2008: The year in review

Juan Cristobal and Quico say: The year is coming to a close and while some of you will gather around the hallaca table or go to your school’s gaitazo, here at Caracas Chronicles we will indulge in our own little one-year old tradition: the year-in-review post.

Summing up this year is particularly difficult: 2008 was a year in transition. Our economy went from boom to the verge of bust, though we’re not quite there yet. The opposition made gains and built on its historic victory in the Referendum of last December, but we are certainly not close to becoming a government in the wings. And people remained skeptically supportive of Chavez in general, although the feeling is approaching exhaustion.

Most of all, after the Regional elections failed to produce a clear winner, both sides are revving up for another confrontation. It’s only fitting that the image of the year is Quico’s hard-fought-for cartogram, showing the real red-blue division in a demographically relevant way. A united republic we are not.

There was no defining moment to the year. We mused about Maleta-gate, talked about the Regional Elections and their aftermath without getting too involved in the nitty-gritty, and discussed the historic election in the US and its implications for Venezuela. Raul Reyes’ laptop and Ingrid Betancourt’s rescue kept us glued to the TV, but what did it all amount to?

Not much. Instead, 2009 looms large. Chavez has just promised a Referendum to amend the Constitution, and his prospects do not look good. The price of oil is tanking, and while Venezuelans haven’t felt it yet, they will. The world’s economy is in dire shape, and recessions always bring with them social conflict at home. With crime soaring and inflation rapidly spiraling out of control, there is a lingering feeling that we are still in the calm before the storm.

But the storm promises to be massive.

For now, let’s recap…

The year began with a bang: a huge discussion on our blog on the nature of political parties in our society. JC thought (and still does!) that people who constantly criticize political parties have a lot in common with anarchists, and this lead to heated discussions with our readers. We also offered tips to politicians regarding the negotiations to reach unity – needless to say, they didn’t pay nearly as much attention to us as they should have.

JC also peered into his crystal ball and, on January 8, 2008, right after the Iowa Caucuses in the US, predicted “that Obama will win New Hampshire, the nomination and the White House. He has tapped the current of change when the U.S. was ready it.” Hey, two out of three ain’t bad! He added,

“The lesson is: don’t push change too much when people don’t want it, and push it relentlessly when people do. Tailoring your message to the mood of the electorate works.”

Has Chávez learnt this lesson?

Quico came back with his book reviewer’s hat on. Passing judgment on Fernando Coronil’s deconstruction of the venezuelan petrostate, The Magical State, he wrote:

” … (The book) is a magisterial, bone-headed, brilliant, infuriating, path breaking failure: a book that gets a stunning number of things right on its way to leaving you basically unsatisfied.”

Here’s hoping you, dear reader, are never called a magisterial failure – that has to hurt.

The year also began with our foray into Chávez’s relations with Colombia. We talked about taking Tirofijo to The Hague (cue the sentimental Im Memoriam video clip with pictures of Tirofijo, Raul Reyes and Paul Newman), gave Uribe some advice and mused about what Chávez was after in his spats with our neighbors. Little did we know things would go haywire soon, only to return to normal as if nothing had ever happened.

The debate quickly turned back to political parties and the mechanism they should pursue to achieve unity. JC came out against primaries, Quico came out against JC, and everyone had an opinion. We discussed the January 23rd unity agreement, and wondered how long we would have to put up with the hundreds of microparties in the opposition. Our frustration with the opposition became so intense, Quico went momentarily insane and stared blogging about Kanji.

We ended the month pointing out what was to become a year-long trend: Chávez campaigning on the message of violence. We pointed out an eye-opening profile of chavista banker Victor Vargas and talked about how Venezuelans view the US. Quico wrote,

“… in Chavista discourse … what’s passed off as “El Imperio” is a monstruous caricature, one so deliriously twodimensional only a bona fide zealot could recognize it. For all intents and purposes, Chavez uses “the US” as a synonym for “pure evil.” “

On February second, we gave ourselves over to our yearly morbid self-laceration spree as we stop to ponder
that Chávez has stayed in power for yet another year. Two days later, it was conmemoration-time again as we marked Chávez’s coup’s Super-Sweet Sixteen, and noted his peculiar choice of arm-banditry for the occassion.

In between, we linked to a dramatic story in Spain’s El País documenting the Venezuelan governments links with the cocaine trade and sent props to Andrés Martínez for his excellent Venezuela reportage.

Juan Cristobal owed up that there was something very strange about CNE’s refusal to publish full, final results from the 2D referendum (update: they still haven’t) and about the fact that few were really pressing them on the matter.

It was around then that we had one of those stories that seemed apocalyptic at the time but sort of petered out into nothingness: on February 7th, ExxonMobil obtained a series of injunctions freezing PDVSA’s assets in the US, UK, Netherlands, and Dutch Antilles, and we thought it really was the end of the world.

PowerPoint presentations have long been Quico’s favorite explanatory medium, which is why he had so much fun with this post showing why Chávez ends up surrounded by crooks when he imagines himself to be selecting people by loyalty, as well as with this one, which explains why Chávez’s threats to cut off oil supplies to the United States are fundamentally meaningless.

Quico then broke a longtime habit of slamming Globovisión to write a long, laudatory post about the channel’s one feature he really likes: “Ud. lo vio por Globovisión.”

Later that month, in one of those wonderfully weird episodes that Venezuelan politics produces in such abundance, chavismo booted out the infamous gocho zealot Luis Tascón from its ranks, over an overdose of independence on his part, which left Quico pretty much at a loss for words…as did Chávez’s explanation for why it was necessary to raise the price of milk.

Later, it was Quico’s turn to excorciate Tibisay Lucena, noting her amazing knack for making it difficult to believe in CNE’s impartiality, even after CNE should’ve disarmed those doubts by doing what the hardcore oppo never thought they would do: announce that Chávez had lost an election. How does she do it?

Her formula is simple: galloping opacity barely covered up with blatant lying and seasoned with undisguised contempt for those who question her.

Anybody who blogs – or who reads blogs – will tell you that post quality is typically uneven. Nobody can be ON all the time, so a few posts each year of course stand out above the crowd. Juan Cristobal’s visit to Sinamaica Lagoon yielded one post where the guy was definitely on. Worth going back to.

JC closed out the month with rants about Chávez’s increasing tendency to pick fights with his putative followers (target du jour, Lina Ron) and the commenting on the decision to bar Leopoldo López from seeking elected office for years to come.

March started with Juan Cristobal on the war-path against his own governor, Manuel Rosales, for
trying to out-Chávez Chávez in the populism stakes. But Chavez quickly turned attention, as he always does, to him. Mainly, some cock-a-doodle war he wanted to start with Colombia on live TV, as a consequence of Colombia’s bombing of Raul Reyes’ camp in Ecuador.

We blogged about the announcement, blogged about how the troop movement as not going, erm, smoothly, and when it was safe to make fun of the whole charade, blogged some more about the government’s newfound depths of improvisation. The whole incident ended with a whimper, a wink and a handshake. We were left scratching our heads.

The fallout from Laptop-gate continued. We discussed the likely consequences of including Venezuela in the list of State Sponsors of Terror, and the always gaffe-prone Interior Minister Rodriguez Chacin prodded us to talk about the real Venezuela-US relation, not the one playing in Chavez’s head. Early polls like this one began circulating, showing continued problems with regard to scarcity of basic staples. Undoubtedly, Chavismo’s recovery at the end of the year had a lot to do with scarcity becoming less of a problem as the year went on.

Blogging sagged a bit in the middle of the month, but Quico revealed why: he was in Caracas setting up his Mision Cadivi handout.

His trip marked several milestones: Quico and Juan Cristobal met in person in a Caracas Chronicles summit, Quico was inspired to write a few incredible posts, and he came around to acknowledging that Venezuela was something that looks an awful lot like a right-wing dictatorship.

In a dizzying triple-whammy, Quico wrote about the barter economy being a reality, renewing his driver’s license and the absurdity of Mision Cadivi. These were his three best posts of the year, Quico at the top of his form. The driver’s license post, in particular, is worth revisiting.

He ended the month with an inspired, thoughtful discussion of the huge chasm between the world on state TV and the Revolution as it is. He wrote,

“What would the revolution look like if we watched it “on mute,” as it were: tuning out the discourse entirely and focusing exclusively on the way money, power and influence flows through society. What would we see then? … What we’d see … is the political economy of puntofijismo. Petrostate clientelism, plain and simple.”

The Revolution on mute. Now that’s a thought…

April saw an interesting discussion between Francisco Rodriguez of Wesleyan University and chavista economist Mark Weisbrot. We had our own take on the fight, and we still wonder where Quico got that picture of Godzilla squashing Bambi. Later, we talked about how Francisco put Maisanta on an economics journal, a first we’re sure.

With no checks and balances and a crapload of cash in hand, chavismo was letting loose. The government targeted Cemex, then the Simpsons. The Cemex purchase has not been completed to this date, but at the time we remarked on how this was not socialism but plain-old petrostate crony capitalism. Quico felt vindicated when Weil agreed that chavismo reality was heading to a collision with chavismo discourse.

The US election continued to make headlines. Juan Cristobal grabbed at Mark Penn’s failure in the Clinton campaign to diss on some inside information of his own, from the days when Mark Penn played a critical role in the Recall Referendum of 2004. In putting the final piece of what Caracas Chronicles really believes happened in the Referendum, JC said,

“For the past few months, Quico, Lucía and I have been talking to some of the people involved, and after confirming the story with different sources, this is what we believed happened: a hack-job of an exit-poll conducted by the opposition itself and rubber-stamped by a prestigious polling firm resulted in a collective belief that differed from reality and led to disastrous political decisions for the opposition in the following years.”

April 11th is always a date for reflection. Quico, wearing his book reviewer’s hat once more, offered a great post summarizing Gen. Francisco Uson’s memories of those days. Uson – then Chávez’s finance minister, and who would later end up serving several years in jail on silly charges – was terrified that night that Chavez might actually kill himself, and Quico comments,

“(Usón) was seriously worried that if something happened to Chávez that night the country would careen towards civil war. He was concerned enough to consign his own handgun to one of the president’s bodyguard before going in to see him. He even raised the importance of keeping Chávez safe as he resigned and, on his way out, went as far as to have a quiet word with one of Chávez’s bodyguards to plead with him to hide that gun when he got a chance because “nothing must happen to Chávez … That glimpse of a suicidal Chávez is not one Usón would forget. At 8:30 p.m. on April 11th 2002, Hugo Chávez genuinely thought his gig was up.”

We also celebrated Quico being quoted by Newsweek, while Chavez’s channeling of Springsteen drew a few chuckles. Remember kids, jefe es jefe. Quico wore a fun, stream-of-consciousness post on the Anderson case, while Juan Cristobal tried to create a link between Barack Obama, Bill Ayers and Hugo Chavez. While we don’t know if our blog is where Sarah Palin got her inspiration from, the fury this post got in the comments section taught us that we should tread very, very lightly when discussing the US election.

In the meantime, the government raised taxes on the oil industry yet again. Little did they know the price of oil would fall to a fifth of its value by year’s end. Since Victor Vargas had become somewhat of a punching bag on our blog, we couldn’t resist to comment on his real-estate shopping spree in West Palm Beach, with Juan Cristobal showing a knack for witty titles. Quico took the time to comment on a piece by Robert Kagan that got him thinking about Chavista geostrategic thinking.

Blogging got a little slow during the month, leaving us no choice but to comment on the continued saga of Maleta-gate. This prompted Juan Cristobal to reflect on how the news were sagging, pointing out that it was the calm before the storm. Commenting on how December’s win had left the opposition in somewhat of a lull, with a false sense that Chavez was vulnerable. In remembering the Enabling Law, he wrote,

“the government is going to pound the country with a coñazo of new legislation in the months to come. With three more months to go on his Enabling Power and with all the institutions at his command, I have the vague feeling that we won’t be talking about Chávez’s weaknesses in a few months time… The opposition believes it mortally wounded the government last December. The government believes it still has a mandate to implement socialism, and it has the power and the resources to attempt it. A recipe for high drama if I ever saw one.”

Blogging picked up at the end of the month. Both Quico and JC wrote high-brow posts on rent-seeking and food security, respectively. Chavistas created their own dissidence by expelling Henry Falcon and Wilmer Azuaje from the PSUV, only to backtrack in Falcon’s case – a smart move given the current Lara Governor’s electoral strength. The month ended with the cheerful news of the fall of a major chavista PSF, Mayor of London Ken Livingstone. His conqueror? A crazy polar bear.

The first half of May was dominated by
the fallout from the Interpol report showing the Chavez administration’s extensive links to the FARC guerrilla. While we marveled at Chavez and Correa’s chutzpah in simply shrugging off the whole thing, we were surprised to learn there were more laptops involved.

The Reyes story was one of those scandals that failed to get the traction that we thought it would. While we wondered what kind of consequences it would have internally, the real consequences for Chávez seemed to be more on the outside. The Colombian government now had a potent tool with which to keep Chávez in check, and foreign coverage of the Revolution took a decided turn to the worst. Hell, even Richard Gott felt icky praising the Revolution and changed the text of his laudatory pieces on Chávez. Still, it had little consequence internally, as more and more the attention was focused on the Regional Elections.

So we turned our attention back to the realities of living in a socialist revolution in the middle of a capitalist petroboom surrounded by abject poverty. The picture to the right sort of captured the whole chaos of our society…

The surreal aspects of Venezuelan life were portrayed in one of Juan Cristobal’s best posts of the year, when he talked about those zany folks at INTI and his source Roger’s dealings with land holdings, somewhere deep in the countryside. Quico backed him up with a discussion of how a foreign journalist views a society where money was everywhere and nobody cared about costs. When discussing chavismo’s total inability to weigh costs and benefits when formulating policy, he said,

“… it’s anything but a surprise that the revolution consistently uses up Bs.5 worth of lemons to make Bs.3 worth of lemonade. Just the opposite: that’s more or less the cornerstone of its economic vision.”

Things in the opposition began heating up. Juan Cristobal made the case for looking the other way, while Quico cut oppo parties some slack for “administering powerlesness,” remarking,

“… the real reason they (oppo parties) get bashed is that we systematically take our anger at our own powerlessness out on them. We’ve turned them into punching bags in some bizarre internal psychodrama – pagapeos in a fight we’re really having with ourselves.”

The month ended with our discovery of El Chigüire Bipolar, a satirical website filling a critical, underserved niche for sheer, zany satire. That rodent is like part of the family now…

June began with Chávez inexplicably shelving another law, the Intelligence Law, which one another. Quico rightly compared it to the Patriot Act, only three times as bad, and then we marveled at Chávez’s backtracking when he “vetoed his own law.” Chavistas resorted to the old adage – blame the flunkies! The nerve… Quico kept going on about it for days on end.

In a rare treat, Quico graced the blog with a video conference discussing US-Venezuela relations in the face of the upcoming US election.

Contnuing with the line of backflips, Quico commented on Chavez’s calls for the FARC to disarm and release prisoners. Funny for him to do that when, in his words, Colombia is ruled by a lackey of the empire and a fascist – you would think the FARC was more than justified in doing what it does, in his view at least.

Juan Cristobal began the first of three posts on Primero Justicia’s platform, this one on oil and energy. Interesting discussions ensued. Chavez, in the meantime, held a bizarre meeting with the country’s wealthiest businessmen, practically begging them to invest as long as they subjected to his absolute power. Quico noted how sad it was that the only way he could even get them to talk was with cash in hand, while also noting how the petrostate creates its own elite. When looking at the actual proposals, we realized there were mostly hype and not much more. Juan Cristobal commented,

“The irony of Wednesday is that Chávez feels he has to reach out to the very oligarchs he denounces on a daily basis, and yet he does so in an ineffective way. Time will probably show he got nothing in return yesterday…Say what you will, but Fidel Castro would have never begged businessmen to invest. And if he was ever forced to, he certainly would have come up with a better plan than this. In proposing these half-baked measures, Chávez didn’t sell his socialist soul. He gave it away for free.”

Juan Cristobal continued with a second on Primero Justicia’s platform. This time, he talked about the justice system. In the meantime, he found the time to predict oil prices would fall (ajem!) and turn the blogging world upside down by revealing Katy was actually a dude using his wife’s name as a nom-de-blog. Readers were outraged, JC was mortified, but most kept reading.

In the meantime, we found the time to trash an old favorite, made fun of some of Chavez’s candidates (as things turned out, this guy actually won) and ridiculed a tired punching bag of ours and were surprised when another punching bag started making sense.

In a well-received article, Juan Cristobal (now using his real name) wrote about how Norway manages its petro-wealth. He congratulated local maracucho politicians stepping aside for the sake of unity, which gave us permission to hope that unity would be achieved. It wasn’t, but great progress was made and there were encouraging signs on this front. The month ended with PDVSA announcing a policy of ending scarcity by fueling inflation.

The month started with the rescue of FARC’s star hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, whom VTV insisted on describing as “retained.” Juan Cristobal immediately decided a star had been born, and Quico immediately decided this was bad for Chávez’s continental strategy. JC soon noted the way Ingrid’s saga overshadowed the thousands of individual tragedies Venezuelans encounter every day.

The following week, groovy English journo (and now, Quico stable-mate at the Huffington Post) Johann Hari wrote a treacly pro-Chávez screed in The Independent and Quico laid in to him with the kind of measured scorn he usually reserves for Hermann Escarrá. For the longest time, he just wouldn’t let it go.

The following week, Chávez treated us to one of his trademark, whiplash inducing U-Turns as he suddenly “rediscovered” his friendship with Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, and Quico had a great old time digging up all the old crap Chávez had been saying about him over the previous few months. I mean, it was really really easy.

Quico then wrote-up a detailed post on Venezuelan prison conditions, highlighting perhaps the single most outrageous use of the US Imperialism card in the Chávez arsenal. He then wrote up the results of the first Caracas Chronicles’ readers’ Survey, which were sort of interesting, and then took some well-deserved, if cheap shots, at Elías Jaua’s idiotic fight-inflation-by-haggling statement. He then had a minor conniption over chavismo’s ongoing support for CAAEZ and highlighted William Ojeda’s decision to stand aside in favor of Carlos Ocariz in the race for Petare mayor.

Juan Cristobal, in a serious bout of inspiration, acquainted us with Manuel Felipe de Tovar, Venezuela’s first elected president, writing beautifully about the depth and length of anti-militarism in Venezuelan culture. Still a good read.

He went on to make an important, and underappreciated point: even amid the (then) ongoing oil boom, poverty numbers had started creeping up in Venezuela as early as the second half of 2007.

We then wrote up the opposition’s primary in Aragua State: a worthy idea that didn’t prevent us losing there in the end to chavismo’s Rafael Isea.

Then we highlighted this still jaw-dropping clip of Hugo Chávez laying into a VTV cameraman for refusing to point a camera at him for free. Amazing! Almost as amazing as the newfound love-affair between the opposition’s original odd couple: Maria Corina Machado and Ismael García!

It’s at around this time that Quico decided – controversially – to switch comments’ software…a move he’s still not quite convinced was right. (On the upside, comments from here on out are available on mosts posts.)

He then highlighted the first of a series of genius Edo cartoons on the relationship between the government and its leftwing allies:

We then presented the quite interesting results of a second, more in-depth readers’ survey, before Quico presented a series of posts to provide a baseline for expectations for November’s elections here, here, here and here.

Just as Juan Cristobal had predicted, Chávez kicked off August in recidivist style, once again waiting until the very last day of his Enabling Powers to decree a whole raft of decree-laws, 26 in all this time, much as he had done in 2001 ahead to start of the political crisis that rocked the country for the following three years. Amazingly, even though they’d had a full year and a half to legislate by decree, chavismo still blew the deadline: publishing only the titles of the new decree-laws by August 1st and their full texts only a few days later, in a backdated Gaceta. It’s the kind of thing that sends Quico around the bend.

Once he had a chance to look at the texts more closely, though, he came to the conclusion that the gacetazo was 90% paja (weightless bullshit), and, though autocratic in its own way, not substantially more autocratic than what we’ve seen so far. Miguel Henrique Otero thought otherwise.

August was also the month when we started thinking more systematically about the upcoming November 23rd State and Municipal Elections. Juan provided 10 good reasons to care about 23N, and Lucía came out from a long period of hibernation to express relief at the end of the stale abstention/participation debate, and thought 23N could be the start of something good.

We agreed with nickname burglar Kico Bautista that the opposition needed to find a way to crucify oppo politicos who broke the unity pact

In odds and ends, the government enacted its insane new anti-kidnapping law, Juan dumped on Desirée Santos Amaral and Quico was revealed as the main cash conduit from the Chávez regime to Piedad Córdoba…fun!

Juan moved on to decry the pointlessness of the Cemex takeover, and the markets noticed.

The National Assembly started discussing a bill that would regulate all electronic communications, including things like SMS text messaging, sending Quico absolutely around the bend. What ever came of that?! The story later sunk out of view like Giordani’s submarine. It did, however, get us thinking that the government’s emerging strategy ahead of November would rely on heavy-duty, broad-based provocation. We weren’t wrong about that, but satisfyingly, the opposition never really took the bait.

At the end of the month, both Quico and Juan Cristobal had to travel, and they had this brilliant idea to keep the blog moving by posting a series of “Web-site Reviews” of the main Venezuelan political parties. Ermmmm, not our most successful move of the year: the reviews turned out to be really boring and repetitive, and we got some of our readers’ machines infected with some weird chavista virus by unwittingly pointing them to PSUV’s malware infected homepage. An all-round blogging fiasco.

Returning from our trips in September, we immediately latched on to Chávez’s more-insane-than-average scheme to build a 6,200 km. railroad from Caracas to Buenos Aires…but bypassing Brazil. Smart!

Quico rued the loss of Contrapeso, Canal i’s flagship opinion show, apparently at the hands of government intimidation, and found method-to-the-madness of Chávez’s bizarre, sudden love affair with Interpol (following Jabón’s arrest.)

The following week, Chávez apparently went off his meds for good, expelling US ambassador Patrick Duddy in an extended deluge of insults that only Chigüire Bipolar could figure out how to satirize properly. The reasons for Chávez’s anger weren’t long in becoming apparent. According to a dynamite piece in The Washington Post,

The Treasury Department said Venezuela’s military intelligence director, Hugo Carvajal, protected FARC drug shipments from seizure by honest Venezuelan authorities, provided weaponry and helped the rebels maintain their stronghold along Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela.

It was around that time that the Maletagate Trial got going in earnest in Miami, and while we didn’t follow it as closely as Miguel, we certainly did a bit of writing about it.

The best of it, and a definite candidate for Post of the Year, was Quico’s dissection of a long, FBI-recorded transcript of a 4 hour lunch in Fort Lauderdale involving Guido Alejandro Antonini and one of the government’s emissaries in the case, the since-copped-a-plea-and-turned-state’s-witness Moses Maiónica. The post is too juicy to summarize properly, but here’s a money quote from the lunch:

Maiónica: Pero [funcionar en efectivo] es la unica … estructura que ellos conocen y, y…ahora que hay miles, si, que tu y yo le pudierarnos dar una clase y enseñarles como, de pinga. Pero es que, no llego a ese nivel de confianza y ademas que, ¿qué hizo el Presidente? Le dijo a Rangel [Silva], “Tú te encargas de este pe’o y tú le pagas”. Entonces Rangel tiene una partida secreta, su partida secreta es en dólares en efectivo y va a pagar. Eso es lo que va a hacer. Maiónica: But [dealing in cash] is the only structure they know and, and… sure there are thousands [of things] that you and I could give them a class on, teach them how [to go about doing things]. Thing is, I’m not on that level of trust with them…plus, what did the president do? He told Rangel [Silva] “You take charge of this mess and you pay him.” And Rangel has a secret fund, and his secret fund is in dollars in cash and he’s going to pay. That’s what he’s going to do.

That week, Juan Cristobal also took the whole Who-is-Hugo-Like parlor game way out to left field with this post noting the parallels between his career and Sarah Palin’s!

But things got serious again pretty soon, as the government forcibly ejected Human Rights Watch Americas’ director and his assistant from the country, breaking all kinds of due process rules. Quico noted how blatantly illegal the move was, and was surprised only that the chavista nomenklatura still felt the need to justify its moves in juridical terms.

That whole episode was pretty tyrant-like, so maybe that’s what inspired Quico to post Plato’s take on the tyrant’s fear of meeting a violent death, and later to comment on its relevance to the Chávez era using no less an authority than Moises Maiónica to back Plato up! One thing seemed blatantly obvious to him: if Chávez does get knocked off, the perp will be someone you’ve never heard of.

Later that month, Juan Cristobal went all sociological with a post on the Grand Venezuelan Wedding, and how weird it is that they still happen in the middle of what’s supposed to be a revolution. He then ended the month with a fun little snarky post, a kind of twofer aimed at both Patricia Poleo and Carlos Fernández of (whaddever-happened-to-him fame.) The horror!

Quico began the month with a timely visit with the Ghost of Petrostates Past, Arturo Uslar Pietri’s Cassandraish plead to sow the oil. His main point was that Uslar’s point was badly misunderstood: he was talking about morals, not economics. He wrote,

“For Uslar Pietri, the real issue wasn’t what oil dependence would do to our wallets; it was what it would do to our souls. Diversifying our economy was a means to the end of inoculating our society’s moral fiber against the fecklessness and depravity that comes from unhinging consumption from hard work.”

The financial crisis in the world was heating up and it took us a few days to get on the ball. While we were cooking up posts, we covered what other people were saying – Simon Romero from the NYT talking about the Yanomami, or El Nacional talking about an important source of Venezuela news – us!

We then got into some serious economic-meltdown blogging. JC compared Chavez’s glee at the collapse of capitalism with the movie The War of the Roses, and still wonders if the analogy was simply too far-fetched. Quico blasted the government’s lack of readiness for what it had always preached and hoped would happened – the crash of capitalism. As the world’s economies continue to face enormous problems, we still don’t know what the government is going to do about it, other than hold yet another referendum. At least we’re not alone – our Minister of Planning doesn’t have a clue either.

The Regional Elections were fast approaching, and we noticed the smart way that Carlos ocariz was framing the government’s obscene giveaways to convince voters: Mision Agarre. Stop the presses, here’s your headlines: Oppo politician comes up with a clever idea, delivers his message, wins tough election. We never thought we’d see the day. We also talked about how pointless it was to squash healthy competition between oppo politicians in safe municipalities like Chacao.

We then took the time to show some love for Venezuela’s political cartoonists. Like guitarists, ball players and young orchestra conductors with funky hair, our country has an unheralded comparative advantage in producing sharp, beautiful political satire. Our good friend Edo got the most love from us, but really, they’re all great. We worship these people.

It’s hard to remember, but back in October we were concerned that oil was falling below $68 a barrel! Oh, the good’ol days.

Quico then produced a sober, detailed post inspired by the German movie The Lives of Others. Well worth re-reading.

He noted the differences between a real police state like East Germany, with its discipline and rigor in squashing people’s souls, and the televised, amateurish, petro-version charade that we have, where private phone conversations are aired on TV with no real consequences and no real strategic objective in sight. He noted,

“For all its rank disregard for the rule of law, chavismo doesn’t have the wherewithall to criminalize intimacy in Venezuela. In revealing innocuous private conversations with no strategic objective in sight, all it does is reinforce the sense that the revolution abhors anything that even resembles rigor and discipline… The Bolivarian Republic of East Germany we are not.”

The price of oil continued its freefall, so we speculated on when devaluation would occur, without knowing that Chavez would hurl yet another election at us and completely change the rules of engagement. Quico correctly thought the whole discussion was bunk. We also highlighted Chavez’s prediction that the economic meltdown would not affect us because he had taken all necessary steps to protect us. We have a hunch we’ll be revisiting these quotes sometime soon.

We talked about technology late in the month, highlighting China’s launching of a satellite (funding provided by Yuleysis in Petare) and the Revolution blaming engineers for the country’s frequent blackouts. Quico, in the meantime, continued his school-girl crush on all things Beeb.

The month started with something we hadn’t seen in a while: foreign oil companies applauding a decision by the government. A sign of the changing times, perhaps? We still don’t get it. We also celebrated the conviction of Franklin Duran, though we will miss the entertaining details of Maletagate.

When Barack Obama was elected, we felt the need to write him a policy memo on Venezuela. We tried in vain – vain being the operative term here – to circulate it amongst those of our readers who know people who know people who know people in power. All those “who know”s resulted in who knows – with Hillary Clinton appointed to the State Department, we have no clear idea of what Obama’s Venezuela policy will look like. But judging by this brilliant November documentary from PBS’s Frontline, it would seem like Chavez’s international star twinkles less and less these days.

With the US election chapter closed, it was time to focus on Venezuela’s looming Regional Elections. We dissected election forecasts: Datanalisis had the opposition plus dissidence winning nine governorships, we had them winning nine too (although different ones). They actually won five. In our case, we correctly predicted the five they won, but missed out on Guarico, Cojedes, Barinas and Sucre (so much for our knowledge of the politics of Ruritania). Datanalisis, on the other hand, had Miranda going to the chavistas and Cojedes as “solid opposition…” And they make a living out of this!

As for other pollsters, they too missed the mark. Quinto Dia had the oppo + diss group winning nine governorships. Chavista “polling” company Consultores 30.11 had us winning in a single state, Nueva Esparta. Actually, 30.11 just a propaganda outfit, they apparently only poll in Miraflores. Hinterlaces had us winning eleven states, including Vargas and Bolivar, where we didn’t come even close. An anonymous tip was way off base too.

One thing we did get right, though, is the Metropolitan Mayor’s race. We said that turnout for Ocariz would help Ledezma, and it did – Ledezma coasted to a comfortable win. Undoubtedly, the rains in the days before the election and Chavez’s ham-fisted reaction cost him a few votes. El Chigüire termed it Juan Barreto’s revolutionary scheme for a sub-aquatic Caracas.

Our election day coverage was antsy and intense, as per usual. We talked about why it mattered. Quico said,

“What’s at stake here is something different: the political content of venezolanidad. For a decade, Chávez has been trying to sell us this story where the only Real Venezuelan (sound familiar to anyone?) is a chavista, that voting for the opposition is somehow un-venezuelan, even treasonous. Today, with any luck, the good burghers of Petare, Barinas, Trujillo, etc. will start to put the lie to this brand of emotional-blackmail-cum-political-discourse.”

We ranted about the myriad of small political parties and about how complicated it was to vote, ranted some more about the arrest of a candidate for mayor of Valencia (chavistas won that post by a thin margin, so it may have worked), and worried about what would happen if we only won Sucre and Nueva Esparta.

Barinas was a state we had our eye on; Spain’s El Pais noted the psychological impact it would have for Chavez to lose his home state (he barely won it), and we laughed at the chutzpah of Chavez family saying they had problems with the voting machines.

Information on Chavez’s use of public funds to convince voters continued to trickle in. Chavismo had the gall of making the same accusation about the opposition. We wondered, we waited, we had nothin’.

Then the first results started coming, but unlike in past elections, we had a really hard time finding publishable leaks. An hour before Tibisay Lucena announced the first results, we called Carabobo, Nueva Esparta and Zulia for the opposition. This information came from redundant, independent sources, so you can be sure that when CC calls an election, we’re not shooting from the hip. The first official bulletin came out, and the results confirmed the urban/rural divide we had been discussing for over a year.

Then, it was time for Monday morning quarterbacking, on a Monday morning no less. Quico listed his thoughts. His first one: that Ledezma, Ocariz and Capriles were the new leaders of the opposition. He didn’t say which of the three he likes best (hint: his name is Carlos Ocariz). He discussed the rains, turnout, the rural problem and several other issues that this election served to highlight pretty clearly.

Juan Cristobal came out with a post-mortem of his own, also highlighting Ocariz’s significant win in Petare. He talked about the winners and losers, the dissidents, and suggested that Chavez faced long odds of passing a Constitutional Amendment. He showed remarkable foresight when he said,

“It’s clear Chavez doesn’t have the votes to try and reform the Constitution so he can run again in 2012. And with the price of oil tanking, the longer he waits, the less resources he’ll have to keep clients satisfied and fund his electoral machine… Launching the reform proposal now would be absolutely crazy, but waiting would be even worse for his chances. Expect Chavez to announce it in the coming days.”

We geeked out on data. We noted that chavismo had won the popular vote, but that their biggest wins were by candidates that have not always been the favorites of the chavista machinery. After all, Henry Falcon, governor of Lara with more than 70% of the vote, was expelled from the PSUV only six months ago! We also pointed out our side’s shortcomings along with its silver linings. We blasted the opposition’s amazing achievement in losing Valencia, and we scolded the CNE‘s hatchet job. We had little patience for any talk of fraud.

The piece de resistance of our election coverage, though, was The Map, the cartogram Quico sweated out with the help of a reader, the picture of the year that headlines this post. We’re going to put it here again, just because it’s so darn interesting. This one shows the PSUV’s share of the vote.
Once results for the Mayor’s positions came in, we talked about the significance of winning Petare, as well as how we underperformed in the other large cities we needed to win. We gave some more numbers on the rural/urban split, and were baffled by Chavez’s behaving like a loser while insisting he had won.

The month ended with Chavez’s striking announcement that he was going to go ahead with his Amendment plans. The country had gone through a long, exhausting, complicated election, and seven days later Chavez was announcing a new one in the near future.

Yet this one is different. It’s all about him, his power and his ambition, and it promises to be his toughest battle yet. In writing about how Chavez will probably turn on the money machine in order to win, fuelling inflation in the process, Quico wrote,

“The populist spending spree tactics of yesteryear just won’t work under these conditions. NiNis and moderate chavistas are not going to support a proposal that’s all about his problems, not theirs, at a time when inflation is fast clawing back all the gains they’ve made in the last five years … It’s a loser, this proposal. Remember where you read it first.”

December started with Chavismo working to heat up the street again, including through a direct attack on Marta Colomina’s house. Juan Cristobal noted with some satisfaction how the opposition, even the radical opposition, appears to be well and truly over the bad old habit of charging at each every chavista red rag.

After the Excel-a-thon of the previous week, we thought we were over this election analysis stuff for a while, but that’s just not the Chávez way. Quico soon pointed out that while PSUV-backed candidates for governor had received 52.7% of the vote on 23N, the PSUV ticket itself had gotten just 46.7% – and proposed that might be a more realistic estimate of the hard chavez vote.

Juan Cristobal wrote about the fractures at OPEC’s Cairo meeting, but then a week later they agreed a 2 million b/d cut. Oops.

He followed up with a belief beggaring (but true, folks, it really is true!) post about the extent of chavismo’s looting of the mayor’s offices and governorships they had lost. In Miranda, the governorship was handed over without even a stapler in stock. The bad faith this all shows sent him fretting about some nightmare post-amendment vote scenarios.

Next up, a bit of a breakthrough for Quico, who got invited to blog over at The Huffington Post. Hey, say what you will about that joint, they get a ton and a half of traffic. To assuage the guilt, he then translated this genius piece Laureano Márquez wrote.

Then we reproduced the scarcely believable revolutionary knock-off converse. Stunning!

Juan Cristobal congratulated Maestro Abreu for his TED Award, excortiated the mindless slogan-chanting national assembly, and provided more detail on chavismo’s vandalism of the public offices they lost to the opposition.

We rapped up the year with Juan Cristobal eating up a hearty serving of his own words after Yon Goicoechea decided to join Primero Justicia, Quico serving up his second HuffPost erm…post, and Juan noting the achievements of our musicians (again) and the opening shots of Campaign 2009…here we go again!

With this post, we sign off for the year, hoping you spend the holidays with your loved ones and that you can forget about all things Chávez for a few weeks – we know we will. We also want to thank you for reading, providing such lucid comments and putting up with uncool gestures like finding out your favorite she-blogger was actually a he.

The feedback we get from you is worth all the time and effort we put into this joint. This blog has been, and continues to be, a unique experience for both of us and a big chunk of the credit goes to you, our readers. So, a heartfelt gracias panita to each one of you. We’ll see you all in January!