Monthly Archives: December 2013

Venezuela’s reputation protection racket using Crowdflower

Alek Boyd has the story. Very nice follow-up on this whole reputation protection story. Long story short: whoever is protecting reputation for the Bolibourgeoisie (denials notwithstanding, quite likely this cat called Rafael Núñez) is now using the services of the consummate startup Crowdflower to boost search rank of some of his or her clients. Lukas Biewald, one of the founders of Crowdflower used to work on search relevance at Yahoo. And his tools are now being used to screw up search relevance. Go figure.

Alek also gives a bit more about the convicted terrorist murderer and now reputation management beneficiary Ramiro Helmeyer. Go give a read.

Venezuela cash crunch note

Minor item, but I had thought Venezuela’s recent cash crunch came from the Amuay refinery explosion and the need to import lots of fuel for international prices. I downloaded the convenient chart of the country’s black market currency rate from and I see that the steady exchange rate broke down on August 15, while the explosion didn’t happen for another two weeks. So if there was any causal connection, it might have been the other way. Chart:


Venezuela seeks contact with reality on fuel prices (updated)

This just in from the biggest South American oil company by production. It’s news. And no, not going to translate just now. Suffice to say that Oil Minister & Economy VP of Venezuela Rafael Ramírez is telling people about the opportunity cost of cheap fuel. That’s new. Maybe one day Venezuela will stop using much more fuel per capita than its peers. Higher fuel prices could be one piece of that.

PDVSA busca evitar pérdida por costos de producción de combustibles

Caracas, 16 de diciembre de 2013. Solo por costo de producción de combustibles el Estado venezolano asume al año una pérdida de 12 mil 592 millones de dólares, por lo que resulta propicia la consulta nacional acerca del precio de los derivados que consume el mercado interno, señaló Rafael Ramírez, vicepresidente del Área Económica, ministro del Poder Popular de Petróleo y Minería y presidente de Petróleos de Venezuela, S. A. (PDVSA).

A la cuantiosa pérdida hay que añadir que PDVSA asume el pago de la nómina del personal en las estaciones de servicio y las generadas por el contrabando de unos 100 mil barriles por día, afirmó Ramírez, por lo que el Gobierno Bolivariano ha adelantado el Plan de Automatización de Combustibles en los estados fronterizos. Continue reading

About that wacky nuke investment by Francisco Illarramendi

Looks like it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Faithful correspondent RI writes to alert us to this New York Times story:

NuScale Power, whose plan to create tiny nuclear reactors installed under water, seeks a safer, more economical design. Jose N. Reyes, the company’s chief technology officer.


December 12, 2013, WASHINGTON — The Energy Department will give a small company in Corvallis, Ore., up to $226 million to advance the design of tiny nuclear reactors that would be installed under water, making meltdown far less likely and opening the door to markets around the world where the reactors now on the market are too big for local power grids.

The company, NuScale Power, has made substantial progress in developing “an invented-in-America, made-in-America product that will export U.S. safety standards around the world,” Peter B. Lyons, the assistant secretary for nuclear energy, said in an interview. For supplying electricity without global warming gases and for providing the United States with a new export product, the reactor had “immense global and national importance,” he said.

We remember NuScale from this wacky business. How things change.

Day before Venezuela elections, in photos

Housing ministry, early morning. Poster says "Capitalist parasites" and shows Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo López and Marina Corina Machado's heads on insect bodies. FEEL THE LOVE.

Housing ministry, early morning. Poster says “Parasitic bourgeoisie” and shows Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo López and Marina Corina Machado’s heads on insect bodies. FEEL THE LOVE.

Rare opposition campaign sign, matched by poster advertising the Great Housing Mission of Venezuela as evidence that Chávez's dream is alive.

Rare opposition campaign sign, matched by poster advertising the Great Housing Mission of Venezuela as evidence that Chávez’s dream is alive.

Looking for campaign information on Pico Occidental. Found this.

Looking for campaign information on Pico Occidental. Found this.

Slime mold on the Ávila. It was clearly walking AWAY from the voting stations. Even the ambulatory fungi are uninterested.

What’s at stake in Venezuela’s local elections

Yes, FT, that’s the same headline as yours. Because you didn’t write what’s at stake. I don’t know if anyone really cares exactly how many votes one side or the other gets; certainly the idea that this is a “plebiscite” is totally overplayed and evidence-free. What’s at stake is how many mayoral offices are controlled by the pro-central-government PSUV, and how many are controlled by other parties, broadly called “the opposition.” There are two things at stake here.

First, at the local level, in Caracas, an opposition sweep* would allow the city to become governable. The PSUV mayor of Libertador borough, the governor of the Federal Region, and central government have boycotted all cooperation with the opposition mayors of Caracas’ four eastern boroughs, Sucre, Chacao, Baruta and El Hatillo. As a result, you get absurd situations such as nice new, broad sidewalks in Chacao that end abruptly at the River Guaire, where pedestrians are forced into the busy street in order to cross the only bridge for a kilometer in either direction. Or worse, the lack of coordination between planning of streets, buses, cable cars and subway. Or competing police jurisdictions. And most of all, the sad sight of poorer opposition areas, especially Sucre, being left without the money to collect trash or permission to raise trash rates, while Libertador gets all the money it can spend to beautify plazas and historic buildings. So for Caracas itself, there is the chance to stop being the worst capital in South America, and to start living up to its potential — it could be a marvelous city.

Second, much more important, having more mayoral offices would make it much easier for the opposition to mount a recall campaign at the midpoint of President Nicolas Maduro’s term. The constitution allows for recalls, but as the opposition has seen in repeated elections since 2006, all politics are local. And winning a national race requires local organizing. Who carries voters to the polls in special buses? Who has the money to cover the city in campaign propaganda for one side or the other? Mayors matter at election time.

Other than that, as you say, not much to see here. The PSUV has treated the campaign as a bit of a joke, while the opposition has preferred to spend money fighting over a tiny number of votes in El Hatillo while there are almost no posters, grafittis or any other public displays of support for the regional mayor candidate or the candidate for Libertador, Ismael Garcia. Here in Caracas, I see no window signs, almost no soaped-up car windscreens favoring one side or the other (I’ve seen two pro-PSUV camioneticas in three weeks, not quite a campaign), no catchy campaign jingles, few billboards, no clever little marketing campaigns like the last Chávez election, when they gave out PSUV jewelry and silkscreens. None of that. I predict low turnout.

*UPDATE: Just to be clear, this is extremely unlikely, as Libertador is reasonably rojo-rojito, and more importantly, the government really, really doesn’t want to lose it. Even less likely would be a PSUV sweep, as Chacao, Baruta and El Hatillo are all extremely pro-opposition territories.

Who is buying the bolivars? (Mystery solved, depressingly)


What bolivars will buy you

It used to be that the Venezuelan state participated in the country’s currency black market, dodging its own currency controls for fun and profit. Market players have told me they always assumed state oil company PDVSA was the source of the $100 million a week or more that were dumped into the old parallel market via selected brokers. After the parallel market was banned and became a black market, the government continued to speculate on dollar-bolivar spreads and moves. The mechanisms got more mysterious; one game being played by the PDVSA pension fund, was revealed in US court.

It now looks like the Venezuelan state halted its participation in the market sometime just over a year ago. It’s uncanny how the timing lines up with the Amuay explosion and the resulting massive importation of US motor fuel.

But still, someone is buying bolivars. It’s not tourists. There simply aren’t many foreign tourists in Venezuela. Expat workers buy some, yes. But I’ve heard from Venezuelans who have recently gone to Colombia that there is a fierce demand for cheap bolivars in Cúcuta, Colombia. 

What do these Colombians do with those bolivars? They go to Venezuela and go shopping. Without bolivars, they can’t buy up price-controlled goods, cheap home appliances and even cheaper than you might expect wristwatches, and also pay off border officers on the return trip loaded with cheap milk. Let’s see what happens after Christmas, I’m chatting with one expert who predicts an further drop in the bolivar once Christmas-shopping Colombians stop propping up the price.

The price of a bolivar is already low, now to somewhere around 65. With prices like that, 160 bolivars for a 400-gram El Rey chocolate tablet at the Mercado de Chacao is about $2.50, or about half of what an 80-gram chocolate bar of the same quality would normally cost in a normal country. Yes, I’m stocking up. There is a slight surcharge on the milk chocolate bars, because, you guessed it, there’s no milk.

The silence of the geeks not found

A common sight these days, a link-shortening service frequently used on Twitter, has been blocked by Venezuelan internet service providers for more than two weeks. Today, Associated Press crack reporter Josh Goodman picks up the story to explain:

Cyber-activists say the crackdown goes to absurd lengths, even targeting Bitly, the popular site for shortening Web addresses to make it easier to send them as links via Twitter and other social media. For more than two weeks, access to the service has been partially censored by several Internet service providers in Venezuela, apparently because Bitly was being used to evade blocks put on currency-tracking websites.

The New York company says such restrictions have only previously been seen in China, which has one of the worst records for Internet freedom, and even then not for such an extended period. Opponents of Venezuela’s socialist government say the restrictions are designed to obscure reporting of the nation’s mounting economic woes.

You read that right, the providers must block all links to, one of the most heavily used tools on Twitter and one of the 4,000 websites most used on the entire Internet, according to

The measure has drawn almost no public protest or concern, either within Venezuela or outside. The only complaints I’ve seen have been from, which is the ostensible target of the censorship (and which immediately switched to short links) and from the little-known geek website

Most people I talk to say the Bitly situation is just incompetence or bad programming, most likely at state ISP Cantv. I hope so, but I worry that it’s not. Cantv is full of intel types. Cantv blocked all international web access during a brief political panic, after the 2008 referendum, while other ISPs still had access to the outside sites. Cantv may be practicing to set up some sort of great firewall and testing the waters, to see if they can gradually increase the temperature without scaring the frog.

Continue reading

I’m not dead

You know how it is. Big stories, big problems. Little stories, little problems. No stories?

Hence my recent level of productivity around here.

Don’t worry, I’ll be back one of these days. Just chilling a bit.