Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Great Venezuelan Pigout 

We’ve heard that store shelves are bare in Venezuela. We’ve heard that price controls are ruining the economy. We’ve heard that there are massive shortages. Over the past few months we’ve heard all sorts of statements about the supposedly dire state of the Venezuelan consumer.

Most of this has come from opposition propagandists and naïve suckers in the international media. Why have we heard so little in the way of complaints about this from Venezuelan consumers themselves. Probably because they’re too busy stuffing their faces to complain.

It turns out that consumption of food in Venezuela was up 13% in the first quarter of 2007. That is right – UP by 15%. So much for "shortages". And before our friends squeal that this must be some rigged government statistic it actually comes from the highly partisan, pro-opposition, Datanalysis.

Of course, coming from anti-Chavez sources, this information has to contain SOME bad news. The bad news. if one can call it that, is that stuff is often selling out and people sometimes have to go to various stores to find the exact item they are looking for. Life is a bitch.

By the way, there were other numbers. Overall consumption was up 18% in the first quarter. That comes on top of a 15% increase last year. Even without compounding, that comes to a 33% increase in consumption over the past two years! And this is even before they finish building all the new shopping centers like the new Sambils in Caracas and Barquisimeto.

Consumption of personal care items is up 20%. I’m not so enthused by this number. Venezuelan women already use too much makeup in my opinion (and before you even ask, no, I don’t know if this includes boob jobs).

Housing is up 23%. That is easy to believe given all the construction cranes all over the place putting up new apartment towers.

Comically, with auto sales Datanalysis can’t figure out the numbers – demand is so far ahead of supply (even though we know sales are up 50%!).

Anyways, regardless of what you read in the non-sense web-sites or clueless press reports don’t cry for Venezuelans. They aren’t crying. They are too busy shopping to do anything else.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

What should replace RCTV? 

Over the coming weeks we are going to hear an lot about RCTV losing its broadcast license. Much of the discussion is likely to revolve around whether RCTV deserves to lose its license and whether that constitutes censorship or supression of free speach on the part of the government. This is unfortunate because as we’ve seen, for those familiar with the activities of RCTV over the past few years, there really isn’t much to discuss in this regard.

Rather, what needs to be discussed, and has much greater implication for the future of Venezuela, is what will replace RCTV. But before proceeding with that question we first have to back up a little.

Those familiar with present day Venezuela know that just as its society is highly polarized so too is its media. The electronic media is no exception to this. Want to hear an all pro-Chavez position all the time? Just turn on the government run VTV or Vive channels. Want to hear anti-Chavez views all the time? Just turn on the anti-Chavez RCTV and Globovision networks. Want to hear thoughtful and well balanced news that tries to make sure all sides are heard? Sorry, you’d be out of luck with that one in Venezuela. Probably the best you could do is watch a bunch of VTV then watch a bunch of Globovision and split the difference. To say that Venezuela has a dysfunctional media would be an understatement.

Another thing that needs to be considered before discussing how best to replace RCTV is what should a society want from the media? What construct of the media will promote the healthiest type of society and foster values that most people consider important?

Most people would probably want media that gives them as much information as possible. They would want information that is accurate as possible – though that is a tough one as veracity is often in the eye of the beholder. They would probably also want information wasn’t filtered, censored, or otherwise controlled by any one group; neither rich cliques nor governments.

It is interesting to compare how electronic media is currently structured in most countries with the ideals just listed. In the United States, Venezuela and most other countries the media is either controlled by the government (not good – who wants the government controlling the information available to them?) and/or wealthy corporations who have a seemingly permament monopoly over their airwaves (why should a handful of wealthy people be the trend setters and opinion makers for an entire society?).

It would seem then that the way the electronic media of most societies is controlled is quite flawed and really doesn’t serve the interests of a truly democratic and pluralistic society which most of us claim to want. However, these systems have been in place for so long and are so entrenched that it is practically unheard of for the way the media is structured and controlled to be questioned. But if we are ever to build the “more perfect” societies we want we need to question this arrangement and then change it. The RCTV case provides Venezuela with a perfect opportunity to do just that.

The question then becomes, is there any better system out there that could be put in place? Is there a way to make sure the media isn’t monopolized by particular groups, presents a wide range of viewpoints in a free, unfettered and uncensored way?

The answer is yes. In fact there is a real system that has been used in a real country for decades – the Dutch Public Television system. Up until 1989 commercial televisions stations were banned in the Netherlands. Instead there were a number of public stations that broadcast a very wide variety of programming. And rather than being controlled by the government they were (and still are to a significant extent) controlled and operated by various political, religious, cultural and other groupings. Hence the media is controlled in part by the Catholic Church, Protestant churches, trade unions, youth groups, conservative and liberal political parties, etc.

Of course there has to be some system for controlling who controls what stations and for how much air time. And there was. Each group that wanted air time would have to register as a formal entity and then how much airtime it got would be in direct proportion to how many Dutch citizens signed up with that group. In other words the airwaves were completely democratized. The Dutch people themselves controlled what was broadcast.

How could this be applied to Venezuela and what does it have to do with the RCTV situation? Simple. The broadcast frequency of RCTV will soon be freed up so it will be free to be used a Dutch style system. But while I wouldn’t propose replacing the entire television system in Venezuela with a Dutch type system they would probably need to do this with more than just one station.

Given that the first station being converted would be a pro-opposition station the logical and fair choice for a second station would be one that currently is controlled by pro-Chavez forces – say Vive TV. That would have two networks be part of this system and would mean their combined airtime (up to 48 hours per day) would be large enough to accommodate a large number of different groups wanting broadcast time. It would also leave one solidly pro-Chavez station (VTV) and one solidly opposition station (Globovision)on the air for the extremists on each side to watch.

Also, in the untrusting environment of Venezuela instead of people joining groups, which they might be afraid to do, they could vote by secret ballot once a year for various broadcasting groups. Those groups would get air time in proportion to how many votes they got (the system could be weighted to limit the time of groups with lots of votes while giving more time to groups with fewer votes as a way of promoting diversity).

This system would be open to all. Instead of just watching what some billionaires want you to see or what the government views as being worthy Venezuelans could watch what environmental groups want to show; or what political parties like Primero Justicia or the Tupamaros want; what the Catholic church might show and also what gay and lesbian groups chose to broadcast. Even RCTV could set up its own group and if enough people voted for it they would have broadcast time too.

This system would be quite an improvement over the way Venezuela’s media is currently controlled. There would be more points of view, more ideas, more freedom, and more diversity – all of which are important things which should be fostered in any society. And they would be decided upon by the people themselves in a democratic way – not controlled by the government, not by a rich clique, nor by who is most assertive in a supposedly “community controlled” station.

Of course there are details that would have to be worked out. Any system has its flaws and this would be no exception. It would have to be perfected over time. But the alternatives are worse. The coup-aiding RCTV certainly deserves to lose its broadcast license. But if what replaces it is controlled by some other small group, or the government, is Venezuela really that much better off? Or would it jut be replacing the propaganda of the right with the propaganda of the left?

It is clear to me that the RCTV case provides Venezuela with the opportunity to take a BIG step forward in how its media is controlled or a BIG step backwards. How to make sure that the big step is forward, not backward, is the debate that should be taking place right now.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Hummers in Venezuela - brought to you not by General Motors, but by RCTV 

People who follow the Venezuelan political scene attentively have probably noticed Hummers popping up all over Venezuela recently. Not real Hummers actually in Venezuela of course - I personally have never seen one there.

But Hummers are all over the news about Venezuela. From the New York Times, to the Associated Press, to even commentors on this blog Hummers are now associated with Venezuela and more specifically with government officials.

How did this come to pass if Hummers in Venezuela are few and far between? Simple, RCTV made it all up.

Never mind what reality is, never mind whether there are any Hummers in Venezuela are not - if RCTV excels at nothing else it excels at creating an alternate reality even if they have to lie through there teeth to do it.

Lets have a first hand look at where all the non-sense about rich government officials owning Hummers comes from:

I realize not everyone understands spanish so let me give a basic explanation of what happens in the video. And RCTV gossip/news/commedy show purports to show long rows of Hummers in the main military garrison of Caracas - Fort Tiuna. And indeed the host does have a picture of lots of Hummers with a big sign in the background that say "Fuerte Tiuna". She goes on to paint this as massive government corruption, hypocracy, and asks sarcastically if this is an example of "21st Century Socialism". Sure does look damning, doesn't it?

Of course, being RCTV things turn out to not exactly be what they appear to be. As the video later shows the picture is actually of Hummers in a parking lot in California and it has been taken from a blog on Alan Greenspan no less! They simply manipulated it in something like Photoshop to add the "Fuerte Tiuna" sign and there you go - evidence of Chavez government corruption ready to be broadcast over the public airwaves to millions of Venezuleans.

Gosh, and some people complained about Dan Rather getting the type font wrong on what turned out to be bogus letters. But hey, at least Rather resigned. RCTV sees nothing wrong in all this, for them it is business as usual. Anything and everything goes in their efforts to get Chavez out.

Oh, and the pictures on the blog - yup it really is there. Have a look.


The home stretch 

Last time we checked on the new bridge being built on the route from the coast to Caracas construction was rolling right along - literally. The huge metalic superstructure was being built on one side of the span and then gradually being pushed out over the supports towards the Caracas side of the span.

Well, after months of construction, IT HAS ARRIVED!

And as can be seen there was jubilition when the structure finally touched the Caracas side.

The chasm is now fully spanned.

The next step will be to remove the steel rollers that it has rested on as it was pushed out over the supports. Then it will be bolted to the concrete spans firmly securing it in its final position.

Next, the concrete blocks that will serve as the base of the roadway will be layed out along the structure.

The dealine for completion is June 30th. I have my doubts about them meeting it but it sure is fun watching them try!


Monday, April 23, 2007

The not so serious side of the RCTV case 

The days are counting down to when the opposition TV network Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) loses its broadcast license and goes off the air. At the end of May its 20 year concession ends and the government has already announced it won't be renewed.

Some in the opposition, and RCTV itself, have tried to make hay of this - that it somehow constitutes a crackdown on freedom of speech or punishment for an anti-government editorial line. And some in the international arena with little knowledge of what has taken place in Venezuela over the past 5 or 6 years have bought into this.

The reality though is that no informed and serious person can make such arguements. They simply have no merrit.

Yet they still may be believed by some in the international community because they have little or no experience with the Venezuelan media. When told that RCTV has been highly partial, or extremely anti-Chavez, or has been outright subversive they think in terms of what they are familiar with.

"Oh, so it is like Fox news" many probably think. They simply can't concieve of what RCTV is like and how it has conducted itself over the past few years.

Of course, RCTV is nothing like Fox. To say RCTV is like Fox is to insult the Fox network. Fox may be right-wing media but RCTV doesn't limit itself to being part of the media. It is part of the opposition intent on getting Chavez out of office by any means. And that is what strikes to the heart of the matter. RCTV is not losing its license for a certain editorial line, or supporting the Venezuelan opposition, or even for reporting on the coup and oil strike.

It is losing license because it was an active participant in the April 2002 against Chavez. And no, its not just that it was in favor of the coup, cheering from the sideline, or even giving it favourable coverage. It actively PARTICIPATED in the coup. Its studios and its broadcasts were used by rebellious military officers to actually direct the coup - giving orders to some, calling on others to surrender.

Watch the first 10 minutes of this video and you will see a TV station that is not reporting news but taking the lead in an insurrection:

Say what you will about Bill O'Reilly but he has never allowed his talk show to be used to direct a coup. There is simply no civilized democratic country that would renew the broadcast license of a TV station which engages in this kind of activity.

Needless to say this is illegal and is a valid reason to rescind a broadcast license. In fact, Article 74 of the Organic Law of Telecommunications give the government the right to rescind broadcast licenses "for reasons of national security". This is just but one of many laws broken by RCTV many of which are detailed in this excellent document.

Of course, that was only one instance of many. For example, during the oil strike it broadcast the oppositions news conferences endlessly and broadcast no advertisements other than pro-strike ads which it broadcast at no cost. A few of them can be seen in this documentary.

"Que digan la verdad" parte I
Uploaded by lubrio

(the rest of this excellent documentary with more examples of RCTV broadcasts can be seen here).

Yet even defeat in the oil strike didn't stop it. For example in the 2004 referendum against Chavez it refused to broadcast pro-Chavez advertisements even though the law required it to. Would Fox be allowed not to broadcast advertisements by Democratic candidates? Would it still be on the air if it did? Almost certainly not.

It is all of this that makes the discussion about the closing of RCTV not a serious one. In fact, even the vast majority of the opposition realizes that to defend RCTV is to defend the indefensible. That probably explains why virtually no-one showed up for this weekends rally "in defense of RCTV". Even the opposition propogandists realize a lost cause when they see one. That is why only the most hard core elements bothered to show up like these:

The opposition claims it is not the old pre-Chavez political elite yet look who is always in the lead at their rallies

Here's an idea. If Colombia wants RCTV maybe they can have them.

Its clearly a lost cause when the loonies of the "Oil People" and the PDVSA management union that never was are the people that show up. Given that RCTV is soon going to share their same sad fate maybe we should say misery likes company

Clearly, there just isn't much to discuss here in terms of whether RCTV should be shut. The Venezuelan government knows it, the opposition knows it, and those who have any experience with RCTV know it.

Now here is the REAL discussion - what should happen to the channel being freed up by the RCTV closure? What should the new station be like and who should control it? Those are the real questions. Sounds like a good subject for a future post.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

A country that means to win the war on poverty 

Last week's post showing how the "best and brightest" of previous Venezuelan administrations had driven millions of Venezuelans into misery and despair made me realize I haven't updated the Venezuelan poverty numbers in quite some time.

Of course, these numbers have proven quite contraversial as the opposition and their international cohorts lied and said that the Chavez administration had changed the methodology for calculating poverty. No such thing happened. Poverty is calculated under Chavez the exact same way as as it was under previous administrations. The details the opposition lies and their rebuttals can be found here, here, and here.

Here are the poverty numbers through the first half of 2006:

Starting with the basics we see that total poverty has fallen from 50.4% just before Chavez took office to 39.7%. Of course, there is a major blip where poverty shop up to over 60% when the opposition launched its coup and oil strike to drive Chavez from office. That means in the last 3 years poverty has been reduced from 62.1% to 39.7% - a spectacular reduction of almost 23% percentage points!

As will be recalled poverty is defined as anyone who cannot afford all the basic goods - food, clothing, housing, etc. - that the government defines as essential. That is the situation that 39.7% of Venezuelans currently find themselves in.

There is a further sub-set of the poor which are people who cannot even to buy all the food they need. These people are said to be in "extreme poverty". Currently, 12.9% of Venezuelans are "extreme poor". This is down from over 20% when Chavez came to power. It is down from over 30% when the effects of the oppositions oil strike were at their worst.

In absolute terms the number of poor has fallen from 11.2 million to 10.1 million (while the population as a whole has grown by about 4 million). Also, over a million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty with the number of exremely poor Venezuelans dropping from 4.5 million to 3.3 million.

These numbers are of course speak for themselves. This is the first administration since god knows when to have poverty drop on its watch. And it did it after having inherited an economy in a severe recession and havinig the severe blow of an oil strike to deal with.

However there is one last point that makes this even more impressive. Remember, these poverty numbers only include cash income - that is how much money people earn. It does nothing to take into account in-kind benefits.

What does that mean. It means that the cash stipends people get paid for participating in one of the govenrment's educational missions are accounted fo here. However, the benefit of improved access to health care through Mission Barrio Adentro - NOT reflected at all in these numbers. The benefit of the Mercal discount shops offering reduced prices would also NOT be counted as those reduced prices aren't income and therefore don't count. And on and on with Chavez's social programs the majority of which give great benefit to formerly marginalized Venezuelans but yet don't turn up in these statistics.
That needs to be kept in mind while viewing these numbers - they are certainly are good and cause for celebration yet even they don't reflect the full measure of the war against poverty and social exclusion taking place in Venezuela.


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