Archive for January 12th, 2008

A clueless Hugo Chavez rides on

January 12, 2008

There is only one word for the signals and statements coming out of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Government during the last few days: Clueless. After nine years in power, riding on his charisma and populism and the biggest oil windfall the country has ever enjoyed, Hugo Chavez and his collaborators continue to show how clueless they are as to how to run a country and seemed to have learned nothing during this time.

The first clueless statement this week was the brilliant statement by the new Vice President that the Government would set up a commission composed of some Ministers to study the country’s problems and how to solve them. Wow! They discovered the concept of Cabinet and it only took them nine years to do it. Brilliant! They can get together once a week and see what’s wrong with Venezuela and try to figure out how to solve it. Problem is, if it took them nine years to figure this one out, how long will it take them to make it work? No wonder Chavez wants his indefinite reelection, it will likely take infinite time at this learning pace to fix all the problems.

And just as we thought we had heard everything, the new prosecutor comes out and says that she will create a commission to fight corruption. Wait! Just a month ago, the Venezuelan National Assembly reappointed Clodosvaldo Russian as Comptroller, precisely the man who is supposed to fight corruption in a country where almost nobody has been prosecuted for corruption in the last nine years. Moreover Russian said upon the announcement that eh would come back to his position that eh was actual proud of the job he had done as corruption was down (??) and under control. This despite suitcases full of cash, a whole class of nouveau rich parading around the country and the world in fancy cars, yatchs and jet planes and dozens of examples of cases of graft with no investigation. Thus, if Clodosvaldo does not do his job, let’s create and alternative commission to see if they can do it. Clueless and priceless how the revolution can recognize how stupid, ineffective and clueless it is!

Then there is the new Minister of Finance, Rafael Isea, making the unnecessary and rather silly statement that he is sticking with the goal of 11% inflation and 6% growth for the year 2008 in Venezuela. Does this man even understand that to get to 11% inflation he needs twelve months of inflation below 0.9 % in a country where the rate has been above 3.3% the last two months? Or that if he wants to reduce inflation he has to cool down things so dramatically as to stump growth and that this is an either or question? Or maybe Mr. Isea, who was Vice-Minister of Finance for the last year, has not heard that interest rates have been driven up by the most recent decisions of the Ministry he now presides? Or has he heard what has been happening with prices ever since the so called Bolivar Fuerte came into effect twelve days ago? In fact, from the way things look I would not even dare suggest inflation will be below 11% for the first quarter of the year. In fact, it would take three months of 3.5% inflation for that, and we know that the last two came in at 4.5% and 3.3% respectively. Even Chavez recognized in his speech yesterday that his Government has “flunked” in controlling inflation. Of course, he blamed it on speculators, rather than on the economic policies of the Government he presides. Simply clueless.

And Chavez yesterday in his annual speech to the Nation asked: Why is crime still such a grave problem in the streets, towns and barrios? Well, given that in the last nine years he replaced all professional police administrators and replaced them with his military buddies and the fact that until last week Hugo Chavez never mentioned the crime problem in his thousands of hours of boring speeches. Is it any surprise that crime has ballooned? In fact, the homicide rate has tripled. It took more than 85,000 homicides in the last nine years before Chavez mentioned the problem. That is worse than Colombia’s “civil war” murder rate, but he seems to eb paying attention more to that problem rather than our own. Just think, if the average family has five members, there are five million families in Venezuela, which means one in fifty nine families has been touched by a homicide. But if you add parents and cousins, it quickly becomes one in ten in a country where extended families matter. And even worse, the distribution of murders is totally skewed towards the poor, precisely those that Chavez claims to care for and focus on. No wonder he is losing their support. Simply clueless.

And Chavez asked as if there was something sinister behind it: Why has milked disappeared from the shelves? Why is it so difficult for us to produce the goods we consume every day? Why do we consume so many products from other countries? This from the man that took over large farms that used to produce milk from their rightful owners, which forced others to simply sell their cattle before they suffered the same fate. Or that has kept prices controlled for five years, while authorizing billions of dollars of imports at the same exchange rate for the last three years, while inflation killed the ability to compete of local producers. The same man who suggested that small “conuco” the single family plot could produce more than industrialized farms, confiscating the latter and seeing production drop? To say nothing of the confrontational attitude with the private sector, which drove investment to a halt in the face of the absence of the rule of law. Simply clueless and he still does not seem to understand it.

And Chavez said in his speech yesterday that any transaction with the Government has become a nightmare, but all he has done in the last few years is nationalize companies which will soon adopt the attitude of Government workers that we have known for decades. Only yesterday there were lines two and three blocks long as the Government’s phone company billing system broke down. And it has been in the hands of the Government for less than seven months and the President asked that the company transfer all of ts 2008 profits to its coffers, insuring service will only get worse in the future. Absolutely clueless.

I could go on and on with all of the rhetorical questions Chavez asked yesterday about the failures of his Government that could be traced to his own cluelessness as to how to run the country. But it suffices to say that he provided little in terms of solutions or programs for 2008, other than the need to spend more money. Hugo Chavez only gave two concrete examples of what he wants for the future. One, he would “relaunch” his misiones, mostly abandoned and not as effective as he once thought. Two, he will try to sneak a “small” (and illegal) Constitutional reform question into a referendum to allow for his indefinite reelection. Which shows the scarcity of ideas other than his own personal and political ambitions.

Simply clueless…

Maletagate: Passing the buck in the case that will not go away

January 12, 2008

As the New York Times had a long article on the details of the Maletagate case, the suitcase found with $800,000 in the hands of Venezuelan/US businessman Guido Antonini, it was clear that the case will not go away for either Venezuela or Argentina and that those involved in it are trying to pass the buck pointing fingers at each other, which is surely going to make a lot of people very nervous.

This week, the prosecutor in the case handed over videos and audios to the judge in Miami, while the Venezuelan defendants in the case declared themselves not guilty, but were denied bail by the judge. While the Venezuelan Government has tried to distance itself from the case, TV station Globovision revealed yesterday that the only person at large in the case, Antonio Jose Canchica Gomez, was not a member of the intelligence police DISIP as had been reported up to now, but was actually an active military officer in the Venezuelan Army, which will only make things more complicated for the Chavez administration and the other defendants. The other defendants are saying they have nothing to do with the Venezuelan Government,  as the US Government is charging them with being foreign agents in US soil, but were actually trying to help their friend Guido Antonini, who was actually taping them whenever they met. But Canchica being still in the military will make it harder for them to distance themselves from the Venezuelan Government after what they said on tape.

Meanwhile, the son of the PDVSA Vice President that was in the jet plane with Antonini, David Uzcategui, talked to an Argentinean newspaper and he clearly was trying to distance his father from the case and pass the buck to the Argentineans involved in it. Uzcategui said that he and Antonini were invited on the plane by Argentinean official Claudio Uberti, an adviser to that country’s Planing Ministry and the man in charge of toll roads in Argentina, who was forced to resign over the scandal. Uzcategui also said that the suitcase was not his. Thus, Uzcategui is trying to distance his father from the case, an unlikely story given his age, as he says Uberti and his secretary asked them as friends if they had anything to do that weekend and that his father did not like him flying in official airplanes.

But perhaps the most damming statement by Uzcategui, was that confirming the the testimony of Uberti’s secretary in Argentina that two days after Antonini was caught with the suitcase with the cash, he was at the Argentinean Presidential Palace, the Casa Rosada, invited by Argentinean officials to participate in a joint Venezuela-Argentina ceremony. Argentinean officials, including the current Chief of the Cabinet Alberto Fernandez, have denied that this was the case, but two witnesses have now said this was the case. Uzcategui also suggests he was not present only because he was late, but he fails to explain how he came to be invited that day. Argentinean authorities have requested that Interpol find Uzcategui to testify on the case and it is clear he wants to pass the buck to the Argentinean officials and distance his father from the case.

Meanwhile in Miami, the accused are now using different lawyers and strategies. All of the accused in custody have to be in jail until the trial begins and may get up to 10 years in prison for their role in the scandal. Thus, while declaring themselves not guilty, this may be just an opening position to negotiate leniency in exchange for more details about their role in the case and their huge fortunes, which is surely making a lot of people nervous in Venezuela. Meanwhile, the man with the suitcase, Guido Antonini, has not been charged with anything as he cooperates fully with the US authorities.

 The case is certainly not going away for a long time.