A crisis Chávez can't import his way out of

Venezuela’s opposition students have unveiled a clever campaign slogan: "Electricity, water, crime: tas ponchao!" The expression, which draws on Venezuelans’ love for baseball to call three strikes for the President, is being unveiled in ball games as our season draws to a close.

By calling attention to three severe problems that are causing the government mighty headaches, it works. It’s also likely to stick, because the government can’t import its way out of these problems. No amount of spin can trump the fact that if you flick a switch and the light doesn’t turn on, you get mad. No level of ranting can cover up the deep frustration of turning on a faucet and having nothing happen.

One of the many paradoxes of the Chávez experience is how the President has furiously decried globalization for years while falling back on foreign trade again and again to get him out of a political tight spot. During the oil strike in 2002, the government brought in foreign oil workers to get the gasoline flowing again. Bringing in tens of thousands of Cuban doctors helped turn around his poll numbers in 2003.

Chavismo’s incompetence has resulted in scarcity, and time and again, the government has dealt with it by importing. Whether it’s black beans from Nicaragua or beef from Argentina, Chávez’s friends have always been there to provide a band-aid and get him out of a pickle.

It won’t work this time around.

The deep, long-lasting problems in our electric industry will not go away any time soon, and the plants needed to fix the problem are years from becoming reality.

Diplomatic agreements are nice, but they won’t magically make water flow from the taps. Importing Cuban goons can reassure the President with much needed security, but there’s no way they can make Venezuela’s deep problems in public safety go away.

Wave it as he will, the petrodollar magic wand won’t rescue him this time. Some problems are like that.

The brilliance of ‘tas ponchao is that it zooms in on these three things. It assigns direct, personal responsibility to the President for the three issues, something that has so far proven to be a challenge.

It also lumps the three together, which works to our advantage. Polling shows that people are more likely to blame the government for electricity shortages than for the crime wave, which many tend to link to poverty or to social factors outside the realm of public policy. Joining the two at Chávez’s hip gives traction to the idea that the lack of security is also something the government has failed at.

The slogan also works because of the tremendous symbolic weight attached to beisbol. Striking out is something everyone understands. Its fair, simple message: "you had your turn, you struck out, time for someone else."  Subtly, it creates the idea of Venezuela as a team, and the opposition as its loyal fan base.

It may have the added benefit of burrowing deep under Chávez’s skin. By unfolding those banners during baseball games, the slogan gets precious, hard-to-come-by air time, and with the President likely watching, it’s sure to irritate the hell out of him. Seeing the National Guard overreact is icing on the publicity cake.

But most importantly, it focuses us. These three problems are central to what people are going through right now, and they won’t go away any time soon.  Caracas hasn’t felt it much yet, but daily blackouts are the norm in the rest of the country, and people are furious. It’s likely we will be suffering through rolling blackouts during June’s World Cup, and they may even be present in September when election time comes.

If that holds, the government will be in deep doodoo. Globalization has been a frenemy to Chávez, but it won’t help this time around.

PS.- The back story on the slogan is well worth a read, a lesson on how these things come to be in an almost organic fashion.