Saturday, December 01, 2007

Making Sense of Venezuela's Constitutional Reform 

Seeing as I have run out of intelligent things to say I thought I'd just copy someone who always has intelligent and worthwhile points - Greg Wilpert.

Here is his final summary of the constitutional reform which I am shamelessly stealing from the Venezuelanalysis web-site:

Making Sense of Venezuela’s Constitutional Reform

The Venezuelan government's effort to create "21st century socialism" is moving ahead full-steam with the December 2nd constitutional reform referendum. While tensions and confusion about the reform are rising in Venezuela, it is important to realize that this reform will mean both less and more than most outside observers seem to think. That is, as usual, many pundits, such as from the Venezuelan opposition and from so-called international experts, are painting a picture of a Venezuela that is about to finally slip into "Castro-communism," a picture that could hardly be further from the truth and that has been falsely predicted for Chavez's entire presidency of now nine years. While there are negative or not-so-good aspects of the reform, which for the most part involve giving the president some more powers, the Venezuelan president, even after the reform, is still does not have as much institutional power as the U.S. president. On the other hand, in the process of focusing on the centralizing aspects of the reform, most observers willfully miss the ways in which the positive aspects of the upcoming reform have the potential to make Venezuelan political life more in tune with the interests of the country's mostly poor majority.

Shortly after President Hugo Chavez was reelected on December 6, 2006, he announced that a reform of the 1999 constitution would be one of the first tasks of his second full term as president. According to Chavez, the reform was to smooth the path for the creation of "Bolivarian" or "21st Century" socialism because the 1999 constitution was a product of a more moderate president and population.[1] On August 15 of this year, eight months after his reelection, Chavez presented his proposal to alter 33 articles of the constitution to the National Assembly (AN). The AN, according to the constitution, is allowed to discuss and revise the president's proposal over a period of two years. However, following a relatively rushed process that was accompanied by numerous public forums in all parts of the country, the AN added another 36 article changes and passed the entire proposal with the required two-thirds majority on November 2. The National Electoral Council then had 30 days to organize a national referendum on the proposal, which is now scheduled to take place on December 2nd.[2]

What the Reform is About

Chavez's constitutional reform project deepens policies in five main areas: participatory democracy, social inclusion, non-neoliberal (socialist?) economic development, politico-territorial reorganization, and stronger (or more effective?) central government. In addition, there are a few changes that don't fit into any of these categories, mainly because they don't do anything much, except adorn an already very progressive constitution. While the vast majority of these changes are progressive, in the sense that they deepen democracy and social inclusion, some can be considered regressive, in the sense that they weaken earlier achievements of the 1999 constitution. Also, one must recognize, just as some in the Chavez government have argued, that the reform represents a "transition" towards "21st century socialism," not its full implementation, which is still somewhat unclear. As such, it misses elements that progressives in many countries would consider essential for real socialism. Let us briefly review each of the above-mentioned aspects of the reform, before turning to the political context of the reform.

Deepening Participatory Democracy

In one of the greatest departures from the 1999 constitution, the reform proposal introduces a new level of government, the "popular power" (art. 136 of the reform proposal). This power is in addition to the municipal, state, and national powers of the political system. The popular power represents the "lowest" level of government, in that it is the organization of communities in forms of direct democracy. Because of this, the reform states, "The people are the depositories of sovereignty and exercise it directly via the popular power. This is not born of suffrage nor any election, but out of the condition of the human groups that are organized as the base of the population."

The opposition has tried to twist the meaning of this article, claiming that it lays the groundwork for dictatorship because it supposedly means that the authorities of the popular power are named from above, since they are not elected.[3] This, however, represents a willful misunderstanding, as the popular power is supposed to be the place where democracy is direct, that is, unmediated by elected representatives. This is not to say that there wouldn't be any elections at this level, but that those who are elected are not representatives, but are delegates of the community, who are to execute the community's decisions. Currently this popular power takes the form of the citizen assemblies and their communal councils. According to the reform, it would also take the form of worker, student, youth, elderly, women, etc. councils.

Another more sophisticated criticism has been that incorporating popular power, in the form of the various forms of popular organizations, into the state's structure implies a cooptation of civil society.[4] That is, citizens, by virtue of their activism, would be turned into civil servants. This would be true if all of civil society, in its totality, were to be absorbed into state structures. However, the reform limits the popular power to those councils or groups that are organized in accordance with the constitution and the law as being part of the popular power. In other words, rather than co-opting or absorbing all of civil society into the state, the reform proposes to provide more democratic and more consistent channels for citizen involvement in their self-governance. Civil society groups that are organized outside of these channels would still be free to organize and mobilize independently of the state.

However, since power is to be devolved from municipal, state, and national governments to the popular power (art. 168, 184, 264, 265, 279, 295), that is, to the communal and other councils, consistent channels for the use of this power must be established, which is done via the councils of the popular power. Many reform articles, for example, state that communities are to be involved in the co-management of businesses (art. 184), that municipalities must involve the popular power in their activities (art. 168), that they have a role in the nomination of members of the judicial, electoral, and citizen branches of government (art. 264, 265, 279, 295), and that they receive at least 5% of the national budget (art. 167) for their community projects.

Deepening Social and Political Inclusion

The second area that the constitutional reform deepens is social and political inclusion by giving all citizens the right to equal access to city resources ("right to the city," art. 18),[5] prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and health condition (art. 21), including young people in the political process by lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 years (art. 64), requiring gender parity in candidacies for elected office (art. 64), protecting people from having their primary home expropriated due to bankruptcy (art. 82), introducing a social security fund for self- and informally employed Venezuelans (art. 87), guaranteeing free university education (art. 103),[6] recognizing and promoting the culture Venezuelans of African descent (art. 100), and giving university students parity in the election of university authorities (art. 109). These are all forms of social and political inclusion that, if realized, would place Venezuela at the forefront in the world in this regard.

Deepening Non-Capitalist (Socialist?) Economic Development

Next, the reform would move Venezuela further along a path of non-capitalist economic development.[7] That is, the effort to deepen non-capitalist and perhaps socialist development is centered on strengthening democratic control over the economy while weakening private sector control. For example, the central bank, which is normally under the sway of international financial institutions, would no longer be independent (art. 318, 320, 321) and the state may turn food producing and distributing businesses over to public or collective control in order to guarantee food security (art. 305). Also, the state oil company PDVSA will face stronger restrictions against privatization (art. 303).

The 1999 constitution had stated that PDVSA may not be privatized, but that its subsidiaries could. However, since PDVSA is a holding company that consists only of subsidiaries, it could, in theory, be entirely privatized by a government so inclined. The reform would prohibit the privatization of any national components of PDVSA. In other words, the often money-losing international subsidiaries of PDVSA could still be privatized at some point.

In addition to strengthening the state's involvement in the economy, the reform also strengthens the role of organized communities and of workers in the economy. For example, land reform is made more effective by allowing its beneficiaries (mostly cooperatives) to occupy land they have been granted before court challenges to the land redistribution are settled in court (art. 115). Until now, the land reform has often been hampered by land owners who would tie up the reform in court for many years, while the land would remain idle.

Reducing the workweek from 44 to 36 hours per week would give workers more power, vis-à-vis employers (art. 90).[8] Workers rights are also strengthened in that the reform opens the possibility for greater workplace self-management, via worker councils (art. 70, 136) and directives that publicly owned enterprises should involve greater self-management (184 no. 2).

Also, eliminating intellectual property while maintaining authors' rights to their creations, makes it more difficult for companies to profit from the creative work of others, while still protecting authors' rights over their productions (art. 98).

In addition to strengthening the position of the state and of workers relative to private capital, the reform would also strengthen the position of domestic business relative to international business because it removes the requirement that foreign companies be treated the same as national companies (art. 301).

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the reform introduces a variety of new forms of property that move the notion or property away from purely individualistic conceptions (art. 115). These new forms are collective, social, and public property. Critics have pointed out that the differences are poorly defined, which is true.[9] Nonetheless, these different forms open up the possibility for the creation of socialist production enterprises, as the state has planned.[10]

Altogether, these forms of strengthening workers and of the state with regard to private capital definitely represent a move away from classical capitalism. The degree to which it represents 21st century socialism rather than social democracy or state socialism will depend on exactly which direction and how far these moves are taken in the laws that will work out the details of the constitutional mandates.

Developing a "New Geometry of Power"

The "New Geometry of Power" is perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of the constitutional reform. The opposition and the oppositional media consistently interpret it as a blatant effort to give President Chavez dictatorial power over states and municipalities. Indeed, the reform lends itself to this misreading because it says the president may designate a variety of new politico-geographic areas, such as federal territories, federal municipalities, federal cities, and "functional districts," and may name the respective authorities, without defining the power of these authorities or the function of these new territorial divisions (art. 16).

However, it is absurd to claim that the lack of a clear definition in this regard means that these new territorial divisions or the respective authorities would take power away from elected representatives if the reformed constitution does not say that their powers would be diminished in any way. Rather, the main purpose of this new geometry of power, according to government representatives, is to allow the president to designate national resources and presidential powers to particular areas. That is, the idea is to concentrate national attention and resources on specific areas, regardless of their existing politico-geographic boundaries, that are in need of such attention because of their poverty or their unused human or physical resources. Existing local power structures would remain untouched and unaffected by the designation of these areas, other than in the sense of receiving more national government attention. If anything, the reform implies that communal councils can form governing structures at the city-wide level, thereby moving power down to the communities, rather than up to the president.[11]

The real question in regard to this aspect of the reform is whether it is necessary to include the president's ability to designate federal territories in the constitutional reform at all, since they do not alter existing power structures. The president already has the power to focus national government attention on specific regions, which he has done via the nuclei of endogenous development. These are zones for special government attention that appear to be quite similar to those proposed in the constitutional reform, but which were created by presidential decree, without specific constitutional authorization. Including this aspect of the territorial reorganization in the reform thus appears to give additional authorization for something that the president can already do.

More importantly, though, for the reform and for a new geometry of power, is the president's and the National Assembly's new ability to re-organize municipal boundaries (art. 156 no. 11, 236 no. 3). While the politico-territorial division of states within the country's borders was always and still is a matter of a national law, with the reform the president appears to have the authority to re-organize the municipalities within the individual states, which used to have that power. This is an important change because Venezuela's municipalities are organized in a completely irrational manner that goes back as much as 200 years and has rarely been changed. The rationale for giving the president the power to reorganize these is that this needs to be done with a national-rather than parochial-vision in mind.

Strengthening Of the Presidency and the National Government

This last point, about the reform giving the president the power to reorganize municipal boundaries, touches on the larger issue of the reform slightly strengthening the president's powers in a variety of ways. Of course, the oppositional media (including the international pundits) consistently present this as "sweeping new powers," without backing this up. The most controversial changes in this regard include the removal of the two-term limit on serving as president (art. 230). However, over half of the heads of government in the world have "sweeping power," including some of the world's most respected democracies, such as France, Germany, Britain, and Italy.

Removing the limit on the number of reelections and extending the presidential term from six to seven years (art. 230) are meant to strengthen the presidency in order to carry out the long-term project of Venezuela's political and economic transformation from capitalism to socialism. In a way, opponents ought to be grateful that Chavez is not proposing a transition within his current presidential term (which lasts another five years), but a transition with a much longer time line, which would be far less traumatic and thus gives the opposition far more opportunities to reverse the project.

Extending Chavez's presidency (if reelected) is a mixed problem, though. On the one hand, Chavez supporters are right to say that it is more democratic if citizens are free to elect whomever they choose, as often as they choose, without artificial limitations. On the other hand, supporters of this principle ought to address the main reason such unlimited reelections are often prohibited, which is that presidents tend to accumulate power and can use the advantages of their office to make it more difficult for challengers to eventually win the presidency. This would mean placing strict restrictions on using the office of the president in one's presidential campaign. Currently limitations of this sort are rather limited in Venezuela.

The other controversial strengthening of the office of the president is the reform's toughening of states of emergency. According to the reform, the right to being informed would be suspended during a state of emergency, which implies that censorship may be used in such situations (art. 337). The rationale for this is that the April 2002 coup attempt was based on manipulating the media to fabricate events that ended up justifying the coup. A state of emergency, according to Chavez supporters, would have to take such a course of events into account. Contrary to most news reports, though, the state of emergency still includes the right to defense, to a trial, to communication, and not to be tortured. This is more than one can say for the current situation in the U.S., where the president has the authority to arrest people without due process, according to the recently passed Military Commissions Act.

Another area where the office of the president is being strengthened is in his ability to promote all military officers, not just high-ranking ones, as was previously the case (art. 236 no. 8). While this strengthens the president's control over the military and will probably increase the premium placed on loyalty to the president, it is not a "sweeping power" that will turn Venezuela into a dictatorship. Rather, this is something that ought to be within the purview of the military's commander in chief, even if it might not be the wisest way to handle promotions.

Another common criticism of the reform with regard to the president's "sweeping powers" is that the president may name as many vice-presidents (including regional ones) as he or she chooses (art. 236 no. 5). However, considering that the reform text does not say what these vice-presidents' powers would be, the only possible interpretation is that they have none except those that the president is already authorized to give to other members of his cabinet. Contrary to common perception, the powers of the vice-president thus cannot usurp the powers of any other elected official. In effect, vice-presidents would be nothing else than glorified ministers.

A change that has received little attention from the opposition, presumably because they support it, is that the reform makes citizen-initiated referenda more difficult by substantially increasing (by up to 100%) the signature requirements for launching such referenda (art. 71-74). The argument for this change is that frivolous referendum petitions must be prevented, especially since the referendum procedure is quite costly for the Venezuelan state. For example, few people noticed that none of the referendum petitions for members of the national assembly succeeded in 2004, even though dozens of petitions had been filed to recall pro-Chavez and opposition representatives. The signature collection and verification process costs millions of dollars and may be initiated on the whim of groups that claim they have the ability to collect the requisite signatures.

However, by increasing the signature requirements, in most cases more petition signatures will be needed to organize the referendum than votes will be needed for the referendum to pass. Such a situation reverses the logic of the signature collection process, which is merely supposed to indicate sufficient interest in a possible referendum, not represent a higher hurdle than the vote itself. In the end, the referendum process is thus significantly weakened (and the national government thus strengthened) in the name of greater efficiency, when other procedures might have been found that do not weaken the citizen-initiated referendum process as a whole.

Chavez has argued that he needs these relatively modest increased powers in order to defend the project against those who would oppose it by illegal means and in order to bring about more changes more effectively.[12] In other words, the strengthening of the president's office continues the slightly contradictory trajectory of the Chavez years, where greater democracy and greater citizen participation is introduced from the top, by the president. Strengthening the presidency thus, in this process, is also supposed to mean strengthening participatory democracy.

Unnecessary Changes

While the vast majority of proposed changes to the 1999 constitution indeed deepen participatory democracy and social inclusion, there are several changes that don't seem to add much other than nice words to the constitution. This is particularly the case with the terms "socialism" and "socialist" that the reform introduces in at least 11 of the reform articles, without ever defining what the term means (art. 16, 70, 112, 113, 158, 168, 184, 299, 300, 318, 321). Again, critics have attempted to interpret this as an effort to eliminate political pluralism, saying that using this term would mean that non-socialists would not be allowed to participate in the political system.[13] Such an interpretation is perhaps justified by the way the term was used in state socialist countries of the East Block, but there is no indication in the current constitution that this is a valid interpretation. As former education minister Aristobulo Isturiz points out,[14] Spain's constitution refers to its political system as a parliamentary monarchy, but this does not mean that those who are opposed to monarchies are not allowed to participate in Spain's political system. In other words, there is nothing in the reform that could limit Venezuela's explicitly pluralist political system (article 2) in any way.

Still, the inclusion of the term "socialist" in many parts of the referendum seems unnecessary, other than to give a label to something that has not been proven to deserve this label. Also, given that the meaning of the concept of socialism (unlike that of monarchy) is a hotly contested one, putting such a label on Venezuela's political and economic system opens it up to abuse. The danger that the label is confused with the ideal is quite real. After all, the state socialist countries of the East Block were labeled socialist, but that alone does not mean that they were. It seems far wiser to simply go about creating socialism in the sense of achieving liberty, equality, and social justice for all and then leave it to historians to decide whether the Venezuelan system deserves the label "socialist."

Another clearly unnecessary change is the inclusion of the social programs known as missions in the reform (art. 141). Given that the missions are operating just fine within given social framework, it is not clear at all why these need to be "legitimated" by being mentioned in the constitution.

Missing Changes

Despite the large number and large reach of the changes that the National Assembly and President Chavez are proposing, these changes fail to include issues that would go even further in creating socialism in Venezuela. For example, if socialism means true equality of opportunity, then it ought to include a woman's right to an abortion. This, though, is still not part of Venezuela's constitution, largely because there is no consensus within the government coalition in favor of such a change. Also, if socialism means real self-determination, then the reform should include much stronger provisions for self-management in all workplaces, both public and private. Next, if citizen participation is a key feature of 21st century socialism, then the power of communal councils should be extended to regional and even national levels, not just city-wide levels, to either compete with or displace representative democracy on these levels. Finally, if 21st century socialism means assuring a fair and sustainable production and distribution of goods and services that go beyond the distribution mechanisms of the market and of the state, then new forms of distribution and production need to be invented. The reform does not touch on this at all, though, presumably because such a change would require a completely new constitution, with the convocation of another constitutional assembly.

Prospects for the Reform

As the above review of the constitutional reform shows, the vast majority of changes would deepen participatory democracy, social inclusion, and non-capitalist economic development. Those relatively limited changes that strengthen the presidency, which Chavez and his supporters say are needed for pushing the other reforms even further, cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered "sweeping new powers," as critics and the media like to call them. Although the necessity and wisdom of some of the changes are definitely debatable, the most controversial changes that strengthen the president's powers, such as eliminating limits on reelection, eliminating central bank autonomy, tightening control over the military, strengthening states of emergency, and increasing the president's ability to reorganize the politico-territorial divisions of Venezuela do not represent dictatorial powers - not even close.

The only reason Chavez appears to have dictatorial powers in the eyes of the opposition is because he and his supporters control all branches of government, which, indeed, makes "checks and balances" against presidential power more difficult. But whose fault is it that Chavez and his supporters control all five branches[15] of the Venezuelan state? Ultimately, the Venezuelan people and the opposition are responsible for this situation. The Venezuelan people are responsible because they are the ones who have voted in support of Chavez and his coalition parties over and over again, with overwhelming majorities (the last time with a near 2/3 majority of 63% of the vote in last year's presidential election). The opposition is responsible because they have consistently messed-up, boycotted, and otherwise obstructed the democratic process in Venezuela, thereby losing political credibility and popular support.

Despite this rather depressing state of affairs for the opposition, Chavez handed the opposition yet another chance to redeem itself when he launched the constitutional reform. Chavez says that this move was necessary for the deepening of Venezuela's socialist transformation, but, strictly speaking, many of these changes could have been made without the reform and those that could not, could have waited until 2012 for a more deliberate reform process than the one that took place.

By rushing the reform process Chavez presented the opposition with a nearly unprecedented opportunity to deal him a serious blow. Also, the rush in which the process was pushed forward opened him to criticism that the process was fundamentally flawed, which has become one of the main criticisms of the more moderate critics of the reform.[16] The loss of these former moderate Chavez supporters serves to strengthen the opposition. Also, the rush makes it easier for the opposition to paint the reform on its terms than on the government's terms. After all, it is always far easier to spread disinformation about something quite complex such as the reform than it is to spread serious and well-reasoned explanations about it while also correcting the disinformation.

This is why the reform appears to have suffered some setbacks in public opinion. Opposition-affiliated and government-affiliated opinion polls appear to be farther apart than they have ever been, compared to earlier electoral contests during the Chavez presidency. Part of the explanation for this divergence is, first and foremost, the confusion about the reform and the consequent unwillingness of a large segment of the population to commit to vote either for or against it. Abstention will thus be relatively high. And high abstention makes voting trends notoriously difficult to predict, which means that it is more likely that opinion polls will reflect the biases of their contractors.

In the end, it all boils down to which side mobilizes more supporters. That is, while it seems that the undecided lean against the reform, Chavez supporters tend to be far more enthusiastic about their support for their leader and thus far more easily mobilizable than the opposition is. In other words, if turnout is high, around 60 to 70%, it is likely that the vote will be very close, while if it is low, around 50% or less, the yes side will win.

Unfortunately, if the constitutional reform passes by a small margin, this increases the likelihood that the opposition will falsely claim fraud and will mobilize its more radical elements to launch a destabilization campaign. Such a claim, though, as many opposition supporters have begun to recognize,[17] will have no basis in reality because the electoral system has become more transparent and more verifiable than nearly any electoral system in the world. All eyes will be on Venezuela and only a sound defeat of false fraud claims, both nationally and internationally, will avert greater tensions in Venezuela's still deepening political process that has created more democracy and more social inclusion.

Gregory Wilpert is author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso Books, 2007) and is principal editor of Venezuelanalysis.com


Dazed and confused 

There was an interesting article on U.S. counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. It is pretty down beat (or up-beat depending on your point of view):

"Today we control no more and no less of Afghanistan than the Soviets did" - said one captain.

The article hints at a reason why the U.S. may not be doing so well there - it hasn't got a clue.

In counter-insurgency training for troops about to deploy to Afghanistan it advises them to learn as much Arabic as they can.

Unfortunately for the U.S. military Afghanis aren't Arabs. Worse still, they don't speak Arabic.

It is worth noting this idiocy came from a U.S. Captain who served a combat tour in Afghanistan. In other words, not only did HE not speak the language, he didn't even know what language it was that was being spoken around him!!

Further, in typical "best and brightest" fasion this dingbat studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

What can we say, apparently the British don't train officers for imperialist armies like they used to.

BTW, this could even be relevent to upcoming events in Venezuela. Right now, in a secret location in northern Virginia, there are likely dozens of translators working overtime translating anti-Chavez propoganda leaflets denouncing fraud in tomorrows vote into ... Portuguese.


Where do they get these people? 

Today the New York Times decided to wear its opinions on its shirtsleeve's by publishing an Op-Ed article by the former Venezuelan general Raul Baduel (the last Op-Ed piece from a Venezuelan I can remember was by Moises Naim - quick question: has the Times EVER run an article by someone supporting Chavez?).

Fortunately for Chavez's image it contains some really hysterical stuff like this:

The proposal, which would abolish presidential term limits and expand presidential powers, is nothing less than an attempt to establish a socialist state in Venezuela. As our Catholic bishops have already made clear, a socialist state is contrary to the beliefs of Simón Bolívar, the South American liberation hero, and it is also contrary to human nature and the Christian view of society, because it grants the state absolute control over the people it governs.

Ahh, in addition to being a neo-populist, autocratic, loony, pinko, Castroite the guy is also un-Christian.

Well, if this being president of Venezuela gig doesn't work out maybe he can become a city council member from the Upper West Side.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

What a bunch of clowns 

This blog may be temporarily asleep at the wheel but fortunately BoRev.Net and LANR are paying attention and bring to us this complete reversal of all the polling data that has been making the round:

Luis Vicente Leon, pollster with local Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis:

Chavez has not managed to validate his constitutional reforms with a large majority, which has happened in elections that are votes for him. It is obvious that the popularity of the president, above 60 percent, is not at risk here. But the proposal is not so popular as elements of the Chavez camp are rejecting it and are concerned about it.

It is difficult to make an electoral projections because the numbers of abstentions and undecided voters are high, the perfect ground for a surprise. The most probable is that there will be no surprise and Chavez will win 60 percent against 40 percent, but technically there is a possibility that it could happen, which is something that has not existed before.

The key abstentions will be not from the opposition, but from the Chavistas who are not part of the hard-core nucleus, who support Chavez, but who don't like the proposals. But they are not defined yet. They believe it would be betrayal, they believe that voting "No" is voting for the opposition or that voting "No" will allow the opposition to take advantage to try to remove Chavez from power. So in this scenario, they prefer to abstain.

While Chavez has 62 percent popularity, the reforms have 34.9 percent. So it is more important that Chavez use his strength and sell Chavez supporters the idea that they are voting for him, for his continuation, rather than for the reforms themselves. And we see that in the propaganda, the campaign is "Yes means Chavez" or "Continue on with Chavez".

So now we have, straight from the horses mouth, that Chavez is still very popular (actually we already knew that) AND that the most likely outcome on Sunday is that his Constitutional Reforms will win.

I guess all that stuff they've been peddling the last couple of weeks about the NO vote then was what... a joke?

Personally, I don't know if the reforms will pass or not. But I sure do know what I think about a lot of Venezuelan "polling" firms.

BTW, while visiting BoRev.Net be sure to check out the non-violent opposition protesters.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Listen to the slaves, they know. 

I have for a long time been a proponent of Venezuela trying to follow the East Asian model of economic development which relies very heavily on being able to export to other, more developed, countries.

In all the long discussions on this one objection has been consistently raised by a comments section critic named Slave Revolt - namely that international trade is an econological disaster due to all the pollution transporting goods between countries creates. He therefore asserted that Chavez is correct in trying to base Venezuela's development on meeting Venezuela's own internal needs rather than on exporting to others.

I have never heard of international trade itself being a significant source of pollution. Also, I have been so sold on the Korean model of development for so long I am not particularly welcoming of objections to it. Finally, the person raising this objection is just another scribe in a lowly blog comments section - so why should I take the objection seriously and even bother to look into it.

Well, not making myself look like a complete idiot and ignoramus would have been a good reason to look into it. Or maybe just to be a little less arrogant in my views would have been another good reason. Or failing all that, just learning the facts of this case would have been a good idea for someone who claims to run a "fact based blog".

But no, I never doubted myself, never doubted the insignificance of SR's assertions, and never looked into his statements at all. Instead it took this from the front page of today's Wall Street Journal to smack me upside the head with reality:

Ships Draw Fire For Rising Role In Air Pollution
By Bruce Stanley

As air pollution rises on the global political agenda, pressure is mounting on a largely hidden and proliferating source of dangerous emissions: the shipping industry.

The corpuscles of the global economy, ships carry more than 90% of the world's merchandise by volume, and the tonnage of cargo sent by ships has tripled since 1970. Yet the fuel propelling them is cheap and dirty and produces an especially noxious exhaust.

Ships release more sulfur dioxide, a sooty pollutant associated with acid rain, than all of the world's cars, trucks and buses combined, according to a March study by the International Council on Clean Transportation. That study also found that ships produced an estimated 27% of the world's smog-causing nitrogen-oxide emissions in 2005. Only six countries in the world emitted more greenhouse gases -- which trap heat in the atmosphere, warming the globe -- than was produced collectively in 2001 by all ships larger than 100 tons, according to the study and United Nations statistics.


One big culprit is the industry's favorite fuel. Most ships rely on residual fuel oil, also known as bunker fuel, to power their huge engines. Bunker is a tar like substance left over from the refining of petroleum. It often contains toxic heavy metals such as lead and vanadium....

It is also cheap. A recent spot price for intermediate-grade bunker fuel traded in Singapore averaged $404.50 a metric ton, less than two-thirds the rate of marine gas oil, a distillate similar to what diesel trucks use.

"Ship owners have had a very cheap fuel that's packed with energy, and the refiners have an outlet for their waste product", says Ian Adams, secretary-general of the International Bunker Association....

That synergy has come at a cost. This month, a peer-reviewed study in the American Chemical Society's journal of Environmental Science & Technology estimated that underregulated air pollution from ships is causing 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung-cancer dealths annually, mostly along trade routes in Asia and Europe.

At current rates of growth, oceangoing ships will generate 53% of the particulates, 46% of the nitrogen oxides and more than 94% of the sulfur oxides emitted by all forms of transportation in the U.S. by 2030, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. That compares with levels for the same pollutants in 2001 of 17%, 12% and 49%, respectively, according to the EPA.

Now, you think the solution is to simply build better, more efficient ships? Nope, that won't work.

Yet the ravenous appetite of consumers for imported goods is growing so fast that marginal cuts in emissions would likely make no difference. Even a 30% decrease in carbon emissions from ships could be offsett by the expanding size of the world's fleet, says Russell Long, vice president of environmental group Friends of the Earth, a respected authority on the subject.

A U.N. study concluded that a 10% reduction in sailing speeds could cut ships' carbon-dioxide output by 23%. But slower speeds would likely prompt shipping lines to deploy more ships to satisfy their customers. "By adding vessels, you'd burn more fuel and generate more pollution, and the benefit of going slower might be canceled out," says Stanley Shen, a spokesman for Orient Overseas (International) Ltd., a shipping concern based in Hong Kong.

Much of the rest of the article is even more depressing and no real solutions are offered. Well, other than this one at the end of the article:

SkySails of Hamburg, Germany, is already marketing a "towing kite propulsion systems" - large parasials - that it claims can reduce a ship's fuel cost by as much as 35%. The first commercial cargo ship to be equipped with SkySails parasails will enter service in December.

Well, there is an opportunity for Venezuela - they can set up co-ops to make sails for all the sailing ships the world is going to go back to using!!

All I can say is ignorance was bliss. The solution to Venezuela's problems was a lot more obvious when they could simply concentrate on building up export industries as South Korea did.

Of course, that idea is not dead - the alternatives still have their old flaws too. But it is on life support. And I've learned that maybe I should take some of the information from the comments section a bit more seriously. After all, that you are just a slave doesn't mean you don't know anything, obviously.


Who are the thugs? 

Two weeks ago when violence broke out at the campus of the Universidad Central de Venezuela the Venezuelan opposition and the international press acted as if the world was coming to the end. Never mind that it later turned out that students opposed to Chavez had initiated much of that violence. Never mind that no one was killed. Despite that supporters of Chavez would portrayed as violent thugs.

Yesterday Venezuela saw who the real thugs were. Anti-Chavez protesters were blocking streets in the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo. Why they felt the need to block streets and attack passersby is beyond me - it seems to me they should express their opinions by voting next Sunday.

Nevertheless, blocking the streets they were. Upon this roadblock came a truck full of workers for the local Petrocasas factories. These were pro-Chavez workers of a Chavez initiated industrial project and they wanted to pass. What exactly happened next is a little confused - some say the truck simply turned around and was leaving others say the passengers got out of the truck and got in an altercation with those manning the barricade.

But one thing is known. The anti-Chavez protesters shot one of the young workers in the back three times killing him instantly. That is right, the supposedly peacefull anti-Chavez protesters, you know the ones the international press tell us go around with their hands peacefully held up in the air, had guns and were willing to use them to shoot people. Here you can see some of the video of the young man's relatives and co-workers discussing this outrageous and murderous event.

Of course, those not in Venezuela can be forgiven if they haven't heard about these events - they barely rate an article in the international press.

So the international press largely ignores it. The opposition controlled press in Venezuela slanders the man saying he was a criminal trying to rob the protesters.

But the bottom line is one more person is dead from political violence in Venezuela. People on both sides of the divide have lost their lives. But unfortunately most people will only ever hear about one set of victims. It seems dark skinned workers from poor backgrounds apparently don't count as much as affluent university students in some peoples minds.

Sad, but true.


Monday, November 26, 2007

The new oil. 

Given that milk has been scarce in Venezuela of late Ultimas Noticias today gave a little chart which probably tells us a lot more about milk than we ever wanted to know:

Along the top we see Venezuelan milk production statistics for the past two decades. It doesn't take a lot of effort to see milk production hasn't gone anywhere - it has essentially been flat. This is not good, particularly considering that during those 20+ years Venezuela's population has been growing.

These numbers come from the Venezuelan government. For the past three years it hasn't released actual production statistics but has simply stated that production has grown 8% each of those years. Hence, Ultimas Noticias did the calculations which show that if true Venezuela should be producing 1.5 billion liters per year.

However, that number is disputed by the dairy farmer association which claims production is more like 1.2 billion and that production has fallen over 13% in during the past 10 years.

Regardless, Venezuela's milk production is insufficient to meet demand (which in a major ommision isn't given in this chart but it has been going up significantly) so the difference is made up by imports. According to these statistics Venezuela now imports almost half its milk.

As fate would have it, right now is NOT a good time to need to be importing lots of milk. One normally doesn't think of milk as a scarce or valuable commodity but lately it is. Witness this article:

In a growing world, milk is the new oil

HAMILTON, New Zealand: After years of saving, Geoff Irwin finally scraped up enough money to buy his parents' dairy farm near here in 2003. Now his parents have retired to a house nearby and Irwin, 45, runs the farm with its 300 cows.

It is hard work, 12 hours a day, but already it looks as though it has paid off: Just four years later, the farm is worth more than twice what he paid for it. Prices for dairy farms in New Zealand are soaring along with dairy incomes, thanks to a global milk boom.

"It feels really good," Irwin said. "It feels like we're going to be earning and be rewarded the way we should."

Driven by a combination of climate change, trade policies and competition for cattle feed from biofuel producers, global milk prices have doubled over the past two years. In parts of the United States, milk is more expensive than gasoline. There are reports of cows being stolen on Wisconsin dairy farms.

"There's a world shortage of milk," said Philip Goode, manager of international policy at Dairy Australia in Canberra.


"No one forecast this rapid shortage of milk," said Torsten Hemme, head of the IFCN center.

This is not good if you are in the market for milk. Pizza parlors and ice cream vendors are raising their prices. Starbucks has raised the price of its drinks. Raising the price of its candy bars didn't stop milk prices from pushing Hershey's profit down 96 percent in its latest financial year. Milk is also weighing on profits at Cadbury Schweppes and at Kraft Foods' cheese unit.


Australia, a major exporter, is suffering a multi-year drought that has devastated its milk production by killing off the grass that milk cows eat. Many in Australia worry that, far from being a temporary problem, the drought is the result of global warming and that dairies will never be the same.

At the same time, rising demand for biofuels is pushing up the price of corn and other grains, which is what farmers in the United States, Europe, Canada and Japan use to feed their cows instead of grass. Rising feed costs are therefore helping to push milk prices even higher. Production is growing in emerging markets like China, but demand there is growing even faster. The average person in China now consumes more than 25 liters, or 6 gallons, of milk a year, up from 9 liters in 2000, according to IFCN. So while China is now one of the world's top milk producers, it is also the world's largest milk importer.

In other emerging markets, rising prices have prompted governments to step in to control prices. In Argentina, for example, the government has imposed a tax on dairy exports. India, the world's largest milk producer, this year banned exports of milk powder.

Rising milk prices are contributing to accelerating inflation worldwide, from Brazil to Australia, vexing policy makers and sparking allegations that there is more behind it than supply and demand. The authorities in South Africa are investing allegations of price-fixing in the country's milk market; in Germany they are looking into the rising prices of milk and butter; and the U.S. Congress has started an inquiry into alleged price-fixing in the nation's market for cheese

Well, seeing as Chavez is into barter arrangements maybe he can start sending tankers of oil to New Zealand and have them come back full of milk. A barrel of oil for a barrel of milk. Sounds fair to me.


This is why the Suhoys were needed. 

Well the inevitable happened, Uribe and Chavez are now officially at each other's throats, Uribe was never interested in peace, he did not want it, that has been his entire presidency in a nutshell. Chavez may not be altruastically interested in peace, but at the very least finds it deeply advantageous making him the guy to follow in this lead. But that is all over with and now bi-national relations are at their lowest point in years (WAY down from being at their artificially best in decades).

And all I can think about right now is thank god for the Su-30 MKII, in this brave new world the US is temporarely stunned militarily, they now resort to proxies doing the dirty work and invasions (eg Somalia and Ethiopia) so NOT having a TRADITIONAL and asymetric military in top shape could very well have been a treasonous.

Under all war scenarios (with our revamped military) Colombia's air force would be decimated in the first few days, without it, their chopper fleet would be permanently grounded and their navy sitting ducks. So a couple billion dollars in defense procurements gave us security over hundreds of billions of dollars on returns from natural resources. A well placed investment everywhere I see it. (of course we also prevent enslavement)

In a few days I will be posting the long delayed in depth reporting of the planes, sadly their armaments were kept a secret, and I could not report anything meaningful, but they were supposed to be revealed this Dec, even more so now.


Sunday, November 25, 2007


Next week at this time we will be eagerly awaiting the results of Venezuela's vote on the proposed reforms to its Constitution. Well, maybe some of you will filled with anticipation, but I am no longer sure that I will.

Up until recently I have had a clear position on the reforms. I was against them due to some of them reducing the democratic control of Venezuelans over their own government.

No, I haven't changed my mind on those things. Those reforms, increasing the presidential term to 7 years and making recall referendums more difficult to invoke, are just as unacceptable today as they were a month ago.

Worse still, as his campaign has become more desperate Chavez has made the incredible statement that anyone who votes against the reforms is a "traitor". A traitor to what? To Chavez? To Venezuela?

And what exactly is treasonous - thinking for oneself? Does this mean only people who obey orders - not people who think - need apply for membership in, say, the PSUV?

The bottom line is such a flawed reform sold using such demeaning and insulting tactics certainly does not deserve anyones vote. Based on this voting NO would seem to be the obvious choice.

Unfortunately, things aren't so simple. The reason being that those who have spearheaded the movement against the reforms are the same people who have spearheaded the anti-Chavez efforts for the past eight years. Unfortunately, a defeat for this lousy reform package would likely be interpreted as a victory for those reactionaries.

Now you say - "so what if they view it as they won, as long as the reforms are defeated". But that problem can't be dismissed so easily. The reason being they would almost certainly take that electoral result and use it as justification for trying to destabilize the government. Within hours of a NO victory they would likely be on Globovision insisting that Chavez resign even though of course he is slated to be president for the next 5 years.

The reality is the opposition hasn't changed. Just look at their most recent stunts of instigating violence so they can then cry "repression". Or their recent desire to march once again on the presidential palace. And just recently they have been hoping the words of one former military man means there is "unrest in the barracks".

Sadly it looks as though the Venezuelan opposition has not matured at all. If there have been no oil strikes recently, it is only because most of them already got fired from PDVSA. If there have been no coup attempts it is only because most of them were purged after their last coup attempt. And if there was a lull in their rock throwing street demonstrations it was because they had a hard time getting people out of the malls and into the street. In other words, if they have not resorted to undemocratic means recently to try to unseat Chavez it is not because they no longer want to but rather simply that they have lacked the means to employ those methods.

And lets not forget for one second how thoroughly undemocratic the opposition is. As flawed as it is, and as outrageous as Chavez's rhetoric can be, at least these reforms are being put to a vote. But when the opposition briefly came to power they did their own little constitutional reform - they ripped the whole thing up with no vote, no discussion, no debate, no nothing.

Can anyone really believe that if these people ever regained power they wouldn't do the same thing all over again? No, one can't. It is more than clear that the Constitution, many laws, the Missions, and many other accomplishments of this government wouldn't last a week under the opposition. And they won't be slowed down by silly little things like referendums.

Given that all that it would be hard, to say the least, to vote against the reforms and thereby giving the reactionary opposition a second wind and the ability to create havoc again.

Looking at this I can only think that no matter which side wins next Sunday, Venezuela as a country loses.


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