Saturday, May 19, 2007

Chavez gives Venezuelans no reason to celebrate 

Next week RCTVs broadcast license ends. It may or may not carry on broadcasting via cable but its 50+ years of broadcasting over the Venezuelan airwaves will be over.

Today in Caracas the Venezuelan opposition is having a large rally in support of RCTV. However, unless there is a last minute court ruling in RCTV’s favor this all seems like a done deal.

And in this bloggers view it is entirely appropriate that RCTV be taken off the air. Yes, the right of the media to have whatever editorial line is chooses should be sacrosanct. But as has been amply demonstrated, RCTV went well beyond having an anti-Chavez editorial line and actively participated in the April 2002 coup against him. I can’t imagine that any government would renew the broadcast license of a station that abetted attempts overthrow it.

However, as has been discussed before, even if RCTV sails off into the sunset there is the very real issue of what is to replace it – another private station? Another government controlled station? Or finally a station that allows the airwaves to be used in a truly democratic fashion?

Apparently the discussion has already been had, or perhaps better said, the decision has already been made by Chavez, and unfortunately it is not one that favors freedom of expression and a deepening of the country’s democracy. Rather than a truly independent station that increases the pluralism of ideas on the public domain Venezuela will have one more government controlled television station – gee just what it needed?!?!

The new station, called TEVES, just had its president handpicked by Chavez. In announcing his decision Chavez, with lots of probably unintended irony, said “Let there always be more diversity”. Yeah sure, as if having one person controlling a television network, be that one person Marcel Granier or Hugo Chavez, allows for diversity.

I suppose Venezuelans can take some consolation from the fact that they will no longer have RCTV working to promote violence and overthrow the government. That is, after all, no small thing. Yet the predominant sentiment will probably be sadness that rather than getting a network that will allow Venezuelans, in all their diversity, to be heard they will get one more network run by the rich or powerful.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Not so simple after all? 

During the depths of the Venezuelan economic meltdown that resulted from the opposition led oil strike Chavez's opponents liked to complain that Chavez administration wasn’t building any public works. Never mind that their little attempt to topple Chavez cost the country at least about $14 billion in lost revenue. Chavez could probably have built quite a few things with that $14 billion.

Thankfully Chavez didn't sit around crying over spilt milk but rather worked hard to get the country back on its feet. He suceeded and the last four years have seen a complete turn around in Venezuela’s economic fortunes. Not only are Venezuelans living much better these days but massive public works have been sprouting up all over the place.

The opposition, never ones to give Chavez credit for anything, now claim that there is nothing to building roads, subways, bridges, hospitals or anything else for that matter. Just find contractor, give them some money, and presto – the finished product pops up. So simple a caveman could do it – or even Manuel Rosales for that matter.

Needless to say things aren’t quite that easy in the real world – as the government of Iraq is finding out the hard way. While Venezuela has spent a couple of hundred million dollars and will have a brand new and much needed bridge in a matter of weeks Iraq has spent hundreds of millions dollars for a much needed new power plant all they have to show for it is “some metal sitting in the desert”.

The sad details were given in Monday’s Wall Street Journal in an article entitled “In Struggle to Rebuild, Iraq Fights Texas Firm”. Lets take a look:

MUSAYYIB, Iraq -- The gleaming new power plant here could have been a rare example of a successful Iraq reconstruction project. Its control rooms are stocked with state-of-the-art computer systems, and its enormous generators -- equipped to boost Iraq's total electricity supply by 10% -- are ready for use.
Yet as Iraqis struggle with continual power outages, and the searing summer nears, most days this sprawling compound 40 miles south of Baghdad is nearly deserted. The buildings here are shuttered, the unused generators gathering dust. This plant wasn't derailed by insurgent attacks. It was hijacked by a bitter dispute between the Iraqi government and a Texas contractor, a clash that has roped in the U.S. Embassy and escalated into charges of corruption and incompetence.

Awash in oil revenue, the Iraqi government has tens of billions of dollars to spend rebuilding. But Iraqi officials have virtually no systems in place for negotiating large construction contracts, overseeing the work itself, or making payments to foreign contractors on time. That has led the Iraqis to hire foreign contractors who were inexperienced or incapable of doing the job.

The plant at Musayyib, which officials say is weeks away from being operational, has become the most prominent symbol of the paralysis. "The Iraqis have spent $300 million on this plant, and all they have is some metal sitting in the desert," says John Dempsey, a U.S. reconstruction official during a recent visit to the plant.

Clearly its not as simple as just looking up a contractor in the phone directory.
And it is interesting that the Iraqis managed to find some small obscure firm from Texas to do the work(Texans just keep popping up all over the place during the Bush presidency don’t they!)

Iraq's Ministry of Electricity signed the contract with Southeast Texas Industrial Services Inc., a privately held company that specializes in building power plants, refineries and oil-drilling sites. The project was the largest undertaken by the Iraqi government since the U.S. invasion -- a $283 million effort to build a 500-megawatt plant, plus an adjacent refinery that would process much-needed fuel for other nearby electricity plants.

It was also a big step up for Southeast Texas. The assignment was the largest in the company's history, and the most challenging. Based in a low-slung brown building in the small town of Buna, three hours outside of Houston, Southeast had never worked overseas, let alone in a war zone like Iraq. Its total 2003 revenues were about $250 million, smaller than the Musayyib contract.

So how did some tiny little company get a contract that was bigger than its entire prior year revenues? No one knows, but some have their suspicions:

Exactly how Southeast Texas won the Iraqi contract is a matter of dispute. Iraqi officials believe Southeast bribed the then-electricity minister, later arrested on unrelated corruption charges, to win the business. "To hire a company that is not well-known to do a project this big, and sign the contract in a couple of days? Who has ever heard of such a thing?" says Senior Deputy Minister of Electricity Raad al-Haris. "I think money changed hands." Mr. Dempsey, the U.S. reconstruction official, concurs: "They probably paid a bribe," he wrote in an internal memorandum earlier this year.

Now here is a interesting question. Corruption is often portrayed as a vice of governments in poor countries. Yet it take two to tango – if there was indeed "money changing hands" in this case it means a U.S. company bribed Iraqi officials. In fact, U.S. companies have done lots of bribing around the world. So how exactly do they get a squeaky clean rating from Transparency International? Who knows, maybe it has something to do with who pays T.I.’s bills (which is itself less than transparent).

Of course, even if there was some corruption in the selection process hopefully the power plant could still be built – right? If anything it would just be padded with some extra costs. At least that is what I would hope.

However the deal originated, Southeast Texas executives say they were excited about the project. "We supported our president completely and we thought it would look good for our company if we went in and helped rebuild Iraq," says Mr. Cole, who has spent 40 years in the construction business.
The good feelings didn't last long.

In March 2004, the company says it notified the Iraqi government that it was behind in its payments. Having been warned by Iraqi officials that the site needed better security, Southeast says it built new concrete walls and guard towers. So it wasn't able to begin work at the site until May 25, nearly four months later than planned.

The Iraqis acknowledge they were late with payments, citing the confusion resulting from many changes of leadership, and say they occasionally fell short in meeting their contractual promises. But the Iraqis also accuse the company of continually setting conditions for resuming work at the plant, leaving the site idle for long stretches.

"I knew they were cheating us. But the government was desperate to finish the plant, so we gave in," says Mr. al-Haris, a Western-educated official involved in the Musayyib project since its inception.

Under the terms of a Nov. 2, 2005, agreement, Southeast agreed to resume work on the plant in exchange for an additional $9.1 million from the Iraqi government. The company says the next payment didn't arrive until Feb. 17, 2006 -- 108 days late.

Kind of sounds like the Iraqis don’t have their act together either. Actually, of course they don’t. After all they hired THESE IDIOTS to built the plant.

Watch as it gets better:

Work on the Musayyib plant finally resumed on March 23, 2006. One week later, the bad blood exploded during a meeting at Amman's Sheraton Al-Nabil Hotel & Towers. According to participants on both sides, the Iraqis were told they would have to pay more if they wanted Southeast to test the plant's machinery and bring it on line. Mr. al-Haris, the Iraqi government official, says he told the Southeast executives that they were a "bunch of cheats," and then stormed out of the room.

This is just surreal. One would think that the builder making sure the plant actually works and generates electricity would be a given. But apparently not. I guess in Texas the way things work is if you want something built that is one thing, if you want it to ACTUALLY WORK, that is extra.

This would be like the new bridge to La Guaira collapsing after the first truck crossed it and the contractor saying: “Don’t blame us. We built you a bridge. You didn’t specify you actually wanted it to hold the weight of cars and trucks”.

Fortunately, the bridge to La Guaira is being built by a Venezuelan company and overseen by competent Venezuelan government officials. And I think we can see why they didn’t hire anyone from Texas to build the thing.

From there things went from bad to worse with the Texas company walking off the job and it and the Iraqi government suing each other for millions of dollars. The U.S. government is thinking about using other contractors, but things won’t be easy for them:

U.S. officials say they're even willing to use American funds to finish the plant. But they knew that it wouldn't be enough for them to simply hire another contractor and send them to Musayyib. Without Southeast's blueprints and software, it would be extremely difficult for another company to get the plant's generators and computers running properly.

When U.S. officials approached Southeast, Mr. Cole said in an email that Southeast would be willing to turn over the software and blueprints and drop its planned litigation -- if the Iraqi government agreed to terminate the contract and pay the company approximately $8.2 million.

The Iraqis refused this extorsion so how did the Texans respond?:

Now it's up to the U.S. to try to pick up the pieces. During a visit in March, Mr. Herman accepted a cigarette from Mohammed Nashoom, a Ministry of Electricity official stationed at the plant, and inhaled deeply. Mr. Herman told the Iraqi that the U.S. hoped to hire a Boise, Idaho-based contractor, Washington Group International Inc., to assume responsibility for the plant.

Mr. Nashoom promised to help, but told Mr. Herman that Southeast welded the doors of some of the control rooms shut, which will make it harder for the new contractors to get access to the computers and files stored inside.

So when it is all said and done the Iraqis have spent millions and millions of dollars and all they have is a non-working electric plant with its doors welded shut. Hey, do American companies create value or what?

Too bad the Iraqi government really isn’t anything more than a bunch of U.S. puppets. Otherwise next time they could say screw the Texans and hire some Venezuelans for the job. Who knows, if they did that they might have an electric plant that actually generated some electricity.

BTW, its kind of tangential to the main point, but after reading this I have to ask – is the U.S. really trying to win this war?!?!?! If I didn’t know better I’d say Bush, Cheney, Rice, etc, all must have a lot of money in Vegas riding on the U.S. LOSING this war. Then again, maybe they just have a lot more money riding on making sure that war profiteering companies make killer profits. Yeah, that is probably it.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Electromagnetic levitation for CCS-La Guaira (coast, airport and seaport) 

The typical right wing reaction to progress is that it should not happen in the first place. Even though the left has made a habit of blaming its woes on the US the right exclaims that they are the only ones that can save us from sub-development. Take investment as an example, any type of government investment is wrong:

-but why?
-because no foreigner has shown any interest, and if they do it is always better by default.

A maglev train in Venezuela? Surely you jest, those are for Europe or the US, and if neither can have one then neither should we. It does not matter that technological externalities are gained, or the possibility for export. To the right wing mind (interchangeable with opposition both literally and figuratively) progress is only measured by how much respect the Economist dishes.

Anyhow enough about them, lets meet Alberto Serra

For 40 years he has been pitching his project of a Venezuelan Maglev for Merida, I guess you can extrapolate for how long he has been rejected. All governments told him the same: our rightwing mentality regrets to inform you that we are too cowardly to act! Well today the project is 2 months away from starting

Why a Maglev and not just a train?

Aside from being technologically profitable it is also cheaper, MUCH cheaper than you think. Actually for mountainous terrain it might even be cheaper than normal rail!! since the later can only climb at a 4% inclination, for hilly terrain (meaning almost any populated center in Venezuela) that means lots and lots of this:

Or lots and lots of tunnels. Maglevs on the other hand can climb inclinations of up to 10% meaning they can just go over an obstacle without the need to burrow. Caracas is 15 KM away from the coast, and its height is 1000Km. It could even snake around the old highway if they get lazy.

Shouldn't cargo be a priority?

Maglevs can carry cargo just fine and with style.

What about the technology?

While not fully clear at this moment (I have yet to see specs) I am told that it is unique and 90-100% Venezuelan technology, from superconductors, to aerodynamics. Real size testing should start within months.

But seriously not even Europe has them (operating commercially), and they love rail

Yes they do, and that is their downfall. Economically justifying a Maglev when there is an existing rail link is difficult, we can thank the opposition for that not being a problem here.

Will it go fast?

Yes and no, a 30 min car trip can be made in 3-5 mins, but it won't be breaking the 500Km/Hr speed record. Perhaps if a project through the Llanos is greenlit. BTW it is also safer (derailment is almost impossible) , magnetic levitation is the safest, most energy efficient, and fastest (by land) system available anywhere.

What if it fails?

Well we gave it our best shot, which is still better than doing the rain dance... or its modern equivalent of kissing foreign capital's ass.

The green line is more or less the path of the current highway, with the world famous Viaduct 1 located near the greenest part of the lower line.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

If you watch just one video of Marcel Granier…. 

In most parts of the world the private media is owned by a handful of very rich individuals who then have the privilege of deciding what everyone else gets to read and watch on Television. Venezuela is no exception to this. For example, the Venezuelan media magnate Gustavo Cisneros is a multi-billionaire who is one of the wealthiest people in the world.

Another Venezuelan media magnate is Marcel Granier who is the owner of the soon to be defunct RCTV. It is more than a little ironic that he is only gaining international notoriety just as he is about to become a good deal less relevant inside Venezuela.

In spite of his low international profile this man was smack dab in the middle of the turmoil that afflicted Venezuela from 2001 to 2004. From helping overthrow a government, to egging on a devastating oil “strike”, to running 24/7 anti-Chavez propaganda during elections this man has done it all.

Now he is busy making the rounds trying to explain why, from his perspective, it is so unjust that RCTV is losing its broadcast license. Personally, I hope he keeps it up. Every time he opens his mouth to spout yet more lies it gives people outside Venezuela more of a chance to see what the anti-Chavez Venezuelan opposition is like and what Chavez has been dealing with for all these years.

In this 15 minute video Marcel Granier speaks before a small group of handpicked journalists to give his accounting of recent Venezuelan history. The video then contrasts this with what actually happened. The video is also very interesting because is gives good footage of some very key events. I highly recommend that everyone watch it in full

[As the video is in Spanish I will give some explanations and commentary at key points referenced by the time on the video]

13:47 Granier talks about how they didn’t want to show what was going on in the days following the coup because it was horrible looting, people killing each other, and authorities protecting looters, etc. The video immediately following that shows people protesting for Chavez’s return being shot by police. Example number one of Granier’s mendacity. Of course it is perfectly clear why RCTV wouldn’t want to show that.

11:52 Granier complains about the government supposedly using “cadenas” (government TV broadcasts) to block what opposition figures such as Carlos Ortega were trying to say. Yet we then see the actual clips of Carlos Ortega (the head of the main union confederation) calling for an indefinite strike, followed by Pedro Carmona, head of the main business federation, also calling for an indefinite strike. Interesting a so-called union leader and a business leader would be working hand in hand for an indefinite strike. They wouldn’t have been trying to overthrow the government would they?

11:06 Carlos Ortega speaking to the opposition rally at Chuao on April 11th sends the marchers on to the presidential palace saying: “On to Miraflares, strongly, to get out the traitor to the Venezuelan people”. Right there began the coup and all the illegal and violent events that were to follow.

10:45 Granier says that the authorities knew that there was likely to be violence that day and then says “I don’t understand how the public authorities didn’t use the police at their disposal to prevent the march from reaching the place where it ultimately went to”. Considering RCTVs role in these events this is really an outrageous statement. For example, we then see the opposition governor of Miranda state, Enrique Mendoza, on top of a truck exhorting the crowd on to Miraflores. Not only did RCTV show this but note at the bottom of the screen it had the message “Ni un paso atras” – not one step back. This is yet more clear evidence that RCTV wasn’t simply reporting on the coup – it played an active roll in assisting it and helping to bring it about.

10:05 Here Granier pats himself on the back for continuing to work under difficult conditions where, according to him, there were lots of violent, drunk, and drugged people on the street.

9:45 Here begins video of the thousands upon thousands of ordinary Venezuelans who took to the streets to defend democracy and demand the return of Chavez. According to opposition mythology these people don’t exist as they like to pretend there were very few people protesting for Chavez’s return. Unfortunately for that myth, the video tape says otherwise.

7:11 Here Granier gives his opinion of the people you just saw protesting against the coup: “It was a shameful day for liberty in Venezuela; the use of armed mobs, drunk, manipulated, to terrorize the public” What can you say? I guess some people just have a different perspective on things than I do.

4:37 After a repeat of Granier calling people defending democracy a drunk and violent mob we see people demanding that the television channels, which had been hiding the demonstrations calling for Chavez’s return by playing cartoons and old movies, show what was really happening in the country.

3:54 Here are some very poignant statements by a Chavez supporter: “If they have had us vote on a president through 6 or 7 elections they have to respect our votes. They can’t just pass over the will of the people. The people is the majority. You can’t call us a mob just because you live in Country Club [one of the wealthiest areas of Caracas]. We are the people, we have feelings, we have a heart. We don’t want there to be a civil war in Venezuela”.

3:05 Here is a very good example of how dishonest Granier is. Here he recounts to his little select audience how on Saturday April 13th he went to Miraflores for a meeting with “President Carmona” from which he had to leave “quickly, very quickly” (the Chavistas were about to take back Miraflores). Contrast that to the following clip where he rudely upbraids a reporter for asserting that he was at Miraflores saying “I wasn’t at Miraflores supporting anything, I wasn’t there”. As is normal for a pathological liar, to one group of people he recounts how he was at Miraflores meeting with Carmona, to a different group he claims he was never there. Seeing this, people can decide for themselves how much they want to believe what this man says and whether they want him deciding what information millions of people get each day. [for the record he was there – they show a video clip of him there at 1:51]

I think people will agree this was a pretty revealing and informative 15 minutes. From the plotting Carmona and Ortega, to the open call for a coup, to RCTV not reporting but instead participating in the coup, to the Venezuelan people risking their lives to defend their democracy and on to just the everyday mendacity of the Venezuelan opposition which Granier embodies so well, we really get exposed to a lot of what has happened in Venezuela in this one short video.

We can see clearly the pernicious role of RCTV in the events of 2002 and it should be more than clear why know responsible government would allow such a station to keep broadcasting over the public airwaves.


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