Saturday, September 30, 2006

Going high tech 


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Maybe that light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train, it’s a trolley 

The Venezuelan opposition is certainly having their campaign to unseat Chavez run over by all the public works coming on line – hospitals, houses, dams, trains, and now even trolley busses. That’s right, trolley busses. One may think of these as quaint little things of a bygone era but they are coming of age in many parts of the world including Venezuela. So today’s post on public works focuses on the new trolley bus systems being built in two Venezeulan cities. Apologies in advance as this will be very bandwidth intensive.

Merida is a small Venezuelan city of about 500,000 located in a valley amongst very high Andean mountain peaks. It is a very pleasant city with a nice atmosphere due to the large public university that it is home to. While a city of its size normally wouldn’t be a candidate for a large mass transit system, because Merida is oriented along a long narrow strip it is suitable for a system that runs along its length which is what the trolley does.

The trolley, which is almost complete and expected to open before years end, has 33 stations along a 12 mile route.

Here is what the trolley busses look like:

They are large articulated units. Due to their size the special lanes they will travel had to be reconstructed and made out of concrete. On the roof of the back of the bus you can just make out the folded unit that will attach to the over head cables – the entire system runs on electricity.

In fact here is a nice picture showing the extensive over head cabling along the route (have to love those lush mountains in the background too):

Here is an interior shot of one of the units:

A large depot was constructed to house the trolleys and provide maintanence:

As you can see it looks like all the units are on hand and ready to go.

Passengers will board the trolley at the specially built stations along the route. In addition to making boarding easier and speeding travel the stations are covered to protect passengers from the elements (it rains a lot there).

At the end of the route is a larger and quite nicely designed station:

It sure looks like very soon the residents of Merida will have a nice new system to help unclog their streets, reduce pollution, cut gasoline consumption, and help them get where they are going quickly. I hope to see it in action the next time I am there.

But Merida is not the only system getting a new trolley system. Barquisimeto, a central Venezuelan city very near and dear to my heart is getting one too. Barquisimeto has a population of about 1.1 million people and is growing rapidly. It is more spread out than Merida but the trolley will traverse the central axis from east to west and pass right through the heart of downtown Barquisimeto. Even better, it will be connected to a brand new, badly needed bus station being built at its terminus.

Here is a picture of one of Barquisimeto’s avenues right now and a computer generated rendering of what it will look like after the trolley is finished:

And here is what the trolley will look like as it goes through the downtown area:

As you can see it is quite similar to the trolley in Merida, big articulated units. This has meant that Barquisimeto has had to rip up lots of streets and reconstruct them out of concrete to be able to support the trolley. This has been a difficult and disruptive process but it is wrapping up. Here are the downtown streets of Barquisimeto streets being ripped up ( by the way, to carry out this construction they had to clear out LOTS of street vendors which provoked some pretty big demonstrations – progress has its price):

And here are the much nicer AFTER shots of the same location:

The disruption was traumatic but the results looks nice. And when there are trolleys running a nice route with potted trees it should be nicer still!

As I mentioned at the beginning the capstone of this project is a new bus station. And not just any bus station but a huge and VERY nice station as we will see shortly.

But first a little background. The major mode of intercity travel in Venezuela by far is bus. Yes car sales are booming and yes Chavez is building an entire network of passenger trains but at least for now busses are the main way to get from city A to city B. And although Barquisimeto is a large, modern, and rapidly growing city its bus station is a bad joke – beyond just being old, small, dirty and dangerous it really is a horrible way to welcome people to the city. To give you an idea of what it is like here are some pictures:

As you can see, it’s not much to look at. The ticket selling part of the station is small and very over crowded. The loading stations for the busses are also overcrowded and the roadways are jammed with busses and taxis making it difficult to enter and exit. Worse still, there is open entry from the street making security a problem.

So now that we have seen what a horror the current station is lets look at the beautiful new station being built. First we have this model of what it will look like:

The large domed structure in the center will be the central part of the terminal where tickets will be sold and the waiting areas will be located. As we shall soon see it will also house shops and restaurants. The “spokes” coming out of the dome are the actual loading bays for the busses and where the passengers will board. In front of the terminal (the top right part in the picture) is where the trolley will be. And the grey offshoot from the dome on the bottom left of the picture will be a multi screen movie cineplex.

Here is a computer rendering that gives a more close up perspective of the terminal:

Now here is what the interior of the station will look like:

I think you’ll agree with me this is just spectacular. People are going to go through culture shock changing from the old terminal to the new one! But a pleasant shock it will be.

And of course, given that the Chavez government actually builds things, rather than just leaving them on paper like some previous governments, construction is well under way on the new terminal. Lets look at some pictures of different stages of the construction.

In the beginning there was an empty lot and a billboard:

Then they brought in the earth moving equipment and the outline of the terminal was carved in the ground:

Next came the pouring of the foundation and the erection of the support pillars:

The dome starts to rise:

The work goes on around the clock:

A nice shot of the terminal taking form with the foot hills of the Andes in the background:

So as we can see two Venezuelan cities are taking big steps forward in their public transportation infrastructure. But they aren’t the only ones. Other cities will soon be having brand new trains running through their tunnels. That will have to wait for a future post. In the meantime lets hope our opposition friends in Merida and Barquisimeto take care to cross the street carefully and not get run over by any trolleys!


Big problems, no solutions 

As has been pointed out on numerous occasions crime is a big problem in Venezuela. Crime rates are very high, even by Latin American standards, and have risen significantly during Chavez’s tenure. Although crime rates seem to have stabilized some (truthfully though, you reach a point where how much worse can it get) and local officials have been less than helpful in solving this problem clearly Chavez can definitely be said to have failed in the area of crime. And not only have things deteriorated in the past 8 years but if he has a plan to turn things around I sure haven’t heard it.

So one would think this could be an area where an opposition candidate might have something useful to offer. If the opposition could offer the country a credible crime fighting plan then possibly they could boost their political standing significantly as most Venezuelans are thoroughly fed up with outrageous levels of crime.

Manuel Rosales unveiled his crime fighting program yesterday so lets take a point by point look at what he has to offer:

1)He will have a gun buy back program offering $2,250 for every gun turned in to the government.

With this brilliant idea he can almost forget about his stupid oil money distribution plan called Mi Negra – people will be able to make a very nice living just by selling guns to the government. But not only will Venezuelans go crazy selling every gun they can find to the government but Colombians will probably start crossing the border in droves trying to sell their guns. In fact, Venezuelans might start flying to Miami just to buy guns at Walmart and then fly back to Venezuela and sell them at a huge profit. There are some incredible business opportunities here if you think about it. Its almost enough to make me wonder if Rosales owns gun manufacturing plants or something.

Hopefully, his other ideas will be better so lets move on.

2)He will establish a national police force and hire 150,000 additional police officers.

Ok, this is a little better. Venezuela certainly could use more police (honest ones, hopefully). And creating a unified police force to reduce bureaucracy and enable police to be shifted to where they are most needed is a good idea – it worked for New York. The one problem is this will be a tough sell to his supporters most of whom have been 100% opposed to a unified police force (people in rich areas don’t want to share their police force nor lose control over it so Rosales said he would allow “regional” police forces to still exist). So while he deserves credit for a good idea here one has to wonder if he could actually do it.

3)He will force all car manufacturers to put a GPS system in their cars that will allow the police to tract them if stolen.

This seems sort of silly. Is car theft really such a major problem when the vast majority of Venezuelans don’t own a car (although with the economy doing so well under Chavez that is starting to change)? I guess with this idea he is really giving away who his political base is. I also have to question whether the pro-business opposition would back a proposal imposing new mandates on private companies.

In any event, I’m sure the ever resourceful Venezuelan thieves would soon find a way to defeat this system and so this silly proposal likely wouldn’t accomplish anything.

4)He will “decree” crime free zones in areas throughout Venezuela such as around schools and parks and even entire neighborhoods.

Ok, here is where it becomes clear the guy doesn’t have a plan to fight crime at all. He thinks you can “decree” away crime?!?!?!? Well, hell why didn’t Chavez think of that!! Heck he could go on TV tonight, make the decree, and there you go, problem solved!

The shear idiocy of this is simply amazing.

For the sake of not wasting much more time on this let me list the rest of his ideas in no particular order:

5)Fire corrupt cops and replace and set up special schools to train un-corrupt cops

Again, I wonder why Chavez didn’t think of this! If only it where so easy.

6)Hiring more judges and more prosecutors

Ok, I suppose this could be useful but seeing as the Venezuelan judicial is notoriously corrupt he will probably just be creating more corruption

7)He will establish a council of Council of Defense and Security

Yup, when you have no idea what to do just set up a committee, that will solve everything. In fact maybe that is Venezuela’s problem overall, not enough committees!

8)He will set up a national crime call center (like the 911 system in the U.S.)

With so many ideas at least one of them was bound to be decent.

9)He criticized the current jail system as simply warehousing criminals and said he would create 24 educational centers for criminals

Yeah, that’s right, Venezuela is just too harsh with criminals ?!?!?

So there you go, clearly Rosales doesn’t have much of a plan to fight crime. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that no matter who wins the upcoming election when it comes to crime Venezuela is still screwed.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Finally, some interesting poll numbers 

The title should be a dead giveaway – this post has nothing to do with Venezuela. The polling numbers out of Venezuela – Chavez leads by 15 points, no Chavez leads by 20 points, no Chavez leads by 30 points; Chavez’s approval rating is 60%, no Chavez’s approval rating is 70%... – have been a bore for quite some time now.

No the interesting poll numbers come from Iraq. And boy do they blow a lot of ChickenHawk propaganda out of the water. So lets dive right into the article:

Poll: Iraqis back attacks on U.S. troops

About six in 10 Iraqis say they approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces, and slightly more than that want their government to ask U.S. troops to leave within a year, a poll finds.
The Iraqis also have negative views of Osama bin Laden, according to the early September poll of 1,150.
The poll, done for University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, found:
_Almost four in five Iraqis say the U.S. military force in Iraq provokes more violence than it prevents.
_About 61 percent approved of the attacks — up from 47 percent in January. A solid majority of Shiite and Sunni Arabs approved of the attacks, according to the poll. The increase came mostly among Shiite Iraqis.
_An overwhelmingly negative opinion of terror chief bin Laden and more than half, 57 percent, disapproving of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
_Three-fourths say they think the U.S. plans to keep military bases in Iraq permanently.
_A majority of Iraqis, 72 percent, say they think Iraq will be one state five years from now. Shiite Iraqis were most likely to feel that way, though a majority of Sunnis and Kurds also believed that would be the case.
The PIPA poll, which included an oversample of 150 Sunni Iraqis, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The State Department, meanwhile, has conducted its own poll, something it does periodically, spokesman Sean McCormack said. The State Department poll found two-thirds of Iraqis in Baghdad favor an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, according to The Washington Post. McCormack declined to discuss details of the department's poll.
"What I hear from government representatives and other anecdotal evidence that you hear from Iraqis that is collected by embassy personnel and military personnel is that Iraqis do appreciate our presence there," he said. "They do understand the reasons for it, they do understand that we don't want to or we don't intend to be there indefinitely."
An Iraqi public opinion research firm with a proven record of conducting scientifically valid surveys conducted the department's poll, press officer Janelle Hironimus said later.
"We will not identify the firm in order to protect it and its employees from danger," she said.
Iraqi officials have said Iraq's security was improving and expanding throughout the country, and most U.S. troops might be able to leave eventually.
Last week, Iraqi President Jalal Talibani told the United Nations that coalition forces should remain in Iraq until Iraqi security forces are "capable of putting an end to terrorism and maintaining stability and security."

Wow, there is a lot there so lets digest this bit by bit.

First, 6 out of 10 Iraqis approve of attacks against U.S. troops. So there, in a sentence, you go - most Iraqis approve of U.S. troops being blown up and want whoever is blowing them up to keep doing it. It furthers states they want the U.S. out of their country within a year. So what does this mean? Just for starters it obviously means this:

1) The U.S. occupation is unpopular with AVERAGE Iraqis
2) Rather than being acts of terrorism carried out by a few the attacks against the U.S. are part of a broadly backed war of national liberation to get an occupying power out.
3) The U.S. references to the Iraqi insurgents as “terrorists”, “dead-enders”, “Ba-athists”, “foreign jijadis” and the like are all lies. THE IRAQI INSUGENCY IS THE IRAQI PEOPLE

The vast majority of Iraqis oppose Bin-laden and oppose the Iranian leadership. So again, the U.S. is not fighting Al-Qaeda, it is not even fighting Al-Qaeda sympathizers, nor is it fighting Iranian puppets. This again confirms point number three above – or stated another way, the war the U.S. is fighting in Iraq is a war against the Iraqi people, full stop.

A majority of both Sunnis AND Shiites approve of the attacks against the U.S. troops. So there goes the lie that “80% of the Iraqi population, the Shiites and the Kurds, support us, it is only the recalcitrant Sunnis upset at losing their privileges that are fighting” Bullshit, Iraqis AS A PEOPLE are fighting the U.S.

Three fourths of Iraqis think that the U.S. intends to remain permanently in their country. I wonder what they are basing that opinion on ? – hopefully not some thing flimsy like the fact that the U.S. is building permanent military bases in Iraq and the U.S. leadership has openly stated it intends to house its permanent military presence in the Middle East in Iraq instead of Saudi Arabia. Really, if Iraqis form their opinions based on things like that then they are, just silly people!

And here is the kicker, a secret State Department poll apparently found that two thirds of Baghdad residents want the U.S. to leave immediately. Hmm, I wonder what the deciding fact in that is? – the 3,000 murders a month in that city, the fact that they only get about 5 hours of electricity a day, the lack of drinking water, interminable lines for gasoline ….. It would be kind of interesting to know what other nice little tidbits there are in those polls that compel them to keep them under wraps.

In any event, the posture of this blog as to the nature of the regime in Iraq has been vindicated. I have always maintained it is an illegitimate puppet regime foisted on the Iraqi people by the U.S. military. Almost certainly the “elections” there have been sham elections meant strictly for international consumption and have nothing to do with the true desires of the Iraqi people.

In fact it is quiet telling what this poll DIDN’T ask – minor things like “do you support the current Iraqi government?”, “do you think the Iraqi government is a legitimate government?”, “do you think the Iraqi government represents the Iraqi people?”, “do you think the elections of the last two years were real elections with results that accurately reflect the will of the Iraqi population?”

I’m sure the answers to those questions would be quite interesting. Of course, I’m also sure that any polling firm that intended to ask any such questions would be immediately thrown out of the country.

In any event, the mask is off this charade. It is high time activists, journalists, and others of good faith stop letting the debate on this war be limited by all the false formulations of the pro-war propagandists. The war has zero to do with Bin-Laden, terrorism, WMD, or “we fight them their or we fight them here”. It has everything to do with a proud people who want to have control over their own country and want to be able to deal with their own problems in their own ways.

I am confident that the Iraqi people will ultimately get control over their own country and lives. But it would be nice if that happened sooner rather than later and with fewer deaths rather than more. And it would be nice if the American people were to realize that the sooner they pull the plug on this debacle the better for them too.


Is Bush the Devil? 

Thanks to a loyal reader I learned of this fine essay by Charles Hardy, an American priest who has lived in Venezuela for several decades now. I imagine a great many of you have already read it but it still is worth re-printing here. Further, it pushed me to do what I should have done a long time ago - link to his fine web-site:

During a recent visit to the United States, I heard a woman say that she felt Vice President Dick Cheney was an evil man. Her sister, with a different view of the world situation, said she felt all Arabs were evil. For the past few years President George W. Bush has been speaking of an axis of evil in the world. And, just a few days ago, President Chávez of Venezuela said President Bush is a devil. Let me first of all share my personal opinion on the matter of evil. I don’t believe there are evil people. There are people who do bad things (I don’t like the word “evil”), but that doesn’t make them bad. I have done bad things in my life. Everyone has. That doesn’t make us bad people.
Secondly, I have a prejudice against identifying people with evil and the devil. I once asked a priest who was tortured in Argentina, how one human being could torture another. He replied that his torturers denied that he was human. His words as I recall them: “They said I was a devil dressed as a priest and as such they could do whatever they wanted to do with me.”

Thirdly, I don’t like name-calling. I was taught in high school that it was the lowest form of argument. It can hurt; it can bring laughter; but it doesn’t contribute to a fair discussion of ideas.

Having said this, I would like to present my analysis of the repercussions resulting from Chávez’s address in the United Nations.

Within Venezuela, the reactions have been mixed. Those who oppose Chávez see it as another strike against him as president. But among those who support him, I have found no one so far who felt he did wrong with his comments.

I watched Chávez’s speech in the office of a public building. The secretaries were all cheering Chávez as he spoke the words. Later, a respected lawyer told me he didn’t see any difference between Bush’s designating countries and their leaders as part of the “axis of evil” and Chávez’s calling Bush a devil. A labor leader felt the talk was excellent and necessary. A radio commentator said Chávez voiced what many world leaders would like to say but don’t have the courage to do so. The most hesitant comment was from a taxi driver who said it was ok that Chávez made the comparison once in the U.N., but that he shouldn’t have continued repeating the idea.

The Sunday 24 September issue of the Caracas daily, Ultimas Noticias, had a cartoon showing the devil sitting in front of a television set watching Chávez’s U.N. speech. The devil is saying, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Chávez but Bush is a lot worse than I am. In addition the odor he leaves behind is not that of sulfur but of gun power.”

Within the United States, I have no idea how people are reacting because I haven’t had access to the Internet these days and I don’t trust the major news sources anyway. One fellow journalist who did check out the reporting said that it was unfortunate that the articles were concentrating on Chávez’s devil remark and not on the rest of the message he delivered.

In any case, I do think it is time that people in the United States wake up to the fact that Chávez simply voiced what many people in the world think about their president. Two or three years ago I was on an airplane passing through Mexico City and received from the airline a major Mexican daily. That day it carried a long editorial comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler. One may agree or disagree with the comparison, but it is important that U.S. citizens are aware of it. I don’t know if many Germans in the 30s and 40s knew what was being said about Hitler and their country in other parts of the world. U.S. citizens today do not have that excuse. Many, many people in the world are having difficulties justifying the massive killing of several thousand innocent people because a few thousand people died in the Twin Towers. There is some similarity with Israel’s killing of Lebanese citizens because two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped, another action the U.S. supported.

It is also important for U.S. citizens to realize that their leaders have not been kind in their words about Chávez. Major government spokespersons have called Chávez a hyena and a pied piper. Also, there is no question that the U.S. government was happy when the 2002 coup against him took place, and may have even helped finance it.

Greatest Enemy

The time has come for U.S. citizens to wake up and realize that they are becoming hated because of the policies of their leaders. As Chávez pointed out, the greatest enemy that the U.S. people have is their own government.

How will Chávez’s remarks affect his position in the world and his relation with other world leaders? I don’t think what he said will hurt him. Venezuela would like a seat in the UN Security Council. The vote will be in secret. I think they will easily win it. If that happens, it will be a huge victory for Chávez and a horrible defeat for the Bush administration. But if Venezuela doesn’t win it, it will show that the U.S. might still be politically more powerful than Venezuela. So, what’s news in that?

I would expect other world leaders, friends of Chávez, to tell him he shouldn’t say things like he did in public forums — even though they feel likewise. Even if they don’t have similar feelings, I don’t think they will stop supporting him. My brother once called another driver, who cut in front of my brother’s car, an “asshole.” I wouldn’t have used such a word, but it didn’t stop me from loving my brother.

Hugo Chávez is Hugo Chávez. Upon his return to Venezuela, I heard him tell a group of people that he didn’t know exactly what he was going to say until he said it. But he also said that he doesn’t take back what he said.

Four years ago I wrote that one of Chávez’s major problems as a politician is that he says what he thinks. Many people see that as being honest—and love him for it. Others see it as being inept and stupid—and hate him for it. But Hugo is Hugo. I don’t expect him to change.

Let me add one final thought. When I shared what I just wrote with a friend, he made an important distinction, which I share, between the attitudes of President Chávez and that of President Bush. He said that when Chávez spoke of Bush as a devil, he was joking. He entered the podium of the General Assembly saying it smelled of sulfur. He made the Sign of the Cross, a common Venezuelan practice not only to show one’s Catholic faith but also to ward off evil spirits. It is done seriously, but often it is done in jest. I know a person who is always making it in front of friends and saying, “Away from me Satan.”

But when Bush speaks of the “axis of evil,” he is deadly serious, and I put emphasis on the word “deadly.” It is my belief that Chávez shares my feeling that Bush is doing bad (evil, if you prefer the word) things. I don’t believe he sees him as a devil in reality. Not so with President Bush. His words seem to reflect a fundamentalist Christian attitude that the devil has taken possession of some people. They must therefore be wiped out. Too bad if others happen to be in the way, but the evil ones must be eliminated. Therein lies the danger for the world—and for you and me if we should fall into that category for the U.S. government.

Chávez wants to wipe out imperialism. He doesn’t see the need to kill those who are imperialists. Bush says he wants to eliminate terrorism. His only solution seems to be to kill those who are classified as terrorists. I repeat: therein lies the danger for the world — and for you and for me.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Not quantity, but quality 

Now that everyone's bandwidth has had a rest I return to showing some of Venezuela's public works. Today's subject is government built housing.

This has been one of the oppositions favorite subjects over the past few years. The Chavez administration is constructing far too little they claim, and the previous governments did much better. This is partially true.

Venezuela has a housing deficit of about 1.5 million homes. That is, for family to have their own real home, not living with relatives and not living in a makeshift shack, the country would need one and a half million new houses. To attempt to fulfill that need the government has set construction targets of around 100,000 new housing units per year. It has never come close to meeting that goal. In fact this year, when the target is 150,000 units, is the first year when they may break the 100,000 mark. Currently they have handed over about 65,000 new homes to families.

The opposition is criticizing that failing likes to point out that under the previous administration, Caldera, they did construct 100,000 housing units per year. That may be true but I have to admit to being skeptical. The reason is that traveling around Venezuela it seems impossible to find all those homes they supposedly built. A big part of the reason for that is that they were of terrible quality. In fact, I’ve been told that they were often tiny hut like structures made with plastic walls!! Sometimes when you ask people where they are they say they probably washed away in the rain already. In fact, people have told me their own ad hoc houses that they’ve built in a “cerro” are of better quality than what those governments built.

Which brings us back to what Chavez is building. THAT I’ve seen from the inside. Last year I did a detailed report on what Venezuelan public housing looked like from the inside and I suggest that those who don’t remember it take a look.

The bottom line is that as with everything else, Chavez doesn’t build junk. He isn’t throwing up something that will probably fall down in a few years just to meet a target and be able to say he met a goal which winds up not meaning anything when the stuff falls down a few years later. What is built are high quality homes that will last for decades. And today we will see more of these high quality homes that are being built throughout Venezuela:

First are some homes being built in the state of Carabobo:

Here is a rather Levitownish new development in the state of Miranda:

Here are some nicely styled homes:

Here is an interesting sequence where a Caracas slum is cleared and replaced by modern homes:



One can see from all this the government favors moderate density single family type homes. This indeed is the best type of housing to build and that is what they build where space permits. However, in places where space is constrained they build taller apartment building like structures such as these in Maiquetia in the state of Vargas:

As can be seen from this while the targets may not be met, no shortcuts are taken either. And now that the numbers are significantly improving the Venezuelan housing program is starting to look pretty nice indeed.


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