Saturday, August 06, 2005

Venezuelan Election FAQ 

Q: What are the elections scheduled for this Sunday, August 7th?

The elections this Sunday will be for a variety of local offices, in particular town and city councils. For the most part these will NOT be elections for mayors or other higher-level positions. The only exceptions to this are a few smaller cities such as Miranda in the state of Carabobo and the special election for the governorship of the state of Amazonas. All told almost 38,575 candidates are vying for 5,399 different positions. Unlike some countries where there are only a handful of parties these candidates belong to 906 different political parties!

Q: How is the voting carried out?

Most voting is by computers with touch screens that have been specially designed for elections. They are the same machines used during last years presidential recall referendum. While the votes are recorded electronically they also give a paper printout of each vote which the voter then deposits in a box. At the end of the voting some of the machine totals are audited by comparing the automated totals to the papers in the box. In this election at least one machine at each voting center will be audited and it will be selected randomly by the election workers and party representatives at that site. Out of 25,694 voting centers only in 3,442 will people not use machines and vote manually.

Q: Will there be a high level of abstention and if so does that undermine their legitimacy?

For this type of local election with no major offices contested there has typically been a high level of abstention. There also may be some electoral fatigue given that Venezuela has had a large number of elections, approximately one every six months. Just last August there was a recall referendum on Chavez, and in the fall there were elections for governors and mayors. Later this year there will be elections for the National Assembly.

Also, some segments of the opposition, complaining that the vote is not fair or transparent, have called on people not to vote. The government and some other opposition parties by contrast have urged people to vote. So what the level of abstention turns out to be is one of the big points of interest in this election with a higher level of participation seen as favoring the Chavez administration and his political parties.

As a point of reference, in the last local elections in 2002 the level of abstention was 76.2%.

Q: Is the opposition boycotting the elections?

Partly yes and partly no. All the main opposition political parties, such as Primero Justicia, A.D., and COPEI are participating. The reason being that they currently occupy many of the offices up for election and don’t simply want to give them away by boycotting the vote. After all, given that this vote is locality by locality the opposition will be able to win a significant amount of positions in localities where most people support the opposition such as the wealthy areas of eastern Caracas. There have been some opposition members, mainly very small fringe parties that have few if any elected representatives, that have called for a boycott and they led a march of a couple thousand people last week. But as the small size of the march indicated there are few who back the boycott option.

Q: Is the Venezuelan electoral authority, the CNE, not legitimate?

This is an interesting question. Lately, some in the opposition have been questioning the legitimacy the five member board that runs the CNE because of the way that it was named. By law, the CNE is to be appointed by a two thirds vote of the National Assembly (AN). However, in 2003 when a new CNE board needed to be appointed this proved not to be possible. The reason being that the AN was very deeply divided between pro and anti Chavez forces. Because neither side in the AN has a two thirds majority and because they couldn’t agree on who the five board members should be it proved impossible for the board to be appointed by the AN. And without this CNE board there could be no elections. To get around this the Venezuelan Supreme Court went ahead and named the board members themselves.

This is problematic in that this is not how the CNE was to be named. However, no one complained, least of all the opposition, when it was done. The opposition was desperate to try to hold a recall referendum to oust Chavez and therefore wanted a CNE to be put in place regardless of how it was named. So the opposition was actually quite content for the CNE to be named that way. It allowed them to have the elections which they desired – which they went on to lose. Now that they know they have very little chance of winning any elections and they are simply trying in any way possible to discredit them they bring up this issue of how the CNE was named. But if they wanted to be credible on this issue they needed to have raised it when it first happened, not now.

Q: Is there a problem with the electoral registry – the opposition has alleged that they have not seen it and there are many voters incorrectly registered?

No, there is not any significant problem with the electoral registry. A significant number of false allegations have been made by the opposition, and in particular their shadow electoral authority, SUMATE (who is funded in part by the U.S. government) regarding the electoral authority. The electoral registry (REP by its Spanish initials) is the list of all people in Venezuela who are registered and eligible to vote.

Currently there are 14,363,690 registered voters. The opposition has been insistent that there be an audit of the list to verify its accuracy and make sure people who should not be on the list (people who are deceased, criminals, minors, etc.) are not on it. Also, they want to verify that people are registered in the correct locality. Contrary to what has been said by SUMATE and some opposition web sites the REP has been audited. The audit was being carried out by CAPEL which is the electoral observation branch of the Inter American Human Rights Commission based in Costa Rica. At the current time the outcome of their audit isn’t known.

However, at the time of the Presidential Recall Referendum in August 2005 SUMATE was given the complete REP which they thoroughly audited. They found 115,025 errors with people’s registrations (ie, people who shouldn’t have been registered or who had incorrect information such as wrong ID numbers) and 58,281 who had incorrect addresses. These errors constituted and error rate of about 1% given a total REP at that time of 14,245,615. For a database of this type that is a very low error rate. Given that there has been very little change in the size of the REP between then and now it can be reasonably concluded that the REP is fine and contains no significant errors. So this issue is a red herring based on factually incorrect information.

Q: Is the vote not secret?

Another accusation made by SUMATE is that by being automated the vote is not necessarily secret. Given that the votes are stored in a computer’s memory the government could in theory keep track of the order in which people vote and then compare that to the order in which votes are recorded in the computers memory to determine how individual people voted. In theory this could happen. But this is true not just for the vote in Venezuela but in pretty much any place where automated voting machines are used. The only sure way to avoid this is for all voting to be done with paper ballots that are randomly dropped in boxes and consist of paper that isn’t pre-marked. Almost no-one in the world votes this way if for no other reason than most people don’t want to wait days to find out who won.

Q: Has Chavez’s supporters broken the law by setting up a new political party?

A controversy has arisen regarding a new pro-Chavez party, the UVE. This party was recently set up and registered. The opposition claims it is a dummy party set up only to help more pro-Chavez candidates win than would otherwise possible. The reason has to do with how many election results are calculated in Venezuela. In some countries all candidates are directly elected from certain geographic areas. The U.S. and Britain use this system. In other countries office holders are voted in by list where each party gets a number of seats that is in proportion to its percentage of the overall vote. Israel and Italy use those types of systems. Venezuela combines both of those systems. In Venezuela some seats are decided by direct votes for particular candidates and others (for the same office) are decided by lists based on a political parties overall percentage of the vote. The rub is that to make sure minority parties are represented proportionally the number of seats of seats won by a party directly is subtracted from the number of seats that party is entitled to by the list voting. This is to ensure that the number of seats a party wins remains proportional to the percentage of the vote it gets.

One way of getting around this that has sometimes been used is to create a new political party that is nominally independent but really affiliated with a bigger established party. The bigger established party can then tell people to vote for its candidates directly but to vote for the new dummy party on the list part of the vote. Because they are technically separate parties the candidates that are directly elected wont be subtracted from the number elected by the list and these two parties, which are really one party, will be over represented.

The opposition is claiming that Chavez’s political party, the MVR, is doing just that by having set up a new dummy party for this election called the UVE. However, the MVR and UVE both deny that the UVE is a dummy party and insist it is a new and independent political party. The Venezuelan electoral authorities have ruled in favor of the UVE and are allowing it to stand in these elections.

Of all the opposition complaints this is probably the one that does have some merit. The UVE is indeed very new, was technically too late to register for these elections, and doesn’t have much in the way militants or anything that would indicate that it is truly independent. However, in defense of the electoral authorities they generally bend rules in favor of maximizing participation in the electoral process rather than using technicalities to exclude people. For example, the Venezuelan Constitution, in Article 67, mandates that the candidates of all political parties be chosen through internal elections (primaries). However, the only political party competing in these elections which held primaries is Chavez’s party, the MVR. All the opposition parties had their candidates chosen by the political bosses – they didn’t hold any primaries. So from a strictly legal point of view all the opposition candidates from Primero Justicia, A.D., etc. should not be allowed to participate in these elections. But again, the Venezuelan authorities bend over backwards to allow people to participate and it can well be argued that is what they have done in the case of the UVE.

Q: Are foreign observers coming and if not does that mean they disapprove of the way the elections are being held?

There are foreign “observers” coming to monitor the elections. For example, both the Organization of American States and CAPEL have delegations in Venezuela that will be observing the electoral process. However, they will not be observing the elections in the common sense of the word where they will be viewing all the steps, auditing the results, and ultimately verifying the accuracy of the official results. In elections of this nature it is not possible for observers to do that. The reason is quite straightforward.

Rather than having just one vote to be monitored as in a presidential election or dozens of elections as in a congressional election there are literally thousands of different contests in these local elections. So the observers would have to have the staff to monitor each and every one of these thousands of elections. For that you would need tens of thousands of observers which is beyond the means of any of the international election observing agencies. For that reason the Carter Center and the European Union do not send observers for local elections and declined to observe these elections despite being invited by the Venezuelan government. In part to offset any decline in confidence due to the vote not having an outside audit the electoral authorities have announced that the onsite electoral workers and political party representatives will do a complete audit of at least one machine per voting center by matching its results to the paper ballots.

Q: Do the pro-Chavez candidates have an unfair advantage and are state resources being used to favor them?

This is an interesting question the formulation of which shows a certain bias. The opposition has maintained for quite some time that the Chavez administration has been using state resources to win political support. For example, one will often hear statements such as Chavez’s social programs are an attempt to “buy” votes. Certainly, one can look at a government implementing popular programs as an attempt to gain political influence.

However, from most people’s point of view that is precisely how government and politics is supposed to work. People elect governments that they expect will best provide services and improve their quality of life. Governments try to implement programs that do just those things. In turn, political leaders hope that the electorate will appreciate those efforts and will reward them at the ballot box for implementing successful program. Viewed this way Chavez’s social programs and other policies are a successful effort to do the greatest good for the greatest number of Venezuelans. That they in turn create political benefits for the Chavez government and influence people to vote for him is simply the way politics is supposed to work in a democracy.

Of course, the incumbent government does have an advantage over its opponents in that by being in power it is in a position to implement popular programs. But that is completely normal and is referred to as the “power of incumbency”.

Q: Who is going to win?

I’m a blog writer, not a fortune teller. But all polls in Venezuela have been showing for some time now that Chavez and the MVR are far more popular than any of their opponents. It is therefore widely expected pro-Chavez candidates will win most of these elections.


Not quite what they planned. 

The other day I admonished a think tank analyst for jeopardizing his job by stating the very politically incorrect fact that the invasion of Iraq was largely driven by a desire to gain control of Iraq’s oil and use it to undermine OPEC. However, it appears that this fact is becoming less politically incorrect. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it has so obviously failed it no longer is that damming to admit it. In any event, here is what was said on the subject in today’s New York Times in an article on Saudi oil production:

Then came the Iraq war. Among the fringe benefits of removing Saddam Hussein from power, went the thinking in the United States at the time, would be a rapid recovery of that country's oil production. In some hawkish circles in Washington, it was thought that a free Iraq would eventually undercut OPEC's power and marginalize Saudi Arabia.

The day American troops entered Baghdad, Mr. Cheney told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that Iraq would be able to produce as much as three million barrels a day, "hopefully, by the end of the year."

Still more optimistic forecasts predicted that Iraqi production would climb to six million barrels a day within five years, and provided more fodder to the theory that American troops went into Iraq to break OPEC's back, weaken the Saud dynasty and reduce the kingdom's oil-based influence.

Of course, these predictions turned out to be wrong. Iraq's production is struggling at two million barrels a day because of the relentless targeting of pipelines and infrastructure by the insurgency. Exports lag prewar levels and today few, even among Washington's most radical neoconservatives, expect that a restoration of Iraq's oil sector will quickly chip away at Saudi Arabia's clout.

Indeed if the U.S. had been successful in getting Iraqi oil production up to undercut OPEC and bring down oil prices the world sure would look a different. Take Venezuela for example. Some have accused the Bush administration of ignoring Venezuela and not having a plan for “dealing with” Chavez. Nothing could be further from the truth. The plan to use Iraqi oil to undermine world oil prices was partially aimed at Chavez as his government is heavily dependent on oil for its revenue. Cut the price of oil and Chavez would be cut down to size, so the thinking goes. And there probably is much truth to this. If oil had been selling at $15 per barrel the past two years Chavez would indeed be in a much weaker position. It is quite possible he would not have been able to get the country back on its feet after the opposition “strike” of 02/03 and would have lost the recall referendum. There certainly would not be the resources to run the social programs that have boosted the standard of living of the poor so central to Chavez’s government.

Realistically, if the U.S. had gotten Iraqi production up to 4 or 5 million barrels a day by now Chavez would not be in power and no one would be criticizing Bush for ignoring Latin America. But unfortunately for Bush’s plans the Iraqi’s had no intention of just rolling over and allowing the U.S. to take their oil. Rather than play dead as some had hoped they would they have fought tenaciously against heavy odds. Once again it is demonstrated, even the best laid plans can go awry.


Friday, August 05, 2005

How's this for the pot calling the kettle black 

U.S. Senator John McCain is slamming the Venezuelan government for not wanting to allow outside funding for political campaigns:

Leading U.S. senator John McCain has written to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez asking him to stop the prosecution of four opposition election rights campaigners who face trial for receiving U.S. funds.

A Venezuelan judge this month ordered four members of the Sumate group tried for conspiracy after they helped organize a referendum against Chavez last year and received funds from the U.S. Congress-financed National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

In the letter addressed to Chavez, McCain joined former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and NED board chairman Vin Weber to describe the criminal prosecution as a "grave threat to democracy" in Venezuela.

"We are deeply concerned by this effort to persecute citizens for exercising their constitutional rights by making it a crime to receive NED funding," stated the letter, which the NED said was handed into Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas on Wednesday.

"To criminalize the receipt of such assistance, as the case of Sumate does... constitutes a grave threat to democracy in Venezuela," said the letter, a copy of which was provided by NED.

So John McCain, who has made campaign finance reform the central theme of his efforts in the U.S. Senate thinks the Venezuelan opposition has a constitutional right to get funding from the U.S. Hmmm. Does he think Al Gore and Bill Clinton had a Constitutional right to get funding from the Chinese? And I wonder what he'd think if Ralph Nader were to have his next presidential bid funded by, say, the Russians? Ironic that he would use this phrasing as the opponents of spending limits in U.S. elections have always argued it is un-constitutional as it limits freedom of speech. So McCain now agrees with them?

Or maybe his interest in fair elections free of domination by outside special interests stops at the Rio Grande


Thursday, August 04, 2005

Is there a Plan C? 

It is no secret that the U.S. has wanted OPEC dead for some time. They had hoped that Venezuela would help kill it off by maximizing production, busting quotas, and bringing down oil prices. That actually worked for a while as successive Venezuelan governments were willing maximize production and did indeed pursue and anti-OPEC agenda. Unfortunately for them, these policies (along with other things like mis-management and corruption) wrecked the Venezuelan economy and helped bring the very pro-OPEC Chavez to power. With Chavez in power Venezuela could no longer be counted on to undermine OPEC and in fact it became one of OPEC proponents.

So what to do? Well, there was one country in the Middle East that was sitting and some of the world’s largest oil reserves but wasn’t producing very much due to the United States not liking its government and imposing sanctions. If the U.S. could overthrow that government and get control of all that oil then maybe they would have an effective Plan B for cutting OPEC down to size. Now of course, the U.S. government publically denies that getting access to oil had anything to do with it invading Iraq and it certainly doesn’t want to admit the war isn’t going well. But unfortunately for them one of their think tank gurus let the cat out of the bag:

"One of the assumptions, and they were obviously wrong, was that a liberated or democratic Iraq ... could break the back of OPEC," and supply additional oil on world markets, says Frank Verrastro, who specializes in energy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

I think we can rest assured that bit of candor wasn’t appreciated in the West Wing of the White House. Some of these think tank analysts had better be more careful in what they say or they may find themselves looking for real jobs soon.

In any event Plan A of having Venezuela solve their OPEC problem seems to be going down the drain as Chavez’s poll numbers go higher and higher. And Plan B in Iraq seems to not be doing much better. I wonder what their plan C is? I assume they do have a Plan C. After all, the natives might not be willing put up with gas at $2.50 forever.


Workers at the table 

I don't generally post full articles without commentary but for this one from yesterdays New York Times I'll make an exception. It gives a good overview of the attempt to introduce worker co-management in Venezuela:

Making a Place for Blue Collars in the Boardroom

PUERTO ORDAZ, Venezuela - For 20 years, Pedro Gómez felt like he was just part of the machinery at his job at Aluminio del Caroní, a state-owned aluminum company in an industrial zone where the Caroní and Orinoco Rivers converge in southeastern Venezuela.

Mr. Gómez, 51, a casting table operator who shovels molten aluminum down a channel from an industrial oven into a cast that makes 12-foot billets, says management never listened to his complaints about corrupt contractors or bad equipment.

But things have changed. Management is now heeding his request for a new casting table, he said, and will even allow him to help determine the company's 2006 budget. This April, he was permitted to vote along with the company's other 2,700 workers to elect some of Alcasa's 19 managers and 2 of its 5 corporate directors. Most of the candidates were drawn from the rank and file.

"The managers and the workers are running this business together," Mr. Gómez said above the din of rumbling forklifts and humming industrial fans, sweat dripping down his face from the heat of the casting house. "It gives us new motivation to work hard."

While worker-managed businesses have been the dream of the world's socialists, in Venezuela they may become a reality. Using tottering companies as the entry point, Venezuela is offering financial incentives in exchange for carrying out "co-management," in which workers are decision makers, in some cases even owners, of businesses across the country. The plan essentially casts the state in the role of rescuer. Four state-owned companies - another aluminum plant besides Alcasa, a coal plant and a power plant - have begun the programs. But incentives like cheap credit and debt write-downs from the government have also enticed more than 100 private, small and medium-size companies to adopt worker management models. Twenty-three of those have agreed to hand over between 10 percent and 49 percent of their shares to employees.

Driving the campaign is President Hugo Chávez, who has promised to reverse the historical dominance of Venezuela's $64 billion oil industry over the economy by revitalizing sectors like textiles and paper, reducing reliance on imports and creating jobs at the same time - a task he says he believes is best left to workers.

The worker management campaign comes as Mr. Chávez has embraced socialism in a political project that promises to roll back the free-market policies begun in Latin America throughout the 1990's.

"This is a new organizational culture," says Alcasa's president, Carlos Lanz, 62, a Marxist former guerrilla with no background in aluminum who most recently developed educational programs in rural Venezuela. "The workers are operating as a collective rather than receiving orders from a group of experts."

Despite the enthusiasm of Alcasa's workers, the company's balance sheet leaves little room for optimism. Alcasa has lost money for years, posting $90 million in red ink in 2004, and this year's budget indicates the company could lose as much as $59 million as outdated technology and foreign competition continue to take a toll. A planned $650 million investment by the Swiss commodities trading company Glencore, aimed at doubling Alcasa's output, was suspended. Instead, the company announced last month the government would provide financing.

Critics say state involvement in co-managed businesses will likely create uncompetitive enterprises, much like the sluggish state-owned companies that survived throughout the 1970's and 1980's on government subsidies.

It is also unlikely to bring about the diversification from oil President Chávez is seeking.

"Since the discovery of oil in Venezuela, businesses have lived from the transfer of oil revenue, but have never produced sustainable economic activity that didn't depend on oil," said Orlando Ochoa, an opposition sympathizer and economist who is a professor at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. "Chávez is now insisting that co-management can resolve this problem, which is simply naïve."

Indeed, one business from which worker management is notably absent is Venezuela's most profitable company, Petróleos de Venezuela, the state oil giant known as Pdvsa (pronounced pey-dey-VEY-sah), which is still run by corporate executives who removed the two union representatives from the company's board this year. Nonetheless, Pdvsa's character has changed. After a strike in 2002 aimed at ousting President Chávez from power, the company fired almost 20,000 mostly midlevel finance and planning employees and hired more than 15,000 field workers, adding a greater rank-and-file presence. Since the program began this year, the government has spent at least $25 million to revive bankrupt and failing private enterprises. President Chávez has said he would expropriate as many as 700 bankrupt companies and others that are working below capacity.

For instance, the government is preparing to inject around $8 million into Hilandería del Tinaquillo, a textile mill that wove cotton into yarn and cloth until it shut its doors in 1992, felled by cheaper imports. Joseph Mishkin, the Venezuelan owner of the textile plant, is negotiating a joint venture with the government.

"I've been looking for a way to revive that plant for 10 years," said Mr. Mishkin, "and I'm willing to work with anyone that can help make that happen."

But the plan has its critics. One of the most vocal is Teodoro Petkoff, a former planning minister and guerrilla who fought alongside Mr. Lanz, but has criticized many of Mr. Chávez's economic goals as unrealistic.

"Co-management is a potentially fertile idea," Mr. Petkoff wrote in Tal Cual, the newspaper he edits. "But if it is applied in the Tinaquillo style or with the utopian delirium of Alcasa, the result will be a terrible fiasco."

Here at Alcasa, in the industrial city of Puerto Ordaz in Venezuela's sweltering southeastern savannah, Mr. Lanz speaks more comfortably about Latin American currents of Marxism than about aluminum production. Mr. Lanz served seven years in jail for the 1976 abduction of the American glass industry executive, William F. Niehaus, who was held for three and a half years. After weeks of accusations by Mr. Chávez in February that the Bush administration was preparing to invade Venezuela, Mr. Lanz invited military reserves to the factory to prepare workers for an American invasion.

But workers also point to changes in the workplace that they say will make the company run smoother. "I worked here for 15 years and never knew anything about how much the company was producing or what we were spending our money on," said Johnny Viera, 35, a maintenance worker in Alcasa's stamping plant. Mr. Viera and his 300 co-workers participate in roundtables that make recommendations to management, a process that recently allowed him to quickly purchase $5,000 worth of tools.

It is too soon to say what the outcome of the worker management program will be, but workers seem optimistic.

"This is the workers' opportunity to improve this company's performance," said Estalin Orta, 42, a recently elected manager of Alcasa's casting plant, chatting in an air-conditioned office above the din of the manufacturing operations below. "And we've started at a company that has had serious financial problems - so no one can say we took the easy road."


Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Pre-emptive excuse making 

Just as the Iraqi insurgency is viewed as a learning and adapting entity so too is the Venezuelan opposition. It used to be that they waited for all their plans to go awry and then come up with excuses (and finger pointing) to explain it all away. But now they’ve gotten smarter. They’ve learned not to wait until the train wreck occurs to start putting out the excuses. Now, as soon as they see the train wreck coming, they try to pre-empt it with ready-made excuses. I have to say, this does show progress on their part.

Here are a couple clear examples of pre-emptive excuse making from the opposition loony blogs. First we have this gem in which one blogger goes on about secret meetings where the evil Chavistas are conspiring to rig the local elections coming up on Sunday. So according to this blogger the elections are meaningless as they will be completely fraudulent. Now, aside from the question of whether “dog catcher” elections are important enough to need rigging I have one question. Why would the Chavistas need to rig the elections when every single poll in the country (by opposition polling firms no less) shows them with a huge advantage over their opponents? For example, just today Ultimas Noticias had a poll by Seijas in which 53.2% of likely voters plan on voting for pro-Chavez candidates and only 14.8% voting for opposition candidates (32% were undecided or didn’t answer). I can understand the temptation to rig the vote if you thought you were going to lose or even if the vote looked to be close. But when you are likely to win by a landslide? The inventor of this excuse seems not to have thought of that.

Then we have another blogger who takes a more nuanced, and at the same time more hypocritical, position. This person goes on and on about whether he, as an opposition supporter, should vote in the election. The final conclusion is that he should, if for no other reason than to complain that his vote was stolen in case his side loses. So if the opposition does better than expected we can be sure he will be giving us a detailed analysis of how Chavismo is really weaker than everyone thinks, it is in a steady state of decline, and the whole house of cards is about to collapse. And if the opposition does worse than expected? Well, in that case obviously the whole election was fraudulent. Pretty nifty. Its just like the old “heads I win, tails you lose” scam I had played on me when I was a little kid. Now, I don’t know that this will work on adults but…. I’d give ‘em a passing grade – for effort if not for results.


The Meatgrinder keeps grinding away 

Another 15 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq today. Fourteen of them when their armored vehicle was completely destroyed by an insurgent IED. Those “Improvised Explosive Devices” don’t seem so improvised any more. This gives something like 39 U.S. troops killed in Iraq in the past 9 days.

Of course, Americans won’t see much of this bloodshed. The U.S. government, if it learned nothing else in Vietnam, learned to not let the media show the true nature of the war. That would be the quickest route to losing public support for the war.

On a similar note, the U.S. political leadership also doesn’t tell the public much of anything about the true nature of the conflict and how the war is going. The U.S. public generally just gets rosy predictions from Bush or Cheney about the insurgents being on their last legs and on the verge of complete defeat. But when the political/military elite is just speaking amongst themselves about how the war is really going it is interesting to see what they say. According to a leading ChickenHawk site (The Belmont Club) two former defense officials, Francis West and Jeffrey White, spoke on Iraq at the Washington Institute. Here is some of what they had to say:

West: 'When U.S. forces invaded, they avoided Sunni areas and thus never actually eliminated the Sunni Arab threat. ... The insurgents show no signs of weakening; in fact, they have begun to adopt tactics that are difficult for coalition forces to counter. These fighters learned their lesson in Falluja; they now favor bombs over direct attacks on coalition troops. They have also mastered the art of wrapping their efforts in religion. Accordingly, anti-sedition laws should be passed so that those who incite violence in mosques and schools can be held accountable. ... Regarding Syria, the country is essentially a safe haven for insurgents. The coalition should not allow this. Despite the many obstacles, victory is achievable. When will the coalition know it has won? The day an Iraqi soldier can sit on a bus in uniform and not worry about being a target.'

White: 'The United States has forced Sunni Arabs to make serious decisions about their future. Many of them now appear to be cooperating with the new Iraqi government and participating in the political process. ... The insurgency is growing in intensity and can be expected to continue at its current level for at least six to twelve months. It has endured despite coalition offensives designed explicitly to eliminate it. ... For example, it has reemerged in Falluja despite two major offensives that ostensibly eliminated the insurgent presence there. Even more disturbing, the insurgency enjoys popular support in Iraq. ...

So, contrary to what the American public is told the real deal is the insurgency show no signs of weakening, it is even growing in intensity, and it enjoys popular support. And to top it all off, Syria will have to be dealt with – which means you know what.

So the U.S. is back to just how things were under L.B.J. Then the President repeatedly assured the country everything was fine while in reality they already knew the war was un-winable as expressed in the Pentagon Papers. And now we see the same double talk – optimism for the public and pessimism behind closed doors. Of course, this double talk can only go on so long. Reality DOES have a way of asserting itself after a while.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The buck stops... not with the opposition 

Sunday, Chavez did yet again something virtually no-one else in a leadership position in Venezuela ever does – he took responsibility for some things not going well. For the past couple of years the government has not met its targets for the number of houses it wishes to build for the poor. So this year Chavez set a very high target, 120,000 houses, and has been constantly pushing his government to meet that target. Yet they are still coming up short. Seven months into the year they have only built 43,000.

So on this past Sunday’s “Alo Presidente” Chavez stepped up to the plate . Not only did he admit this performance was unacceptable, saying “This will not do, with all due respect, this is not the way. …but at this speed we will not even reach the corner” but he took responsibility for himself saying: “I am supremely disappointed with myself and my government on this subject and the first responsibility is mine.” In no small part it is this candor and his willingness to stand up and take responsibility that endears him to Venezuelan’s for they are accustomed to leaders always pointing fingers at others.

In fact, just by way of contrast lets look at how those in the opposition have done when it comes to taking responsibility. To start we could look at the “Fourth Republic”, those governments from before Chavez’s election to office, and see what they did. But of course, the opposition, even though it is chock full of people from that era, Teodoro Petkoff, Antonio Ledezma, Marta Colomina, Gustavo Cisneros, and Carlos Andres Perez, refuses to acknowledge that what happened in the 40 years had anything to do with them. Why should we be surprised? After all, even when they were in power during those forty years they didn’t take responsibility for anything. For example, when Carlos Andres Perez in 1989 had the army go into the streets and gun down hundreds or even thousands of people did he take responsibility for that? Of course not – he wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal blaming it all on the I.M.F.

So given that the opposition won’t take any responsibility for the 40 years they were in power maybe we can look at their track record as an opposition and see at how they do in taking responsibility for their actions then. To do this I will look at their three biggest failures: the coup of April 11, 2002, the strike/lockout of 02/03, and the Recall Referendum of 2004.

First, we have the coup of April 11, 2002 where the opposition briefly toppled Chavez and upon coming to power dissolved the congress, all public powers, arrested others elected officials such as mayors and governors, and overturned the Constitution. Think they’re repentant about it? Think again. In fact, not only are they not repentant about it many of them argue it never happened. In their book it wasn’t a coup but a “power vacuum”. And as far as the overturning of the laws goes it was all the work of than one little man , Pedro Carmona. Surely, the opposition can’t be blamed for what that man did – to listen to them talk you would think they never heard of the guy before April 11th. But at least they must regret having gone on an illegal march to the presidential palace, Miraflores, in an attempt to “get the tyrant out”, right? Not on your life. I challenge and opposition supporters reading this to show a link to where a member of the opposition acknowledges that was wrong. Well, no standing up and taking responsibility by the opposition here. But they still have two more chances.

Next we have the strike/lockout of 02/03. As was mentioned before this attempt to overthrow Chavez by shutting down the oil industry cost the Venezuelan state oil company $13 billion and the country as a whole untold billions more. Given the horrific damage inflicted on the country, if any action cries out for a public admission of responsibility and an apology this one does. All the more so given that, unlike the coup, the opposition as a whole supported and participated in the strike – there’s no blaming this on one person like they do with the coup.

Well, actually, I gave the opposition too much credit. They actually do blame it on one person. And take a stab at that who that one person is that they blame it on. Yup, you got it – according to the opposition the whole debacle was brought about by Hugo Chavez. He provoked and brought about the whole thing. Its not the fault of the thousands of workers of PDVSA who went on strike; its not the fault of Carlos Ortega or Carlos Fernandez who were on TV every night telling everyone Chavez will leave any minute now, its not the fault of the TV stations who broadcast endless pro-strike rantings. “He made us do it” is all they can say. I think I was about 8 years old the last time I tried using that excuse. But the opposition is so infantile they can do no better. And in a further twist of hyper-infantilism they assert that all the damage that was done occurred only because Chavez was too “stubborn” to resign as any “rational” president would have done!! These people have never taken responsibility for anything in their whole lives so I guess why should they start now. Anyways, they have one more chance to step up to the plate.

On August 15, 2004 the opposition finally got what it had long sought, the chance to vote out Chavez in a Presidential Recall Referendum as allowed for in the Venezuelan Constitution. Millions of Venezuelans stood on interminable lines to vote. And when it was done the opposition had been thoroughly whipped – 58% to 42%. The opposition was apoplectic. It just couldn’t believe it. Actually, it should have. The pre-election polls showed it was going to lose. It ran an anemic campaign. It had no alternative program to inspire Venezuelan’s to vote for it. And even its trump card of trashing the economy in the 02/03 strike and then blaming it on Chavez didn’t work as by August 2004 the economy was rapidly recovering and it became apparent to most Venezuelan’s who was really to blame for the prior years economic difficulties.

Surely, this time, after having gotten what it had pined for so long the opposition would have to acknowledge that it screwed up and accept responsibility. But again, not a chance. Moreover, they once again sought to pin the blame for this enormous debacle on one man – Jimmy Carter. If only Jimmy Carter and his observers hadn’t been there and monitored and audited the results the opposition would have been able to successfully cry fraud and gets itself off the hook for yet another humiliating loss. Every time the opposition came up with a bizarre new theory, from computers having limits on how many “SI” votes they would accept to convoluted statistical theories that turned out to be complete fabrications, about how the vote was “stolen” Carter shot it down. Well actually, he didn’t do it all by himself. The opposition doesn’t mention this very often but the vote was also monitored by the O.A.S. – and they came to the exact same conclusion that the vote was clean. Further, all sorts of analysis of the vote was performed by various academic experts throughout the U.S. and they didn’t find any evidence of fraud either. So it seems it wasn’t Jimmy Carters fault after all. But expecting the opposition to acknowledge this and take the New York Times advice to quit pretending they speak for most Venezuelan’s when they clearly don’t is more than can be asked of the them.

So here we have three clear examples of the opposition being unable to take responsibility for any of its mistakes and any of the damage they have inflicted upon their own country. Yet again we see they have none of the intellectual honesty, integrity, and stature of Hugo Chavez. They are simply political and emotional midgets who can’t even tie Chavez’s shoelaces nor for that matter do what any 12 year old should be able to do - admit to their own mistakes. Fortunately, the great majority of Venezuelan’s see them for what they are and they, along with their ability to do more harm, are quickly fading.

UPDATE: I thought this was pretty funny. Either Petkoff needs to read this blog - or he already does and that was his rather lame response.


TeleSur being blocked? 

News comes today from Colombia that the signal for the newly launched, continent wide, television network, TeleSur has been taken off the air for most Colombians. The Colombian government has apparently decided deny access to a sattelite for a channel that was going to re-broadcast inside Colombia TeleSur's programming.

So already TeleSur has its first confrontation. Fine with me. The more they try to block it the more people will want to see it. So go ahead Uribe, keep doing this. TeleSur could never get this kind of advertising on its own.


Monday, August 01, 2005

O'Grady does Venezuela - III 

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, the Wall Street Journal’s resident anti-Chavez hack was back at work this past week. She hadn’t actually written about Venezuela in a while. Maybe that means she was actually boning up on the subject and would be more on the money with observations this time around. Lets see:

Venezuela: A Young Mayor Dares To Defy the Chavistas

By Mary Anastasia O'Grady July 29, 2005

The name Henri Charriero was recently discovered on the voting rolls in the Caracas municipality of Chacao. What a find! The supposed escape of Charriero (formerly Charriere) from French Devil's Island prison to Venezuela was liberally fictionalized in the 1973 Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman movie "Papillon." But it's unlikely that Papillon is eligible to vote in Caracas today. He has been dead for more than 30 years.

The discovery of a long-dead ex-convict on the voter list underscores the doubts among democracy advocates that Venezuela's Aug. 7 municipal council elections will be honest. "Why is there such a big fear of undertaking an audit of the electoral register," asked Alejandro Plaz, the head of Súmate, Venezuela's largest nongovernmental election watchdog organization. Because it would expose fraud, is the implied answer.

Unfortunately we are not getting off to an auspicious start. “Why is there such a big fear of undertaking an audit of the electoral register?” That’s easy to answer. There isn’t. In fact, as has been previously reported on this blog the Venezuelan electoral registry IS being audited by international observers. Could Ms. O’Grady really not know that? Well, that is what happens when you depend on thoroughly dishonest organizations like Sumate as your source of information. Oh, and although they probably didn’t mention this to Ms. O’Grady, Sumate performed a full audit on the electoral registry before the Presidential referendum last year and found an error rate of less than one percent. So if Ms. O’Grady wants to find fraud somewhere she needs to look elsewhere (hint: check out Sumate’s very fishy exit polls).

Defenders of President Hugo Chávez, however, also use the Papillon find to make a point: This government didn't invent corruption or bureaucratic inefficiency. Both have been around for decades. The pro-Chavez crowd -- which includes not a few U.S. politicians and bureaucrats -- argues that today's abuses merely even the score for the underclass.

That's a bad alibi. In 1998 the Venezuelan electoral system worked well enough to allow voters to turn out corrupt career politicians and bring in the maverick Chávez. Now Chávez is not only governing badly but he is also closing the door on all electoral challenges to his power.

She gets one thing right here – if the Chavez government sometimes suffers from inefficiency, which it certainly does, how would you characterize the previous governments? After all, while the Chavez government has carried Papillon on their roles for six years the previous governments carried him for 25 years after he died without doing anything about it!

But then she goes on to say he is closing doors on all electoral challenges to his power. I have to say, I can’t imagine what she is talking about. For example, last August Chavez stood in a recall referendum which if he had lost he would have been obliged to leave office. Does the U.S. electorate even have the option of organizing a recall referendum against Bush if they so desire?

Further, the entire Venezuelan National Assembly is up for re-election this December and in 2006 Chavez himself has to stand for re-election. That will be the fourth time in 8 years that Venezuelan’s will have been able to vote on Chavez. O’Grady thinks there should be even more elections than that?

And as to Chavez governing badly – I could give lots of statistics to rebut that nonsense. But I will just give one. And that is that if after six years in office a president enjoys from 60% to 80% approval ratings they must be doing something right.

Despite the Chávez machinations, there is still enough of a sliver of democracy left to allow dissidents to challenge Chávez's ambitions to become the Venezuelan Fidel Castro. These newcomers know they have little chance of gaining power as long as Chávez can rig electronic voting as he did in the 2004 plebiscite that sought to remove him from office. Yet they may be able to build an effective opposition if they show they have something to offer.

Here Ms. O’Grady becomes completely unhinged. The 2004 Referendum was rigged? Sure could have fooled the Carter Center who closely monitored it and audited the results before pronouncing it clean. Could have fooled the O.A.S. who also monitored and audited the vote and, guess what, also found it to be clean. Or if in doubt she could have just asked any of the academics from Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Berkley, and Stanford who poured of the results and found them to not give any indication of fraud. Or she could just note that many people in Venezuela voted by paper ballot, not by computer, and they voted for Chavez in even higher numbers than those who voted by computer. Or she could just note that pre-election polls very closely matched the actual vote tally. Lastly, she could have seen that exit polls conducted on the day of the vote also showed Chavez winning with one notable exception – the exit poll carried out by Sumate. So here is a double hint Ms. O’Grady. If you’re interested in exposing fraud take a good look at Sumate.

Venezuela's pre-Chávez political elite was indeed high-handed and corrupt. The tragedy for Venezuelans is that Chávez is even worse. Corruption, fiscal profligacy and confiscation of private property are all on the rise. The state-owned oil company is now heavily politicized and is being run into the ground. The country is increasingly militarized.

The discredited traditional political parties cannot lead a credible opposition. Indeed, it could be argued that the democratic movement's failure to hold back Chávez's authoritarian grab is in some part connected to the fact that no alternative has yet caught the population's imagination. But a new generation of politicians who seem to have learned from the Chávez rise to power is emerging.

First things first. Ms. O’Grady really needn’t worry about the state oil company PDVSA. The people who were trying to run it into the ground (as a way of overthrowing Chavez) have long since been fired. PDVSA is very much alive and doing well. Surely Ms. O’Grady must realize that. After all where does she think all the money for the new social programs comes from.

Now, she is indeed correct that the pre-Chavez political elite was indeed high handed and corrupt. Actually, that is an understatement. It was EXTREMELY corrupt. Yet she is concerned that the opposition to Chavez has yet to come up with an alternative political program that can win over most Venezuelans. I am being generous with the hints today so here is another one – guess who largely makes up the opposition? Yes indeed, the old “high-handed and corrupt” pre-Chavez political elite.

One can be found in the very same Chacao municipality where Papillon turned up. A 34-year-old mayor named Leopoldo López from a young party called Justice First is gaining notice. Class warriors may easily dismiss Mr. López because of his privileged background and the elite neighborhood he governs. But he is producing results. "I believe ideas matter," Mr. López told me in an interview in New York last week, "and we demonstrate that our politics are backed up by ideas."

Mr. López's governance style runs contrary to Venezuela's traditional populism. Instead, he has adopted Reaganite pro-growth fiscal policies, Giuliani crime fighting principles and a healthy dose of Dubya-like compassionate conservatism.

With a residential population of about 150,000 and another 400,000 commuters, Chacao is an important Caracas business district. Mr. López says that by simplifying the tax code and lowering taxes on 80% of businesses, the municipality achieved an average 8.4% annual real increase in tax revenues over the past three years. When belt tightening was in order in 2003, he reduced the salaries of the 150 highest paid employees in his government and cut lower-priority programs.

Nice, so he has increase tax revenues by over 8% annually the last three years. That would be good – if we were talking about Peru maybe. But in Venezuela, where under Chavez tax authorities now have clout and the necessary tools to collect taxes, revenues have been up 15% to 20% per year. So maybe Mr. Lopez should fire his tax department and just bring in Chavez’s tax collectors.

The InterAmerican Development Bank reported in 2003 that Caracas had the third-highest murder rate in the Americas. But between 2000 and 2004, Mr. López claims his government has reduced the murder rate by 37% and overall crime by 56%. "We organized our police force into precincts. We started to keep and post statistics weekly. We made use of technology, we created incentives for the police officers and we instituted weekly 6 a.m. meetings which I attend." His government has also devised a uniquely modern plan to try to get the homeless off the streets and employed.

One interesting result: He says a number of mayors -- across the political spectrum -- have approached him asking for advice in crime fighting. Another sign of success: The Chávez government now wants to dissolve all local police forces.

Mr. Lopez’s crime reduction numbers sound impressive. And they probably were up until this year. But then Juan Barreto, a Chavez supporter, was elected mayor of greater Caracas succeeding Alfredo Pena who was a die hard Chavez opponent. In just his first six months in office he has reduced murders by about 25% and overall crime 50%. In other words, what Mr. Lopez took 4 years to accomplish in the posh areas of eastern Caracas, is almost being equaled by Mr. Barreto in some of Caracas’s toughest areas in half a year!! So Ms. O’Grady was right to invite a mayor from Caracas to New York to tout his success. She just invited the wrong one.

Mr. López believes that a good number of lower-income Venezuelans reject chavismo, but have not been offered clear alternatives. To that end Justice First is canvassing poor neighborhoods, a dangerous political environment where armed Chávez enforcers roam. But offering ideas to the poor is what too many Chávez challengers neglect. Referring to his party's campaign efforts, Mr. López says, "We want to cease being just the opposition and become a real alternative."

Mr. Lopez believes a good numbers of lower income Venezuelan’s reject chavismo?!?! Hmmm. I guess he missed Keller and Associates putting Chavez’s popularity at 61%, Datanalisis putting it at 71% and Sejias putting it at 80%.

Of course if Chávez converts the country fully to a police state there eventually will be no chance at all for Mr. López or Justice First. The outlook is worsening. Súmate maintains that Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) will set a precedent in next week's elections for congressional elections in December and the presidential vote in 2006. The voting registry has been found to list not only the dead Papillon but two very much alive and notorious guerrilla leaders from neighboring Colombia. Without an audit of the rolls called for by law, an audit of the software and hardware in the voting machines, guarantees for the secrecy of the vote, an audit of paper ballots against machine tallies and qualified (meaning not Jimmy Carter) international observers, its hard to see how the process can even qualify as an election.

"The decrease in transparency is huge. If we accept this, how are we going to reject the same conditions in the future," says Súmate's Maria Corina Machado.

Lets see. In spite of what O’Grady says the registry is being audited. In spite of what O’Grady says the software and hardware is being audited (today in fact). In spite of what O’Grady says the vote is secret. In spite of what O’Grady says there is a paper trail for all the votes and they do get audited. In spite of what O’Grady says the Carter Center is full of qualified electoral observers. But in case they weren’t, doesn’t the O.A.S. suffice? Or are they incompetent too? So it looks like the Venezuelan vote qualifies as an election, much more than some other places (to the north of Venezuela) where the computers leave no paper trail and where there are no audits of the voter rolls.

And hearing Maria Corina Machado talk about transparency sure is good for comic relief. Sumate certainly wasn’t very transparent about their sources of funding until a resourceful U.S. lawyer outed them. And I still think someone needs to look into that very un-transparent exit poll they carried out last August.

What is left is for Venezuelans to stand up and resist. Maybe that's where the likes of Mr. López will come in. When Venezuelans begin mobilizing in favor of something and not only against chavismo, the odds of retrieving democracy will go up.

Ms. O’Grady, I think Venezuelans are doing just fine. Their economy is booming, their standard of living is going up and their democracy could give a lot of lessons to the country you reside in.

Now on to the real question. What can the average reader of the Wall Street Journal do to increase the intellectual level and veracity of what appears on its Op-Ed page? I haven’t figured that one out yet but I’ll be sure to let you know when I do.


Sunday, July 31, 2005

Hugo vs. Condi 

In the ongoing struggle for hearts and minds in Latin America Venezuela seems to keep besting the U.S. at every turn. The O.A.S. elected Venezuela’s preferred candidate for its Secretary General over one preferred by the U.S., a thinly veiled resolution against Chavez under the guise of “monitoring democracies” was voted down in the O.A.S., and vitually all elections in Latin America these days are being won by pro-Chavez, leftist candidates. Some neo-cons in the U.S. used to complain that Collin Powell neglected Latin America. But his successor, Condoleezza Rice seems to be doing even worse. That South American rascal, Hugo Chavez, seems to be besting her at every turn. Even the Wall Street Journal is starting to get concerned as seen by this article in their Friday edition entitlted “Despite Cafta, U.S. Clout Wanes in Latin America”:

The U.S. may be losing the wider war over Latin America’s future, despite President Bush’s victory in getting congressional approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

That drop in U.S. standing south of the border has boosted anti-American and anti-Globalization critics like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Nearly every major country in the region has elected a left-leaning government….

Mr. Chavez’s combination of lavish social spending and virulent Yankee-bashing has proved a successful formula for staying in power. It also makes a compelling model for populist politicians in some of the regions most unstable countries, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Ecuador’s new government has unsettled Wall Street by getting rid of an oil-reserve fund used for debt payments, while raising social spending. It has criticized the U.S. war on drugs, and says it won’t renew a U.S. lease on air bases there.

Mr. Chavez also is taking advantage of high oil prices to buy goodwill around the region, emerging as the lender of last resort to cash-strapped countries. This potentially allows them to thumb their noses at the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund, which usually impose conditions for their loans. So far this year, Venezuela has acquired $500 million of Argentine bonds. Last week, Ecuadorian officials were negotiating a Venezuelan purchase of $200 of bonds, a figure Ecuador hopes eventually will increase to $500 million.

“The U.S. is not putting money anywhere in Latin America, and Chavez is,” says Eduardo Gamarra, the head of Latin American Studies at Florida International University.

Polls show Mr. Chavez is striking a chord with the Latin American street. He is the most popular political figure among Bolivians, and the second most liked political figure in the Dominican Republic.

One interesting formulation that struck me in the article is that Venezuela’s financial help of other countries is referred to as “buying support”. Funny but when the U.S. gives money to countries I’ve never heard to it referred to that way. U.S. money is generally referred to in the press as “humanitarian aide”. No one would dare to think that the billions in cash handed out by the U.S. in Iraq were a crass attempt to “buy” support. American’s just have such a deep seated love for others that wanting to help them comes naturally and is uncontaminated by any impure thoughts such as wanting to get political support, votes in the U.N., troops for the “Coalition of the Willing”, or information on insurgent hideouts. No, the selfless U.S. just has everyone else’s best interests in its heart. And if you believe that I have some great untapped oil reserves right under the Caracas subway I can sell you!!

But I must confess I did find it interesting that Chavez not only is far and away the most popular political figure in Venezuela but he is even the most popular figure in some other countries! Not bad. I wonder why they didn’t release the numbers on what Condi is polling at in those countries?


Soul Searching (or how the Venezuelan press finally realized it screwed up) 

Here is an interesting article from the Columbia Journalism Review. Apparently they sent a journalist to Venezuela to see the state of the craft down here. Needless to say, he wasn't impressed with what he saw. Although nothing written here comes as a surprise it does make for interesting reading. It is interesting to note how at least some journalists now claim to be repentant for there total lack of objectivity and journalistic standards over the past few year. One has to wonder if this is a sincere change of heart or if they just realized their original strategy was a complete failure and are now moving on to plan B. Me thinks the latter.

Also, the attentive Oil Wars reader will note at least one major error in this article itself. Feel free to note it in the comments section.

Soul Search
By John Dinges
For the last seven years, the press in Venezuela has had a story that would be the envy of any red-blooded, news-addicted reporter. It is a story of political upheaval and social change that began when Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, and promptly rewrote the constitution. He has fended off efforts to dislodge him ever since. Chavez is floating vast income-redistribution programs, including housing and land reform that have peasants squatting on private property, on bonanza prices for Venezuela’s oil. He talks — often in public speeches or on televised talk shows that can run half a day — about revolution, socialism, and liberation from the “interventionism” of the United States. It is a formula that has earned him the adulation of the poor and lower middle class at home and throughout Latin America, invited comparisons to leftist icons like Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende, and sparked a war of words with the Bush administration.
Indeed, there is no more compelling story in Latin America, and journalists here know they should be aggressively chronicling this powerful narrative whose ultimate outcome is still in the God-only-knows category of speculation.
And yet, until very recently, they were not. Many journalists in Venezuela, where the press has a tradition of high quality, confess to having lost their way. They openly admit that they and their editors failed miserably in their duty to provide information that their fellow citizens needed to navigate the storms of Venezuelan politics under Chavez. Instead, media owners and their editors used the news — print and broadcast — to spearhead an opposition movement against Chavez. They sided with Venezuela’s wealthy business community, which sees in Chavez a threat to its economic power and ultimately to Venezuela’s democratic way of life. Shades of Chile, 1973.
Ordinary street reporters found themselves caught in the middle. Verbal attacks by Chavez and his officials — sometimes singling journalists out by name — stoked their hostility toward the government, which, given the urban, middle-class backgrounds of most journalists, needed little prodding anyway. Editors, meanwhile, began routinely winking at copy containing unfounded speculation, rumor, and unchecked facts. The polarization was so complete that for a time, reporters were regularly attacked in the streets by Chavez supporters wielding bottles and sticks. Many reporters interviewed for this story expressed profound anguish at the low quality of Venezuelan journalism during the past several years. “The common attitude has been that we can leave aside ethics and the rules of journalism,” says Laura Weffer, a political reporter for El Nacional, one of the three major dailies in Caracas.
The crisis of conscience is occurring in a media community that is among the most prosperous, best trained and equipped, and — until recently — most respected in Latin America. The country has had a half-century of continuous democratic government — since throwing out a military dictator in 1958 — and decades of petroleum-fed prosperity that allowed it to build a solid and well-educated middle class. In Caracas, three ad-fat and well-designed dailies and a scattering of smaller papers have traditionally divided among themselves a combined readership (on Sundays) of up to a million. Venezuelan readers appear to demand good writing, long descriptive pieces, artistic displays, and lots of political coverage. They are much less obsessed with the random violence, crime, accidents, and gore that dominate popular dailies in other countries, especially in Central America. Lively talk shows on television and radio explore every shift in the political landscape.
This made the Venezuelan press’s stumble all the more disturbing. “This has been the darkest moment in the history of Venezuelan journalism,” says Alonso Moleiro, a prominent journalist. “Reporters bought the argument that you have to put journalistic standards aside, that if we don’t get rid of Chavez, we will have communism and Fidelismo.”
The result has been bad not only for journalism but for democracy. “For a media organization to take a political position is not necessarily bad journalism,” said Andres Cañizalez, a columnist and head of the Institute for Press and Society in Venezuela, one of the major Latin American organizations defending press freedoms. “But here you had the convergence in the media of two things: grave journalistic errors — to the extreme of silencing information on the most important news events — and taking political positions to the extreme of advocating a nondemocratic, insurrectional path. They lost the guiding star of democratic discourse.”
There are signs, however, that the press is getting back on course.
On a Saturday morning in late May, a dozen reporters gather in a room at the Canadian embassy on Caracas’s Altamira Plaza to hear a briefing from a human rights lawyer on two laws passed during the past year by the Chavez government that the reporters fear will seriously damage freedom of expression. Outside, several hundred people are marching to protest the government’s prosecution of opposition figures, including several journalists. Most face charges related to the abortive military coup against Chavez in 2002, which was reversed in less than forty-eight hours. Four people are in jail for violence connected to the coup, and prosecutions have begun in more than two dozen cases arising from the three-year-long series of strikes and civil uprisings against the government that followed the coup. This, according to the protesters, has had a chilling effect on opposition activity. An hour later, a larger (and louder) pro-Chavez demonstration will take place.
But the sounds of protest are muffled inside the embassy meeting room. One of the laws under discussion at the meeting, called the Resorte law after its Spanish acronym, was promoted as a means of keeping sex and violence off TV and radio during hours when children are watching, and also to increase the proportion of Venezuelan-produced programming. But the journalists contend that the law is aimed as much at political expression as it is at protecting children. “The law allows for seventy-eight reasons to bring sanctions against a station,” said Andres Cañizalez, of the Institute for Press and Society. He points out that none of these provisions have been enforced yet, but as he and the other journalists go through the clauses one by one, it is clear the majority have little to do with children.
The other, more overtly ominous, law increases prison sentences and fines for “offending by word or in writing, or in any other manner, showing disrespect for the President.” It creates some vague new crimes, such as propagating false information that might cause “panic . . . or anxiety” among the population, instigation to commit “an act in contravention of the law.” Fines can be levied for “shouting and other vociferations, including abuse of bells or other noisemaking instruments.” If the noise disturbs a public official in the course of his duties, the offender can be jailed for up to three months.
What most concerns the journalists in Venezuela is that the Chavez government has strengthened and broadened the possible applications of the law against the press. That, they point out, goes against a strong current in other countries to eliminate such “insult” laws. So far, no one has been prosecuted under the new laws. In fact, there are no journalists in jail at all in Venezuela, and no media outlets have been shut down. Chavez and his aides are quick to point this out: “Freedom of expression is alive and well and kicking every day,” says one aide. “Everyone says whatever they want everyday without the government messing with them.”
That statement is from Andres Izarra, Chavez’s minister of communication and information. Izarra was trained as a journalist in the U.S., where he worked for Spanish-language programs on CNN and NBC. He speaks fluent, idiomatic English and is in his mid-thirties. Izarra’s story, and his powerful position, illustrate why issues of the media and the government in Venezuela are so intriguing, and why journalists here are so wracked by self-doubt. Izarra’s portfolio includes not only being Chavez’s spokesman but also supervising the commission — appointed by Chavez — that will enforce the new content regulations for television and radio. And that’s not all. He also heads the government’s ambitious effort to build a state-run broadcasting empire to compete with the commercial networks, which are dominated by Chavez’s opponents. One of those projects, Telesur, which is expected to be launched later this year, is a satellite news network supported by the governments of Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay to provide an alternative to U.S.- and European-based broadcasters such as CNN and the BBC.
As spokesman, Izarra has a reputation for toughness, and is often combative in his responses to the press’s criticism of Chavez. In an interview for this story, he called an American editorial writer with whom he has been trading public letters a “scumbag.” He has criticized journalists by name, including one who wrote that Venezuela was preparing for war against the U.S. and had provided visas to Iraqi terrorists, baseless charges that, according to Izarra, fed the Bush administration’s portrayal of Chavez as a destabilizing and dangerous force in the region.
Yet Izarra was a working journalist during the most critical moment of recent Venezuelan history. He speaks the language of journalistic standards and ethics, and this gives his critique of Venezuelan journalism unusual force. Here is Izarra’s experience, as he tells it:
In 2002, Izarra was news operations manager for RCTV Channel 2, in charge of organizing coverage for the main news program, El Observador. President Chavez’s government had been in office for more than three years, and, after putting a new “Bolivarian” constitution in effect, had foundered in an increasingly bitter fight with opposition civic groups and political parties, while the Bush administration cheered the opposition from the sidelines.
Izarra says he first noticed the end of “journalism as usual” when the government and opposition groups staged huge and competing marches a few days apart in March of that year. The station manager, he says, ordered him to give blanket coverage to an opposition march, so Izarra sent ten camera crews. The pro-Chavez march was not covered at all.
A few weeks later, on April 11, another huge march was called to support a national strike against Chavez. Izarra’s station, along with the other three major television stations (Venevision, Globovision, and Televen), began coordinated, wall-to-wall live coverage, including frequent on-air admonitions for people to join the strike and the day’s march. Eventually, some half a million people, by opposition count, streamed from all parts of the city toward the presidential palace, demanding Chavez’s resignation or overthrow.
By early morning, they had their wish. There had been gunfire during the march, and the television stations repeatedly broadcast the image of several men who appeared to be firing pistols at the marchers. A faction of the military, citing the shooting, took Chavez into custody and installed the head of the main businessmen’s association, Pedro Carmona Estanga, as president.
For a journalist, this was the story of a lifetime. Izarra went home for a few hours of sleep. When he returned to work, he says he was given strict instructions from the station’s information manager: “Cero Chavismo en pantalla” — zero Chavez supporters on the screen. The television coverage portrayed the military takeover not as a coup d’état but as a voluntary resignation by Chavez. At the time that was far from being a fact — a general had announced that Chavez had resigned, but there was no signed resignation and Chavez’s whereabouts were unknown. It later turned out to be purely wishful thinking by the media.
Izarra says he had orders that no one was to appear on the air to contradict the official story, even though international news agencies were reporting a different series of events. Protests by Chavez supporters, riots, and looting had broken out in many parts of Caracas. Eventually nineteen people were killed among both the pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez demonstrators. RCTV covered none of it. Izarra says he was instructed to send reporters to parts of town where it was quiet, to get live shots of tranquility.
On Sunday, the new military-installed government began to collapse, and the world outside Venezuela began getting the news. Inside Venezuela, however, only one Catholic radio network continued to broadcast news reports of what was actually happening. All four major television networks halted news reports entirely. Izarra, still working on the story, received a transmission from RCTV’s correspondent in Maracay, a provincial capital seventy-five miles west of Caracas, where the general in command of a major military unit had declared his support for Chavez’s return. It was an exclusive. No other network had a reporter at this pivotal event. Izarra says his boss ordered him to keep it off the air. “I was very outspoken about my opposition to this,” Izarra says. “The vice president [of RCTV] called me up and said this is the policy, either follow it or leave. I said, ‘I’m leaving. This is against my principles.’ It was one of the biggest stories of our modern history and we were not covering it.”
Late that afternoon, Chavez supporters began taking control of the presidential palace. It was all but over, but still no television network had broadcast the news. The official explanation from the networks was that the situation in the streets was too dangerous for reporters. That rationale held little water, according to a study by the Catholic University Human Rights Center, since the networks had blanketed the streets with reporters in the equally tumultuous days before the tide turned against the opposition. Meanwhile, two of the three major newspapers, El Universal and El Nacional, made similar decisions, explaining afterward that they sent the printing-plant staff home for safety reasons. Both canceled their Sunday editions, whose lead stories should have been on the crumbling coup and Chavez’s imminent return to power. One of the big papers, Ultimas Noticias, refused to line up with the opposition. It hit the streets with a limited edition that accurately reflected the country’s plunge into confusion and chaos. Several tabloids in Caracas and some of the provincial TV stations also resisted the opposition line.
Chavez survived, but the story continued. The opposition offensive soldiered on for two more years, with competing, often violent marches, a national strike, an economically devastating shutdown of oil production for two months, and, finally, a recall referendum in August 2004 that, instead of forcing Chavez out of office as the organizers intended, ended in a decisive victory for the president. During this period, again with the exception of Ultimas Noticias, the major press and broadcast media were seen as the leaders of the opposition.
For Laura Weffer, the El Nacional reporter, this experience was profoundly frustrating. She had continued to report from the streets even after she was told by her editor to stay inside. Soon after the failed coup, Weffer and a small group of journalists, all of them street reporters, began to meet at Weffer’s home to talk about what had happened to their journalistic principles. They were particularly shocked by the hateful slogans that were hurled at them whenever they approached Chavez supporters. “Before, when we went up to the hills” — the poor residential areas surrounding the city — “we were welcomed as if we were the Red Cross,” says Tamoa Calzadilla, an investigative reporter for Ultimas Noticias. “Afterward, reporters were showered with rocks and bottles at the bottom of the hill.” One woman reporter, in tears, told Weffer about being called a puta, a whore, when she tried to enter a poor neighborhood wearing a press pass. Calzadilla began to compile testimonies of attacks against journalists, intending to bring cases to court. (The Institute for Press and Society issued its own study in May, documenting nearly 600 attacks during the past three years, the vast majority by Chavez supporters. Only a handful have been prosecuted.)
After a few meetings, these reporters gave themselves a name, Los del Medio — those in the middle — and organized a series of events to bring together working journalists similarly determined to put their journalism back on track. An early member, Sandra La Fuente (who would later write a book, El Acertijo de Abril, about the coup), says she was especially moved by a Catholic mass organized by Los del Medio four months after the coup as a “call to reconciliation,” that was attended by hundreds of journalists. For the part of the mass when the faithful bring offerings — typically bread — a handful of reporters solemnly walked to the altar carrying gas masks, helmets, bulletproof vests, tape recorders, and notebooks. “Those things are the new equipment of journalists,” La Fuente told me.
As the story continued to unfold in 2003 and 2004, the group held workshops to help journalists regain the basic values of fairness, objectivity, and respect for their subjects. They discussed the use of polarizing language and insults in their stories. (Their papers have routinely printed epithets such as “invertebrates” and “toothless ones” when referring to Chavez supporters.)
Perhaps inevitably, Los del Medio itself became the object of criticism in the polarizing climate that enveloped the whole country. Skeptical colleagues at their own papers dismissed members of the group as “closet Chavistas” — even though all but one of a dozen members I interviewed for this article said they were personally opposed to the Chavez government. Pro-Chavez journalists, meanwhile, such as Izarra and the radio personality Ernesto Villegas, ridicule Los del Medio’s advocacy of reporting without taking sides. “They are opposition, perhaps in the closet, but opposition,” Izarra says.
Villegas, like Izarra, is a refugee from the opposition media. During the coup, he worked at Universal as a reporter and hosted a talk show on the government’s VTV Channel 8. “I was working in the channel of the revolution and the newspaper of the counterrevolution,” he says. He told me that he has become disillusioned with journalism and is now — at age thirty-five — studying law, although he continues to host the talk show. “I ask myself how autonomous and effective we journalists are in the practice of a dignified, independent, and fair profession,” he says, and his answer to himself is stark. “The journalism of the five Ws and the distinction between fact and opinion is in crisis. Journalists were telling people with a straight face that the world was square, instead of round. We run the risk of turning ourselves into buffoons, or cooks turning out hamburgers on order.”
Still, Villegas says that he, too, called on his journalist friends “to reflect,” but that he would have nothing to do with Los del Medio, who he says, using a pun, were really just Los del Miedo — those who are afraid. He quickly softened his tone, though, and added that he understands that they were trying to defend an “impartial role” for reporters.
If there is common ground in Venezuelan journalism, it might be where Alonso Moleiro stands. A fervent Chavez critic who is eager to talk in detail about the government’s mismanagement and financial irresponsibility, Moleiro wrote a series of investigative stories earlier this year in El Nacional about the effect of Chavez’s social programs on the lives of the poor. His articles caused a stir not so much for what they revealed but because seven years into the Chavez government few media organizations had done that kind of in-depth reporting.
The stories were critical, cold-eyed, and descriptive. The “missions,” as the programs are called, are designed to expand literacy, education, and primary medical care (provided by 30,000 Cuban doctors who live in the poorest neighborhoods all over the country). The programs, which reportedly cost nearly $3 billion, are financed directly by the national oil company, PDVSA, and benefit millions of people. The missions went into full swing in 2004, thereby giving Chavez a timely boost in the looming referendum, and they clearly help explain why Chavez’s approval ratings since the referendum have surged to 70 percent.
What Moleiro wrote was no secret; it just had been virtually invisible in the mainstream press. “After seven years of this government, there is a concern for the poor, there is a connection that is impossible to ignore,” he told me. “The missions are helping, the poor people feel they are better, they feel they are being helped. But they are not the solution.”
More than half the population in Venezuela is officially classified as being below the poverty line, and nearly every public act by Chavez is designed to show those previously ignored people that they are his top priority. One woman told Moleiro, “With Chavez, I exist.”
I heard similarly adoring comments among people served by the Fabricio Ojeda facility in Catia, a poor neighborhood clinging to steep slopes on the western edge of Caracas. A year ago, Chavez converted a PDVSA gasoline pumping station that had become a hazard in the crowded neighborhood into a free pediatric clinic treating 250 patients a day, and several cooperatives, including a clothes-making factory, a subsidized food market, and an agricultural project. A sixty-year-old woman who works at the agricultural project told me that she hadn’t been paid yet, but still feels her life has changed, however modestly, because of Chavez. “Before we had nothing. I mean nothing,” she said. “Now I’m working here planting vegetables. I’m advancing a little.”
An economic survey published in April confirms this duality about poverty in Chavez’s Venezuela. Datos Information Resources, a polling firm, reported that the proportion of the population in the poorest segment has been growing steadily since the 1980s, and that the growth has continued under Chavez. Nevertheless, those poorest Venezuelans feel that they are better off than they were before Chavez came to power, and in fact they are, according to the study. The biggest reason for this seeming paradox is the impact of Chavez’s social programs, which have provided cash subsidies to millions of people in the form of discounted food, living allowances for students, housing subsidies, and greatly improved delivery of free medical care. The study calculated that household incomes in the poorest segment had increased 33 percent after inflation.
In other words, there is more poverty in Venezuela, but the poor feel their lives have improved and they give credit to Chavez for helping them in ways that previous governments have not.
Good, hard-hitting journalism has never been more needed in Venezuela, and there are some harbingers of its return, if only because editors realize Chavez is solidly entrenched for the foreseeable future. And they have a business motive. The two newspapers most indelibly identified with the opposition have lost advertising and readers, according to two sources with access to confidential reports. Ultimas Noticias, meanwhile, the only large paper to have steered a generally non-partisan path, has increased circulation by at least 10 percent.
Recently both El Nacional and Ultimas Noticias have published tough, factual stories on the decline of oil production by PDVSA, the government-run company, and succeeded in putting the government on the defensive. Op-ed pages regularly match opposition, pro-Chavez, and independent columnists — a major change from the monolithic editorial policies of the recent past. The major television networks also seem to be making an accommodation with Chavez. The networks have pulled off the air three of the opposition talk shows with the most extreme rhetoric, which included wild talk about violence against Chavez and his followers.
Teodoro Petkoff may be the closest thing to a genuinely independent journalist in Venezuela. It helps that he owns his own newspaper, Tal Cual, a thin afternoon daily that combines brainy, fact-laden editorials with bitingly humorous news reports. He is an acerbic critic of the government, but he condemned the military coup and keeps the opposition at arms length. Petkoff describes himself as a one-time revolutionary who learned to appreciate democracy and to reject all forms of militarism and totalitarianism. He is a man of the left who wants the Chavez experiment to succeed, and while he applauds its attention to the poor he faults the government for not using its oil profits for long-term investment and job creation. He sees Chavez as a military man with an authoritarian streak and an indelible suspicion of a free press. “He has one foot in democracy, one foot in authoritarianism. But he is going to maintain that ambiguity, that unstable equilibrium. He is not going to become a dictator,” Petkoff predicted.
Petkoff is optimistic about the future of both democracy and the media. More than devotion to journalistic principle, it is the prospect of six more years of Chavez, plus the fear of sanctions under the new press laws, that have put the media owners on a more balanced path, he says.
For journalists like Alonso Moleiro, Tamoa Calzadilla, and Andres Cañizalez that new path — call it moderation or just tough reporting — needs to quickly produce painstaking anticorruption investigations, a campaign for government accountability, access to information, and resistance to the laws making it a crime to offend the president. In at least part of that agenda they may have an unexpected ally in Izarra, the former journalist inside the government. When I asked him to defend those laws, he said that in fact he opposes the special protections they give to high officials, and that he favors a freedom-of-information law for Venezuela like the one in the U.S.
The reporters who had felt caught in the middle are now eager to end the soul-searching and pursue the abundance of great stories in Venezuela. Calzadilla, for example, has uncovered possible connections between the unsolved murder of a government prosecutor and an extortion ring. Cañizalez is tracking down reports of police carrying out summary executions of criminals and suspects.
It may be journalism as usual. But in Venezuela, that’s news.


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