Saturday, January 13, 2007

The U.S. turns its guns towards Iran 

Last week I pointed out an ominous development - that with the appointment of an Admiral to run the U.S. Central Command it was clear that they were preparing for a military conflict with Iran. It seems some others have now figured this out. From the New York Times:

THE United States Central Command stretches across some of the world’s most volatile real estate from Kenya in the southwest through all of the Middle East to Kazakhstan in the northeast. It encompasses two active combat theaters: Afghanistan, which is landlocked, and Iraq, with a tiny uncontested shoreline.

In both, the main fighting is counterinsurgency, largely the task of light infantry like the Marines and the Army’s 10th Mountain or 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. CentCom, as it is known, has always been run by a four-star general from the Army or Marines.

So why name a sailor — Adm. William J. Fallon — as CentCom’s new commander, as President Bush did earlier this month?

One word: Iran.

It's all about Iran - yep, they sure got that right.

Admiral Fallon’s appointment comes amid a series of indications that the Bush administration is increasingly focused on putting pressure on Iran and, perhaps, veering toward open confrontation. They include the dispatching of a second Navy carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf; a blunt singling out of Iran in Mr. Bush’s speech Wednesday night, warning that America will “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq,” followed by a dawn raid Thursday on an Iranian office in the Kurdish city of Erbil in which five Iranians were seized along with files and computers.

The important thing is that Admiral Fallon is a naval aviator.

Now the ranking officer in the Pacific — the Navy’s traditional fief — his résumé includes 24 years of flight assignments beginning with combat in Vietnam and including commanding the air wing on the carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the first Iraq war.

Iran thus far has been the principal beneficiary of the American enterprise in Iraq, exerting influence over the Shiite parties it nurtured in exile and expanding its own regional prestige. The Iranians’ confidence and defiance have been bolstered by the knowledge that American ground forces are stretched near the breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But introducing more air and sea power, with their long reach, in the gulf could change the military balance and options.

It is classic gunboat diplomacy.

The American naval presence in the gulf is the Fifth Fleet, based in Manama, Bahrain. It usually numbers around 20 ships, capable of putting 15,000 sailors and marines afloat. Its principal component is a carrier battle group, so adding a second will, in effect, double its air and sea power.

A carrier battle group typically consists of a Nimitz-class carrier like the Eisenhower, a floating city so huge one can see the horizon rise and fall without feeling the swell of the sea, and capable of carrying as many as 85 aircraft, along with protective escorts. These usually include two guided missile cruisers, two destroyers, a frigate, two submarines and a supply ship. These smaller vessels could be used for other tasks, like escorting tankers through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil passes, or enforcing sanctions or a blockade on Iran.

The Fifth Fleet also normally has a Marine landing force of 2,200, roughly equally divided between ground troops and air support, aboard three specialized ships that can be used in raids or other operations.

Will this cow the Iranians? Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, thinks not. More likely, he said, is that “the more radical militants will use this to berate the more moderate” and “the notion of accommodating Western audiences will diminish.”

Some would have us believe that just because the U.S. is getting its tail kicked in Iraq it poses no danger to anyone else. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is an imperial power, determined to defend its "strategic interests", and in particular its access to oil, and it will use all its resources to fight anyone it views as posing a threat. As I've said before, it looks like the bloodletting has only just begun.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Just for the record 

This is a little late, as Chavez was sworn in yesterday, but I thought these would be good videos to have up for those interested in watching them:

First the ceremonies in the morning:

Then the long winded actual swearing in (where Chavez says Christ was the greatest Socialist):

Then Chavez's speech (make sure you have a few hours for this one):


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Taking over CANTV: A good idea? 

This past Monday Chavez set off a firestorm of controversy when he said that the principal Venezuelan telecommunications company, CANTV, would be nationalized. He based the desire for nationalization on the fact that CANTV used to be a state owned company until it was privatized in the early 1990s and that according to Chavez CANTV is a “strategic” companies.

Without a doubt Chavez, coming off a huge electoral victory, has the political capital to take bold actions. The question is the, what precisely does Chavez mean when he refers to nationalizing CANTV and would it be beneficial for Venezuela?

Chavez himself didn’t explicitly say what he meant by “nationalization” so we can only try to guess what he meant. Traditionally, when people hear the word “nationalize” they think of a government seizing or confiscating private companies without paying compensation. Given Chavez’s leftist credentials and rhetoric this is probably what many think he will do with CANTV.

However, if we examine this situation further we can see that scenario is very unlikely. Two important facts need to be kept in mind. First, Venezuela has a significant number of assets in the United States, not the least of which is the large petroleum company, Citgo. Second, CANTV is partially owned by the U.S. telecommunications company Verizon and its outstanding stock, which trades on U.S. exchanges, is owned by people all over the world.

What this means is that if the Venezuelan government were to attempt to seize CANTV without compensating its current owners they would be stepping on a lot of toes, outraging some powerful American interests, and would be vulnerable to being sued in U.S. courts and having their valuable assets there seized. If Venezuela were planning on confiscating CANTV the logical thing to do would have been to divest themselves of all their assets in the U.S., like Citgo, so they would have nothing to lose. As it stands now, if they nationalize CANTV without compensation they will just lose assets in the U.S. of at least an equal value and will get no gain from the nationalization.

For those reasons, a seizure of CANTV is highly unlikely. If Venezuela proceeds with its nationalization plans it will almost certainly compensate its current owners(this has now been confirmed by the government here). The most recent valuation of CANTV that I have seen put it at about $1 billion so that is more or less what they would have to pay for it. Now, the Venezuelan government certainly has far more than $1 billion just laying around which it could use to make this purchase. The question is what would Venezuela gain by purchasing CANTV and would it be worth spending that amount of money?

First, lets take on the national security angle which is what the “strategic” industry term implies. Does having foreign nationals own, equip, and effectively run a Venezuelan telecommunications company pose a threat to Venezuela? The answer I think is only to a limited extent and the act of nationalization itself wouldn’t solve that problem.

Venezuela could be concerned that with the company being technically run by others they have no secure communications. Also, by being dependent on technology from the U.S., for example, they are vulnerable to the U.S. in the future being unwilling to service that equipment and supply replacement parts as happened to Cuba and Nicaragua.

While those are legitimate concerns nationalization doesn’t effect them. For example, communications by government officials and the military do indeed need to be secured. But to do that those groups of people should be using completely separate communication networks set up with technical assistance from countries with experience in this such as Cuba, Russia, or China. If Chavez is talking to Fidel Castro over regular CANTV phones that is insane to begin with. You can bet Bush doesn’t call Tony Blair using MCI or T-mobile.

As far as losing access to replacement parts and maintenance that will be an issue irrespective of who owns CANTV. Venezuela itself doesn’t make telecommunications equipment so it has to buy it from someone. Most likely CANTV’s systems are set up using American equipment so they would be vulnerable to a cutoff from the U.S. But that will be the case even after a nationalization unless they undertake the very expensive proposition of buying all new equipment from some other country. Further, there is no country which can guarantee that they will never cut them off and those that are least likely to cut them off for political reasons, such as China, would probably be selling them an inferior product. Unless Venezuela undertakes the time consuming, difficult, and expensive project of creating its own telecommunication equipment industry there is really no way to eliminate this vulnerability.

So nationalizing CANTV really makes no sense on national security grounds. Communications that truly need to be secure should be over separate networks built by a trusted source and for the national communications network there is really no way to avoid buying the equipment from some foreign source. Security is therefore not a reason for the Venezuelan government to buy CANTV.

The next thing to consider is whether there are valid economic reasons for wanting to purchase CANTV. If Venezuela spends $1 billion to purchase CANTV what is the country getting in return or what would it have that it doesn’t already have?

Of course, if the government buys CANTV then Venezuela will have a big, efficient, comprehensive telecommunications company that employs thousands of people and allows Venezuelans to easily communicate amongst themselves. Thing is, Venezuela already has a big, efficient, comprehensive telecommunications company that employs thousands of people. So the Venezuelan economy will have gained nothing, there won’t be even a little blip upwards. Please also note, I am not even bringing up the fact that historically speaking state run companies have been run less efficiently than private ones and have often sustained financial losses while offering inferior service.

To see this a little more carefully lets think about some of the alternative uses that $1 billion could be put to. If it was invested in building and equipping a refrigerator factory look at what Venezuela would gain: it could have a new factory creating new goods that could be consumed domestically and exported, new technology, and thousands of new jobs creating new value for the Venezuelan economy. Of course, the refrigerator factory could fail, lose money, and go out of business or need additional subsidies. But that is equally true of CANTV – there are no guarantees it will be well run. At least in the case of the refrigerator factory if it works Venezuela will have something valuable that creates more wealth. Even if the government does a good job of running CANTV Venezuela just winds up with what it already has, there is no new economic activity. Clearly Venezuela has better uses for its money than buying CANTV.

The last argument that would probably be made in favor of nationalization is that if the government owns it then all the profits would accrue to Venezuela and wouldn’t get paid out to gringo (or rich Venezuelan) shareholders. That is, if CANTV made $100 million in profits last year now those profits would accrue to the Venezuelan government which means that Venezuela would have $100 million more.

But even that is not what it seems. First, there is no guarantee those profits would still be earned. If the management of the company deteriorates those profits might disappear. Also, as a state owned company there would probably be pressure to reduce its rates and add service so that profit margins would be reduced (incidentally, if the issue with CANTV is that people think its rates are too high those rates can be regulated by the government – that happens to private telecommunications companies all over the world). More importantly, the refrigerator factory I mentioned above could also earn high profits and it has the added benefit of creating new economic activity and new jobs at the same time. Finally, if the goal is for the Venezuelan government to simply invest money and make a profit it could instead just pay off some of its foreign debt and save money on interest payments – that would be probably a 10% rate of return and it is guaranteed with no risk at all.

Having gone through this it is clear that Venezuela gains little or nothing from nationalizing CANTV. It won’t be more secure. Economic activity won’t be increased. And its not even the best potential use of its money. When thought through the nationalization of CANTV simply makes no sense.

This is not to say there aren’t nationalizations or government buyouts of foreign firms that make sense. For example, last year the Venezuelan government bought a majority stake in the joint oil ventures producing in Venezuela’s marginal oil fields. The reason was that the private companies controlled the accounting operations of those joint ventures and were using that control to inflate costs, which the Venezuelans were contractually obliged to pay, and therefore fleecing Venezuela of billions of dollars annually. So the specifics of that case made it a very good idea for the Venezuelan government to up its stake in those companies as the country now gets billions in extra revenue.

The moral of that story is these situations need to be evaluated on a case by case basis. Having done that in the case of CANTV we can see it really doesn’t benefit Venezuela to take over the company. Interestingly, Chavez didn’t revisit this issue during his inauguration today. Plus he does have a history of “thinking out loud” and floating some ideas which are never implemented, most likely because he later finds them flawed. Hopefully that will be the case here before valuable resources with alternative uses are wasted.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dead men don’t talk 

Ten days ago Saddam Hussein was rushed to the gallows in an execution that was as ineptly handled as everything else in Iraq since the U.S. invaded. The video of the execution was simply amazing. Hussein may have been an evil and murderous dictator but he was certainly a courageous one. Hussein was stoic and unbowed as he faced his demise – I doubt the coward who runs the U.S. will look even half as composed as he stutters through his teleprompted speech trying to explain to the American public why after for four years they still have to throw away thousands of more lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to have any chance of winning.

In fact if you could momentarily forget that Hussein was a dictator his performance could leave you in awe. As he was being taunted by guards hiding behind ski masks chanting “Moktada” his rejoinder of “is this how real men conduct themselves?" reminded me of Che Guevarra’s famous statement before the Bolivian firing squad – “go ahead and shoot, you are about to kill a man”.

Yet the details of how a dictator met his end is neither here nor there. Save that it now appears a big part of why Saddam was rushed to the gallows was so that the U.S. and its puppets would be free to write history as they please with the person at the center of it all no longer there to contradict them.

This was made clear in today’s New York Times front page article about the trial of Saddam Hussein which is apparently continuing even after he has been executed. How interesting that they would execute him just before the key part of one of his trials was to begin and brand new evidence, alledgedly voice recordings of Hussein himself, were to be made public:

BAGHDAD, Jan. 8 — The courtroom he dominated for 15 months seemed much smaller on Monday without him there to mock the judges and assert his menacing place in history. But the thick, high-register voice of Saddam Hussein was unmistakable. In audio recordings made years ago and played 10 days after his hanging, Mr. Hussein was heard justifying the use of chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s, predicting they would kill “thousands” and saying he alone among Iraq’s leaders had the authority to order chemical attacks.
In the history of prosecutions against some of the last century’s grimmest men, there can rarely have been a moment that so starkly caught a despot’s unpitying nature.

Now it is interesting that this trial would continue without the presence of the main person being accused. Yes, trials are sometimes held in abstentia but that is when the defendant has died for some other reason or is otherwise beyond the reach of the authorities – not because it was decided to execute first and finish the trial later.

So lets be very clear what exactly is going on here. Yes Hussein went through one complete trial where he was found guilty of having about 150 people killed. Certainly no small crime and certainly one worthy of punishment. But that crime won’t do for the history books. How can they justify invading a country, killing thousands and starting a civil war simply to overthrow some-one guilty of having 150 people killed? After all Augusto Pinochet had three thousand people killed and he walked out of British custody scott free.

No, a conviction for killing 150 won’t suffice. They must show that he murdered tens of thousands or better yet hundreds of thousands, preferable using those infamous weapons of mass destruction. Hence the continuation of this trial without its main defendant.

On one recording, Mr. Hussein presses the merits of chemical weapons on Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, his vice-president, and now, the Americans believe, the fugitive leader of the Sunni insurgency that has tied down thousands of American troops. Mr. Douri, a notorious hard-liner, asks whether chemical attacks will be effective against civilian populations, and suggests that they might stir an international outcry.

“Yes, they’re very effective if people don’t wear masks,” Mr. Hussein replies.
Yes, and accusations are more “effective” when the person against whom they are made is no longer there to contradict them.

Before he was hanged Dec. 30 for offenses in another case, Mr. Hussein had used the so-called Anfal trial, involving the massacre of as many as 180,000 Iraqi Kurds, as a platform for arguing that the chemical weapons attacks of the kind that devastated the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988, were carried out by Iranian forces then fighting Iraq in an eight-year war.

But the recordings told another story. Court officials gave no hint as to how they obtained the recordings, which Iraqis familiar with Mr. Hussein’s voice said seemed to be authentic. But they appeared to have been made during meetings of his Revolutionary Command Council and of the Baath Party High Command, two groups that acted as rubber stamps for his decisions. Mr. Hussein regularly ordered meetings to be recorded, according to Iraqis who knew the inner workings of Mr. Hussein’s dictatorship.

So these recordings, which no-one knows how they were obtained, “seemed to be authentic”. But there is one person who would probably know immediately if they were authentic or not and who could object if they were fabrications. But that won't happen as dead men don’t object.

When the chief judge, Muhammad Ureibi al-Khalifa, began the proceedings by abruptly cutting the microphone as Mr. Majid stood to intone a prayer in memory of Mr. Hussein, the former dictator seemed to be judicially, as well as existentially, dead. But the anticlimactic beginning swiftly gave way to the most astonishing day of testimony since Mr. Hussein and his associates went on trial. Once more, it was Mr. Hussein, this time in an involuntary orgy of self-incrimination, who dominated.

Note that “the most astonishing day of testimony since Mr. Hussein and his associates went on trial” was saved for after Hussein was executed. Maybe they couldn’t risk Hussein being there to call his own witnesses, to cast doubts upon the prosecutors evidence, and to point out inconsistencies in their version of events. They simply couldn’t have Hussein calling into question their “astonishing” evidence. And dead men don’t call anything into question.

One recording revealed, more clearly than anything before, Mr. Hussein’s personal involvement in covering up Iraq’s attempts to acquire unconventional weapons, the program that ultimately led to President Bush sending American troops to overthrow him. Talking to the general who led Iraq’s dealings with United Nations weapons inspectors until weeks before the 2003 invasion, he counseled caution in the figures being divulged on the extent of Iraq’s raw supplies for chemical weapons, so as to disguise the use of unaccounted-for chemicals in the attacks on the Kurds.

But it was Mr. Hussein’s chilling discussion of the power of chemical weapons against civilians that brought prosecutors and judges to the verge of tears, and seemed to shock the remaining defendants. One of the recordings featured an unidentified military officer telling Mr. Hussein that a plan was under development for having Soviet-built aircraft carry containers, packed with up to 50 napalm bombs each, which would be rolled out of the cargo deck and dropped on Kurdish towns.

“Yes, in areas where you have concentrated populations, that would be useful,” Mr. Hussein replies.

The U.S. leadership, and some reporters like the author of this article, John Burns, have never gotten over the fact the weapons of mass destruction which they assured the entire world existed and which justified their glorious war turned out not to exist. It is never fun having egg on ones face, especially when thousands have died as the result of your stupidity. So they need something to redeem themselves and now they can claim to have it with these tapes supposedly showing that Saddam had “personal involvement in covering up Iraq’s attempts to acquire unconventional weapons”.

Of course, if Saddam were in the courtroom things could be interesting. Maybe he could tell us who exactly gave Iraq the chemical weapons that it supposedly used against the Kurds. Hussein famously met with former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and was photographed shaking his hand. If Hussein were alive maybe he would spill the beans on that meeting and tell the court it was Rumsfeld who suggested using chemical weapons on the Kurds and Iranians to keep the Middle East’s oil safe for the U.S. But dead men don’t spill any beans.

The prosecutor, Munkith al-Faroun, came to court as almost the only person who attended Mr. Hussein’s execution on Dec. 30 to emerge with an unsullied reputation. It was he, as he and others confirmed, who attempted to halt the taunts hurled at Mr. Hussein as he stood with the noose around his neck, moments before the trapdoor opened. Over the hubbub, an illicit camera phone recording showed Mr. Faroun calling out for silence, “Please, no!” he said. “The man is about to be executed.”

But back in the courtroom, Mr. Faroun became, again, the man holding Mr. Hussein to account and, in one poignant moment, counseling restraint among those who have expressed outrage over the manner of the former ruler’s execution. That moment came after the court watched television images taken after the Halabja attack, which more than any other event focused world attention on the atrocities committed under Mr. Hussein.

The video showed the horrors: a father wailing in grief as he found his children lying along a street littered with bodies; dead mothers clutching gas-choked infants to their breasts in swaddling clothes; young sisters embracing each other in death; and trucks piled high with civilian bodies. “I ask the whole world to look at these images, especially those who are crying right now,” Mr. Faroun said, referring to the outpouring of sympathy for Mr. Hussein.

The farce continues. In any REAL court where REAL evidence is being presented the accused is allowed to examine that evidence, present their own evidence, and to confront and cross examine those accusing them. But dead men can’t examine evidence, nor present their own evidence, nor even know by whom they are being accused. As Saddam might have said: “Is this how a real court conducts itself?”

The recordings played at Monday’s trial session, seemingly eliminating any doubt about Mr. Hussein’s role in the attacks on the Kurds, may go a long way to answering criticism of the government for executing him before he was judged for the worst of his crimes.

But of course, you always wait until after you’ve executed the person before presenting the evidence “eliminating any doubt”!?!? I doubt this new “evidence” will answer any questions posed by thoughtful people but we may now finally know why some wanted the accused dead so quickly.

American justice department lawyers, who have done much of the behind-the-scenes work in sifting tons of documents and other evidence gathered after the invasion of 2003, had never hinted that they held the trump card, judicially and historically, that the audio recordings seem likely to be.

You play your “trump card” after you dispose of the accused?!?! Well, maybe you do if you are afraid they aren’t really “trump cards”. Three kings may seem like a strong hand but it may not win if the accused is able to speak freely in a court of law and play their royal flush. But fortunately for the American justice department lawyers dead men can’t show their cards.

But even what dead men can or cannot do is now beside the point. The point is none of this has been happening in a “court of law”. The farce that is this trial has been held in a kangaroo court, set up by a puppet government, which is in turn kept in place by an imperial power. The victors may be able to write their own version of history but they can’t change that fact.


Monday, January 08, 2007

It looks like we will find out what "21st Century Socialism" is sooner rather than later 

At the swearing in of his new cabinet today President Hugo Chavez wasted no time laying out part how he wants to begin his new term.

He asked for the National Assembly to approve a new enabling law that would give him broader powers to implement important laws and policies himself without having to go through the Assembly each time. Sounds fine to me, but remember that the last time this happened with the famous 41 enabling laws things got real exciting really quick (strikes, coups, etc.). Given how emasculated the opposition is at this point I doubt anything will happen, but you never know.

He also wants "socialist" reforms to the constitution, whatever they are. I'm not sure why a constitution should need to be revised barely seven years after being first drafted but I guess we'll have to wait for the details.

He called for "popular" education. This is suppose to be a complete reform of education to improve the level of science and cultural instruction and also to inculcate new values. This will be a huge, and contentious, task. Now we know why he made his brother Minister of Education.

He said there would be an "explosion" in the power of the communal councils. They are local bodies recently set up at neighborhood levels to bring power closer to the grass roots, speed the resolution of local problems, and help reduce corruption and buearacracy. He now expects them to actually replace local governments.

Lastly he called for re-nationlizing former state companies that had previously been privatized. The one specifically mentioned is the huge CANTV telecommunications company which controls most telephone communications in Venezuela as well as most internet access. Some electrical companies and oil companies have also been mentioned for possible nationalization.

Looks like there won't be much dilly dallying by Chavez. He has a huge mandate and he wants to capitalize on it quickly while it is still fresh.

Smart. Very smart.

See here for more info in English and here for more info in Spanish.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

A truly ambitious project 

Chavez's government is by now very well known for its massive public works projects. Yet as much as it has built it seems to add to what it wants to construct even more. The Caracas is Metro is a perfect example. It seems every few weeks a new map is released with even more components added to it. Here is the latest edition:

Parts of the transit system already built are in solid lines. What remains to be built is indicated with broken lines.

This map confirms some changes to the system. For example, the yellow line on top is the number 6 line which would parrellel the orange number 1 line which is hopelessly overcrowded. This line hadn't been on most recent maps but by it being included here it shows the government intends to build it. That is good news as they certainly need it.

It also shows how the number 2 line is now in part (the part in red) diverted through newly built stations to go directly to Plaza Venezuela. The final connection was made just this past week and this should help a significant number of people avoid the most overcrowded part of the 1 line, the part between Plaza Venezuela and Capitolio. That is certainly a welcomed and needed improvement. And note the further extension of that line from Zona Rental to Parque del Este is already under construction.

While the planned line to El Hatillo has been known about for some time there are other new projects that I am seeing for the first time on this map. For example, the recently opened Metro line to Los Teques will be further expanded to go to San Antonia (the blue line on the bottome left of the map). A completely new line will go from El Valle north to San Jose. Also, the number 2 line will be connected to the number 3 line. That will make it possible to travel between places like El Valle and Antimano without ever having to go near the number one line.

It also shows new rail connections with trains (indicated by the IAFE symbol) to the east leaving from La Urbina on the yet to be constructed 6 line and trains to the airport on the coast leaving from the number 1 line's Gato Negro station.

What is even more interesting are the thin lines off the Metro system with a gondola cabin in a circle. Those will be gondolas (similar to those used in ski areas) to make access to hillside barrios easier. I had heard rumors of this being considered but didn't think it was serious. From this, it clearly is serious. If fact, from the map it seems they intend to build nine of these gondola systems.

This diagram gives more information on these systems:

As can be seen, these systems will be up to two miles in length and will have a vertical gain of almost a thousand feet (can you imagine hiking up 1,000 feet to your home everyday?). They will have intermediate stations that will allow people to get off at various points. The other thing that is interesting is that they are quite economical to construct averageing about $25 million. Note that one gondola already is in service - the one that goes up El Avila mountain to a hotel and recreational area. According to the new Metro map that system will be extended down the north side of El Avila to reach the beaches on the Carribean Sea (there once was such a system and the abandoned towers can easily be seen on the north side of El Avila).

As has been pointed out before on this blog this is not a novel transportion system. It is already in use in Medellin Colombia where a "Metrocable" system has been built up a mountain side and have been proven to be quite popular.

Note that in this picture you can see one of the intermediate stations (with the curved white roof) and you then seen the gondola continue down the mountain at a different angle to a station at the bottom which is also where it connects with the Medellin Metro system. Presumabely the Caracas system will work the same way.

Here is a news report showing the system in action:

One very interesting point made by the reporter is that this system has increased peoples pride in their neighborhood and has led them to few their barrio as more permanent and desireable. This in turn has led them to invest in upgrading their homes and making other improvements in their community. Thus this is a proven system with some important ancillary benefits.

All of these projects will certainly take a decade or more to complete. But once done, wow, what a world class transportation system the residents of Caracas will enjoy. There are exciting times ahead for Venezuela's capital.


Putting things in perspective 

While Chavez’s government has huge accomplishments, it also has had shortcomings and failures. This leads to well deserved criticisms. That is all well and good.

But sometimes it causes people to lose perspective. That Venezuela doesn’t have the prosperity of Germany, the social welfare system of Sweden, or the social peace of Switzerland should come as no surprise – yet it leads some to think Chavez’s government has come up short, that it hasn’t accomplished what it should have.

This line of thinking though is clearly misguided. Venezuela, which is very much an under-developed country cannot be fairly compared to European countries which have been developed for a century or more. More reasonable comparisons are to be made with countries with circumstances comparable to Venezuela’s.

When this is done even some countries touted as role models for the rest of the world. India, for example, has recently become a model for development in the third world. Yet the reality is that country remains desperately poor, and while a tiny minority has benefited, most people remain stuck in a deeply unjust society that shows no signs of changing. Take this article from today’s New York Times:

NEW DELHI, Jan. 6 — When Vandana Sarkar, an impoverished migrant worker, went to the police in October to report that her 20-year-old daughter was missing, she recalled Friday, officers laughed and said, “Why do you people have so many children if you can’t look after them?”

Their casual response should not have come as a surprise. At least 30 other sets of parents had reported children missing from the same slum area in Noida, an affluent suburb of Delhi, over recent months. Some say they were dismissed as “drunken trouble-makers.” Others claim officers refused even to register their complaints.

It was only when 17 chopped-up bodies, most of them belonging to children, were found in the sewers behind the home of a wealthy local resident on Dec. 29 that the Noida police were finally stirred into action.

What seems clearly a case of serial killing on the fringes of the capital has become a national scandal, with public horror at the brutal details interwoven with outrage at the police department’s failure to investigate.

That India has a two-tier justice system is nothing new. Only widespread protest drove the courts to order a retrial for a rich young man acquitted in February of fatally shooting a model at a party in 1999. In December, the accused, Manu Sharma, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

And when the 3-year-old son of an Indian executive disappeared near his Noida home in November, it was instantly national news. The police immediately began a huge hunt, found the abductors and returned the child to his distraught parents.

But the case of the dead and missing slum children has provided a brutally stark example of how the law does not work for the marginalized, shocking even the most jaundiced observers of the nation’s legal processes.

The sluggish police response to the disappearance of dozens of children has horrified the nation as much as the crime itself. Residents said as many as 38 children have been reported missing over the last two years from the slum, Nithari, but that the police recorded only 19 cases, according to Indian news media. Many parents, the reports said, were told their children must have run away.

Groups like India’s National Commission for Women were disturbed by reports of women disappearing from the Noida slums as early as August 2005. Nirmala Venkatesh, a commission member, was working with six families missing daughters, none of whom had managed to persuade the police to investigate.

“The police system failed,” she said. “They were ignorant, they were careless.”
A woman named Dayawati, also from a nearby slum, came holding a black-and-white passport photo of her son, Vipin, 16, who has been missing for four months. “When I told the police he had disappeared, they told me to look for him myself,” she said. “Things would have been different if I’d been rich. Then I could have bribed them to make them investigate.”

And India is hardly the only country where the government has historically had other priorities than helping the poor. Take Chile for example. From today’s New York Times:

The situation has been further complicated by a law that guarantees the armed forces 10 percent of government revenues from copper. The statute has been on the books for decades, but it was made more generous during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and has not been amended since democracy was restored in 1990.

Since the start of the decade, the Chilean military has gone on a buying spree, spending $2.8 billion for weapons, ostensibly to modernize old equipment. The purchases, which have led to expressions of alarm in neighboring Peru and Bolivia, include 10 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter planes acquired from the United States, eight frigates, two submarines and, most recently, 118 Leopard IIA4 tanks from Germany.

Two years ago, a study done by three international economic research bodies concluded that Chile spent more per capita on the military than any other country in Latin America: $90.88 per inhabitant. According to recent estimates here, the copper law will result in the armed forces receiving nearly an additional $1 billion in 2007, which must be used for “military acquisitions.”

In contrast, General Pinochet did not build a single hospital during the 17 years he was in power, María Soledad Barría, the minister of health, said.

Venezuela is no Sweden or Switzerland. But it can’t fairly be expected to be. And it certainly has problems and injustices. Fortunately, it has the resources to made significant headway in addressing those injustices. But more importantly, it has had a government that has cared. As just these two examples from today’s paper should remind us – most poor people living throughout the world don’t have such good fortune.


What's in a name? 

I generally don't like to just cadge articles from newspapers but this one was too good to pass up. It is hard to hang around Venezuela very long without picking up on this very curious habit of Venezuelans"

AS university students clashed with the police in this country last May, attention focused not just on their demands to hold elections without government meddling but also on the names of the two leaders organizing the protests: Nixon Moreno and Stalin González.

Many Venezuelans had a good laugh at the names and went on with their business. What’s so odd, after all, about the occasional Nixon or Stalin in a nation where bestowing bizarre names on newborns has become a whimsically colorful tradition?

A glance through a phone book or the government’s voter registry reveals names like Taj-Mahal Sánchez, Elvis Presley Gomez Morillo, Darwin Lenin Jimenez, even Hitler Eufemio Mayora. Other Venezuelan first names, which roll off the tongue about as easily in Spanish as in English, include Yusmairobis, Nefertitis, Yaxilany, Riubalkis, Debraska, as well as Yesaidú and Juan Jondre — transliterations of “Yes, I do” and “One hundred.”

What’s it like to have such a name? “I’m extremely proud,” said Mao Breznyer Pino Delgado, explaining how he had recently looked online at Wikipedia to read up on the men who inspired his names, Mao Zedong and the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, when he found an example of Mao’s signature. He said he learned a bit of calligraphy so he could sign his name in Chinese.

“My father was a political moderate but he admired the military accomplishments of the Red Army,” said Mr. Pino, 26, who works in advertising for a beach clothing company. When a Fidel Castro or Mao shows up on the electoral registry, Mr. Pino said, some people accuse allies of the leftwing president, Hugo Chávez, of stuffing the registry with false names. “But my name has been Mao since before Chávez,” Mr. Pino, a supporter of Mr. Chávez, said.

Venezuela is not the only country in Latin America, or elsewhere, with a creative approach to first names. Brazil is renowned for its abundance of Washingtons, Robsons and Wellingtons, which take on a musical resonance when pronounced in Portuguese. Honduras drew attention several years ago after babies with names like Llanta de Milagro (Miracle Tire) and Bujía (Spark Plug) turned up on the public birth registry.

But Venezuela’s interest in unusual names is especially robust. Naming is related somewhat to social class, with the upper crust loyal to names like Andrés, Miguel, Carolina or Patricia. Mr. Chávez’s government has numerous officials with colorful names, reflecting how Venezuela’s traditional political elite has been upended in recent years.

Chavistas include Iroshima Bravo, a congresswoman named after the Japanese city Hiroshima, and Diosdado Cabello, the governor of Miranda State, whose first name means “God given.” The National Assembly, controlled entirely by Chávez supporters, has an Earle, an Eddy, an Elvis, a Berkis Claret and a Jhonny Owee.

Cold war ideologies offered some inspiration to Venezuelan parents in decades past. Even today, a name or a political philosophy that might result in being ostracized elsewhere is no obstacle to a warm reception in Caracas. Mr. Chávez’s government has said, for instance, that it did not view Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan-born assassin also known as Carlos the Jackal, as a terrorist. Mr. Chávez addressed Mr. Ramírez as “Dear Compatriot” in letters they exchanged.

Mr. Ramírez, linked to the kidnapping of 11 oil ministers at a 1975 OPEC meeting in Vienna and serving a life sentence in France for killing two French secret agents, was named in honor of Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, or Lenin. His two brothers are Vladimir and Lenin, common Marxist-inspired names in Venezuela.

“It’s as if you’re more valued than someone else in this country if you have a foreign-sounding name,” said Samuel Hurtado, an anthropologist at the Central University of Venezuela who studies family structures.

“Venezuelans believe they should have privileged access to things that are imported,” Mr. Hurtado continued, explaining how unusual sounding names, often with an American or Russian twist, climbed in popularity during the oil boom of the 1970s when Venezuela was flush with cash for imports. “This thinking extends to the names parents give their children.”

While Venezuelan names can seem perplexing to outsiders, there are rules involved. Roberto Echeto, a novelist who compiled a list of unusual names after writing a column on the subject for El Nacional newspaper, points to practices like combining the names of a father and mother to produce, for instance, a son named Nelmar whose parents are Nelson and Marta.

Some parents simply reverse the spellings of names, creating Rotceh from Hector, Nabetse from Esteban, Susej from Jesús, Aleuzenev from Venezuela, or Anierim from Mi Reina (My Queen). Some rarer names on Mr. Echeto’s list, which often have a mock-American ring to them, include Willderman, Rosaherbalaif, Owinch, Petrasmit, Georguel and Yasterliski. He can add to that list Jhon Beiker (as in John Baker, a generic American-sounding name), christened as such by his mother Dosmel García and heralded by the local media as the first baby born in Caracas in 2007.

“Naming your child in Venezuela is an almost irresistible invitation to rebel against centuries of tradition,” Mr. Echeto said. “Politics used to influence naming, but now it’s become kind of random.”

Some parents relish the challenge. Gilberto Vargas named his daughters, ages 10, 7, 4 and 2, Yusmary Shuain, Yusmery Sailing, Yusneidi Alicia and Yureimi Klaymar. His sons, one 9 years old and the other 9 months, are Kleiderman Jesús and Kleiderson Klarth.

Mr. Vargas, 33, said the middle name Sailing was inspired by an Arab princess who appeared in a comic book. Kleiderman was named in honor of Richard Clayderman (born Philippe Pagès), a French pianist whose renditions of popular music and French chansons are beloved in Venezuela. Klarth was similar to the name of a friend in Maracaibo who moved there from Trinidad and Tobago.

“The rest of the names just came to me in my dreams,” Mr. Vargas, a street vendor who sells hot dogs, said in an interview at his home, in an area where 24 families squatted illegally two years ago to build homes from tin siding and discarded pieces of wood. “Their names will make them special in this life.”


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