Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Green lizard in Maracaibo, Venezuela, December 2004. Posted by Hello

Hoist with his own petard

In a normal country, this would be an example of someone shooting themselves in the foot. Article 29.1 of Venezuela's new media gag law states:
Los prestadores de servicios de radio y televisión serán sancionados con
1. Suspensión hasta por setenta y dos horas continuas, cuando los mensajes difundidos [...] promuevan, hagan apología o inciten a alteraciones del orden público [...].
2. Revocatoria de la habilitación, hasta por cinco años y revocatoria de la concesión, cuando haya reincidencia en la sanción del numeral 1 de este artículo, dentro de los cinco años siguientes de haber ocurrido la primera sanción.
In other words, any radio or TV broadcasters found to be spreading messages promoting, justifying or inciting to changes of the public order can be taken off the air for 72 hours, or for five years upon being found guilty of the same offence within five years.

This makes me wonder: what is the single word that most clearly describes a "change of the public order"? Let me tell you: it's revolution! In a normal society where the rule of law prevails and the judiciary is independent, what I would be looking for now is a state TV or radio broadcaster being taken off the air for transmitting one of President Chávez's interminable speeches in which he sings the glories of the Bolivarian revolution, asking for it to be strengthened, praised, exalted, sped up, sanctified, and so on.

Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen in Venezuela. But it does highlight the ludicrousness of the Venezuelan situation, where the government pretends that it is running a normal state in which everybody has equal access to the law, but where laws are effectively made and interpreted to benefit those in power. The article quoted above is a perfect example: it is formulated so vaguely that it can be applied to any broadcaster that falls out of favour with the government. It is what would be called a "Gummiparagraph" in German, a legal article made of rubber.

In the new year, expect the gag law to be applied at least once to scare the other stations into self-censorship. If they aren't cowed, the law can still be liberally applied as the revolution sees fit. Let us hope the media will at least get some support from the political opposition and that there is some resistance from the population.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Green bus in Caracas, November 2004. Posted by Hello

Revolutionary methodology: history repeating?

Since 1992, when Hugo Chávez unsuccessfully tried to putsch his way to power, he has come a long way; he has become more calculating and less impulsive, though he is still reputed to suffer from uncontrollable outbursts of fury. Some believe that his success in consolidating his power during the last six years can be attributed in no small measure to the mentorship of Fidel Castro, who has displayed the ability to hold on to his power no matter what. Any lessons he may have taught Hugo Chávez are sure to have stood him in good stead.

As is immediately apparent to anyone reading this blog, I am no fan of Chávez's; yet I have to tip my hat to the way he has entrenched himself in power. This has caused incalculable damage to the country's society and democratic system, but has been extraordinarily fructiferous for the president as a person and as an office-bearer. How did he do it? Here's my take on his methodology. I will point out some interesting parallels to Adolf Hitler's ascent to power.

The first step was to get a foot in office. After his 1992 putsch attempt, Chávez was jailed for conspiracy. Apparently he used the time in prison to read widely and refine his thinking. He received a presidential pardon before completing his term, which made him eligible to campaign for the presidency (without the pardon, he would have had a previous conviction that would have made him ineligible). Adolf Hitler similarly led an abortive putsch (the Beer Hall Putsch) in 1923, was imprisoned, used the time to read, think, and write Mein Kampf, and was released after less than a year in prison after receiving an amnesty. Both men glorified the military, though Chávez did not progress beyond being a colonel, and Hitler beyond being a corporal.

Once out of prison, Chávez and Hitler began slowly building up support by creating or taking control of political parties representing themselves as popular movements (Movimiento Quinta Republica in Venezuela, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei in Germany). Both men based their second attempt to gain power on elections rather than putsches. They attempted to build support in the respective populations by campaigning on platforms that identified enemies and emotional issues within the country as targets to be addressed through revolutionary methods once in power. In the case of Venezuela, the enemies and issues were the "oligarchs" and the rich, old-style politics according to the Pact of Punto Fijo (which had enabled Venezuelan democracy to function, though not flawlessly, for over 40 years), so-called "neo-liberalist" economic policies, the influence of the USA, racism, and the lacking integration of ethnic minorities. In Germany, Hitler identified democracy, Jews, capitalists and communists (!), the Weimar Republic and its politicians, the conditions of the Versailles Peace Treaty, and a supposed lack of land ("Lebensraum") as issues.

Both politicians relied on techniques satirised perfectly in George Orwell's novel Animal Farm: creating a revolutionary ideology supposedly based on equality and social advancement (Animal Farm: "Animalism", Germany: "National Socialism", Venezuela: "Bolivarian Revolution"); leadership through demagoguery and idolization of a single individual (AF: Napoleon, GE: Hitler, VE: Chávez); far-reaching political promises that remain unfulfilled (AF: equality and self-determination of animals; GE: pride and self-determination of Germans; VE: pride and self-determination of Venezuelans); the identification of internal and external enemies as a justification for the infringement of liberties (AF: Snowball and the humans, GE: Jews and any country that resisted Germany´s expansionism, VE: "oligarchs" and the USA).

In Venezuela, Chávez's campaign platform created the illusion that he would improve conditions significantly in the country (eliminate corruption and poverty, for instance); voters responded by giving him an overwhelming majority upon electing him to office in 1999. Hitler also gained ever-increasing support in the elections he contested with the NSDAP after 1930, but never managed to win more than 50% of votes in any election; however, his party became the largest and he was able to set conditions that paved his way to power.

The development of the revolutions in Germany and Venezuela diverges somewhat after this point. Whereas Hitler acted very quickly to consolidate his power (by eliminating any opposition, concentrating all state power in his person and his party, taking control of the media as well as the legislative and judiciary systems), Chávez has been taking a much longer time; nonetheless, it appears that his goal is the same, and appears to be ever closer in his reach. The opposition is currently in tatters, Chávez controls most of the state's power directly or indirectly, and is strenthening his grip on the media as well as parliament and the courts.

However, whereas Hitler actually enjoyed increasing support from German society, it appears that Chávez's is declining. This may be because Chávez is not delivering on his promises of eliminating corruption and poverty, which have been increasing rather than being reduced. Hitler, on the other hand, through a massive expansion in state involvement in the economy as well as the military-industrial complex, did reduce unemployment and achieve growth.

Hitler and Chávez both delight in all things military, but fortunately, Chávez does not have the werewithal to convert Venezuela into a military superpower as Hitler did with Germany. Still, he is spending a large part of his budget on military hardware; to which aim is anybody's guess. Venezuela has no neighbours threatening its territorial integrity. And if Chávez believes, as some have said, that the United States will be invading Venezuela, then he is off dreaming in cloud-cuckooland. More probably, the purchase serves to improve relations with a powerful potential benefactor, Russia; and machine guns are always a useful thing to have on hand when exporting revolutions or strengthening them within the own country, for instance if the people are not as keen on them as their leaders.

Finally, an important difference between the two leaders is that while Hitler is universally reviled by thinking people around the world (though he is reputed to still be liked by some Arab extremists), Chávez still divides public opinion and has some supporters. However, if his story continues to follow the pattern set by other revolutions, history is not likely to judge him favourably.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

1970s model car crossing intersection in downtown Caracas, December 2004. Posted by Hello

The sounds of Venezuela

When you go travelling, visual impressions are probably the ones that cause the greatest impact. You also tend to remember them for the longest time, not least because you can refresh them with photos if you remembered to bring your camera. I do take a lot of photos, but I like to supplement my memories of travels with souvenirs from the other senses: the taste and smell of foreign food, the feeling of warm sunshine and salt on my skin during a beach vacation. But what I really enjoy registering and trying to remember are the sounds I hear. For those who have been to Venezuela before, here are some descriptions of the sounds of the place to bring your mind back here; and for those who have not yet had the pleasure, here's a selection of what awaits you if you listen closely:

If you're staying in the central parts of Caracas and are up around sunrise, you're likely to hear parakeets screeching as they circle the city while greeting the dawn. If you prefer sleeping in, you probably won't, because the parakeets will wake you. There's a corresponding night-time sound, which is the whine of mosquitoes. It has often kept me awake at night, and I generally found no rest before having murdered each of the buggers individually. Continuing in the animal world, there's a tiny species of frog -- no larger than a thumbnail -- that comes alive as soon as the sun sets here in Maracaibo. Their sound is commensurate with their size: they sound like badly-oiled bicycle wheels squeaking their way around the track. They are rather cute, though.

Frogs love water and in the cities, water for human consumption is taken from large, transparent glass or plastic bottles which are bought in shops or delivered by the corresponding companies. They are usually fitted with a plastic siphon for drawing the water out of the bottle and into a jug or glass, and do not contain any frogs. The siphon consists of a tube that reaches into the bottle, a long, thin nozzle from which the water issues, and a concertina-shaped pump at the top which has a little pressure-equalisation hole cut in the middle. When you pump to get the water out, you hear a characteristic sound that I've not heard anywhere else that I've been: a characteristic kind of wheeze and whistle alternating with the swoosh caused by the gushes of water pouring out of the nozzle. I enjoy it every time I hear it.

A different kind of enjoyment derives from the automotive sounds, which are quite distinct from those in Europe. There seem to be two types of passenger car in use: one type consists of what I would call "normal", small to medium cars between two and five years old. The sound they produce is nothing out of the ordinary. The second class of vehicle consists of enormous cars of U.S. manufacture dating back to the 1970s, when the oil price boom apparently permitted everyone and his brother to own a luxury limousine. These cars usually have huge engines -- 3.5 litres would be considered small -- that sound a low, growling grumble. Of course, they have awful fuel consumption figures and are terrible for the environment, but hey, petrol costs two to four dollars to fill up an empty tank, and where else can you be made to feel like you're in a Starsky & Hutch movie? Traffic sounds are further characterized by liberal and remarkably rhythmical hooting, which substitutes for indicator and braking lights at many intersections.

Shopping centres have another distinctive sound, which you can hear if you survive the traffic to get there. In the first place, around Christmas time you will hardly ever hear lullabye-like songs like "Silent Night", but you will hardly ever not hear gaita. This is a style of music that originated in Maracaibo, as any Zuliano will be quick to point out, and that is, to my ears at least, as frenetic as a squirrel playing hide and seek with a packet of exploding firecrackers, and not really conducive to a contemplative state of mind. Horses for courses, I say. The other thing about shopping centres is that the noise levels are quite amazing -- the din is so loud that you can hardly converse with somebody standing next to you. This is quite different from sepulchral German shopping centres, where everyone is well-mannered and you can hear a pin drop from the other side of the mall.

Finally, another typical aspect of Christmas time is that you can never be quite sure whether a revolution has broken out again or not yet. People start launching fireworks from the beginning of December, and I'm not talking about tom-thumbs and Christmas crackers here, but rather about artillery-issue, earth-shaking munition devices that probably fell off the back of an Army truck. Venezuelans take it all in stride and with perfect equanimity. Central Europeans should be advised to start taking their medication early and plug their ears: really, friends, it is not the outbreak of the Third World War.

If you have any sounds from Venezuela (or elsewhere) to share, post your description in the comments. I am curious to hear about your favourites. Thanks and cheers!

p.s.: Of course, Venezuelan music is another type of sound to look out for -- but that deserves to be a different topic altogether.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Orchid, Venezuela, December 2004. Posted by Hello

Magical realism

Latin American authors have enriched world literature with their contributions to a genre named magical realism, which, as the name suggests, is characterised by the intermingling of realistic and magical elements.

A few days ago, I had an experience that seemed magically real to me. A friend took us to visit an old lady who lives at the top of a mountain. She's 87 years old, fluent in four languages, breeds orchids and walks up the hill and down the dale so nimbly that I, a fit 30-year-old, had trouble keeping up. With the help of two assistants, she has converted her mountain retreat into a breathtaking paradise that obviously helps to keep her young. The old lady and her eyrie had an otherworldly quality that left its mark on me.

Why do I write about her? Because it is important to keep in mind what an incredibly lovely country Venezuela is and that not all the news from here is bad. It has breathtaking variety to offer in so many fields and should enjoy stellar fame as a premier tourist destination. In the long view, I am sure that the country will fulfil its potential, and the Chávez episode will fade into insignificance like a short, bad dream.

Monday, December 13, 2004

A "Bolivarian" pharmacy, Venezuela, December 2004. Posted by Hello

The idealistic left

Here is something that provokes puzzlement in many Venezuelans, and that also troubles me: what is it with the love affair between French intellectuals and nominally socialist Latin American autocrats like Chávez? There seems to be a certain kind of blindness, a willingness to let oneself be led astray by romantically tinged images of revolutionary heroes struggling manfully against the hegemonial Übermacht of the big Satan, the USA.

I do not want to detract from the flaws of the U.S., of which there are many: in the past, its support for Latin American dictators (provided they were not socialist or communist, like Castro) such as Pinochet; its militaristic jingoism; its recent unilateralism, not only in terms of leading war, but also in environmental and social issues; during the past few years, its troubling disregard for norms of international discourse such as the Geneva Convention (Guantánamo) and the principles derived from the Peace Treaty of Westphalia (pre-emptive declarations of war); and its overall double standards and hypocrisy regarding "interventions" in other countries.

However, that is a different discussion, and one that is, of course, missing the entire proverbial other side of the story, namely all the positive contributions the country has made to the global community. Let us leave the USA out of the analysis for the moment and focus on some of the regimes that the international Left is so fond of defending: Castro's Cuba and Chávez's Venezuela.

Cuba is a de facto dictatorship. Fidel Castro has been in power for over four decades, and there appears to be no possibility of any change in leadership before Castro's death. Any dissidence is prohibited. There is no freedom of expression. The courts of law are not independent, nor is the legislative. Opposition members are jailed for long periods of time. Private enterprise is suppressed. Social advancement without membership in the party is well-nigh impossible. The secret police monitors the population with the help of informants. Citizens are prohibited from leaving the island except under extremely restrictive terms. Children are wards of the state, not of their parents. Political indoctrination is pervasive, and starts in kindergarten.

Has the lack of personal freedoms been compensated, for instance through economic advancement? No. Cuba's economic situation is catastrophic. The population is forced to scrounge for even the most basic articles of clothing and hygiene. Women (and men) have to prostitute themselves to get by. And blaming the USA and its trade embargo of Cuba is overly simplistic. The roots of the misery lie in Castro's economic policy of state planning, the suppression of entrepreneurship, and the loss of economic support from the once-powerful Soviet Union, which used the island as an outpost usefully close to its arch-enemy, the USA.

Apologists for Castro's authoritarianism would be likely to mention the Cuban health system at this point. This is akin to mentioning Hitler's Autobahns to place him in a more favourable economic perspective. Providing free medical care of questionable quality to a population with no other recourse cannot justify oppressing people. Cubans are voting with their feet against this deal, by trying to leave the island by any means possible and at great risk to their lives.

These are obviously not the actions of happy citizens. Free medical care is clearly not enough. Castro has caused untold suffering and pain to two generations. He has brought equality at the lowest possible level to "his" citizens. So why do otherwise bright individuals such as left-leaning intellectuals persist in defending Castro? Is this the same mindset that made prominent intellectuals defend Stalin's Russia in the 1930s and Pol Pot's Cambodia in the 1970s?

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez is obviously not yet in the same league as Castro; but that is exactly what he is aiming for. His actions and his words match: the model he is working towards is Cuban. One of his campaign slogans during the first elections, posted on billboards around Caracas, was "Navegando hacia la mar de la felicidad Cubana" (sailing towards the sea of Cuban happiness). He meets often with the Cuban leader, who seems to have adopted him as his protegé. Chávez won his election on the promises of more equality, less corruption, and more democracy in Venezuela. What has become of these promises?

Corruption is worse than ever, so much so that Chávez himself mentioned the need to fight it after supposedly winning the referendum in August. What will become of this objective? I predict it will fizzle like a wet fuse. More democracy? It certainly doesn't seem that way. Anybody who followed the runup to the referendum could see how democracy was being manipulated to ensure the Colonel's re-election. The referendum was as crooked as the recent elections in Ukraine, and for many of the same reasons. A "participative democracy" -- a favourite term of Chávez's -- seems to be a democracy in which only those participate who support him. It's a bit like Henry Ford's choices for the Model T: you can have it in any colour you like, as long as it's black. What choice? This pattern is also repeated in Chávez's attitude towards coups d'état: his own putsch in 1992 was good (he celebrates it every year), and all others are bad (he leaves out no opportunity to indiscriminately brand all those opposing him "golpistas").

Economically, Venezuela has had the good fortune during the past few years of an increase in world oil prices. The high prices have meant a cash bonanza for the country, with a total income of about 200 billion dollars -- a staggering amount of money. It is absolutely astounding to see the effect of this windfall on the Venezuelan economy: it is zero, zilch, nothing. Economic activity is lower than it has been in 15 years. A large chunk of the middle class is now poor, and the poor classes are worse off than ever before. The economy has actually shrunk during several years of Chávez's government. The existing infrastructure is decaying, and there are few signs of any new projects. Consumer demand is low. There is little economic investment (except for the oil industry, where the investing is being done by foreign firms), and still the state is increasing its levels of debt.

A part of the money is being used to fund social projects such as low-price markets and pharmacies as well as basic medical and educational measures. However, these measures are stopgap: they only address short-term symptoms, and not very well either (their success is not being measured, so there is no way of knowing whether the resources could have been put to better use). There is no investment in building a productive base for Venezuela that can substitute oil income once prices fall. What the Bolivarian government is creating is a populace dependent on state largesse -- and with it, the conditions for pain and suffering when the largesse is reduced, as it will have to be. What is happening here is not redistribution, but the use of state resources to increase the state's control of the population.

Other parts of the government budget go into buying 50 figher jets from Russia, into buying a license for manufacturing Kalashnikov assault rifles in Venezuela, into financing an average presidential spending rate of $60,000 a day (in a country were the yearly minimum wage is about $3,000), into paying for lobbying groups in the USA and propaganda in international media, and into supporting leftist movements in Latin America (oil for Castro, dollars for Morales, support for the FARC). And a large part of the money simply disappears into private hands. For instance, between 2 and 4 billion dollars went missing from the state's fund for macroeconomic stabilisation, and nobody knows where they are.

This is not the kind of state that deserves support from intellectuals. A different world is possible, but it should certainly be as different as possible from Castro's and Chávez's egomanical conceptions.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Shopping centre in a middle-class Caracas neighbourhood, 2004. Posted by Hello


It's official: the Venezuelan president has, as was expected, signed the gag law (official title: "Ley de Responsabilidad Social en Radio y Televisión") into effect. What's it all about? Under the guise of caring for more "socially responsible" TV and radio programming, the government formulated and passed a law defining in great detail which sorts of transmission are to be allowed and which will not be tolerated.

For instance, with few exceptions, all programmes must be transmitted in the Spanish language; advertising for alcohol, tobacco products, drugs, and games of chance (except for charity) is prohibited; images and sounds depicting violence or sexual content are regulated; every broadcaster has to make available 10 minutes of programming per day to the state; every unencrypted broadcaster must dedicate 1.5 hours of educational programming per day to children, plus 1.5 hours to adolescents; 60% of prime-time programming has to be produced within Venezuela, as must all advertising; radio stations that play music have to play at least 3 hours of Venezuelan music plus 1 hour of Latin American music per day; all stations must play the Venezuelan national anthem daily, and must mention the authors, melody, and lyrics.

The new law provides for savage sanctions against broadcasters found in violation of its articles. This is the case especially for article 29, which is the scorpion's tail: an all-purpose paragraph that can be applied almost at will by a partisan regulator. It determines that any broadcaster promoting, apologising for or inciting to war, changes in the public order or crimes; threatening the security of the state; or broadcasting anonymous messages can be taken off the air for 72 hours. High fines are also imposed and the broadcasting license can be revoked for up to five years. Obviously, Chávez and his pack will have few qualms about interpreting any criticism of their conduct as threatening the security of the state.

As was to be expected, Venezuelan media have begun censoring themselves rather than run the risk of simply being eliminated. Miguel Octavio, in his excellent blog The Devil's Excrement, describes how this process became visible yesterday: Globovision, which to date has been the premier source of live news for many Venezuelans, did not broadcast violent unrest in the centre of Caracas that left several people injured as street vendors confronted the police. Obviously, the news images would have shown violence, which is prohibited between 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m.; so rather than risk the wrath of the powers that be, Globovision kept mum. (The news still spread through the Internet and newspapers, though, which are not regulated by the new law. Any bets on how long it will take before this loophole is closed?)

Obviously, what is happening here is very serious indeed. International organizations ranging from Human Rights Watch ("This legislation severely threatens press freedom in Venezuela," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Its vaguely worded restrictions and heavy penalties are a recipe for self-censorship by the press and arbitrariness by government authorities.") to the Inter American Press Association ("What is under discussion is the right of all citizens to be duly informed and not only about what the government wants them to know, as happens in Cuba.") to Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Without Borders said it was "extremely concerned" by a "vaguely-termed" new law about the "social responsibility" of the Venezuelan media that "might be used against those that did not agree with the government.") have criticised the new law, as has Spain's foreign minister Moratinos.

The situation is not pretty. At the moment Venezuelans' hopes rest on the Internet (those that have access to it) and newspapers (as long as they remain relatively free -- we'll ignore threats against and attacks on journalists for the moment). I predict a strong resurge of irony in the months ahead, something like the church service scene in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life".

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Taxi in front of grey high-rise housing, Caracas, early December 2004. Posted by Hello

View from Venezuela

Change of scene: I am now in Venezuela, where I will be spending Christmas with my in-laws. This will be a good opportunity to share my observations on the situation in the country.

We arrived in Caracas two weeks ago. The decay of public infrastructure is unmistakable, as is the increase in the number of extremely poor people on the street. But what struck me most is the mood in the streets: it is chillingly somber, not at all what I saw and learned to love the first time I came here in 1996. I asked a Caracas taxi driver how things were in the city, and he replied: "Tristes, muy tristes." (Sad, very sad.) A real-time TV survey carried out a few days ago asked whether people felt a festive spirit as Christmas approaches: the result was 100.0% No, 0.0% Yes. Sales of antidepressants are through the roof. Psychologists go so far as to diagnose a general psychological malaise of the Venezuelan people.

Reasons for the bleak mood? There are more than enough. People are having to struggle to get by economically, and ever more of them don't manage: poverty is becoming endemic in a country which just a few years ago had a substantial middle class (though no-one would dispute that it would have been desirable for the middle class to be even bigger). The government has taken control of all public institutions and is curtailing personal freedoms ever more. The chances of a change in government policy (or in government) seem ever more remote. And this is what may be the most important reason for the national depression: the feeling of impotence, of not being able to detain the long slide into hopelessness.

For this reason, I do hope that the opposition revives in the New Year. The time has come to act. The streets need to be filled with protest marches, as they were two years ago. The opposition needs to formulate a strategic plan for the next two years (presidential elections are scheduled for 2006), sending out a more inclusive message, presenting a more unified front, becoming more belligerent and steadfast in its attitude towards a bullying government. The courts should be inundated with lawsuits against the government's mismanagement, corruption and injustice. The lawsuits will of course not be accepted, but the Chavista needs to be put on the backfoot, it needs to be challenged, to be put to work and not be allowed to come to rest. The opposition needs to find its balls again (as implied in a recent cartoon by Rayma), and not just roll over and let itself be kicked into submission.

Here's an excellent article by Gustavo Coronel, which summarizes the economic situation of the country succinctly (quoted by permission of the author):

Venezuela: Financial Chaos Leading to Social

By Gustavo Coronel
December 4, 2004

What international investors often read in foreign, sanitized analyses of the Venezuelan economic situation is that the country has over $20 billion in international reserves, that oil prices are very high and that the like- hood of default on the debts of the country is low. This is all true and it sounds great.

If so, what seems the problem? Well, there are plenty of problems and if potential investors do not properly take them into account, their reading of Venezuela as a country in the path to economic progress could be totally wrong.

The sad truth is that Venezuela is in almost total political, social and financial chaos. Let us start with a brief political overview.

From a promise of democratic change to a totalitarian society.

Six years ago the elected president Hugo Chávez had the clear support of the majority of Venezuelans. He had promised to eradicate corruption, to generate employment, to solve the acute tragedy of abandoned children in the streets, to fight poverty. Today, after six years of his presidency, government corruption is at an all time high, employment at an all time low, abandoned children more numerous than ever and poverty and misery are rampant in the cities and the rural areas of Venezuela. And this comes after $200 billion have entered the coffers of the government, via oil income or new national debt, which has doubled during the period. What started to be a creditable exercise in democracy turned out to be an increasingly totalitarian regime. Today, the political profile of Venezuela is much closer to those of Libya and Cuba than to those of Costa Rica or Chile. Rigid exchange controls, curtailed freedom of expression, systematic abuses of power, illegal use of public resources and persecution of the opposition clearly prevail over the customary checks and balances and the political tolerance and respect for dissidence which are typical of democratic governments.

Venezuelan society is mostly in ruins.

During the period 1999 to 2004, Venezuelan society has gone into a free fall. The middle class, that essential ingredient of progressive societies, has been decimated. Today, we are poorer, more prone to being killed by common criminals or by government thugs, deprived of our civic rights and the victims of a climate of hate created by political leaders. Empty words by the current caudillo have replaced required deeds in education and health. Physical infrastructure is rotting away. In every corner of Venezuelan cities there are beggars asking for handouts or criminals trying to take your money or your life. Venezuelans can no longer recognize this country as their own. Human dignity is being subordinated to human survival.

Financial chaos.

The enormous petroleum income coming to Venezuela during the last two years has been handled by a very mediocre and incompetent political and administrative system. The members of this system had never managed resources of any significant size. They have been suddenly faced with financial surpluses of a magnitude never experienced. Some, the more honest, have tried to apply these monies to ill-planned social programs, trying to reach the very poor. Most have seen in this immense bath of gold the opportunity of their lives to become rich, after a lifetime of poverty. Corruption in the current government of Venezuela is now approaching astronomical levels. Although corruption is difficult to prove, it is usually diagnosed on the basis of the enormous difference between income and what is done with this income. The country has received $200 billion during the presidency of Hugo Chávez, an amount that is not even remotely represented in public works or in real social improvement. The inescapable conclusion is that most of this money has been wasted and/or pilfered and/or stolen. For all practical purposes the impact on the nation is identical: lack of progress, more poverty, and more frustration.

In spite of the windfall oil income of the last years and of the obscene new indebtedness, the administration of Hugo Chávez has systematically shown huge fiscal deficits in their year-to-year budgets. For 2005 the fiscal deficit could run to almost 6% of the GDP. In addition to this deficit, the nation will have to face increasing payments of the national debt, which will bring this deficit to 8% of the GDP. How will the deficit be covered? Amazingly enough, with more debt! According to economist Miguel Angel Santos, from IESA (the best Venezuelan business school), borrowing will be dedicated not only to cover old debt but also to finance current expenditure. This will increase net national debt by an additional 4% of GDP.

According to Santos the 2005 budget will increase fiscal fragility, will promote more indebtness, stimulate inflation and inhibit growth. The State will essentially be the only sector investing, although 80% of the national budget will be dedicated to covering the costs of the increasing bureaucracy.

In the six years under this government the Venezuelan GDP has decreased to the levels of almost 15 years ago. Accumulated inflation is over 200%. 7.6 million Venezuelans are either unemployed or under-employed (working as street peddlers). Foreign exchange has moved from Bolivar's 565 to the dollar in 1998 to a controlled Bolivar's 1920 to the dollar in 2004 (although the black market is at Bolivar's 2500 to the dollar). This represents a devaluation of 250% to 400% depending on which exchange rate is considered.

Financial collapse equals social collapse.

This collapse in economic conditions has produced a social collapse The studies conducted by the Andres Bello Catholic University have established that, in 1978, poverty affected 23% of the population but that today poverty includes more than 70% of the population. Abandoned street children in 1992 numbered 2500 according to UNICEF, the United Nations Fund for Infancy. Today this organization reports four times as many Venezuelan children as beggars. Our own institutions dealing with children (INAM) report more than 200,000 Venezuelan street children engaged in thievery and prostitution and more than one million children as street peddlers. The Economic Commission for Latin America, ECLAC, reports that Venezuela was the only Latin American country in which hunger increased, findings also reinforced by the UNDP. A recent report by the Venezuelan chapter of the Club of Rome indicates that new housing built by the government has decreased from 61,000 units in 1998 to less than 15,000 in 2002. Four times more Venezuelans were murdered in 2003, as compared to 1998. One hundred cars are stolen everyday in the streets of the country.

Lost Generations.

The Venezuelan political, social and financial chaos generated during the last six years has produced and is producing the loss of entire generations. Certainly two, possibly three Venezuelan generations will be sacrificed to the political experiment known as the "bolivarian revolution." This is a crime without parallel in Venezuelan history, coming at a time in which the whole region is trying to push forward and leave behind many years of inferiority complexes and obsolete political ideologies. It is precisely at this moment when a militaristic regime has taken over political power in our country and is forcing the country backwards.

This regime should be isolated.

In fact, it is being isolated. Although it has immense financial resources at its disposal to buy temporary loyalties and, although it has been able to recruit a group of foreign fellow travelers, from Saramago to Ramonet, who sing its praises mostly because it opposes the U. S., the Venezuelan militaristic regime is progressively losing the battle of international public opinion. Hugo Chávez is now seen as the new and richest member of a club of political outcasts, from Castro to Gahdaffi, from Hussein to Mugabe. His clumsy attempts at diplomatic strategy have promoted chaos wherever he goes. He is now considered a visitor to be avoided at all costs, although oil money is still coveted by those who laugh at him behind his back.

The people of Venezuela are suffering greatly under the inept and populist regime of Hugo Chávez. Our Venezuelan tragedy might not be as spectacular as the ones in Sudan or Palestine tragedies but is no less real. It is equally dramatic, since it involves the destruction of a country that was, only two decades ago, in the threshold of becoming a member of the first world.