July 30, 2004

Recall Election Countdown

Outside my small apartment in downtown Caracas, the countdown continues to the 15th. of August, Venezuela's, and possibly the world’s, first presidential recall referendum. The Venezuelan opposition forces are fragmented into various parties with one aim to oust Chavez. One of the largest groups, Primero Justicia, has chosen the color yellow for their campaign, one of the three colors of the Venezuelan flag. Chavez's supporters had dibs on red; I guess no one wanted blue? Paratrooper red is the color of Chavez's own favorite beret, similar to the beret worn by the Venezuelan National Guard instrumental in crushing the 48-hour US-backed coup of 2002.

The messages of the pundits on both sides are simple now; "ˇVota Si!" or "ˇVota No!". The "ˇVota No!" posters are red. A no vote is against recalling the President, thereby offering Chavez a chance to complete his term.

It is still difficult to predict the result of the referendum but the "ˇVota Si!" group will be hard pressed to get the required percentage of the vote to oust Chavez. To recall the president they will need to get more 'Si' votes than Chavez received to elect him in the first place. The numbers in the 'interior' (the Venezuelan countryside) are strongly pro-Chavez but the upper middle class and the extremely rich, both urban and rural, are predominantly 'Si!' voters — strongly opposed to Chavez completing his term. The battle is being waged for the swing vote, a large band of undecideds and frequent non-voters estimated at 30% of the electorate.

Venezuela’s predominantly urban population will sway the vote one way or the other for the simple reason that 90% of the population is urban. Many 'Si!' campaigners are urban, well heeled, and often lighter skinned. In Caracas, the upper middle class is staunchly contra-Chavez. You'll find them strolling the malls of Las Mercedes on the east side of the city, displaying their ‘Si!’ buttons with pride. In such a mall, the price of a pair of European-made designer sunglasses is about US$600. For 20 times this price, just five miles away in the barrios, you can buy a two-bedroom apartment. Few Mercedes shoppers ever visit their neighboring barrios but it will be in these barrios that the vote will be decided. To swing the vote the Chavistas and the anti-Chavistas have been taking increasingly radical steps.

Chavez's supporters are organized into local political cells called Bolivarian Circles. Similar in form to the local Cuban political cells that have supported Castro for decades, these circles are Chavez's powerbase. Sundays and National holidays they are out there in the rural towns and urban barrios with their giant speakers demonizing the US-backed coup-makers (‘Golpeistas’ in Spanish) — as they refer to the competition. Dressed in the red T-shirts of the Bolivarian revolution, they hand out 'No!' stickers to passing cars. More sophisticated propaganda includes posters listing Chavez's many government schemes or 'Missions'. Missions are blunt but effective development schemes with a progressive slant. Though they suffer from many problems with corruption, they have made a difference, especially in rural areas. They include schemes to increase adult literacy, assist small farmers, provide healthcare to the poor, support for arts and sports, the building of thousands of ‘Bolivarian’ schools, providing micro-credit to those in the barrios who wish to rebuild their shacks or open a hot-dog stand to better their lives.

Chavez is given to drawn-out populist speeches and "meet the president" radio pieces where a selected audience gets to chat with their president about their positive experiences in the adult literacy mission. He is comfortable with the common people, possibly more comfortable than he is in the world of international politics where he does come across as a little rough around the edges. In his speeches these days Chavez increasingly refers to the menaces he sees endangering his Bolivarian revolution. His favorite allusion these days is to speak of "the devil who is coming" using the tried-and-tested political trick of diversion. He points to malicious external forces to divert their attention away from problems at home. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher used this tactic to demonize Argentina over the Falklands to great effect while the Argentine leader were doing the same thing to her. Venezuela’s external threat is arguably greater than that which threatened “Fortress Britain”. Chavez's speeches contain many historical references to the Bolivarian revolution that brought independence from the Spanish empire in the 19th century. In metaphorical terms, he sees the Mercosur alliance as realizing Bolivar’s dream of reuniting Gran Colombia — one great South American Republic. He might be right! Mercosur that began life as a trade agreement between Argentina and Brazil is growing to become a force to be reckoned with.

Sometimes Chavez’s historical allusions, viewed from an outsider’s perspective, are a little heavy-handed. Simon Bolivar was born in Caracas on the 24th of July 1783 and shrines to him are everywhere in Venezuela. On his birthday last week I was in Plaza Bolivar, in the city of Bolivar, capital of the state of Bolivar, in this, the newly renamed 'Bolivarian Republic' listening to speeches on Bolivar, broadcast nationwide on most stations in Venezuela. When your town square, your currency, your school, your political system and even your country, is renamed after a dead patriot, it seems just a tad overdone.

Chavez's speeches are criticized harshly by his opponents but resonate strongly with his supporters who are ready to take to the streets, armed if necessary, to protect their revolution from "the devil who is coming". Whom this ‘devil’ represents is not too difficult to discern. The state channel broadcast a live puppet play from Plaza Bolivar in central Merida. Merida is Venezuela's Andean capital and has a staunchly pro-Chavista governor. It was the first place to install a shrine to, (you guessed it), Simon Bolivar in it's town square. The 'devil' puppet had skeletal hands protruding from a body in the shape of a television set, and on its head sported the red, white and blue top hat of Uncle Sam.

The Contra-Chavista 'Si' voters are organized too and are not without their resources. They have their work cut out battling a Chavista government with its interests firmly aligned with Chavez's success. The devil-puppet with the torso of a television-set also alluded to Venezuela's media magnates — the ‘Si!’ voter's most powerful weapon.

When Nixon's government ousted Salvador Allende's government in the early seventies they realized the power of the newspapers to influence public support. Santiago's major daily, "El Mercurio" was given more than a million dollars to incite insurgence against the president in the run-up to the coup. Another of Nixon's tactics was to fund business organizations in their efforts to destabilize the government by collapsing the Chilean economy. Chile's crippling strikes were often organized by the business owners (seemingly contrary to their own interests). This was part of Nixon’s plan to make the Chilean economy ‘scream’. It worked well then, so why not now?

While no evidence exists that the US has interfered in the media here in Venezuela, many of the press magnates are so radically anti-Chavez that the CIA might be better spending its money elsewhere. It is impossible to find balanced government media coverage here. In most outlets, coverage of the government is so extraordinarily anti-Chavez that it warps even excellent newspapers such as El Nacional, once firm supporters before the election.

The US has been more interventionist when it comes to economic interference and the support of coups. The Venezuelan government has been finding it difficult to engineer economic recovery caused by crippling oil strikes during Chavez’s term. The strikes occurred after the purge of the hierarchy of the PDVSA (the national oil company). Chavez believed that this measure was necessary to reduce corruption in the PDVSA; it also served to consolidate his own power in the oil company is Venezuela’s primary source of foreign income. PDVSA also supplies 15% of US oil requirements. The drawn-out strike was supported by the oligarchies even though it hurt the economy badly. Some blame lies with the inexperienced henchmen that Chavez put in place to control the PDVSA for the interruption in oil supplies, but much of the interruption was the result of belligerent anti-government sabotage. In the 2002 coup attempt, Pedro Carmona became the puppet president for 48 hours. Carmona was the leader of Fedecamaras, Venezuela’s largest business association. He received covert US government funding, funneled through a US union, to help with his bid to topple Chavez.

Chavez is extremely unpopular with many Venezuelan big-business owners. Apart from bringing down the wrath of US economic pressure, there is also the question of taxation. Previous regimes have been much more lenient. The SENIAT, the somewhat corrupt Venezuelan Customs and Taxation department, is much more vigilant than its previous counterparts in enforcing taxation rules. Recently the SENIAT has been conducting zero evasion campaigns to dissuade tax evasion. More important still, the rules of the taxation game were rewritten in the new 1999 constitution! Can you imagine the reaction of US-based corporations if the US tax-law was eradicated and then written anew by a socialist government, eliminating decades of lobbying loop-holes in one fell swoop? Carmona’s first official act was to throw out the new constitution but his reign was short. The constitution is now back in force, and business-owners are paying much more in taxes than they were used to.

Also extremely unpopular with the rich are Chavez’s currency controls. Apart from making it difficult to export profits or even make an international business trip, currency restrictions also make it very difficult for Venezuelan businesses to trade internationally as they are restricted in their ability to purchase with hard currency. The Venezuela national bank imposes currency restrictions. This restricts speculation on the Bolivar. Such restrictions are unpopular with the currency markets. They have reacted predictably, not trading Bolivars, thereby making the currency effectively useless outside Venezuela.

Chavez's close relationship with Cuba's Castro has also been irksome to the US state department and their allies in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government's oil-for-doctors barter deal has helped to cushion Castro's regime from recent oil shocks. These minor irritations are insignificant when compared to Chavez's opposition to US-friendly trade agreements, particularly the FTAA. It could be argued that this is the primary reason the US state department wants Chavez out.

Chavez has been instrumental in the expansion of Mercosur, signing Venezuela on as an associate member just this month. Mercosur, the South American trading block, has become the lynch-pin of the “Buenos Aires consensus”. Chavez is sometimes the only, always the most vocal, opponent of the FTAA. Mercosur even went so far this month as to offer associate membership to Mexico. This is significant for many reasons: Mexico is the only Latin American trading partner participating in NAFTA, it is also part of North America and many believed that Mercosur’s influence would remain south of the Panama Canal. Now that Mercosur is signing direct trade agreements with China and the European Union, it represents a direct threat to US economic hegemony, even in their own “back yard”.

While the US indisputably rules the world in military power, dwarfing the military forces of the European Union or China, the current US government has had less success with economic agreements than some of its competitors. The Republicans have had little success in implementing US-friendly trade agreements thereby advancing the interests of US-based trans-national corporations. The US may have dropped the ball with the FTAA. In the last meeting in Mexico Chavez refused to sign an intent to join the FTAA. He insisted on a clause[1], effectively undermining the ‘agreement’ entirely.

Returning to metaphor, Chavez could be viewed as Mercosur’s flag bearer, Lula and Kirchner standing in the rear lines offering tactical support. Arguably, Chavez's self-image as the re-incarnation of the hero Bolivar is not too far-fetched, but maybe his role is more military, more closely resembling Bolivar’s military leader: the Irishman Daniel Florence O’Leary, the man that helped make Bolivar’s vision a reality.

[1] “Venezuela enters a reservation with respect to the paragraph on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) because of questions of principle and profound differences regarding the concept and philosophy of the proposed model and because of the manner in which specific aspects and established timeframes are addressed. We ratify our commitment to the consolidation of a regional fair trade bloc as a basis for strengthening levels of integration. This process must consider each country’s particular cultural, social, and political characteristics; sovereignty and constitutionality; and the level and size of its economy, in order to guarantee fair treatment.”

Posted by Tony Phillips at 12:45 PM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2004

Driving Rivers in the Andes

The town of Biscucuy is quiet this morning, the wind still. There are many levels of cloud but they move slowly over the steep Andean foothills that surround us. Touching the lowest peaks the rain-bearing clouds move quietly northward toward town. It is much cooler up here but still tropical, we are about 10 degrees north of the equator at an elevation of about 1700M. The town is about one and a half kilometers below the cloud forest, far above the low clouds in view. In the Andes altitude dominates, horizontal distances mean very little unless relief is taken into account; and then there is the small matter of the weather.

Last night was not as calm as this morning. We had begun the day in the old city Coro, a dry, hot and humid coastal town in the Caribbean border region with Colombia. Coro survives by pipelines; water travels north dropping down from the green mountain ranges our Mitsubishi climbed this morning; oil travels south from the refineries on the Paraguaná peninsula in the north. The oil pipelines seem to work but Coro only has water from the mains once or twice a week. The pipelines form a comfortable bench for the locals in the villages nearby who hang out to survey the passing traffic.

From Coro, the main road travels west to South America’s largest lake: Maracaibo. Almost a hundred years of extracting oil has polluted lake Maracaibo, so I wasn’t that disappointed to miss it. The Chavez government has been expecting an invasion from the West any time and Maracaibo’s oil wealth is an obvious target so the place fairly bristles with military. Advised not to take this road because of the seven National Guard checkpoints we would encounter, we avoided Venezuela’s oil capital by driving due south into the mountains; lots of mountains.

As the torrential rain drops down from the peaks above me I am beginning to realize that this calm early morning lull may well have been the best of today’s weather. Soon the metal roof above my head will come alive; the noise of the inundation will drown out the horns and the early morning traffic and it will begin again, like last night.

By mid-afternoon yesterday, we had traveled about 550 kilometers as the crow flies, through increasingly wet weather. At 4:00 P.M. I insisted that we take a break and have a much needed oil change in the mountain junction town of Barquisimeto. The owner was embarrassingly courteous insisting on speaking English with us. It seems we were the second group of Gringo travelers that he had met in the last decade at his shop. The previous couple had worked for the Canadian embassy in Caracas and had written him a letter of thanks for the courteous service that he offered them. It was framed on the wall in his office and he took it down to show us.

Senior D’onghia was of Italian extraction though he explained that his name was Greek. The racial makeup of Venezuela had changed drastically in the last century with an injection of more than 800,000 Europeans looking for a better life in the ‘New’ World. The boss of the Mobil-branded lube-shop explained how lucky we were that we hadn’t gone on into the town center. It seems that the students were burning tires to protest the increased cost of bus tickets. I was with the students in this country of USD$0.02/Liter gasoline (and cheaper diesel) but decided to avoid the center nonetheless. We snacked in the waiting room of the shop while waiting for the work to be completed then left with a smile and our Mobil-branded Frisbee (a gift from the owner).

It was my turn to drive and it was nearly 5:00 PM and darker than we have become used to, though not raining. The road quickly degraded from a two-lane highway to a twisty secondary road that wrenched violently upwards. We passed through a small mountain town that wasn’t on our map and I commented on the streams running through the streets. It was obvious that we were following a tropical storm that had just passed through. As we left town, I was concerned that the light was failing. As I turned a corner, I saw the first river. It was swollen and the bridge was unable to contain it so the road was engulfed and small hills of rocks and pieces of trees were deposited on the road’s surface. I stopped to ask a local but he seemed to think it was fine to drive over. I dropped the vehicle into 4-WD high and passed easily as he said I would. This was just the beginning.

The road twisted upwards and traffic thinned out. There were many such rivers ahead. I soon found myself reluctantly leading a convoy of locals in their vehicles (mainly short wheel-base delivery trucks and 4-WD pick-ups). We twisted slowly up the mountain road through the jungle. As the light continued to fail, I took a leftward glance at the mountain face. It was surreal; the cliffs came alive as thousands of gallons of floodwater, tinted red with mud danced over them depositing the loose ones in our path.

It might have been a good idea to turn back then returning to the town with the first river in flood but I pressed on feeling emboldened by the troop of vehicles who moved with me. I also had the thought that this road if passable now, may not be so in the morning. Then I turned the corner and my high beams picked out something in the distance. Floodwater had engorged a river. Loaded with mud, rocks and trees the river cut a swathe through the Jungle then dropped onto the road. It had spilled some of its contents onto the inner curve of the hairpin in front of us. The muddy water passed over this mess, shifting it and cutting ruts some two to three feet deep. It then fell off the road on the other side, a small brown waterfall. I didn’t mind crossing the ruts, this could be done in 4-WD. Nor did I feel that the car would be washed sideways with the current but I didn’t like the fact that the road had been undermined and was probably soon to become part of the river, falling down the cliff. I stopped the car and was in the process of turning my car around when the others arrived. They too stopped their vehicles; emerged to survey the river that was about forty feet wide. One local hopped back into his truck and drove past me, hugging the inside of the bend as he trundled across at a good speed. Emboldened by his success we followed; a seventies Ford F100 custom flat back, an Eighties Toyota Land Cruiser wagon, a small red 70’s jeep and me.

The worst of the storm had passed and was moving south in front of us but visibility was bad. Except for our high beams and the lightning flashes, which were becoming more fabulous as we crested the ridge the jungle was black. We reached a small village and all four of us turned left. I asked a local whether this was the way to Trujillo but it was not. My convoy had arrived, they were home. I needed to push on the other way, alone, but there was a small town on the other side if we could make it. I was annoyed at myself for traveling with no small-scale maps. We had two for the area each covering a landmass the size of Western Europe. Though accurate, they showed only larger towns and relief. We had to rely on the help of strangers when we could find them and could understand their replies to our dumb foreigner questions.

I didn’t like being alone but pushed on anyway. The smaller crossings, that once had seemed so daunting, were now routine as we encountered river after river. The road was holding up reasonably well, the traffic thinned to the occasional fool, Oh the welcome sight of oncoming headlights! We pushed on with the lightning revealing small huts where the local people lived close to the road. Where they still had electricity, we saw men sitting in their makeshift verandahs watching each vehicle pass by. I realized that they too wanted to see traffic as it meant that they were not yet cut off from the world below and above their mountain.

About ten miles further we seemed to be descending when we reached a small village. At the edge of town a line of traffic was stopped, a crowd of people stood together talking in the rain. We stopped too and I moved among the people waiting for my turn to ask about conditions. One man ran from the other side where another line of traffic was stopped. He was animated jumping nimbly over the boulders and trees that had been left by the river on what was now a partial road below. It was much wider, the ruts deeper separating large boulders and ten foot sections of trees. The man was making a collection suggesting 5000 Bolivars (about $2.00) a person saying something about his Volkswagen. I think it had been swept over but I was more interested in whether the road was safe to pass and what lay on the other side. I gave him whatever small notes I had in my pocket and approached an older man in the middle of the group. In my faltering Spanish, I asked whether a 4-WD might make it across. He answered in the affirmative: “In a Toyota you should make it!” That was my challenge so I walked back up the hill put her into 4-WD low and turned on my high beams so as not to run anyone over. As it turned out, I crossed a little too quickly dropping into a deep rut underwater. This shook the vehicle and its passengers cruelly but we made it and Clare opened the window with an Arriba! The locals were less than impressed but happy to see something cross. Passing traffic meant that they were not completely cut off.

After that crossing there were some hairy parts but nothing quite so bad, we moved slowly onward until we came to a junction town asking the way to Trujillo. Trujillo was still two to three hours above so we made for an intermediate destination a half hour down the road; this rural town of Biscucuy.

We feasted on roasted chicken in the one place in town still open then went to bed in a local hotel that had TV. We watched a Discovery channel episode about the construction of Hong Kong’s new airport, which was very alien. Then the power went out and it was time to sleep. That was a long drive but the vehicle had held up well, as had we.

I have a new respect for the Andes. These 1,500 Metre high paved roads are just the beginning. Some of the passes we’ll need to ascend to get out of the Amazon basin and over the Andes into Peru are 5,000+ and don’t have asphalt.

'Suerte' as they say in Spanish.

Posted by Tony Phillips at 09:01 AM | Comments (2)