Caracas Chronicles

Caracas Chronicles
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The Bane of Shopkeepers

Vie, 12/15/2017 - 15:55
Photo: José Díaz

The Sabana Grande boulevard, a commercial reference of the Venezuelan capital, is already out of products. After the mandatory 50% discount on everything, some stores might close for good.

“I’m waiting for Sundde to arrive. I have 300 pairs of shoes, I’ll apply the discount they asked of me and when the merchandise runs out, I’ll close the shop. My six employees are aware of the situation. I can’t recover after this inspection, I’m leaving the country and six unemployed families.”

Dimas Silva was behind the counter of his shoe store, a block from the Bolívar square in downtown Caracas. From there, he watched with concern, waiting for his turn in the next few hours.

On Saturday, December 2, for the fourth year in a row, the Bureau for the Defense of Socio Economic Rights (Sundde) went on an “inspection” of private businesses. They began in Plaza Venezuela, the Sabana Grande boulevard and, by Monday, they were close to Chacaíto. Escorted by the National Guard (GNB) and the National Police (PNB), they forced shopkeepers to sell their entire merchandise at a 50% discount.

People made lines almost immediately outside stores selling shoes, underwear, trousers, shirts, purses and even food. In less than seven hours, shops were emptied out.

I can’t recover after this inspection, I’m leaving the country and six unemployed families.

It’s a lethal stab to many shopkeepers, since sales already dropped by 40% right in December, a period that usually has an important cash flow. The reason: exorbitant prices. A pair of sports shoes costs Bs. 800,000 ($7.7, at the current black market rate), far more than the average employee can pay, with the current minimum wage plus food stamps at Bs. 456,507 ($4.42).

But some items cost even more – a pair of shoes of a famous brand can go for Bs. 3,000,000 ($29); a pair of jeans goes for Bs. 1,500,000 ($14.53). Even a bra can cost Bs. 250,000 ($2.4).

“I think it’s good they lower the prices” said a woman in line at a shoe store. “(Merchants) cross the line too often.”

“Prices go up everyday, and not by 20,000 or 50,000 bolívares” said another woman who’d been waiting for two hours under the sun to enter the store.

The GNB officers stood guard in the shops as if products were food for refugees fleeing a war. With rifles close to their chest, they controlled the crowds and diffused the constant clashes among customers.

“Last year we managed” he sighs. “It’ll be hard this time. Factories don’t know if they’re opening again.”

Giovanni Mincior owns a shoe store his father opened in el Centro. Like his colleagues, he’s out of merchandise. “I have two pairs of each model in the back. We don’t have much left. Factories aren’t producing, and when they sell us their products, they give us two or three days to pay. That’s why we’re forced to adjust prices. The shoemakers say that the glue, the thread, the leather, the boxes, everything costs more every day, and that shows on the bills we pay. We don’t raise our prices to hurt people, nobody can pay Bs. 2,000,000 for a pair of boots.”

“Last year we managed” he sighs. “It’ll be hard this time. Factories don’t know if they’re opening again.”

Some shops remained closed on Monday and Tuesday morning. Owners only opened after midday, once they were sure Sundde agents weren’t around. Employees were removing price tags and taking brand shoes off the shelves.

Shopkeepers in el Centro are expecting Sundde to drop by at any minute on their nearly empty shops, while employees face an ominous prospect for 2018. The operation in Sabana Grande is common practice for the regime now: they regulate prices, destroying production and restricting free market. The employees of chains such as Balú, which has four stores in the boulevard, or Prime, Traki, Total and Seven, weren’t inspected this year or the previous ones. Overseer William Contreras boasted that they’ve inspected 5,776 stores all over the country.

“We’re profiting now, because I could buy shoes for my two children, but are these products going to disappear, like meat and chicken?” a customer wondered.

“If stores don’t open, we will open them,” said a GNB officer.

The post The Bane of Shopkeepers appeared first on Caracas Chronicles.

Categorías: Noticias

Sundde: the Terror of Shopkeepers

Vie, 12/15/2017 - 13:06
Photo: Sundde

Imposed a 50% discount on everything.

The Sabana Grande boulevard, a commercial reference of the Venezuelan capital, is already out of products. Some stores might close after these inspections.

“I’m waiting for Sundde to arrive. I have 300 pairs of shoes. I’ll apply the discount they ask me to and when the merchandise runs out, I’ll close the shop. My six employees are aware of the situation. I can’t recover after this inspection. I’m leaving the country and six unemployed families.”

Dimas Silva was behind the counter of his shoe store, a block from the Bolívar square in downtown Caracas. From there, he watched concerned, waiting for what was coming for him in the next few hours. As the saying goes: “When you see your neighbor’s beard burn, soak your own.”

On Saturday, December 2, for the fourth year in a row, the Bureau for the Defense of Socio Economic Rights (Sundde) started inspecting private businesses. They began in Plaza Venezuela, the Sabana Grande boulevard and by Monday, they were close to Chacaíto. Escorted by officers of the National Guard (GNB) and the National Police (PNB), they forced shopkeepers to sell their entire merchandise at a 50% discount.

People made lines almost immediately outside stores selling shoes, underwear, trousers, shirts, purses and even food.

In less than seven hours, the shops were emptied out. Some shopkeepers said they were having a rough time, because sales dropped by 40% right in December, a period that usually has an important cash flow.

The reason: exorbitant prices. A pair of sports shoes costs Bs. 800,000 or more ($7.7, at the current black market rate for today, Bs.103,555.08  per dollar), which is far more than the average employee can pay, with the current minimum wage plus food stamps, Bs. 456,507 or $4.42.

My six employees are aware of the situation. I can’t recover after this inspection. I’m leaving the country and six unemployed families.

But some items cost even more – a pair of shoes of a famous brand could go for Bs. 3,000,000 ($29); a pair of jeans goes for Bs. 1,500,000 ($14.53). Even a bra could cost Bs. 250,000 ($2.4). Again, since the minimum wage is less than $5 per month, it’s really hard to buy clothes in Venezuela.

“I think it’s good that they lower the prices. They cross the line too often,” said a woman who was waiting in line to enter a shoe store.

“Prices go up everyday, and not by 20,000, 30,000 or 50,000 bolívares,” said another woman who’d been waiting for two hours under the sun to enter the store.

The GNB officers stood guard in the shops as if the clothes were food for refugees fleeing a war or a natural catastrophe. With their rifles close to the chest, they controlled the crowds and diffused the constant clashes among customers.

News spread like fire and reached the ears of shopkeepers in downtown Caracas who were fearful, just like Dimas.

Giovanni Mincior owns a shoe store his father opened in el Centro. He’s also awaiting Sundde. Like his colleague, he’s out of merchandise. “I have two pairs of each model in the back. We don’t have much merchandise left. Factories aren’t producing anything, and when they sell us their products, they give us two or three days to pay for them, that’s why we’re forced to adjust the prices. The shoemakers tell us that the glue, the thread, the leather, the boxes, everything costs more every day, and that’s reflected in the bills we have to pay. We don’t raise our prices to hurt the people. I don’t want to sell a pair of boots in Bs. 2,000,000, I know nobody can pay for that. But the product comes to us from suppliers with a new price already,” he explained.

Pointing at one of the models in his shelve, he said that he’d had to increase the price by 10,000% in a year, because that’s the producer’s price.

Even a pack of plastic bags goes through the roof, he says.

“Last year we managed. It’ll be hard this time. Factories don’t know if they’re going to open again,” Mincior said.

We’re profiting now, because I could buy the shoes for my two children, but are these products going to disappear, like meat and chicken?

Shopkeepers in el Centro’s “soaked their beards.” They’re expecting Sundde to drop by at any minute on their nearly empty shops, while employees face an ominous prospect for 2018.

“Starting the year without a job is really sad. This worries me. The government attacks the most vulnerable.”

Actually, Mincior thinks this is all a show orchestrated by the government and that they’re also the ones responsible for inflation.

Some shops remained closed on Monday and Tuesday morning. The owners only opened them after midday, once they were sure Sundde agents weren’t around. Employees were removing price tags and taking brand shoes off the shelves. “My boss took the merchandise out of the store. He doesn’t want to lose everything this time,” said a salesman.

Sundde already slammed Sabana Grande stores, a common practice for the Bolivarian regime: they regulate prices, destroying production and restricting the free market. Shopkeepers in downtown Caracas are next. Last year, three stores had to close and this time, at least four businesses are expected to close for good.

The employees of chains such as Balú, which has four stores in the Sabana Grande boulevard, or Prime, Traki, Total and Seven weren’t inspected this year or the previous ones.

Overseer William Contreras boasted that they’ve inspected 5,776 stores all over the country already. Apparently, the policy continues until December 9, a day before municipal elections.

“We’re profiting now, because I could buy the shoes for my two children, but are these products going to disappear, like meat and chicken?”, a customer wondered.

“If stores don’t open, we will open them,” said a GNB officer.

The post Sundde: the Terror of Shopkeepers appeared first on Caracas Chronicles.

Categorías: Noticias

Twenty Years is Nothing

Vie, 12/15/2017 - 12:50

Image retrieved from Daily News

But eighteen is something. Judge Paul Crotty accepted the Prosecution’s stance that a life sentence was excessive, so they asked for a 30-year verdict. But, since Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, our presidential couple’s nephews, didn’t have any prior criminal records and are too young, they were sentenced to 18 years in prison for conspiring to smuggle 800 kg of cocaine into the U.S. They must pay a $50,000 fine each and they won’t have access to any benefits, except a reduction of the period they spent under custody. Technically, the Prisons Office will establish a prison in Florida to make it easier for their families to visit them (at least that’s what they do with Latino inmates, they send them to Florida or Texas.) The visits should include Cilia Flores, who was a sort of mother for Efraín Antonio, a parentage that explains how in 2008, he was made an employee of the Latin American Parliament, where he worked until 2011, along with the first lady’s remaining thirty-so relatives.

Off sight

While the country tries to come to terms with the fact that the CAF Board approved a credit line for up to $400 million for the Central Bank – to offer macroeconomic support and to mitigate liquidity risks in the handling of debts –, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Cepal) announced that the region will close 2017 with 1.3% economic growth but Venezuela will end 2017 with a 9.5% GDP drop, which they estimate will contract to -5.5% in 2018.

For Fedecámaras chairman, Carlos Larrazábal, the drop is greater – he estimates it at 12.5%. “Trust and the capacity to invest in the country are still being destroyed,” he declared. Such contraction already equals that of the four previous years, exceeding 35% since 2014, so Larrazábal demands an urgent change and correct economic decisions to solve the situation.

In the dark

Despite the sentence against his nephews, Nicolás and Cilia travelled to Havana to participate in the meeting of the ALBA-TCP Political Council in honor of Fidel and Chávez. Cuba announced that they signed their cooperation plan with Venezuela for 2018, which includes 9 exchange programs with 27 new projects in the areas of sanitary services, medicine supply, electrical support, human talent training and cultural and sports promotion. After signing, Foreign minister Jorge Arreaza said that the objective of this this agreement is that both countries continue “united in the battle for integration.” Inspiring. But the sad note comes with the information revealed by Reuters – Venezuela left the association in the Cienfuegos refinery and Cuba took full ownership of the plant, as payment of Venezuela’s debt for services provided, as well as for the rented ships. And then the newspaper Granma reported: “Since August 2017, the Cienfuegos refinery has been operating as a fully Cuban State entity.” The first ones to take their slice of cake weren’t the Americans, but the Cuban “brothers”. Cool, huh?

At the National Assembly

The National Assembly unanimously voted to nullify the approval of the national budget for 2018, because it was never submitted to this body, violating the constitutional mandate. The lawmakers added that any public credit operation made without the National Assembly’s approval “will be null and not recognized,” including debt operations (in case CAF didn’t remember). They also unanimously approved the Operational Regulation of the unit bridging the AN with Parlasur; the report of the Mixed Committee for the Creation of the “Orinoco Mining Arc” Strategic Development Zone and the Bill for the Recovery of Assets Produced by Corruption.

Threats

During the swearing-in ceremony of the 18 PSUV mayors in Mérida state, Vice President Tareck El Aissami threatened opposition mayors: “We won’t be weak before your threats anymore; any right-wing mayor who steps out of line will immediately be taken to justice.” He had the nerve to demand governor Ramón Guevara to rehire the “bolivarian” employees who were allegedly laid off and asked the Prosecutor’s Office to open an investigation against those who “incited violence” during protests, because there’s still impunity, but don’t worry, according to him, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) managed to consolidate peace and stability. Additionally, Darío Vivas claimed that former Zulia governor Juan Pablo Guanipa permanently worked “for the coup d’état and international intervention” and accused him of promoting and “leading guarimbas and violence.” Which is why it was so nice of Freddy Bernal to announce that between December 20 and 25, the government will distribute ten million toys through the CLAP; a way to cool down protests for the promised “payment” for voting on Sunday. He added the dates for the distribution of perniles that nobody’s seen, but that he claims won’t be missing on the tables of patriots.

Abroad
  • “The OAS has revealed itself as an enemy of Venezuelan democracy,” said Carmen Velásquez during a speech before the Permanent Council, reducing protests in 2017 to a “meddling plan led by the U.S. with the aim to oust” Nicolás. Her speech was so off-beat, that the Council’s chief, Jenny May Loten, asked her to end it due to lack of time.
  • Exiled Voluntad Popular leader David Smolansky and Freddy Guevara’s father, went to different instances of the Colombian Congress to denounce the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the persecution against opposition leaders, saying that “all nations should be aware that the Venezuelan dictatorship is a threat to Colombia and to Latin America as a whole.”
  • Once again, the Dominican Republic will open its doors to the opposition and the government this Friday, December 15. Jorge Rodríguez claimed that there could be an agreement with the opposition and lawmaker Simón Calzadilla said that if there’s no “integral agreement, we won’t sign anything.”

Grandeliga José Altuve and athlete Yulimar Rojas were named Athletes of the Year, by the Circle of Sports Journalists of Venezuela. Empresas Polar was once again named Company of the Year for their support to national sports.

The post Twenty Years is Nothing appeared first on Caracas Chronicles.

Categorías: Noticias

Law & Order: Stupid Venezuelans Unit

Jue, 12/14/2017 - 21:30
Original art by @modográfico

Turns out, all Efraín Campo Flores really wanted was a big cat.

“I’d really love to get a leopard cub, that would be nice; I might be giving you a call sometime to see if you can get one for me?”

As he tapped the mad idea into his WhatsApp chat, the last thing he suspected was that the guy on the other end was a DEA undercover agent – or that his drug lord fantasies would be submitted as evidence in the trial against him and his cousin.

That pipedream was one beat in the thumping 1,500 page narcosobrinos trial transcript I spent a few weeks reading. Today, Efraín and his cousin Franqui Francisco Flores (AKA the narcosobrinos) were sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment and to pay a $50,000 fine by a U.S. federal judge, after being found guilty of conspiring to transport cocaine to the United States.

The conviction came after a hearing where unintendedly hilarious letters were presented by the defense, arguing for their release and deportation to Venezuela, since the defendants helped their cousins do their homework, never did anything “bad” (besides dealing drugs) and his family “can’t afford tickets to visit them in NY” (another worthy cause for gofundme).

As most of the conversations examined during the trial were in Spanish, it was necessary for the prosecution to translate the exchanges. Communications were, of course, laden with expletives and regional jargon. As the defense sought to question the accuracy of the official translations, the prosecution interpreters testified and were cross-examined by the defense.

The last thing he suspected was that his drug lord fantasies would be submitted as evidence in the trial against him and his cousin.

One of the funniest bits is the exchange between one of the fancy lawyers and a Venezuelan interpreter, during which they discuss profusely about the different meanings of the word marico in Venezuela. The fancy lawyer argues that, in some cases, it can be a term of endearment among friends (and not a slur), while the interpreter says that, even when used among friends, it’s a slur.

It’s a funny thing about how the defense went about: it wasn’t the prosecution who shone the spotlight on Efraín’s zoological fantasies. It was the defense. It was his lawyer who, faced with a wall of evidence, settled on a “they’re-just-too-stupid-to-be-drug lords” defense, and ended up with a perverse incentive to comb through the evidence, looking for anything that might make his clients look like idiots.

We’ll never know much about the cub thing from the transcript, because the prosecution objected to this line of questioning and the judge sided with them: “We’re not talking about lions and tigers here.”

We’re left to wonder if Campo wanted to look as a Venezuelan Pablo Escobar, or if he really likes baby lions and tigers; we’re left to wonder why the first lady’s nephew is dumb enough to record evidence of his own crime on his own phone.

And, as a lawyer, I am left with grudging admiration for the best counsel Wilmer Ruperti could buy: bits of the transcript make this too-stupid defense sound oddly plausible.

Then again, parts of it don’t. Some of the material found on their phones is downright chilling, violent gangland stuff (texts about cutting people, pictures of dismembered bodies) that doesn’t jive with the ingenue defense. To be sure, the context to these messages isn’t clear and there is no specific evidence of their participation in murders in Venezuela. In asking for a harsh sentence, the DA did, however, show these texts as evidence that they were involved and had knowledge of drug hit jobs, talked about them nonchalantly and may have been planning a few of their own.

We’re left to wonder why the first lady’s nephew is dumb enough to record evidence of his own crime on his own phone.

So, that’s a bit less Benny Hill and a bit more Scarface.

And the too-dumb-to-know-better defense was a far cry from the strategy announced by Cilia Flores after their arrest: “The DEA committed a kidnapping, which the defense will prove.” Instead, their claim was entrapment; that is, the nephews committed the crime, but did so because they were tricked into it by the DEA. Normally, this requires evidence that the accused had no predisposition to commit a crime, but they were wheeled into it by exploitative police officers.

In any case, it fell flat. You might feel a certain sympathy for the inept wannabes who got caught because they are less cunning than, say, Hugo Carvajal, but truth is that they were criminals who operated with impunity in a country where top government officials and their entourages can moonlight as drug dealers facing no consequences.

It’s the full circle of corruption; the transcripts and text messages suggest that they had participated in small-time drug operations, handled illegal drugs, were involved in violent threats to other dealers  and had the connections to charter a private plane. They clearly agreed to sell a large amount of cocaine to be trafficked to the U.S. and got convicted because they confessed to it. The defense exaggerated the trapped-by-stupidity argument, but it’s pretty clear they were selected precisely because of their lack of power and influence within chavismo. Unlike the Kafkaeske show-trials political prisoners in Venezuela have to face, these two men were given all the guarantees established in the U.S. Constitution. At one point, one of the narcosobrinos even thanked the DEA for allowing him a phone call after being arrested, and commented that they wouldn’t have been treated the same way had that happened in Venezuela.

The real drug kingpins of chavismo would have never fallen for this one and, within chavismo, the narco-nephews were expendable. No tears for these pobrecitos.

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Categorías: Noticias

Retrieving the Prize

Jue, 12/14/2017 - 12:02

This Wednesday, National Assembly Speaker Julio Borges received the Sakharov Prize for Thought Freedom. He asked the European Union to send an official mission for presidential elections in 2018, in order to guarantee their fairness, and said that the opposition receives the prize on behalf of those who suffer and deserve a future of opportunities, and that the award honors the memory of Venezuelans murdered by the brutal repression against peaceful protests in 2017. Borges said that the fight to recover democracy will go on and that “sooner rather than later, the long fight for dignity, referred to by Sakharov, will yield its fruits and allow us to reconquer our freedom.”

European Parliament Speaker Antonio Tajani expressed his desire that Venezuela returns to democracy, and said that the award is for all Venezuelans in the world and that the National Assembly – like all Parliaments in the world – is a symbol of democracy and diversity of opinion and that by granting them this prize, they’re defending their respective Constitutions, their institutions and their branch autonomy, essential elements of democracy together with freedom of expression.

Despite the prize
  • The Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) approved a protective measure for professor Santiago Guevara, arrested by the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence in February, accused of treason and instigation to rebellion.
  • Amnesty International requested specialized medical attention for student leader Villca Fernández, in prison since January 2016, because she’s suffered from hypertension, bronchitis, back pains and gastrointestinal problems. The Prosecutor’s Office issued an order to transfer him to a hospital, but the transfer has been postponed five times.
  • Lawmaker Edgar Zambrano spoke for the rights of the Metropolitan Police officers and of former Security Director Iván Simonovis, prosecuted for the events in April 2002, in a letter to imposed prosecutor general Tarek William Saab demanding the granting of their respective judicial benefits.
  • After a year and a half of detention in SEBIN, the preliminary hearing of American Joshua Holt and his girlfriend Thamara Caleño, arrested during an OLP in Ciudad Caribia, was held this Wednesday. The judge sent them to trial.
  • Former mayor Delson Guárate escaped Venezuela through the Colombian border. He said that they wanted to take him back to SEBIN El Helicoide, where he was imprisoned for a year.
Silence isn’t peace

The IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza, spoke yesterday in a forum of NGO Espacio Público which studied the hate “law” imposed by the ANC, explaining its implications on human rights and confirming assessments regarding the leeway this represents for the discretional administration of a justice without independence. Created as one more instrument of political persecution and not as a law to prevent hate crimes, Lanza explained that there are “less restrictive ways to regulate this (hate crimes), but they’re using criminal law with severe punishments” and that no law in the hemisphere imposes such severe punishments to regulate expression, which means its purpose is censoring and inhibiting the dissemination of information, giving the government “an arsenal of tools to intervene contents, censor the media and establish sanctions for the media.” Lanza mentioned that the IACHR is preparing a report on Venezuela.

Bankrupt

In OPEC’s most recent report, Venezuela reported that its current oil output is 1.83 million barrels per day, which was the minimum output back in the 80’s and represents a 6% drop compared to last month, proving that the collapse of oil production continues at an alarming rate. The report also shows the decline in the amount of active drills, which were about 70 up to 2016 and has now dropped to 40 in 2017. Another drop in production would collapse the necessary cash flow to sustain production and to pay debts, while the financial sanctions and the technical default make it much harder for partners to invest in joint ventures. PDVSA doesn’t have the capacity or the willingness to take the necessary measures to accomplish the changes it requires, even less in the hands of a general with no experience in energy matters. Ah! The GDP per capita is in 1955 levels. When you can, check the work of professor Francisco Monaldi in Prodavinci: PDVSA’s death spiral.

The misaligned

Nicolás ratified that Venezuela and the members of the Movement of Unaligned Countries pledge their full solidarity and support of Palestine’s cause, and condemn Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He had the nerve to call for “compliance with the resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations, due to their binding nature,” as well as justifying Palestine’s fight with the “unalienable right to be free and their right to self-determination,” so he obviously condemns violations of international law (like every sentence ignored by the government) and actions without judicial validity (like the imposed “election” of the ANC), which are null and void (like the “laws” issued by the ANC). Isn’t he cute?

Brief and serious
  • The public transport fee in Caracas will rise to Bs. 1,000 starting on December 15.
  • They’re up again: Bs. 102,277 per dollar and Bs. 120,285 per euro!
  • The 60,000 tons of wheat that arrived to the country yesterday will only be enough to cover the national demand for 15 days.
  • Decrees N° 3.196, authorizing the creation of the Bureau on Cryptocurrencies and Related Activities, and N° 3.197, appointing Carlos Vargas Urbina as Cryptocurrency Supervisor, were published in Official Gazette N° 41.296.
  • This Wednesday, Zulia’s new governor Omar Prieto took his oath of office before the ANC. I don’t know what was prettier: whether it was him yelling “Chávez vive” after the induction, or Prieto explaining that he won thanks to his “socialist, humanist and deeply Christian” government plan.

María Gracia Sosa, a 29-year old surgeon who left the country for Uruguay, won this country’s Master Chef and was granted a vehicle, $200,000, a course in the Crandon Institute and a trip to Spain to receive training in the restaurant El Celler de Can Roca. The Venezuelan won by cooking rice with mussels, shrimp with plantain chips; shrimp with avocado cream and mango chutney, and passion fruit mousse with crispy chocolate!

The post Retrieving the Prize appeared first on Caracas Chronicles.

Categorías: Noticias

Falling Into Line

Mié, 12/13/2017 - 18:53

These people are hungrier and poorer by the day, and their faith in the abstraction of socialism is long gone. Maduro, to them, is a clown and there’s only contempt for the rest of the lot. Many don’t even like Chávez. They may deny it, they’d rather keep quiet than admit they messed up, but deep down they know El Comandante screwed them.

They see it in the mirror as they grow thin, and I see it too, as I walk up the stairs of my building, greeting neighbors as equals, and not as foes. That’s the thing with crises, sooner or later you have to hold yourself accountable for your decisions, and people here, in Guarenas, really chose wrong. This has been my home for the past ten years and, during that period, I’ve been surrounded by people who still have portraits of Chávez in their homes. They voted Maduro into office and will deny that there are political prisoners or Human Rights violations in this country.

Last Sunday, election day, I asked them about the election itself, which I never do, just to see why they supported this government to the point of self-sabotage. My neighborhood, Menca de Leoni, brimmed with activity. There were Puntos Tricolor every fifty meters or so. As the bus made its way through the street, I could see children playing and people strolling around while others lined up for their carnet and their bono Niño Jesús near voting centers. Maduro, Jorge Rodríguez and Erika Farías promised a reward for those who voted red, and they mostly came through in Guarenas, so people were in high spirits.

My closest neighbors are three women. Two have dogs and we’ve found a way to bond by avoiding arguments and talking about their animals and lives. This has given me an understanding of systems like CLAP and the carnet de la Patria as successful political tactics for the regime.

¡Hoooola, mijo! ¿Y la abuela?

Sooner or later you have to hold yourself accountable for your decisions, and people here really chose wrong.

That’s how Libia, the first woman in my floor, greets me every time she sees me. She’s about 60, but the bones are so prominent beneath her skin that she looks much older. A housewife living off a pension with her two children (both of them with cognitive disabilities), she’s the only source of income in their household. She voted for the criminals whose actions reduced her chances of survival; if she falls ill, if anything happens to her, her two sons will be completely helpless. Now, the CLAPs are the only way she can even eat or provide for her children. When I asked her about Sunday’s elections, she just shrugged. “If it weren’t for Chávez, I wouldn’t have my pension. But I didn’t vote this time, politicians are all the same.”

The second woman, Doris, lives with her son and daughter. She’s a nurse at Guarenas’ main hospital and although I’ve come to like her personally, I have no illusions about her principles; she’s the building’s CLAP coordinator. She collects the money every month and brings the boxes to the building. “I left home at 5:00 a.m. (today) and got back at midnight. It was a lot of work. We went to each building with wheelchairs to help the old and sick.” I originally thought she only worked with the CLAP, but she’s also a member of the UBCh and Unamujer. She’s not a member of the local communal council because “they never do anything. Back when we worked with Corpomiranda, they offered the council a chance to manage the whole thing, but food started to go missing, they didn’t want to work, CLAP took over and now they’re angry at us.” She worked for Héctor Rodríguez’ campaign and also for Luis Figueroa, the new mayor. “We work really hard for the community and they must do the same” she says, utterly convinced.

The third woman, Dilia, is a full-time housewife. Her daughter and son-in-law are the breadwinners of the house; my sister has a better relationship with them than I do, but we treat each other cordially. She’s a member of the local Consejo Comunal and the building’s unofficial management, and she’s not doing that bad, even if it’s been a while since she’s thrown a party. “I don’t vote. I voted for Chávez but not for Maduro or his people. And the opposition’s nearly as bad.”

They all fear that they might lose access to their “benefits” if they don’t have the carnet, a fear more than justified since the government has been making explicit threats lately.

“When Chávez was alive” she adds, “he had things under control, but these people don’t know what they’re doing. The CLAP arrives whenever they want and the boxes have less products each time.”

However, she still got her carnet. “Just in case I need it. We never know.”

Despite the difference in contexts and motivations, they all fear that they might lose access to their “benefits” if they don’t have the carnet, a fear more than justified since the government has been making explicit threats lately. I don’t condone these people’s support for the regime, but I understand. Supporting the system of control that will guarantee your demise is completely counter-intuitive, but the connection to crime, to high-scale embezzlement or drug-trafficking, isn’t evident to them. This is a circumstance unrelated to their survival and the story repeats everywhere now. It’s no longer chavistas who depend on this type of blackmail anymore.

Chavismo has always been good at using violence and turning everything into a weapon. They’ve weaponized hunger now, and they’ve been successful in stomping down public demonstrations. That doesn’t mean they’re more popular than a year ago, or that they’ve regained people’s trust; people are just running out of options, and they will do whatever they must to provide for their families. We may want nothing to do with carnets de la patria or CLAPs, but a lot of people just don’t have a choice.

Of course they take the carnet and the grocery box. Of course they promise to vote for PSUV candidates, even if they don’t. Some, like Doris, still believe in the revolution after all these years and actively participate in the government’s schemes. Others have never refused the government’s gifts and figure this is no time to start. And if the government plan succeeds, even dissidents will learn to fall in line.

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Categorías: Noticias

Sinopec Settles PDVSA’s Cabilla Shaft

Mar, 12/12/2017 - 19:39

Say you’re a PDVSA official circa 2013-2014. Which country would you say you can least afford to shaft? Probably China, right? I mean, you need China as a customer, as a supplier, as a creditor, as a geopolitical patron, as an…everything. 

And yet shaft China is precisely what PDVSA decided to do, starting in 2012, over the most trivial matter possible: payment on $43.5 million worth of steel re-bars (a.k.a., cabillas) that China’s state-owned Sinopec shipped to Venezuela and didn’t get paid for in full.

The case eventually ended up in front of a judge in the U.S. — which does rather show exactly how much each side trusts the other’s judges.

As the Financial Times reports,

In a document filed on Tuesday in a US district court in Houston, Texas, PDVSA said that, “without implying acknowledgment of fault or responsibility but for the sole purpose of ending the controversy [between Sinopec USA and PDVSA]”, it agreed to pay Sinopec $21.5m, settling a contract agreed in May 2012.

However, the agreement stipulates that the amount be converted into Chinese renminbi and paid in two instalments, one on December 14 and another on January 15, 2018.

“That’s how cash poor and badly run PDVSA is,” said Russ Dallen of boutique investment bank Caracas Capital, who first made the dispute public. “They are sitting on top of the biggest oil reserves in the world and they can’t even write a cheque for $21.5m dollars.” He said worldwide publicity about the case over the past week had piled shame on PDVSA and the government in Caracas, “and they wanted it to go away as quickly as possible.”

The dispute centred on a $43.5m contract for supply of steel rebar, of which Sinopec said only half had been paid. It accused PDVSA of engaging in “intentional misrepresentations, deceit, and concealment of material facts” involving “wilful deception” and a co-ordinated conspiracy among several of its subsidiaries.

Sinopec, one of the biggest Chinese state oil companies, became involved in Venezuela as part of a package of Chinese loans and investments adding up to more than $62bn between 2007 and 2016. Caracas has struggled to repay its debts as the oil price has fallen from its 2014 peak and as production at PDVSA has dwindled.

Right when you think they can’t be any more criminally self-sabotaging, chavismo proves you wrong…again and again and again.

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Categorías: Noticias

Where’s the Joy?

Mar, 12/12/2017 - 12:25

Photo: Panorama

Perhaps it was because it was a banking holiday yesterday and there were no school activities, but there was no celebration to prove the regime’s discourse about the victory that wasn’t. Minister Jorge Rodríguez was in charge of making a sort of synthesis, ignoring the abuses committed with the Carnet de la Patria, the Puntos Rojos, their soldiers’ attacks and of course, abstention. It’s funny that they’re so bent on surpassing the electoral achievements of the Comandanteterno. Be it a fixation for Nicolás or for his loyal team, Rodríguez said that Sunday’s triumph was “the greatest victory accomplished by any political force in Venezuela’s republican history,” claiming that elections set Venezuelans “freer every day.” So his assertion that chavismo’s building the future we deserve shouldn’t come as that big of a shock to us. What is shocking, though, is that despite the hate law, he spoke of winning in the cities “where the whities live,” and he also accused Juan Pablo Guanipa of being a white supremacist. According to Rodríguez, political stability has been recovered in Venezuela, and he was proud that “the guarimbero dollar” couldn’t break the people, which means it’s no longer necessary to eradicate it because citizens are surfing the consequences of a ruined economy.

Worse than Jorge

Nicanor Moscoso, head of Ceela, an organization of alleged electoral experts that has been collaborating with the CNE, presented his report on elections, which includes the absolute satisfaction with the opening of electoral stations, the arrival of electoral supplies; the voting machines and the complete effectiveness of verification systems. The second part of Moscoso’s report was even more cynical, underscoring that the locations of voting stations was appropriate (a journalist questioned Moscoso about the unnotified relocation of voting centers and VTV cut her off); that free and secret elections were guaranteed – what about Puntos Rojos and assisted votes?! – that voting stations were closed within the legally mandated period (false); that security audits were successful and there was a 47.3% turnout (and Mark Ruffalo is my boyfriend.)

The best: Plan República didn’t cause damages or problems! In any case, voters protested yesterday before PSUV headquarters in San Juan de los Morros, demanding the tickets they were promised in exchange for their votes. There were also complaints of public employees fired for supporting dissident chavistas.

The opposition

In addition to MUD’s statement, which nobody read, National Assembly Speaker Julio Borges met yesterday morning with The Vatican’s top diplomat Pietro Parolin, to discuss the reach of the negotiation and the humanitarian crisis.

Later, former CNE authority Vicente Díaz said that “there’s no legal precedent to exclude political parties from coming elections.”

Last night, former governor Henrique Capriles said that these elections were a ruse and that the government doubled down on its efforts to show “a non-existent democracy,” revealing its system’s corruption and an abstention that reflects the country’s institutional crisis. Capriles emphasized that after what happened with gubernatorial elections, the opposition suffered a split that unveiled individual interests and even complicity. He spoke at length about the dangers of losing faith in elections, giving in to uncertainty and despair, so he claimed: “We need a solid unity to pull the country out of this hole we’re in.”

Amazonas without lawmakers

The TSJ Electoral Chamber shelved the file opened on December 28, 2015, against parliamentary elections in Amazonas, according to ruling 221 published yesterday by government-run newspaper Últimas Noticias. Before the AN installation, this chamber ordered them not to incorporate the lawmakers elected in Amazonas because of the lawsuits filed for alleged electoral frauds in that state, especially “vote buying,” without tickets for toys or CLAP bags. The AN inducted those lawmakers, which caused the infamous “contempt” they could never shake off. In the ruling written by Malaquías Gil, the full responsibility for this case (cause suspension and failure to hold new elections) falls on plaintiff Pedro Luis Cabello Hermoso, because it didn’t comply with the law, forcing them to shelve the file, while they try to resolve the other seven filed suits. Calmly, of course.

Economy

While chavismo disseminates the entry into circulation of the communal currency El Panal, David Paravisini reported that the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) will discuss a project to increase liquid fuel prices which, according to his proposal, “must be brought to the average prices abroad, which is approximately one dollar [per litre].” Pdvsa was paid more than $ 5,000 million to subsidize gasoline in 2016 alone.

Later, Oil Minister and PDVSA chief Manuel Quevedo, asked the Comptroller General to carry out an audit of all PDVSA units. The nepotic Comptroller, Manuel Galindo, responded that they will draw up a plan of up to 30 days “to start seeing the appropriate results after the prosecution’s proceedings and after investigations.”

Ah! Reuters reported that the accumulation of tanks waiting to be loaded in Venezuelan ports has increased because Pdvsa hasn’t been able to deliver liquid fuel for exports, so the news to review and validate contracts signed by Pdvsa, its subsidiaries and joint ventures, becomes less relevant.

Abroad

Heather Nauert, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said that Nicolás’ intention to ban opposition parties from participating in presidential elections is an “extreme measure to close the democratic space in Venezuela,” stating that with this measure, the president only seeks to “consolidate power in his authoritarian dictatorship.” Canada expressed deep concern for the same threat, because it puts “at risk solutions to restore democracy & resolve the humanitarian crisis, urgently needed by all Venezuelans.” By the way, the head of the Venezuelan Airlines Association, Humberto Figuera, said that only 25% of the airplane fleet managed by national companies is operational, due to the low frequency of flights and price-regulated plane tickets, and that the money from ticket sales “isn’t enough to cover expenses.” I quote him here due to our growing inability to travel abroad, while Trump announced his intention to send humans to the Moon and NASA explains its potential. Nicolás travelled to Turkey last night to meet with Erdogan.

Yesterday was National Broadcaster Day, in celebration of the 87th anniversary of Radio Caracas Radio (750 AM), the oldest radio station in the country. In addition to its symbolic value, RCR also has an important political value, as it continues to be a space of radical dissent in most of its daily schedule, despite harassment, threats, lawsuits and fines. Cheers for our broadcasters! Congratulations to all the people in RCR!

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Categorías: Noticias

That Bitter Scribble

Lun, 12/11/2017 - 19:54

The Maternity Hospital where I was doing part of my Obstetrics internship last week is located in Ejido, a small bedroom city 9 km west of Mérida. It’s a small place, with capacity for eight patients only, a tiny Delivery Room, and an even smaller Operation Room where only carefully planned c-sections are performed. It’s not designed to deal with emergencies, so you usually have time to spare during the night. During one of those calmed shifts, I found something I wasn’t expecting at all: a souvenir from El Difunto himself.

Standing on the Evaluation Room desk there was a big, old book. The thin layer of protective plastic wrapping it was falling apart and the what had once been a blue cover had lost much of its flair. Still, the title was clearly visible: Guía Spilva de las especialidades farmacéuticas, 1999. The Guía Spilva is a classic in any Venezuelan doctor’s bookshelf. First printed in 1954, this book has a list of all drugs commercialized in Venezuela, along with its presentations, doses, commercial names and a list of pharmaceutical companies producing them. It’s published  every two years, to keep it updated with changes in a once dynamic market.

Hugo Chávez, the man responsible of the worst economic crisis this country has ever witnessed, had signed a book listing all the medicines available in 1999’s Venezuela.

I didn’t get why someone would keep an old, outdated pharmacological guide out of the trash, until I saw the first page. Covered with a foil of the same transparent plastic protecting the cover, there was a big scribble in black ink. Hugo Chávez’ unmistakable signature was written in the middle of the page, dedicating the book to its former owner, some random doctor who I guess worked here once.

It was weird to touch something the man responsible of my many years of piled up anger held in his own hands two decades ago. I was Harry Potter facing Tom Riddle’s diary, it felt almost like touching a book that could spark some dark magic that’d bring El Comandante back. I then realised how appropriate the scene was: Hugo Chávez, the man responsible of the worst economic crisis this country has ever witnessed, had signed a book listing all the medicines available in 1999’s Venezuela, medicines impossible to find 18 years later due to the corrupt, nonsensical model he unleashed upon us.

Irony is a magnificently sad thing.

Take, for example, Buscapina, page 431: an antispasmodic commonly used for stomachache and as part of the protocol to prevent preterm labor, a condition where babies are born too early. You’d expect this drug to be easily available in a hospital that only treats pregnant women, right? Well, it’s nowhere to be seen. Buscapina simply disappeared from the country after Boehringer-Ingelheim, the company producing it, ceased its activities in Venezuela, two years ago.

You won’t find antibiotics like Cefazolin, Cefalotin or Cefadroxil anywhere at Ejido’s Hospital but in pages 15, 20 and 17 of that old Guía Spilva, even though every single woman giving birth at the place should receive them to prevent postpartum infections.

Other drugs didn’t appear in the guide, since the Health Ministry never considered them necessary enough to be imported. That’s the case with Atosiban or Hydralazine, first choices to treat preterm labor and gestational hypertension, respectively. We were taught in med school that in case you can’t stop preterm labor, at least you should be able to speed up the maturation of the fetus’ lungs by using steroids. Betametasone, the intramuscular steroid used in these cases is listed three hundred and nineteen pages after Chávez’ rabo e’ cochino, yet the Maternity Hospital stock ran out of it last weekend.

Chávez’ signature isn’t only present in that eighteen year-old book. I can see it printed in the brand-new Chinese ambulance parked in front of the building, whose brakes broke a couple weeks ago, or in the face of that skinny 17 year-old girl who came in a few days ago, whose father was killed before she met him, currently pregnant with her second son; it’s indelibly written in the tearful eyes of the old nurse whose salary can’t buy her enough food for three daily meals and in the young, recently graduated doctor supervising us, who plans to leave the country as soon as possible… Chávez’ signature is present all over the place, all over the country and all over our lives.

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Categorías: Noticias

The Perfect Blackmail

Lun, 12/11/2017 - 17:57
Photo: Agencia Escalona, retrieved

According to Sandra Oblitas, CNE board member, the Puntos Rojos must be 200 meters away from voting centers. In reality, these political beacons can be in the same block or across the street from where you vote. The Puntos have always been key tools for the chavista machinery during elections and, this time, they’re demanding the carnet de la Patria after voting.

“Abstention is the enemy, not only for (the opposition), but for us too. That’s why we need this Punto Rojo,” Xiomara, the woman in charge of the Punto in a Catia school, told me.

Chavismo has presented these spots as “Puntos Tricolor” in an attempt to disguise what they’ve always been. Full of chavistas, they’re a gentle reminder that Big Brother is watching.

“The process is easy and fast” said Xiomara, “after you finish voting you come here and present your carnet. We’ll ask if you already voted, because, remember, you need to vote first, and then come here. Two minutes and done.”

There’s no line outside this voting station, but there’s at least 10 people waiting in the Punto, everyone with their carnet de la Patria at hand. “I almost forgot to do this” a woman in line said, “I was already walking home.”

Each person must present their carnet; the QR code in the back is scanned with a cellphone, your name and phone number are written down and you’ll get a text message as proof that your carnet is registered. Xiomara admits that she has lists and “you can call folks or go to their houses and say ‘hey, let’s go vote.'”

At the Tricolor school, Xiomara did some calculations: they have data with 792 names from the community, all receiving some benefit from the Government, each with a valid carnet de la Patria. By mid-day, 200 people are registered as “already voted.”

“Nobody is forcing me to be here with my Carnet,” said a young woman. “So why not? I rather wait here for a while today, than not receive my Clap next month.”

“Those Puntos are useless” candidate Eduardo Samán explained to me. “They can’t know who you vote for, this is just a way to scare people, playing with the need for some food or medical assistance.”  

For Rosa, who’s in charge of another Punto in another school, the registration is a way to prove “that you are with el proceso, a logical part of receiving a benefit. A lot of people receive help and now they have to do their part.”

“The carnet is like our second ID. All the data from the Punto is going to the PSUV, and it’s our responsibility to call and ask people to come and vote. This is not about denying you the Clap if you don’t vote. Because, in the end, we don’t know who you’re voting for.”

And just like they maintain the secrecy of the vote, people at the Puntos insist that what they’re doing is not illegal; since they’re just keeping a log of who has voted (instead of, say, making you vote for a particular candidate), this is not a violation of the CNE’s dispositions. I mean, they have the name of Erika Farías, one of the candidates, written on the back of their shirts, but they’re not promoting candidates explicitly.

“Nobody is forcing me to be here with my Carnet,” said a young woman at Rosa’s Spot, “so why not? I rather wait here for a while today, than not receive my Clap next month.”

It’s true: there’s no one outside voting centers forcing you to register at the Punto, but a little fear goes a long way if you have a lot to lose. Betting on your empty stomach, chavismo knows you feel watched and you won’t risk it. It’s the perfect blackmail, the one you do to yourself.

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Categorías: Noticias

Hunger’s Victory

Lun, 12/11/2017 - 12:48

Photo: Luis Carlos Díaz

Once again, without prior notice, the CNE changed our voting station and we had to vote within walls decorated with drawings of el finado’s face, several versions of his crooked eyes and Fidel’s portrait, in a so-called camp of pioneers. Upon watching me enter, the idiot who acted as secretary of my table said “Una escuálida más,” a violation of my human rights, but if I could practice restraint with the space imposed by the CNE, I could do it with him as well. There were no pictures of the candidates in the ballot, only the logos of the political parties and the candidates’ names in small letters. At 4:00 p.m., I was the fourth person to sign the records.

Surrender

These elections were marked by defeat at too many levels: the imposition of the ANC’s election, gubernatorial elections, the induction of the winners before the ANC, the results in Bolívar state being tampered with and the ouster of Zulia’s legitimately elected governor. They were also marked by imprisoned mayors and those who were forced to flee the country, by the administrative disqualification of so many politicians with unresolved proceedings, as well as by notable mistakes committed by the opposition’s leadership and the expectations they created without preparing any answers for potential failures. A disenchanted electorate, consumed by the anguish of shortages, hyperinflation, the collapse of public services, sealed the ruinous path of institutional decay, of an illegal CNE that decided, with the greatest brazenness possible, to act as the Administration’s instrument once again.

Attacking your peer

Voting or not voting wasn’t a dilemma. It was, instead, a reason for digital confrontations that included discreditations and insults among the same victims of the failed State, the consequence of infamous decisions. Abstention was sold as the best way to demonstrate our insatisfaction with institutions, more than justified with what I described above. For others, it was an act of surrender that only eased the way for the regime violate our electoral rights. In my mind, abstention did nothing to undermine power, it only gave them stability, wrapped with the ribbon of the certainty that I couldn’t do anything to change it.

The day’s barbarities

Plan República didn’t prevent the attacks from chavista armed groups, the pressure of red spots or the campaign they carried out near voting stations, but they did prohibit voters from exercising their rights if their arms, legs or feet were uncovered. Additionally, Plan República prevented journalists from accessing electoral centers, some were stripped off their phones and forced to erase pictures, while others were even detained. When you have the chance, check Venezuelan Electoral Observatory’s work (@OEVenezolano on Twitter). At the end of the process, there were abundant complaints for voting stations that hadn’t closed despite long hours without voters.

Most notably, PDVSA and Oil Ministry employees were forced to report their vote on a website.

Motta committed a crime

Electrical Energy Minister Luis Motta Domínguez decided to keep his voting ticket even though he was being recorded.

It’s an electoral crime because the ticket is a public document, necessary for auditing, and the fact that it’s not in the box only guarantees numeric inconsistency between registered votes and their physical records.

Journalist Eugenio Martínez (@puzkas on Twitter) said that holding on to the ticket “is the way to guarantee that everyone who registers for the carnet de la patria voted for the PSUV,” so each voter leaves the carnet, goes to vote, takes the ticket and the following voters keep that ticket and do the same with their own. Regardless of whether this is the “method”, the CNE has to investigate minister Motta’s case and set a stance regarding the coaction imposed by red spots.

Regime candidate Erika Farías let slip a tweet stating that Nicolás “spoke of rewarding those who vote through the carnet de la patria.” She erased it, but didn’t consider the magic of screenshots.

Banned from running?

Nicolás voted at the same hour as me yesterday and offered statements to consolidate his tyranny, after attacking Henry Ramos Allup (“Alú” in his version) and claiming that the U.S. already picked another presidential candidate, he said that “Even though all polls show AD as the main party of the Venezuelan opposition, very far from PSUV; and the remaining parties, Voluntad Popular, Primero Justicia, have disappeared from the Venezuelan political scene, and now they’re gone for good, because any party that didn’t participate today and instead called for a boicó (sic) on elections, can no longer be allowed to participate, that’s the position that the ANC has adopted constitutionally and legally, and since I am the head of State of a legitimate power. I support them, they’re banned from running again.” The ANC’s decision is neither constitutional nor legal. Diosdado Cabello made his contribution by claiming that all elected mayors must be inducted before the ANC in order to take office.

Human rights

Journalist Gregoria Díaz (@churuguara) denounced:

#10Dic Un enorme despliegue militar y policial en #MBI de #Aragua para detener al exalcalde y candidato @DelsonGuarate luego que reclamara cierre de centros abiertos sin electores en cola. Se desconoce paradero del candidato expreso político

— Gregoria Díaz (@churuguara) December 11, 2017

“A huge military and police deployment in MBI Aragua to arrest former mayor and candidate Delson Guárate after he demanded that voting stations without voters in line must close. The whereabouts of the candidate and former political prisoner are unknown.” And this happened yesterday, right on Human Rights Day.

The day also marked the 8th anniversary of judge María Afiuni’s arbitrary detention, ordered by Chávez during a cadena and carried out by prosecutor general Luisa Ortega Díaz, even though judge Afiuni merely complied with a resolution of the UN and the Inter American Justice Court and has stood abuses throughout a trial with liberty restrictions that exceed the top limit of her sentence: seven years.

Results

With 97% of transferred data, CNE authority Sandra Oblitas announced a 47.32% turnout: 9,139,564 voters. With the abstention reported all over the country, many question the consistency of this figure. Omar Prieto took Zulia’s governorship with 57.3% and except for San Cristóbal, all the results reported so far show PSUV taking every mayorship, with the opposition losing historic bastions.

Chavismo celebrates its “victory”. The carnet de la patria was instrumental, because the government has made the instrument necessary for access to any social benefits. Coercion doesn’t guarantee support or loyalty, it’s merely a testament to despair and misery, key variables for this “victory”, hunger’s victory.

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Categorías: Noticias

Bullfighting Is Rigged

Sáb, 12/09/2017 - 11:00

It’s pretty obvious, right? The event is designed in such a way that it’s meant to look as if there’s a risk of the bull winning. But those chances are significantly challenged by a system designed to enrage, distract, control, hurt and wear down the animal.

It’s obvious, yes, but these are the days of explaining the obvious, again and again. Even when you know it’s a controlled space, you still feel a certain anguish for the skinny guy in the funny suit who’s about to become roadkill. It’s a show for the crowd.

Take your regular bullfight. The bull is released to the arena, and an army of strangely clothed folks take different roles to control the outcome.

Apart from the matador, a typical bullfight has two picadores on horseback who spear the bull; three banderilleros stick flags on its back; and a mozo de espada, who’s pretty much the bullfighter’s squire. Some cuadrillas have more, like clowns to distract the beast.

And then there’s the arena itself, with its barriers and trap doors. There’s loud music and pasodobles. And the crowd participates chanting orders, singing and binging on sangría. There’s adrenaline. It’s exhilarating, exciting.

It’s carnage, and we love it.

Hemingway once wrote that for a country to love bullfighting “the people must have an interest in death.” That may explain a lot about Venezuela’s deep connections to “corridas”. We used to have one of the most important arenas for bullfighters: Valencia’s Plaza Monumental is the second biggest bullring in the world. Many generations of Cordobeses have delighted crowds in the Feria del Sol in Mérida, and their legendary parties have been recorded in the collective memory of that Venezuelan party town.

There are brief moments of glory, like that one time a National Guard almost got impaled by a horn.

César Girón is considered one of the great Venezuelan matadors of the 20th century, and he was a Maracay native. The bullring named after him is a beautiful structure designed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva, now in severe disrepair and invaded by squatters.

Corridas are part of the cultural heritage in Venezuela, but the spectacle cherished by so many is not what you’d see today, for instance, if you visit Maracay.

Bullfights in Maracay now take place in a rusty makeshift bullring set up next to the Military Club, in the middle of a breathtaking landscape with gaudy restaurants built for the olive green elite and its perezjimenista architecture. The tickets are not cheap, and the arena, although very small, isn’t usually full. An improvised, impoverished version of an old tradition that refuses to die.

Unless you get a chance to see someone like Erick Cortez, these days the local talent doesn’t offer much. Cortez is an experienced and well-known Venezuelan matador who lives abroad and last week travelled to Maracay for a special bullfight in his honor. He’s a charming guy who enjoys the attention. When he stepped on the arena, a meager crowd welcomed him enthusiastically. He acted as if he was in one of the arenas of yonder, surrounded by tens of thousands.

When the bull was released, it was skinnier and smaller than expected. It gave a good fight, though; it charged into the walls protecting the cuadrilla, and chased them energetically. Cortez, a very skillful matador, easily goaded and tired the bull with the help of his assistants, and finally gave it a swift blow for the perfect kill. The animal dropped in the middle of the arena.

The bull’s lifeless body was dragged away from the arena by mules on a carriage, but the mules were too weak and skinny and had to be forced to slowly drag the carcass.

The other bullfighters were not as dexterous as Cortez, and the whole thing became more chaotic and difficult to watch. People cheered asking for an indulto for the strongest bull – a rarely granted pardon of the bull by the corrida chairman or the matador. It’s a saludo a la bandera, the crowd knows the bull won’t be spared. Its death is a given sentence, they go to bullfights to see precisely that.

There was a sad, undignified ending to Cortez’s corrida. The bull’s lifeless body was dragged away from the arena by mules on a carriage, but the mules were too weak and dragged the carcass for an eternity.

Bulls don’t understand the corrida. They’re tired, confused, scared and overwhelmed by everything going on. And even if they understood, their only option is to participate and try as hard as they can to survive. They are trapped. There are brief moments of glory, like that one time a National Guard almost got impaled by a horn. And every once in a while, you’d be able to see a bullfighter being charged by the bull, the handful of cases when a bull wins the match. You may wonder, how does a bull fare when it kills the matador?

Imagine being the bull. Surprisingly easy, isn’t it?

Bullfighting is a controlled spectacle, just like our elections.

HT to Kristoffer Toft for the analogy.

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Categorías: Noticias

Enter the PETRO

Vie, 12/08/2017 - 16:35

Cryptocurrencies are all the rage these days. People all over the world are getting excited about the surge of bitcoin, figuring out how to buy them — and telling their friends about it. This trend didn’t escape Maduro, and just a few days ago he announced his government would create PETRO, a cryptocurrency hecha en socialismo.

It can take long to wrap your head around cryptocurrencies, but if you learn only one thing about them, it should be that they’re parallel financial systems where transactions are unstoppable by any authority. A sweet way to avoid U.S. sanctions, right? The government sure is interested, and it isn’t wasting time. The country’s prime technical university, held hostage, is developing research and mining facilities, while two crypto-related companies are competing behind the scenes to get PETRO just right.

Launching a new cryptocurrency isn’t especially difficult; the hard part is convincing others to give you things that have value in exchange. Communists’ opinions aren’t that hot in markets, but Venezuelan oil is, so Maduro will issue pieces of paper where he promises to redeem PETRO for some of the 300 billion barrels of oil waiting to be exploited in our territory.

I know what you’re thinking: who in their right mind would trust Maduro to live up to his promise? Let me introduce you to Mr. InsaneCrypto Market:

Yes, a cryptocurrency called PetroDollar (unrelated to PETRO) went up in price more than 2,800% the day Maduro made the announcement. It crashed immediately afterwards, okay, but some people made money. The government could hold a closed sale after orchestrating a propaganda campaign, and if it’s massively successful, it only needs to work once.

Very little is known about PETRO at this point, and what I just described may not be the government’s strategy; the world’s largest cryptocurrency sale brought in $230 million – more than plenty for a business venture, but small money at state scale. The government may want Chinese and Russian citizens to buy up claims to Venezuelan oil. Perhaps if those two governments and their threats are involved, those certificates Maduro is so fond of won’t be completely worthless. He would be literally selling the country in the world’s first Initial Country Offering.

Seguiremos informando.

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Categorías: Noticias

The Stolen Referendum

Vie, 12/08/2017 - 16:09
Photo: Newsweek

2016 was marked by violence. Lootings, kidnappings, murders and robberies that were minimized by the government, even when we reached the (unofficial) rate of 90 deaths per every 100,000 citizens and Caracas became the most dangerous city in the world. We rolled back to the time zone that should’ve never been changed (UTC -4) and electrical grid issues, blamed on the natural phenomenon El Niño, activated a new power rationing plan that lasted over four months. For the first time in 17 years, gas prices were adjusted. Thousands were down with the Zika virus and an outbreak of diphtheria (eradicated 24 years ago) began. Nicolás decreed an economic emergency to legislate, bypassing the National Assembly. He also decreed the creation of Camimpeg, granting brass concessions within oil production and the extraction of gold and diamonds. Former presidents José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Martín Torrijos and Leonel Fernández proved to be disastrous mediators of an authoritarian government. The only achievement of the dialogue that never happened, was Zapatero’s visit to Leopoldo López in Ramo Verde.

Blocking the National Assembly

After cutting the sound wiring and overcoming all the power outages and the robbery of all the equipment of the National Assembly TV station (whose operation and administrative functions were transferred to the AN’s employees by the outgoing Parliament in 2015), 163 elected lawmakers were sworn into office on January 5. Three lawmakers from Amazonas, challenged by the TSJ, were sworn in the next day before the new board and chavismo demanded what the Electoral Chamber would grant them six days later: declaring Parliament in contempt of court and nullifying all of its decisions until they unseated the three Amazonas lawmakers; an unprecedented judicial aberration which suspended the legislative body, disregarding the will of the people. Although the AN complied with the demand, the TSJ didn’t lift the contempt. On the contrary, the Constitutional Chamber took over faculties way beyond its authority to guarantee full power for the Executive Branch, on top of blocking Parliament’s capacities. Nicolás even threatened to reduce the AN’s constitutional tender and later, to dissolve it entirely.

The seven-month-long robbery

The procedure to activate a recall referendum was packed with restrictions and delays imposed by the CNE, in complete coordination with the Administration and the TSJ. The request initiative had to be backed by the signatures of 1% of registered voters (less than 200,000 people). Once those were counted, validated and accepted, it should’ve formalized the request with the collection of the signatures of at least 20% of registered voters. The opposition vastly surpassed the 1% and the CNE delayed the process for so long that a march was called to its headquarters to demand answers and was brutally attacked by chavismo.

Over a million signatures were accepted and the verification period started, requiring people to go to voting stations to validate their signatures with their fingerprints. However, CNE rectoras re-interpreted the regulation and demanded that all the country’s states required 1% signatures, and also providing only 300 captahuellas spread across 124 validation stations, without any sort of proportionality. On August 1, the CNE acknowledged that the opposition had managed to collect the required 1%. The collection of 20% of signatures would take place between October 26 and 28 and just a few days before it started, the CNE decided to “postpone” the process in compliance with the rulings of seven criminal courts which voided the 1% for alleged “signs of fraud”; a judicial barbarity, since those courts have no authority to decide on the matter. The way chavismo celebrated this proved that it was an absolutely shameless political scheme. Gubernatorial and mayoral elections were also postponed for 2017.

Human rights

The Atenas mine, located in Tumeremo (Bolívar state) was the stage of a sinister episode: the murder of 28 miners; denied by governor Francisco Rangel Gómez but confirmed by lawmaker Américo De Grazia, revealing the anarchic war between armed gangs, natives and miners in an area outside the State’s control. Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Díaz claimed that only 17 miners had been killed and they had been gunned own, not mutilated. Nicolás ordered the reactivation of the OLP which was already counting 73 murders and 931 arrests by October. The CICPC killed José Tovar Colina, alias “El Picure”, the most wanted criminal in Venezuela. Previously, someone had killed Teófilo Rodríguez, aka El Conejo, the pran of San Antonio prison. The shocking part of this case was that the prisoners took to the prison’s roof to drink, carrying their guns and shooting to the sky. There were a series of arbitrary arrests against Voluntad Popular leaders: Delson Guárate, Daniel Ceballos (who was under house arrest at the moment) and Yon Goicoechea.

A spontaneous protest against Nicolás broke out in Villa Rosa and Braulio Jatar was arrested for sharing the video, but there were also home raids and neighbors of the area were arrested, included a minor.

Así fue el cacerolazo que le dió el Pueblo a Maduro en Margarita,allí lo ven pasando! pic.twitter.com/6kMwTLzIz7

— Henrique Capriles R. (@hcapriles) September 3, 2016

Hundreds of public servants were also laid off for signing in favor of the recall referendum, with the support of regime mouthpieces like Elías Jaua, Jorge Rodríguez and Diosdado Cabello.

No food, no medicines

Shortages intensified. The gap between regulated and free prices was absurd. For instance, corn flour was set at Bs. 19 by the government, but it could only be found at Bs. 1,000. Delcy Rodríguez said at the OAS that Venezuela was importing enough food to feed three countries, mocking scarcity and the severe drop in both production and imports.

The creation of the Standard System of Public Purchases, of the Local Committees of Supply and Production (CLAP) and of the great Sovereign Supply program didn’t help fix the crisis. In addition to the shortage of medicines, estimated at 70%, most people couldn’t afford to eat three times a day, with an unbalanced diet and sans proteins. According to the Venezuelan Health Observatory, 75% of Venezuelans mostly ate carbohydrates. And it was precisely the combination of shortages of food and medicines, the long lines and the exorbitant prices which motivated the massive demonstration of September 1, but the demands made that day were ignored.

Abroad

Venezuela demanded to be appointed for Mercosur’s temporary presidency and Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez was defeated when the institution suspended Venezuela after failing to fulfill its economic, immigration and human rights obligations. The Colombian-Venezuelan border was closed for over a year, under a state of emergency and with arbitrary and massive deportations of thousands of Colombian families who lived in Táchira, Zulia and Amazonas.

Nicolás went to Havana to take part in the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, while the OAS discussed the activation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter on Venezuela.

Indicators

There were four minimum wage hikes, for a total of 120% vs. a 720% inflation rate and the worst GDP drop in the last 13 years, with a 18.6% contraction. International reserves dropped to $10.9 billion, the lowest level in 21 years. New currency exchange systems were created: the Protected Exchange rate (Dipro) and the Complementary Exchange rate (Dicom), the former at Bs. 10 per dollar and the latter started at Bs. 206. The national budget for 2017 was Bs. 8.4 billion, a gap of 448% compared to the budget of 2016, five times the number. Nicolás announced the removal of the Bs. 100 banknote from circulation, extending its validity for 72 hours after its announcement, unleashing chaos and despair in the population. The riots in Bolívar state were terrible. He would later extend the bill’s validity several times, including the announcement on December 29, extending it to January 20, 2017. The black market dollar opened the year at Bs. 984 and closed at Bs. 3,164. We got a new set of banknotes, allegedly in accordance with inflation; but the bolívar’s depreciation shattered all expectations.

The post The Stolen Referendum appeared first on Caracas Chronicles.

Categorías: Noticias

2016: Fleeing Venezuela

Vie, 12/08/2017 - 16:08
Original art by @modográfico

“Are you going to leave behind everything your family has built for several generations?”

I lost count of how many times I’ve heard this question. The answers present a complexity that dissolves when you feel like your life is nothing but an object, easily stripped away by any stranger with a hood and a gun.

Let me explain that: my grandfather Eladio, born in a small town in Spain, illegally boarded a ship and crossed the ocean with one dollar in his pocket. It was 1946, the end of WWII, the first period of the franquista dictatorship. It was a time of extreme poverty and fierce repression. Poverty was so extreme that my grandfather couldn’t afford his ticket. Venezuela was the port after the Canary Islands. He just had to remain hidden while the ship traversed between Valencia and Las Palmas in Gran Canarias, then he would be scot-free. If he was caught and wasn’t thrown overboard, he’d be forcefully disembarked in Venezuela. According to the story I remember, he went to the port with a friend one morning, an port officer saw them and made them get off. The plan was to climb the anchor and hide in a lifeboat. 

That’s how he came to the country of opportunities and paved the road for his brothers, a plan that sounds familiar to many Venezuelans today.

He eventually set up a business. A 13 hectares farm in the Altos Mirandinos, mainly growing roses. At peak production, he was growing 3 to 5 million stems a year. It was a reference for farmers and producers of cut flowers around the country, one of the first greenhouse farms in Venezuela, with cutting-edge technology and products that were an innovation in Venezuela.


I wasn’t that involved when he passed away in 2005, but the time would come for me to take charge.

The phone call in the middle of the night, the terror of not knowing if the gang was still lurking in the dark, waiting to break into my home…

I became a young 20-something man in charge of my family’s company that, with my best efforts, I’ve kept going, defying a model that finds inconvenient— or simply doesn’t want—the existence of private business. A typical day on the farm means lot’s of maintenance, coordinating watering, fertilization, plague and disease control, finding problems (water leaks, pumping failure) and the harvest (that depends on the day and variety of that moment).

Stability in this kind of business is hard to measure, since most of the capital is vegetal matter, and to pinpoint the exact “the beginning of the end” is complicated, since the company was doing well and the numbers were getting better. In Venezuela, one normalizes gradual collapse.

Despite the regular hurdles: scarcity of raw materials, currency depreciation, lack of safety, corruption, etc., in the last few years I managed to increase output, diversify our products, leaving the traditional flower business and taking chances on other agricultural varieties. To sum it up, I was doing OK.  

It all ended quickly.

We’re used to phrases like “I’m not doing that bad in Venezuela, considering everything,” and in a certain way, that’s true. The problem arises when you analyze your personal situation in a global framework and you find out that, in reality, you earn below the poverty line. When I saw the accounting books and made the conversion to moneda dura (the kind of exchange rate you get on the street), the result was a joke. An 18-year-old student that works part time as a waiter in any civilized country has better investment possibilities than me with my thriving business.

I kept working, kept believing in the country, already knowing something wasn’t right.
One morning by the end of November 2016, I woke up early and started scheduling my day in the farm. My cousin, Daniel, stayed behind getting some work done and I left with hopes of finding several things (electrodes, screws and other stuff from the nearby hardware store). Forty minutes later I get a call from Daniel, he’s nervous and he says he needs my help. At that moment, I was still out of the office and, while he spoke to me, seven men were pointing guns at his head.

Turns out these men came into the farm, tied my cousin and other employees down for a few of hours and strolled casually down the place I had called home my whole life.

Reality caught up with us. Even though the men left with little and no one was hurt, it shattered how safe I had felt in that farm my whole life. It was the first time I thought “I need to leave Venezuela.”

But I didn’t.

Four months later I’m woken by a noise in the middle of the night. It was my grandmother and one of my uncles banging on the door, the same gang that tied Daniel up a few months before, broke into my grandmother’s house and took everything they could lay their hands on. But the worst part wasn’t the robbery. They kept asking “Where does the kid live?” They kept looking for the boss. They kept looking for me.

The same gang that tied Daniel up a few months before, broke into my grandmother’s house. They kept asking “Where does the kid live?” They kept looking for me.

It’s safe to say that I didn’t get any sleep that night. We were burglarized again and a routine developed, the phone call in the middle of the night, the terror of not knowing if the gang was still lurking in the dark, waiting to break into my home, the anguish of not being able to talk to my loved ones and knowing if they were well or if they’d been kidnapped. Knowing that they were looking for me and getting the wrong face, knowing that their options were running out and mine was the only face left. 

The first question was then answered: Yes. Yes, I am willing to leave everything behind in exchange for my life and the lives of the people I love.

Life goes on and you still need to go to work the following day. I’m not an enchufado, I don’t have a 7-figure account abroad, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to move my grandmother, my mother, my uncle, my sister (and myself) to another country, but I´d find a way. We moved to an acquaintance’s house (we had to leave the farm) and I’d work on the land knowing that it was just a matter of time before the weeds ate it up. My energy went into wisely managing the little money we had.

The bags were ready a few days before. The flight left at 9:00 p.m., so I talked to my cousin, he’d be keeping my car, to take us to Maiquetía at noon. We found the usual line in the Air Europa counter and the classic military mamagüevo that makes you open every bag. The hours before boarding and watching how the lights shining on everything you’ve ever known grow dimmer. When you get off that plane, everything will be different.

I currently write this on a train from the small town my grandfather left many years ago to Barcelona, Spain, where I might find the opportunity to start over. Even though we have relatives in Elche, my grandmother has had it really tough since we moved. I can see how sad she is. She won’t set foot in Venezuela ever again and she knows it. My sister and my uncle have adjusted pretty well, my sister has her youth going for her and my uncle has an ease about him that works to his favor.

We are worried, nevertheless. The business my grandfather started three generations ago, that castle he built on a nation of dreams and possibility, is now eaten by moss and abandonment. The life we knew is no more. Every Venezuelan émigré you talk to will give you their personal tragedy, the narrative of how they left in body but remain in heart. This is mine, but I understand if it gets muddled along with the millions of stories with different words, but the same tune.

The truth is I have no idea what I’m doing, but for the first time in ages I feel like I’m not in danger, like my safety is certain, that I can walk freely again without looking over my shoulder to see who’s following me.

And that, to me, is worth more than anything.

The post 2016: Fleeing Venezuela appeared first on Caracas Chronicles.

Categorías: Noticias

Hyperinflation

Vie, 12/08/2017 - 12:55

The cumulative inflation rate until November was 1,369%, as reported by the National Assembly’s Finance Committee. We’ve reached the four-digit rate for the first time in our history, this announcement marks the official onset of hyperinflation, without the information that the Central Bank has refused to release. Lawmaker Ángel Alvarado said that the inflation rate for November was 56.7%, adding that his estimates are quite conservative, and predicting that the year could close with 2,000 to 2,100%, the highest figure in the country ever, and also the highest worldwide. The drop in oil output, price acceleration and the rise of the monetary base to finance public spending, explain how we got here and the most alarming consequences include over 75% scarcity, millions of Venezuelans eating only once a day, a general malnutrition rate of 70% and 300,000 children that could starve to death. The crisis will only intensify with this regime.

Approved budget

The ruinous National Constituent Assembly (ANC) didn’t have enough with approving the 2018 Budget in an hour, violating the National Constitution and the protocol of Parliament, which used to review the budget for weeks before approving it. Yesterday, through a decree published in Official Gazette dated December 5, the ANC approved the National Budget, the Special Law on Indebtedness and the Yearly Operational Plan 2018.

They forgot to mention the amounts, but they claim that their approval was necessary to guarantee: the country’s economic and social development, governability, wellbeing and the access to essential rights; such as life, health and food, which have been blatantly violated by this administration.

All of this makes Nicolás’ campaign from Hotel Humboldt all the more inspiring, as he tweeted videos and images of his contemplative feast, so divorced from reality, that he spoke of tourism as a way to restore the economy, even though the International SOS and Control Risks listed Venezuela as one of the most dangerous countries to visit.

Photo: International SOS An exercise of hate

While Rafael Ramírez, no longer Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN, explained in an interview with BBC World that he lacks the resources to live in the U.S. (don’t worry, a crowdfunding campaign was launched for his sake), Oil minister and PDVSA chairman Manuel Quevedo incited harassment in PDVSA against opposition employees: “We can’t allow any more escuálidos in PDVSA!” he frantically said, associating honesty with chavismo even though every individual incriminated in corruption cases comes from their ranks; even though PDVSA was bankrupted by chavismo, among other things, for prioritizing loyalty over knowledge, as well as imposing a perverse power structure, far more focused on stealing than on producing.

Human rights

The death toll for yesterday includes: a 13-year-old boy who died of malnutrition weighing only 11 kilos (Portuguesa), four people who were riding on a truck because there’s no public transportation means (Bolívar) and five miners in El Callao, according to lawmaker Américo De Grazia.

Lawmaker Delsa Solórzano also presented the Interior Policy Committee’s yearly report, accounting for 4,000 cases of human rights violations, another sad record which includes 92 homicides per 100,000 citizens, the shutdown of 51% of surgery rooms in public hospitals and over 98% of medicine shortages.

Add this to the complaints about the situation of political prisoners and see how the map keeps getting darker. Yesterday, the preliminary hearing of general Raúl Baduel was postponed for the 9th time. He’s been held in El Helicoide’s “tomb” for four months. Lawmaker Edgar Zambrano cautioned that mayor Alfredo Ramos is in serious risk of suffering a heart attack or a stroke (CVA) due to his severe hypertension, dyslipidemia, arthritis and gastroesophageal reflux. With this in mind, it makes sense for Venezuela to top the world pessimism index, as revealed by a Global Attitudes Survey study.

Photo: Hannah Dreier Abroad

The regional government of Roraima, a Brazilian state bordering with Venezuela, declared a state of “social emergency” in an attempt to address the crisis caused by considerable amount of Venezuelan immigrants who have arrived in recent months. They estimate that 30,000 Venezuelans have crossed the border in the last two years, with no means or conditions to provide for themselves, which creates “severe difficulties for the teams responsible for providing them with logistical support.”

In fact, the report on poverty and human rights released by the IACHR also emphasizes the concern for the Venezuelan migration to other Latin American nations and explains the gravity of the poverty levels of many immigrants, who have been forced in some cases to enter other countries illegally as a survival strategy to preserve their life and integrity in better conditions.

Also, representatives of the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress agreed on their deep concerns about “the seriously deteriorating situation regarding democracy, human rights and economic and social instability in Venezuela,” says the joint statement, in which both blocs consider the ANC illegitimate and denounce the illegal persecution and repression carried out by the government, which they called to respect the Constitution.

About elections

Even the head of Ceela – a CNE-bound organization that acts as an international observer –, Nicanor Moscoso, regretted that new gubernatorial elections will be held in Zulia on Sunday, December 10, because in his view, there “was already a winner,” Juan Pablo Guanipa, removed by the Zulia’s Legislative Council after refusing to take his oath of office before the ANC. All end-of-campaign speeches were shameful. After 19 years in power, speaking as if they were just starting reveals not only cynicism, but huge indifference.

The CNE hasn’t addressed the fraud in Bolívar state. Relevant detail: the CNE won’t take candidacy replacements. All the dropped candidacies and alliances that took place this week will have to be widely disseminated on social media, because the CNE won’t do it.

Yesterday, Australia became the 26th nation to legalize same-sex marriage. I found the speeches in the aftermath of the announcement of this decision frankly moving.

The post Hyperinflation appeared first on Caracas Chronicles.

Categorías: Noticias

2015: He didn’t get the support

Jue, 12/07/2017 - 17:10
Photo: El Salvador

By January 20, 2015, the Venezuelan oil barrel had plummeted to $39. Nicolás postponed his accountability speech before the National Assembly, seeking financing and trying to persuade “the world” to trade a more expensive barrel, as he had to accept that the $100 oil barrel wouldn’t return. That’s how the oil boom ended, leaving the country’s oil output below that of 1999, with diminished international reserves, a sizeable foreign debt and the highest inflation in the world, as well as the intense shortage of food and medicines. Long lines are the best summary for this year; and they didn’t disappear with the use of captahuellas or purchase discrimination according to the ID card number. In spite of this, the FAO acknowledged Venezuela’s progress concerning food. Desde allá, a film directed by Lorenzo Vigas, won the Golden Lion for best film in the Venice Film Festival. Likewise, the national basketball team won the FIBA Americas for the first time in our history and the U-20 female soccer team got second place in the South American Championship, qualifying for a World Cup for the first time ever. The famous artist and cartoonist Pedro León Zapata passed away.

Photo: sancheztaffurarquitecto.wordpress.com Murdered students

In just one week, two ULA students were murdered; José Frías and Julio García, who were found tortured and with gunshots to the head. Later, UNET student John Ramírez was found and the authorities said that someone shot him in the head to steal his cellphone. Yamir Tovar and Luis Arianyi, members of the student movement Resistencia, were found lying on the ground in Los Flores, Catia, with gunshots to their faces and bodies. After this horrifying sequence, there was a commotion in San Cristóbal when a PNB officer shot 14-year old student Kluiverth Roa in the back of the neck. Nicolás said in a cadena that Roa was a member of “a right-wing sect,” that the police officer had been taunted and that the gun “went off.” That same day, the army killed a young wayúu native who was returning home from school. Meanwhile, criminal gangs used fragmentary grenades in common crimes and journalistic investigations revealed that 8 of every 10 bullets used by criminals came from Cavim, the Armed Forces’ ammunition factory.

Human rights

After 15 years, Venezuela sent a delegation to Geneva for the assessment of the country’s performance on human rights carried out by the UN. The key message of Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Díaz was that human rights were guaranteed because the Constitution said so. Resolution Nº 008610 was published in the Official Gazette, where the Defense Ministry authorized the Armed Forces’ intervention in protests with the use of “potentially lethal force.” With military actions in the Cota 905 to crack down on armed gangs, the government created the Operation for People’s Liberation (OLP): the accomplishments of those raids could be summed up in the number of deaths, arrests and deportations. President Barack Obama sanctioned government officials and declared that Venezuela had become an “unusual and extraordinary threat” for the U.S. Nicolás rewarded sanctioned officials and wasted enormous resources to collect signatures in condemnation of the measure.

Photo: Havana Times

In August, the Colombian-Venezuelan border was shut down and a state of emergency was declared in five municipalities of Táchira state. According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, there were an average of 16 protests per day in 2015, 82% of them demanding economic and social rights.

A trumped-up trial

The case of Leopoldo López was discussed around the world. Nicolás discredited every person who worked on his defense. He took to calling López “the monster of Ramo Verde,” the military prison were he was kept isolated while his trial was postponed over and over. In a trial rigged with irregularities, he was finally sentenced to 14 years in prison. Months later, prosecutor Franklin Nieves, one of the people in charge of the investigation against López, fled the country and confessed that the accusation had been fabricated, the evidence was forged (in coordination with Nelson Mejías) and that Luisa Ortega Díaz gave the orders to act against López, even though she was aware of the flimsy evidence. Franklin Nieves was the regretful executioner. In a truthful justice system, this would’ve been enough to open and investigation, nullify the sentence, the trial and release Leopoldo López; but not in Venezuela.

Drug trafficking at port

Nicolás announced that they had frustrated a coup d’état (there had been 16 such attempts in two years) and that the plan included the use of a Tucano aircraft loaded with missiles to bomb Miraflores. Two days after this, a SEBIN commission arrested Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma and took him to Ramo Verde. Captain Leamsy Salazar turned himself into the DEA to provide information on drug trafficking in Venezuela. Diosdado Cabello denounced three media outlets for publishing the story of the Cartel de los Soles, previously published by Spanish news agency ABC, and then picked up by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times as well. Nicolás, the TSJ and the Prosecutor’s Office supported Cabello. In October, the TSJ Plenary Chamber approved the early retirement of 13 justices, whose tenures were to end in December 2016. On November 11, Efraín Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas, nephews of the presidential couple, were arrested in Port-au-Prince (Haiti) by the DEA, for trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.

Photo: The Wall Street Journal Parliamentary elections

The opposition agreed on candidacies by consensus in most of the electoral circuits and dealt with the remaining 33 circonscriptions through primaries. With public resources, violating the Anti-Corruption Law, the LOPRE and the electoral regulations, Nicolás campaigned for PSUV with the wrong pitch: he threatened everyone, urging his candidates to win, using the phrase “whatever it takes.”

The threats translated to several attacks on opposition campaigns, six with firearms and sadly, the murder of Luis Manuel Díaz, AD general secretary in Altagracia de Orituco.

On December 6, with a 74.1% turnout, MUD won the majority in Parliament with 112 lawmakers representing 65.27% of votes. In comparison, PSUV got 55 seats with 32.93% of votes. Nicolás said the famous phrase: “I asked for your support and you didn’t give it to me,” threatening to suspend social programs because of this defeat. After the various challenges and lawsuits filed by PSUV against Amazonas’ elections, the Electoral Chamber suspended the induction of the lawmakers elected in that state on December 30. The move was deemed “the judicial coup.”

And in the National Assembly

Violating the Constitution, the National Assembly appointed new authorities via simple majority, asking the TSJ to support their decision. They ratified Luisa Ortega Díaz, Manuel Galindo was appointed General Comptroller (although he was still Attorney General); former PSUV governor Tarek William Saab was named Ombudsman, and in the CNE, all of the rectoras were ratified, while Vicente Díaz was replaced by Luis Emilio Rondón. Lawmakers approved an Anti-Imperialist Enabling Law so that Nicolás could legislate by decree between March 15 to December 31. Although the period for sessions ended on December 15, the TSJ allowed the AN to hold extraordinary sessions (between December 15 and January 4), approving and modifying laws, additional credits and appointing new public officials, including 13 TSJ justices and Public Defender Susana Barreiros, the judge who sentenced Leopoldo López.

Embezzled

The government created the Marginal Currency System (Simadi), which would allegedly regulate free market demand. A demand that surpassed the State’s capacities, showing that the black market price wasn’t a mere fabrication. The system wasn’t recognized as a depreciation and the Cencoex rate (Bs. 6.30 per dollar) remained in place, for imports of food and medicines and corruption; restricting traveller allowances. Banca Privada D’Andorra, in the Principality of Andorra, was intervened for money laundering. The accusation included the laundering of $2 billion deposited by PDVSA. There was a leak from Swiss bank HSBC releasing a list of bank account owners and their respective balances. Venezuela ranked as the third country in the world with the most funds deposited (over $14 billion!), most of them made by the government between 2005 and 2009.

Indicators

Bs. 2, 5 and 10 banknotes couldn’t pay for a black and white photocopy. The minimum wage rose by 75%. The economy contracted by 5.7% and inflation rose to 180.9%, the worse performance in America and the highest inflation in the world. The international reserves dropped to $16,3 billion, less than 2003, the lowest point during Chávez’s government, due to the impact of the oil strike. The black market dollar opened the year at Bs. 182 and closed it at Bs. 910.

The post 2015: He didn’t get the support appeared first on Caracas Chronicles.

Categorías: Noticias

2015: If only Elections Mattered After Voting is over…

Jue, 12/07/2017 - 17:10

The last time I celebrated in the middle of a Caracas street was in the early morning hours of December 7, 2015. Amidst friends and strangers, the night brought an end to a colossal effort we’d started early in the year. We were enjoying the results of what we thought impossible, our first win in eight years.

When 2015 began, we knew that parliamentary elections were coming, but when and how they would happen was still a mystery. Rumor had it that the government wouldn’t hold elections because they knew they’d lose, and the CNE remained silent.

The unprecedented victory was possible thanks to a team of over 125 thousand Venezuelans that committed to a full-time effort from August to December, with tasks and responsibilities distributed according to their individual skills and talents: volunteers, mobilizers, organizers, technicians, candidates, all of them training hard for months, and working towards the same goal and with a single, clear message. In practice, we had two campaign strategists: the unofficial (and most successful) one was Nicolás Maduro, whose administration caused general malaise among citizens. The official chief was MUD’s executive secretary, who handled his obligations with a low profile and wisdom, knowing what was coming but keeping his cards close to the chest. Nominal candidates focused on getting the votes through direct contact with voters, without a protagonist for the campaign. A machine operating at full efficiency, overcoming the myriad of obstacles the CNE threw our way.

Manipulating the electoral timetable is a tradition of the Revolution. In 2003, for the Recall Referendum, the signatures were collected during the last few weeks of the oil strike and the CNE postponed the process from June 2003, to July 2004. In 2008, regional and municipal elections were held early, on November 23. In 2010, parliamentary elections took place on September 28 for a legislative period that began on January 2011 and, in 2012, presidential elections were moved forward to October 7, obviously due to their candidate’s health. Regional elections in 2016 were postponed for almost a year, while municipal elections were rushed and convened in record time for December 2017.

Nominal candidates focused on getting the votes with direct contact with voters, without a protagonist for the campaign. A machine working at full efficiency.

In 2015, we already knew that we had a broad range of scenarios and the best strategy was an early move to set the beat with a new Legislative Branch. A photograph of a united opposition was taken in El Morro of Petare on January 23, an acknowledgement that despite differences, there should be a common strategy.

By late February, the candidacies of party heads were guaranteed: Henry Ramos Allup for opposition circuit 3 in the Capital District; Julio Borges leading the list in Miranda State; the leadership of Un Nuevo Tiempo heading the roster in Zulia and the most important circuits in that state. Primaries were held in disputed circuits. And early on, we had some surprises too, when the CNE released the composition of electoral circuits, gerrymandered in favor of PSUV.

Along the way, PSUV also included new rules of the game. In July, the government party imposed that at least 40% of candidates had to be women, and the Comptroller’s Office had disqualified incumbent María Corina Machado from running halfway through the year. The TSJ would end up intervening COPEI with an ad-hoc board, while the rest of the opposition closed the month united and ready, thanks to an internal agreement to preserve the potential victory. The goal was avoiding the 2010 scenario, when the opposition won the majority of votes, but still didn’t get a proportionate number of seats. A MUD team created the campaign Venezuela Unida and the rules for the future parliamentary majority were established.

I’ve been actively participating in every electoral processes since 2004. I’ve mobilized voters, I’ve defended votes, collected witnesses’ reports and even handed out flyers – the best one was from 2008, showing a bald Francisco de Miranda; it said “Miranda sin Cabello”. And it was during the 2015 campaign that I first witnessed first-hand the unified strategy and broad diversity of the Venezuelan opposition. Although it is true that some backroom decisions were made on the spot —the so-called “Huevo frito” pact took hold (agreements between AD and PJ) to broker power once legislators took office.

I even handed out flyers – the best one was from 2008, showing a bald Francisco de Miranda; it said “Miranda sin Cabello”.

The rest is history. 7,728,025 voters gave MUD’s ballot the most unprecedented support in the history of Venezuela. A video from Altamira Village with Lilian Tintori telling her “niñitas” that we’d won went viral. I danced in the middle of the normally dangerous Caracas streets, early that Monday. Two thirds of the Chamber that would start legislating in January gave the opposition a qualified majority.

Many elected officials started thinking of their own futures, and forgot about MUD.

The opposition’s relationship to voting has been a long and complex one. Today, the fragility of our faith in the electoral system is on full display. And certainly, the game has changed. But the 2015 win wasn’t a miracle, it was grounded on certain conclusions that I believe still hold true:

The CNE, the government and the PSUV have always been the same thing. They work and will continue to work together. They perfect their techniques from process to process, and in order to win an election, we have to know how to beat all three of them at once. The only two times that this unique entity was defeated through the ballot has involved true unity. December 2, 2007, the Constitutional Reform Referendum, and December 6, 2015 were championed by an active opposition, connected with its citizenry, synchronized around a common goal.

After 6D Parliamentary elections, I’ve only seen that kind of unity twice: during the signature collection process for the Recall Referendum—I’ve long thought that the government decided to suspend it precisely because of that atmosphere within the opposition—and in the popular consultation held on 16J 2017, which left a far broader photograph than the one taken in Petare in January of 2015. But that picture was only relevant for that single day. Upon the first sign of victory, it seems as if everyone thinks their individual time has come once more, and they forget about maintaining and strengthening the cohesion until final victory is achieved.

Back in 2007, we were hobbling from long list of electoral defeats behind us and the fight was won by joining forces. The exact same thing happened in 2015. The government didn’t expect any of those defeats, but in baseball, outs can only be made when the other team knows how to play. Whatever the field, though, without a team there can be no victory.

Venezuela Unida was an experience of true unity and, in my opinion, one of the main keys to the 6D victory. A few weeks ago father Luis Ugalde, former UCAB rector, said during an interview with César Miguel Rondón that one of the greatest challenges for the opposition is that true unity will be a requirement for a transition government, and there’s currently no evidence of that in any of the opposition’s public management experiences. Not even in the National Assembly, we won, installed on January 2016. 

The problem isn’t winning the fight, but keeping the egos in check. I can only speak to how that was accomplished in the electoral arena. As for what comes after… that’s a whole other ball game. 

The post 2015: If only Elections Mattered After Voting is over… appeared first on Caracas Chronicles.

Categorías: Noticias

It’s Official: Venezuela Enters Hyperinflation

Jue, 12/07/2017 - 15:16
Original art by @modográfico

According to Venezuela’s National Assembly, consumer price inflation rose to 57% in November from 45% in October – having blown past the classic 50% threshold, the country is officially in hyperinflation.

In hyperinflation, prices rise at a high and accelerating rate, fueled by unbridled central bank money printing and the population’s unwillingness to hold the currency. Latin America hadn’t seen hyperinflation in 25 years and skeptics balked at the thought that it was even possible for an oil exporter, but alas, Venezuela defied expectations once again.

The government essentially doubled the monetary base in November, a jaw-dropping record increase. All the new money was used to finance public sector year-end bonuses, Sunday’s municipal “elections” and the ordinary fiscal deficit. As a result, 12-month inflation rose over 1,700%, another all-time-high. To put things in perspective, daily inflation surpassed annual inflation in much of Europe.

Runaway inflation and the economic crisis are fraying the fabric of Venezuelan society. Households, rich and poor, are cutting back on food because it’s too expensive, especially protein, resulting in involuntary weight loss for three quarters for the population. Roughly half of university students have dropped out to look for a job because their parents can no longer sustain them. Malaria and other eradicated diseases are back with a vengeance. Shockingly, Venezuelans crossing into Colombia by land now outnumber North African immigrants to Europe.

For more than a decade, Presidents Chávez and Maduro wiped out the domestic private sector and racked up $150bn plus in external debt.

Bleak as it is, life in Venezuela will only get worse. Like the national oil company’s production collapse and the external debt default and restructuring saga, hyperinflation is just taking off. Without a complete overhaul, misery in Venezuela will deepen as Zimbabwe-style price increases become the norm and inflation accelerates to ten or twenty thousand percent per annum. Hunger will grow as prices outpace salaries and Venezuela’s $5 monthly minimum wage falls closer and closer to zero. 2018 will be the fifth consecutive year of economic recession.

Hyperinflation will cripple Venezuela’s dysfunctional economy. As production nosedives and tax revenue falls, for instance, the fiscal deficit will rise, increasing the speed at which the central bank prints money to cover it. This is gasoline to hyperinflation, which will make the economy and tax revenue fall even more in a toxic feedback loop. The government may hike the minimum wage to any level they like in response to rising prices, but it wont work. Real wages can’t rise if fewer goods and services are being produced.

The bolívar is meant to do three things – store value, measure value, and be a useful exchange token – but it’s failing on all counts, making it more likely that citizens abandon the currency. Absurdly, ATMs only allow Bs. 10 thousand in withdrawals (10 U.S. cents) when groceries can be thirty times that, and even when shops take debit/credit cards, transactions can take minutes to go through the faulty interbank network, causing long lines. The bolivar’s purchasing power melts away in weeks thanks to galloping inflation, making nominal statistics like the government’s 36 trillion bolivar 2018 budget meaningless. As the currency’s problems worsen, the economy may eventually dollarize de facto or simply break down into barter.

Hunger will grow as prices outpace salaries and Venezuela’s $5 monthly minimum wage falls closer and closer to zero.

On this historic day, it’s important to remember that hyperinflation and Venezuela’s economic collapse were entirely self-inflicted. For more than a decade, Presidents Chávez and Maduro wiped out the domestic private sector with excessive controls and expropriations. They didn’t save a penny and racked up $150bn plus in external debt. What for? To finance consumption, not investment, even as oil prices were at an unprecedented $100 per barrel. They couldn’t stand congressional oversight or accountability so spending took off outside the budget. Behind the scenes, Chávez gutted the central bank’s independence, most seriously in a 2009 reform that allowed direct lending to state-owned enterprises.

Then, when oil prices suddenly crashed in 2014 and Venezuela’s export revenues dried up, the regime slashed imports by 80% over the four years to keep paying the debt and inadvertently threw the economy into a tailspin. GDP fell some 35% and the budget deficit bulged as if the country was at war, making the government completely reliant on the central bank printing press for deficit financing. Now domestic industry is in tatters and the country can’t make up for it with imports, so people are just dying for lack of food and medicine. Meanwhile, hyperinflation is taking off as the government floods the country in new bolívares to pay its bills.

With a likely Maduro “reelection” in 2018 and no talk of economic reforms, Venezuela’s outlook is dire. It’s deluded to think that the criminals that made Venezuela unlivable despite a trillion dollar oil bonanza might somehow stop hyperinflation, stabilize free-falling oil production or otherwise improve living standards. It’s deluded to think that they even want to. As long as Maduro is in charge, Venezuela will continue to walk the path of North Korea and Yemen until it’s global pariah and destitute wasteland.

The post It’s Official: Venezuela Enters Hyperinflation appeared first on Caracas Chronicles.

Categorías: Noticias

Daring to Break the Silence

Mié, 12/06/2017 - 16:49

Venezuela’s GDP – Gross Domestic Product – has been an official mystery since December 2015. Requests for official data are ignored or blocked by the Supreme Tribunal, and though the IMF executive board showed Venezuela a Yellow Card on Transparency, we’re not quite sure when we’ll be seeing updated data on the BCV and INE websites.

Well, guess what? Waiting for the GDP data might be a thing of the past.

The Finance Committee of the National Assembly just surprised us with an unprecedented initiative: they’ll now calculate both the “Consumer Price Index of the National Assembly” and the “Monthly Economic Activity Indicator of the National Assembly”.

El IAEMAN es un índice coincidente del ciclo económico y nos sirve de indicador del PIB y su comportamiento. Ante la política de ocultamiento del BCV, acá un indicador del colapso económico socialista a partir de 2015! pic.twitter.com/VkkCOQoVuw

— Angel Alvarado (@AngelAlvaradoR) December 5, 2017

This is not a GDP indicator per se, but a “coincident indicator” of the economic cycle, providing hints on the behavior of GDP.

The idea is to create a proxy barometer from the publicly available data: the number of active oil rigs (published by Baker-Hughes), PDVSA’s oil production volume (published by OPEC), vehicle sales (published by CAVENEZ), deposits in public institutions (according to the BCV balance sheet), the total credit portfolio (published by SUDEBAN), deposits from the public (published by SUDEBAN), collection of value added tax (IVA, published by SENIAT), and many other charts.

There’s some precedent for this approach; the Central Bank measures a Monthly Economic Activity Indicator for 75% of the activities that compose the GDP. It’s just that – surprise, surprise! – it doesn’t publish it.

Here are the main results for 2017:

Índice de Actividad Económica de la AN (IAEMAN): Venezuela acumula 15 trimestres de recesión económica. Con una contracción de 24,5% entre 2012-2017 y una caída de la actividad económica de 12,0% en los 9 primeros meses de 2017. pic.twitter.com/CnM6I8rQC7

— Angel Alvarado (@AngelAlvaradoR) December 5, 2017

Venezuela has been in recession for 15 quarters straight. Economic activity shrank by 12% in the first nine months of 2017, and has contracted 24.5% between 2012 and september 2017. In per capita terms, it’s even worse, since we keep having babies.

Indicador de Actividad Económica de la Asamblea Nacional (IAEMAN) by Caracas Chronicles on Scribd


This data series has drawbacks, starting with the fact that it has to be estimated using available data that might already be adulterated. It’s not a proper replacement for what should be; the BCV and INE should do their damn jobs and publish the statistics they compile, like the Constitution orders them to. This is just a resuelve.

But in the face of official silence, work-arounds like this become the rule and not the exception. Get ready for more.

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Categorías: Noticias

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