Archive for March, 2004

Economic Office of the National Assembly dismantled

March 30, 2004

During the Rafael caldera Government in 1997 Congress created the Economic Advisory Office of Congress, later converted into the Economic Advisory Office of the National Assembly. The Office was created as part of a Cooperation program with the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB). The idea was to create an autonomous office that would evaluate the impact of new legislation from an economic point of view to help out decision making by the Legislature. Given that IDB would be providing the funding, the Office would be able to pay international salaries to attract Economists with Ph.D.’s and Masters Degrees and would function independently of the Assembly.


The office began functioning under the direction of Economist Gustavo Garcia, a Professor from IESA, the most prestigious business and management school in Venezuela. When Hugo Chavez was elected Garcia began issuing reports that were too critical of the Government, thus, taking advantage of the new constitution and the change from a bicameral Congress to National assembly, the office was declared under reorganization, shutdown  and then reopened with Economist Tobias Nobrega, currently the Minister of Finance, designated as the temporary Head of the Office in charge of reactivating the office as well as opening the process to hire the most qualified Economists for this “new” stage in the life of the office.


 


In September 2000, self-described “left-wing” economist and then Chavez defender Francisco Rodriguez was named to Head the office in this new stage. Rodriguez had obtained a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University in 1998 where he had specialized in studying economic policies for the redistribution of wealth. At that time, Rodriguez was Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland.


 


In time, Rodriguez became an uncomfortable source of strong opinions for the leadership of the national Assembly and the Government. During the scandal of the FIEM, where US$ 1.9 billion went “missing” , former Minister of Finance Merentes “explained” in Congressional testimony how these funds were spent to pay for Christmas bonuses and salaries, “accepting” his responsibility for spending these funds without authorization. Except that Rodriguez came out the next day and showed how all of the funds to pay for these expenditures had been approved from other sources. The mystery of the missing funds was never resolved.


 


Since that scandal Rodriguez became a harsh critic of the way public funding was being mismanaged, issuing very critical reports about the violations of the rules of the FIEM (Macroeconomic Stabilization Fund), suggesting there was corruption in the direct sale of Government bonds to local broker CEDEL by the ministry of Finance, writing a report which said the general strike in December 2002 was much smaller than the Government was saying and finally writing a number of reports very critical of Chavez’ request for the Venezuelan Central bank to give the Government US$ 1 billion.


 


But what really incensed the current leadership of the National assembly were two recent reports by Rodriguez’ office accusing the leadership itself of irregularities. In one, Rodriguez accuses that the Government is ready to pay US$ 300 million of fraudulent Bandagro bonds. Rodriquez says that the person who supposedly had signed these bonds has sworn that the signature is not his and it was fraudulently forged. A foreign group has been asking the Government t pay it US$ 600 million in capital and interest from these bonds.


 


This week the President of the National Assembly suspended Rodriguez and the second Economist of the Office, informing all of the other economists that from now on they would be working for the National Assembly and that they no longer had stability as their position were now positions of “trust” and thus subject to removal by the leadership of the Assembly. When Rodriguez complained that these decisions were invalid, the issue was brought to the Assembly itself that today ratified the disappearance of the Office as it was functioning. The decision was made only with the votes of the pro-Chávez Deputies


 


Rodriguez says that this violates the agreement with the IDB and he will go to the Supreme Court to ask that the Office be reestablished as an independent entity.


 


In contrast, the proposal to censor Minister of Health Roger Capella for saying that anyone that signed the petition against Chávez was a terrorist, did not receive sufficient votes for approval. Such is justice and morality in the Vth. Republic.

Economic Office of the National Assembly dismantled

March 30, 2004

During the Rafael caldera Government in 1997 Congress created the Economic Advisory Office of Congress, later converted into the Economic Advisory Office of the National Assembly. The Office was created as part of a Cooperation program with the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB). The idea was to create an autonomous office that would evaluate the impact of new legislation from an economic point of view to help out decision making by the Legislature. Given that IDB would be providing the funding, the Office would be able to pay international salaries to attract Economists with Ph.D.’s and Masters Degrees and would function independently of the Assembly.


The office began functioning under the direction of Economist Gustavo Garcia, a Professor from IESA, the most prestigious business and management school in Venezuela. When Hugo Chavez was elected Garcia began issuing reports that were too critical of the Government, thus, taking advantage of the new constitution and the change from a bicameral Congress to National assembly, the office was declared under reorganization, shutdown  and then reopened with Economist Tobias Nobrega, currently the Minister of Finance, designated as the temporary Head of the Office in charge of reactivating the office as well as opening the process to hire the most qualified Economists for this “new” stage in the life of the office.


 


In September 2000, self-described “left-wing” economist and then Chavez defender Francisco Rodriguez was named to Head the office in this new stage. Rodriguez had obtained a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University in 1998 where he had specialized in studying economic policies for the redistribution of wealth. At that time, Rodriguez was Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland.


 


In time, Rodriguez became an uncomfortable source of strong opinions for the leadership of the national Assembly and the Government. During the scandal of the FIEM, where US$ 1.9 billion went “missing” , former Minister of Finance Merentes “explained” in Congressional testimony how these funds were spent to pay for Christmas bonuses and salaries, “accepting” his responsibility for spending these funds without authorization. Except that Rodriguez came out the next day and showed how all of the funds to pay for these expenditures had been approved from other sources. The mystery of the missing funds was never resolved.


 


Since that scandal Rodriguez became a harsh critic of the way public funding was being mismanaged, issuing very critical reports about the violations of the rules of the FIEM (Macroeconomic Stabilization Fund), suggesting there was corruption in the direct sale of Government bonds to local broker CEDEL by the ministry of Finance, writing a report which said the general strike in December 2002 was much smaller than the Government was saying and finally writing a number of reports very critical of Chavez’ request for the Venezuelan Central bank to give the Government US$ 1 billion.


 


But what really incensed the current leadership of the National assembly were two recent reports by Rodriguez’ office accusing the leadership itself of irregularities. In one, Rodriguez accuses that the Government is ready to pay US$ 300 million of fraudulent Bandagro bonds. Rodriquez says that the person who supposedly had signed these bonds has sworn that the signature is not his and it was fraudulently forged. A foreign group has been asking the Government t pay it US$ 600 million in capital and interest from these bonds.


 


This week the President of the National Assembly suspended Rodriguez and the second Economist of the Office, informing all of the other economists that from now on they would be working for the National Assembly and that they no longer had stability as their position were now positions of “trust” and thus subject to removal by the leadership of the Assembly. When Rodriguez complained that these decisions were invalid, the issue was brought to the Assembly itself that today ratified the disappearance of the Office as it was functioning. The decision was made only with the votes of the pro-Chávez Deputies


 


Rodriguez says that this violates the agreement with the IDB and he will go to the Supreme Court to ask that the Office be reestablished as an independent entity.


 


In contrast, the proposal to censor Minister of Health Roger Capella for saying that anyone that signed the petition against Chávez was a terrorist, did not receive sufficient votes for approval. Such is justice and morality in the Vth. Republic.

Construction down dramatically

March 30, 2004

Yesterday I received an e-mail where someone was coming to Venezuela to defend Hugo Chavez who has been defending the rights of people to housing, among many wonderful things it said about our President. I found the sentence amazingly ignorant, but today local newspaper El Universal carried this graph, based on official statistics that almost made me want to cry:



This is the total number of residential units built in Venezuela by both the public and the private sector. Last year, the number was less than nine thousand. I remember than in 1968 Rafael Caldera ran for President and one of his main campaign promises was that he would build 100,000 housing units per year. He never did, but the barrel of oil was less than $2 at the time and he actually came close. Construction has not only traditionally been one of the main drivers of the Venezuelan economy, but it also employs lots of people.

The biggest cynic

March 29, 2004


 


I find the People’s Ombudsman to be incredibly cynical. Today, in an interview on the radio he says:


 


“This is an institution that is being born and is at the service of the citizens, it can not be involved in the confrontation that people may have against Chávez or against me”


 


Well, I recall that as the military and the National Guard were repressing hundreds of “citizens” on February 27th. , some of which were shot dead, others tortures and many repressed without mercy, the same People’s Ombudsman was standing in front of the theater where the G-15 meeting was taking place and defended the pro-Chavez activists who were there protected by the national guard and he argued: “The pro-Chavez supporters (who had no permit) can be here because they came to salute our foreign visitors, while the opposition march (which had a permit) wants to create violence”


 


So, what was he doing that day defending the pro-Chavez forces and getting involved in that confrontation? Finally, Mundarain magically reduces the number of dead to only nine, despite the names, the COFAVIC files and the cases handed over to the Attorney General’s office.


 


Who is worse Mundarain or Rangel? I am not so sure.

The biggest cynic

March 29, 2004


 


I find the People’s Ombudsman to be incredibly cynical. Today, in an interview on the radio he says:


 


“This is an institution that is being born and is at the service of the citizens, it can not be involved in the confrontation that people may have against Chávez or against me”


 


Well, I recall that as the military and the National Guard were repressing hundreds of “citizens” on February 27th. , some of which were shot dead, others tortures and many repressed without mercy, the same People’s Ombudsman was standing in front of the theater where the G-15 meeting was taking place and defended the pro-Chavez activists who were there protected by the national guard and he argued: “The pro-Chavez supporters (who had no permit) can be here because they came to salute our foreign visitors, while the opposition march (which had a permit) wants to create violence”


 


So, what was he doing that day defending the pro-Chavez forces and getting involved in that confrontation? Finally, Mundarain magically reduces the number of dead to only nine, despite the names, the COFAVIC files and the cases handed over to the Attorney General’s office.


 


Who is worse Mundarain or Rangel? I am not so sure.

A quiet revolution in Baruta

March 29, 2004

While the controversial land bill receives all of the attention, in Baruta, in the outskirts of Caracas a quiet revolution is taking place that would make PeruHernando De Soto proud. De Soto has been arguing that the success of capitalism lies in the defense of property rights above everything, something uncommon in Latin America.


In the Baruta district of Caracas, the Planning Office has been organizing and registering the land and the property in the barrios which are built on municipal land. The idea is to give out title to some 15,000 families of the District. Baruta has already given title to some 190 families to their property. By doing this, each of the new owners would be able to borrow against the property. Even when the land involved is private, the municipality has negotiated with the owners in order to be able to transfer title to the property.


 


The idea is that in exchange for acquiring full property rights to the property, the owners also assume their responsibilities; paying municipal taxes and services and the municipality assumes the responsibility of providing all services.


 


One of the criticisms of the land bill was that those receiving the land had possession of the land but received no title. Economists believe that you need full property rights in order to be able to leverage the property borrowing money form banks and other financial institutions.


 


While Governments going back to Caldera’s in the 70’s have discussed such projects, this is the first case of a municipality actually sitting down and doing the required registry and planning in order to distribute the land. Hopefully, other municipalities will soon join. Venezuela is a country with 80% urban population. Moreover, the Government, either central or municipal owns 57% of the land in the country.

A quiet revolution in Baruta

March 29, 2004

While the controversial land bill receives all of the attention, in Baruta, in the outskirts of Caracas a quiet revolution is taking place that would make PeruHernando De Soto proud. De Soto has been arguing that the success of capitalism lies in the defense of property rights above everything, something uncommon in Latin America.


In the Baruta district of Caracas, the Planning Office has been organizing and registering the land and the property in the barrios which are built on municipal land. The idea is to give out title to some 15,000 families of the District. Baruta has already given title to some 190 families to their property. By doing this, each of the new owners would be able to borrow against the property. Even when the land involved is private, the municipality has negotiated with the owners in order to be able to transfer title to the property.


 


The idea is that in exchange for acquiring full property rights to the property, the owners also assume their responsibilities; paying municipal taxes and services and the municipality assumes the responsibility of providing all services.


 


One of the criticisms of the land bill was that those receiving the land had possession of the land but received no title. Economists believe that you need full property rights in order to be able to leverage the property borrowing money form banks and other financial institutions.


 


While Governments going back to Caldera’s in the 70’s have discussed such projects, this is the first case of a municipality actually sitting down and doing the required registry and planning in order to distribute the land. Hopefully, other municipalities will soon join. Venezuela is a country with 80% urban population. Moreover, the Government, either central or municipal owns 57% of the land in the country.

Want conflict? Have conflict.

March 29, 2004

The Electoral Hall of the Venezuelan Supreme Court ratified its decision on the same calligraphy forms, ratifying its earlier decision and rebutting each of the reasons given by the Constitutional hall for voiding its earlier decision. The Electoral Hall asked the Full Court to decide the conflict of competence between the two Halls.


The decision which can be found here addresses all of the points raised by the Constitutional Hall, questions many of them and points to the illegalities the Constitutional Hall was involved in. Among the highlights:


 


-It reminds the Constitutional Hall that when it issued the order to the Electoral Hall to cease considering the original injunction, it refereed to a non-existent sentence by the Constitutional Hall.


 


-It notes that Ismael Garcia is not part of the process, a failure which the Constitutional hall failed to consider. Basically, the Electoral hall is saying that to review a decision, the party requesting the revision has to be part of the process, which Mr., Garcia was not.


 


-It ratifies that the Electoral Hall has the ability to review electoral cases and that this has been the jurisprudence in all cases, as well as being defined in Article 297 of the Constitution.


 


-The Electoral Hall does not acknowledge, like the Constitutional hall said, that it has disobeyed it.  It says it is not subordinate to the Constitutional Hall that said Hall had not proceeded legally to look into the case, it could not look into it and the person that requested the revision had no right to ask for it.


 


-The Electoral Hall says it is amazed that the Constitutional accuses it of not following procedure, ignoring the body of evidence that it did follow the required steps as it is registered in the notebooks of the Hall.


 


-Says the Constitutional Hall is going beyond its range of competence, assigning itself functions beyond what is established by the Constitution.


 


-It encourages that both Halls meet to find a solution to the conflict until the Full Court decides.


 


The Full Court could take up to two or three months to meet, but at the same time the Justices could give the matter urgency and a decision could be made much sooner. Thus, once again, the Electoral Hall, tells the Constitutional one that if it wants conflict it will have it and is ready to fight for its rights under the Constitution.

Regional Elections: Not an easy choice

March 29, 2004

The regional elections have become a very divisive issue for the opposition. In contrast to the pro-Chávez forces where a single leader sets the path and the tone, there are dozens of different hidden and visible agendas within the opposition and its candidacies. Whether to participate or not is not an easy choice; the petition for the recall referendum represented a simple and transparent process that has become absolutely opaque in the hands of the Electoral Board. Can anyone trust a process run by these people? I certainly can’t, there have been too many tricks, too many manipulations, too many delays, all designed to stop the recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez from ever taking place.


There are many issues floating around, so I will deal with them separately so as not to mix them too much, although there are obviously intertwined:


 


-Too many candidates


 


Opposition parties have registered too many candidates for most positions up for election. This obviously shows the lack of coordination on the part of the opposition, but what else can you expect? The opposition is united by a simple goal: Removing Hugo Chavez from office. Parties in the opposition range from the Bandera Roja, an extreme left-wing party that accuses Chavez of being neo-liberal on economics, an also includes the social democrats, the social Christians, Primero Justicia a party of yuppies concentrating on delivering services to the people, the socialists who backed Chávez’ election and ends with pragmatist Enrique Mendoza, whose track record as a public manager is excellent, but has no well defined ideology.


 


Besides ideology, there are issues of personalities, regional rivalries and many frustrated politicians who could care less if Chavez stays or go as long as their own political careers move forward.


 


Finally, there is the issue of timing. While everyone was worriying about the recall referendum, all of a sudden people had to scramble to register for dozens of races across the country, with no time to negotiate agreements. In the end, many parties chose to simply register everyone they could think of and if later an agreement is found, withdraw candidates from races or specify that that party’s vote will go to a particular candidate.


 


Thus, it is easy to understand the various sides on the issue, from those that think that the opposition should not go to the regional elections if the recall vote is blocked, to those that registered their candidacies but are willing to withdraw it if an agreement is found.


 


However, we have to take our hats off to people like Andres Velasquez and Antonio Ledezma who had legitimate and valid aspirations to run, but withdrew for the sake of unity. If more people acted with their selflessness, the opposition would be way ahead in this race.


 


-The “living room” candidates


 


Venezuela has a long tradition of what I like to call “living room” politicians. These are people who sit around theoretically solving all of the problems of the country and somehow think that they have a sort of God-given right to be elected to a particular office just because they choose to run.


 


In fact, Hugo Chavez and Carlos Andres Perez represent the antithesis of this type of politician. Whether one likes either of them or not, they both went around Venezuela, visiting every town, village and city, shaking hands, listening to problems. This grassroots work made them extremely popular and it is no surprise that they won elections running away.


 


In the other extreme we have Claudio Fermin and Francisco Arias Cardenas. Fermin was AD’s Presidential candidate in 1993, after being a fairly mediocre Mayor of the Libertador District of Caracas. He came in a surprising second in the Presidential race, and proceeded to vanish from the Venezuelan political scene until the next election came around. Fermin ran for President against Chávez and Arias Cárdenas in 2000, getting less than 3% of the vote. Now, after being essentially invisible for the last four years, he is running for Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas, a position held by an opposition figure.


 


Fermin says he has a right to run. Of course he does! But his candidacy is not too transparent in my mind. He has not participated in any opposition activity, nor in the efforts related to the recall referendum and has appeared to be more critical of the opposition than of the Chavez administration, despite his claims. Thus, his candidacy splits the opposition, sends a confusing image and may help elect Chavista Juan Barreto as Mayor of Caracas. To me he has become a living room politician; he thinks he has a right to be elected despite his absence from the Venezuelan political scene in the last few years.


 


The same case can be made for Francisco Arias Cardenas. Arias Cardenas was, with Chávez, one of the leaders of the 1992 coup. He distanced himself from Chávez in 1996 because he decided that the electoral path was the correct one, which Chavze opposed. Arias ran for Governor of Zulia and did a decent job, teaming up pragmatically with then Mayor of Maracaibo and current Governor of Zulia Manuel Rosales. He later backed Chavez only to split from him when another 1992 coup leader, Jesus Urdaneta, resigned from his position as head of the political police accusing Chavez of doing nothing to fight corruption.


 


Arias Cardenas became the opposition candidate after the new Constitution was approved, but since then has played an extremely ambiguous role. Twice he was reportedly being considered as Vice-President by Chávez, negotiations that Arias accepted took place. Arias is running for Governor of Zulia state against popular Governor Manuel Rosales as well as the pro-Chavez candidate General Gutierrez.


 


Some claim that Arias is actually running with the silent support of Chávez. Chavez backed General Gutierrez, but he remains far behind in the polls in a state that is probably the most anti-Chávez of any in the country. While this can not be proven, it is also true that Arias only announced his candidacy when Gutierrez’ flopped. Like Fermin, I think Arias has the right to be a candidate, but he has also joined in my mind the ranks of the living room politicians who reappear only when there are elections. I hope the electorate ignores both of them.


 


-Can you spare some democracy?


 


In the end, the problem is that despite the claims, the reforms and the “revolution”, Venezuelan politics remain too much like those of the IVth. Republic: personalistic and Stalinistic. In the 1998 Presidential election, not one candidate was selected by a primary. They were all either self-appointed, creating a party around the candidate, like Chavez, Salas Romer or Irene Saez, or appointed by the top leaders of the party like Alfaro Ucero in AD.


 


Despite Chávez’ promises that he would introduce democracy to the structure of political parties, the opposite has been true. Chavez has essentially single handedly named each and every candidate for MVR in these regional elections. The opposition has done the same, except that it did run some polls in some states and decided to field only the candidate that were well ahead in the Gubernatorial races.


 


I have always believed that it was this lack of democracy that hurt the political parties of the IVth. Republic. Political parties became old as young people were not attracted to institutions that did not take them into account or where to get ahead you had to pay dues in the form of time and not ability or  hard work. Thus, politics became a job for the politicians; the rest of the people ignored it.


 


In the end, it is not a problem of the “opposition” or Chavez; it is a problem of democracy. Neither side is using very democratic means to select their candidates. Chavez picked his, leaving behind a trail of very upset candidates-to-be and parties in the opposition chose theirs, fielding too many candidates.


 


The solution is obvious; the opposition should hold primaries to choose a single candidate from those that have registered for each race. In doing so, it will strengthen candidacies and be able to claim that it is within the opposition where true democracy lies in Venezuela.


 


It is also unfair to accuse the opposition of not being democratic because it did not hold primaries. With the whole referendum controversy, it would have been a contradiction to enter the carnival atmosphere of a primary for all positions, distracting parties and candidates from the main goal: the recall referendum.


 


In fact, maybe Chavez should have taken the upper hand and hold primaries since his activists were not distracted. But being such a control freak and so removed from true democratic practices, it was just not an idea that he would come up with. 


 


The reality is that there was a lot of backlash against opposition candidates and the opposition this weekend that may push it into these primaries. Some parties have offered to hold primaries, others to poll the electorate to decide who should run, others may simply withdraw because they are not doing very well.


 


In the end more democracy is the only way to go. The electorate will certainly reward the opposition if it takes this road. It will also punish those that do not joint it.


 


-Opposition Fratricide


 


In more developed democracies, the fratricide which characterizes primaries and early candidacies is not always fatal. The reason is that everyone goes back to their same single party and decide that the bigger enemy is the candidate form the opposing party.


 


In this case, the fratricide may be more fatal than usual. For the first time in a long time, newspapers this weekend carried articles by the opposition attacking the opposition. This may cause wounds that will be difficult to heal, given the absence of no common goal other than getting rid of Hugo Chávez.


 


A good example is today’s Tal Cual’ Editorial against local newspaper El Universal, discussed elsewhere by Daniel. I was surprised not by the charges against El Universal, but more for how specific they were. Petkoff could have said the same thing implying it, without being so specific. I also found his defense of the existence of freedom of speech somewhat empty given the attacks on the media, the precautionary measures by the Human rights Commission of the OAS and the dead or injured reporters.  The opposition needs both newspapers on its side; it would be a pity is this escalated into a useless war of words.


 


This fratricide may even be worse regionally, where animosities between various groups go back decades, to fights that are almost tribal in nature. To have these groups fight it out all of a sudden may in the end create deeper division than ever.


 


-Opposition has the edge


 


In the end, the opposition has the upped hand in the regional elections. While Chavez has the money and the hardcore constituency, the opposition has the majority and the appealing regional candidates. Since it is Chávez that has hand picked most candidates, they generally do not represent the top choice of the electorate. Chavez is fielding 12 former military as candidates for Governors in the country’s 23 states. Some of them are stiff like General Gutierrez, or disliked, like general Acosta Carles, inarticulate, like Diosdado Cabello, others have been terrible as Governors, like Blanco La Cruz in Tachira.


 


But the biggest advantage the opposition has in the regional elections is exactly why it has problems with Chavez. Polls clearly show that at the national level people are looking for an alternative to Chavez that does not exist. This is not a problem at the regional level, in each State and each city, the opposition has more than one candidate that is attractive or at least more attractive than the rough or confrontational candidates that rode Chavez’ coattails to power five years ago. This is an incredible edge if the choice is narrowed down.


 


It is the opposition’s duty to do so. If it happens, the opposition could get as many as 16 out of the 23 Governorships and truly turn the regional elections into an alternative recall referendum.

Regional Elections: Not an easy choice

March 29, 2004

The regional elections have become a very divisive issue for the opposition. In contrast to the pro-Chávez forces where a single leader sets the path and the tone, there are dozens of different hidden and visible agendas within the opposition and its candidacies. Whether to participate or not is not an easy choice; the petition for the recall referendum represented a simple and transparent process that has become absolutely opaque in the hands of the Electoral Board. Can anyone trust a process run by these people? I certainly can’t, there have been too many tricks, too many manipulations, too many delays, all designed to stop the recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez from ever taking place.


There are many issues floating around, so I will deal with them separately so as not to mix them too much, although there are obviously intertwined:


 


-Too many candidates


 


Opposition parties have registered too many candidates for most positions up for election. This obviously shows the lack of coordination on the part of the opposition, but what else can you expect? The opposition is united by a simple goal: Removing Hugo Chavez from office. Parties in the opposition range from the Bandera Roja, an extreme left-wing party that accuses Chavez of being neo-liberal on economics, an also includes the social democrats, the social Christians, Primero Justicia a party of yuppies concentrating on delivering services to the people, the socialists who backed Chávez’ election and ends with pragmatist Enrique Mendoza, whose track record as a public manager is excellent, but has no well defined ideology.


 


Besides ideology, there are issues of personalities, regional rivalries and many frustrated politicians who could care less if Chavez stays or go as long as their own political careers move forward.


 


Finally, there is the issue of timing. While everyone was worriying about the recall referendum, all of a sudden people had to scramble to register for dozens of races across the country, with no time to negotiate agreements. In the end, many parties chose to simply register everyone they could think of and if later an agreement is found, withdraw candidates from races or specify that that party’s vote will go to a particular candidate.


 


Thus, it is easy to understand the various sides on the issue, from those that think that the opposition should not go to the regional elections if the recall vote is blocked, to those that registered their candidacies but are willing to withdraw it if an agreement is found.


 


However, we have to take our hats off to people like Andres Velasquez and Antonio Ledezma who had legitimate and valid aspirations to run, but withdrew for the sake of unity. If more people acted with their selflessness, the opposition would be way ahead in this race.


 


-The “living room” candidates


 


Venezuela has a long tradition of what I like to call “living room” politicians. These are people who sit around theoretically solving all of the problems of the country and somehow think that they have a sort of God-given right to be elected to a particular office just because they choose to run.


 


In fact, Hugo Chavez and Carlos Andres Perez represent the antithesis of this type of politician. Whether one likes either of them or not, they both went around Venezuela, visiting every town, village and city, shaking hands, listening to problems. This grassroots work made them extremely popular and it is no surprise that they won elections running away.


 


In the other extreme we have Claudio Fermin and Francisco Arias Cardenas. Fermin was AD’s Presidential candidate in 1993, after being a fairly mediocre Mayor of the Libertador District of Caracas. He came in a surprising second in the Presidential race, and proceeded to vanish from the Venezuelan political scene until the next election came around. Fermin ran for President against Chávez and Arias Cárdenas in 2000, getting less than 3% of the vote. Now, after being essentially invisible for the last four years, he is running for Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas, a position held by an opposition figure.


 


Fermin says he has a right to run. Of course he does! But his candidacy is not too transparent in my mind. He has not participated in any opposition activity, nor in the efforts related to the recall referendum and has appeared to be more critical of the opposition than of the Chavez administration, despite his claims. Thus, his candidacy splits the opposition, sends a confusing image and may help elect Chavista Juan Barreto as Mayor of Caracas. To me he has become a living room politician; he thinks he has a right to be elected despite his absence from the Venezuelan political scene in the last few years.


 


The same case can be made for Francisco Arias Cardenas. Arias Cardenas was, with Chávez, one of the leaders of the 1992 coup. He distanced himself from Chávez in 1996 because he decided that the electoral path was the correct one, which Chavze opposed. Arias ran for Governor of Zulia and did a decent job, teaming up pragmatically with then Mayor of Maracaibo and current Governor of Zulia Manuel Rosales. He later backed Chavez only to split from him when another 1992 coup leader, Jesus Urdaneta, resigned from his position as head of the political police accusing Chavez of doing nothing to fight corruption.


 


Arias Cardenas became the opposition candidate after the new Constitution was approved, but since then has played an extremely ambiguous role. Twice he was reportedly being considered as Vice-President by Chávez, negotiations that Arias accepted took place. Arias is running for Governor of Zulia state against popular Governor Manuel Rosales as well as the pro-Chavez candidate General Gutierrez.


 


Some claim that Arias is actually running with the silent support of Chávez. Chavez backed General Gutierrez, but he remains far behind in the polls in a state that is probably the most anti-Chávez of any in the country. While this can not be proven, it is also true that Arias only announced his candidacy when Gutierrez’ flopped. Like Fermin, I think Arias has the right to be a candidate, but he has also joined in my mind the ranks of the living room politicians who reappear only when there are elections. I hope the electorate ignores both of them.


 


-Can you spare some democracy?


 


In the end, the problem is that despite the claims, the reforms and the “revolution”, Venezuelan politics remain too much like those of the IVth. Republic: personalistic and Stalinistic. In the 1998 Presidential election, not one candidate was selected by a primary. They were all either self-appointed, creating a party around the candidate, like Chavez, Salas Romer or Irene Saez, or appointed by the top leaders of the party like Alfaro Ucero in AD.


 


Despite Chávez’ promises that he would introduce democracy to the structure of political parties, the opposite has been true. Chavez has essentially single handedly named each and every candidate for MVR in these regional elections. The opposition has done the same, except that it did run some polls in some states and decided to field only the candidate that were well ahead in the Gubernatorial races.


 


I have always believed that it was this lack of democracy that hurt the political parties of the IVth. Republic. Political parties became old as young people were not attracted to institutions that did not take them into account or where to get ahead you had to pay dues in the form of time and not ability or  hard work. Thus, politics became a job for the politicians; the rest of the people ignored it.


 


In the end, it is not a problem of the “opposition” or Chavez; it is a problem of democracy. Neither side is using very democratic means to select their candidates. Chavez picked his, leaving behind a trail of very upset candidates-to-be and parties in the opposition chose theirs, fielding too many candidates.


 


The solution is obvious; the opposition should hold primaries to choose a single candidate from those that have registered for each race. In doing so, it will strengthen candidacies and be able to claim that it is within the opposition where true democracy lies in Venezuela.


 


It is also unfair to accuse the opposition of not being democratic because it did not hold primaries. With the whole referendum controversy, it would have been a contradiction to enter the carnival atmosphere of a primary for all positions, distracting parties and candidates from the main goal: the recall referendum.


 


In fact, maybe Chavez should have taken the upper hand and hold primaries since his activists were not distracted. But being such a control freak and so removed from true democratic practices, it was just not an idea that he would come up with. 


 


The reality is that there was a lot of backlash against opposition candidates and the opposition this weekend that may push it into these primaries. Some parties have offered to hold primaries, others to poll the electorate to decide who should run, others may simply withdraw because they are not doing very well.


 


In the end more democracy is the only way to go. The electorate will certainly reward the opposition if it takes this road. It will also punish those that do not joint it.


 


-Opposition Fratricide


 


In more developed democracies, the fratricide which characterizes primaries and early candidacies is not always fatal. The reason is that everyone goes back to their same single party and decide that the bigger enemy is the candidate form the opposing party.


 


In this case, the fratricide may be more fatal than usual. For the first time in a long time, newspapers this weekend carried articles by the opposition attacking the opposition. This may cause wounds that will be difficult to heal, given the absence of no common goal other than getting rid of Hugo Chávez.


 


A good example is today’s Tal Cual’ Editorial against local newspaper El Universal, discussed elsewhere by Daniel. I was surprised not by the charges against El Universal, but more for how specific they were. Petkoff could have said the same thing implying it, without being so specific. I also found his defense of the existence of freedom of speech somewhat empty given the attacks on the media, the precautionary measures by the Human rights Commission of the OAS and the dead or injured reporters.  The opposition needs both newspapers on its side; it would be a pity is this escalated into a useless war of words.


 


This fratricide may even be worse regionally, where animosities between various groups go back decades, to fights that are almost tribal in nature. To have these groups fight it out all of a sudden may in the end create deeper division than ever.


 


-Opposition has the edge


 


In the end, the opposition has the upped hand in the regional elections. While Chavez has the money and the hardcore constituency, the opposition has the majority and the appealing regional candidates. Since it is Chávez that has hand picked most candidates, they generally do not represent the top choice of the electorate. Chavez is fielding 12 former military as candidates for Governors in the country’s 23 states. Some of them are stiff like General Gutierrez, or disliked, like general Acosta Carles, inarticulate, like Diosdado Cabello, others have been terrible as Governors, like Blanco La Cruz in Tachira.


 


But the biggest advantage the opposition has in the regional elections is exactly why it has problems with Chavez. Polls clearly show that at the national level people are looking for an alternative to Chavez that does not exist. This is not a problem at the regional level, in each State and each city, the opposition has more than one candidate that is attractive or at least more attractive than the rough or confrontational candidates that rode Chavez’ coattails to power five years ago. This is an incredible edge if the choice is narrowed down.


 


It is the opposition’s duty to do so. If it happens, the opposition could get as many as 16 out of the 23 Governorships and truly turn the regional elections into an alternative recall referendum.

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