Saturday, August 12, 2006

It's just so obvious 

There used to be a time when one of the main functions of this blog was dealing with the non-sense spewed by the main stream media regarding Venezuela. And to a certain extent it still is.

But the situation there, that the country is doing well, Chavez is highly popular, and he is virtually a shoe in for re-election, is so obvious even the main stream media can't help but get it right. Witness this article from Time Magazine:

Is Chavez's Opposition For Real?
With a presidential election only four months away, Venezuela's virtually unchallenged leader may finally face a unified front

No one doubts that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a brilliant politician. But the controversial leader who loves to pick fights with the U.S. has also been a fortunate one — not just because he's presiding over the highest crude prices his oil-producing nation has ever enjoyed, but also because his opposition has proven to be one of the most incompetent and fractured in the hemisphere.

Led to a large degree by leftovers from the corrupt political class that once had a lock on power, they tried and failed to wrest power from Chavez with a coup d'etat in 2002 and a nationwide oil strike that paralyzed the country later that year. They only seemed to deepen their hole when they lost a 2004 referendum to oust Chavez and then boycotted parliamentary elections last year — a blunder that allowed Chavez allies to take 100% control of Venezuela's National Assembly and strengthened his seeming omnipotence. Since then, divisive infighting has been the opposition's norm.

But this week Chavez's adversaries have finally started to show some signs of a unified front. With the prospect of a divisive round of primaries on the horizon, the majority of opposition candidates for December's presidential election withdrew on Wednesday in order to back Manuel Rosales, governor of Zulia state and the leading opposition candidate in the polls. After months of intense negotiations, opposition leaders seem to understand that throwing their weight behind one man is their only prospect — however slim — at unseating the heavily-favored Chavez. Front runners Julio Borges of the Justice First party and Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor and former guerilla who dropped out last week, showed their support for Rosales when he declared himself the chosen candidate on Wednesday. "We're all showing that we want to build something bigger than us," Borges said. "Governor Manuel Rosales, count on all of us."

With main contenders Borges and Petkoff now behind him, Rosales is beginning to reveal his platform. He has promised to counter the surging housing deficit and to fight the out-of-control crime and police corruption that has fueled public anger. In an effort to move beyond his core backers in the middle class, he also promised to distribute Venezuela's oil wealth more equally than the current government, proposing a direct payoff of petro-dollars to families. That pledge, however, may sound similar to the widespread oil-funded social development programs Chavez already has in place that are popular with low-income Venezuelans, who make up more than half of the country's population.

The governor of oil-rich Zulia still does not have the whole opposition behind him. The opposition party which led Venezuela's transition to democracy almost 50 years ago, Democratic Action (known by the Spanish acronym AD), has ironically called on voters to abstain in the elections. And the late candidacy launched by comedian Benjamin Rausseo has also thrown a surprise challenger into the ring. Rausseo's rise from humble beginnings to one of the country's most beloved entertainers could resonate with low-income Venezuelans, even though many people are still trying to figure out if the off-the-wall comedian who has a comic theme park on the tourist island of Margarita is serious about running.

Better known by his stage name "The Count of Guacharo," Rausseo smiled widely and held up a peace sign for journalists who laughed heavily at his sometimes-vulgar jokes at a recent press conference. The candidate stressed that his bid was for real, but then added a joke: "It's serious. I've already spent $230." He shrugged off speculative criticism that his candidacy could be backed by the government to try to make the opposition a laughing matter. Although he did not withdraw with the others on Wednesday, Rausseo says he will give up if he trails another candidate in the race.

Some sectors of the population are antsy to see opposition representation in a government that is almost completely run by officials loyal to Chavez. The opposition also widely complains that irregularities in the voter registry could help the government tamper with election results. Still, with 55 percent of Venezuelans expecting to vote for Chavez, many pro and anti-Chavez Venezuelans alike take it for granted that he will win another six years in power. But then again, this is a country that over the last four years has seen a failed coup d'etat, two-month oil strikes and a referendum on the president's rule. In other words, in the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez, anything can happen.

Anything can happen? Sure. But if the cou d'etat, oil strike, and referendum show anything its that an old and corrupt political elite that only speak to at best 20% of the population have little chance of ousting Chavez - by bullets or ballots.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

The left pays its way 

Wednesday's Wall Street Journal had this interesting little chart on the trade balances of various Latin American countries:

Difference between exports and imports of goods and services; percentage of total gross domestic product, quarterly frequency

Country Latest Quarter Previous Quarter 2006 Forcast
Mexico -0.06% -2.42% -1.59%
Brazil +3.35% +4.06% +4.22%
Argentina +4.75% +4.94% +3.90%
Venezuela +19.73% +16.12% +15.31%
Colombia -0.39% -0.79% -1.51%
Chile +12.80% +8.61% +9.78%
Peru +4.61% +6.98% +5.66%

Is it just me or does it look like the leftist governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina pay their way by running trade surpluses while the right wing governments in Colombia and Mexico consume more than they produce? Kind of an interesting twist that shows who produces and who doesn't.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The truth does catch up eventually 

It is a famous saying that a lie can make it half way around the world before the truth even gets its shoes on. I have always found that to be true.

A good example would be the non-sense about poverty having increased under Chavez. It is true that for a time poverty increased under Chavez but that was after opposition led coup and oil strike so that anyone even remotely honest would have to admit that was likely more the fault of the opposition than Chavez.

Nevertheless, about a year ago a propagandizing op-ed writer for the Miami Herald, Andres Oppenheimer, seized the idea that poverty was indeed up under Chavez and advocated it be used as a propaganda tool against him:

If the Bush administration is really serious about countering democratically elected Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez's claims that he is a champion of the poor and victim of a U.S. smear campaign, here's an idea -- broadcast the Venezuelan government's own poverty statistics.
Indeed, the latest poverty figures from Venezuela's official National Institute of Statistics -- buried in a mountain of figures deep in the bowels of its Internet site, www.ine.gov.ve -- contain the most damning condemnation of the Chávez government I have seen anywhere.
The figures, on Page 5 of the Institute's Social Report, show that poverty in Venezuela rose from 43 percent to 54 percent of the population during Chávez's first four years in office. And extreme poverty -- the percentage of the population that lives on less than $1 a day -- grew from 17 percent to 25 percent during the same period, the figures show.
These are stunning figures, not only because Chávez is going around Latin America proclaiming to be heading a ''Bolivarian revolution'' to help the poor, but also because the rise in poverty during his tenure has taken place at the very time when Venezuela has been benefiting from its greatest oil boom in recent history.

Of course, even when this article was written it was pretty clearly false. The numbers were already out of date as poverty had declined significantly by May of 2005 and Mr. Oppenheimer didn’t see fit to mention little details like oil strikes. For those interested in the details of this subject I have written extensively on it here, here, and here.

Nevertheless, this article had a big impact. Other newspapers ran the story. But more importantly all sorts of other writers for newspapers, magazines, and even academic publications picked up what became established wisdom – that Chavez the populist had increased poverty.

Although I knew that wasn’t true and so did a fair amount of other people I despaired of doing anything about it. After all, once misinformation like that makes it into the mainstream media it is hard to get rid of as newspapers often just use other newspapers as their source.

Fortunately, Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic Policy Research came to the rescue. Not only did he write a well researched article on the true Venezuelan poverty numbers but he and others fought tirelessly for the record to be set straight. So much so that poor Andres Oppenheimer complained about it in his blog and has had to grudgingly admit that poverty may indeed have gone down.

And that is not the end of it. Yesterday when reading the New York Times I thought I was reading a interesting little editorial on a Manatee that somehow wound up in the Hudson when out of the corner of my eye I caught this in the “For the Record Section”:

John Tierney used an out-of-date figure in his column of Nov. 8, 2005, for poverty rates in Venezuela. The 2004 figures showed poverty rising above 50 percent, but for the first half of 2005, the Venezuelan government reported that the rate was below 50 percent. The error was pointed out to us recently.
Now I don’t even remember Mr. Tierney’s original column. Nor do I expect that all the misinformation of the past year on this subject will disappear and the damage reversed. But there is a very real victory here and that is that it looks like this lie, of poverty going up under Chavez, has reached the end of the line and won’t be making very many more appearances. In fact, the news is almost certainly spreading that poverty is way down under Chavez.

Its good to see the good guys overcome obstacles and win one. The truth may be slow to get its shoes on but when it does it catches up. Kudos to all those who worked on this like Mark Weisbrot, CEPR, Venezuelanalisis, Justin Delacour, and others. If we ever meet the first round is on me.


More are living to see the light of day 

Today in Ultimas Noticias it was pointed out that infant mortality has dropped remarkably under the Chavez government. From a rate of 21.4 when he assumed office it has now dropped to 16.1 deaths per 1,000 births. This sharp decline is certainly in large part due to Chavez’s huge investments in health care, and in particular, health care for the poor.

And just to show what this means in terms of human lives there are roughly 450,000 births per year in Venezuela. With a mortality rate of 21.4 births per thousand that means 9,630 babies were dying each year. With the reduction to 16.1 the number of deaths has been reduced to 7,245. That is, roughly 2,400 additional babies are surviving each year thanks to Chavez’s investments in improved health care. Not bad at all.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Maybe 30 years from now we'll learn what is really happening in Iraq 

The U.S. military just disclosed information on war crimes committed by the U.S. Army in Vietnam:

LOS ANGELES - Atrocities against civilians and prisoners by Army soldiers during the Vietnam War were more common than originally disclosed to the public, according to a Los Angeles Times review of recently unsealed government files.

Some 9,000 pages of records — the largest collection of documented war crimes in Vietnam — include sworn witness testimony, investigative files and status reports for top military brass that detail 320 wartime atrocities substantiated by the Army.

Still, few soldiers were held accountable for the war crimes, according to the newspaper's findings which appeared in Sunday's edition.

The abuse was not restricted to one rogue Army division, but was committed by every Army division operating in Vietnam, the Times review found.

Among the incidents documented in the files:

_Seven civilian massacres from 1967 to 1971 that left at least 137 dead.

_Seventy-eight additional attacks on unarmed civilians that left at least 57 dead, 56 wounded and 15 sexually assaulted.

_141 incidents in which U.S. soldiers tortured civilian detainees and prisoners of war.

In one incident detailed in the report, members of the B Company in February 1968 rounded up and gunned down a group of villagers that included women and children after being ordered by a lieutenant to "kill anything that moves."

The files, collected by a Pentagon task force in the 1970s, do not include the most notorious U.S. atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre. The incident, which left some 500 Vietnamese villagers dead, was exposed by reporter Seymour Hersh the following year.

Retired Brig. Gen. John H. Johns, who was part of the task force that gathered the files, said he no longer thought the atrocities should remain in the dark.

"We can't change current practices unless we acknowledge the past," said Johns, 78.

The files show investigators found enough evidence to charge 203 soldiers with crimes related to the mistreatment of Vietnamese civilians and prisoners. But only 57 soldiers were court-martialed and 23 convicted, the Times reported.

Fourteen soldiers received prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years, but most served much less time.

A former legal adviser to the Army's Criminal Investigation Division said there was scarce interest in prosecuting Vietnam war crimes after the war.

"Everyone wanted Vietnam to go away," said Steven Chucala, now a civilian attorney for the Army in Virginia.

These three decade after the fact admissions are something, aren't they? Too bad those of us living in this "free" society can't learn about these things when they happen so we can make appropriate political judgements when it counts.

Three decades from now maybe we'll learn what kind of inhuman crap the U.S. is doing in Iraq. And maybe Israel will fess up to its soldiers really were on the Lebanese side of the border when the fighting began Of course, when we finally find all this out it will be with the proviso that "that was way back then in 2006, of course we don't do things like that anymore". But of course.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

Just in case the suspense is killing you. 

Some of us have been sitting on the edge of our seats for the past few weeks waiting in anticipation in for the famous primaries that were going to be organized to select a candidate to run against Chavez. Through these primaries the opposition was to show its new found democratic character. Alas, the opposition has no democratic character and the primaries look almost certain never to happen.

Up to recently there had been three main opposition contenders, Teodoro Petkoff, Manuel Rosales, and Julio Borges. Last week it was reduced to two as Petkoff, polling not all that far from zero support, dropped out. This in a way is a blow to Chavez as I'm sure Petkoff would have been Chavez's preferred opponent. The reason for that is Petkoff spent a good part of his life in 4th Republic governments that brought ruin to the economy and misery to the Venezuelan people. He was planning minister in the government immediately proceeding Chavez's and bequethed Chavez an economy in recession, give-away oil contracts, high inflation, next to no public works under construction, and $6 billion in unpaid back wages for government employees. For those reasons and more Petkoff is widely, and justifiably, detested by the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans. It really would have been entertaining to watch Chavez shred him during a campaign. But that is not to be.

So now the opposition is left with Julio Borges, the Oxford educated yuppy heading up Venezuela's yuppy party, Primero Justicia, and Manuel Rosales the governor of Zulia state. The problem for Borges is there aren't that many yuppies in Venezuela. Manuel Rosales could actually be a formidable opponent for Chavez as he is an effective politician. However, he does have some baggage as he showed up in Miraflores palace on April 12, 2002 and gave Pedro Carmona a big hug as he was instituting his "dictatorship for a day" (I believe he signed the Carmona decree if my memory serves me correctly). I wonder how many times between now and December 3rd we'll see the video of that infamous hug if Rosales becomes the candidate?

Anways, you probably thinking, "well, they still have two candidates so the primaries are still on to pick one". Nope. Rosales and Borges are actaully squirelled away in back rooms to horse trade for the candidacy. Wouldn't you love to be a fly on that wall? One can only imagine how many tens of millions of dollars are being offered and counter offered by the various business and media magnates to have their preferred candidate selected. Not to mention there are the very delicate discussions over how all the future spoils would be shared in the very unlikely event that the opposition actually wins. In the best tradition of the 4th Republic you can't just have one party hogging all the bribes, kickbacks, and looting - they have to share with their bretherin. And all of that needs to be ironed out in advance to avoid any nasty surprises once in office.

So sorry for dissappointing any of your pining for opposition primaries - there aren't likely to be any. But rest assured Oil Wars is on top of the situation and as soon as the white smoke tells us we have an official opposition candidate I'll let you know.


"Days of darkness" 

From Haaretz newspaper in Israel we have a fabulous article written by Gideon Levy. At the same time that I appreciate how good this article is it kindles in me sadness that no comparable article ever gets published in U.S. newspapers regarding its occupation of Iraq and ever expanding war with the muslim war. Levy wonders where the Israelis left is when it is most needed. I wish I could figure out where the U.S. left has dissappeared to for the last 30+ years. It needs to come out from hiding sooner rather than later.

Days of darkness

By Gideon Levy

In war as in war: Israel is sinking into a strident, nationalistic atmosphere and darkness is beginning to cover everything. The brakes we still had are eroding, the insensitivity and blindness that characterized Israeli society in recent years is intensifying. The home front is cut in half: the north suffers and the center is serene. But both have been taken over by tones of jingoism, ruthlessness and vengeance, and the voices of extremism that previously characterized the camp's margins are now expressing its heart. The left has once again lost its way, wrapped in silence or "admitting mistakes." Israel is exposing a unified, nationalistic face.

The devastation we are sowing in Lebanon doesn't touch anyone here and most of it is not even shown to Israelis. Those who want to know what Tyre looks like now have to turn to foreign channels - the BBC reporter brings chilling images from there, the likes of which won't be seen here. How can one not be shocked by the suffering of the other, at our hands, even when our north suffers? The death we are sowing at the same time, right now in Gaza, with close to 120 dead since the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, 27 last Wednesday alone, touches us even less. The hospitals in Gaza are full of burned children, but who cares? The darkness of the war in the north covers them, too.

Since we've grown accustomed to thinking collective punishment a legitimate weapon, it is no wonder no debate has sparked here over the cruel punishment of Lebanon for Hezbollah's actions. If it was okay in Nablus, why not Beirut? The only criticism being heard about this war is over tactics. Everyone is a general now and they are mostly pushing the IDF to deepen its activities. Commentators, ex-generals and politicians compete at raising the stakes with extreme proposals.

Haim Ramon "doesn't understand" why there is still electricity in Baalbek; Eli Yishai proposes turning south Lebanon into a "sandbox"; Yoav Limor, a Channel 1 military correspondent, proposes an exhibition of Hezbollah corpses and the next day to conduct a parade of prisoners in their underwear, "to strengthen the home front's morale."

It's not difficult to guess what we would think about an Arab TV station whose commentators would say something like that, but another few casualties or failures by the IDF, and Limor's proposal will be implemented. Is there any better sign of how we have lost our senses and our humanity?

Chauvinism and an appetite for vengeance are raising their heads. If two weeks ago only lunatics such as Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu spoke about "wiping out every village where a Katyusha is fired," now a senior officer in the IDF speaks that way in Yedioth Aharonoth's main headlines. Lebanese villages may not have been wiped out yet, but we have long since wiped out our own red lines.

A bereaved father, Haim Avraham, whose son was kidnapped and killed by Hezbollah in October 2000, fires an artillery shell into Lebanon for the reporters. It's vengeance for his son. His image, embracing the decorated artillery shell is one of the most disgraceful images of this war. And it's only the first. A group of young girls also have their picture taken decorating IDF shells with slogans.

Maariv, which has turned into the Fox News of Israel, fills its pages with chauvinist slogans reminiscent of particularly inferior propaganda machines, such as "Israel is strong" - which is indicative of weakness, actually - while a TV commentator calls for the bombing of a TV station.

Lebanon, which has never fought Israel and has 40 daily newspapers, 42 colleges and universities and hundreds of different banks, is being destroyed by our planes and cannon and nobody is taking into account the amount of hatred we are sowing. In international public opinion, Israel has been turned into a monster, and that still hasn't been calculated into the debit column of this war. Israel is badly stained, a moral stain that can't be easily and quickly removed. And only we don't want to see it.

The people want victory, and nobody knows what that is and what its price will be.

The Zionist left has also been made irrelevant. As in every difficult test in the past - the two intifadas for example - this time too the left has failed just when its voice was so necessary as a counterweight to the stridency of the beating tom-toms of war. Why have a left if at every real test it joins the national chorus?

Peace Now stands silently, so does Meretz, except for brave Zehava Gal-On. A few days of a war of choice and already Yehoshua Sobol is admitting he was wrong all along. Peace Now is suddenly an "infantile slogan" for him. His colleagues are silent and their silence is no less resounding. Only the extreme left makes its voice heard, but it is a voice nobody listens to.

Long before this war is decided, it can already be stated that its spiraling cost will include the moral blackout that is surrounding and covering us all, threatening our existence and image no less than Hezbollah's Katyushas.


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