Thursday, February 20, 2014
I guess it's time to talk Venezuela.
Everybody else is pretending to be an expert on the country, so I guess having been born there 35 years ago and having spent 5 weeks there in 2 trips over the last year makes me a Super Duper Senior Expert.
Here's something that might surprise you. The problem with Venezuela is that it's too far to the right.
I know all you've seen over the past 15 years are images of this crazy commie Chavez and his comrade Castro posing together in red guayaberas. (You see dropping a long spanish word enhances my credentials as an expert.) But out of the Mercosur countries I've visited (Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay), Venezuela is by far the least "Leftist."
What Chavismo has done is take a country that was practically a US colony hemorrhaging its wealth into the pockets of a few capitalist extremists and build some sort of a structure to stop that. This "socialist" structure took some of the money that was ending up in Private Banks in Miami (and to a smaller extent in abandoned Million dollar mansions in remote Lebanese villages) and spent it in areas that fall outside Caracas' business center.
It's quite ironic that they're calling the protesters in Venezuela "Students," because Venezuelans of all ages are now "students" thanks to aggressive Chavismo investments in education for all. You see the CIA sponsored rulers of Venezuela in the and 1980's and 1990's saw that Venezuelan money is better spent in building skyscrapers in a US city to boost its economy than to build hospitals and provide the basic needs to a very impoverished native population.
I wonder where else in the world the native wealth is being used to boost the colonizers' economies (and football rosters). Hmmm.
In order to break with the US, Hugo Chavez struck deals with many "enemies of socialism" (even absorbed some of them into his party) because frankly gaining political independence from the US required to have big business on his side. This truce with the Venezuelan capital and the fact that US buys a shit load of Venezuelan oil meant that Venezuela was not economically independent from the US, and that has been the ongoing battle over the past 15 years.
Over the years, Chavez was making gains on that front, and the US was trying everything to disrupt his progress including a failed coup attempt.
Last year, Chavez died.
Some of the capitalist old guard whom Chavez had domesticated smelled blood and saw an opportunity to pounce on a "raw" Maduro. The opposition naturally saw it as now or never, and of course Washington had an Oboner.
Over the past year, the Chavistas with Maduro at the helm came under attack from every front possible. I will skip boring details and jump to this week's events. Before that, let me just point out one tactic that was used as it was used in Lebanon before and it might be used again in the future if anyone attempts to liberate the Lebanese economy.
When Rafiq Hariri rollsed royced into Beirut as a savior in the early 1990's, bankers' speculation pushed the black market exchange rate for the Lebanese Lira to 3000LL for 1USD. Rafiq Hariri's solution, after street protests forced Omar Karami's cabinet to resign, was to peg the Lira to the USD. To put it simply, the Lebanese Lira today is under foreign occupation.
Black market speculation–along with high inflation rates–over the past year has pushed the exchange rate for the Venezuelan Bolivar from around 8 Bolivars for 1USD to to over 80 today. Venezuela needs a Harvard-educated savior.
15 years of Chavismo failed at creating a self-sufficient economy that would be immune from US banks. It is still a heavily consumerist society that produces very little. It has also failed at combatting crime that has plagued Venezuela forever. The Venezuelan government has also always been very corrupt. It's hard to tell if corruption increased or decreased over the Chavez years, because for some reason these numbers aren't tracked by government.
But today's protests aren't about any of that.
Ciudad Guayana in the east of Venezuela best illustrates what's going on. It is a city that's divided into 2 parts: The slums of San Felix, and the malls and gated communities of Puerto Ordaz. For a whole week, tens of protesters (at night the number goes down to a handful) blocked a main road in Puerto Ordaz that houses a Wendy's and a TGI Friday's. A few other protesters tweeted rebellious selfies with signs inside the Orinokia Mall which is two blocks away. They want the "Dictator" out.
Yesterday, ruling party thugs cleared the street. The pictures filled the media. Venezuelans sitting on their computers in Miami retweeted them.
In San Felix, people go about their daily life. They patiently stand in breadlines…and butterlines…and cooking oil lines. No one protested. No roads were blocked by "students". No retweets. They know very well how 15 years ago they only dreamt of being "students" and having a main road reach them so they can one day block it. But it won't be today, because unlike on twitter: Life here is real.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Change of scenery, and language.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil!
I did have a stop along the way between Buenos Aires and Rio. But for some reason, the little country that is wedged between the 2 biggest South American Countries is often overlooked. Who am I to change that? I shall overlook Uruguay too.
But I have my reasons for doing so.
The Uruguayan capital Montevideo is just too eerily similar to Beirut.
The City's waterfront has a "Corniche" that looks like this on one end….
...and has a public beach on another (sort of… technically it isn't the end of the Corniche but the end of a section of it.)
People hangout there around sunset and can pretty much be divided into 2 categories: the runners (and boy do they take the running seriously) and let's call the other group the Arguileh puffers.
Ok, they aren't puffing on their Arguilehs but this is what half the population of Montevideo looks like (Half might sound like one of these exaggerations that are often used and I hate, but I did some random sampling at different points in the city and at different times of day and and it's pretty damn close to half):
They have legs. Two of them. They have a left arm and all of its regular attachments. Pretty much standard human physiology so far. However, the right side of their torso is where they differ from other human beings. Where most people have their right arm, half of Montevideoans possess a cyborg limb whose function is to generate fuel to run the rest of the body.
Clutched in the armpit area is a massive thermos-like reservoir of hot water. Judging by their sizes they could fit anywhere between 2 and 10 Liters of boiling water. The bicep area of the arm is used to secure that tank in place with an unescapable professional wrestling headlock. The hand part clamps a dried-squash at mouth height. Out of that squash, which is filled with Yerba Mate, comes a metal straw/spoon/sifter thingie into what I presume is a human mouth, but I can't confirm that as it's always hiding behind the squash. This cyborg limb/production line is an engineering marvel as the whole transfer of boiling water into the the mug to brew the waiting Mate buds takes place swiftly while people walk on busy streets, tend to kids or pets, and make out with lovers.
So basically what I'm trying to say is that the Mate kit reminded me of the stupid Arguileh kit.
Some sidewalks along Montevideo's hilly roads could also resemble Beirut's irregular sidewalks.
It also has ugly buildings like this one.
It's a lot more expensive than its bigger neighbor Argentina.
Every part of the world has this joke:
Do you know what the easiest way to make money is? Buy a (insert nationality) for what they're worth and sell them for what they think they are worth?
In the Arab world the joke is on the Lebanese. In this part of the world it's always been the Argentinians, and I must say the Argentinian Peso isn't helping to dispel the stereotype.
By the way, I lied. Montevideo is nothing like Beirut.
The political scene is dominated by left vs left battles. The right is quite marginalized. They probably sit in cafes like this one and pretend they matter.
The president in Uruguay was a revolutionary fighter who donates 90% of his official salary to charity.
The idiot of Lebanon destroyed a refugee camp to become president, and makes 90% of his income from bribes and corrupt dealings.
Uruguay will be a major player in the upcoming World Cup. Lebanon sold their World Cup chance for an iPhone.
Uruguay has cows. Lebanon has rotten meat scandals.
Uruguay is Green. Lebanon is only green in songs and with envy.
I guess Rio will have to wait.
Saturday, February 01, 2014
A couple of weeks ago Airbus released an updated price list. The cheapest of their toys is $72 million. The A380 is slightly out of my price range at over $400 million. Now if you want a smaller Embraer, you’d be looking at price tag of $16 to $40 million.
The point is that airlines spend serious cash on their business. They also tend to lose money and be subsidized or bailed out by public funds. The newer and larger models have touch screens for every seat where you have the choice of watching a random episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, a week-old news update, play a video game with a joystick that can be pulled from your armrest, or fall asleep to a looping 90-second Tango track as happened with me the last time I was on a plane. I don’t think they call them joysticks anymore. Personally, I think the joystick industry peaked with red-buttoned vertical model whose base was equipped with suction cups. It’s been downhill since then as they eliminated the stick and added buttons. Don't get me started on the Wii thingie.
There is point to this rant, I think. Oh yeah, airlines…
So 1400h on Friday I show up at the offices of a major European airline to change a ticket reservation. When I book a flight on a computer born in the internet era, I use a mouse to click about 10 clicks max on a user friendly interface and voila I’m booked. The mouse at the airline office is just desk decoration. The customer service agent plays a one-thousand keystroke symphony on their keyboard before you even tell them what you’re there for. At the point every word you say is translated into an untwitterable code and inputted into the DOS interface with a blinking cursor speeding left to right on the screen before jumping one line down and doing the same routine over and over for about two hours. At 1600h, and what seemed like a million keystrokes later, I was informed that there are no available seats for my fare all year. She actually manually looked into every flight for every remaining day of the year and my 2 letter fare code did not appear. There were hundreds of other 2 letter fare codes, but apparently they all belong to some fare code collector who doesn’t believe in sharing.
From what I understood, the different airport taxes have 3 letter codes. These happen to be available for everyone.
By the way, it's been over a week and my lost bag has still to be converted into traceable code. But that's a different airline. Conviasa of Venezuela doesn't even believe in timetables. If a flight lifts off on the same day it's scheduled to fly on, they chalk it up as a success.
I would say the airline reservation system needs to be simplified and modernized. I know it’s part of the scam airlines run in order to make money, but I can’t imagine how paying someone for 2 hours to type code into the system where in the end we end up just where we started is a good way to spend public funds.
If they really want to preserve endangered species of electronics, they can keep their dot-matrix printers. Now that is music I can listen to on loop for hours.
Ok, here's a minute from last night's performance by the Orquesta Tipica Fernandez Fierro.