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Saturday, January 17, 2004

Venezuela's debt hell...

While Hugo Chavez talks a beautiful left-wing game, his policies have pushed Venezuela into a massive and unnecessary debt crisis. The government's ongoing money problems make it impossible to fund the social agenda Chavez never shuts up about, and have triggered a socially disastrous spike in inflation. What's worse, the government was warned again and again that this would happen, but simply dismissed critics. Bushwhackers would do well to note the parallels here, in terms of deafness to criticism and fiscal recklessness.

At some point, you have to step back from the rhetoric and say, "ok, yes, but what's the government actually doing, in terms of policy, and what impact are those policies having on people?" Words are nice, but sometimes you have to look at the numbers.

It's little wonder revolutionaries seldom stop to do so: the answers are not kind to them.

Last October, Descifrado posted this fascinating, bone-chilling gloss on Central Bank economist Jose Guerra's projections for public finances in 2004.

Guerra says that if the government borrows as much money as it has said it wants to borrow from the internal (i.e. bolivar denominated) credit markets in 2004, its total domestic debt would rise to 36.1 trillion bolivars - a fifteen-fold increase on the Bs.2.3 trillion domestic debt Chavez inherited when he reached power.

Even in terms of dollars, the growth of the domestic debt is staggering: by the end of this year it could total $16.1 billion (figuring the bolivar at the officially projected Bs.1950:$.) That's four times as much as the $4 billion debt Chavez inherited in 1999. The domestic debt, if things continue to go this way, will be worth 20% of GDP: a fifth of the value of the economy, by the end of 2004.

But that's not the worst of it.

The worst of it is that most of this mountain of new debt has come in the form of short term treassury bills, at very high interest rates - often 25-30% a year. As Venezuelan banks became more and more exposed to the government, they became less and less willing to buy long term DPN bonds: they needed their money back in 3 or 6 months, not 3 or 4 years.

As anyone who's gone a bit overboard with credit cards knows, high-interest short-term borrowing quickly snowballs out of countrol. Compound interest is a merciless foe. And the very high interests the government has been paying for these short term loans have sent the domestic debt spiraling out of control.

Finance Ministry Website

The payment schedules that result when a debt is growing this fast are brutal.

The government's obvious response is devaluation. If you owe Bs.1,600, and the exchange rate is Bs.1,600 to the $, then you owe $1. But if you devalue the currency - if you let the exchange rate slide to, say, Bs.3,200 to the dollar - you find that under the new exchange rate those Bs.1,600 you owe are magically only worth 50 cents! Your bill has been cut in half! And since most of your income is in dollars (think oil), you have an obvious interest in "watering down" the domestic debt by letting the bolivar devalue more and more against the dollar.

An out of control domestic debt is an inducement to aggressive devaluation.

Problem is, each time the government devalues the currency even further, the result is more inflation. And inflation is devastating for people on low incomes.

The irony is that, when you look at it closely, the revolution's economic management turns out to be deeply regressive, even reactionary. Everyone is losing, yes, but proportionally, the poor lose more of their purchasing power than the rich do. The reason is simply that the rich have savings in dollars, so they can shield themselves from the ups and downs in the bolivar's value.

The poor don't have that privilege: they live day to day. When you're on a fixed income, living close to subsistance level, price rises of 25 or 30% or more each year mean hunger. In the barrios, inflation is not some distant macroeconomic aggregate, some abstraction. In the barrios, inflation means destitution. It means eating two meals a day, when you used to be able to afford three, or just one meal a day if you used to eat two. It means giving up breakfast.

These are the kinds of sacrifices that a broad swathe of the working class people who voted for Chavez have had to make. Chavez's strategy to borrow-and-spend his way to social justice has been a disaster for them.

Sadly, the government just doesn't have the money to take the sting off: it's all going to service the mushrooming domestic debt. Debt repayment now dwarfs the president's social agenda in the government's spending priorities. Guerra projects that domestic debt service payments alone could gobble up a shocking 94% of the government's huge oil revenues. That's nearly all the money from the country's fabled oil industry up in smoke, just like that, just to service the debt.

Populist "misions" make for nice headlines, but the cold hard figures tell a different story. Guerra forecasts the government will spend 57% more on servicing its domestic debt than it spends on all public investments put together - things like building new roads, schools, hospitals, and such. The domestic debt service will cost nearly as much as total state spending on education, health and social security all put together (87% as much.) In fact, debt service will cost 43% of all current government income.

Servicing the domestic debt has become so expensive that even if the government had a sensible and coherent plan to tackle poverty - which it emphatically doesn't - it wouldn't matter: there simply isn't enough money to pay for it. Nearly half of what the government takes in goes to service the debt; what's left is barely enough to pay the public sector wage bill.

Belatedly, the government has accepted the arithmetic impossibility of continuing along the current path: there just aren't enough bolivars in the banks to keep borrowing in Venezuelan currency. Instead, they've started to do what critics told them to do all along: borrow dollars and swap bolivar obligations for longer term dollar bonds.

It's too little, too late. The first of the swaps was for just $1 billion - to yield a frightening 10.25% (in $$$!) That leaves another $15 billion to go, and it's hard to imagine international markets making that kind of money available this year. The government's refusal to switch to dollar borrowing earlier has already cost this poor country billions of dollars - the damage is done.

To put it another way, the Chavez's government's pigheaded incompetence has saddled a whole new generation of Venezuelans with debt. The total debt burden (foreign and domestic) has jumped 45% in 5 years, in dollar terms, from $25 billion to $36.4 billion.

Finance Ministry Website
Central Bank of Venezuela Website
Jose Guerra estimates, cited in Descifrado

If the government's swap strategy works, you'd see the blue part of this chart swallow up much of the purple part as the government "swaps" domestic bonds for foreign ones. The total will not fall as a result, though the repayment schedule would be far less murderously onerous.

The worrying part is that the government will now be tempted to devalue the bolivar before swapping any more bonds. This would allow it to buy back more bolivar debt with fewer newly borrowed dollars. Again, that would just be a way of passing on the costs of the government's failed strategy to the population as a whole - via inflation.

It's just sad.

The net result of all this rather icy technocratic talk is real suffering in the barrios and towns of Venezuela. The government's money crunch means less money for all the things that could help people out of poverty: less for social programs, less for schools, less for hospitals. Meanwhile, people's needs only grow: more hunger, more unemployment, more destitution, more desperation.

And all for no good reason at all. All to make some ideological point about not needing the IMF, about being able to tough it out without international credit markets. As with any revolution, in chavismo ideological purity comes first; the needs of the people are an afterthought.

The thing that drives me and other government critics crazy is that WE TOLD THEM SO! I've been writing about this topic for five years now, only usually in the future tense, warning that the things that are happening would happen. Dozens of independent economists can say the same. We tried to explain to the government why this strategy would not work, we shouted ourselves hoarse trying to get them to understand that these policies would end up screwing the very people Chavez wanted to champion.

We wrote about it again and again, warning that the borrow-in-bolivars-only strategy was unsustainable, short-sided and stupid, explaining again and again that domestic credit markets were not deep enough to bankroll the government, drawing out the social implications of this course of action, appealing even to the government's sense of self-preservation by explaining to them that the strategy would cripple their ability to finance Chavez's social agenda.

The government interpreted our protests as the "squeals of pigs being taken to the slaughterhouse" - just the protestation of an old elite worried about losing its privileges. They took our criticisms as evidence of the revolutionary bona fides of their policies. We were variously dismissed, ignored, mocked, attacked, derided and generally disregarded as "savage neoliberals."

Now, billions of wasted dollars later, it's not the independent analysts who lost out. We're sure as hell not going to bed hungry. For the privileged, the crisis means being able to afford only one maid instead of two, or having to hang on to a 5 year old car for another couple of years before changing models. They're not the ones bearing the brunt. It's the millions of poor Venezuelans who believed Chavez when he promised them a better life who are bearing the brunt.

They're the ones who'll go to bed on an empty stomach tonight.

Late addition

In today's El Universal, Emeterio Gomez urges the opposition to do a bit of a mea culpa, before pilloring Chavez's economic management. From 1973 through 1998, he points out, the opposition did the exact same thing Chavez is getting raked over the coals for doing now.

Point taken.

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Friday, January 16, 2004

A thought experiment...

Imagine you wake up on just a normal Friday morning, turn on your local news radio station and hear this, read in newscaster's deadpan:

According to DC police chief, Larry Forester, the Barry Goldwater Tactical Combat Unit of [pro-Bush urban guerrilla group] the Ethanallens, who operate in Georgetown, attacked a group of District of Columbia police officers just outside the Foggy Bottom-GWU metro station. The attackers used both handguns and rifles. Four people were wounded, including two bystanders who were on the way to ride the metro, along with a metro worker, who is being treated at the local hospital. The DC Police officer and one of the bystanders received bullet wounds to the face.

It's just too far-fetched, isn't it, even as a send-up.

The spooky thing is that if you'd been listening to news radio in Caracas this morning, that's what you would have heard. Well, a Venezuelanized version thereof, anyway.

The pro-Chavez guerrilla group in question is the Tupamaros, a Marxist group far older than chavismo that now enthusiastically supports the revolution.

Perhaps alone in the world today - the tupas, as they're known - occupy the ultimate oxymoronic/magic realist political position: they're a pro-government guerrilla movement.

(Think about that - how does that even work?!!)

The government does not control the Tupamaros, and it's not clear to what extent they take orders from Chavez personally. But what is clear is that they're heavily armed, and effectively control entire housing estates in the West Side of Caracas. What's also clear is that the Tupas sporadically carry out urban warfare opperations against the "enemies of the revolution" - and often against the PM, the Caracas Metropolitan Police.

The PM is seen as the enemy because their chain of command ends at the desk of Alfredo Pena, the fiery antichavista mayor of Caracas who was elected with more votes than Chavez himself got in the city. What the bystanders did to deserve a bullet in the face only the tupas know.

It's hard to exagerate just how destabilizing events like today's shootings could be. But the worst of it, the most destabilizing part of it, is the government's very public and very chronic refusal to ever investigate, much less prosecute, any act of political violence perpetrated by any Chavez follower.

Is it really too much to ask for the president to try to maybe do something to stop the urban guerrillas who support him from shooting cops randomly at tube stations?

What kind of mad reality are we living in when you can actually write a question like that last one and mean it?!

Reader mail
From: Cesar Date: Fri, 16 Jan 2004 6:27 PM
To: caracaschronicles at

Hi Francisco,

I read your last post (Jan 16th) and I'd like to tell you that I too worry
about all this madness. I worry that all this will become normal like so
many other bizarre things are "normal" in our country. I struggle, for
example, to explain to my US friends why Venezuelan homes have so many metal
bars on their windows, something I didn't think about before coming to the
US because I considered them normal, even though deep inside me I knew it
was very wrong. In the same way, Venezuelans of the future may see as normal
to have armed groups controling part of the cities. And then we'll be

I fear that the Chavez era has opened a Pandora's box for which we will not
recover in a long time, if ever. I mean the political violence that is now
part of our society. I have, however, some hope that in a post-Chavez era,
without his inciendary verb, all this tension will fizzle down and the
current violent politics will give way to more constructive ways.


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Thursday, January 15, 2004


"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love, 1963

"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

Danny Glover and the members of his Transafrica Forum continue to protest that theirs is not a pro-government propaganda visit, or at least that's what they say, in between one pro-government propaganda event and the next.

In the latest non-propaganda propaganda coup, flanked by government grandees, the Transafrica forumsters opened a photo exhibition on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The occasion raises, in my mind, a simple question: what would Dr. King do if he was alive today and faced with a government like Chavez's?


After years of being harassed, spied on, intimidated, threatened and roughed up by the government, would he really support a government that routinely harasses, spies on, intimidates, threatens and roughs up its opponents?

After a lifetime spent trying to focus attention away from something as fleeting and banal as skin color, would he really support a government that plays on racial differences to bolster its support?

After working tirelessly for the economic empowerment of the most disadvantaged Americans, would he really support a government that has impoverished more people faster than any other in Venezuela's history?

After risking his life to ensure the voting rights of all US citizens, would he really support a government that works tirelessly to block the rights of Venezuelans to vote in a recall referendum?

And would Dr. King, who was so passionate about Christ's counsel to love your enemy, would he really support a government based almost entirely on the vilification of those who disagree with the leader, on the demonization of dissent, the equation of disagreement with treason?


"Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2004

The worst part about Chavez's new strategy... that it actually seems to be working.

Right now, Hugo Chavez has a single goal: survival in power.

Oh sure, he'll talk about the revolution this and the revolution that and isn't it terrible how they want to take away the revolution, but Venezuelans long ago learned that revolution is merely one of a family of words Chavez uses as a rough synonym for "me."

[The others being "mvr", "government," "fiscalia", "Armed Forces", "state", "Magallanes", "law", "central bank reserves" and "constitution" - narcissists have a hard time with ego boundaries.]

Of course, plotting and surviving is Chavez's strength, the one activity he has a credible shot being called an "expert" in. Chavez plotted a coup for TEN YEARS between his Saman de Guere oath in 1982 and the actual coup-attempt on Feb. 4th, 1992! Plotting is hard-wired into his political imagination. Arguably, Chavez can't really tell the difference between politics and plotting. In any case, he can't seem to differentiate the opposition movement from a conspiracy any better than he can differentiate his political plotting from the practice of governing.

So it's Chavez the military conspirator who's facing this stability crisis; that's the mindset he brings to the problem. A quick assesment shows his hand is pretty weak, for two reasons: 1-He knows he cannot dominate the country's institutions the way he once could. 2-He know's the government is out of money.

So put yourself in his shoes? what do you do? Well, unless the other side makes a major blunder, you're gonna lose. The strategy, then, will be to try to goad the other side into making that mistake.

Think tactically: how can you put the opposition under pressure, how can you push it towards making a major blunder before the recall vote? How can you divide them?

Can't be that hard: the opposition is famously unable to agree on anything beyond its animosity to Chavez. It ranges from the Trotskyite Marxist Bandera Roja party to reactionary pro-Bush generals. It's not particularly hard to play on divisions. If they were ever forced to sit down and negotiate with each other, they probably couldn't agree on what to put on a pizza.

So what if they were forced to sit down and agree on a single, unified slate of nominations for state and local elections later this year? And what if you could force them to start negotiations right now, when they'd much rather focus on the recall vote?

Chavez must have asked himself: what are the chances that the opposition can stick together through a deal that complex, made up of hundreds of smaller local and regional deals?

It's just a lucky thing for him, then, that nationwide elections for governor and mayor are due later this year. It was not clear, juridically, whether those elections should take place in late July-early August, or in December. But it looks like this is the kind of favor Chavez can still expect a favorable hearing on from "his" CNE members.

Jorge Rodriguez has already announced the July/August timeline as the CNE's preferred timing for the regional votes. The political parties would have to present their nominations several months earlier - by March, no later. That'll probably fall in the middle of the referendum campaign: the worst time for a crisis.

If the opposition wants to go to the state and local elections as a united front, they need to sit down around a table right now and get that back room air good and smoky. A deal is crucial. Surely, if adeco dinosaurs are good for anything at all (which is questionable), they're good for cutting a backroom deal on candidacies. Now would be an excellent time for them to exercise some of those skills.

The deal will require real negotiation skills and painful concessions from everyone. The state and local election involve key decisions on the future of a whole generation of budding young politicos from literally every corner of the country. Even if a deal is reached, the disappointed will outnumbered the nominated by a ratio of 5 or 6 to one. Will those 5 or 6 also-rans turn around and support the recall effort with the same zeal if they know they will not be mayor or governor after the next election? Chavez is gambling the answer is no.

Chavez's gambit was subtle, well played. It could well work.

But as Pompeyo Marquez says, if the opposition parties are not able to work out their differences over something so ultimately petty as governorships and mayorships then they don't deserve to win the recall.

Of course, there's a distinct possibility that Chavez has blundered, that by forcing the opposition to put up or shut up, he's providing a much needed prod for the opposition politicos to get serious about picking leaders once and for all. Once the regional nominees are picked, the opposition could be far more coherent than it has been so far, much better able to act as a unit. It's hard to forecast these things.

But chances are that the opposition's propensity to prima donnaish maximalism will sink a comprehensive deal. Some parties are bound to walk off the table, the opposition negotiations could descend into a kind of battle royal. Even if you don't end up in some nightmare scenario, the negotiations will obviously be a distraction to a political leadership that wants to focus like a laser beam on the recall.

Of course, the opposition is well aware what the government is up to. They've been taken for a ride by Chavez more than once already - and I think, I hope, they've learned something over the last couple of years. I hope they'll understand how important it is for the country's future that they put their differences aside and reach a deal quickly. Really it would be very difficult for voters to forgive if the typical old infighting took precedence over the country's future here. Their fledgeling credibility is at stake.

Chavez probably figures that even if a deal is reached, it will still favor him, because a-there's a good chance voters will be unimpressed by the opposition nominees and b-it'll give him someone to demonize, someone to run against during the recall referendum, relieving him of the painful burden of having to run against himself.

So, for Chavez, it's a win-win situation.

For the opposition, on the other hand, it's both a challenge and a test.

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How useless can Hugo Chavez get?

Man, just when you thought Hugo Chavez couldn't get any more useless, he outdoes himself again. I mean, if you're going to have a far left lunatic run your country, you might guess you'd at least get some nice meaty Bushwhacking out of him. Not even!

The coward actually praised Dubya's latest remarks on Venezuela, calling them "very precise." Honestly, what's the use of this guy? A propensity to rant against the neoimperialist cabal in Washington was, as far as I'm concerned, the only redeeming feature of the Chavez regime. But he doesn't even dare, not when it's Bush personally...useless, I tell you, useless!

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It's official: the 30 days to verify the signatures start today.

Official train crash date: February 12th.

CNE must announce whether or not it will call a recall vote by that date.

Mark it on your calendars.

Likelihood of serious destabilization/violence on February 13th: high.

Only in Venezuela do we schedule deep political crises with such precision.

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Sunday, January 11, 2004

Yet another open letter Danny Glover probably won't read...

So, Danny Glover is in Caracas to witness the revolution's great strides in helping black Venezuelans. But does he have any clue how race relations actually work in Venezuela? More importantly, can he and the rest of the US left be bothered to find out?

If you want to annoy, really annoy, a Venezuelan opposition member, tell him that he's only against Chavez cuz he's white and rich, engaged in a sotto voce oligarchical conspiracy to keep black Venezuelans poor and oppressed. Then kick back and enjoy the show, as his muscles tense up, his veins bulge, and, if you look closely, you see a bit of steam coming out of the guy's ears. Fun!

Not that I'm immune: the righteous race-struggle pap chavismo puts out abroad may be the single most misleading, destructive, and intellectually dishonest part of their international public relations campaign. It's a line they barely ever use in Venezuela: it just doesn't mobilize the masses, cuz it's so transparently bogus...but it sure does come in handy when you want to rally first world lefties to the cause.

The strategy rankles so much because it so clearly flies in the face of Venezuela's day-to-day reality. Racism may be the only acute social problem Venezuela doesn't have. Yet, by its very nature, a charge of racism is fiendishly difficult to refute without sounding, well, like a racist.

So it's easy to see why the government uses this line. The charge is devastatingly effective as a propaganda tool in the first world. Americans and Europeans are extremely sensitive to charges of racism, and any group tarred with the label becomes immediately suspect.

But the fact is that portraying Venezuela's political struggle as race-based is just plain silly. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in Caracas can tell you why: there are remarkably few black people in Venezuela, and remarkably few white people as well! A good 80% of the country is mestizo - mixed blood - covering a chromatic scale of browns that does not consider itself either white or black - just "moreno", or "cafe con leche", just plain brown.

This gives rise to a social dynamic that is totally different from what you see in the United States. In the U.S., you're either white or black, period. These days you can be "other", on the census forms, but in everyday life you will be assigned to one or the other of the racial categories, and you'll be treated accordingly. If you're white you eat jell-o, listen to Bryan Adams, pray in a nice white episcopalian or evangelical church, think OJ Simpson did it, and can't dance. If you're black, you eat fried chicken, listen to Al Green, pray at a Southern Baptist Church, think OJ was framed and dance like you were born to dance.

Yes, those are stereotypes. This is exactly the point. You can come up with a list of immediately recognizable stereotypes for whites and blacks in the US, because in the US racial categories are really ways of describing ethnic groups. After a long history of segregation, the two groups evolved in radically different ways. Each acquired a unique culture. Blacks and whites in the US cook different things, vote in different ways, they live in different places, hell, they even speak with different accents. They are two separate ethnic groups, and what are described as "racial" problems in the US usually really boil down to ethnic tensions. This is why the phrase "African American" became established: because in the US, it really isn't about black or white, it's about membership in a group.

But in Venezuela - and this is the key thing that Danny Glover and Ignacio Ramonet seem determined not to understand - it just doesn't work this way. Racial categories do not map onto ethnic groups like they do in the U.S. Black people in Venezuela eat the same things as brown people and white people. They speak with the same accent. They live in the same neighborhoods. Except for Barlovento, they listen to the same music and dance the same dances. They go to the same churches, they pray in the same way. Their skin colors may be different, but they know full well what their ethnicity is: they're Venezuelans! Describe any black person in Caracas as "Afro-Venezuelan" and they'll just stare at you in incomprehension.

So the dynamic of ethnic tension that pervades the US cannot really arise in a country like Venezuela: we're just too much alike. The thing that really confuses gringos is that, unlike in the US, race actually is just about skin color in Venezuela. For instance, I remember talking to a lot of confused Venezuelans in 2001, when Colin Powell was appointed US Secretary of State. "They keep saying he's the first ever black secretary of state, but, but look at him! He's not black! He's nowhere near black!" I tried to explain that, in the US, the thing that made a person black or white was not actually his skin color, but rather his ancestry, family history, and belonging to a given ethnic group. Mostly, I got blank stares back. It seemed so evident to them: "no, no, you don't understand: look at his skin. Is it black? No! How can they say he's black if his skin is cafe con leche? It doesn't make any sense..."

And at that point, I stopped arguing, cuz clearly he was right: it's US attitudes towards race that make no sense at all...the way we deal with it seems like a model of inclusive common sense in comparison.

Most gringos would be really surprised, probably inspired, and definitely confused if they saw the way white and brown and black Venezuelans relate to each other. Every American I've ever met is stunned to realize that seemingly racially loaded terms like "catire" (blond) and "negro" are tossed around casually, both in public and private, as terms of endearment. Lovers use "negro" and "negra" as pet names - pillow talk fodder. Parents call their fairest skinned kid "catire" across the breakfast table. Chavez's Education Minister, Aristobulo Isturiz, is nicknamed El Negro Aristobulo by both supporters and detractors, both when talking about him and when talking to him. It's a totally unremarkable thing.

Relations between people of different skin colors are remarkably fluid, in all sorts of circumstances. I've seen German-born, blue eyed Chavista political organizers in Barinas state leading groups of brown-skinned pro-Chavez campesinos with no problems at all. I've seen black TV presenters from the anti-Chavez media bossing around white staffers in his production team as though it was the most natural thing in the world (it is!) Because their culture is the same, when a black Venezuelan and a white Venezuelan talk, race is nowhere near the forefront of their's an aesthetic detail, probably closer to what happens when a blond North American chats with a brown-haired North American.

You see this throughout the society. In Venezuelan high schools, you never see the situation you see in racially mixed US high schools, where blacks tend to hang out overwhelmingly with other blacks, and whites usually only make friends with other whites. Venezuelan high school students mix, make friends, go to parties, fondle each other, cheat on tests and riot against the cops with an inclusive color-blindness that would be the pride of any good first world liberal.

(If you've seen "City of God", you have a sense for just how color-blind these societies can be...though the film is about Brazil, a shocking amount of what it shows would hold in Venezuela also, including both the appalling everyday violence and the easy mingling of people with different skin colors.)

This kind of matter-of-fact mixing can happen because, deep down, Venezuelans of different races don't see each other as fundamentally different, they don't endow differences in skin color with the kind of deep social meaning that skin color acquires in a society as racially polarized as the US. In Venezuela, skin color really is skin deep.

Sure, it's true, the lighter your skin, the more likely it is you're well off, for historical reasons. And you do sporadically hear pretty tasteless jokes about negros, that's also true. But stacked against the mountain of everyday conviviality between the races, these signs of prejudice don't amount to a hill of beans. I mean, the undercurrent of real menace that a racist joke carries in South Carolina is wholly absent here, which is why you'll hear jokes about race in Venezuela told in racially mixed groups, and as often as not by darker skinned people. Plus, remember, any time you gather more than 3 or 4 Venezuelans together, chances are that you'll have a "racially mixed group"'s just a fact of demography.

Venezuela's is very far from an apartheid society: there are any number of dark-skinned people who've made it, and (especially these days) any number of very poor light-skinned people. Does someone in a barrio have it easier if he's light skinned? Does someone in a board room have it harder if he's dark skinned? I really don't think so, in either case.

The point is that race and skin color don't have the same social meaning everywhere. That's the thing that's so frustrating about trying to talk to first world lefties who've been told that the political crisis in Venezuela is basically about race. They import the little mental schema they've developed to think about race in their own societies, and they transfer them willy-nilly onto a totally different context, onto a society where the same biological fact - skin color - has a vastly different and far less salient social and political significance.

It is, in the end, just another instance of U.S. cultural imperialism, of the laziness that comes with being the biggest and the most powerful. Americans don't think they have to go through the trouble of actually learning about the social dynamics of other societies because they're actually so self-obsessed, so enamored of their own navels, that they can't really conceive that other societies work differently from their own.

The left in the U.S. imagines that this is purely a problem of the right. But as Danny Glover's visit makes clear, good chunks of the US left also resist the effort of the imagination it takes to conceive of a society that's really, deeply unlike yours, a society that cannot be understood using the intellectual categories you've developed to understand your own society. This is hard work, it's not easy or comfortable or reassuring. But if the endless paeans to the wonders of diversity, tolerance and cross-cultural understanding are to be anything beyond cliches, the U.S. left ought to take a long, hard look at its own myopia, its own difficulties with understanding political dynamics that are genuinely different from what its used to.

And proving that old editors never die...
...they just start doing it over email, my ex-boss Toby Bottome writes in:

A nit: it's not 80% as you say.

The Fundacredesa study determined 97% of all Venezuelans (defiend as born here of a venezuelan-born mother) carried all three genetic markers in their blood - white, black and indigena..

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