Friday, June 15, 2012

From the Archives: Remembering Juana the Iguana

In honor of the official claims in Venezuela that the recent power outage in Ciudad Guyana were caused by an opossum, it seemed appropriate the dredge the archives for an old 2010 report on Tal Cual's classic "iguana saboteur" report. (Hat-tip to Caracas Chronicles)

April 16, 2010

BLUF: Opposition press fatigue with government conspiracy theories and excuses for the county's energy troubles culminated in particularly harsh, standout satire that appeared to bypass the country's increasingly tight media restrictions.

OBSERVED: Predictably, opposition outlets criticized the government's arrest of eight Colombian nationals it accused of spying and collaborating to sabotage the country's electricity system. However, after Tal Cual cited government claims an iguana chewed through a power cable which caused a major blackout in Lecheria, Anzoategui state, the same outlet published a satirical article that generated heavy mockery in other outlets and throughout the opposition blogosphere. Satirist Laureano Marquez's article, pictured left in Tal Cual, said the US State Department, with Colombian and paramilitary assistance, developed a program of commandos to infiltrate Venezuela under cover as ecotourists. The commandos would "recruit" iguanas to bring back to Miami to be trained by the CIA and Cuban ex-patriots and returned to Venezuela to be distributed by Venezuelan political dissidents to national electricity generators.

Moderate El Universal subsequently ran two columns which cited the iguana incident; one column noted the absurdity of government claims and said President Hugo Chavez's administration would say anything to excuse itself from responsibility for the country's domestic troubles. Indicative of the satire piece's impact, another column mistakenly attributed Marquez's conspiracy theory directly to Chavez's government and accused the government of "making fun" of the Venezuelan public for concocting such wild claims.

ASSESSMENT: Marquez's piece stands out from typical opposition criticisms of the Venezuelan government that have appeared to moderate their rhetoric in the most recent reporting periods, probably out of fear of government reprisals. Commentators often present a litany of grievances in efforts to discredit the Chavez regime. However, Marquez's satirical grouping of several issues into one biting critique has apparently garnered more traction than most columns published in monitored opposition outlets. In addition to generating a flood of online commentary and being misrepresented in El Universal, the conspiracy was even  briefly cited in the UK's Observer and also attributed to the government. This shift towards obvious satire, instead of outright accusations, may permit the press to more openly criticize such "absurd" allegations without running afoul of the country's increasingly tight media restrictions.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

UPDATED: Why Dan Rather might Drive Chavez to Brazil

File under: Now that's it in English, someone might believe it.

O Globo, 7 May 2010 
US media lit up this afternoon after Dan Rather's "exclusive" report that "Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive cancer that has ‘entered the end stage" and that he was "doubtful" to survive until the 7 October presidential elections. 

Other than the fact that it was said by a known American journalist in English, there isn't much new in this report (respected Venezuelan and Brazilian journalists have been citing Cuban sources with similar information for months). But it's certain to have an impact regardless of how much of a revelation it may or may not be. First, the high profile nature is almost certain to trigger an appearance from Chavez (potentially even a live appearance) along the lines of Fidel Castro's infamous "Here I am" media showcases. If he follows his mentor's footsteps, he'll wait a few days for the suspense to build. And if he does make a live appearance, it will be fascinating to observe (and engage in) the inevitably intense round of speculation regarding his physical appearance and apparent level of vitality. 

Granma, 22 September 2007
Secondly, it may spell the end of Chavez's trips to Cuba. There's already widespread belief that a major reason he insists on be treated in Cuba (instead of in superior clinics in Brazil) is largely ideologically driven. A large part of Cuba's image is its health care system. How would it look if its favored son eschewed it in favor of a different (albeit still leftist) country? In addition, the secrecy afforded on the tightly controlled island is no small factor. Like Fidel, Chavez wants to closely control information about his health. However, if Rather's report is accurate it may signal to Chavez that his information is not so secure there after all, removing the primary advantage of attending a subpar clinic. With his health on the line, Chavez may seek ideological rationalization to finally accept former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's to attend his clinic of choice in Brazil. Such a decision would indicate not only the validity of Rather's leak, but also the gravity of Chavez's illness.

UPDATE: The first responses from the Chavista media machine are emerging. And so far they are wonderful. Eva Golinger is at the forefront again, and the woman Chavez himself proclaimed the "Novia of Venezuela" has discredited Rather's "lies" by pointing out that he also incorrectly referred to Chavez as a "dictator." Yet another sad, fac-checking turn for the once proud career of a former American icon. 

New Exovera Article: Henrique Capriles and the Quiet Campaign

With the local and international media focused on Chavez’s uncertain future, Capriles has quietly continued his grassroots "casa por casa" campaign across Venezuela, which has perhaps begun to capture the attention of Chavez's political base, if not the president himself.

Catching Up with Cuban Claims of US Malfeasance

Wading through the unending litany of Cuban accusations against the US can leave you numb to their specific causes, but an occasional effort to pause and consider what's fueling these claims can reveal much about the internal perspective of the island's regime.

SOURCE:, 29 May 2012
CIA plots for coups d’états. USAID plans to “foment subversion” among youth. The incessant drone of accusations against the US from Cuba, particularly for “meddling” and “subversion” in internal issues, can often become background noise to those that regularly check in on the island’s cartoonishly state-controlled media. However, to really understand the Castro regime’s perspective (and thus understand their motivations and perhaps forecast their future behavior) it is good from time to time to refocus and see what exactly is annoying Cuba these days.

Two such issues are prominently featured in government’s official website this week. A 29 May article revived long-running complaints against US-funded TV Marti, assuring that “many analysts” reject the Miami-based entity’s claim that it only seeks to offer Cubans “alternative information, insisting instead that the high-priced “radio-electronic aggression” really seeks to “overthrow the island’s government.” Honestly, the piece is a bit boring in context, as anyone who has regularly read the Cuban media has already seen different versions of it dozens if not hundreds of times.

However, the focus on the cost of the operation remains interesting.  In addition to framing it as an overtly hostile act, the media ministry wants to drive home to Cubans (who barely pay attention to the signal anyway) that the 30 million/year price tag reveals the true US position toward Cuba. If they really cared about its citizens, why would they spend so much money on something they ostensibly want nor can feasibly access while “the economic environment on the island faces a great deficit due to the blockade.”

The issue of funding is also at the core of their latest attack against the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) activities in Cuba and Venezuela.  The outlet cites the NED’s 2010 reports and their failure to list the “beneficiaries” of their “excessive” funding as evidence that this “CIA smokescreen” is hiding their “dirty work” of building and training a youth opposition movement that  will carry forth “destabilizing actions” against the Bolivarian government.

Amusingly, Cubadebate does give the International Republican Institute (IRI) for “not deceiving us” with the same “suggestive and noble” program names as the NED. Rather, the IRI is described as a “Machiavellian and well-structured subversive design aimed at creating institutions and political leaders with the objective of confronting the Venezuelan Revolution” (the few IRI members I know would probably take some level of pride in that description).  The real irony of this critique of the NED for their “deliberate manner of hiding and protecting their beneficiaries” is that it comes as Cuba is still holding US contractor Alan Gross, “convicted” of providing telecommunications equipment to the Jewish community on the island. Even the sinister manner in which they mention opposition efforts at “non-violent struggle” strongly hints at the fate that would await any such identified local participants in the program.

Again, none of this is a revelation. But at a time when US attempts to re-engage the region have been so far unsuccessful and when two of its primary antagonists are perhaps facing their own mortality (god help me for actually thinking that Fidel might die; I believe there’s a door prize for being the 10 millionth analyst to suggest it…) its helpful to remember how nearly every act of attempted engagement with the people is viewed and/or framed as “aggression.” Part of the reason is a rigid ideology that has come to be defined by an automatic “anti-imperial” stance to any US policy. But part of it is pragmatic.

Even giving the benefit of the doubt to these US agencies and NGOs and lifting all suspicions of CIA-type involvement, these regimes would feel the same towards even a purely altruistic agency genuinely devoted only to fostering democratic values and institutions, because such do represent a genuine threat to their grip on power and thus are legitimate “aggressions” in that sense. One must remember that the rhetoric of “democracy” and “elections” they hide behind is just that, and in the end leaders such as Castro and Chavez are driven by the same motivations and the same fears as open dictatorships. They are simply obligated to more carefully veil their actions behind a discourse of freedom and anti-colonialism. Forcing them into the open is dangerous, as it may also free them up to employ more brutal tactics, but it is also essential in order to erode the façade of legitimacy they’ve attempted to erect toward their own people.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Chavez regime warns followers against spreading "rumors"

SOURCE: Tal Cual, 28 May 2012
This is delicate. And maybe a bit complex. But I'll try to deferentially handle it with the caution and reverence such matters apparently warrant. You see, there are rumors in Venezuela these days. Rumors about Chavez's health (you've probably heard those here and there), rumors about Diosdado Cabello's candidacy for president (well, not so much rumors as unsourced campaign posters that appeared in the capital and fueled the controversy over whether a vote for a sickly Chavez was really just a vote for Cabello). You see, these rumors are allowing the "opposition to repress the government" (illustrated left via an excellent drawing from Tal Cual Digital)

Well, the Minister of Information William Izarra has heard your pleas for help, and he has a prescription: Don't repeat them:
We are in the fourth generation of war: the means of communication. Rumors generate panic. They go much farther than fear. No revolutionary should repeat rumors."
That's the intricate and nuanced plan of action the "MINISTER OF INFORMATION" was able to piece together a full 10 DAYS after opposition El Nacional apparently embarrassed him after (in Izarra's words) the crafty newspaper dared to challenge Izarra and the Chavez campaign with its "information manipulation," not even giving him the right to respond before publication and prove the words were  quoted in the offending article were wrong. Again, in Izarra's own words from a 28 May response to the 19 May El Nacional article:
"They (the media) are seeking spaces left by revolutionaries and there they meddle. The conscience and the knowledge, through ideology, will permit that we all act. It's necessary to elevate the conscience and take on a role of ideological formation as a necessity."
Confused? Well, that's also understandable. Because what Izarra is burning through so many thick rhetorical brushfires to avoid (and obscure) is that El Nacional's "crime" was to actually directly quote him saying something that wasn't explicitly positive about the Chavez campaign (NOTE: don't be fooled by the innocent--maybe even manipulative--language I used here. Because this is serious stuff.)

Izarra was recorded saying the following, and then El Nacional reported that he said that, and then El Nacional didn't give Izarra proper recourse to prove that he didn't really say this (per the El Nacional manipulative report):
"If Chavez manages to get 10 million votes in October, we would have the basis to say that the revolution is entering a new phase of consolidation; but if the proportion is Chavez 8.4 million and Capriles 6 million, it will be much more complicated to advance and won't be easy to construct socialism." He warned that an excess of confidence would run the risk of not reaching 10 million votes and, second, would obligate accepting that the capitalist model would continue coexisting in the national political scenario."
Now, this chatter about the indisputably awkward scenario of Chavez not "winning by enough" is, by itself, enough to get a tenured Chavista leader sentenced to 5 yrs hard labor in Cuba. But the money quote, the real troublemaker, is what comes next:
"There are 8 million voters that don't have an ideological-political definition and Capriles is reaching them with a discourse that says that if he wins it will generate confidence in the business sector. The voter that is not developed may think that sounds nice, that it's beneficial, although in reality it will wind up being disadvantageous for the worker."
Izarra is probably just in trouble for being
 responsible for this grin on Caprile's face
SOURCE: El Nacional, 19 May 2012
The key to understanding why this is so controversial becomes immediately clear in how El Nacional headlined the quote: "Chavismo admits that Capriles reaches 8 million voters." Looking at the numbers Izarra listed above during the meeting (when he didn't realize he had a hot mic), you understand how 1) there may be more of a split in the general electorate than the Chavez campaign wants to publicly admit and 2) in light of the split which they now obviously fear may be there, their recent campaign strategy to just relentlessly publish and discuss polls proving that the election is over before it begins may lead to Izarra's fears of a premature "triumphalism" with chavistas "resting on their laurels" and not delivering the "crushing" victory that Chavez needs. Curiously, this would suggest that the Chavez campaign's strategy is to simultaneously assure the people that Capriles is not a viable candidate whose national support has been grossly exaggerated while also motivating them to get out and vote to avoid a potential upset or even just a surprisingly close race that could undermine the Bolivarian mandate.

This understandably leaves middle men like Izarra walking a very fine line. This apparent concern for the lack of a strong mandate is itself a bit curious, since it would seem to suggest either some concerns about Chavez being able to stay the course for the full 6 years (meaning they would need some extra "political capital" to buy time if he needs to be replaced) or concerns that a tighter-than-expected victory would clearly signal that the opposition platform was continuing to gain traction since the gerrymandered 2010 parliamentary elections.

Back to the point, as a general rule, I feel safe speculating that the "no repeating rumors" rule of thumb also extends to ever-expanding rumors about the viability (or even legality) of Chavez's own candidacy for the next 6-yr term in October. On the other hand, rumors about crosswords with hidden assassination plots and alleged sabotage at electrical plants ... well, I would say you're probably okay mentioning those. Just so long as your rumors incite reckless patriotism and not doubts or "instability." Just ask yourself, what would Manuel Perez Pirela do? (HINT: He would profit. But, more germane to our point, he would first disentangle irresponsible opposition rumors funded by US dollars aimed at destabilization from legit investigative journalism revealing the embarrassingly far-fetched and ethereal opposition plots at assassinations centered around Jewish holy days). Just pay attention. You'll be fine. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

"Diosdado for President" posters with PSUV logo appear in Caracas

(SOURCE: El Nacional, 26 May 2012)
This is interesting. El Nacional reports on the appearance in Caracas of campaign posters promoting National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello (one of the men rumored to be positioned to fill any power vacuum should Chavez falter). Cabello of course has denied any involvement and (following the standard script) blamed "the right" for "trying to divide us."No matter who is behind this, it's going to be interesting. If it was an opposition source, then the "dirty pool" tactics are likely to trigger even stronger rhetoric and a potential crackdown through new "election monitoring rules" (or whatever legislative language the Chavez regime will couch it in when they create a new committee to go after this). If it was a false flag op on the part of the Chavez campaign (perhaps in an attempt to discredit the rumors of internal division), it raises some questions about why they would be concerned enough to do it, in light of the poll numbers they keep touting.

Of course, the most interesting scenario is that it really is a PSUV splinter group concerned that Chavez won't be around for the October elections. If that's the case, it may spell bad news for Cabello, who will likely have to spend the next week publicly kowtowing to Chavez's "undisputed" leadership by an means.

EDIT: So far, it looks like the state press hasn't addressed this yet. Given that they're definitely already well-aware of it, my guess is that they're coordinating their official response and perhaps taking a page from the Cuban playbook and waiting for leadership (potentially Chavez himself) to publicly address it and set the message for them to follow.

UPDATE: Francisco Toro over at Caracas Chronicles says that if this is a "dirty trick" from the MUD, it's "brilliant Machiavellian stuff" that "seeds the message that a vote for Chavez is a vote for Diasdado."

A post on on The Devil's Excrement has a similar take:
Of course, it would be dumb for Diosdado to have these posters made up. He denied authorship and blamed the opposition via Twitter. But Nelson Bocranda via Twitter suggested the posters came out of the Ministry of Foreign Relations, where wannabe aspiring President Nicola Maduro resides. Definitely more juicy and interesting.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Nice cartoon on state/media dynamic from Venezuela's Tal Cual

SOURCE: Tal Cual Digital, 24 May 2012

With this excellently chilling cartoon, Venezuela's opposition Tal Cual Digital commemorates the 5-year anniversary of "one of the most infamous attacks against freedom of expression," the shut down of RCTV's free signal. In addition to citing the failure of its state replacement TVES as evidence that the "excuse of public service television was a lie," the piece also links the unpopular shut down to what Chavez famously called the opposition's "victoria de mierda" in the 2007 referendum.

It sounds sadistic, but my favorite part of this cartoon is the subtle nod to the sad practice of self-censorhip among the duly cowed "independent" outlets. Much more effective than if he'd just shown the same three TVs shattered with bullet holes at the dictator's feet, this rendering is also a subtle indictment of Tal Cual's fellow outlets.

Full article (in Spanish):