Archive for December, 2006

Happy New Year! Hope you stay hungry and stay foolish!

December 31, 2006

And so 2006 is almost gone. While many people see the end of the year as something sad, I tend to look forward more than back. What will the new year bring? What exciting or new thing will happen to me? What can I do differently? Should I start a new project? In general, a couple of ideas do come up and I am typically a great one for coming up with off the wall ideas about what I want to do that is new. And typically, I do it.

2006 did not bring the things I wanted in my country’s life, even if I was quite happy with my own personal life. And therein lies the paradox, things went well personally, while all the time I devoted to trying to change how this country works went to waste with Chavez’ victory on Dec. 3. The satisfaction is that I lived up to my principles and will continue to do so in the new year.

And thus my friends, Happy New Year from your blogger, hoping that in 2007 you have all your wishes fulfilled and wishing that in the new year you will be able to follow that remarkable wisdom: “Stay hungry, stay foolish

Some strong bloomers and and a new Jenmanii Coerulea

December 31, 2006

Some plants do well in certain places, such as this Lc. Gold Digger that loves my growing conditions. I started with ne plant and now I have six, five of which are currently in flower and I have taken a “group” picture with all of them. The original plant is the one that hangs in the middle. They grow so much that I moved them out of the orchid room to where I have larger plants and they get much more sun, but they seem to love it even more. On the right a close up of Lc. Gold Digger.

On the left a very nice Cattleya Jenmanii Coerulea, this is the first time it flowers, definitely my best Jenmanii coreulea by far. On the right is a very cute Potinara Hoku Gem “Freckles” which spends most of the year in flower.

The list of lists for 2006

December 30, 2006

If you were sleep in 2006, you can catch up with practically anything by just looking at this list of lists. It takes seconds to look at it, but hours to digest it properly. Cool!


What the argument over the RCTV broadcast concession is about

December 30, 2006

When I made my post on Chavez and RCTV, it was not clear to me why there was a difference in opinion between the Government and the owners of RCTV on whether the concession expires or not next year. I talked to a few people and I will explain it to the best of my understanding, which still has some gaps. If I were to learn that the details have some imprecision, I will make corrections.

The RCTV concession was indeed due to expire next year. However, the National Assembly approved in 2000 the new Telecommunications Bill, which specified, among many other things that existing concessions would have two years to “transform” or comply to the new legislation. Transforming to the new legisltaion implied the automatic renewal of the concession under the conditions of the new law. The regulator, CONATEL issued the regulations for the application for the transformation. All of the existing TV broadcasting channels submitted their requests to transform their concessions to the new Law.

The problem arises because CONATEL never replied to any of the TV broadcasters approving their  transformation to the new Law. Thus, there is no formal act approving the change. In Venezuela, there is a law called the Ley Organica de Procedimientos Administrativos (LOPA), which establishes time limits (I believe it is 4 months if no reply is ever issued) for Government offices to reply to requests, such as the transformation of the concessions to the new Law. Since CONATEL never formally approved the transformation, but never rejected it either, under the law, the request by the owners of RCTV is considered to be approved and thus, their concession was extended for twenty years counted from the time limit of two years imposed by the law. This is called in Venezuelan legalese “administrative silence” and it is applied to all requests a citizen or any legal entity may make in front of any Government office.

Thus, the difference of opinion arises from the fact that the Government considers the concession to have expired under the old law, while RCTV believes that the administrative silence automatically extended their concession.

Note that in any case, the Government would need to have a legal reason not to renew the concession. That is, if RCTV complied with the requirements for renewal, teh Government can’t simply deny it  without giving a valid reason and those given by Chavez are certainly not valid. It is not a “right of the state” to deny at will or whim, as the Vice President indicated today, there is a rule of law and there has to be a valid legal or technical reason for denying a renewal that has not even been requested by the TV station.

And thus, whether it expires or not next year will have to be decided by the Courts, which I am sure wil find a way to side with the President’s wishes.

Rayma hits the spot on Chavez’ accusations

December 29, 2006

As usual cartoonist Rayma hits the right spot below, the genie tells Chavez that he can grant him one wish, Chavez responds that he would like to end with all coup plotters and puff!!!

A first step into the new totalitarian Bolivarian revolution

December 28, 2006

Wearing military garb and using his now customary intolerant and confrontational style, President Hugo Chavez began the second phase of his fake revolution by announcing that the concession to TV station Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) will not be renewed in March. The owners of the station claim that the concession was renewed until 2020, but whether one side is right or not from a legal point of view is simply irrelevant. What is clear is that dissent is not and will not be tolerated and the scope of action of the media and the press will be slowly quenched, until only one view is available.

The President justified the measure by saying that RCTV had staged coups, a strange claim coming from a man that led one bloody one and supported a second one, for which Venezuelan democracy, the one he claims was so bad and heartless, only showed tolerance and compassion in pardoning him.

But this is just another step in the total control of the Nation by the autocrat. As other TV stations have their concession expire in the next few years, they will either have to put up or shut up, essentially killing free speech, which we have already seen diminished dramatically in the last few years as other TV stations have stayed quiet on many issues which may annoy or offend the autocrat.

And it was done in typically dictatorial and autocratic style. He himself decided it on the basis of politics and hate, there was no technical decision, no evaluation, no evidence, no proof, just Chavez himself deciding that RCTV’s criticism and opposition to his Government was sufficient not to renew the license. Dissent ist verbotem.

Of course, while this is happening the Government absolutely controls the Government TV station VTV, has created Vale TV, VIVE TV, Telesur and has recently purchased privately held CMT, as well as giving out a few dozen regional concessions for TV broadcasting. A single view will be broadcast one day, in the best totalitarian style.

Moreover, Chavez threatened to turn his weekly program “Alo Presidente” either into a daily affair, so he can turn himself into a “teacher”, promoting hate and division among Venezuelans and, obviously, promoting himself, the unique and lifetime leader, or into a daily obligatory broadcast by all TV stations, in another attempt at self-promoting and making sure the Hugo Chavez cult receives all of the attention of all Venezuelans.

He also threatened that we are now in a new stage of the fake revolution, that there will be no continuity with what has happened so far. In criollo terms, the only thing he did not say is “Lo que viene es joropo” (What is coming is joropo, a typical Venezuelan dance) which signifies you have to be ready to dance at whatever rhythm is played. Or else.

And while the President of RCTV Marcel Granier, tried to put up a brave face, saying Chavez is “ill-informed” and they are simply trying to put fear in them, the truth is that no Court in the land will ever side with RCTV in a Chavez vs. RCTV fight over the concession.

And as we said right after Chavez’ reelection, this is what we will see from now on, the regular imposition of controls and limits and a total all out war against dissent and the right to free speech. All so that an ignorant Lt. can “spend time reading to prepare himself” for the next stage, in a clear and absolutely cynical admission, that even after eight years in power, Hugo Chavez is still trying to create a plan of where and how he wants the Nation to go. And that he will not discuss it with anyone, he will step back, read, decide and come back to tell us daily his newly found wisdom, in the hope that one day, he will find the right way to do things.

It is totalitarism at its best.

The success of the populist promise

December 26, 2006

Reading this piece in yesterday’s New York Times, reminded me of how successful populism can be in our region of the world. Argentina has suffered horrendously in the last 16 years under 14 years of populist Peronista leaders and in the end, voters reelect the same party to get them out of trouble. What is even worse is that much like in Venezuela, the disparity between the rich and the poor gets wider in time, little progress is made and there seems to be no end to it.

When I first started working, I was paid minimum salary to be trained. At the time, a tenured University professor would make 12 times more and a member of the Cabinet, which made the highest salary possible in Government besides the President, would make 14 times the minimum salary. I thought that was definitely too much of a difference. Well, under Chavez that ratio has stayed constant with respect to the minimum salary for professors, maybe a little lower at around 10 or 11, but it did rise dramatically for higher positions, with CNE or Central Bank Directors, President’s of state companies and even Assembly Deputies making from 34 to even 80 times the minimum salary.

Thus, the same people that preach helping the poor, the redistribution of wealth and the like, when it comes down to it; seem to do exactly the opposite. Let me clarify, that I am not criticizing this Government in particular; this has been a continuous trend in the last 40 years, with only a few minor bumps on the way.

The problem is that populist Governments, and I consider Chavez’ to be simply the most populist we have ever had, tend to over promise but in the end have no clue about what to do to redistribute wealth, make contry’s economies stable or plan for the future.

It always begins with blaming someone else for our problems. The truth is that nobody is going to come and solve them for us. But scaring away investment, relying on commodities and being unproductive will certainly not solve our problems. We have done that and apparently will continue to do it for the foreseeble future.

The last few years have been terrible for investing in Venezuela. The Government does exactly the opposite, sending inconsistent and threatening messages to investment. Venezuela has lost half its factories since 1998 and while 2006 was good year, production rising 10%, it barely makes a dent on the lost ground. (See graph here from the series I have been posting about). The Government seems to believe that it can do it all, investing in all sorts of industries, declaring them “strategic”, but in the end spreading itself too thin. Thus, while China is planning to privatize over one hundred thousand companies in the next five years, Chávez starts companies almost weekly both in Venezuela and abroad, which are heavily subsidized and run by people who have never run any enterprise in their lives, guaranteeing their failure.

Construction also had a banner year in 2006, but when you look at the detail, what you see is that a large fraction of that construction is focused on building shopping centers and commercial centers to take advantage of the liquidity and credit boom backed by the oil windfall.

But in the end we always seem to go back to commodities, which have also enjoyed a nice run in the last few years, but they are subject to strong cycles that will not go away and can not be depended on unless you add value to the products.

In the early 1970’s Venezuelan politicians had paid little attention to technology as a way of generating growth or employment. PDVSA did not even spend much on development, let alone research. With the nationalization of the oil industry, a research and technology center was created and it seemed like a new era was upon us. That center barely exists today, as over 1,000 scientists and engineers were fired in 2003 and PDVSA has gone back to a model of concentrating on production. Just a commodity seller in a business which generates few jobs. Not pretty!

It is not easy to develop a knowledge based economy, but the cycles in the Venezuelan economy have been cruel to most efforts. In the mid seventies, as part of the Government’s program to send people abroad, many people got degrees in electrical engineering and similar areas. When they returned, many of them started a thriving electronic industry, which was massacred by the devaluation in 1982. People forget that less than two years after the first IBM PC came to market, you could buy Venezuelan made PC’s under the brand name Xynertech.

The problem is regional. Most countries in Latin America, with the relative exceptions of Brazil and Chile, continue to be focused on commodities and some basic products derived from them.

Asia has been going the other way, looking for the growth needed to improve the life of their populations, China, India, Korea, Malaysia and other countries in the region have bent over to attract foreign investment and create friendly atmospheres for them. Some like India had excellent educational systems in place. Others decided to invest not only in education, but in high quality education at all levels and staring from the bottom.

In Venezuela emphasis has been made for too long at the highest levels of education, with quality not being as important as politics and getting promotions being the most important factors that motivate teachers. The word “excellence” is seldom used, even at the highest levels of education.

The same thing happens with productivity, even the tax office SENIAT penalizes formal errors in record keeping by companies by shutting them down, sometimes for days at a time, as if the country could afford to waste the money and the time (or the taxes).

But somehow it does not matter, people prefer populism and to be told the wealth is being redistributed and the poor are being taken care of. But much like in Argentina today and Venezuela before, it is the rich getting richer and politicians filling their pockets at record levels.

The problem is not the now; the problem is twenty years from today when people realize that they have been running in place for two decades. Unfortunately, I feel that way about the last thirty years; we have been running in place for the last thirty years as a country. Thirty years ago Venezuela had promise; there were initiatives all over the place to change it. It all began to die slowly, most likely at the devaluation of 1982. The promises were the same. From CAP to Luis Herrera, through Lusinchi and Caldera and now Chavez, they were all going to take care of the poor, redistribute wealth and make Venezuela a wonderful place to live.

They all failed and are failing today.

The problem is actually simple. Mathematically for Venezuela to stay where it is, you have oil prices and population growth, even if oil goes up, they would have to keep up with population growth. It’s just not happening.

And that is only to stay in place!

Thus, if you want to improve you have to plan for stability plus something more, but there has not been and there is no such stability even planned for in our country. The politicians’ hope for higher prices and cross their fingers, that is almost as much planning as there is here. A “Hail Mary” economy in american foottbal terms!

It is perhaps ironic that the current period in Venezuelan modern history is quite similar to that of the much-hated Carlos Andres Perez, a wave of consumerism, where the economy is dominated by commerce and retail. But you don’t build an economy on consumption; you also need production and investment. CAP could say that at least he invested, even if there was a lot of waste, but he built hundreds of schools, a few dozen hospitals, quite a few roads and part of the current electric infrastructure. Chavez can’t say the same with a bigger windfall and three years more than CAP had in the 70’s.

And thus the politicians are getting ric
her than ever, so are the bankers, let’s not talk about the corrupt, as the Government subsidizes the purchase of 330,000 cars in 2006, which are not exactly purchased by the poor and run on the 15 cents a gallon gasoline which we all love and enjoy.

Thus, inequality grows, apparently hand in hand with populism, and promises which are harder and harder to fulfill and screwed up economics are hidden under the new mystery name of XXIst. Socialism, which apparently aspires to make us all equal by destroying the economy. And when the blow-up comes, the rich will still be well off, while the poor will pay the cost of the adjustments.

And a bigger and more irresponsible populist will come around and promise more of the same under a new name or slogan and people will buy it and the cycle will start again by blaming someone else first.

I have seen the same movie many times in the last forty years.

Merry Christmas!!!

December 24, 2006

To me, Christmas is all about being and laughing with family. For the last twenty years, we all meet on Christmas Eve, which is the Venezuelan tradition, to share the traditional dishes of the Venezuelan Christmas: Hallacas, pernil, pan de jamon and many others. Hallaca is tamal-looking thing, wrapped in plantain leaves and made of corn flour which contains a stew of chicken, pork (lots of fat!) and many other ingredients, some of which vary regionally and even from family to family. I have always found hallacas to be quite symbolic of that puzzle that is our Venezuela, among its ingredients you can even find three or four items that are imported and not produced locally.

After dinner and a few drinks, laughing and singing (and dancing when we were younger!) we exchange gifts in a somewhat chaotic affair since there are quite a bit of siblings and their descendants. For the last twenty years or so, we have stayed all night at one place, originally the house where I used to live outside of Caracas. After staying up late, singing, laughing, talking, dancing and even watching some dumb program on TV to the early hours, we would sleep in couches, three to a bed, lounge chairs and the kids would camp out in the garden. In the morning, we would all see the young kids open their Niño Jesus presents. Afterwards, very tired, we would have a full breakfast with arepas, cheese, croissants and the like, before we would go home to rest from the marathon.

This year there will be fewer of us. Some have emigrated in what appears to be an irreversible trend. Not only some siblings, but even more from the next generation. Others have left on vacation outside the country. Through the magic of technology, we will use webcams to watch each other open presents wherever they are. There will be no all nighter either, there are no kids left who still believe in Niño Jesus to watch open the presents in the morning.

Every year in the morning I would think this was the last year I would stay up, but I would always forget it the next year. I guess this time I will miss the all nighter, and the arepas in the morning too, but mostly, I will just miss those that are not here…because Christmas is less Christmas without all of them here…

Merry Christmas to all!

Government offers pardons with one hand, while initiating the prosecution of hundreds with the other one

December 24, 2006

Early in the Chavez administration, I could help but be impressed by a pair of military officers that Chavez had named to the Office of the Budget. One was Guiacaipuro Lameda, whom I had the fortune to meet for a few minutes at the time, the other was Francisco Uson. They seemed competent, caring and were doing a good job in their office, including the fact that they were posting the budget and its execution in the OCEPRE’s website.

Later, Lameda was named Minister of Finance and Uson replaced him as Head of the Budget office and when Lameda was moved to head PDVSA, Uson became Minister of Finance. On April 11th. Uson had a special vantage point to the carnage that took place that day atop the office of the Ministry of Finance. He quit in the afternoon, way before the events that are now called the “coup” took place, not before setting up a makeshift hospital in the parking lot of the Ministry.

It was a quiet departure for a quiet man. He quit, but did not make a big deal out of it, no press conference or TV appearances. He never participated in Plaza Altamira or activities against the Government. In fact, I was very surprised at how little attention Uson’s resignation got. A few months later Uson gave an interview in which he said that he quit not only because of what he saw, but also because of the violent attitude he witnessed in Chavez’ Cabinet four days earlier, which in his opinion caused the violence that day.

Many months later, Uson was invited to a TV program because he is a weapons engineer and at the time, there was the Fort Mara case, the case of the stockade at a military fort where three prisoners had been burned by those in charge and there were different versions of how this had happened. Uson was asked in that program whether the burns were consistent with the use of a flamethrower, to which he replied that yes, it was possible that the guards had used a flamethrower and it was consistent with what had been found.

Not too long after that, a military court charged Uson with defaming the military institution and tried him for his statements and found him guilty. Uson was condemned by the military court to five years in prison, despite the fact that he all he did was express his own personal opinion on a technical matter and that he was no longer an active member of the Armed Forces as he had retired after April 11th. But in a country without Justice, Uson could not get any civilian Court to intervene and he has been in jail since he was sentenced.

Why Uson was persecuted with such vengeance has always been a mystery to me, obviously there has to be some source of resentment that allowed for such a miscarriage of justice to take place and it had to come from the top.

Thus, I was a little surprised when Chavez suggested right after his reelection that he may pardon political prisoners, not only admitting that there are some, but specifically mentioning Uson, saying that if people stopped plotting against the Government he could pardoned them. Days after that Uson wrote a letter to Chavez rejecting the pardon, saying eh could not ask for a pardon for a crime he did not commit and improperly charged with.

While Chavez has not mentioned the pardon again, the church, opposition groups and members of the National Assembly have. Opposition groups and human rights NGO’s have been active with a petition to submit an Amnesty Bill to the National Assembly, which is possible under the Constitution. Some members of the National Assembly have said they would consider it if proposed, but then a couple of days ago Deputy Cilia Flores said that this would only be possible if those pardoned publicly asked for forgiveness before the pardoned could be granted. This was rejected by many of those in jail and obviously kills the possibility of the amnesty bill and is not in the spirit of such pardons.

In fact, the Assembly does not need to approve the pardons; Chavez could do it with a decree, much like he pardoned each and every man that participated in the 1992 coups. None of those were asked to ask for forgiveness and none of them have ever expressed regret or sorrow at the killings that took place in the February and November 1992 coups. In fact, I never even heard any of them send a message a message of condolence to the relatives of those that were killed those two days.

Uson’s opinion, expressed yesterday in an interview, is that the fact that his case has reached international human rights courts is embarrassing to Chavez and thus the idea of pardoning him is to stop the case from being considered. Uson also says that he has been approached by Government representatives suggesting e could be pardoned if he adopted an attitude like Francisco Arias Cardenas, who ran against Chavez for President in 2000 and now has become the country’s Ambassador to the UN after even calling Chavez an assassin in April 2002.

As Uson says, Chavez does not do anything if he cannot gain something from it. Thus, the idea of a blanket pardon seems remote at this time, least of all if conditions are imposed before the pardon can be approved.

In fact, the attitude by the Government is exactly the opposite. Not only has the Government initiated both civil and penal cases against PDVSA workers who participated in the 2002 strike, intending to not only not pay them their severance and pensions, but also to go after them criminally, jail them and take their property away, but last week it began charging 33 military officers with rebellion, conspiracy and promoting crimes. This case relates to the protests of Plaza Altamira in 2002 and 2003 and selectively chooses to charge some of the officers who participated in it. The Government had never charged anyone in that case. Curiously in both instances the Government waited until the election to revive the cases.

Thus, it is unclear what game the Government is trying to play; you can’t be talking about pardoning a couple of dozen prisoners, while going after thousand new ones. It seems as if it was indeed Chavez’ intention to stop the Uson case, but the possibility of Amnesty has now extended to others. The problem is that nobody will accept conditions such as those being imposed, suggesting that when the National Assembly gets the formal petition for an Amnesty Bill, they may simply sit on it for as long as they want.

A picture is worth 10,000 words #13: Registered students in the Venezuelan Educational System

December 21, 2006

The graph below shows the percentage of the Venezuelan population registered as a student from preschool to the University since 1957 when Marcos Perez Jimenez was overthrown.

Source: Luis Bravo Jauregui, La Educacion en tiempos de Chavez, Editorial El Nacional, Caracas (2006)