Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Stayin' Alive in Venezuela

The January 5th edition of the Wall Street Journal pays attention to some of Chavez's more pragmatic, post-referendum moves. I love the fact that, in addition to lifting some price controls, they're also busy importing food from the U.S. to make up for shortages (last para below):

"We have decided to open ourselves up to attend to street-level problems, like garbage and shortages, because we believe that you can't theorize about socialism if the people don't see government in action," said Jesse Chacon, the new government spokesman, during a press conference Friday to announce the cabinet changes.

Most observers believe Mr. Chávez's new strategy doesn't mean an end to his grand ambitions to remake Venezuela into a utopian society as well as stay in power for good to make that vision a reality. Instead, the moves signal that his own political survival may be more important to Mr. Chávez than any ideological blueprint.

"Chavez is not rigid ideologically," says Gilbert Merkx, a Latin American specialist and director at Duke University's Center for International Studies. "He is very improvisational and has a floating ideology that allows him to reinvent himself."

Not that anyone believes Mr. Chávez is about to become a believer in free markets. In a research note, the investment bank Goldman Sachs said it had "yet to detect signs that going forward the heterodox policy orientation will be reverted or moderated."

[Hugo Chavez]

It is also far from clear that Mr. Chávez's new team is up to the task of rectifying Venezuela's growing list of economic problems. For one, many of the new cabinet members are recycled from previous posts or other spots in the government and don't bring fresh ideas. The new finance minister, Rafael Isea, was previously vice finance minister for endogenous development. The newly named planning minister wrote a book called "Capitalism is Bad Business: Principles for Socialists."

In attacking the problem of food shortages, Mr. Chávez eased a price control on one kind of milk, but most of his solutions involve greater government intervention. Houston-based logistics managers for state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA were diverted from their usual jobs in recent months and charged with buying up tons of food from the U.S. for delivery to Caracas, where they are offered to the poor at one-day outdoor markets run by the government. "We're learning on the fly," a PDVSA worker reached by telephone said of his new mission.

Latell on Cuba

In an opinion piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, former national intelligence officer for Latin America Brian Latell predicts a gradual economic opening in Cuba -- along the lines of a Vietnamese or Chinese model -- with Raul's ascendancy. But on governance he says it's a matter of different styles more than anything else:

Raúl's style guarantees that Cuba will be governed differently. He'll rule more collegially than his brother, consulting trusted subordinates and delegating more. During the interregnum he has worked with officials of different generations and pedigrees, even promoting one long-time archrival to create a united front after his brother's initial withdrawal.

On his watch, Raúl has broken some previously sacred crockery as well. He has admitted that Cuba's many problems are systemic. In his disarmingly accurate view, it is not the American embargo or "imperialism" that are the cause of problems on the island, as his brother always insisted, but rather the regime's own mistakes and mindsets. He has called on Cubans, especially the youth, to "debate fearlessly" and help devise solutions for the failures. Candid discussions at the grassroots level have proliferated.

Yet like his brother, Raúl has no intention of opening Cuba to free political speech or participation. While the number of Cubans willing to voice their discontent publicly is on the increase, so too is the brutality of government reprisals against would-be leaders of the dissident movement. By acknowledging state failures, Raúl is playing with fire, and if the lid is going to be kept on, those challenging the regime have to pay a price.

He also wonders about how he will navigate the relationship with Chavez, the dependency on whom has nearly reached levels similar to that of the Soviet Union:

And there is Hugo Chávez. Unlike Fidel, Raúl has no personal rapport with the mercurial Venezuelan president, and surely no desire to be subordinated to another narcissistic potentate just as he is finally close to escaping his brother's grip. But Cuba has become highly dependent economically on Venezuela. The value of the Chávez dole, mostly oil, reached between $3 billion and $4 billion last year, approaching the amounts once provided by the Soviet Union. Raúl would be loath to provoke the Venezuelan. Without his support, the Cuban economy would soon plunge into deep recession.

There is no way to know how skillfully Raúl Castro will lead and deal with inevitable crises once his brother is gone. He clearly wants to begin rectifying economic problems but knows that, for some time at least, he cannot broadly repudiate his brother's legacy. A powerful backlash could come from fidelista hard-liners in the leadership -- and perhaps from Mr. Chávez. In the end, however, it is the gamble Raúl will have to take.