Saturday, July 29, 2006

Desperation time 

For those of us who follow the Venezuelan opposition closely it is clear they are becoming more and more desperate. Everywhere they turn they see evidence of Chavez's success and his popularity. So they do what little they can to discredit Venezuela's democratic credentials, complain about Chavez talking on TV too much, or search desperately for any branch to grab onto in the hopes of pulling themselves up. In fact, so desperate are they it appears their leading candidate for president might turn out to be the Venezuelan equivalent of Howard Stern.

How could they be so desperate? Simple. Gringolandia's leading political mercenary came to Venezuela, took an exhaustive look at the situation, and hit the opposition upside the head with a very hard reality - they are hated and despised by most Venezuelans and Chavez will easily blow any of their candidates out of the water. Here is an article explaining what Dick Morris found:

Poll: The only one capable of beating Chavez is an "outsider" candidate

A little more than six months ago, a Venezuelan business group contacted the American Dick Morris (the celebrated political consultant and principle electoral strategist of the recently elected president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon) to carry out an analysis on the Venezuelan electoral panorama, with a focus on the upcoming presidential elections of December 3rd.

Morris arrived in Venezuela in February and established an alliance with the polling firm Hinterlaces (headed by Oscar Schemel), to conduct the field work and validate the results.

After a few weeks hammering out the details of the study, the pollsters hit the streets and collected data between the 7th and the 24th of June in more than 50 cities and towns throughout the country. In almost three weeks, they interviewed more than 1,200 Venezuelans enrolled in the electoral registry and who intend to vote in the upcoming elections.

Morris returned to the country last week to sign off on the results. The final report is ready, various campaign organizations have it, and the results are very clear.

First, the analysis makes it very clear that (under current conditions) none of the current candidates are capable of defeating President Chavez on December 3rd.

The second finding indicates that the president is, today, much stronger than he was in 1998 and 2000 (the two last campaigns in which he participated); that his lead has become even stronger in recent months, and that he has a very solid electoral base.

The third conclusion (resulting in part from the first two) is that the only way to defeat Chavez in the upcoming presidential elections is for there to arise a new candidate that is currently not on anyones political radar and with a very specific profile: an authentic outsider.

Clear numbers

Looking at the numbers from Hinterlaces study the strength of the president is very clear: the percentage of people intending to vote for Chavez , in the month of June, is a solid 55% (which has remained constant during the last few months).

Very far behind are the second tier candidates: the governor of Zulia, Manuel Rosales (with 7%), the Primero Justicia leader Julio Borges (with 5%) and Teodoro Petkoff (with 3%).

The analysts also pointed out that Roberto Smith is close to that group with 2% support.

But beyond that enormous difference, this question revealed something interesting: Hinterlaces included among the possible answers the option of a "new candidate" which got 17% support (more than the sum of the three leading opposition candidates).

For Morris and Schemel, this element showed the opportunity that an outsider would have to create a new electoral dynamic.

Who would be the potential voters for that new candidate? "The independents", said Schemel.

The political spectrum showed two polarized minorities and an enormous group that prefers to stay away from the extremes: 49% of those spoken to classify themselves as Ni-Ni (neither-neither), 33% chavistas (20% moderate and 13% radical) and 16% opposition (7% moderate and 9% radical).

This independent mass is reflected in the party affiliation: 62% consulted classify themselves as independents, 29% supporters of the MVR [Chavez's party - ow], and the opposition parties shows levels of support than never go above 3%.

Quantitative analysis:

How can one know that Rosales, Borges and Petkoff cannot become in the next four months, candidates who could possibly defeat Chavez?

To determine that Schemel decided to carry out 18 focus groups to complement the results of the polls and the weakness of the three candidates became clear.

In the case of Petkoff (the most rejected by those consulted, with a 52% rejection rate) his age works against him as does his relationship with past politicians. "The people say he already had his chance and he cannot win, and that he should give way to others. Also his negatives are driven by his past membership in the armed left and his being in the last cabinet of Rafael Caldera" said the analyst.

For his part, Borges (who has a 47% negative rating) looks like someone very far removed from the lower classes. "He is seen as more "opposition" than all the candidates; identified with the rich, those who have money and very far from those of humble origins", explained Schemel.

At the same time, Rosales (the best positioned with only a 39% negative rating) is percieved as "crude; without a program and without specific proposals for the country".

A curious fact is that the President has a lower negative rating than these three candidates: 26%.

Roberto Smith registers negatives similar to Chavez, but the analysts attribute that to him only being known by a little more than 40% of those interviewed.

In general, the study determined that the leadership of the opposition registers a very high level of rejection (around 83%), because the president has been successful with his message, has been successful in having the voters associate that sector with "a rich exclusive elite", and headed by "leaders of the past".

This is just such a blowout its hard to know where to begin. There isn't an opposition candidate within 40 percentage points of Chavez even though the campaign has yet to begin (Chavez is an excellent campaigner). Even their hypothetical "outsider" trails by nearly 40%. And given that Chavez is over 50% there is no way for them to overcome him unless his support were somehow to decline significantly.

It is also quite telling that in spite of a relentless media campaign against him for seven years now his negative ratings are a quite low 26%.

But to me here is the most damning statistic by far: 83% of Venezuelans reject the opposition. Remember that as you read the oppositions media, their numerous English language blogs, their spiffy web-sites and their mainstream media apologists: these people are despised and rejected by the overwhelming majority of people in Venezuela.

And should anyone really be surprised by this? After all the coups, the bloodletting, and the destructive strikes they have inflicted on ordinary Venezuelans who want nothing but a better life? After all the division and hatred they have sowed in Venezuelan society? After all that can anyone be surprised that 83% of Venezuelans want nothing to do with them? I don't think so. It certainly doesn't surprise me.

So keep all this in mind when this tiny, rejected minority of Venezuelans (who nonetheless have the money and language skills to make sure they get heard) go around saying Venezuela isn't a democracy, its electoral system is rigged, or this, that or other excuse is found to avoid elections. Venezuela is as free as any country and it is very much a democracy. It is that democratic system that gives most Venezuelans the freedom to reject these people who have nothing to offer Venezuelan society but hate, death and destruction. And reject them they will on December 3rd, in overwhelming numbers.


Friday, July 28, 2006

Bombing terrorist ideas 

Amongst those who like to debate politics reference is often made to "a battle of ideas". That of course refers to people advancing competing ideas or agendas by argueing over their relative merrit. Or at least that is what it usually means. Unfortunately, for some, like the leaders of Israel and the U.S., the "battle" of ideas is meant literally as is shown in this article from today's Wall Street Journal:

Beirut Lebanon - Soon after the fighting began here, Israeli jets were dispatched on a mission: Take Al-Manar Television, off the air. The jets destroyed the sation's five-story headquarters in a southern suburb of the city, then returned to strafe the rubble in case the network was broadcasting from underground, say Al-Manar executives.

But thanks to elaborate advance planning, Al-Manar's signal returned after just two minutes of downtime, filling Middle East airwaves with the channel's unique mix of frontline war reporting and overt anti-Israel and anti-U.S. propaganda. Faced with more Israeli raids on its telecommunications infra-structure, Al-Manar's staff vows to press on.


Both the U.S. and Israel have branded Al-Manar a terrorist organization.


Israel and the U.S. are trying to shut down Al-Manar's operations, in part by interfering with its satellite signal and its advertising base. U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. stopped advertising on Al-Manar in recent years. Two years ago, a French court prohibited Paris-based satellite operator Eutelsat SA from carrying the channel. In March, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Al-Manar and its parent company, the Lebanese Media Group, as terrorist entities, making it illegal for U.S. firms to do business with them.


When the conflict erupted in teh Palestinian territories in 2000 - the so-called second Intifada - Al-Manar was one of the few media outlets that regularly sent reporters into the center of the fighting, according to media analysts. Pro-Israel think tanks in the U.S. and Europe and American counterterrorism officials took notice. One Washington based think tank that focuses on counter-terrorism, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, provided clips to U.S. law-makers of Al-Manar raising money for Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups by broadcasting bank-account numbers of charitable organizations. The foundation says other Al-Manar programs glorified suicide bombers and incited viewers to fight against Israeli and American troops fighting in the Middle East. "It's a terrorist organization masquerading as a television station," says Mark Dubowitz, the foundation's chief operating officer. "It crosses all lines of free speech".

As in Serbia where they bombed TV stations, in Iraq where they just down newspapers they didn't like and now in Lebanon we can see that the leaders of leaders of the U.S. and Israel consider it acceptable to blowup ideas they don't like. Doesn't sound right to me but I suppose they have the power to get away with it. They would do well to realize that others might have the same idea and might think that their ideas should be blown up, literally.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Dejavu all over again 

Is it just me, or does this article, which was the front page headline on USAToday seem odd:

The battle for Baghdad, again
Bush, al-Maliki to send troops; ‘control Baghdad, control Iraq'
By Rick Jervis and David Jackson

BAGHDAD — The battle for Iraq's future has come down to this: Can the country's U.S.-supported government control escalating violence in the streets of its capital?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with President Bush on Tuesday at the White House, where they announced a plan to dispatch more U.S. and Iraqi troops to Baghdad to try to salvage a faltering security plan for Iraq's war-ravaged capital.

The leaders said an unspecified number of troops would be redeployed to respond to a surge in violence that has killed more than 100 civilians a day since Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad six weeks ago, when al-Maliki announced a security crackdown in Baghdad.

About 9,000 of the 125,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are in Baghdad, a city of about 6.5 million where centuries-old tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have exploded into increasingly difficult-to-control violence. The chaos is being fueled by militias and foreign Arab fighters such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni extremist group trying to undermine U.S.-led efforts to establish a democracy in that nation. There are about 43,000 Iraqi soldiers and police in Baghdad.

Bush said additional U.S. troops will be sent to Baghdad from elsewhere in Iraq and will help train Iraqi security forces to eventually take over the job of protecting the capital. The plan includes placing more U.S. military police with Iraqi forces and giving the Iraqi forces more mobility and firepower. The focus will be on securing individual neighborhoods.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley said military officials are still working out a “repositioning” of forces and are deciding which ones to send to Baghdad.

“Our strategy is to remain on the offense, including in Baghdad,” Bush said during a White House news conference with al-Maliki. “We still face challenges in Baghdad, yet we see progress elsewhere in Iraq.”

Al-Maliki added that Iraq's new government is “determined to defeat terrorism, and the security plan for Baghdad has entered the second phase.”

Its kind of bizarre. I could swear they claimed they captured that place before. In fact, unless I'm dreaming I've seen constant re-runs on TV of a documentary on the Discovery/Times Channel showing how the U.S. marines captured Baghdad. Yet when I checked the TV listings, there it was "The Battle for Baghdad" with the following program description:

The invasion of Iraq is often characterized by the coalition's superior land forces, and by an infantry that advanced swiftly to the capital with minimal losses. Follow the tough land campaign, which involved hand-to-hand fighting and close engagements.

Ah, the good old days of "minimal losses". I'm sure the U.S. military looks back fondly on that time - back when war was nothing more than a big video game. Back then when they were Rambos in tanks just shooting up Iraq with narry any resistance they seemed to be having fun. Now that the Iraqis are actually shooting back they don't seem to be having as much fun. I think I can understand why. Growing up I knew lots of people who used to go into the woods and shoot deer as a hobby. I never heard of any of the hunters getting attacked by the deer. I suspect if the deer had guns and shot back not so many people would have hunting as their hobby.

Anyways, I'm digressing. I still don't get why they have to fight a second Battle of Baghdad if they already won the first. Its kind of like this problem the Israelis are having:

Close to the Israeli border, in Bint Jbeil, eight Israeli soldiers were killed and 22 more were wounded during fighting with Hezbollah militiamen, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

There were heavy casualties among Hezbollah fighters, according to Israeli soldiers. Hezbollah has not released casualty figures since fighting began.

On Tuesday the IDF said it had taken control of the city, which it dubbed Hezbollah's "terror capital." More Israeli troops were sent to the city late Wednesday.

If you control the town (in another article an Israeli officer bragged they had 100% control of the town) it seems kind of strange that you troops would be killed there. This is all starting to rather like that very nasty episode in South East Asia where we were told again and again, "we're winning, we're winning, complete victory is just around the corner (provided we send another 100,000 troops of course)". Somehow "we" never did seem to win. I wonder if this will turn out the same. I don't know about you but I hate sitting through these drawn out movies where we already know the ending.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

More non-existant public works 

With the presidential election coming up in December the Venezuelan electoral authorities are reviewing the regulations around campeigning by the sitting president, in this Chavez. For example they are considering banning him from inaugurating new public works on the grounds that it would give him an undue advantage. They are even considering banning the famous Alo Presidente show.

I'm not sure how this applies to blogs and if the opposition will be able to get a injunction forcing Blogger to ban my posts on all the new things that have built by Chavez. So just as a precuation let me post some of the pictures while I still can. Todays topic is the very impressive new bridge being built over the Orinoco river that has made significant progress since the last time we looked at it:

In these first few pictures you can appreciate the size of the central span which is now fully completed.

These pictures taken from a little further away give an idea of exactly how wide the Orinoco is.

These pictures show the feeder highway to the bridge. Note that because this is covering low lying flood prone areas much of this highway is itself a raised viaduct which just adds to the immensity of the project.

Hopefully, I beat any new CNE restrictions. And hopefully I'll get to beat the dealine again and post some more pictures.


More evidence that Israel is targetting civilians 

From looking at the evolution of the fighting and the types of casualties on both sides we were able to clearly see that it was Israel, not Hezbollah, that was targeting and killing civilians.

Today more evidence emerged of Israel going after the Lebanese civilian population from, of all places, Human Rights Watch. What they obtained was first hand evidence of is that Israel is using cluster munitions to attack villages. Cluster munitions are bombs that explode in the air and release a large number of smaller bombs, scores or sometimes hundreds, that spread out over a larger area. So instead of there being one large explosion in one location there are hundreds of smaller hand grenade size explosions scattered over a large area. Where as conventional munitions are meant to destroy things like buildings or tanks these cluster munitions are meant to kill as many people as possible over a wide area.

Human Rights Watch recieved first hand and credible reports of these weapons being used against villages in southern Lebanon and killing civilians. They then took pictures of them on pallets waiting to be used in norther Israel:

The cluster munitions are the larger shells with the yellow markings on them - HRW had this verified by an Israeli military officer.

Back in the early 1980s when Israel first invaded Lebanon they used cluster bombs they drew a rebuke from the U.S. which temporarily restricted their sale to Israel - back then fresh off their black eye in Vietnam the U.S. still pretended to have some morality. Some nations have banned the use of these weapons but not the U.S. and Israel which use them extensively. Besides killing people indiscriminatly these weapons also fail to explode fairly often and stay behind only to explode later when picked up by people.

No humane society, nor one truly just fighting guerillas would fire these weapons on villages. Yet that is precisely what Israel is doing. Can there still be any contraversy about who are the true terrorists here?


Monday, July 24, 2006

And while they're at it here is another thing they can fix 

The Chavez administration has been famously involved trying to redress historical patterns of discrimination in Venezuela against Afro-Venezuelans, indians, women and other groups. But of course, there are a great many other types of discrimination that should be fought against.

One of them was brought up in todays edition of Ultimas Noticias. According to a study done by a human resources firm in Caracas fewer than 3% of all jobs openings are for people over the age of 40. Clearly even without exact statistics on the percentage of workers over the age of 40 this is a very low number and in no way is reflective of the number of people that age who may need to find jobs. So if you are in Caracas, 45 years old, and need a job you have a big problem. The study also found that this age discrimination worked against all people, no matter their skill level.

Quite frankly one doesn't need sophisticated studies to realize this is a problem, just looking at the job advertisements in the newspaper will suffice. One virtue to Venezuela's economic boom is that the papers are now full of job ads. But they are often very restrictive in who they are advertising to, particularly with respect to age. Some examples from the paper:

This ad for an office worker only wants people between 20 and 40.

This ad is even more restrictive, they only want people between 20 and 30.

Only people between 25 and 35 need apply for this job.

This U.S. chain only wants managers between the ages of 20 and 28. People over 28 can't manage a restaurant?

This famous American franchise is a little more reasonable - they will take managers up to 33. Still pretty pathetic.

This is the worst of the lot. This employer wants engineers, but not if you are over the age of 35. And who is the employer? None other than the governments very own health ministry! It's bad enough that any employers practice this kind of discrimination but it is particulary unacceptable for the government itself to do it.

The sad part is these ads weren't hard to find. Go through the classifieds and at least 50% of the ads seem to have these age restrictions listed. Other ads do things like specifying that they only want good looking people, and generally insist that you send a picture with your resume to prove you do indeed "look good" [as a side note to this I know a women who tried to get a teller job at Banco Latino in the early 90's who was flat out told by the branch manager they didn't hire "negras" in jobs that interacted with the public]

Clearly Venezuela either has no laws against age discrimination or makes no effort to enforce them. Either way, this is a simply unacceptable situation. I am sure Chavez, the National Assembly, and the rest of the government all have a lot on their plate. But I think they can find a little bit of time to work on remedying these problems. They need to.


Caracas Chronicles on Venezuela's economic development or lack thereof 

I assume most readers are familiar with the Caracas Chronicles blog, written by the ardent Chavez opponent, Francisco Toro. There aren't many things that he and I would agree on regarding Venezuela but there actually is one very important point were we probably could find common ground. And that is that for Venezuela to progress and offer its citizens substantially improved lives it needs to move beyond oil and have rapid and sustained economic growth in other industries.

Of course, figuring out how to achieve that is anything but easy and is quite controversial in and of itself. But one important step would be to examine Venezuela's economic history up to this point to try and figure out what has NOT worked. Caracas Chronicles is doing that through posts of recorded interviews with various economists who have differing ideas on what has gone wrong with Venezuela's economy over the past 30 or 40 years. They can be found here and here. While they are quite lengthy and are not themselves all inclusive as far as the different theories go they are more than worthwhile and I would recommend that people make time to listen to them.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

The went fishing and all they caught was minnows 

As most probably know the opposition has been trying to find flaws with the Venezuelan electoral system which it can then use as an excuse to pull out of the elections and save themselves the embarrassment of what looks sure to be a huge defeat. One of the early excuses has been – “we can’t have fair elections because the electoral registry is all messed up and packed with pro-Chavez ghost voters”. Never mind that other outside agencies such as CAPEL performed an audit of the registry and found it acceptable.

Last month three major universities proposed an audit, the methodology of which had some rather significant problems of its own. So much so that the electoral authorities refused to sanction that proposed audit.

The universities were not deterred and went ahead with the audit on their own using public copies of the registry and census data from the National Statistics Institute. Just a couple of days ago they made public their findings which were that while there were a great many errors in the registry, which CAPEL also found, most of these errors were long standing (ie, they were there before Chavez even came to power) and they found they were randomly distributed, that is they really were just errors which would not favor any particular side in an election. In other words, there was no manipulation of the registry to gain electoral advantage and no reason why this registry couldn’t be used for national elections.

Here is a chart that was published that showed the distribution of errors in 1998 before Chavez came to power, where the errors are now (essentially in the same place) and where the errors have increased most:

Now, you might ask, how could they determine that these errors were random in nature and didn’t give advantage to anyone in particular. Simple, they correlated the errors with voting patterns in previous elections and found that the errors were pretty evenly distributed between regions where Chavez did well and where the opposition did well. In fact, one telling statistic given in the El Universal article is that in locations where there were significant errors in the registry the NO (the Chavez side) won with 55% of the vote whereas in locations where there were few errors the NO won with 62% of the vote. That shows that voting tendancies were similar between the areas with many errors and those with few errors but Chavez actually did better where there were fewer errors. This led the mathematicians involved in the study to state on Globovision:

Bernardo, who is a statistics expert, told the TV station Globovision that his analysis of the voter registry has shown that there are many errors, but these are administrative and lack political intentionality that could alter the results of an election. Errors that the opposition has found recently, such as the large number of over 100 year olds are true, he said, but, “In practice [these] do not favor the government and their distribution is uniform.”

Similarly, USB mathematician Raúl Jimenez, who is also involved in the audit, said, “One must be responsible. The electoral registry is a disaster and the CNE has done nothing to improve it, but there is nothing to indicate a political intention in the anomalies.”

Jimenez explained that his audit estimated the electoral results from the recall referendum without the erroneously registered voters and found that the President would have won the vote in any case. “The newly inscribed are not being placed so that they vote for the President. We have an aspect that is conclusive: there are no [political] tendencies [to the data],” said Jimenez.

Clearly, the registry has problems but it is not a reason to consider the December elections unfair. So there is yet another excuse out the window for the opposition.

A final note on this. From what I can see a big part of the problem with the errors in the registry is that once people are registered they are not ever properly de-registered when they should be – i.e. when they die, or move to another location. This is why a large number of people of over 100 years of age are on the registry and a number of municipalities have more registered voters than people over age 18. It would seem one possible solution to this would be that if a person goes more than a certain period, say 10 years, without voting they should be automatically purged from the voter rolls. If they really are still around and want to vote they would have to re-register. That would be a slight inconvenience for some but it would help solve some of these problems.


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