Monday, 30 November 2009

Between the lines: destroying the Indian territories

based on a map from this great site

Yesterday Venezuelan and Colombian media outlets reported some 392 Colombian and Brazilian citizens were forced to leave Venezuela, where they working in a mine near San Fernando de Atabapo. Now they are in Inírida, capital of the Colombian department of Guainía. Some 400 more are expected soon.

Venezuelan news are saying those minders were illegal. Colombians are saying the expulsion of so many people is causing a big problem for Inírida and that it is just inhumane. This event takes place on the context of the increasing tension between Chávez and Uribe.

Orinoco meets Casiquiare: in spite of the brown colour they always had, they
were clean until mining and other uncontrolled industries arrived.

I do not know why Hugo decided to throw out the Colombian miners now: does the Venezuelan military want the resources to be exploited by someone else? Who then? Or were they just finally trying to put some order in the plundering of the Amazonas region? Or is it something else?

What I do know and see here anyhow is what people on either side don't discuss: this event shows once again the absolute lack of governance, the absolute chaos and the complete lack accountability on both sides.

  • Fact: they were working illegally indeed.
  • Fact: they are not the only ones, illegal mining is happening everywhere in the Amazonas state and in Bolívar state, it is done by Venezuelans and foreigners alike.
  • Fact: they are using mercury, mercury that goes into the rivers (the Río Negro, the Casiquiare and the Orinoco, among many others), mercury that is highly poisonous to all forms of life and which is almost impossible to clean up.
  • Fact: those miners, together with lots of Venezuelan miners from poor and not so poor regions, are getting into native American territory, they are making native Americans again a minority in the last regions native Americans have left.
  • Fact: military on both sides just control those they want, not those they should.

Below you have a map of the Venezuelan Amazonas State showing population density (inhabitants/km2). San Fernando de Atabapo and its whole municipality have less than 15000 inhabitants. Around that city you have the territories of some very small First Nations who until now have had very little contact with alcohol, Western diseases and so on.

Here a look at the other side, the neighbouring departments and the estimate population there.
Many of the miners, according to sources from the Colombian side, are not from those departments but from other regions of Colombia.

The Colombian departments on the other side of the Orinoco and Río Negro have a much higher population and there is a civil war going on there. The Venezuelan government seems to be siding with the guerrillas for many years already.

Some NGOs say there are around 3 million illegal Colombians in Venezuela. That is over 10% of Venezuela's population. In Venezuela there is no reliable registry of population. On one side, for some years now you have to tell your ID number to any vendor in Venezuela when you buy (not just sell) anything but a hot dog. This is supposedly for VAT reasons. On the other side the government does not know really who lives where and estimates for population in many municipalities are just wild guesses.

Everybody - the opposition in Venezuela, the government, the Colombian government and the Colombian opposition - should openly talk about possible solutions to uncontrolled movements of populations, present transparent mechanisms to improve the security situation on both sides of the border and work on detailed plans for a sustainable development of the region. That is very unlikely to happen now. The native Americans - the Puinave, the Piapoco and others - as well as the natural resources are the ones who are suffering.

Geez...we so badly need shadow ministers in Venezuela that show Venezuelans there are solutions, we need them now, even in the middle of the emerging dictatorship.

Oops...apologies to the Piapocos, I mispelt their name in the map below

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Thinking about Venezuelan-African relations

UPDATED: link is fine now, see here


The Venezuelan government keeps silence about the Venezuelan Boeing 727 that (was) crashed in Mali after it had downloaded a lot of cocaine. The German Deutsche Welle tells us the president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré finally talked about this incident. He talked on a state TV broadcast in the middle of the night as soon as he got back from a trip to Lybia and Qatar. He said he had not talked earlier because he did not want to hinder the investigations. Touré added the Mali government is collaborating with the neighbours and transmitted information to Interpol.

How long are we going to have to wait to know more details about that plane? From what airport in Venezuela did it set off? Stay tuned.


Now, you may be wondering what Tibisay Lucena, the top woman of the Venezuelan Electoral commission has to do with Mali. I know one of my great-great-grandmothers came from somewhere in Western Africa, but what about Tibi? Was she on a kind of Roots trip?

Well, if you read French or use Google tools to read it, you can go to a site of the Malian government here and read about Tibi's visit to Mali, Senegal and Guinea-Bisseau in April of this year. Or you just go and see the picture of Tibi, Venezuela's business representative in Mali and some Mali functionaries testing one of those machines. The visit was no secret in Venezuela. I read about it in a couple of Venezuelan newspapers and in pro-Hugo grassroot site Aporrea.

As the propaganda site Venezuelanalysis reported back then, the lady in red went to those countries "to share the experience that Venezuela has accumulated over the past ten years with our friends". She wanted to show basically how the Venezuelan voting machines work...or don't work. If you have followed this blog you may know the world's most modern voting system is much slower than manual systems and you may know the paper trail it produces often does not show what the voter actually wanted. Never mind, what is good for a Venezuelan is good for our friends in Africa as well.

From an earlier post you know Hugo has a very particular interest in those three countries in Africa.


In July of 2009 the Guinea-Bisseau police seized a plane with 500 kl. of cocaine with a Venezuelan crew. There was a standoff as the Guinean military tried to stop the police from doing its work. That was not the first time and it won't be the last one. You can read a lot about Guinea-Bisseau's links to drugs trade in The Telegraph.

You can read a little bit about some cocaine seizures in Senegal here and here.

By the way, Ahmadinejad headed to Senegal after he left Venezuela. He is trying to build up ties there.


What am I saying? I haven't got a clue about what is going on but perhaps

  • the Venezuelan government should work openly with United Nations to clarify how the cocaine is going from colombia through Venezuela to those three countries.
  • those three countries should become more careful about using a voting system that is not reliable (think paper trail, think Germans and Dutch going back to manual voting, think Norway doing it like that all the time)
Now the Venezuelan government can say I am creating a "matriz de opinion". So be it. Just be more transparent.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The First Nations in our blood

Map showing how main female genetic markers spread

Population genetics has been providing new insights into where we all came from, what roads we took to settle the world and how each of our many ethnic groups interacted with each other. Very little research has been carried out in Venezuela compared to Europe. Still, Venezuelan scientists have carried out some interesting studies. They confirm a lot of what historians knew but they also provide new details that could help us fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of the past.

I have written before about some of those studies. Basically, they confirm what most Venezuelans but our president knew: the vast majority of Venezuelans are very mixed, most of our male ancestry is of European origin and most of our female ancestry is native American and there is sub-Saharan influence on both sides as well.

Native Americans keeping a distinctive ethnic group are a tiny minority in Venezuela these days. I have talked a little bit about those groups here. A lot of Venezuelans have some native American background, though, even if they look very European or African or anything else. Still, little do they know about that background. We eat arepas, we eat cachapas, we use some Indian words in our Spanish (less than Bolivians, Peruvians or Mexicans, but still some like cuaima or catire) but we don't know much more about our American ancestors. As Alexander von Humboldt noted already after his 1799-1801 trip through Venezuela, most Venezuelans have lost track of their history, their European, their native American and their African history.

The historical records tell us that there were some Indian groups around the Tacarigua Lake, some others in what is now Caracas, some others in Margarita Island. We know about some of those groups have the same language and others belonging to very different groups with very different looks and customs.

Very roughly, we know a lot of the West of what is now Venezuela was populated by Arawak groups (Arawak being a very broad term, like Romance groups or Slavic groups) and a lot of the East was populated by Carib groups (also a very broad term). We also know there were isolated groups that spoke languages completely different to all the others. We still have in Venezuela about 30 languages that represent several language families, quite a lot of variety compared to what you see in Europe. The native Americans are now mostly in remote regions on the West, on the East and South. Still you see the Arawak groups more to the West, the Carib more to the East and both in the South, but there are exceptions, like Carib Yukpas in Zulia, and there are many groups that have very different languages to all the rest, like the Waraos.

Some Venezuelan scientists presented a paper this year where they showed a first study on "Mitochondrial diversiy in Northwest Venezuela" and "Implications for Probable Prehispanic Migratory Routes".

Dinorah Castro de Guerra, Figuera Pérez, Izaguirre, Rodríguez Larralde, Guerrera Castro and other Venezuelan researchers chose 4 communities in Northwestern Venezuela: three very small towns in Northwestern state Falcón and Barquisimeto, a big city and capital of Lara (to the South of Falcón). They selected their samples from people whose grandparents were all born in the same town, signifying people who were likely to have very strong roots with the place.

The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is always inherited through the mother and the Y chromosome through the father. A certain pattern of DNA sequences in the mtDNA or Y chromosome can be used to identify a a genetic group, a haplogroup. In this case, most of the mtDNA haplogroups (refering to the mother's mother's mother's...) were of native American original, albeit there were also instances of sub-Saharan African and European groups.
This contrasts with the markers on the Y chromosomes, which show, as usual in the Americas, that Venezuelans have on the paternal side mostly European haplogroups.

There are 4 native American mtDNA haplogroups and they are known simply as A, B, C and D. H is the most typical of European populations, J is typical of Middle-East, Northern Africa and Europe, U is mostly in the Old World outside sub-Saharan Africa and L and L3 are mainly found among sub-Saharan populations and recent descendants (like slaves).

Here I plot the mtDNA haplogroup distribution for every town in this study.

Some of the things we can observe:

  • As in previous studies, the Indian contribution is the most frequent on the female side
  • the European maternal contribution in traditional populations in those towns is much lower than in the main cities as in the capital (see what I wrote on a previous study for Venezuela's capital here)
  • Macanillas is a place where people apparently have very unique haplotypes and in general there seem to be a lot of unidentifiable haplogroups in this study (errors? something special about hardly studied groups?).
  • The African maternal contribution is slightly higher in the most costal village, which is not surprising for anyone who has been to Venezuela
  • It seems as if on the coast (Macuquita) haplogroup D is particularly represented, which could hint at Indian populations that differ more from the other 3 locations
All this should be taken with a pinch of caution. The samples were taken from 81 persons in Barquisimeto, 25 in Macuquita, 58 in Churuguara and 29 in Macanillas.

I will continue in a future post with some proposals for future studies on Venezuelan population genetics.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The flight to Teheran and the flight to madness

1 The weekly rant

This Friday Hugo declared in one breath his support for terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Iranian madman Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe's long-time dictator Mugabe and he expressed his belief Idi Amin of Uganda may have not been so bad as the West says. The Guardian's journalist Rory Carrol and bloggers Quico and Daniel already reported on that. Their articles are worth reading.

The declaration took place during Hugo's call for a V Socialist International (his party is excluded from the IV Socialist International). This is not the first time Hugo has expressed sympathies for those characters, but one can say he tried really hard this time to attract the attention. He added he did not care "what they say tomorrow in Europe". He was just short from shouting to the cameras "did you hear me?".

2 The flight to Ahmadinejad's land

Today there is an interesting article (Spanish) in El País about the flights from Venezuela to Iran. The article confirms what I kept hearing from people working at the airport: there is no control of who or what gets into that plane (an Airbus A320). The aircraft has 286 seats and yet it always flies half empty (or half-full if you are a chavista). Even so, most people (about 100) get off in Damascus, Syria, and only 40 to 60 go on to Iran. Passengers are mostly Venezuelan state employees, Iranian businessmen and Syrian-Venezuelans. Each flight costs at least €340000 and it is a big loss for the Venezuelan state.

3 The flight to Mali

El Nacional reported also that the Venezuelan plane that crashed in Mali after having transported cocaine (cocaine leaves traces) was a 727. That is a middle-size plane for transporting people, but a huge one if its use is drug trafficking only. The newspaper said the police had caught a couple of men (Mali citizens) trying to get away with parts of the wreckage. It is not clear whether they were just stealing those parts or they wanted to erase some evidence.

4 What is going on?

4.1 The flight to Mali

Very little is clear at this stage and from what I take (based mostly on Le Journal du Mali) I doubt the Mali government is going to be very cooperative in telling us more about that plane. We will have to wait and see what Interpol says.

4.2 The Iran flight

Is it just a political symbol? Or are they transporting something, something perhaps coming from around La Esmeralda, in the state of Amazonas? Is there something going to Teheran that is also going to Northern Mali?

4.3 Hugo's ranting

Is it just Hugo's normal cry for attention? Even if it were "only that", Hugo's ever louder calls for attention need to be accompanied by some acts and those acts are becoming more dangerous by the day, whether they are closing borders, blowing up bridges, moving troops or announcing preparations for a war. He thinks he needs to move closer and closer to Ahmadinejad. Initially he said he is for Iran's use of nuclear energy for peaceful goals, he then joked about helping Iran to build the bomb and now he calls for the right of Iran to have nuclear weapons.

5 Learning from history

There is something we may learn from the times when Idi Amin was ruling in Uganda. Many historians think Amin's shows that caught so much the international attention, his autoproclamation as "conqueror of the British empire" and his clownish speeches were in part aimed at diverting attention from the increasing violation of human rights and mismanagement in his country. Of course, there were also Amin's very real support for terrorists like those who hijacked Air France 139.

Venezuela has not reached by any means the levels of Uganda in the seventies but still, we should not let things deteriorate. We need to have a double approach:

- make it impossible for Hugo to divert anyone's attention from Venezuela's internal problems and
- disinflate his threats to the international community in a peaceful and democratic way. It will be hard, but it is the only way.

6 What to do

Venezuela's internal problems should be solved by Venezuelans alone. Now, Venezuelans could use some open, general support. This support should not be USAID support or anything else the extreme left wants to see happening to say Hugo is just defending Venezuela against imperialism. It should be above all an open call from all democratic movements in the World, from centre, right and left to denounce violations of human rights in Venezuela. It should be the discussion about sending well-trained international observers to Venezuela. It should be pressure to such countries as Brazil and Argentina, which right now prefer to see Venezuela's economy and civil liberties collapse and gain more clout in South America and more business deals from an isolated Hugo.

The international community should denounce what the Venezuelan government is doing at home: harassing the opposition, sabotaging the very little powers of local governments that are not with his party, preparing a big gerrymandering action for next year, diverting money from all ministries to a presidential blackbox. At the same time the World needs to keep an eye on what is happening in the Amazonas, in the Iran-Venezuelan cooperation, on the Mali and Guinea connections.

The challenge is how to tackle Hugo without repeating the eternal cat and mouse game Iranians are playing with the West or falling into Hugo's provocation and at the same time not letting Hugo help terrorists.

Hugo wants to portray Venezuela as the new Iraq about to be invaded by the USA. The Venezuelan opposition needs to show it can outsmart him. It needs to convince more and more nibs not to be afraid, not to be complacent. It needs to denounce corruption and human right violations and above all it needs to present a better plan for sustainable development and social growth. It needs to present that plan in the areas so hard to reach, in the countryside, in the areas where chavista thugs threaten all with their weapons. The united opposition, left, centre and right, all democrats can desmantle Hugo's schemes if it does not let the movement be taken by some extremists and if it works above all with the goal of building a better Venezuela for all Venezuelans.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

What Venezuelans want, sort of

Venezuela's political discourse

Left, centre and right or love

Some weeks ago Venezuelan pollster Keller published a new report about the current political climate in Venezuela. Although I found the rural areas were again underrepresented, I think the results do reflect more or less reality in the Land of Grace.

You can see a Power Point in Spanish here.

Here you see a graph I created with their numbers on general political affitiation:

20% considered themselves left, 14% centre-left, 34% centre, 13% centre-right and 19% right. You should take those numbers with a pinch of salt or two or three or rather sit down, take a breath, relax. Left-right and centre are relative concepts everywhere, but more so in Venezuela. The level of "ideological"/political discourse is more superficial than in many other places. If you speak Spanish, you can listen here to a very telling interview by Globovisión journalist Angola and chavista deputy Iris Varela. "Do you believe in Marx?" "I believe in Simón Bolívar"...and then they go into talking about love and the president. The comments are even more depressing. Really: vergüenza ajena.

33% of the people said they were "chavistas". 22% declared to be "opposition" and full 44% said they were "independent".

A curious thing is that if there were presidential elections today, 44% would vote for "anyone other than Chávez" and 33% would vote for the current president. Hugo's popularity has been falling for some time already but this is really a lot.

Venezuelans' expectations

When people were asked to say what the opposition should consider as priority, 58% said they had to bring forth proposals for the country, 16% said they should select their candidates and 13% said they should establish a strategy (for campaigning).

I have often read in comments that nibs want "chavismo without Chávez". The thing is: what does that mean? Venezuelans want more of the social programmes and the goodies they always see with oil booms, but they often are not fully aware of how dependent the country is on oil prices and how low the general productivity is. They are more and more tired of the president's rants. Above all they are tired of increasing poverty, crime. They are also aware education in Venezuela sucks...but I have to say they have no idea about how badly it sucks (check my posts with the label "education").

One very important thing I noticed is the answer to "who should be the candidate for the opposition in 2012?" 33% said someone with experience in social work, 26% said "someone with governmental experience" and 18% said "someone with political leadership".

Last but not least, Keller found out the largest group of people who see themselves as independent have taken that path because...they do not want to get into trouble/are afraid.

Qué pienso yo

The regime has clearly lost its popularity, although it keeps that hard-core group composed of the middle-to-high-ranking chavista officials and the largest political group of the very poorest, but this group is no longer a majority. The numbers of nibs has increased a lot. Still, the opposition has not been able to capitalize on this. I know we have difficulties: chavismo's permanent attacks, a missing state of law, lack of funds and so on. The opposition has tried to do a good work in regions such as Miranda, although a lot of its work has been under attack by the regime. Still, we could and should be doing more.

I find it a tragedy that most part of the political talk by the opposition in the media is carried out by English-speaking students who come from private schools and chant "freedom, freedom" in posh shopping centres and opposition leaders who belong to the Paleolithic and with few exceptions have a discourse that is as superficial as that of the students. They are not the majority among the people who dislike Hugo but they have taken the central stage in the media. Hardly anyone has presented ideas for sustainable development, education for the poor, health or security. Primero Justicia has made some good proposals, but they seem to keep them most of the time as hidden as if they were a secret to be patented. Never mind the government has not presented a real development programme either* during the decade it has been in power: it has the petrodollars, the control of the electoral commission and the TV channels that reach every corner. The opposition doesn't, it cannot afford to act as it does now. It needs to spread the ideas, distribute flyers in the bus stations poor Venezuelans use to to to their villages, talk to the people in the slums.

* The government does have some sort of "project" for the next years, but it is more like a wish list than anything else.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The eternal campaign: from North to South, from East to West

The president of Venezuela is famous/notorious for his Aló Presidente programme, a kind of reality show broadcast on Venezuelan state television and radio every Sunday. It lasts for hours, on average about 5 hours but often more. All ministers have to be present during the show. The show takes place most of the time in the interior. I don't know the number of people involved in the whole event but there must be at least 300 and most probably twice as many, with ministers, advisors, camera men, logistics, local honchos and security.

Now, imagine the effect of that number of well-paid people arriving for a day, some sleeping over for a night in a very poor municipality like Rómulo Gallegos, with some 24000 inhabitants. The president usually announces in his show a series of new projects, many of which end up becoming new air castles but many that make (or used to make) humble people hope.

A red point moving in the maps below shows the places in Venezuela where Hugo had his Aló Presidente in 2008 and 2009 (until early November).

Aló Pressidente 2008
the greener the municipality, the more densily populated it is.

These trips do not include the trips he does when he is in "formal" campaign mode. He was in such a mode last year for the regional elections and this one for his second referendum on the topic of no term limits (in a presidential system).

Aló Presidente 2009

His ambassadors and other supporters abroad often claim the opposition in Venezuela controls the airwaves, but in reality Globovisión, a bad but critical TV channel and Venezuelan version of Fox News, is the only real TV channel that really offers a critical view. I agree with Juan from Caracas Chronicles, in thinking Globovisión often does more harm than good to the opposition. I think Globovision is the government's Potemkin village. Almost no one abroad knows that Globo can only be watched in the capital, in Valencia and in those houses elsewhere with cable TV. That makes for some 30% of the population (reliable numbers are hard to get, but it should be about that). Venezuelans read very little and regime-critical newspapers have a total circulation that reaches even less people, mostly in urban areas. VTV and Telesur, though, reach every corner of Venezuela.

The opposition has less and less money at its disposal. The government uses methods to attack the opposition that are anything but kosher. Still, if the opposition is to conquer the rural spaces and it has to, it needs to take into account how the governmental campaign is going on. The opposition must analyze what the government is trying to make and think ahead. It needs to go to those areas, humbly listen time after time to what people there have to say, think intelligently and then propose solutions and plans that let people hope for a change.

It needs to present a new proposal, one that is easy to grasp but not populistic, one that includes and tells Venezuelans it is possible for us to transform Venezuela into a prosperous, developed nation.

PS. My guess for next weeks is that Hugo will now visit one or two rural states in the East and South.
PS2 There are ways the opposition can reach the rural areas with little money: send the students, use flyers, go to the bus stations, distribute the information. But still: an honest study of the needs of every region needs to take place firstly.
PS3 I wrote a post in Spanish here about the same topic, with some other details. There you can see also a map of Venezuela with municipalities, governments and where Aló Presidente has tajeb place in 2009

Monday, 16 November 2009

Venezuela-Mali-Europe: the cocaine connection

A Boeing coming from Venezuela crashed last 5 of November in Gao, Mali, after it had downloaded cocaine in that area and tried to lift off (here in French, here less in Spanish). Interpol is investigating now.

How come? Where did the plane set off in Venezuela? Was it from Maiquetía, the main airport? Is it possible for the Veneezuelan military not to notice up to 10 tones of cocaine in a Boeing setting off for Africa? Did the plane depart from La Esmeralda, the huge military airfield in the middle of the jungle in Amazonas State? Or from somewhere else? From where then? That is a big big plane.

In any case, what the authorities found were the burnt rests of the plane. The drug dealers had set in flame and run away. Still, they found some rests.

I wonder if this has anything to do with the following:

The Venezuelan government has been increasing its ties with West African countries for some years. Here you can read (in French) an article in an official Mali site about Hugo's visit to Mali, about the visit of Mali's president to Venezuela, about how Hugo payed for over 100 social houses, a school and more in Mali, how he promised more and about how Hugo showed a big interest in the geography of Mali, on the Niger Riger and irrigation, about "mining interests" and deals of Venezuela in Mali and more (I will go back to that article later on and translate it).

All possibilities I see:

  1. Some mid to high ranking military is using the new Mali-Venezuela links to trade in drugs behind the president's back
  2. The top in the government is involved (I don't think so, too crazy)
  3. Some drug dealers who have nothing to do with chavismo are involved and who just found a way to get around minor corrupt military in Venezuela
  4. Someone is trying to pretend the Venezuelan government is involved in the whole thing
So far I go for 1. Too early to tell.
It is an irony
they found the plane close to Gao or "GAO"

Update: see my Spanish post for more details

Update 2: It was a Boeing 727!

Friday, 13 November 2009

Te necesito, chama, chamo, chamín

I need your help. If you happen to be travelling to or from Venezuela, I want you to take the pictures you can of the arrival process.

Among other things, I would be very grateful if you could send me pictures of

  • the president's huge poster at the arrival in Maiquetía airport
  • the place where the airport trolleys are taken by the airport mafia
  • the private tourist offices in the airport
  • the place where people have to pay the extra taxes to use the airport
  • a selected set of billboards along the motorway depicting the Supreme Leader
  • the nasty X rays used for drug control
  • the military controlling people at every step
  • some other picture you consider worth taking on your route to your place


Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Hugo the First and Kalashnikov

Our president, Hugo Chávez, has just given a copy of Simón Bolívar's sword as birthday present to AK-47's (in)famous designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov. The sword is supposed to have precious stones.

You can find more information on that in Russian here and in Spanish here.

The Venezuelan government had purchased about 100000 Kalashnikov rifles in 2005.
This year the chavista regime spent some 2.2 billion dollars in more Russian weapons.

The Kalashnikov rifle has killed millions of people in the last decades. There is a huge black market for that device. It is the usual weapon in many civil wars in Africa.

The government should have used the money it gave away for that flashy toy sword to buy books for pupils in poor schools or to pay Venezuela's entrance in the PISA programme, a programme for improving education standards (there is little chance for this to happen as the Venezuelan government rejects any form of transparency).

Venezuela should have spent those 2.2 billion dollars not in weapons but in the construction of a couple of very good hospitals in rural Guárico or still more rural Amazonas. Perhaps we could have had enough to finance a really groovy public library for children in Portuguesa as well.

It should be so obvious. I am sure most people agree. I am so ashamed Venezuela has such a president.

PS. If Hugo wanted to celebrate the birthday of someone, he could have celebrated the birthday of Jacinto Convit, a great Venezuelan scientist who has given so much for science and for our country. Mr Convit's work for better treatments of leprosy and leishmaniasis have saved many lives.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

A beautiful red

The Eudocimus Ruber (in Spanish corocoro or garza roja, in English Scarlet Ibis) are gorgeous birds living across the Northern part of South America and some even up to Florida (although now much less). You can see them from time to time when you drive or sail along the Venezuelan coast. They love mangroves, lagoons, swamps. Their beaks are just perfect to catch the worms and crustaceans (specially crabs) as well as insects and seeds found in their habitat. The feather colour comes fro the pigment found in the crustaceans they eat.

When I see these birds they always steal a smile from me.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Chávez runs amok...again

The president of Venezuela, Hugo of Sabaneta, announced yesterday that the nation should prepare for war with Colombia. He ordered 15000 soldiers to be transfered to the border. Our neighbours acted in a more civilized way and asked for a meeting of the United Nations Security council. They want observers on the border to see what is really happening.

Presidential tantrums

When Hugo is in South America, specially in Venezuela, he very often says things like "blood will be shed and civil war break out" if he does not win this or that election or if something else he likes does not happen. He hardly says that in Europe or in the US. There he talks about the US government being the Devil, something that makes some people giggle like children or he praises the beauty of Russian girls or makes jokes with film directors. Northerners love that, "so folkloric". He signs agreements with Spanish ministers that provide billions of easy money to the Spaniards in exchange for some fast cash for Hugo and some political support.

People are used now to Hugo's tantrums in Venezuela and we usually abscribe his behaviour to his need for deflecting attention from the real issues and there are a lot of problems now in Venezuela. The place is still a place where you find posh shopping centres, where you see lots of people using BlackBerries and where the Venezuelan version of FOX News, very unprofessional Globovisión, says day after day that the president is a dictator. Venezuela is getting over 300% more money than 1998 out of higher oil prices. Still: things are getting more difficult.

The problems

Some of the problems:

1. Venezuela is by far the most dangerous country in South America and things keep getting worse. There are no more protests because the poor, those who suffer the most, don't know how bad their situation is compared even to our neighbours to the West or to Brazil, not to talk about Peru or chile.
2. The guerrilla is more present along the border than ever before: in Zulia, in Tachira, in Amazonas, in Barinas. The clumsy attempts by the government to deny their support for the Colombian guerrilla do not work.
3. Pegging the bolivar to the dollar ($2.15) while scaring away local producers and spending billions of petrodollars to sell cheap imported products has led to the highest official inflation in the region and to a much higher distorsion of the economy.
4. Blackouts are becoming more and more frequent.
5. Although it is still easy for the old and new high class to find whiskey, normal people are having more trouble finding sugar, coffee, rice, usual stuff and most poor are having more difficulty making ends meet.
6. Everybody knows chavista officers or friends of theirs who are getting richer by the day while the services for the poor are degrading again very fast

There have been several unexplained murders along the border and the Venezuelan government has declared automatically "it is the fault of right-winged paramilitary". Perhaps. Perhaps some. What about if that is not the case? What about if there is an open investigation? What about if we work together with our neighbours? The Venezuelan government does not want it, it hates transparency of any kind.

More than a tantrum?

There is extra stress in the border because the Venezuelan military are constantly closing the access. That creates a huge disruption in the lives of people on both sides: there is a huge smuggling market and normal trade between Colombia and Venezuela. A gallon of gas in Venezuela is 20 times cheaper than accross the border, a lot of people have a lot to win or lose one way or the other.

I believe the whole situation could worsen very soon if the international community leaves this conflict unattended, if the Moratinos and Lulas keep quite in spite of the belligerant tone used by Hugo time after time.


On the map: green spots are very vaguely representing the places where the guerrillas get into Venezuela to rest, to hide, to get more resources. The yellow lines refer to the main places were legal and illegal trade take place. The blue regions are municipalities were the opposition was elected in 2008 (although they can hardly do anything now after the actions taken by the regime as described here)

If things are left unattended, more and more shootings could take place, more disruption of normal life in the region. At this stage I still doubt a war could come. Our neighbours don't want one and the vast majority of Venezuelans do not want one either. Hugo, though, is losing more and more the sense of reality.


Meanwhile: in Germany there are celebrations for the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I am happy for them (not that Venezuela has communism, it has a petrodollar dictatorship with a lot of communist talk).

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Question to old lefties:

(just in case, I could also ask the same question to "righties" with similar figures)
For how long were you in love with this bloke?

Aye, I know a lot of people were meeting him years ago.

And do you have now another idol?

Read about Mugabe's life here. If you want to learn a bit about where Venezuela differs and where it is similar to Zimbabwe, look, among other things, at my posts with the labels "ethnicity" and "corruption".

If you want an excellent post about how the gerrymandering in Venezuela will be organized, go to Daniel's blog.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Understanding how autocracies grow

In the last years we have seen how different Latin American presidents are trying to stay in power beyond the term limits set for them. They do the Belorussian thing: change the constitution when need be.

Many of the apologists of such regimes say that most Europe heads of states don't have term limits or that they even have unelected queens and kings. In reality this argument is moot: queens and kings, even if out of time figures, have no real power and all those countries in democratic Europe with no term limit for their "main leaders" don't have presidential systems, but parliamentarian systems and that is a completely different fish.

In this map you can see some interesting clusters:

  • countries with presidential systems that allow only one consecutive term for the president
  • countries with presidential systems that allow two to three consecutie terms
  • countries with parliamentarian systems (no term limit)
  • countries with the presidential system AND no term limit.
Something that is very striking: the last group is composed almost exclusively by countries with some reputation. Only Suriname can be seen - so far - as a democracy, but then the president is elected by 2/3 of the deputies and they have only had their first democratic president after a long dictatorship.

Now Colombia's Uribe is trying to run for a third term. Ortega in Nicaragua got his way to be re-elected and I am sure in Bolivia they will try to do the same thing Venezuela did.

Why don't we actually force the discussion about parliamentarian system for Latin America?

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Venezuela, police, prevention and intelligence

Map 1: murder in Carabobo in October 2009. Source: Notitarde report here, based on police reports (CIPC)

Every single point in the first Carabobo map represents a murder committed in October 2009: two babies playing in a slum shot down while two drug bands were fighting each other, a young man who was shot down while driving on his bike in Guacara too late, several people shot dead when a man under drugs decided to get into a party in one of the many slums in Southern Valencia and take revenge because of some issue or no issue at all.

You can see here (1MB file, it takes some seconds) an animation of murder in this region from January 2008 until last October. Actually, the murders in any municipality were much more concentrated than the map shows. We could make fairly good predictions if we had all the details police agents can supply.

How we got used to crime and the World does not care

The news about violent crime in Venezuela have become so repetitive that the whole situation has been banalized. People have become used to it, sort of. The news about the situation are almost like weather forecasts in Britain: 32 murders this weekend, 40, 41, 34...

The government uses the silliest strategies to minimize the issue: crime is caused by the social injustice inherent to capitalism (sure and chavismo has been in power for almost 11 years now), the government is doing something about it (right, murder rate has gone up from 19 murders per 100000 in 99 to over 50* now), false statistics (using one week as reference for one year or assuming there are no ups and downs), referring to crime everywhere (Hugo in Bbc saying "even in Italy a politician was killed recently) or drama (how can the opposition use the suffering of people to do politics?). The Venezuelan government stopped sending murder stats to United Nations in 2002 when the trend became too clear to show. It still reports on "crimes" in general as it knows it can manipulate more easily the numbers of "crimes" as opposed to those of murders.

Meanwhile crime is without control and many of the best professionals leave Venezuela precisely because of that (political mobbing and economic factors come next). The opposition keeps showing the numbers it can get from the police. The problem is that most people in Venezuela don't know how night life is in Santiago, in Madrid...heck, even in Bogotá or Buenos Aires. People outside Venezuela know crime in Latin America is bad, so they assume it is a little bit worse in Venezuela...sad, but well, it is a Latino thing, isn't it?

chart: murder rate per country. Venezuela is in red. Other South American countries are in yellow. Based on Wikipedia stats.


What can we do?

1) The opposition needs to inform people not just about crime in Venezuela, but about how crime is in Venezuela now compared to what it was earlier on and what crime in Venezuela now is compared to the rest of the world. As you can see from the first chart, Venezuela (in red) is one of the countries with the highest murder rate on Earth. Only Honduras, Sierra Leone and Jamaica are worse off. Venezuela is by far the most dangerous country in South America. I coloured the other South American countries in yellow.

How can the opposition inform better about the situation? People should forget the TV. Awful Globovision can be seen by less than 30% of the population anyway. Students should go to bus stations, to the underground, to the city centre, to the village and distribute the information in cheap flyers.

2) The opposition must publicly challenge the government over and over again to have an open debate about crime (and other issues). We know the government rejects any debate. We know the president does not meet journalists who could ask real questions (only state journalists who ask about children and favourite food or badly informed international "stars" such as Larry King, who never get deep into anything). The opposition has already asked the government for a debate, but it has given up fast. It thinks there is no use on insistng. I disagree. It matters a lot. Venezuela has never really known real debates and it needs them or at least it needs to know it needs them. We should demand them time after time. It is a shame the only person who really tried to challenge Hugo into a debate was Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa.

I believe we should publicly demand open, fair debates with international mediators. The government will have to give in or show to the general public it is afraid. We are actually addressing all Venezuelans through that challenge: us, the minority that still believes in the comandante and the large group of those who are nibs, who remain indifferent and think they can only shrug shoulders.

3) The opposition needs to choose shadow ministers as Britain does: politicians who take the time and show the brain power to analyse very specific issues and tell people about their ideas for Venezuela. It does not matter some of those ideas may be snatched by the government. Most probably the government will not "copy" what we propose, but if it does: so much the better for Venezuela. And anyway: we can make sure people know who proposed things in the first place.

4) Venezuelan mathematicians, geographers, sociologists, economists, security experts and other specialists should meet and discuss in public their proposals. The task is complex, very complex, but it is not rocket science. We really don't need a expert from the US/Spain/cuba/X who gives some agent a course about "the magic solution". It is not that I exclude using foreign experts, but above all we need to think for ourselves based on the best people we already have, on the models we have read about and on open debates. That is the only way we can get a sustainable plan that lasts one government or stays only in one region. Among other things, we can develop models about where crime is more likely to take place based on a systematic reporting of crime and studies carried out by all kinds of specialists working together. As you can see from some of the charts here, we can actually know that Valencia municipality will have about 90 murders this month and Diego Ibarra municipality some 9 this very month if nothing else is done and we know December will be much worse (we could predict the number of murders per square km very precisely, actually). I believe a digitalized system managed by experts can produce fair models about the specific streets and times where serious crimes are more likely to happen. Those models can be used to tell police agents and above all social agents where to act and when.

If the police force just goes on working as it does now, if the social workers in that municipality do what they do now and nothing more, if there are no libraries, sport facilities, hospitals and above all real jobs, things won't improve. Our experts need to get into the nitty-gritty at all those things and demand publicly for solutions to be implemented: for jobs, for health, for education, for general social problems, for drug abuse and for crime prevention through the use of cops.

5) Inform Venezuelans about the crime situation not just with absolute numbers, but taking into account the world context, so that the poor know the current state of Venezuela is far from normal even in South America.

6) Discuss publicly about where criminals are getting the weapons from and take actions to prevent them from doing that.

7) Demand a real transformation of the security forces within a specific time frame. The Venezuelan police sucks. It sucks big time. A Venezuelan policeman is 150 TIMES more likely to be a criminal than an average Venezuelan citizen. Among other things, the government must

  • require an ever higher education level from police candidates
  • increase the salary of police agents so that the ratio to the salary of Venezuelan deputies is similar to the ratio in Spain or Italy (right now the "Socialist" Venezuelan deputies earn net more than Europeans but police agents earn almonds
  • increase the number of police agents per 1000 inhabitants to some normal ratio (use the money Venezuela uses in Russian tanks and presents to that effect
  • limit the amount of police agents that are used as body guards for politicians to less than 5% of the force (now over 50% are used to protect our big politicos)
  • force the police to digitalize the key data about crimes for every region and use it for crime prevention both at local and national level
  • force the heads of the police to be accountable to the minister of Justice and force the Minister of Justice to declare at the National Assembly at least once every third month about the progress done
  • demand that the minister of Justice be a person with a clean record and not the thugs we have right now (if you want to see a mind map in Spanish about the 10 ministers of Justice and Inner Affairs since this government started, go here)

Source: Notitarde stats based on monthly police reports from 2006 to 2009 as in map 1.

8) Demand social justice from the government. While people like Arne, the brother of the Justice minister, are now billionaires after being penniless in 2001, half a million people in Southern Valencia (the most dangerous region in the map shown first) are living without decent jobs, without a single general hospital (they have now to go to the Hospital general, which is for half of that state), without a real public library and with the worst public schools of Latin America.

*In reality it may be over 70, the government has classified a lot of murders as anything but murder, including a husband murdering his ex-wife.