Archive for December 24th, 2006

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.