 11-14, 2002, sometime in January. Many questions about the coup and The revolution will not be televised will be better addressed then. I want to read Sandra La Fuente and Alfredo Meza's highly lauded book on the subject before putting my foot in my mouth here. I don't know Alfredo, but I do know Sandra, and I'm thrilled she took on the project. Los que leen castellano really should get it. El Acertijo de Abril is the title - the first edition is, encouragingly, sold out, but we are promised an even better second edition early next year. The book, as far as I'm aware, is the most comprehensive and professional effort yet to document and describe exactly what the hell happened during the bizarre days of April 2002.

[And no, the plug is not only because Sandra is a member of the same pro-media balance NGO I am a member of, Los del Medio, which if anything is only to her credit. Sandra is a journalist of scrupulous fairness: exactly the kind of reporter you would want investigating a reality as complex and thorny as the coup.]

(Romania? Vacation? In December?!? Long story...don't ask...)

So if I have any readers in Transylvania, please, please, please get in touch and buy me a beer! Otherwise, heavy-blogging will resume in January when the signature tallies are announced.

Happy holidays to everyone,

If you are a first time reader, I recommend you actually scroll to the bottom of this page and read the entries from bottom to top, in the chronological order they were written. It will take a while (I tend to write a little too much, as you will soon find out) but I think it's worth it. This is a blog for people who like to read, and read, and read, produced by someone who likes to write, and write, and write. Especially if you know relatively little about Venezuela, it will make a lot more sense to read it in chronological order. Also, if you really need a (somewhat polemical) primer before delving into the minutiae of the fascinating saga in Caracas over the week of Nov 28-Dec 5th, I really recommend you spend some time reading the long but hopefully entertaining essay on the evolution of the Petrostate, from the 60s through Chavez. I wrote it because it seems to me one basic reason people don't understand Venezuela's complex reality is that they just don't know enough about the back story, the dynamics that brought the country to do something as dramatic as vote in Hugo Chavez with successive 60% majorities. The essay is my attempt to answer that question, in a way I hope isn't too too boring. To my mind, it's essential background: the rest of the story is unlikely to make much sense until you're a little bit immersed into the peculiarities of Venezuelan polititical culture. I mean, think about it: could you explain George W. Bush and his significance to US politics to someone without any understanding of the history of christian conservatism in the US? Could you make heads or tails of the middle east conflict without understanding the difference between an arab and an israeli?

Please comment responsibly:

In breathless praise of Sumate:
(or, Essay on the difference between voter intimidation and colossal bullshit)

From: "Erica Stephan" Date: Fri, 5 Dec 2003 1:06 AM
To: "Francisco Toro"
Subject: & what about

These reports that people were having slips of paper stamped as they
signed, to take to their employers?  if you're going to rant about pdvsa
pressuring their workers to sign, you should acknowledge/address the
accusations on the other side, no?

From: "Francisco Toro" Date: Fri, 5 Dec 2003 10:41 AM
To: "Erica Stephan"
Subject: Re: & what about

Sigh. I'd been hoping not to write about this, simply because it is a fairly technical question, and I thought it would be horrifically boring. But since these stories are now percolating up to first world consciousness, I might as well set the record straight.

About a month ago, as Chavez blustered again and again about imminent opposition fraud and insisted repeatedly on the need to check the opposition signatures "under a magnifying glass, one by one," the opposition started to get nervous. We know the guy, we've had plenty of occasion to get used to the way he and his cronies operate. We've come to realize that he'll often announce his dirty tricks publicly ahead of time, though through their mirror image. The second Chavez says the opposition is planning a given dirty trick, it's a pretty good bet that's what he intends to do!

As President of the durn Republic, Chavez was in an excellent position to carry out any such a plan. His government had already started intimidating state workers. They had already started offering jobs to the unemployed provided they did not end up on the list of those who had signed against the government. Chavez had personally thrown a number of hissy-fits demanding elaborate security procedures for the signature gathering drive which I described in yesterday's post.

(Said hissy fits, satisfyingly enough, have reverted dramatically against his interests, since all those security measures now make it exceedingly difficult to "prove" a fraud that did not take place.)

So the opposition was nervous, understandably so.

One wave of rumors that swept the opposition had to do with the electoral registry. The registry, which by the way is publicly available for anyone to look at online, had started to throw up some weird inconsistencies.

The most widely publicized bit of weirdness was the Case of the Missing "De"s. In Latin America, when a woman is married, she does not stop using her last name. Instead, she adds a "de" and then her husband's last name. So if you Erica Stephan were to marry, say, a Paul Cheney, your new married name would be Erica Stephan de Cheney (unfortunately, I guess he has a wife already - bet you two would've gotten along great!)

Now, the problem is that as women started checking the CNE's online registry, they started to find their "de"s had mysteriously vanished. They had become merely Erica Stephan Cheney, which is just not right. Of course, in normal circumstances, this would be seen as a very minor thing. But with Chavez ranting and raving about the coming fraud, it started to seem anything but benign.

Married antichavista women started to get very concerned that the government would move to have their signatures invalidated en masse because they had signed under a name that did not quite match the names as they appeared in the Electoral registry. CNE assured people this would not happen, but paranoia roams free, and people were understandably concerned. We are only too aware that we get ONE shot to recall Chavez per each 6 year term, so it was crucial to get it right this time.

As the missing "de" hubbub started to spread, other inconsistencies in the Electoral Register began to become apparent. Birthdates, for instance, seemed to be all over the place. When my sister Ana went to sign, the old lady in front of her in line found, on checking her registry entry, that her birthday had been switched to February 30th!

Why was all this weirdness taking place?

Could it have anything to do with the fact that the government had recently appointed a couple of criminals to run the National ID system? There goes Toro, exagerating again, is what some of you are thinking!

But this is not hyperbole, Erica. This is just what happened! It's a matter of public record!

At this point, I'll allow myself to quote at length from this remarkable, mind-altering article from the Miami Herald, signed by Phil Gunson, who heads Venezuela's Foreign Press Association and is, for my money, the best foreign journo in town.

Hugo Cabezas and Tareck el Aissami were appointed last month as director and deputy director of the Identification and Immigration Directorate, in charge of border controls and issuing passports and national ID cards. The agency also works with electoral authorities on voter registration.

Both were top student leaders at the University of the Andes in the western city of Merida, described by senior school officials as a virtual haven for armed Chavez supporters and leftist guerrillas.

When El Aissami served as president of the student body from 2001 to 2003, his armed supporters controlled the university's dormitories, said Oswando Alcala, a professor and director of student affairs.

Cabezas and El Aissami declined several Herald requests for interviews.

Their appointments to the passport office raised eyebrows both because of the reports of Arabs obtaining Venezuelan ID documents and the possibility of fraud in an ongoing drive for a referendum to recall Chavez. His popularity stands at less than 40 percent.


Born in Venezuela of Syrian parents, El Aissami is the son of the president of the Venezuelan branch of Hussein's once-ruling Baath Party, and nephew of Shibli Al Aissami, a top-ranking Baath Party official in Baghdad whose whereabouts are unknown.

Tareck El Aissami's father, Carlos, defended him in an interview with The Herald as an outstanding student and said he was not a member of the Baath Party.

In an article the father wrote after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and showed to The Herald, he called President Bush ''genocidal, mentally deranged, a liar and a racist,'' and al Qaeda's leader ``the great Mujahedeen, Sheik Osama bin Laden.''

So it's not like the opposition was pulling these concerns about Registry-tampering out of thin air. Since the registry is fully available online, lots of middle class Venezuelans who have net access could actually go there and check their registration info themselves. Too many were finding inconsistencies, data fields that would mysteriously change from one visit to the site to the next. With the National ID office in the hands of the gruesome twosome described above, anything was possible.

This is where Sumate, the opposition NGO, comes into the picture.

Sumate (which, incidentally, is NOT a for-profit corporation, as the lyingtie lying liars on the pro-Chavez side insist,) is a volunteer-run organization that organized the entire signature drive back in February, running the signing centers, transcribing the data, and auditing the results. CNE later ruled those signatures were invalid because they were collected too early. Still, Sumate, as an organization, had gained important experience and know-how. This, to my mind, is civil society at its best.

Sumate realized that, given the potential for confusion generated by the bum Electoral Registry, it would be helpful to set up laptop computers run by volunteers outside each the signing centers. That way, each prospective signer could check his or her official registry data right there, minutes before signing, minimizing the scope for inconsistencies between the information on the forms and the information on the registry.

The point was to minimize the number of signatures accidentally spoiled due to weirdness in the registry. After checking each signer's data through their national ID card number, Sumate would then make a little print out of each person's exact data as it appeared on the official registry. They would give each signer their paper as a cheat-sheet so they could fill out the form exactly right.

Abuse! Fascism! Conspiracy!

Now it's true that CNE barred Sumate from participating directly in last weekend's Reafirmazo. At the same time, as CNE board members said again and again in public, the elections' authorities has the power to rule on what happens inside the signature gathering centers. What happens outside those centers is, as CNE accepts publicly, none of its business. Citizens have the same right to assemble, discuss, participate, organize and check their electoral registry entry and print one meter away from a CNE signing center as they do anywhere else or at any other time.

Still, the chavistas - who seem to have some magical idea of what a Laptop computer is and what it can and can't do - saw the Sumate folk sitting right outside the signature gathering centers and freaked out. Manipulation! Fraud! Conspiracy! We're used to these epithets by now...and to the peculiar brand of antilogic that sustains them (like a laptop sitting outside a signing center has some magical power to stamp signatures on a form 10 meters away!)

Sumate, not wanting to do anything to derail the process, agreed to place the data-base checkpoints further away from the entrance to the signature centers. 20 meters away was the rule of thumb. Note that they were not legally obligated to, they just did it to avoid problems.

In some cases, they were invited to set up shop in the living rooms of people living close to the signing center. This is scrupulously legal: since when does the government have the right to tell me what I can and can't do in my living room on signing day simply cuz I happen to live next door to a collection center?

So this is ALL they were doing Erica. They were taking people's IDs, checking the numbers against the CNE database and making triple-sure that the two matched. They then went over the information with each voter to make sure nothing was odd about it, and that if something was odd about it, the signer was aware that they needed to sign using the official registry data, even if that data was wrong. Sumate volunteers would even give people the chance to "practice" filling out the forms on non-official dummy papers to make sure there were no mistakes due to unfamiliarity with the forms.

Don't forget that going through this procedure was a rigorously voluntary decision. Nobody was forcing anyone to do anything. If I wanted to go straight through to the CNE signing center and sign without stopping to check my data at the Sumate stand, there was nothing to stop me.

So yes, the little papers do exist. There is absolutely nothing illegal or untoward about them. After signing, you were free to scrunch up your Sumate cheatsheet and throw it in the garbage...or save it, to show your grandchildren one day.

If anything, Sumate merely embodies the opposition's determination to get it right, to outsmart any government plan to strip citizens of their constitutional right to vote yet again. This kind of careful planning and iron-willed determination not to screw up this time is driving the government crazy!

This, in my opinion, is the real reason they're mad at the little printouts - through their volunteer operation, Sumate totally outflanked the government. Sumate nutralized their plan to claim massive fraud because the information on the forms did not match the registry information, which appears to have been their plan all along. If the government seems desperate it's because Sumate has driven them to desperation. They now find themselves very much up a creek without a paddle.

Frankly, I'm tremendously proud of the huge amount of work Sumate's volunteers put in. Think about the spirit of civic involvement this reveals. The thousands of unpaid Sumate volunteers who gave their time to help set up these database checkpoints are one of the seeds of idealism, citizen participation and grass-roots involvement that gives me the hope, the near-certainty, that the post-Chavez era will be one of real civic renewal. Six years ago, it would have been nearly impossible to find thousands of volunteers to get trained and give up four days of their lives to do anything at all political. These days, for Sumate, it's a cynch!

This is how Social Capital is generated, Erica. My view of the opposition as a democratic awakening in waiting is not just something I made up in a fit of wishful thinking: there is solid evidence that their mindset has changed, and continues to change, as more and more opposition members realize that the "fast track options" (coups and strikes) were a huge mistake - and that re-institutionalizing the country is the only way out of the crisis. You, Erica Stephan, of all people, know that I've been arguing this point since 1999! (Remember those long emails about the central importance of the rule of law? If you can dig a couple up and send them to me, I can even put them up on the site!)

But I digress. You asked about voter intimidation. Think about this for a second. Even on the government's own, plainly dishonest terms, the accusations literally makes no sense. It just doesn't pass the test of internal coherence.

If employers wanted to pressure their workers, there was no need for any stinking bits of paper, because remember, tu voto es secreto, tu firma no. If I, evil private employer capitalist running dog oppressor businessman profeteer, want to find out if you, downtrodden revolutionary chavista proletarian, did or did not sign, all I have to do is go to CNE and get the list! It's a matter of public record!

Now, this obviously does not mean that the shards of paper could NOT have been used to pressure private workers. If anyone really was asked to present those Sumate printouts when showing up to work the following Monday - who knows, maybe somebody somewhere did - I just have two things to say to them.

1-It was perfectly simple to just go to the sumate tent, get your printout, then walk off without signing the official petition. You're a chavista under pressure? Just get your sumate form and don't sign!

(a much better plan than Labor Minister Iglesias's: she called on chavistas to break the law by signing with deliberate mistakes, which itself constitutes incitement to break the law and should get her arrested...but this is the chavista era, so...)

2-If you really were pressured and did sign, this is illegal, wrong, and destructive to the democratic process. Please protest. Get your act together. Document your complaint. Get witness statements from co-workers who had the same problem. Go to the labor ministry and get help with documenting precisely what happened. Then turn the whole mass of papers over the CNE (the 3-2 majority pro-Chavez CNE, may I add). If enough people were so pressured, then CNE will throw the referendum out. Simple! But remember, ONLY CNE can decide. And CNE can ONLY decide on the basis of official, documented complaints. So get to it!

*There was, incidentally, a rule in the CNE regulations saying that electronic machines could not be used over the weekend to publish partial results of the signature gathering process. It's plainly evident to me that using a computer to check your electoral registry information is entirely different from using a computer to publish preliminary numbers.

**And yes, Sumate did once get funding from N.E.D. Your point being...?

Please comment responsibly:

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Last thing

If you need any more convincing of which side collected the signatures it says it collected, witness the Bs:$ rate on the semi-legal bond-dollar market. The currency has rebounded all the way to Bs.2,133 (from lows at one point of over 3,000 to the dollar) according to descifrado. Suddenly, a bolivar at that prize looks a reasonable bet.

This is how hungry for good news Venezuelan investors are!

Please comment responsibly:

The thing about the actas

The other aspect that people often lose sight of is that we are ALL being spun silly with numbers. Somebody is plainly lying: all of these widely varying estimates (from 1.8 million to as many as 4.4 million signatures, depending on which side you believe) are all drawn from the same raw data.

These data are all drawn from the famous actas, an official CNE document signed officially not only by the official opposition organizers, but also by official pro and anti-recall witnesses at each of the 2700 official signing centers, as well as the official itinerant witnesses that accompanied all official itinerant signature gatherers, who were officially allowed to canvas signatures door-to-door in the official CNE rule book.

These actas contain precise signature tallies. The actas, and the tallies they generate, must be accepted as prima facie valid, simply because representatives of both sides already signed off on their validity one by one, at over 2700 signature gathering centers, all over the country (with the very occasional exception.)

Over 90% of collection centers are reported to have done their work under "absolute normality", as the politicians' cliche goes, meaning that the chavistas themselves have already signed off on the validity of the central ement in the signature collection process. It's important to understand that the Coordinadora cannot imaginably tamper with the actas now, because all parties have exact copies of the documents.

People outside Venezuela often find strange the elaborate checks and security features that were built the procedures. Even the forms were a monument to mutual mistrust. They were very officially printed on security paper issued by the same office that prints the nation's currency. Each form is numbered and assigned to a definite vote signing center. And chavista witnesses were present at *all* gathering centers, along with hundreds or thousands of signers, the army, the OAS, the Carter Center and the news media. A process cannot be more transparent than that!

I stress that the process was observed by 55 expert elections observers from the Carter Center/OAS mission dispatched to 20 of Venezuela's 24 states (counting Caracas.) Out of those seasoned observers, 50 of described the signature gathering process as good, while 5 thought it was "reasonable." These observations cannot be faked - Jimmy Carter did not win a nobel peace prize for lying.

What's more, thousands of rank-and-file soldiers, probably about half the army, directly witnessed with their eyes the turnout at each of the two signing processes. Many had not been allowed to watch any TV other than Canal 8 for months. This has to have been a very big eye opener for many of them.

So the chavistas, the opposition, the CNE and the Carter Center/OAS mission all have the same raw data. With the raw data, it's banal to obtain a precise raw signature tally - just a few hours of database work. The reality is that all the main actors know the real number, and it's the same real number they know. So somebody is evidently lying through their teeth.

Now, cross your heart and hope to die, what do you really think the real story is? Was the process 90% clean, or was there mass-scale fraud? Whose version do you believe?

Jimmy Carter's, or Hugo Chavez's?

Please comment responsibly:

An Ibsen Martinez tour de force

Rather than boring you with yet more of what I think - which I think is pretty well established by now - I will regale you with a translation of this extraordinary interview with Ibsen Martinez in Tal Cual Today

[Shameless ad: Para los que leen castellano, si no lo han hecho ya les recomiendo suscribirse y leer Tal Cual. These guys are not as cash flush as people think - the business has always been on a feeble financial footing. If you can afford it, and want to support the very best side of the democratic movement, then please subscribe. It's only $30 for six months (cheap!) and it's a daily compendium of sound common sense and keen analysis.]

on with Ibsen's interview, translated and republished very much without permission:

"Chavez still hasn't actually gone to work."

Questioner: Shouldn't we judge the government with a little more forebearance now that the president has confessed that watching TV is one of his daily activities?

Ibsen Martinez: I don't think so. If he is watching Venezuelan TV, he is being submitted to torture because, except for a very few deliciously rawnchy shows, it's really awful.

Among the reams of things that have been written about this political pathology in which we live, it's bears wondering if in all these six years there has been a single real cabinet meeting, in the strict sense of the term. I mean, a meeting that starts, has an agenda, in which ministers are subjected to scrutiny, give explanations, sometimes disagree with the President. I seriously don't think there has been.

What there has been is this agit-prop stuff, the obsession with being on TV. In that sense Chavez reminds me of those guys who go to the TV channels and spend the whole day waiting at the door hoping that some well-known artist might come out to ask for an autograph, and they waste their lives on that idiocy.

The obsession with the media, together with the fact that he never holds a cabinet meeting, make me think that in all these years Chavez still hasn't settled down to work.

Q:Between vicepresident Jose Vicente Rangel, PPT Labor Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias and MVR Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello, the Golden Cynic goes to...? [all three major hate figures for the oppositon now, especially Rangel, whose peculiar brand of rhetorical curlicues often borders on the psychotically detached from reality as the rest of humanity knows it. -ft]

Ibsen Martinez: To the vicepresident. Diosdado is a guy who has never deceived us, he is transparent. But the vice presidents is one of the most sensationalistic cynics of contemporary politics.

It's a topic worthy of study. It's the question that brightens up conversations at parties, when these are dying down: "so what do you think of Rangel?"

Q: And what do you reply?

Ibsen Martinez: For a long time I thought he could be a key factor for moderation and, even, an element that could help teach the chavistas to improve their performance.

Until the last minute we were on speaking terms, after the coup in april 2002, when he was the head of a mis-named "Dialogue Table" that was no such thing, in which I participated very briefly, I still thought he embodied the soul of a moderator. But they tell me that now he defines himself as the most taliban of the taliban, which is a pity. (taliban, folklorically enough, has become established in Caracas Spanish as a synonym for "political extremist." -ft)

Q: Isn't Chavez in power about as dangerous as Michael Jackson let loose in a kindergarten?

Ibsen Martinez: I don't believe so. Chavez is not a dangerous guy, in the sense that we usually give the word in a personality like his, which is authoritarian, ambitious and autocratic.

What I find most harmful in him is his disregard for the rule of law. The absolute absence of a relationship with the world of plato's forms. That is what has exasperated so many Venezuelans.

This is a guy who invents a constitution for himself, made to measure, only to violate it permanently, and to no avail because those violations don't even benefit him, but still he gets into that huge mess. The image is of the cartoon in which a guy draws the floor to a corner and finds suddenly he has cornered himself there. Probably when he is evicted from power, he will not be able to explain to himself what actually happened.

Q: Name three acts of pennance (gawd! catholic country -ft) that any repentant chavista should undertake now that he is on the opposition's side.

Ibsen Martinez: - First, he has to help sustain in a convincing way the democratic calling of each of the members of the G-5 (the five main opposition leaders), and dissert for half an hour about the democratic spirit of AD chief (and, imho, rascal -ft) Henry Ramos Allup. Second, write 150 times that phrase so often used by chavistas when talking about Chavez: "well, that's just his style, that's who he is." The last is to dissert coherently on the word "process" (the tag chavez uses interchangeably with revolution), which he kept talking about when he was a chavista and wouldn't shut up about the process.

(he is cruel!)

Q: Do you still celebrate 4F? (Which is how Venezuelans refer to the coup Chavez led on February 4th, 1992 - not to be confused with 4D, which is an ice cream shop!)

Ibsen Martinez: Yes. It's not that I celebrate it, it's that it seemed to me something like that was going to happen. It shows how bad off we we were with the adecos (the AD government) that I even felt this little frisson just from seeing (AD dinosaur) Morales Bello at the end of his wits. That moment may be one of the few things I can thank Chavez for, having given me the pleasure of seeing some adecos running around like sprinters.

I did not celebrate the violence, rather the inflection point in a political system that just went to hell. Even with all we're going through now, the fact is that we'll no longer have a situation where (AD party chiefs) Lauria and Alfaro decide all of our futures and we hear about it afterwards. Just think, we were kept informed by Gonzalo Barrios! who they wanted us to see as some kind of master tactician but who was so old he couldn't even talk, only mumbled. This, well, I don't know if it is better, but it is different, more entertaining. Now we can feel we will have a recall, but that we will not go back to the days of Alfaro. Can you imagine the country if Alfaro had won, or Irene Saez, the dumb blonde?

Q: In one of your articles you recommended celebrating the "Day of the asslickers." If your motion is accepted, who should preside over the event?

Ibsen Martinez: We've always had great asslickers, but when life gives you one of those personalities they call "charismatic", the other side of the coin is the bash of the asslickers. Otherwise, the chief cannot be persuaded that he actually is. When we were invited to that Dialogue Table, Janet Kelly and I were absorbed looking at the faces at the chavista side of the hall when Chavez arrived and sat down. It was a drooling contest. I remember the girl who used to run CatiaTV, who would succumb to ecstasy, and there was one who was especially ecstatic, a Sidor labor leader, chubby guy. What was his name again?

Q: I can't remember.

Ibsen Martinez: That is the thing with asslickers, you can never remember their names.

But one of the great asslickers, without a doubt, is el negro Isturiz (Education Minister, PPT.) I remember when he was head of the Constituyente and Chavez was traveling, and he felt icky about changing the name of the Republic, and he said so repeatedly. But it didn't take more than one bang of the shoe from Chavez for him to cosponsor the motion. I don't know him personally, but I find him particularly disagreeable.

Precisely for that reason, because he does what he can to be seen as an individual in that amorphous mass, and asslickerism cannot deal with him. He has opinions, he jumps ahead with them. I imagine he must open the doors to the cabinet meetings with Chavez.

Q: Do the members of (young, middle-class, center-right party) Primero Justicia need a bit more whorehouse in 'em? (Venezuelan expression, meaning do they have enough malice to face down the big boys?)

Ibsen Martinez: I don't think so. In general, that illustrated and enlightened right wing that a country needs, I find that they've had a pretty good go of it, and you can see how fast they're progressing. About the proliferation of NGOs and that whole pathology of ours where nobody wants to be a member of a party now but everyone wants to be a neighborhood leader, the fact that they've run away from NGOism and into party political life with a clear electoral goal, that I think is quite positive. And I realize that they've been getting whore housed up, with time.

Q: In this tornado of events, do those who opine much err much?

Ibsen Martinez: Certainly. Since the political environment started to heat up, expressing your opinions has stopped being a cathartic act. The revolution takes us to a space where you don't have opinions, you have pronouncements of faith.

I would rather live in a society where you can have an opinion, retract, think about one thing today, another tomorrow.

Q: Should we have a media contents law? (the politically explosive government proposal that most think would gag the private media.)

Ibsen Martinez: Not at all. I find it futile to write a code that stipulates what can go out over the airways, because their intention is to gag. If chavistas could look towards the past, they would realize that it's useless. The most docile TV in the world was the soviet one, and that was the system that collapsed the hardest. They managed to make TV something so useless, that Russians didn't watch it. Then, these pendejos, Nora Uribe and all the other geiniuses of revolutionary semiology, can't see that such a TV is useless. It's futile that a country that's so uppity, so free-spirited and so stubborn as this one that they could try to make a totalitarian communist revolution.

Chavez should reflect about what these six years have meant, because they've been a real nightmare for him.

[Ibsen Martinez is mathematician, essayist, novelist (in more ways than one!), top notch provocateur, and all around public intellectual...a national treasure.]

Please comment responsibly:

The less enlightening face of chavismo writes in...

From: Richard Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2003 2:39 PM
Subject: Back on line

> Francisco,
> I note that Caracas Chronicles is back on line and still peddling the same
> unconvincing "information" and opinions.
> It really is a pity that you are trying to redeem it after all the flawed
> predictions published since you launched the site.

[I wonder if he's referring to my Nov 27th, 2002 prediction that the general strike would fail, or to my April 10th, 2002 prediction that unless a post-Chavez government was scrupulously inclusive it would quickly lose support and collapse? -ft]

> As I wrote to you in one
> of our first e-mail exchanges when are you going to go to the west of
> Caracas, if not just to collect your passport or I.D. card?
> As G. Wilpert says in Venezuela Analysis, Caracas Chronicles is one of the
> best examples of "ant-chavista triumphalism" on the web, which is a certain
> sort of backhanded compliment.
> There is no right and wrong in this situation, just winners and losers and
> it would be good for your morale to exorcize your demons by focussing on
> the political reality of Venezuela, instead of going on another dreamboat
> cruise and ending up in cloud cuckoo land - AGAIN!!.
> Best of luck
> Richard 

From: Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2003 2:49 PM
To: Richard
Subject: It's simple, really.

Hey! It's Richard!

The man who loves to disagree with the strawmen he creates and then calls my position!

The thing, Richard, is that all the bullshit either of us could write would not begin to make a difference. What you think, and what I think, and what Alan thinks and what Greg Wilpert thinks for that matter, all of that is of precisely no transcendence.

The only thing that matters anymore is what the electorate thinks. You're convinced you have the majority. I'm convinced we have the the solution is simple, really: let's vote! Find out who had it right!


Please comment responsibly:

CNE: Rediscovering the institutional wheel
(or, more email from Alan)

On Wed, 3 Dec 2003 22:53:28 -0400, Alan said:

> Francisco,
> If I understand correctly, what you're essentially saying is that five
> individuals, all appointed by Chavez, the majority of whom have
> demonstrated marked sympathies for the regime's policies, are in fact, in their heart
> of hearts, impartial arbiters whose first, and only, commitment is to uphold
> the rule of law.
> This in the face of what I expect will be a most brutal exercise in
> political arm-twisting and intrigue -- including the time-honored Venezuelan
> practices of attempted blackmail, outright threats of violence, physical
> coercion and, of course, the crossing of palms with industrial quantities
> of silver --in recent history.
> It's conceivable that, despite all this pressure, the CNE will nonetheless
> Do The Right Thing  -- because the OAS and the Carter Center are watching,
> and because somehow institutions will work this time (even though they've
> been systematically subverted in the past) because the whole world is
> watching and you can't "tapar el sol con un dedo", so to speak -- and that a
> month from now we'll learn that we can expect elections sometime next
> spring. Let's hope so.
> I do agree with you that it's important to publicly give the CNE the benefit
> of the doubt, and egg them on in the right direction, as Teodoro and
> others are doing. They're going to come under more pressure than they've ever
> known in their lives, and they need to know that at least one side of the
> political equation expects them to live up to their institutional
> mandate, and will support their eventual (we hope) courageous decision to defend
> the rule of law.
> But what's at stake for Chavez and his hard-core supporters makes it
> unlikely, in my view, that we will get to fair and free elections any time
> in the foreseeable future. The CNE may prove to be an extraordinary
> surprise, and in this most important decision of its history come down on
> the side of transparency. But you can be sure that Chavez, Cabello and
> Rangel will deploy absolutely every trick in the book and then some
> between now and early January to discredit and torpedo the outcome.
> Let's assume they can't get to the CNE. Or let's assume they beat a
> tactical retreat and figure it will be easier to fix an election (no paper trail)
> than strong arm the petition certification process. After all, vote
> tampering and election fraud is not unknown in Venezuela (hah!), and
> Chavez has used it before (just ask William D?vila and the Cura Calder?n). In
> fact, electronic vote fraud is alive and well all over -- just read Paul
> Krugman's last article on the burgeoning scandal involving the backdoors in
> Diebold's voting machine software which in practice allow one to fiddle the vote
> tally in real time, as the returns are coming in (see
> Krugman's NYTimes editorial on Diebold)
> If the Repubs in the U.S. can do this -- as one could easily surmise
> after reading the immense body of research on the Diebold scandal -- under the
> eye of the FEC, well, hell, it would be a lead-pipe cinch to do the same in
> Venezuela under the Plan Republica, especially when all the CNE
> informatics are in Chavista loyalist hands.
> No, Francisco, the stakes are too high for Chavez to play by the rules.
> Venezuela subsidizes Cuba to the tune of $2 million a day, with 82,000 bpd
> of essentially free petroleum. Fidel can't afford to take a chance on
> democracy, no way. He's not going to let what's left of the life of his
> revolution stand or fall on the whims of Venezuela's electorate -- and
> Venezuelan oil is the only thing propping up his dictatorship today.  And
> do you really think that Chavez's hard core supporters, the ones who depend
> on him for their own political legitimacy, since without him they would be
> nobodies, are going to choose to fight fair instead of resorting to
> badass skullduggery, fraud and even violence, to stay in power? They're in too
> deep. Some of them, the real sleazebags, know the only future they have
> without Chavez covering for them implies jail time, exile or the
> meathook.
> If the OAS airlifted in a complete voting system infrastructure and
> 10,000 well-trained international observers, supported by a U.N.peacekeeping
> force, stood watch over the elections, I'd say Venezuela could expect free and
> fair elections. Otherwise, in the current state of play, nope.
> Let's wait until the fat lady sings. I'll be glad to give you a bottle of
> Santa Carolina if the petition-counting process comes off without a
> hitch. But I'll bet you a Marqués de Caceres Reserva Especial that Chavez will
> "win" the eventual electoral contest.
> Alan


If I sit down and look at the situation coldly and analytically, using past patterns to forecast likely future events, then I have to agree you're right. I mean, everything you write checks out with the nation's sad historical experience. It sucks, but it's true. And if the past is any guide to the future, then granted, your analysis is probably dead on.

My point is that we may just be facing one of those unique situations where real society-wide change can take place; where, uniquely, the past ceases to be a useful tool for predicting the future. Having been pushed to the very edge of survivial, democratic institutions are either shocked into adaptation or they perish. My hunch is that CNE has been well and truly shocked and now it's adapting. The dynamics at play from here on out will be fundamentally different from the dynamics we're used to.

I know, I know, I know. Such starry-eyed idealism probably goes against everything your political gut has taught you over the last 25 years. But if not now, when? If not us, who?

The thing is, Alan, the opposition has learned. The politicians have gotten their Ph.Ds from the school of hard knocks. The country has learned. Things are different.

It may be that the society is undergoing the traumatic process of rediscovering the institutional wheel. Venezuelans are now coming to understand what every society must realize anew every couple of generations - that if one partiality within the political scene attempts to turn 51% popular support into 100% power, with no respect for institutions or the honor of the minority, the resulting system is chaotic and unstable. And, as Venezuelans have found out, if that once-majority becomes a minority but continues to pretend the other side doesn't exist, then the situation can become disastrously unstable.

From this point of view, the rebirth of CNE doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the personal qualities of the five board-members - though surely their character and integrity has been destructively and needlessly maligned over the last few weeks. What's important is not that CNE members have hearts of gold. What's important is that they understand that impartiality and adherence to the rule of law is the most pragmatic, in fact the *only* workable solution to the problem at hand, the only option that holds out a reasonable prospect of stability in the coming months and years.

One thing I'll say, though: the nice thing of debating with you is that the positions stated are always falsifiable! No arcane theoretical speculation here, just testable hypotheses, damn it - like that time in mid 2001 you told me Chavez had six months left, tops! ;)

Four months from now, we'll know conclusively who won that bottle of wine. For my money, a Santa Carolina goes much better with dulce de lechoza than a Marqués de Caceres Reserva Especial. (Though, from the tone of my last few posts, I'll be washing down that dulce de lechoza with a refreshing tossed salad of chrysanthemums, orchids and sunflowers...)


ps: it really is fun!But it's very important to get it right this time. Comeflores al rescate!

Please comment responsibly:

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Greg Wilpert writes...

..a reasonable, if somewhat wishfully thought-out, government-friendly essay in Venezuela Analysis that, nevertheless, contains some valid points.

In my email to him, I called on Greg to call on his side to follow whatever decision CNE might choose to make.

The following exchange is the result:

> > Francisco: Should chavismo pledge now to support any CNE
> > decision with regards to the referendum?
> Greg: Of course Chavistas should do this and I've heard them say that they
> would many times. Chavez, Vicente Rangel, Ismael Garcia, William Lara,
> they have all said that they would respect the CNE's decision, no matter
> what it is. I have not, however, heard anyone from the opposition say
> this. I could be wrong, since I might not listen to opposition
> pronouncements as much as Chavista pronouncements (just as you
> apparently don't listen to Chavistas as much as the opposition).
> > Francisco: For my part, I have spent 2
> > years badgering the leaders of "my side" to accept the rulings of
> > institutions, even flawed ones. Shouldn't your side do the same?
> Greg: I'm glad to hear that you have done so and respect you for that. Also, I
> firmly believe that Chavistas should respect the decisions of all
> institutions that make decisions against them and have no problems with
> reminding them when they should (though, higher level Chavistas probably
> hear me much less than higher level opposition folks hear you).

Francisco: Isn't this just the point, Greg? Your views don't really have a chance of affecting policy on your side because policy on your side is decided autocratically and communicated vertically, a single vector running from Chavez to everyone else. On my side, at least we discuss things, and we recognize no single ultimate arbiter of the truth...which approach strikes you as more democratic?

Please comment responsibly:

Email exchange with a doomsday prophet

I will post only one of several emails received in this general vein, especially because my correspondent is a very distinguished observer of Venezuelan politics.

On Tue, 2 Dec 2003 17:43:59 -0400, "Alan" said:
> Francisco, a few questions for you and your readers:
> What happens when the CNE announces that out of 3.8 million (let's say)
> signatures, only 2.3 have been certified as authentic/valid, and the rest
> have been decertfied?
> Let's hope the rowdier elements in the opposition don't exhort their
> political bedfellows "que salgan a la calle!" Because if they do, and
> people pour out into the streets and somebody has the bright idea to
> march on Miraflores, then there will be a massacre; a useless, futile
> exercise in self-destruction.
> I hope Henry Ramos and Enrique Mendoza and Américo Mart?n and Alberto
> Quir?s and Primero Justicia are sitting down right now and thinking and
> talking about Plan B: What to do when the CNE announces the opposition
> did not get the required amount of signatures to have a recall election.
> And Chavez crows victory.
> Because if they don't have a clear strategy and can't keep their followers in
> tow, Chavez can use the ensuing violence as "proof" that the opposition
> was golpista all the time, that the opposition, and S?mate, did engage in
> vote fraud (which was subsequently uncovered by the CNE -- "su palabra es
> santa"), and now, in desperation, are following the strategy they were
> always going to use: employ violence and overthrow the
> democratically-elected government of Hugo Chavez by force.
> That's all his generals need to make sure the troops follow their script:
> go out into the streets and defend the constitutionally-elected
> government from politically-motivated mobs.....and use force, if
> necessary. After all, that's what they're there for.
> What will the rest of the world make of this?
> Those who only read the headlines and/or saw "The revolution will not be
> televised", and are already predisposed to suppport or, at least, give
> the benefit of the doubt to this cleverest of authoritarian regimes,
> these people will follow the dots and conclude that the opposition was
> always more hot air than substance, didn't manage to get the votes, and
> followed their basest, racist/classist/oligarchical/ideological (take
> your pick) instincts, and decided to overthrow the government...just like
> they tried to do on 11.4.02.
> Those who should know better, the presidents of all the Latin American
> countries, Gaviria, and those who know beyond a shadow of a doubt that
> Chavez is an extremely cunning, desperate and thus dangerous man, will
> understand the play. And they'll wonder "How could the opposition do such
> a stupid thing? They've permanently disqualified themselves as democrats,
> and have set Venezuelan history back another ten years, if not more."
> I think that this is the most likely scenario we're going to face a month
> down the line.
> What to do? First, exhaust all the institutional channels of resolution.
> The opposition has to line up its ducks, put feelers out to the supreme
> court, and write the briefs ahead of time that ensure a swift,
> transparent review of the supposedly invalid signatures to determine once
> and for all who is behind the fraud. It's vox populi by now that possibly
> one out of ten names in the Electoral Register (possibly more) have birthdates
> officially ascribed to them that have nothing to do with their real
> birthdates. Well, let's see if that's true, then people have to move
> fast, institutionally, and show where thre real fraud is. There will be
> an immense political/institutional tug of war on to see who can twist the
> supreme court's arm the hardest. Chances are good Chavez will win. But
> it's a crucial step the opposition has to take.
> Marcos took years to oust, and so did Jaruzelski, long after they'd
> openly abandoned all pretense of legitimate governance, and lost all
> political legitimacy. Chavez still hasn't lost political legitimacy, he's
> just teetering on the tightrope. If he shows what I think are his true
> colors and opts for rogue state status instead of international
> recognition, then the opposition has to nudge him off the tightrope
> without pulling itself down in the process.
> Alan

I should start by saying that Alan actually has a lot more experience than me in Venezuelan politics, so you might be well advised to accept his analysis. But experience, shmexperience: I think you're flat wrong on this one, pal. You don't understand the new role of CNE at all!

Only part of the feverish excitement on Sunday and Monday came from the sheer numbers on the streets. Another important element was the realization that the nation's democratic institutions are, miraculously, on the mend.

Again and again I heard people say that amazingly, for once, Venezuelans were acting like Swiss people! The meticulous preparation and strict order that prevailed at many signing centers was in stark contrast to the day to day reality of official chaos and indifference in the face of the citizens. The personal act of signing, the experience of participating directly, in this way, along with millions of co-participants, became a sort of very public statement of belief, with name and signature, in a future where a lunatic does not rule the country.

I mean, people could see with their eyes that it is possible. People could see that it was actually possible to sign, officially, in front of a chavista witness and an opposition witness and a foreign observer, stamp your fingerprint, and go on your way having made a legally binding petition for a legally binding recall referendum. People could see that there is no need for a war, that Venezuelans can work their problems out like civilized people if the voices of extremism are cast aside for a moment.

Like a massive nationwide footbolito game, the episode demonstrated that beneath the surface of bombastic rhetoric and official intimidation, there is a broad stratum of chavistas who do not hate all white people and who want to sit down at the table of democracy alongside all of their compatriots and work things out amicably. This experiential dimension of the reafirmazo as civic education must not be lost sight of.

This was tremendously empowering to millions of people. It changes things.

Evidently, the success of the reafirmazo gives a huge boost in prestige for the institutions that made this possible, the Carter Center, the OAS, but by far most importantly, the National Electoral Council itself, CNE.

[for beginners, CNE is a bureaucratic agency chaired by a 5-member panel that has the final say on all matters electoral in the country, short of a supreme tribunal decision to overturn something it decides.]

The very fact that the Reafirmazo could even take place without any serious violence really does change the rules on the ground, especially for the chavistas. CNE has demonstrated a level of impartiality, wisdom, and technical dexterity that few of us could have believed a few months ago. Both in public and in private all five CNE board members exude a powerful commitment to carry out their legally mandated roles. None of seem to be cowering in the presence of Miraflores, and there is nothing Miraflores can do to change that. This certainly changes the fundamental rules of this game.

For one thing, the nation no longer has a single official institution - the president - now it has two - the president and CNE. The independence of CNE, the birth of the first official institution openly to refuse to cower to the autocrat may be the single most positive development of the last two weeks.

So I don't accept your premise that Miraflores can "girar ordenes" to Plaza Caracas. And the political reality is that the signatures simply cannot be ignored. They would have to proove that 1.2 million signatures were forged, or from the dead, or from the pressured, even though their own eye-witnesses have already signed the forms saying the petition was performed cleanly! It's really an impossible situation to be in.

The absolute torrent of signatures - combined with the stringent security measures and witness signatures that CNE itself had devised, wisely, to close down possibilities for fraud - make it unimaginable to me that CNE will fail to call a presidential recall referendum. And faced with the evident pressure from the streets and from abroad to let the voters be heard, only a kamikaze TSJ would tamper with such a decision. CNE simply has too much prestige right now, and TSJ members might be chavistas, but they are no kamikazes.

But what we don't need now is to start writing or saying or even thinking anything to discredit CNE. They are under a lot of pressure already, and deserve our support, not constant bickering or armchair quarterbacking. Again, CNE is the one and only life-raft that can possibly get us off this sinking ship. There is no use whatsoever in picking holes in it.

So, I'll bet you a bottle of Santa Carolina this referendum will happen.


Please comment responsibly:

The cornered narcissist

If you're looking for insight into Venezuela’s seemingly neverending political crisis, section 301.81 of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual would be an excellent place to start. The entry reads eerily like a brief character sketch of Venezuela's embattled president, Hugo Chavez: "Has a grandiose sense of self-importance; is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance; requires excessive admiration; has unreasonable expectations of automatic compliance with his expectations; shows arrogant behaviors or attitudes, etc." Actually, it's the DSM-IV's diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD.)

Venezuelan psychiatrists long ago pegged Chavez as a textbook example of NPD. According to the DSM-IV, a patient has NPD if he meets five of the nine diagnostic criteria. But Dr. Alvaro Requena, a respected Venezuelan psychiatrist, says Chavez "meets all nine of the diagnostic criteria." Dr. Arturo Rodriguez Milliet, a colleague, finds "a striking consensus on that diagnosis" among Caracas psychiatrists. Not that it really takes an expert: you only need to watch Chavez's constant cadena broadcasts, where the president blusters, badgers, sings, reports, lectures, recalls and issues orders live on every TV channel and every radio station in the country, carrying presidential speeches that can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 4 hours – one never knows ahead of time.

Of course, lots of politicians have some narcissistic traits - Washington, D.C. is notorious for the size of its egos. NPD, however, is what happens when those traits run amok, impairing sufferer’s ability to interact with the world in a normal way. People with NPD are so intimately convinced of the crushing weight of their historical significance that they lose the ability to interact with the world in anything like a way that most people would recognize as normal.

Narcissism and political power make an explosive combination. As Dr. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, puts it, "the narcissist's grandiose self-delusions and fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience are exacerbated by real life authority." President Chavez has amassed more real life authority than anyone in Venezuela's contemporary history. When his considerable charisma and oratory ability are added to this mix, the already volatile cocktail described above becomes positively explosive.

Because in the mind of a pathological narcissist, grandiose self-delusion often masking deep insecurities and a fragile sense of ultimate self-worth. The two tendencies co-exist in a sort of uneasy truce. As Dr. Vaknin writes, "the narcissist's personality is so precariously balanced that he cannot tolerate even a hint of criticism and disagreement."

In Venezuela, over the last five years, Chavez’s narcissism has led to a systematic winnowing of the his pool of truly trusted advisors and confidants (other than Fidel Castro, the one voice Chavez does seem to listen to.) People with views that differ even slightly from the comandante’s fall out of favor quickly, often brutally.

At worst, those who come to disagree openly with the president are openly demonized, humiliated and threatened in cadenas in full view of the whole country. Coming from a man with several paramilitary groups at his command, these must be taken as serious threats.

Total loyalty to the cult of personality is demanded, and total loyalty to the cult of personality is obtained. More than evidently, only rank sycophants and yes-men can survive in an inner circle where such dynamics are at work. Also, clearly, no real policy debate can take place: politicies will not be the result of a process of genuine give and take. Instead, they will consist in a series of military style orders that are mutually incoherent, and very often wildly impracticable.

Thus, at different times, we’ve been promised at least three mutually inconsistent futures for the camastron (the 70s era Boeing 737 Chavez inherited and promptly, man of the people that he is, replaced with a much larger $86 million dollar airbus.) According to which side of the bed the president woke up on this morning, the plane will either ferry poor venezuelans so they can visit the natural wonders of the Canaima flat-top mountains, or it will be the first in a fleet of planes for a future Vene-Caribean airline that will eventually penetrate foreign markets, or it will be used to ferry Venezuelan patients to cuba for various operation, or none of these, or all of these at the same time. None of these plans appears financially viable for a state that is broke, but in combination, they present a kind of burlesque of presidential narcissism at work.

What’s most perverse about Chavez’s narcissism is that some people close to him have clearly learned to manipulate it for their personal purposes. Once you’ve caught on that feeding the president’s narcissism is the way to get ahead in palace politics, what’s the reasonable response? Feeding the president’s narcissism, of course.

Over a period of years, this dynamic has left Chavez worryingly isolated. It’s probably been months or years now since the president has been brought face to face with ideas different than his own, with versions of reality that don’t conform to his own sense of grandeur, (except for when he is conversing with foreign leaders, of course.)

Under those circumstances, anyone’s sense of reality would suffer. But if you’ve started out with narcissistic tendencies, that level of isolation is liable to push you over the edge altogether. With no critical thinkers around anymore, no one willing to sit him down and tell him the awful truth, there are no checks left on his pathological relationship with reality.

To a pathological narcissist, reality is little more than a hindrance. This is the heart of the chavista mania for calling what is real virtual and what is virtual real. As Dr. Rodriguez Milliet points out, "Chavez’s discourse might be dissonant with reality, but internally it’s scrupulously coherent." Chavez's only concern is to preserve his romantic vision of himself as a fearless leader of the downtrodden in their fight against an evil oligarchy. If the facts don't happen to fit that narrative structure, then that's too bad for the facts.

So it’s not that Chavez lies, per se. It’s that he’s locked up within a small, tight circle of confidants that feed an aberrant relationship with reality. To lie is to knowingly deceive. Chavez doesn’t lie.

He invents the truth.

Obviously, there are more than a few inconveniences to having a pathological narcissist as president. For instance, it’s almost impossible for narcissists to admit to past mistakes and make amends. The narcissist’s chief, overriding psychological goal is to preserve his grandiose self-image, his sense of being a larger-than-life world historical force for good and justice. Honestly admitting any mistake, no matter how banal, requires a level of self-awareness and a sense for one’s own limitations that runs directly counter to the forces that drive a narcissist’s personality. Chavez cannot, never has, and never will sincerely accept his own fallibility. It’s just beyond him. And it's impossible for the movement he's created to question him.

Once you have a basic understanding of how their pathological personality structures drive the behavior of people with NPD, Hugo Chavez is an open book. Lots of little puzzles about the way the president behaves are suddenly cleared up.

For instance, you start to understand why Chavez sees no adversaries around him, only enemies. It makes sense: the more he becomes preoccupied with“fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance” the harder it is for him to accept that anyone might have an honest disagreement with him. Chavez is a man in rebellion against his own fallibility. "As far as he can see," explains Dr. Requena, "if anyone disagrees with him, that can only be because they are wrong, and maliciously wrong."

People with NPD are strongly sensitive to what psychiatrists call “narcissist injury” – the psychic discombobulation that comes from any input that undermines or negates the fantasies that dominate their mindscape. Chavez clearly experiences disagreement and dissent as narcissist injury, and as any psychiatrist can tell you, an injured narcissist is liable to lash out with virulent rage.

This pattern fits Chavez to a frightening t, if only on the rhetorical level. 95% of his political reasoning is made up of ad hominem attacks on those who dare questioning, along with the paranoid preocupation with plots all around him, a kind of conspiracy mentality the fringier parts of the first world left eat up with relish.

So I wonder. If only. If only those first world sympathizers could sit own and hear him talk, and hear him, and hear him like we Venezuelans have heard him, and heard him, and heard him for hundreds of hours of cadenas spanning back 5 years. If they could know the character like we know the character, after hundreds of hours of forced intimacy through the cadena system. Often, his slurs and insults are almost comically overstated. He insists on describing Venezuela's huge, diverse, and mostly democratic opposition movement as a "conspiracy" led by a tiny cabal of "coup-plotters, saboteurs and terrorists." These attacks not only demonstrate the tragic extent of his disconnect with reality, they have also thoroughly poisoned the political atmosphere in Caracas, creating what's been described as a "cold civil war."

If only they could hear him the way we've heard many of them would earnestly consider someone like Chavez fit to rule their own countries? 3%? More? How many pro-autocracy lefties are there left in Europe?

But we, we have heard him. We've been forced to hear him, we've been obligated to participate in the cult of personality through our state funded TV station and those hundreds of hours of Cadenas. So yes, in Venezuela we know the character well by now.

This is precisely his problem: too many of us know too much about him, about the way he thinks and the way he leads to accept his brand of leadership silently.

Chavez's brand of intellectual intolerance has turned the Venezuelan state into the most autocratic in the Americas short of the one led by his hero, Fidel Castro. It's no coincidence. In Dr. Milliet's view, "narcissism leads directly to an autocratic approach to power." Access to state jobs - a key source of livelihood for millions of Venezuelans - is now openly dependent on civil servant's acceptance of political blackmail. The regime no longer even hides it. Anything is fair when it comes to protecting the narcissist-in-chief's self-image.

The other facts are well known, but they are worth re-hashing one-more time for readers who don't follow all the ins and outs of the democratic process here like we do.

President Chavez has systematically placed diehard loyalists in key posts throughout the state apparatus. When you come to understand his behavior in terms of NPD, that’s not at all surprising: someone who understands the world as a struggle between people who agree with everything he says and does vs. evil will obviously do everything in his power to place unconditional allies in every position of power.

The case of the Attorney General is especially worrying. With nothing like a special counsel statute and no state criminal jurisdiction, the A.G. must approve every single criminal investigation and prosecution in Venezuela. Control this post, and you have total veto power over the entire penal system. For this reason, the A.G. is not a cabinet position in Venezuela like it is in the US. Because of its key role in fighting corruption and keeping watch over the legality of the government’s actions, the A.G. is set up as a fully independent, apolitical office in the Venezuelan constitution. But that clearly wouldn’t do for Chavez. For this most sensitive of offices, Chavez tapped perhaps his most unconditional ally, a doggedly loyal chavista fresh from a stint as vicepresident of the republic. It's like having Karl Rove as attorney general, and no independent council statute!

Not surprisingly, not a single pro-Chavez official has been convicted of anything, ever, despite numerous and well-documented allegations of serious corruption, and a mountain of evidence to suggest the government has organized its civilian supporters into armed militias. The bargain is simple: in return for unrestricted political support, the government remunerates the corrupt and the criminal with total immunity from criminal prosecution. It's quite that simple. The only real requisite for admission into the protection afforded by their control of the state is total submission to the leader's cult of personality. Not surprisingly, many take the bargain.

This dynamic can rise to almost incredible heights. Recently, a former student activist with a murky criminal history and credibly linked with no other than Iraq's Ba'ath Party, for God's sake, was recently named to head an important office at the National Identification Directorate! Can you imagine that? If this is the "model of democracy" Chavez has in mind, he will doubtlessly win the referendum with 100% of the vote and 100% turnout!

And indeed, today, every nominally independent watchdog institution in the state, from the Supreme Court to the Auditor General's office, is run by a presidential crony. With the National Assembly operating like a branch office of the presidential palace, the formal checks-and-balances written into the constitution have become a farce.

Only CNE retains a measure of independent credibility from both sides. Nothing will be possible unless both sides solemnly pledge to accept CNEs eventual decision. They should do this right now.

The reality is that CNE has become a beacon of hope in Venezuelan society. On the verge of the presidential recall, CNE stands as the sole exception, the sole entity of the state that Hugo Chavez cannot control at his pleasure, and my feeling is that, despite, must we recall, it's roughly 3-2 nominal chavista majority, a genuinely independent CNE is the biggest problem in Hugo Chavez's immediate future. All five members of CNE must be uniformly lauded for putting legality ahead of party loyalty so far - a precedent that could serve as the seed for a true democratic awakening in the post-Chavez period.

Some may say I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one

The goal of a new, more dynamic, more participative and much, much more inclusive Venezuela is now within striking distance. The country need not be dominated by a pathological narcissist much longer.

Please comment responsibly:

Can Andy Webb Vidal be spun?

I dunno...

...can he?

Please comment responsibly:

From: Phil Gunson
Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2003 3:22 PM

Subject  Re: Caracas Chronicles: Come and get it!

          tks frank.  just one comment: (and you can use this if you want on yr blog) i think you`re wrong about the 1.2m public sector workers. haven`t you forgotten that a lot of them work for the opposition (alfredo pena or enrique mendoza or the salas family etc)? so there aren`t 1.2m public sector workers under threat, but a smaller figure. obviously central govt has the lion's share (esp. in the health and education sectors, i guess, plus the armed forces and pdvsa), but it`s not the whole 1.2m.  



Right you are. I'll look up the actual figure.

(still, the opposition only needs to peel off a few of them)


ps: What are the Ba'ath Party of Venezuela estimates for the reafirmazo? didn't they have a satellite operation, like AD?

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Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Fruitless speculation

i-Instant spin:
(or, how to put a brave face on a situation that actually isn't that bad.)

The Coordinadora Democratica's latest statement does throw some cold water, a bit, on those of us who were holding out for 4 million signatures.

3.6 million is the total, according to the opposition coalition.

The opposition failed to turn out as many people to sign as it will need to turn out to vote when a recall referendum does take place. (When, not if.) In fact, the referendum now looks likely to be agonizingly close.

[Embarassingly the CD's arithmetic appears to be slightly off - if you add up their state by state numbers you get 3,612,411 votes...not the 3,602,051 they're trumpeting as a headline figure! It's the kind of snafu we expect from chavismo, but from you guys?! Come on! Aren't you all supposed to be engineers?]

Up next: an arduous and hard-fought verification process, again with the Carter Center and the OAS acting as observers.

If chavismo manages to peel off, say, 10% of the signatures for one reason or another (e.g. mis-signed forms, double signings, and forms maliciously mis-signed by chavistas to give rise to fraud claims down the line) you might really looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of about 3.2 million valid signatures. More than enough for the object at hand legally speaking, (legally, 2.4 million sigs is what they needed) but visibly not enough to recall Chavez.

Now, this will dampen spirits in the opposition, but only to a certain extent. Even a 3.2 million figure would signal the failure of the government's extensive campaign to scare people into not signing. This is an important and well documented reality, and one the government hasn't even bothered to conceal, really.

Now, I understand the notion of a government holding hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs hostage for its own petty political reasons may strange to first world readers. Again, this is the sort of thing we're getting at when we say Chavez is destroying Venezuelan democracy.

Check out this pretty picture, taken in Paraguana Peninsula, and marvel at its subtlety. The sign is posted just outside the world's largest oil refining complex, Amuay-Cardon, which employs thousands of public sector oil industry workers:

[Thanks to Devil's Poop for the photo.]

Translation: Your vote is secret, your signature isn't.
Signs like this one were posted in many parts of the country.

This was the simple, obscene slogan adopted by the regime in the weeks leading up to the signature gathering drive. "If you sign, we'll know about it, and we'll fire your ass." Lovely! Such revolutionary fervor, such earnest idealism! Wouldn't you just like to read a column by Mark Weisbrot or Ignacio Ramonet explaining the philosophical/ideological import of this heart warming new revolutionary doctrine? It'd be great fun! Doing the memory of Salvador Allende proud with these shenanigans, aren't we?

(Flight of Fancy: Just imagine the gasket Allende would have blown if he heard of such tactics being used on his behalf! There, in a nutshell, is the difference between integrity and no integrity.)

This kind of intimidation was, by all reports, widespread. Notice the crudely painted PDVSA logo and the acronym on the sign - PCP. No, it's not the drug this particular fanatic was taking when devising the slongan and painting the sign. It's Prevencion y Control de Perdidas, PDVSA's internal security force - a kind of corporate police force. It does not take a genius to put two and two together and understand what is at stake here. (In many cases I've heard of anecdotally, the threats were verbal, direct, and explicit.)

It didn't work. They really thought if they could take out those 1.2 million state workers (and their spouses, children, parents, anyone who could be linked with them and threatened in a subsidiary way), they could keep the opposition from reaching 2.4 million signatures at all. The strategy just didn't pan out at all.

Think about that sign, think about the attitude reveals, as you read your newspaper stories on the opposition's 3.6 million signatures. "The state is our play thing," is the message. As a government that really does consider itself revolutionary, chavismo can conceive on no separation between State and Government. If they can control it, they'll leverage it for political advantage. How, I ask you, can democratic and pluralistic co-existence take place in this kind of environment? It can't!

So, ask yourself how many state workers will have wanted to sign, but did not dare, because they realized that their signatures would be public domain. In some ways, the headline should actually read "the opposition received 3.6 million signatures, despite the fact that 1.2 million of its key constituents were under explicit threat of serious personal hardship if they signed."

Not surprisingly, anger within the civil administration at these sorts of shenanigans has been in crescendo for a long time. To add insult to injury, many state workers have been going unpaid for months at a time due to government cash-flow problems even at a time of particularly high oil prices, when the state should be flush with cash. Many now find themselves in the somewhat surreal position of being threatened with dismissal from their very demanding jobs, even though those jobs often come with no regular pay checks attached to them or anything like that. This, this will do wonders for worker morale!

It's easy to be flip about it, but quite wrong. It's a really dreadful situation these people are in. Talk to the obstetricians or the nurses at the Concepcion Palacios maternity hospital for details on the life of the unpaid Venezuelan state worker.

Let's be clear about one thing: this "your vote is secret but your signature isn't" bidness is a two-edged sword. When the referendum actually is held, state workers' votes actually will be secret. How many state sector workers who were too scared to sign this time will turn out to vote the rascal out of office when his downfall looks imminent? 300,000? Out of 1.2 million state workers? That may be all we need.

(I won't go into the chavista allegations of opposition fraud because by and large, they're plainly laughable. While some of the complaints might be valid, the main rhetorical lines coming from Comando Ayacucho are so transparently illogical it would be a waste of my (admittedly not very limited, these days) time to debunk them.)

ii-Political dynamics going forward
(or, trying to forecast what Chavez will do: the ultimate mutt's game!)

How this will play out more broadly is always hard to forecast, if for no other reason than that Hugo Chavez is famously unpredictable. So, sure, it's fruitless speculation, but that's never stopped me before! Here goes...

Sure, my corazoncito escualido is disappointed that we did not to reach those 4M signatures. However, from the point of view of stability, this is a good thing, not a bad thing. As my sister Cristina perceptively notes, if there were 4M signatures, the opposition extremists would already be out calling for massive street demonstrations to demand Chavez's immediate resignation, which would be a disaster for stability.

Now that the opposition looks to be several hundred thousand votes short of the magic number (3,757,773 votes), Chavez will not feel so cornered. He could well argue that the opposition still has never recorded the level of support the revolution has recorded. Technically, he's right.

In those circumstances, he might even accept a referendum and work to win it, rather than working to maliciously torpedo it as was his initial reaction. If he plays his hand well, he could conceivably win, and be safely anchored in power until 2007 at least.

On the other hand, the consequences of refusing to play at all would be so grave, and so unpredictable, that Chavez might well calculate he has a better chance to remain in power if he faces the voters.

This would be tremendously healthy for Venezuelan democracy, or what is left of it. Of course Chavez in the middle of an election campaign is never an edifying spectacle, but it would certainly be preferable to have him within the democratic tent pissing out than the proverbial inverse. Certainly, a campaign of all out obstructionism on the part of the government could prove tremendously damaging. With Chavez, you can never tell.

iii-The recall in numbers
(or, how to waste time with excel)

One interpretation of all of this is that Juan Forero was right all along (durn, I hate to admit that - obnoxiously, it's not the first time.) The referendum will be no cakewalk for the opposition. Turnout will be the key - and the government's decision on whether to campaign for a no vote or for people to abstain will be of key importance.

If you can handle just a little more math, I'll illustrate the turnout connundrum.

In 1998-2000 turnout in Venezuela hovered around 55-60%. But as recently as the late 80s it was over 90%. Given the historical weight of this election, it is hard to imagine turnout being anything but high. Meanwhile, since the middle of 2001, opinion polls conducted by a wide variety of Venezuelan and foreign firms have thrown up a quite stable pattern - "If a referendum was held tomorrow would you vote to recall president Chavez?" has been garnering 60-66% yes responses for two years now.

So what are some scenarios?

In Venezuela, we have precisely 12,012,118 voters. Lets look at both the low and high ranges of the polling spectrum.

On the conservative side, if the opposition can get just a 50% turnout for the referendum - that is just over 6 million voters - and 60% of those who turnout give them their support, this would give them 3.6 million votes - the total they got this weekend.

The math is actually very simple:

[ 12,012,118 * 0.5 * 0.6 = 3,603,600 ]

But if they manage to just nudge up turnout to 55% of the electorate, and they could remain at that 60% level of support they would have 3.96 million votes in the bag:

[ 12,012,118 * 0.55 * 0.6 = 3,963,960 ]

If things go well, and they can go towards the top end of their polling range (66%) and can mobilize above the odds turnout (63%), we would be looking at just about five million recall votes - a crushing number.

[ 12,012,118 * 0.63 * 0.66 = 4,994,590 ]

Finally, as a thought exercise, try this:

If the opposition matches both Chavez's level of support from 2000 (59.8 %) and the turnout from that election (56.3%), then we would be looking at 4.04 million votes, because:

[ 12,012,118 * 0.598 * 0.563 = 4,044,128 ]

(It may seem odd that by matching both the turnout and support Chavez had 2 years ago, the opposition gets move votes than Chavez did then. The reason is twofold: the electoral roll is about 300,000 voters larger this time around, due to newly registered voters. Secondly, spoiled ballots are much less likely in a simply Yes/No referendum than in a complex presidential vote. In 2000, incidentally, an alarming 5.3% of ballots were spoiled - almost 350,000 of them - which sparked many suspicions of fraud back then. But just think, a mere 160,000 of those spoiled ballots would put the opposition over the top of the magic number!)

Punchline: if the opposition manages to maintain its 2-year support trend (60-66%,) and can match or exceed the 2000 turnout (which was historically low for Venezuela) there will be enough votes to revoke Chavez.

Everything hangs on the turnout. And the turnout will hang on a combination of citizen bravery in the face of government intimidation, and the opposition's ability to put out a possitive, inclusive message that motivates people who feel excluded to come forward and participate in the democratic process. It really could go either way.

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Just short...

Well, according to the Coordinadora Democratica, the Reafirmazo amply fulfilled its legal purpose, but fell just short politically. It's a bit of a disappointment for the opposition side, but if anything, it makes the coming dynamic all the more interesting.

I made the following little chart comparing the coordinadora's claimed signature tally, with the vote totals Chavez received on July 30, 2000. In many ways this is apples and oranges, because as everyone knows, tu voto es secreto, tu firma no. (Your vote is secret, your signature isn't, as the hateful slogan of chavista intidation goes.) More on this soon.

[For reasons incomprehensible to my HTML-novice hands, blogger leaves a huge empty space below before the table. Simply scroll down a few screens to see it. Sorry about this. $%(*$)*! bogger!]

Votes vs. Signatures Chavez 2000 Opp. 2003 % swing vote Swing
Central Caracas 387,360 359,206 -7.3% -28,154
Amazonas 14,450 11,533 -20.2% -2,917
Anzoategui 189,613 187,428 -1.2% -2,185
Apure 53,527 50,174 -6.3% -3,353
Aragua 292,915 176,513 -39.7% -116,402
Barinas 105,207 76,625 -27.2% -28,582
Bol?var 188,949 123,029 -34.9% -65,920
Carabobo 303,701 309,682 2.0% 5,981
Cojedes 47,409 38,816 -18.1% -8,593
Delta Amacuro 25,157 10,005 -60.2% -15,152
Falc?n 131,304 129,403 -1.4% -1,901
Gu?rico 98,481 71,210 -27.7% -27,271
Lara 237,238 238,361 0.5% 1,123
Mérida 127,362 123,098 -3.3% -4,264
Miranda 346,003 470,608 36.0% 124,605
Monagas 113,464 126,614 11.6% 13,150
Nueva Esparta 70,805 76,648 8.3% 5,843
Portuguesa 146,628 83,788 -42.9% -62,840
Sucre 145,219 104,018 -28.4% -41,201
T?chira 160,194 159,924 -0.2% -270
Trujillo 116,568 83,031 -28.8% -33,537
Vargas 58,958 42,821 -27.4% -16,137
Yaracuy 82,836 93,466 12.8% 10,630
Zulia 312,415 466,410 49.3% 153,995
Total 3,757,773 3,602,051 -4.1% -155,722
Firmazo source: Coordinadora estimate (
2000 Election source: CNE (

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Ode to Francisco Diez
and the style of diplomacy he represents

You know something is seriously twisted in this cosmos when the news you read in serious newspapers start to echo the flip comments you'd read on this site a few hours earlier.

Not 12 hours ago I was guffawing about Chavez's impossible predicament now that the Organization of American States has said they see no reason to suspect fraud over the weekend. What's Chavez gonna do now, argue the oligarchs paid off Cesar Gaviria?!!?

Erm...uh...eeeh...actually, yeah! According to Reuter's, that's precisely what he's gonna do!

"Dr. Gaviria said he saw nothing abnormal. ... I think you overstepped the mark, Dr Gaviria," said Chavez, who also complained that the OAS Secretary General failed to seek a meeting with him during his stay.

Chavez, who has ruled the world's No. 5 oil exporter since 1998, questioned the OAS chief's impartiality, commenting that he "spent a lot of time with the opposition."

Now, several of you have written in to say this is all a giant sprawling conspiracy by the government to stop the referendum. Chavez won't change because Chavez is psychiatrically unable to change...he will never give up, yaddi yaddi yadda.

Now, I don't doubt that you're right, in the narrow sense that Chavez is crazy enough that any rhetorical line is imaginable coming out of him, even one as silly and hare-brained as questioning the integrity of perhaps the best respected diplomat in Western Hemispheric affairs. But it's perfectly clear to me that his room for maneuver is closing down dramatically and quickly. What Chavez intends to do is more and more beside the point.

The contribution the Carter Center and the OAS have made to this state of affairs is hard to overstate. (Yes, I'll admit, I was once quite skeptical myself...mea culpa!) Yet, I know from your emails a lot of you passionately detest the brand of international engagement symbolized by Jimmy Carter and followed closely by Gaviria and OAS. But just think how far we've come by following their comeflor path, think how screwed the government is now, and realize how important Carter/Gaviria style softly-softly diplomacy has been in getting us this far.

Over the weekend, Carter Center and OAS were at their understated best. If you read the Venezuelan press reports closely, for instance, you'll see that Francisco Diez, the Carter Center's main guy for Venezuela, was everywhere, going from one minor flashpoint to another, all day, putting out tiny little fires before they could spread. His intervention was crucial, especially in the nervy first few hours of the drive.

On Friday, when the chavista and the opposition witnesses at the signature gathering center in Parque Central started to beat each other up, Diez was there literally within minutes to do a bit of impromptu mediation and calm nerves down. Later, when a small mob of chavistas attacked Juan Fernandez as he tried to sign in the Carapita Metro station, Diez again was there within minutes to snuff out the violence before it could escalate. Either of these incidents, or any of a number of others (like the idiotic airport shutdown) could have escalated into a major crisis threatening to derail the entire recall process if no one had been there to deal with them in an efficient and professional way.

So add me to Francisco Diez's fan club. Sure, he didn't give any high sounding speeches to the cameras. In fact, if you weren't paying particular attention, it would have been easy to overlook his contribution altogether. He studiously shies away from cameras, as a diplomat should - if you don't believe me, try finding a picture of him on google.

In his own quiet way, Francisco Diez rendered a huge, indeed heroic, service to Venezuela this weekend. The nation will really owe a debt of gratitude to him and his colleagues. Of course it was not only Diez - though one has the feeling his fireman-for-a-weekend assignment was the toughest of the lot. It's also Gaviria himself, and Congressman Ballanger and Congresswoman Watson and Jennifer McCoy and Fernando Jaramillo, and the hundreds on unsung heroes from the OAS/Carter Center observation mission...the quiet people who saved us from our own worst tendencies.

To my mind, when this is all said and done, we're going to have to re-name a couple of prominent Caracas avenues. Avenida Presidente Carter and Avenida Presidente Gaviria - he'd be the first Colombian prez to get his own avenue in Caracas, if I am not mistaken. I like the ring of it already.

Please comment responsibly:

About email

I love hearing from readers, and the big bag of mail the blog has been generating these last few days has been really really exciting. Argue with me, agree with me, yell at me, recall my mother, send me a gossip's all great fun.

One thing, though: Please let me know if I am allowed to post your email to the site. I'm enjoying posting lots of your feedback, but the process is much slower if I have to write back to ask permission to post each time. If you don't want your name and/or email address used, just tell me. If you don't want your email posted at all, please make that clear as well.

And keep 'em coming! Once more, I'm at caracaschronicles at fastmail dot fm (written the silly way to avoid generating spam.)

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Monday, December 01, 2003

Good night

But before you go to bed tonight, put this in your pipe and smoke it. Andy lets it all hang out in the FT.

Foreign observers, including the Organisation of American States and the Carter Center, the pro-democracy foundation, praised the signature drive as generally clean and a model of democratic participation.

"This is democracy in action," said César Gaviria, secretary-general of the OAS. "Ninety per cent of the observers consider the process good, and the rest considered it reasonable."

Great fun. So now, if he wants to block the referendum, Chavez will have to convince the world that Cesar Gaviria and the nobel prize toting Jimmy Carter have both somehow been brainwashed or bought off by the Venezuelan oligarchy...really, great fun...can't wait to see that cadena!

Please comment responsibly:

You have mail from: Peter T. Bepler, II

Welcome back!  Were it not for a nod in The Devil's Excrement to your return, I would have missed your postings of the last few days.  I am genuinely excited for Venezuela.  As you pointed out over the weekend, the very process of dealing with Chavismo in all its aspects- the sneaky legalisms that rejected the signatures of the Spring campaign, the daily more ludicrous promulgation of obstructive regulations by the Electoral Commission, and now- the Reafirmazo is done!  And how very much has been learned, how many new leaders have emerged, how many new associations and organizations been formed- in Burke's words, the "little platoons" which are the locus of true democracy- thanks to the very strictures which the Chavistas thought would stifle and defeat the voice of democracy!  Amazing.

My fervent hope is that this remains, through its conclusion, a revolution of the "velvet" type- violence the province only of the paranoid rejectees- that if the Georgians- the Georgians!- can achieve what they did a week ago, the Serbians two years ago, the Czechs ten years ago- then so can Venezuela.  Let that be the guiding vision, and no defeat is possible.  Again, nice to know you are around and engaged, from wherever, as the wheel turns again. 


Thanks for writing in - and add the peruvians to your list as well! I do enjoy these email exchanges from readers, and like I said, I am on break now so I have plenty of time to devote to it.

(Still waiting to hear back from Mark Weisbrot!)

I agree that if the Georgians can do it, Venezuelans can certainly do it, and we will. But I don't agree, and strongly caution against, any kind of cynicism or flip condemnation of the Elections Council, CNE. CNE is the only life-raft that can take Venezuelan Democracy off of the sinking ship that is chavismo and into the safe harbor of fresh elections. I would caution against saying ANYTHING that can undermine its ability to carry out the crucial task at hand. It really is important now. We have to grow up as a country, we cannot keep questioning every institution that we cannot control - that's Chavez's trick, not ours.


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They're at it again in Boston...

It's sad that the most important news story in my country in probably two years gets so little space in rich world news stations. We get covered so little, it seems almost impolite to criticize what little reporting is actually done. But that sort of thing is sort of the founding reason for this blog, so that's you're about to get:

I think I more or less understand why so little is written about (and, more to the point, read) about Venezuela in the rich countries. It's only partially the obsessive concern of North Americans with Michael Jackson's extracurricular passtimes and the Bush/Iraq axis that's to blame. It's only partly that Venezuela is fighting the wrong world-historical battle - if chavistas were extremist muslims, boy would things be different! It's true, that's there, but I think there's more.

A big part of the problem is that the political crisis in Venezuela can be a dauntingly complex story and American and European audiences have, by and large, alarmingly little background knowledge to build on. Some of the readers who email this blog blithely admit that they could not quite remember if Venezuela was in Central or South America (hint, it's South!) Given those realities, I understand you won't really have the chance to say anything much profound or detailed in a 4 or 5 minute radio segment, no matter how good are reporter you are. There's just too much you have to explain to go at all deep.

I understand that. Still, I think Juan Forero (full disclosure: my former boss) could've done much better on this Here and Now interview about the firmazo. (from KBUR, the Boston NPR affiliate, I believe - the clip plays on Real Audio.)

Not for the first time Juan just kind of ignores the arithmetic inescapability of the fact that in a country that is 80-90% poor, and 60-65% against the president, it is not mathematically possible for the majority of those who are against the president to be non-poor. (Get an envelope, turn it on its back, and work it out!) It's hard for me to understand why Juan finds it so hard to say this out loud, or write it in the newspaper.

The fact that the opposition is made up, in its majority, of poor people, is not some debatable point, some flight of rhetorical fancy on the part of an opposition spinmeister. It's a fact, easily demonstrable. In Venezuela, 9 out of every 10 households earn less than the about Bs.1 million per month (about $300) it takes to cover basic expenses - food, rent, clothes, doctors, etc. for a family of five, which is the Labor Movement's traditional definition of the poverty line.

Said differently, about 2,500,000 people live in non-poor households. If the national trend hold, half of them are minors, the other half will be voters. That's about 1.3 million non-poor voters in the country - total. Assuming, unrealistically, that ALL of them signed to recall Chavez, they still would account for no more than a third of the 4 million or so signatures the opposition is hoping for.

In my view, it's crucially important for readers to be very clear on this. Cuz yes, there is an awful lot of ignorance about the government out there, but there is even more ignorance about the opposition.

So poor people outnumber rich people in the opposition by 2-to-1. Meanwhile, people who oppose the government outnumber people who support the government also by about 2-to-1.

If a first world news audience doesn't have these things explained, it will be very difficult for them to understand the central dynamic at play in Venezuela today, the basic vector that makes sense for all the others: today, the two thirds of Venezuela's citizens who reject autocracy are making a valliant effort to wrest control of the state from that one third of the citizens who do support an autocratic vision of the country's future. That, basically, is what's at stake here.

This, of course, is all way too messy and confusing for your average gringo newspaper reader, who demands stories fed to him in an easily digestible format where moral ambiguity and complexity is kept to a minimum.

The thing is that these realities are irreducibly complex - they simply don't fit very well into the neat little good-guy/bad-guy story about Venezuela that liberal Americans have been sold so powerfully in propaganda vehicles like The revolution will not be televised - a film that, one shudders to think, will be the only pre-existing frame of reference many listeners to Juan's report will have had on the country. It is therefore tempting to simply leave such complications out of reporting on the opposition movement. Otherwise, it is easy to overwhelm an audience with material that it does not necessarily have the ability to interpret.

The only problem with this is that the image of the opposition that results is fundamentally distorted. The understanding a news listener takes away from an interview like Juan's probably does nothing but reinforce his preconceived disney-style ethical take on the situation. ( Rich = Bad, Champion of the Poor = Good.) And it's very hard to open a serious conversation on that basis.

Sigh. It's quite frustrating for me. My inbox daily makes it clear how very, very little foreign readers actually understand about Venezuela. It makes me sad, but it emboldens me to write more, to try to make sense of parts of this mess for at least the few hundred people likely to read this blog. They'll go and tell their friends, right?

Please comment responsibly:

The numbers game

Some of you have written in to ask where on earth I got that 4 million number. I should own up that, well, in some sense I'm being remiss in even publishing numbers at all, even if very few people actually read this site, cuz CNE told us not to. CNE will have to make the final announcement 30 days after the opposition officially turns in the signatures...until that happens, of course, it's all speculation. So, what follows is (very evidently) not official, and could turn out to be wrong...caveat lector.

But frankly, what follows is also already out in the public domain in Venezuela...almost any marginally politically astute Google user could find it. Even watching TV you can intuit what's going on. Opposition leaders cannot talk about numbers out right, but the huge grins on their faces on TV say it all.


My sister, who is a member of an opposition NGO, said the atmosphere at their headquarters last night was understatedly jubilant. They have been warned to avoid overly exhuberant celebration because they are very mindful that this is NOT the referendum. Triumphalism at this point would send the wrong message. Interestingly, even my sister was not given an unofficial number of signatures gathered so far by her NGO leaders last night, which suggests to me they are taking seriously the prohibition on talking about this in public.

(Not everyone in the opposition is being quite so demure. That idjit, Henry Ramos (the AD party chief) flashed four fingers at the camera on globovision last night, big grin on his face, without saying a word...CNE should censure him for it, they really should.)

My sister said the mood at her NGO was essentially party-like - people laughing and singing and dancing into the wee hours. There's a real sense that the referendum can't be stopped at this point...the point of no return is crossed.

The understanding she got was that the opposition is set to outstrip their tally from Feb. 2nd, 2003, when 3.4 million people went out to sign. How many more? Too early to tell. guesses 4.2 million sigs total, but we won't know for sure until January 10th, which is when the verification period expires apparently.

[For beginners, I should recall here that there are 12 million registered voters in Venezuela. The opposition needs to collect 2.4 million signatures to call a recall referendum. However, on the referendum itself, they will need 3.76 million votes to actually recall Chavez. The rule is somewhat quirky: to recall an official you need to get more votes against him than that official initially received when s/he ran for office - and 3.76 million is how many votes Chavez got in 2000. The feeling in the opposition is that if the signature tally from this weekend tops the 3.76 million mark, Chavez is the political equivalent of the walking dead. And if it's substantially beyond that - over 4 million, say - his eventual recall is almost certain. That's why 4 million is such a psychologically important mark...and why the opposition, by and large, is celebrating.]

So no, I didn't make up the numbers, but no, I can't be sure.

Please comment responsibly:

I've spent the last four days with a giant grin on my face.

It could not have gone better.

The psychologically important four million signature mark looks to be within striking distance. The scale of popular mobilization against Chavez has stunned even the most optimistic opposition leaders. The government's attempts to block the process have been disjointed, weak, and inneffective; the president's contention of massive fraud little more than laughable - as OAS, the Carter Center, and the US Congressional delegation observing the process have gingerly (if diplomatically) pointed out.

This weekend, the radical-chic rhetoric of Greg Palast and Naomi Klein and Mark Weisbrot and The revolution will not be televised and all the hipster rich world lefties who have bolstered the Chavez regime has crumbled like the ideological house of cards it has been all along. The heroic vision of the Chavez regime has been comprehensibly debunked along with the myth of mass working class support for the government.

No more satisfying end to the political crisis could be imagined. Chavez will be ousted in strict accordance with the constitution. His presidency will end not in a smoky backroom deal, or through some sort of military hanky-panky, or anything like that. He will be tossed out of office through the direct, officially-registered revulsion of millions of Venezuelans who refuse to stand by while their democracy dies.

The overwhelming, central, crushing fact of political life in Venezuela today - that two in three Venezuelans reject Chavez's autocratic vision for the nation's future - can no longer be wished away or dismissed as opposition media baron rhetoric.

The signatures are in.

The numbers are conclusive.

The nightmare is almost over.

Please comment responsibly:

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Email volley with a lefty on a night of heady optimism in Caracas

> > People who display the
> > slightest whiff, the merest suggestion of disagreement with Chavez,or
> > even those who choose a nuanced version of agreement, are rapidly and
> > reliably expelled from the chavista sect. Its autocratic verticalism is
> > the polar opposite of democratic pluralism, of pluralistic
> > decision-making. And that is what many of us in the opposition cannot,
> > will not, and ought not to swallow, Paul. And, we won't.
> While I actually tend to agree with this description of many Chavistas,
> this also sounds like your own description of the opposition. So, in the
> end, what makes the opposition, to which you seem to count yourself, any
> better than the Chavistas?


If this is the impression I give of the opposition, I did not make myself clear. My point is precisely the opposite. The chavistas and the opposition are fundamentally different. The government's political vision is, at bottom, sectarian and exclusive, committed to a single acceptable line of thought consisting largely of whatever chavez said in his latest speech. In stark contrast, the opposition is impossibly, maddeningly diverse. There is a multitude of voices, positions, and points of view, a dizzying number of formal organizations, a spectrum of ideological currents, and - crucially - vibrant debate between them. Chavismo and the opposition have about as much in common as an order and a conversation.

Of course, the government normally attacks on the opposite flank, making fun of the opposition's fractiousness, its seeming ungovernability, its multiplicity, and contrasting it with the "strength" they think they derive from their unified, clear chain of command - which runs through a single vector from Chavez to everyone else.

The observation is correct, but their interpretation is backwards. The opposition thrives on diversity; Chavez cannot tolerate it. He is terrified of dissent, unable on a psychological level to deal with an opinion different from his own, patently unable to withstand any sort of criticism. Chavez, like any pathological narcissist, is deaf to the world around him. The opposition has to listen, because it is not monolithic, its positions are not predetermined. Instead, they have to be agreed through dialogue and debate between many different groups on a case by case basis. This is a source of strength, not weakness.

The opposition's diversity is real, both socially and ideologically. If you are right wing and middle or upper class, there are several parties for you to choose from, from COPEI to Primero Justicia to Proyecto Venezuela, but if you're more working class and more centrist you also have a certain number of options, from AD and Alianza Bravo Pueblo on the conservative end of the spectrum to Causa R, Solidaridad and Union on the left. And if you are a proper trotskyite marxist and you want to oppose Chavez, well there is ALSO a place for you in the Coordinadora democr?tica - as the kids from Bandera Roja have found out. And if you think there is not enough balance in the media, there's even an NGO for you! The opposition is just as broad and varied as Venezuela is!

Necessarily this means they don't all agree on everything all the time. But what they do all agree on is one basic principle: that they will respect those who disagree with them, remain open to dialogue towards them and work towards building minimal agreements with them. They understand the need to work for consensus across ideological lines. This, in my view, is the fundamental difference between the two sides: the opposition has the unruliness of real democracy about it. The opposition understands compromise and consensus building as healthy democratic activities. By contrast, chavismo is a straightjacket that rigidly binds millions of people to parrot the views of a pathological narcissist from day to day.

It's hardly surprising. How much intelligence and coherence is it really reasonable to expect from a cult of personality built around a man of faltering psychiatric stability? I mean, really.

The structure of chavismo is very badly suited to developing the habits mind and patterns of citizen interaction likely to yield a vibrant democracy. I cannot have a frank, horizontal, equal-to-equal, citizen-to-citizen debate with you if I'm pledged to blind obedience to a political line I have no part in formulating! Only open democratic debate predicated on a basis of equality and respect for differences can foster the kinds of social interaction that sustain democracy in the long run. Formal recognition of the other, of the other's right to dissent, and the willingness to reach principled compromises with the other are central features of any vibrant democracy. The opposition understands this. The government - that is, Chavez - fundamentally does not.

(and don't bother writing in to point out George W. Bush doesn't understand this either - doubtlessly true, but entirely beside the point here!)

So Greg, to me, there is a world of difference between the opposition and Chavez. Not because the opposition is perfect and wonderful and blameless, no! The venezuelan opposition is just as much filled with human folly and error as any other enterprise this absurd species of ours might choose to pursue. But it is also far bigger than that, sustained ultimately by ideals that are much more noble than that and will, in due time, lead to the restoration of pluralistic decision-making and democratic normalcy to Venezuela. And this, I know for certain, cannot happen if Chavez stays in power.

I realize that there is no guarantee that the end of the Chavez era will lead to the end the era of mass impoverishment in Venezuela. The country has been getting poorer for 25 years now, and Chavez is only to answer for the final 5 of those. But it is near-certain that keeping Chavez would mean ongoing impoverishment. People can sense that on the streets, Greg, and this is why they're lining up to sign for the recall.

Watching the coverage of the weekend's action on globovision over the internet was instructive. For one thing, it's clear that the station has toned down its content very dramatically. The endless anti-government commercial sprees are gone. Rough equality in air time is ensured between pro and anti-government spokesmen. It is true that the the pro-chavez interviewees inevitably have a rougher ride than their counterparts - a phenomenon due largely, I think, to the more-than-justified anger of the individual interviewers at standard chavista obfuscation tactics and flat out lies. It's only a shame they're not as tough on the opposition interviewees, not that they're so tough on the chavistas. But the days of the totally one sided opposition media are, for the moment at least, not quite true.

For another thing, following on my exchange with Paul, I watched the lines of people waiting to sign paying close attention to people's skin color. What I realized is what I knew all along - there were huge numbers of brown and black people signing against the government this weekend alongside many whites. Black and brown faces regularly spoke on behalf of the opposition coalition, as well as for the government.

In fact, it occurs to me that if you went up to anyone standing in those effortlessly racially mixed lines waiting to sign all over the country and you tried to explain to those people that there are two leftwing irish film makers who think the struggle against the president is one of white vs. black, the idea would seem little more than absurd to the vast majority of them. Not so much right or wrong as just incomprehensible, would not compute. I understand that race is deeply politicized in the US and Europe, it is hard for me to understand why my American and European friends refuse to believe me when I tell them it is not similarly politicized in Venezuela!

(but this, doubtlessly, is a subject for a separate entry.)

Overall, the race-struggle theory of Venezuelan politics is about as credible as Jose Vicente Rangel's obscene suggestion that the TV images of long lines all over the city waiting to sign were staged, fake, computer generated, "virtual" was his word. Sickening.

My favorite moment on Globovision today was the shots of people waiting in line to sign, who were holding little hand-drawn signs reading simply "No soy virtual." I am not virtual. To me, that little sign, that little retort to Rangel, encapsulates so much of the opposition's deep and justified exasperation. They are not really asking for that much, not really. All that sign says, ultimately, is I am a real person. I want to be taken into consideration as a citizen. I want to be recognized. I want those in power to accept I exist.

(Remember when all this started? December 10th, 2001? Remember that day, Greg? All that the opposition was really asking even back then was to be recognized, to be consulted on the changing of the 49 decree-laws handed down through the enabling law! (God, seems like eons ago! But it's been just two years ago!) The funny thing is that the government's reaction back then was the same as it is now: the ostrich with its head in the sand. Back then they mocked us, they called us escualidos, they refused to accept we exist. Nothing has changed! And the same cycle of anger and frustration at non-recognition followed by increased militancy followed by renewed determination on the part of the government NEVER to recognize the opposition that has built up the pressure-cooker of anger and frustrations that poured out onto the streets to sign today, with their little 'no soy virtual' handbills...)

The other thing that seems to have escaped most commentators about this remarkable weekend in Venezuela is the sheer irony of it. For 3 years between 1998 and 2001 we heard NOTHING out of Chavez but paeans for citizens participation, for direct democracy, for the idea that the people owned the country, and should therefore run it. It was the whole reason for electing him!

Today, that kind of rhetoric has disappeared completely from the president's rhetorical repertoire. Oddly, just as Chavez shut up about it, it started to happen, on the streets. And why? Because the message has been totally co-opted by the opposition, that's why! Swallowed and digested whole!

This may be the single positive aspect of Chavez's legacy: while his own government was a shocking failure, the ideology of radical people power that first propelled him to miraflores is becoming a part of our political culture, it seems to be geting integrated into the nation's shared common sense, into its civic DNA. Chavez really has made us more democratic, but not in anything like the way he imagined!

But look out in the streets, Greg! Wasn't this what the revolution was supposed to be about in the first place? La revolucion participativa y protagonica? Remember that? Has chavismo really grown so far from its original idealistic roots that it cannot even begin to understand that its vision has become a reality, only on the other side of the political divide? Can it really not see that all the opposition is doing is fleshing out the ideological vision that Chavez originally conceived? Strange twists, my friend, strange twists takes the path of politics in a place like Venezuela. La revolucion bonita indeed!

Chavismo is today the victim of nothing so much as Chavez the man. As the leader's narcissistic delirium deepened, he carried his movement down with him. The end result was the strange kind of collective paranoid delusion that is chavismo today. Pledged to follow blindly the whims of a leader who has lost his marbles, the political movement itself is suffering from a kind of collective insanity. This is what happens to personality cults right before they implode!

Honestly, Greg, have an honest look at the chavismo that exists today, on November 30, 2003, and tell me the heavy air of historic failure and confusion doesn't hang around the proyecto's neck like a ball-and-chain? Just look at the way they behave! Look at the constant conspiracy theorizing on channel eight, look at the obsession with counter-revolutionaries, spies and enemies that is such a sadly predictable feature of autocratic political systems. (To my mind there are shades of Stalin and Trujillo here, in terms of the psychological mechanism of pervasive suspicion, finger-pointing and betrayal, if thankfully not in terms of the level of violence applied to counter it.)

If you've been watching channel 8 for the last couple of days, you must have some sense of the way the chavista leadership has followed the president, lemming-like, over the psychiatric cliff-edge and into a state of generalized paranoia. It's a serious issue, man, I really don't mean to render it glib. They believed their own propaganda to the bitter end, and it brought them to the current impasse. In a few days, CNE will announce more than 3.8 million signatures have been collected for a referendum that only requires 3.78 million votes to toss the guy out, and chavismo has never developed any kind of discourse to prepare its followers to hear that news, to assimilate it and accept it and live with it. what? How will they react? How will they reconcile that announcement with the narcissitic fantasy that has been so carefully built around Chavez?

One can only hope common sense wins out in the end and nobody tries to do anything rash that could lead to violence. At the moment, I am very optimistic. But ultimately, the country cannot accept a situation where a paranoid sect controls every nook and corner of the state. It's just not a sustainable situation, Greg: surely, on some level, you must realize this is so...

OK, again, this email/post is too long. Durn. Concision: not my strong point! But I feel this odd need to write about Venezuela these's hard to explain, it's just very exciting to follow the news of the reafirmazo over the just seems like there's this air of heady optimism down there, and I'm really bummed I'm not there to experience it first hand. And, of course, I love the email from readers/friends/sisters, so bring it on!

[The email address is caracaschronicles at fastmail dot fm, by the way, NOT dot com...]

Rejoinder to this post from, hands down, my favorite US lefty...

In response to your last, er, relapse, I'm not sure that the fact that W can't conceive of a "loyal opposition" is all that beside the point. In fact, the Bushies' sneaky and radical revision of American rules of play has some eerie parallels with Chavez's. Not quite as egregious, better spun, not as bold-faced, but I think that drawing parallels with Bush is an excellent way to make the point for your lefty U.S. readers. (Speaking of a rapidly polarizing citizenry, check out the poll graphs at

I'm in the middle of reading Krugman's latest tome ("The Great Unraveling" - if these "anger lit" titles get any cheesier they're going to have to start serving wine at the readings.) He quotes Henry Kissinger's doctoral dissertation, of all things:

"Back to Kissinger. His description of the baffled response of established powers in the face of a revolutionary challenge works equally well as an account of how the American political and media establishment has responded to the radicalism of the Bush administration over the past two years:

'Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent, they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework. The defenders of the status quo therefore tend to begin by treating the revolutionary power as if its protestations were merely tactical; as if it really accepted the existing legitimacy but overstated its case for bargaining purposes; as if it were motivated by specific grievances to be assuaged by limited concessions. Those who warn against the danger in time are considered alarmists; those who counsel adaptation to circumstance are considered balanced and sane.... But it is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusions.'

As I said, this passage sends chills down my spine, because it explains so well the otherwise baffling process by which the administration has been able to push radical policies through, with remarkably little scrutiny or effective opposition."

Of course, Chavez has always billed his regime change as a revolution, and thus an attack on the "existing legitimacy." The problem is that the social order people thought they were voting to overturn - clientelism, the "petrostate" as you put it, general political indifference toward the plight of the poor - was far different from the social order the chavistas actually want to overturn - basically, the entire framework of due process and democratic accountability. And when the bait and switch became evident, people got seriously pissed off.

Much the same with the Bushies - tax cuts for the superrich packaged as tax relief for the middle class, a pre-emptive war packaged as a response to an imminent threat, a basic strategy of responding to criticism with outright denial of the facts, or refusal to answer the question. It's so clear, so obvious, to your average North American lefty, that Bush's noble, homespun rhetoric has absolutely no connection to what he's
actually doing in office. It's clear, too, that the few social-welfare projects Bush claims to be interested in (AIDS efforts in Africa, for instance) are actually run by well-intentioned grassroots people who, whether they realize it or not, have priorities very different from his - and will probably end up getting half the funding they were promised during the initial photo-op.

And yet, the equivalent situation in Venezuela is not at all clear and obvious - U.S. lefties fall for the noble, homespun rhetoric and social-welfare photo ops all the time. Now I know my country's politics bore you, but I do think hammering home the similarities between our respective leadership's baits and switches is the best way to discredit the chavista rhetoric. "George W. Bush" is a code for "propaganda" that
we understand.


Rejoinder to the rejoinder
It's not that US politics bore me, it's just that they baffle me, and upset me...

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