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Views from Venezuela

Aleksander Boyd interviews Daniel Duquenal

London 19.08.06 | In recent e-conversations with fellow blogger Daniel Duquenal he pointed out that the main mission of the electoral minions of Hugo Chavez is to actively promote the abstention in the run up to the presidencial elections of December this year. This and other topics were brought up and I thought useful to turn our conversation into an interview.

- Daniel, living in a small city hundreds of kilometers away from Caracas surely must give you the necessary pause to ponder about the centralist drive undergoing in Venezuela. How do you see the reversal of descentralization implemented by the Chavez regime and how does it affect the agricultural sector in general?

It affects all aspects of life. For example for certain permits for production of goods we used to have inspections set with inspectors coming from either Valencia or Barquisimeto (1.5 hours drive away). Now, I have to go personally to some nondescript office in Caracas. I cannot even send an assistant, or my lawyer, it has to be me, personally, in Caracas. And of course the bureaucrat in question does not care whether I live in Caracas, San Felipe or San Cristobal. From San Felipe I could manage to go to Caracas within a day by leaving at 5 AM and coming back sometime around 9 (driving, no airplane), but the same permit from San Cristobal would require the unfortunate permit seeker to take the plane and spend at least one night in Caracas. All at our expenses, of course. It is clear how the costs to business increase and how productivity decrease as people must spend valuable days of work to stand in line in a Caracas bureaucratic endeavour.

The re-centralization process, as far as agriculture is concerned, could become very damaging. In the projected and existing laws the government has significant decision in what is planted where. Thus the risk of a lackluster Caracas bureaucrat to decide what is planted in Yaracuy without even visiting or talking to the locals is great. We have the potential to come back to the good old days of the USSR when Moscow decided what Siberian Kolkhozes were to plant.

- How is the farming industry coping with the massive food imports for MERCAL and how these have affected Yaracuy specifically?

The massive imports of Mercal have a very disruptive effect in the cost system of the production chain. The government imports through Mercal are exempt of duties and value added tax. The local producers must pay these as many supplies for agriculture are imported (seeds, machinery). Thus the government has a built in advantage in price completion to promote its Mercal chain of stores. But in addition the government subsidizes some of the goods it imports. The expected result is that local production suffers a lot, some farmers or agribusiness entrepreneurs can only work for so long without a profit and eventually stop. On the long range prospect Mercal will aggravate the food dependency of the country.

Yaracuy being more oriented towards cash crops and cattle grazing is less affected by Mercal. However the unnecessary land disputes and overzealous land invasions have all but killed the sugar industry of Yaracuy. As a result now Mercal is forced to import large amounts of sugar that can only be found at Mercals.

- Recently the Spanish Senate unanimously approved a motion requesting the Chavez regime to respect private property and to protect the lives of Spanish families that have been victimised by government-sponsored armed gangs due to the current land-confiscation policies. Of special significance was the fact that the motion was triggered after Spaniards based in Yaracuy -some of them where even lynched- protested angrily to their diplomatic representation and government for what they perceived as race-based prosecution. Have you seen any indication that such cases have abated? Further, have you felt victim of racially-motivated actions by chavistas?

No, such cases still exist and compensations are hard in coming and certainly not proportionate to the real value of the loss of the owners. But what is even more unfair is that the Venezuelan citizens of Yaracuy that do not benefit from a Spanish ancestry have no recourse and are thus losing all their life's work. There are groups in Yaracuy who are organized to despoil most of the agricultural lands and not necessarily for the profit of the poor. The few chavistas that already owned land in Yaracuy have not been assaulted by the organized squads coming from sectors close to some local pro Chavez political operators. The countryside of Yaracuy is now a place fraught with terror and even a blogger like me cannot take the risk to point out the finger at well known people that promote this disaster, jail opponents without trials and what not. It is just too dangerous for me to say more than what I say in this reply.

- The Chavez regime boasts a great deal about endogenous development and cooperativism. Have you seen any examples of such policies having a positive impact in Yaracuy?

As far as I know, from the confessions of a public servant to me in private, the rate of failure of government sponsored cooperatives and endogenous development schemes in Yaracuy is exceedingly high. I have no reason from my other observations to think otherwise. The few 'successes' I have observed are from those cooperatives that work directly with the government to perform such things as repaint the buses of San Felipe with the colors of chavismo, making them permanent pro Chavez political posters on wheels. I was even approached as to my willingness to help supervise such cooperatives to try to improve the success rate. But nothing came of it, I was never contacted again and I never pursued the contact as they were too politically charged for my own safety.

- You have gained a degree of notoriety amongst Venezuelan bloggers. How do you perceive your role in this authoritarian hour of Venezuela and what impact you think bloggers such as yourself can have in the politics of your country?

I am under no illusion that I have any impact in Venezuela. To begin with I write in English and thus 90% of Venezuelans that use Internet are probably not able to read English-written blogs that put long and complex articles as I do. I see my role as trying to explain what happens to Venezuela to people that are really interested in the question and who are not seeking the 15 seconds sound bite.

However this might change next year. The government is promoting a series of laws that will, at the very least, increase the self censorship already observed in the media in general where only well established and world wide known papers as EL Universal or El Nacional still print pretty much what they want. If such restrictions come to take place certainly the Internet would become the way to know what is really going on inside Venezuela. At this point blogs like mine can suddenly acquire a considerable importance and become a danger for the regime.  See, blogs that have been written for years like mine or the one from Miguel Octavio do benefit from a credibility or legitimacy that few blogs in Venezuela benefit even if we are frank opponents of the regime. We are well known, we have extensive archives, we do not dabble in gossip, we have been proven more often right than wrong, we do not tell what people should do but we tell it as it is as far as the lack of ethics of the regime and the very clear and unavoidable examples of power abuse and disrespect for human rights is concerned. This can only become a bigger issue overseas as time advances and the government will notice and harass us. I have no doubt that this will come, probably within a year from any press restriction. I hope I am wrong, but when I see what happens to bloggers in Iran, now a big friend of Chavez, I cannot help but be pessimistic and worry about my long term safety.

- You have stressed that the Chavez government is actively promoting abstention vis-a-vis the coming presidencial elections. Could you expand on that argument?

The regime needs to win big to establish its legitimacy and undertake the constitutional changes it plans next year. These changes which will reinforce central power, restrict economic freedom and perhaps even limit press freedom will be changes not acceptable for many countries. Thus the only way to obtain them is to have an 'overwhelming victory' to be able to say 'the people wanted it'. Unfortunately the electoral apathy and militant abstention will deny Chavez the hoped for 10 million votes he has foolishly set as a goal. His next option is thus to win by a wide percentile margin. Now, can he get around obtaining a victory that should be by more, much more than 20 points if possible? He either cheats outright which will be obvious and unacceptable or he promotes abstention by mining the trust in the act of voting. This second option is the one that seems currently favored by chavismo. The electoral apathy is exploited in such a way as only the radical groups will go to vote while the opposition will be radicalizing itself by not voting. In December 2005 the government was surprised by the near 80% abstention rate. But the government also realized later that this did not stop at all its ability to negotiate international agreements. Thus for the presidential election the ideal scenario of the government would be to lower abstention to a more acceptable 60% and take 70% of the cast votes. This is exactly what the CNE seems to be encouraging by forcing back the finger printing machines, by showing itself increasingly partisan. Will it work? That's another day's another discussion.

- How do you see the candidacy of Manuel Rosales developing? Can you perceive any change in the ever so selfish and detached attitudes of opposition politicos in Venezuela around the Rosales ticket?

It is too early to say. Initial reactions have been positive. There is such a thirst within the opposition to finally have someone that can face Chavez that for the time being there is only good will expressed towards him. Though of course there are already some that are preparing to attack Rosales even if this helps Chavez. It seems that within the Venezuelan opposition there are those that prefer to be the leaders of the opposition rather than to actually work at winning office. It is a rather strange phenomenon but easily verifiable through observation.

At least I can observe that all the main leaders of the diverse branches of the opposition, those that do carry some weight, have rallied around Rosales, including from the pro systematic abstention camp. I am allowing myself some moderate optimism. If this 'unity' lasts for a few weeks it might cement itself for a credible bid in December.

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