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Venezuela Agonistes.

datePosted on 16:04, September 12th, 2018 by Pablo

There are two things remarkable about coverage of the Venezuelan crisis. The first is the silence of the Left in the face of it. This includes the champions of the so-called Latin American “Pink Tide” who saw in the Boliviarian Revolution an alternate developmental model that along with the left leaning regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Nicaragua offered hope for a new socialist bulwark in the Western Hemisphere that, unlike the Castro regime in Cuba, was both socialist and democratic. Or at least, that was the thought in the early 2000s. Now, rather than offer robust critiques of what went wrong, those champions have gone quiet, perhaps hugging small comfort pets against their Che Guevara t-shirts while muttering into their pillows something about the sulphuric impact of “neo-imperialism” and globalised corporate control.

The second remarkable aspect of the coverage of Venezuela is the continued misrepresentation by conservative (and even mainstream media) commentators that Venezuela demonstrates (yet again) the failures of socialism in practice. Allow me to address this fallacy.

Before I do so let’s briefly note what is clearly an organic crisis of the Venezuelan state (seen, in Gramscian terms, as economy+civil society+political society).  Regardless of external factors and interference (such as oil prices, Cuban security assistance and US government hostility) and the disloyal nature of most of the traditional opposition to the Boliviarian Movement, the crisis has at its core the incompetence and corruption of the Maduro government. The seeds for the decline were sown by Hugo Chavez himself with his prolifigate spending and cult of personality, but the bitter fruit of criminality, cronyism, patronage, partisanism and despotic maladministration ripened, then rotted under Maduro.

This not entirely surprising because in truth the Boliviarian experiment was always more populist than socialist. Socialism is not just about downwards redistribution of income and expansion of public goods and services via the use of tax revenues.  It is not just about progressive tax reform to make the rich pay their fair share. It is not just about nationalising privately held productive assets or at least strategic economic assets. It not about state ownership of the means of production. And it definitely does not involve a self-appointed authoritarian revolutionary “vanguard” telling everyone what their best interests are, what to do in pursuit of those interests, and concentrating power in a small partisan elite in order to compel others do so.

Instead, socialism involves equality in and of production, to include worker control of decision-making on everything from occupational health and safety to production levels to distribution and reinvestment of profit. Socialism involves decentralisation and local autonomy in political decision-making, to include about the distribution of public goods, social investment and economic development. It involves not just matters of production, particularly with respect to control of productive assets, but also of decision-making behaviour within production and the attendant social relations linked to it. Socialism has cooperatives as a basic unit of social integration; national populism has paramilitary militias and neighbourhood political snitches.

There is more to socialism than what I have outlined, but the point should be pretty clear: socialism is about devolving power to the people, not concentrating it in the hands of a central government. Even if a transition period is needed after bourgeois rule, the move to socialism involves expansion of the number of decisional sites that determine the material, cultural and political fortunes of the average citizen. To do so requires dismantling of a capitalist state apparatus, which is characterised by top down managerial control of public and private policy decision-making, and its replacement with a socialist state in which policy decisions ultimately rest in the hands of immediate stakeholders and are conveyed upwards into national-level platforms. The transition between the two–from a capitalist state to a socialist state–is the hard part of any change from liberal to social democracy (even more so than in violent social revolutions where the destruction of the capitalist state runs in parallel with the elimination of capitalism and its elites), and in Venezuela’s case it was never done. Both Chavez and Maduro have relied on a capitalist state to implement and enforce their populist, and increasingly authoritarian mode of governance.

Rather than socialist and democratic, the Boliviarian revolution is a left-leaning national populist regime using a state capitalist project and corporatist forms of interest group intermediation marshalled along partisan lines in order to redistribute wealth via partisan patronage networks to its support base and to its leaders. It has uncoupled wealth redistribution from productivity and, for all the achievements in education and health made under Chavez, those gains were lost once prices for the single export commodity it relies on (oil) fell and the revenues from oil experts shrunk. Corruption and incompetence, coupled with private capital flight and the exodus of the managerial class (mostly to Florida), accelerated the downward spiral, and now Venezuela is for all purposes a failed state. Inflation is stratospheric, food scarcity is rife, there are shortages of essential medical supplies, power and potable water, petrol supplies (?!) are increasingly spotty, unemployment, under-employment and crime are at all-time highs (the murder rate is 85 per 100,100 population, one of the highest in the world). Violent street protests have become the norm, and spot curfews and other coercive and legal curtailments on freedom of movement and speech are now the most widely used tools with which the Maduro regime handles dissent. For a purportedly Leftist regime, there is no worse indictment than that.

That Chavez, Maduro and their supporters refer to the Boliviarian regime as “socialist” is offered as proof  by some that it is, and that is it is therefore socialism that has failed. That is hopelessly naive. “Socialism” is the label that the Boliviarians have cloaked themselves in because they know that given its history, “populism” is not in fact very popular in Latin America. In its own way the US is finding out why that is so, but the important point to note is that there is nothing genuinely socialist about they way the Boliviarians behave.

The current reality is that the Boliviarian regime has descended from a left-leaning national populist form into an Scotch-addled kleptocracy (Venezuelans have one of the highest per capita intakes of Scotch in the world, and in recent years the regime has taken to hoarding supplies of it). In the measure that it is besieged by its own weaknesses and the rising opposition of the popular base that it ostensibly serves, it increasingly relies on coercion and criminality for its sustenance. Military and government involvement in the narcotics trade, the presence of Cuban intelligence in and out of the armed forces and security apparatus, covert links to states such as Syria and North Korea, the presence of operatives of extra-regional non-state actors such as Hezbollah in government circles–all of these factors suggest that Venezuela’s national interests are no longer foremost in the minds of the Boliviarian elite.

This has not been lost on the population, and the last year has seen over 1.5 million Venezuelans emigrate. This is on a par with Syrian and Rohinga refugee flows and amount to more than 4 million Venezuelans now living outside their motherland (with most leaving after 1999 when Chavez was first elected). The refugee crisis has impacted the relations between Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil, with their borders heavily militarised and safe passage corridors opened for migrants to proceed to countries such as Ecuador and Peru. The extent of the Venezuelan refugee crisis is now regional in nature.

Not surprisingly, there have been some moves against the Maduro regime from within the armed forces. This have failed due to basic incompetence of the plotters and the fact that the Venezuelan military is stocked with Boliviarian sycophants buttressed by Cuban intelligence agents who spend more time looking for moles and dissidents than they do improving national intelligence collection capabilities per se. The combat readiness of the Venezuelan military has been replaced by proficiency in crowd control, and the High Command is staffed by flag ranked officers who have more good conduct medals and Boliviarian revolutionary awards than they do insignia demonstrating operational proficiency in any kinetic endeavour. May the goddess help the Venezuelan armed forces should they ever pick a fight with the battle hardened Colombian military or the well-disciplined Brazilians.

For a military coup to happen, there need to be vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military and push and pull factors compelling it to act. Vertical cleavages are those between officers and the enlisted corps, including rivalries between flag, field and company ranked officers, Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and the enlisted soldiers they command. Horizontal cleavages are this between armed services–Army, Navy, Air Force, national gendarme, border patrol, interior ministry secret police, etc–and within those services (say, between armour and infantry in the land forces, or surface fleet and submariners in the Navy).

The Boliviarians and their Cuban advisors have been very good at purging non-loyalists from the officer corps. Their control over NCOs and enlisted personnel is a bit more tenuous, as evidenced by recent attempts to kill Maduro using a drone and an earlier helicopter attack on military installations. But the big cleavages needed to form a coup-making nucleus simply do not exist in the measure that is required, even if the push and pull factors are clearly present. The push factors are those internal to the military that compels it to act, for institutional reasons, against the government (such as loss of discipline, corruption, lack of effective military leadership etc. that erode the ability of the armed forces to discharge their basic defence functions against foreign counterparts ). The pull factors are the external societal conditions, to include family ties of military personnel and civilian elite pleading for the restoration of social order, that draw the uniformed corps towards intervention. So the coup “equation” is just half complete: the motives for intervention are present but the organisational or institutional conditions as of yet are not.

Not that a military coup is a panacea for Venezuela. It could well make things worse. Perhaps this is where a bit of good news has emerged. It turns out that the US was approached by military coup plotters for support and turned down the request. This, in spite of Donald Trump’s public statements about US military intervention against the Maduro regime. It seems that, even if not for all the right reasons, seasoned diplomats understood the downside of agreeing to the request and cooler heads prevailed.

It is praiseworthy that the US, or at least its foreign policy decision-makers, understand that Venezuelans need to be the sole owners of their collective destiny. This destiny might or might not include the reactionary wishful thinkers in the self-exiled community that has made Weston, Florida, a mini-Caracas (and whom have joined with the ageing Cuban exiles to form an anti-communist mafia that fund-raises in “dark” ways). Whether they join or not, the key to resolving the Venezuelan crisis involves providing Maduro and his entourage with a safe passage out of government and an incremental and negotiated restoration of the productive apparatus to a mix of interests of different political persuasions under an agreed upon caretaker regime. This will be a difficult process even with military tutelage and arbitration since the military itself will have to be reformed.

However, since the Boliviarian Revolution was never socialist and the capitalist state remains intact even if decrepit, the foundations for a rejuvenated economy are present. Likewise, many of the social gains made by the lower classes under the Boliviarians have taken enough social root so as to be non-removable if violence is to be avoided. So the foundational compromise underpinning the new democratic regime  seems to involve an exchange whereby a return to private ownership of some aspects of the Venezuelan economy under broader market steerage is traded for ongoing state control of strategic assets and the extension of social guarantees involving health, education, housing and welfare. The tax regime will need reforming and the art of tax evasion by the wealthy will need to be curtailed for this to happen, so it is unsure if the majority in the opposition will accept anything other than the status quo ante the emergence of the Boliviarians.

If we remember the sclerosis of Venezuelan democracy before Chavez appeared on the scene, where the two major parties–Accion Democratic and COPEI–alternated power in a concertative arrangement where elites siphoned off the country’s wealth while buying off popular consent with oil revenue-derived subsides of public goods and services, then we can understand why the back to the future scenario will not work. It will take a sincere effort by fair-minded people on both sides, Boliviarians and Opposition, to recognise that the experiment is over and the country needs a new course that is not a repeat of the past, be it recent or distant.

And there is where I will leave with a note of optimism. Unlike many Latin American countries, Venezuela has a historical precedent of reaching consensus–or at least elite agreement–on the characteristics and contours of a new political system. The 1958 “Pacto de Punto Fijo” (roughly translated as the Full Stop Pact) defined the features of the new democratic regime after years of unstable oligarchical and often violent rule. It led to the power alternation agreement between AD and COPEI under conditions of electoral competition and state control of the oil sector in which agreed upon parameters for public revenue expenditures were respected. While it deteriorated into a lighter version of the current cabal of thieves, it lasted for forty years and only fell because it did not recognise, because of its institutional myopia, the social forces that lay at the root of the Chavez phenomenon and emergence of the Boliviarian movement.

In other words, Venezuela needs a new foundational Pact the provides peaceful exit and entrance strategies to the Boliviarians and their inevitable successors. Otherwise there will be blood whether the imperialists get involved or not.

House of Pain.

datePosted on 10:36, May 25th, 2018 by Pablo

I am on the mend, sort of.

Or better said, I am out of surgery and convalescing after having my left hip replaced. It was an interesting experience. They decided to give me a spinal with a light sedative, so I got to hear the sounds and feel the tugs. After the first tugs (slicing and dicing as they opened me up), I heard a circular saw. That is used to cut off the top of the femur and old hip ball. Then I heard a grinder. That is used to “sand” down the pits and sharp projections caused by degenerative arthritis on the hip socket. I then heard hammering on metal. That is the sound of the fitted metal plate being hammered into the hip socket (think of the spikes that are used to hold down railroad ties. Here the spikes are hammered into the hip socket through holes in the fitted metal plate). The hammering was also the new titanium hip ball being hammered into the new top of the femur (also attached by a spike). Then more tugging as they sewed me up. They cut and separate the abductor muscle to get to the hip. Took about 1.5 hours.

The first night was agonising once the spinal wore off (took about 4 hours). They prefer not to give painkillers until all lower body sensation is restored, so one has to suffer until the painkillers kick in after normal sensation resumes (which works downwards from the point of injection to the toes). For me, that included suffering through a pain fever (where one is hot to touch to the point of discolouration and blistering amid profuse sweating). I would say the pain was 8.5-9 on a scale of 10, all through my pelvic girdle. The next day they got me up and we started “exercising, ” (i.e. walking with a walker and crutches) and the worst pain was (and is) in the femur that was operated on (pain at about 7.5-8 level). I now have incision pain (a hot tearing sensation) as a constant more than anything else, on a scale of 5 or so out of 10.

I assume the various pains will begin to wear off soon but boy, I could use some opiates at this point (they try to avoid using them and I have a reaction to morphine anyway). Instead, I rely on the mobile pharmacy of non-opiates that was provided to me upon my release.

I was released after 3 nights in hospital and transferred to my in-laws as a halfway point while the family support crew worked. Lets just say that the 100 meter walk on crutches to the car and entering/exiting said vehicle was excruciating. It managed to combine deep bone, pelvic girdle and incision pain into one big ball of wretchedness. Beyond that, I am incredibly fragile and vulnerable to falls, which is a problem because along with infections dislocating the new hip is considered to be a terminal game changer for the worse.

I will go home tomorrow and continue to use the crutches and cane until I can walk by myself. I cannot bend forward, twist my hips, cross my legs or have my knees higher than my hips for six weeks. I need special chairs for the shower and loo. I cannot drive for that time (a problem in a one driver household located a half hour from the nearest main town). But I am told that it is all worth it once the pain goes away and will be able to exercise and perhaps even jog again.

That is my motivation because I have promised the little guy that I will soon be able to kick the ball and chase him around the paddock. Let’s hope so.

PS: Other than a couple of glitches, my experience with the public health system (so far) was 9 out of 10. In terms of institutional processes and staff care I received excellent treatment. I did go private for a couple of tests but everything else was done publicly and the total time from when I was put on the waiting list (as an acute case) to surgery was 3 months. Happy to see my tax dollars put to good use.

One For Christchurch

datePosted on 11:14, June 21st, 2016 by E.A.

For the past few weeks I have been struggling to complete my posts on New Zealand Future and the Maori Party so instead I decide to post about something I can summon enthusiasm for.

In the one year since returning to live and work in Christchurch two things have stood about the people in the city.

The first is that almost everybody you speak to has been effected by not only the quakes but the horrendous bureaucratic and legal process that followed in getting their lives back on track.

Almost anyone you talk to can tell you where they were on that day, what they did after, how they got home, who they spoke to and how they spent that first night. The details are vivid and highly personally and it speaks reams that almost all of them have happy endings. Loved ones and pets were safe, families a bit shocked but sound and neighbors rattled but doing well.

Such is the ubiquity of the events that it’s the quintessential conversation starter in Christchurch. Ask anyone where they were and away you go. Instant connection and genuine sympathy abound and people are usually happy to discuss the events.

Where it gets interesting is how people have coped in the five years following and again almost everyone has had to struggle with either insurers, builders, CERA, the council, ECAN, EQC, the government or lawyers to get their lives back on track but the discussion often takes a darker turn.

At first I thought I had wandered into some sort of weird statistical nexus where I was surrounded by people who had these incredible stories of how they had suffered, struggled and usually prevailed over a range of forces, who to many, appeared bent on doing nothing to help (despite that being their stated purpose) and everything to hinder.

As time passed though I came to realize that what I thought was a fluke density of people was in fact the majority of people living in Christchurch. And it was not just homes and families, it was sports clubs, cultural associations, businesses, community groups and a wide range of entities; all of whom had seen their lives, livelihoods and pastimes upended.

No one blames anyone for the quakes (except the odd religious loony claiming that sin city got what was coming to it). Things happen, that’s life.

On the other hand time and time again I had had to pick my jaw off the floor at stories (both in the press and from people) of what could only be considered corruption, nepotism, criminal practice and all manner dodgy and clearly illegal and immoral behavior by individuals associated with the rebuild, insurance industry, and council and government bodies.

I stopped counting the number of times I heard stories of people having to fight their insurer, builder, CERA or others tooth and nail to get simple things done, have their policies honored, crappy repairs replaced, contracts upheld and getting help with their lives.

And it’s not just individual stories. Not a week goes by that the local media does not have more on to add. I counted in my local weekly paper last week three major articles on issues with the quake and on top of that the daily paper also abounds with many more (stalled convention center, post rebuild job slump and displaced communities just to name a few).

Not all of them are negative but after sifting out the feel good fluff pieces ghost written for Jerry Brownlee or the powers that be most are either critical of the speed of the rebuild process, discussing the various dodgy issues going on, calling for an inquiry into one thing or another (including a royal commission to look at the whole thing) or simply stacking up what’s been done and finding it wanting.

And to add to the problem is the sheer complexity of them all. If it’s not  nepotism or corruption in CERA (now renamed in an abortive re-branding exercise); its massive and rampant issues with the rebuild itself; struggles with insurers and pay outs; lives being upturned by homes being downgraded or shoddily repaired; the fact that the side of the city often worst affected by the quakes also happened to have some of the poorest neighborhoods; roads like rural tracks; once familiar and treasured landmarks gone; local businesses and services removed and not allowed back; schools being forced to close despite all clear dangers no longer existing (Redcliffs School); and on and on and on.*

In the first few years this level of concern did not exist; partly because it’s was understood that getting a city back on its feet takes time but also as many of these issues had yet to come to light.

Five years on it’s a different  story and in the 12 months since moving here it’s clear that the coverage in the national media does not do even 1/10th justice to what this city and surrounding regions face. Outside of Christchurch it is becoming a silent tragedy with many people (previously including myself) just not wanting to hear any more about it but also believing that things have been mostly fixed and the city is back on its feet.

Yet whenever I take visitors to Christchurch for a drive through the Redzone (I don’t offer they just ask) it’s a rapid change that takes place as the initial chattiness and excitement of the “adventure in quake town” is soon replaced with a silent state of shock as the sheer extent of what’s happened and what’s going on is made clear.

Yes there are new buildings and repaved roads but there is also the empty expanse of the Redzone, looking like a slightly greener version of those aftermath photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with empty neighborhoods sprinkled with trees to indicate where property lines once were, the odd house not demolished just to make it clear what this place actually was and roads, that only now after five years, you can drive on without feeling like you’re on an amusement ride of some sorts.

Also the central city, once looking like a kiwi version of a war zone, now has some major new buildings going up but all of the character and heritage of Christchurch is mostly being replaced with dull corporate structures of steel and glass and the central city still has the open wound that is the half destroyed Cathedral right there, at its heart, standing as a grim reminder of what happened.

I lived within the four avenues for most of the 90s and have fond memories of walking or cycling the city streets, learning its secret ways, shortcuts and locations and becoming part of the community of students, artists, bohemians and general folk that make up any central urban area. All of those are gone and with no clear indication that they will ever come back as the only people willing to move back into the central city are the government and banks who are taking a stake on prime ground.

The big new glass buildings might give the impression of life returning but they are hollow reflections of what made up the city center and a forewarning of the sterile corporate soul that will infest the city center at cost to all else.

And that’s where we get to the second thing that I have noticed about Christchurch which is the palpable sense of fury and anger that exists among the people here. Again I thought it was just one or two people but over time I have come to see that the sheer scale of the negative effects of the rebuild is mirrored in the rage and anger at those who have had to live though all the negatives that followed in the wake of the quakes.

For example, mention Jerry Brownlee and it’s almost impossible to not get a string of expletives from people, and from all parts of the political spectrum, red, blue, green, yellow, whatever. His name will draw down a range of angry criticism which regularly borders on road rage levels of anger.

And I say this with no hyperbole at all that I would not be surprised to hear if someone went into an office of a particular authority and behaved inappropriately. As sad as such an event would be I have heard it described and imagined in detail many times; again from people you would never expect to fantasize about such a thing; setting out in clearly where they would go and what  they would do. Undoubtedly these are all just the verbal venting of individuals who have been through a lot and are justifiably frustrated but who would never actually do the things they are describing (cathartic fantasizing) but such is the anger and upset at what has gone on here that this is the solution that comes to mind.

The fact that CERA and the government has refused requests for an official inquiry, trotted out a tired line of excuses again and again; refused to look into clear cut cases of corruption and nepotism; ignored issues and buried or twisted stories, surveys or investigations (often with a sprinkling of saccharine PR) where it could and allowed the insurance industry and a range of dodgy building providers (from individual cowboys right up to Fletchers) to game the system to their own immense profit is standard daily fare for people in Christchurch and the anger at such things is now legion.

What will happen I do not know. I have been back 12 months and it’s not like living any other city I have previously lived in (and I have lived in quite a few). The center is gone, it’s referred to as a doughnut city and while life thrives in the various suburbs where the energy and life of the center has now relocated there are others suburbs where communities are still struggling to get back to normal (New Brighton for example).

What I do know is that while most of NZ lives in quiet ignorance of what is happening here it’s a daily fact of life for those in the Garden City. I myself do not live in an effected area, I missed the quakes and have not had to deal with any of the aftereffects but I am a small minority among the upset and often angry many.

As political issues go it’s irrelevant. I doubt Labour or any other government would behave any better such is how our system has become and I wonder how it would be if the Capital was struck as Christchurch was; would the response be the same?

In the end I have an immense respect and sympathy for those that live here and every day I hear stories of them struggling to get their lives back on track and often they do but they mostly did it themselves with little help from government, council or anyone else. If they had not struggled and fought it’s scary to imagine what this city could have become.

This one is for Christchurch!

 

*- I would add links but there would be pages and pages of them. Just read the Christchurch Press or weekly papers in any day or week for an iota of what is daily here. Just Google it!