Havana 2007 (2): Venezuela 3 – 1 Eisenstadt

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Well, I wrote previously that Venezuela and China were here in Havana at Informatica 2007 in force. The highlight of the opening day was definitely the rousing inaugural keynote address by Señora Socorro Hernandez – “Directora Gerente de AIT (Asociación de Investigación Tecnológica) y Presidenta de PDV-IFT, Venezuela”. Let me just explain that PDV = Petroleos de Venezuela, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) the world’s 5th largest producer of oil, so in plain English that means: pay attention!

I wrote the rather cheeky 3-1 score in this post’s headline because I thought I made a rather modest but good point during question time. But this is not a quantitative issue, and there’s no question that her speech included lots of great points: but although I found the speech very moving (and said so during question time), I didn’t agree with all of her points (and said so during question time). Heck, I was the only lone voice against approximately 1000 down-with-Yanqui-Imperialism-highly-articulate-lifelong-schooled rhetoricians, but hey — I like this crowd, and didn’t feel threatened, so I spoke up (politely, as you’ll see).

Señora Socorro Hernandez was a great speaker. Not for her the formulaic lines of the opening ceremony speech by Commander of the Revolution Ramiro Valdés Menéndez who spoke of the “still mysterious 9/11 attack” and resultant US policy “actions that would have shocked the strategists of the Third Reich” (both verbatim quotes from the simultaneous translation of his speech – as you can see already, Informatica 2007 is not your typical high tech conference). No, none of that stuff, thankfully. Her style was much more interesting.

Instead of tired old rhetoric, Señora Socorro Hernandez spoke enthusiastically of her lifelong admiration of the Cuban people and its leaders, and reminisced emotionally and effectively about the time when the Vinceremos Brigade failed to meet its sugar cane quota. She moved swiftly along through a lesson in the philosophy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the goals for a just, egalitarian, and happy society enshrined in its new constitution, and outlined the five specific strands (economic, social, political, territorial and international) through which Venezuela would use its oil money to fight the current “hegemonic unipolar scheme” (what Commander of the Revolution Ramiro Valdés Menéndez and his compatriots might have called Yanqui Imperialism in earlier days) and restore equality and justice to the world.

And this was no handwave. She got very specific about Venezuela’s projected output of crude oil, from 3.2Million barrels per day in 2007 to 5.8M by 2013, with similar numbers for gas, investment in jobs, and a tenfold investment in social causes. She even showed where the oil was going to come from (see my audience photo of her slide above). Finally, she argued convincingly that the dependence of the Venezuelan oil industry on commercial software, and indeed all of Latin America’s dependence on commercial software, was going to change radically as her group pumped significant resources into a large-scale shift to open source software (Software Libre). This in turn would fuel a fresh mind-set, and assist in the emergence of ‘Technological Sovereignty’, the very title and overarching theme of her dramatic talk. This was going to be a vibrant engine of change throughout Latin America, and although she did not say so directly, it was apparent from her presentation that she had the vision, the economic muscle, the guts, the brains, the beliefs and the determination to help make it happen!

Though I was moved by her speech, I wasn’t convinced. I love social justice as much as the next guy – it’s unlikely I would have been attracted to a 32-year-long career at the Open University otherwise, and the OU’s mission statement still fills me with pride. The creative geniuses I’ve written about on these pages in the past were also believers in social justice. But they often required, or fostered, a climate of entrepreneurship and investment to get their ideas off the ground. Switching to Linux is one thing (and demonstrably not even happening in the speaker’s own portion of the oil industry, as a Canadian in the audience pointed out during question time). Creating new tools and ideas is another. I just didn’t see it happening in a culture that required me to join 3 queues to register, then take my registration receipt to the second queue to pay, and then take my payment receipt to the third queue to receive my conference bag.

So, it was show time: sure, there were nearly 1000 people in the giant room, enraptured with what they had just heard. But I needed to speak. I raised my hand, pressed the microphone, and introduced myself. I explained my 32-year-long commitment to the Open University, and proudly pointed out that I’m from New York. Gulp. I said I was very moved by the presentation, but did not agree with all of it. Did the speaker see any way to mix the “creative and entrepreneurial spirit typical of Silicon Valley” (I had written down those words in advance to make sure I got them right) with the noble ideals of an egalitarian society? Most of her answer was an emphatic endorsement of the need to impress socialist values on all workers, so that they developed great software out of a sense of pride in their work, rather than greed (interestingly, all the great virtuoso hackers I’ve had the privilege to know exhibit precisely this sense of pride, so I think this issue is orthogonal to the socialist/capitalist dimension, but did not get a chance to reply). Then she said “as for how to avoid becoming Silicon Valley”, it was again a question of instilling and sharing the right values — “let’s stop selling games that encourage kids to shoot others” she said, to rapturous applause.

Well, a subtle and fundamental shift had taken place, which we did not have time to pursue. I asked very specifically about harnessing the best of Silicon Valley, and she spoke instead of avoiding it! She is too smart to have misunderstood my question., so either there is no answer or it is too awkward to contemplate. I’d love to pursue this – it reminds of the great episode of Star Trek in which Captain Kirk relentlessly pushed home a question to some CyberMind until the inherent paradox caused it to self-destruct. But she was gone, so I’ve had to content myself with a 3-1 fantasy score. OK, maybe 5-1: it was a great speech.

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