Thursday, February 17, 2005

Conspiratorial cafe scene, Barcelona (Spain), August 2002. Posted by Hello

Satire in Cuba

I've just been sent a report published in Spanish on BBC Mundo about an (illegal) DVD making the rounds in Cuba; it parodies the Cuban situation and gives its oppressed inhabitants something to laugh about. Freedom to express one's opinion is a great thing, and I hope the Cubans get more of it in the future. Satire as used in the clip is a highly effective tool to highlight the absurdity of a situation, though it is inevitably tinged with bitterness.

Secret video causes stir in Cuba
by Fernando Ravsberg -- BBC Mundo, Havana

A video clip, "Monte Rouge", is secretly making the rounds on the island, with the satirical script by Eduardo del Llano and the acting by Luis Alberto García, Néstor Jiménez and del Llano himself provoking laughter in Cubans.

"Good day, my name is Rodríguez, this is my colleague Segura, we've come to install the microphones." This is the sentence two officials of State Security use to introduce themselves after knocking on the door of citizen Nicanor O'Donell.

For 15 minutes, Nicanor tries to understand the new policy, in terms of which he is asked to continue criticising the government, but, from now on, preferably within the room in which the microphones are being installed.

All of this is seasoned with many elements of everyday Cuban life, from the gasoline that Nicanor steals at work to the offer by one of the Security agents to sell him illegal equipment.

"Our mission is to install some microphones in your house in order to overhear your anti-government comments directly", explains one of the two agents to the astonished citizen, Nicanor O'Donell.

Nicanor progresses from surprise to indignation, stating that now "they no longer even try to hide it", to which one of the agent responds that "customers are impossible to understand, before this they complained because we didn't show our faces".

Finally, Nicanor gives in to the menacing stares and lets them enter, offering them a typical Cuban coffee and working together with the two agents to identify the best location for the microphones in his house.

One of the officials asks him directly: "Where do you usually criticise the government, in which part of the house?" To which Nicanor responds that "in every part, here, in the room, in the kitchen, in the kitchen!"

The agents tell Nicanor that he was chosen to have microphones installed because his criticism is "really insightful", and furthermore because his house is nearby and they had no car available.

They explain to him that he should be happy: "You live alone and the State has assigned two microphones for your needs", says Rodríguez and adds that there are families with ten people where not even a single microphone has been installed so far.

When they ask him to do a soundcheck, the State Security official suggests that he say "something subversive to warm up with", and citizen O'Donell shouts: "I'd really love to have a satellite dish".

At the end of the clip, one of the agents offers to sell him one of the satellite dishes, which are prohibited in Cuba, "but this has to remain between you and me because this guy is a bit square", he says, referring to the other policeman.

The video clip is being passed around Cuba on DVD and is viewed on personal computers, most of which are also illegal as their sale to Cubans is prohibited.

Naturally, nobody who has seen the clip or passed it on to others wants their name to be mentioned, but in general all of the opinions gathered by the BBC were positive, regarding both the script and the realisation.

"I don't know how they dared to do something like this, but it's great, it's an excellent satire", said a manager and added that "I've seen it lots of times and every time I have to laugh more and see new details".

"No doubt about it, it recreates our reality with a fantastic ironic humour", a university student told the BBC.

"Now we'll have to see what happens to the people who made it and who acted in the clip", she added.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Mugabe and Chávez on friendly terms in Venezuela, 2004. Posted by Hello

Zimbabweans in exile start new newspaper

I've just read on a blog linked to the UK Guardian newspaper that Zimbabweans living in exile have started a new newspaper to spread the news they've been prohibited from distributing in their own country. Mazel tov on their initiative -- you go, guys! Shine the light of publicity in all the darkest corners!
A voice for the voiceless

The first issue of a new newspaper compiled by Zimbabwean journalists in exile hit the streets today. The Zimbabwean is compiled by more than 50 refugees who have given their services free of charge to get the venture started. It is edited by Wilf Mbanga, the founder of the publishers of The Daily News, which was closed down by Robert Mugabe's regime in 2003. The weekly tabloid, which will be printed in Britain and South Africa, also has a website, although this is still very much in its infancy and will not be fully up and running until mid-March.

The paper's stated intention is to give a voice to the three million Zimbabweans - some 25% of the country's population - living in exile. An estimated one million live in Britain and two million in southern Africa, mainly in Botswana and South Africa.

On its website, The Zimbabwean promises to be "a newspaper dedicated to freedom of expression and access to information for all the peoples of Zimbabwe, founded on the sacred principles of journalism - fairness and honesty", and aims to "play a role in opposing everything offensive to basic human decency and hostile to peace, in order that Zimbabwe may return to the path of wisdom and sanity, and become once again an honourable nation, governed by honourable people with due respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law".

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Lake Maracaibo containment wall, December 2004. Posted by Hello

Chávez with China and the Mullahs

Leading German news magazine Der Spiegel (No. 6/2005) ran a short article on Chávez's plans for his oil exports. As is so often the case, Chávez has set the cat among the pigeons with his intentions. I wonder whether he will stay in power long enough to see his plans come to fruition; I suspect he won't. (Keeping in mind that in many other areas, notably generating wealth and increasing civil liberties, his grandiose announcements have come to nought -- not even after six years of concentrating power in his own hands.)

Oil for China's Refineries

Leftist populist President Hugo Chávez wants to reduce his dependency on oil experts to the USA with the help of the mullah regime in Teheran. Iranian experts are to assist sales staff of Venezuelas state oil company, PDVSA, in opening up new markets in Asia -- currently, far more than half of all deliveries goes to the United States. Chávez main focus lies on increasing the exports to China. Last week, he sealed an agreement with Beijing that will allow the People's Republic to develop gas and oil reserves in Venezuela. For the moment, the plan to increase the exports is being scuppered by technical problems: Venezuelan oil is very heavy, and China does not dispose of the necessary refineries. Furthermore, Venezuela has no access to the Pacific. Caracas is therefore negotiating with Panama and Colombia about building pipelines to their maritime ports -- thereby greatly irritating Washington. U.S. oil companies that have invested in Venezuela are worried that the "Chávez effect" could affect their sales. Caracas has already announced its intention to stop its exports to the USA should Washington interfere in the "internal affairs" of Venezuela because of the oil trade. Three years ago, the USA had already approved of an attempted coup against Chávez.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Dodge Ram pickup truck -- before enlargement. Posted by Hello

Is this progress?

The New York Times has an article today on the growing popularity of large pickup trucks, which appear to be supplanting SUVs as the braggards' wheels of choice. I find this to be an amazing development, as it goes against the trends towards increasing urbanisation (and hence, a lesser need for individual trucks), miniaturisation, the growth in the services sector, and growing awareness of the need to use limited resources more efficiently. Here's an excerpt from the article (italics are mine):

The average pickup truck has become 40 percent heavier in the last two decades and 11 percent less fuel-efficient, according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Big pickup trucks are an even more formidable threat to people in cars than the largest S.U.V.'s, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fatality rates for the occupants of large pickup trucks are modestly higher than those for other family vehicles like large cars and minivans because of the trucks' increased rollover risk, a government crash study in 2003 indicated.

On Wednesday at the Chicago Auto Show, DaimlerChrysler is planning to introduce one of the largest passenger cabs yet as an option on its full-size pickup truck, the Dodge Ram. The new cabin, to be called the Mega Cab, is 20 inches longer than the largest Ram passenger cab now.

Weighing in at more than three tons unloaded, the Ram Mega Cab seats six and joins a group of new passenger trucks that are so heavy that they fall outside federal fuel economy regulations for most other passenger vehicles. The makers are not even required to post mileage figures on a window sticker.

Unlike some more exotic giant pickups, like the new 18-wheeler-size CXT from International Truck and Engine, the Dodge Ram Mega Cab will be positioned as a mass-market product. Chrysler executives estimate that they can sell 50,000 to 100,000 of them a year, according to a person close to the company's planning.


Full-size pickup trucks rose to 14.8 percent of the nearly 17 million cars and trucks sold in the United States last year, from 14.1 percent a year earlier and 8.4 percent at the beginning of the 1990's, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank. By contrast, the market share of compact pickups has been cut in half over the last decade.

Last year, middle- and large-size S.U.V.'s fell to 15.9 percent of the auto market, down from 16.5 percent a year earlier, according to Ward's, while smaller models continued to grow sharply.
Perhaps U.S. cars are getting bigger because their drivers are getting bigger? The prevalence of obesity among U.S. adults increased by an astonishing 61 percent between 1991 and 2001.

The trend towards bigger and more wasteful cars is increasing the United States' reliance on foreign oil producers, which is an important factor in worldwide political destabilisation (witness the wars on Iraq and perhaps soon Iran, the unrest in Nigeria, as well as the availability of greater resources to petro-autocrats such as President Chávez in Venezuela and President Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea).

I do hope that more U.S. citizens become aware of the impact their personal choices have on their own country and on the rest of the world. At the moment, the USA makes up less than one twentieth of the world's population, yet it produces a quarter of the world's CO2 emissions! It is by far the world's biggest polluter, and its cars should be becoming more fuel efficient, not less. The trend described above is not progress, guys! (I'm assuming most of the pickup drivers are men.)

Monday, February 07, 2005

Rubbish collection notice, Caracas, 2005. Posted by Hello

The revolution? Pretty, it ain't.

During a speech on 23 January 2005, President Chávez addressed some remarks to Condoleezza Rice, who had referred to him as "a negative influence" for the region during her Senate confirmation hearings for the post of U.S. Secretary of State. Repeating earlier statements, he called her "illiterate"; on this occasion, he elaborated further by speculating that her statements about him were motivated by sexual frustration. He suggested that some of his minions could provide Dr. Rice with some relief, as he himself was too busy and was in any case unwilling to "make the sacrifice" for his country.

Here are some excerpts from Chávez's speech in translation (source: transcription on the homepage of the Venezuelan Ministry for Propaganda, Minci). Note the rambling nature of the diatribe (which was edited in this case); Chávez's speeches typically go on for hours without going anywhere.

"First she [Rice] said that she was very irritated, a few days ago, by Chávez, by the tyrant Chávez, the caudillo, that he was a threat to the people of the world and of America. Afterwards, the next day, they asked her again, seems like she's dreaming about me.


Well, even if she's the foreign minister of that imperialist government and it's doctor Alí Rodríguez's [the Venezuelan chancellor, or foreign minister] turn to meet her, I'm capable of inviting her to a meeting to find out, well, what's this thing that you've got with me? We're going to arrange this, let's see. Do you [the audience] want me to invite her? I'll do what you tell me to. A short while ago, someone suggested to me: 'Look, why don't you ask her to marry you to see if this will sort itself out?' Should I propose marriage to her? [Audience: Nooo.] What bad luck this lady has! You said no. Well, but really she first said she was very irritated, the next day she changed, it would be good for a good psychiatrist to analyze this, because the next day they asked her again and what she said was that she was not irritated, no, but that now she was sad. Oh daddy! She was very sad and depressed because of Chávez, because of this tyrant. Afterwards she went on to say that Chávez is a bad influence on the continent.


Mister Bush, now accompanied by a new Secretary of State, the Mr. Condolencia Rice [sic], Condolencia Rice. I am sorry not to have sent her Fidel, send me, please, the method "Yo si puedo" [a basic reading course] to send it in English to Condolencia Rice, I forgot to send it to her again, one has so much to do, because she is showing a complete illiteracy with regards to what's happening in Venezuela and to what's happening in the world and to what's happening in Latin America.


I can't marry Condolencia because I have a lot of work to do, she'll have to look for some other options, she should forget about me for a while. Alí Rodríguez could do it, Cristóbal Jiménez is there, available; well, Juan Barreto is single; somebody else should make this sacrifice for the fatherland, you can ask me to do anything, but don't ask me to do this. Nicolás Maduro, Pedro Carreño."

The following text by sociologist Tulio Hernández sums up pretty well what Chávez's statements reveal about his sexist and chauvinist mindset.
Rural Machismo as a Political Problem
by Tulio Hernández

I ask the reader to imagine for a moment what would have happened if President Chávez, instead of targeting his rage -- disguised as a taunt -- against the person of Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State of the United States government, had aimed it at President Bush. Let's picture for a moment what would have been the outcome if the Venezuelan president, with his [guachamaronería] as always, had developed a sequence with the following tone in front of the hypnotised multitudes that venerate him, like they once venerated Perón, as they still do with Fidel in Cuba, as they did with Hitler: "Ooooh baby, Dubya, you've really got it in for me, you don't like anything I do, perhaps it's because you want me to give you what's coming to you? But I won't sacrifice myself, let Juan Barreto do it; he's single".

We can imagine it, but we know that this would never have happened and is never going to happen. Because President Chávez, as he has shown during his six long years in government, does not consider the qualities or defects inherent in the male condition to interfere with the work or behaviour of rulers. Those of the female condition, on the other hand, do.

When the Venezuelan president -- with this unmistakable culture of a rural adolescent who has not managed to understand the progress the democratic world has made in this area with regard to differences, be they of gender, politics, nationalities, ethnicity or sexual preferences -- plays with irony based on the hypothesis that Condoleezza Rice is in love with him and begins with her verbal harassment when her love is not returned, he is sending a very concrete message. He is saying, with the ancestry, the authority and the persuasiveness that his condition of being president and exalted communicator confer on him, that Doctor Rice is acting not because she is a high-level government official, because she has a high capacity for discernment, or because she is employing her personal analytical ability based on her beliefs. No, Condoleezza Rice is acting like a woman, and therefore, her motivation is neither political nor intellectual: it is rather derived from an eager and unsatisfied vagina that is waiting for a tropical "bull" and third-world man like himself to give her the satisfaction she needs. You don't have to be Roland Barthes to understand that this is the message being transmitted.

But this is not the first time that the president has acted out his mysoginist sexual exhibitionism in front of the spellbound faces of his numerous followers. A long time ago, when he was just beginning his period of government, he surprised the country by announcing, live and on national TV, to his wife, the then Mrs. Marisabel de Chávez, that that same night, upon returning to La Casona, he would "give her what she had coming to her" ("darle lo suyo"). In popular Venezuelan speech, darle lo suyo, just in case we have any foreign readers, is a typically macho phrase that refers to the sexual act, understood as an offer of satisfaction that the man makes to the woman to calm her yearnings. Therefore, if one wants to denigrate the behaviour of a woman who, for instance, is very demanding at work, one would say: "What she needs it someone to give her what she's got coming to her!" (“¡A esa lo que le hace falta es que le den lo suyo!”), or, a bit more crudely, "to give it to her where she needs it" (“que le den por donde es”). There is, conversely, no equivalent disqualification that could be used to attribute the same motivation to a male behaviour.

What the president has not realised -- on the whole, his life has been very much centered on political conspiracy and military discipline -- is that there are countries where a person could be sued or even jailed for offending someone publically on the basis of their personal traits deriving from gender, race or sexual preference, and that rude remarks like the ones he has been aiming successively at Doctor Rice -- calling her an illiterate, firstly, disqualifying her actions based on the supposed condition of being a besotted woman, secondly, and thirdly, adding an ambiguous and contemptuous suspicion ("let someone else sacrifice himself"), thereby referring -- one can't be too sure -- to her supposed ugliness, her condition of being Afro-American, or simply to her being an agent of imperialism -- could come at a high price in legal terms in the United States or Europe, where the offense of sexual harassment includes verbal harassment.

All this is without even mentioning that in any decent country gestures such as this would not provoke knowing little laughs and applause, as we saw on the part of his ministers and mayors on Sunday, including some female ministers; instead it would produce embarassment in all social and political sectors in response to such a testimony to backwardness, vulgarity, and immaturity on the part of the authority that offered them publically.

That's why I believe we should not take the incident as a joke. Nor should we belittle it, as was tried by certain common ignorants, who used the argument that the offended party is a very powerful woman, a figure of imperialism and savage neoliberalism, and that therefore it is acceptable to insult her, because in the end, she can defend herself. The militant machismo, the public display of bad manners and the emotional outbursts of the president, which are comparable only with those of Governor Acosta Carlez (king of the burp)*, should be treated as a political problem that muddies the relationship between the president and those opposing him as well as with the governments and authorities of befriended countries.

In his private and personal life, Hugo Chávez as an individual has the right to express himself as he pleases regarding women and those opposing him. But as President of the Republic, he has a duty to maintain a minimum of decorum and respect for others, because when he took on these functions he stopped being free; he cannot act according to his personal judgment because he holds an office that obliges him to place the national interest and collective respect above what he does and says in public. At the end of the day, he is the spokesperson for all Venezuelans on the international stage, and that is how he should behave.

You might ask yourself what's the use of such a display of the virtues of the Ley Resorte (media gag law) for protecting children from the pernicious effects of television, when it is the President of the Republic himself who, on national TV and during children's hour, takes it upon himself to communicate three types of values that more advanced society nowadays are trying to banish forever: hate between human beings, contempt for and underestimating the female condition, and machismo as the foremost principle governing the relationship between men and women.

There is definitely a ghost haunting Venezuela: the ghost of backsliding and regression to the myths, the ethics and aesthetics characteristic of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th, to the times of rural caudillos who based their power on the enormous size of their testicles.

* During the 2002 national strike, then General Acosta Carlez led an army unit to secure the strategically important Coca Cola deposits at that company's plant. Live on camera, the General took a swig from a bottle of Coca Cola, looked into the camera and offered a long and resounding burp. Since that day, he has been associated by all parties with burping; even Chávez himself calls him the general of the burp. Acosta Carlez was rewarded with the governorship of Carabobo state for carrying out this brave and dangerous mission.

A Venezuelan journalist, Carlos Alberto Montaner, described the scene as follows:
We thought that Venezuelans were hungry, but it wasn't true: they were thirsty. And so it came that colonel Chávez sent his best men to occupy the Coca-Cola and beer depots by military force in order to mitigate this terrible scourge. Rum will probably be the next objective. What could be more patriotic for a Bolivarian government than handing out Cubalibres to the thirsty and starving masses?

At the head of the hardened anti-Coca-Cola troops there marched a young general, Acosta Carlez, tall and haughty, notably portly, who opened a bottle, bravely swallowed its contents without even bothering to measure its content of carbohydrates -- the chavista soldiers don't know the meaning of fear -- turned his gaze to the television cameras and launched a prolonged and devastating burp that sent tremors through the precinct. "A terrible spectacle", said analyst Joaquín Pérez later. "It could have been worse", responded the brilliant writer Carlo Raúl Hernández laconically. "Imagine what would happen if he raided a avocado or black bean warehouse..."

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Man Who Would Be King. Posted by Hello

German Liberals criticise Chávez

German MP Dr. Karl Addicks issued a press statement on 31 January 2005 criticising Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for his disastrous policies as well as his statements at the World Social Forum. Mr. Addicks is a member of the FDP, the German liberal party, which is a minor party currently in the opposition. (The FDP is a natural coalition partner of the CDU/CSU, the main right of center party. A left of center coalition of the SPD and the Greens currently holds the majority in parliament and forms the government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.)

Here is the original text of the press statement, translated into English:

FDP criticises statements made by Hugo Chávez at the World Social Forum

Only a few years after many nations shook off the communist yoke, statements by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who said that it is necessary to overcome capitalism and strive for socialism with a human face, were enthusiastically celebrated by participants at the World Social Forum. In response, Karl Addicks said:

There has never been any such thing as socialism with a human face. Mr. Chávez does not waste any thoughts on democracy. He is in the process of leading his country towards the abyss of civil war. He wants to remain president until 2021.

He is investing the wealth of the country, its oil revenues, in expanding his electoral basis with gifts -- instead of investing in the infrastructure of the country and driving sustainable development. Individual initiative, entrepreneurship, accountability to the parliament are words that don't exist in his vocabulary.

Anyone who has been obliged -- in accordance with or against their will -- to follow his radio and TV broadcasts, synchronised on all channels and lasting for hours, anyone who sees how the capital, Caracas, once a flowering metropolis, is descending into murder and mayhem, anyone who sees his planned expropriations, anyone who experiences how this man is polarising his country just to maintain his grip on power, can in no way celebrate such an individual.

The global community would be well advised to identify this man as what he is: a dangerous agitator who is leading his country into chaos using populistic measures. Anyone who cannot distance themselves from this process or does not want to do so should at least get ready to confront the next crisis region in Latin America.

Critics of globalisation, with their recipes from the old collection of socialist relicts, will not reduce poverty in the world.
Mr. Addicks is obviously someone who does not let anyone pull the wool over his eyes. I just hope he doesn't suffer Cassandra's fate of predicting the future accurately -- and not being believed. Predictably, the loony left are all abuzz about Addick's statement, accusing him of malicious agitation ("üble Hetze"). When will they update their vocabulary, I wonder?

Added later: I strongly recommend reading Zuckerman's editorial in the online version of U.S. News and World Report. The editorial backs up Addicks's statement with further detail and reflects an increasing awareness of Chávez's intentions in the USA.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Seller of an unregulated product, Caracas, January 2005. Posted by Hello

Capital flight eliminated!

At last I am back at my own computer and able to write ad libitum again. I've been waiting for this moment for quite some time now: home sweet home! A lot has happened during the past few weeks, both in Venezuela and abroad, and I will try to catch up with the news by and by. As a warm-up exercise, have a look at the following. This is the kind of news item that drives me batty:

"'The country's [i.e. Venezuela's] economy will never again suffer from capital flight, as a result of which the Nation will be developed, and employment and wealth created for the people', assured the vice-minister for Endogenous Development and president of the Economic and Social Development Bank (Bandes), Edgar Hernández Behrens." [Source]

The statement is irritating on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin. First, and this may seem a minor gripe, what exactly does Hernández mean when he says "never"? Until 2021? Until the death of the Great Leader, Chávez? Until eternity? Is he making a normative or an empirical statement here? Either way, how does he suppose that it could be true?

Secondly, how and why does he suppose that limiting capital mobility will lead to development, employment, and wealth? Hernández's statement implies that stopping capital flight is a cure-all for Venezuela's economic problems. That is, of course, sheer chicanery; economic problems are always the result of a myriad of factors, and no single measure will ever address, much less solve, all of them. (In fact, if stopping capital flight were enough to cause development, employment, and wealth, then there would be a huge number of economists and government officials suddenly without work -- thereby causing more unemployment.) (Just kidding!)

Thirdly, by limiting capital mobility, Hernández is introducing a (further) disincentive for foreign investment. Who would want to invest in a country where repatriating profits could be made difficult to impossible by categorizing such an action as capital flight? And without foreign investment, local development becomes a lot more difficult (just consider the difficulties encountered by countries experimenting with autarchy -- North Korea, for instance).

Fourthly, Hernández is acting in an expectedly short-sighted fashion by trying to treat only a symptom perceived as evil (capital flight = bad) without addressing the underlying factors. He should be asking himself: why are Venezuelans desperate to get their money out of the country? Answers: a lack of faith in the legal system, devaluation of the currency (already happening, and more to come soon), preparation for emigration because of doubts about the way the country is heading, the questioning of the right to private property (viz. the recent land invasions, condoned by the government), and so on.

All too often, politicians think that they can make the laws of economics go away by combating them through legal laws -- in effect, simply ordering things to be different. Of course, that never works. An example: price controls on products may appear to make them cheaper, but in actual fact simply make them scarcer. The typical consequence is a) unsatisfied demand, expressed for instance as empty shelves in shops or long lines of people waiting to get a certain product and b) the generation of black markets.

This is easy to observe in the case of the Venezuelan currency. The government has introduced exchange controls and fixed the exchange rate at roughly 2.000 Bolívares to the dollar (Bs./$). As a consequence, a) Venezuelans are desperate to get their hands on stable foreign currency (also because they can thereby protect their monetary assets from devaluing) and b) there is a flourishing black market on which the exchange rate is approximately 2.800 Bs./$. What the government has therefore created, in effect, is a lot of dissatisfied Venezuelans plus an intransparent and inefficient currency market. Individuals and businesses suffer, as does the Venezuelan economy as a whole - this looks like a counterproductive outcome to me.