There wasn't much that set Aban Pearl apart from any number of oil and gas exploration rigs -- that is, until the massive structure sank off the coast of Venezuela in April 2010.
More than two years after the fact, an investigation has shown that Venezuela's state-owned oil giant, PdVSA, agreed to pay more than twice as much for the rig's services than its owners stood to receive in rental fees. In fact, PDVSA agreed to pay $700 million to an intermediary that turns out to be a shell corporation controlled by well-connected players within the Bolivarian elite (some of whom, interestingly enough, now work out of New York City).
Picture the scene: It's July 1974, and congress is on the brink of impeaching President Nixon. As the procedure moves forward, Britain's foreign minister comes to Washington, D.C. in a desperate diplomatic bid to save a key ally from losing power. But instead of talking to the White House or trying to lobby congress, the British Foreign Minister heads straight for the Pentagon, where he gives a fiery harangue beseeching the Joint Chiefs of Staff to disregard any congressional move to impeach Nixon, telling them that doing so would nullify the democratic will of the electorate, and that it's their duty to stand firmly by their president, putting troops on the streets if need be.
Substitute July 1974 with June 2012, Richard Nixon with Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, and Britain's foreign minister with Venezuela's, and you have a rough approximation of the extraordinary events that allegedly took place just two weeks ago as Paraguay's congress moved to impeach the president.
The news hit Venezuela's gossip-sphere with a thud: According to "a highly respected source close to Chávez who is in a position to know his medical condition and history," Hugo Chávez's cancer has now "entered the end stage." Since it comes from an American news legend, Dan Rather, the report that Chávez is not expected to live more than two months got people talking.
Within minutes, contracts on Chávez no longer remaining in office by the end of 2012 doubled in price on Intrade, the online prediction market. And the persistent rumbles from those who aspire to become his successor ticked up a notch.
At this late stage of the game, with Chávez mostly avoiding public appearances and rarely shown on state TV anymore, the question of his succession remains wide open. The current vice-president, left-wing extremist Elías Jaua, is widely seen as something of a lightweight, and Chávez himself announced some months ago that he would be replaced. But Rather's report leaves open the unsettling possibility that the big guy could leave the scene without leaving a clear successor in place.
What's a reasonable price for teaching an illiterate adult in a poor country how to read? It might seem a callous question, but in a world of limited resources, where adult literacy programs have to compete with a thousand other public policy priorities, it's one question that developing country leaders need to answer.
After studying adult literacy programs in 29 countries, UNESCO advises that a cost in the range of $50-$100 per learner is reasonable. In Asia, costs tend to be lower -- just $30 per learner. In the Americas, they stand at $61 per learner. But some computer-based literacy programs in Brazil have managed to cut the cost massively, to just $2.50 per adult learner, by leveraging pre-existing classroom and computer infrastructure in children's schools.
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Ten years ago this week, Venezuela was convulsed by a spasm of violence and instability that still colors public life today. In an extraordinary 72-hour period, the nation witnessed the largest protest in its history, which ended in a massacre just steps away from the presidential palace. It saw the military chain of command crumble and key officers openly rebel against orders that would have set off an even larger massacre. It saw President Chávez hand himself over as a prisoner. He was then replaced by a reactionary cabal of business leaders and hard-right military officers, flown off to a remote Caribbean Island and then, shortly thereafter, brought back to power by a group of loyalist officers who never agreed with the decision to depose him in the first place.
Once all that dust had settled, there was little doubt who the hero of the hour was: General Raúl Baduel, who was instrumental in the collapse of the coup. As commander of the army's elite 42nd Paratrooper Brigade in the nearby city of Maracay, Baduel led one of the few genuinely battle-ready bits of Venezuela's creaking military establishment. A die-hard Chávez loyalist, he sprang into action when the coup plotters made their move. Rallying the entire 4th Division, of which his brigade was a part, he sent his troops to pick up the deposed president from the tropical island that the plotters had chosen as a jail.
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Observers of the Venezuelan oil sector did a collective spit-take on Tuesday when the proudly socialist administration announced that it intends to privatize part of the state-owned oil industry. It's a decision that barbecues perhaps the most sacred of all sacred ideological cows in the Bolivarian Republic. In a first for the Chávez era, a portion of Venezuela's vast oil industry is to be floated on the stock market. (Characteristically, perhaps, the stock exchange involved is Hong Kong's, rather than New York's or London's.)
The decision involves Petropiar, a joint venture between Venezuela's state-owned oil firm, Petróleos de Venezuela (known as PDVSA), and U.S. oil major Chevron. Petropiar, which has the capacity to transform 190,000 barrels of thick, tar-like, extra-heavy crude into 180,000 barrels of light, easy-to-refine synthetic crude every day, has been 70 percent PDVSA-owned for years, while Chevron holds the remaining 30 percent.
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Say "macroeconomic adjustment" and Venezuelans immediately think back to 1989. That year, an IMF-inspired shock therapy program pushed through by President Carlos Andrés Pérez set-off serious rioting throughout the country, costing hundreds of lives and undermining governability for years to come. The memory of the traumatic events that followed sharp devaluation, fuel subsidy cuts and the end of price controls still colors policy discussions today.
As this fall's presidential election draws near, Venezuela's opposition is thinking through its macroeconomic approach to transition. At first blush, the parallels are jarring. Just as in 1988, the country faces a fixed, severely overvalued exchange rate, a structural budget deficit fed by a sprawling, loss-making state-owned enterprise sector, rigid price controls, and ruinous gasoline subsidies. It's enough to give any Venezuelan macro-economist the heebie-jeebies. So is the country is on the verge of another massively disruptive adjustment experience?
Not at all, for two reasons: the economic fundamentals of 2012 are nothing like those of1988, and the opposition's presidential candidate this year, Henrique Capriles, is nothing like Carlos Andrés Pérez.
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Fifty-four years ago today, Venezuela's last military dictatorship fell, as a mass uprising ushered in an unprecedented era of civilian-led democratic rule.
From 1958 to 1998, center-left and center-right parties alternated in power as the result of competitive elections, and while the era was certainly marred by rampant corruption, and its second half hobbled by deep economic stagnation, it remains the only reference point Venezuelans really have for stable democratic governance.
"Veintitres de Enero," the date of the 1958 uprising in Spanish, has become an increasingly polarizing milestone in the 13 years of Hugo Chávez's rule. Since the beginning, Chávez has set out an aggressive propaganda effort to discredit the uprising and the era of civilian democratic rule it came to stand for. In Chavista propaganda, 23 de Enero has been transformed into the starting point of an era of false, bourgeois democracy, a debauched simulacrum of popular sovereignty used as a cover for the elite to ransack the state.
The symbolic battle over the date continues to intensify year after year. This time around, the opposition's Roundtable for Democratic Unity has picked it as the moment to unveil its platform ahead of October's presidential election, asking all the primary candidates to sign on to it ahead of February 12's primary vote. This spirit of compromise and conciliation among different factions pledged to unseat a military strongman harkens directly back to 1958, when an elite pact between the then three-main party leaders set the stage for the uprising that overthrew dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez (shown above).
What's remarkable is that Pérez Jiménez was as different, ideologically, from Chávez as two Latin American military strongmen could be. Pérez Jiménez was a traditional, U.S.-backed right-wing caudillo in the style of Cuba's Batista (who, as it turned out, fell to Fidel Castro just 11 months after Pérez Jiménez did.) In his eagerness to depict himself as the Venezuelan Fidel Castro, however, Chávez has had to do some creative re-arranging of the historical record, re-casting the democratic regime that replaced Pérez Jiménez in the Batista role: the heartless capitalists swept away by socialist revolution. This, in turn, has forced him to rehabilitate the historical memory of Pérez Jiménez, who, while never quite revered in chavista propaganda, is treated with a degree of deference and respect that stands in stark contrast to the torrents of abuse heaped on the democratic regime that replaced him.
The manipulation of history involved is enough to make grown historians weep. As this quick run-through should make clear, however, it also makes painfully little sense, whether ideologically or chronologically. It makes sense, though, from the standpoint of chavista myth-making. And that, it appears, is really all that's needed.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.