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Posts For: February 15, 2013

Finally, Photographs of Hugo Chavez

At Chavista demonstrations in Caracas recently, images of Hugo Chavez juxtaposed with icons of Jesus Christ have been a common sight. In part, that’s because Venezuelans are a devoutly Catholic people, and Chavez’s health has been the subject of many prayers. But there is also a sinister messianism around Chavez, which his cohorts, none of whom remotely enjoy the same level of popularity as he does, have eagerly stoked.

Today, then, amounts to a resurrection of sorts. More than two months after disappearing from view, following his return to Havana to seek medical treatment for cancer, the Cuban regime released photos of Chavez lying in his hospital bed, flanked by his two smiling daughters, Rosa and Maria.

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At Chavista demonstrations in Caracas recently, images of Hugo Chavez juxtaposed with icons of Jesus Christ have been a common sight. In part, that’s because Venezuelans are a devoutly Catholic people, and Chavez’s health has been the subject of many prayers. But there is also a sinister messianism around Chavez, which his cohorts, none of whom remotely enjoy the same level of popularity as he does, have eagerly stoked.

Today, then, amounts to a resurrection of sorts. More than two months after disappearing from view, following his return to Havana to seek medical treatment for cancer, the Cuban regime released photos of Chavez lying in his hospital bed, flanked by his two smiling daughters, Rosa and Maria.

There are many words that come to mind upon viewing these photos, but “dignified” isn’t one of them. Chavez is, appropriately, holding a copy of Granma, the daily newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, yet nothing about his expression suggests he is taking in anything on the page. In all the photos, he is lying down—were he physically able to sit upright, you can bet that a photo of him doing so would have been snapped. His face looks bruised and what looks like rouge has been hastily and awkwardly applied to his cheeks. Behind the smile is a man in physical pain and mental bewilderment.

In its report on the photos, Reuters noted:

The photos were shown on Friday by Chavez’s son-in-law, Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, who has been traveling between Havana and Caracas to be at his bedside.

He said that Chavez – whose political identity is built around long-winded speeches, meandering talk shows and casual chatter with supporters – was having trouble talking.

“He doesn’t have his usual voice,” Arreaza told Venezuelan state television. “He has difficulty communicating verbally, but he makes himself understood. He communicates his decisions perfectly. He writes them down.”

Chavez’s reappearance today—which could well be followed by several more weeks of invisibility—comes two days after his vice-president and appointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, arrived in Havana to announce that the Comandante would be undergoing “complex and difficult treatments that must, at some point, end the cycle of his illness.” This sounded more like a cry for help than a sober medical diagnosis. 

It was Maduro who, last month, claimed—in the course of an hysterical verbal assault against opposition leader Henrique Capriles—that Chavez had “held talks” in Havana with two leading of his leading supporters, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Defense Minister Diego Molero. Similarly, Fidel Castro confidently asserted on February 5 that Chavez “is much better,” before promptly revising his assessment one week later.

As indicated in today’s news, Chavez is physically incapable of holding talks with anyone; in the photos with his daughters, the tracheal tube through which he breathes, and which makes speech nearly impossible, has been temporarily removed. As for being “much better,” today’s photos indicate that the road to recovery is certainly a long, and perhaps insurmountable, one.

The only thing we can now conclude with certainty is that governance in Venezuela is being micromanaged by the Cuban regime. For months, the Venezuelan opposition, angered by the constant provision of subsidized oil to the Castro brothers, and resentful of the Cuban military presence in Venezuela, has been saying that their country has become a colony of Cuba. In the days ahead, they will continue to do so. For their part, the Castros are determined to muzzle any talk in Venezuela of a post-Chavez era, because they know that none of his underlings make the grade. However, the release of these photographs merely fuels the realization that precisely such a time is now upon us.  

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Montco’s Bag Law a Year On

It has now been more than a year since my adopted home of Montgomery County, Maryland instituted a bag tax to charge any shopper in the county at any store for the plastic or paper bags in which they cart away their groceries or any other goods. The stated goal of the bag law was to eliminate plastic bags clogging rivers and stuck in trees.

Late last month, the local paper—delivered without a subscription to my driveway in a plastic bag—reported on the “success” of the tax a year on:

Montgomery County’s controversial bag tax took in double the anticipated revenue in its first year and County Executive Isiah Leggett suspects out-of-county shoppers have something to do with it. County data shows the tax generated about $2 million through the end of November 2012 from taxing shoppers 5 cents for each carryout bag… Justified as a means to mitigating pollution from carryout bags, the tax went into effect in January 2012. The revenue goes to the county’s Water Quality Protection Charge Fund. Last year, Leggett said repeatedly that the county does not view the tax as a revenue stream for the Water Quality Protection Charge Fund, but rather a program to curtail waste and encourage the use of reusable bags. Anecdotally, he said, it is working to reduce waste. “We do see some improvements on streets and in streams,” he said. Leggett said he also sees shoppers toting their own reusable bags into stores.

What a sad indictment of government. When the tax was imposed, I speculated the action as more about money than litter. After all, we already have litter laws which target the guilty should county officers choose to impose them. Leggett may say with a nod and a wink the tax isn’t about money, but it’s the money the County tracks and, by admission and omission, it is clear that the county has no plan in place to determine—beyond the word of Leggett’s anecdotal observation—that the tax is doing anything to achieve its stated purpose. The County has collected $2 million and has no idea whether the tax has reduced litter.

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It has now been more than a year since my adopted home of Montgomery County, Maryland instituted a bag tax to charge any shopper in the county at any store for the plastic or paper bags in which they cart away their groceries or any other goods. The stated goal of the bag law was to eliminate plastic bags clogging rivers and stuck in trees.

Late last month, the local paper—delivered without a subscription to my driveway in a plastic bag—reported on the “success” of the tax a year on:

Montgomery County’s controversial bag tax took in double the anticipated revenue in its first year and County Executive Isiah Leggett suspects out-of-county shoppers have something to do with it. County data shows the tax generated about $2 million through the end of November 2012 from taxing shoppers 5 cents for each carryout bag… Justified as a means to mitigating pollution from carryout bags, the tax went into effect in January 2012. The revenue goes to the county’s Water Quality Protection Charge Fund. Last year, Leggett said repeatedly that the county does not view the tax as a revenue stream for the Water Quality Protection Charge Fund, but rather a program to curtail waste and encourage the use of reusable bags. Anecdotally, he said, it is working to reduce waste. “We do see some improvements on streets and in streams,” he said. Leggett said he also sees shoppers toting their own reusable bags into stores.

What a sad indictment of government. When the tax was imposed, I speculated the action as more about money than litter. After all, we already have litter laws which target the guilty should county officers choose to impose them. Leggett may say with a nod and a wink the tax isn’t about money, but it’s the money the County tracks and, by admission and omission, it is clear that the county has no plan in place to determine—beyond the word of Leggett’s anecdotal observation—that the tax is doing anything to achieve its stated purpose. The County has collected $2 million and has no idea whether the tax has reduced litter.

And while Leggett seems to celebrate the benefits of sticking it to visitors unaware of the tax before they make the mistake of shopping in Montgomery County stores, the County appears to have little regard to the taste such nickel-and-diming leaves in the mouths of visitors, who can just as easily and perhaps more cheaply chose hotels and restaurants next door in Virginia.

Montgomery County may celebrate its $2 million windfall, but left unasked and therefore unanswered is what business the county might lose to more consumer-friendly countries like Arlington and Fairfax. With a 10-month-old baby whose diapers need attending and two cats whose litter needs scooping, plastic bags are valuable. Travel makes me a cat person, but my neighborhood is filled with dogs whose people use whatever bags they can get to clean up after their sometimes messy friends.

Except for small runs to pick up one or two groceries, we now take most of our shopping to Virginia. For a number of reasons, it’s wiser for anyone on a budget. I addressed this here, but with updated numbers, if only 1,000 county residents (out of nearly one million total) took $200 worth of shopping from Maryland to Virginia, then that offsets the county’s gain. Of course, Montgomery County doesn’t survey such numbers; they wouldn’t like the result and as far as a local government is concerned, it’s money in their pockets and not the health of local business that matters.

This doesn’t even begin to address the health aspects. All it will take is one salmonella death from an infested re-useable bag blamed by a sympathetic jury on the county, and we will all be paying the price. No metrics to determine the law’s success, no care about its impact on business, and no concern regarding unintended consequence, so long as the County can nickel and dime. Welcome to predatory government in action.

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How Dare Ted Cruz?

Democrats might well be spending the day after the unsuccessful attempt to end debate on the nomination of Chuck Hagel pondering why President Obama and Vice President Biden were so obsessed with shoving an unqualified and incompetent candidate down the throats of the Senate. Politico has a fascinating story about why President Obama and Vice President Biden were unwilling to listen to sense about Hagel and went all in on the nomination even after clear signs of trouble about the former senator were apparent. But owning up to the sorry truth that what the White House likes best about Hagel are exactly the qualities that have made his confirmation such a tough slog — weakness on Iran, hostility to Israel and an unwillingness to stand up for the needs of the department he’s slotted to run — would require liberals to ask some tough questions about the president’s goals for his second term. Instead, the chattering classes are obsessing about the alleged bad manners of one of the newest additions to the U.S. Senate.

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus speaks for many in the capital today when she slams Texas Senator Ted Cruz for being mean to Chuck Hagel. Cruz had the temerity to demand five years of financial records from the nominee rather than the two he provided. He’s curious as to whether more detailed financial documents will reveal some embarrassing details as to who has funded some of the groups Hagel is involved with or paid for speaking engagements he has undertaken. These sound like reasonable questions to me and probably most Americans who think there’s nothing wrong with more transparency. This is a stand Democrats had no shame in adopting last year when they demanded that Mitt Romney reveal his tax returns and every last detail of his financial existence but as far as the Washington establishment is concerned, Cruz’s questions were a “smear.” They think he’s a bumptious, arrogant right-winger who doesn’t know his place and the chattering classes will do their best to besmirch his reputation until he pipes down. They shouldn’t hold their breath.

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Democrats might well be spending the day after the unsuccessful attempt to end debate on the nomination of Chuck Hagel pondering why President Obama and Vice President Biden were so obsessed with shoving an unqualified and incompetent candidate down the throats of the Senate. Politico has a fascinating story about why President Obama and Vice President Biden were unwilling to listen to sense about Hagel and went all in on the nomination even after clear signs of trouble about the former senator were apparent. But owning up to the sorry truth that what the White House likes best about Hagel are exactly the qualities that have made his confirmation such a tough slog — weakness on Iran, hostility to Israel and an unwillingness to stand up for the needs of the department he’s slotted to run — would require liberals to ask some tough questions about the president’s goals for his second term. Instead, the chattering classes are obsessing about the alleged bad manners of one of the newest additions to the U.S. Senate.

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus speaks for many in the capital today when she slams Texas Senator Ted Cruz for being mean to Chuck Hagel. Cruz had the temerity to demand five years of financial records from the nominee rather than the two he provided. He’s curious as to whether more detailed financial documents will reveal some embarrassing details as to who has funded some of the groups Hagel is involved with or paid for speaking engagements he has undertaken. These sound like reasonable questions to me and probably most Americans who think there’s nothing wrong with more transparency. This is a stand Democrats had no shame in adopting last year when they demanded that Mitt Romney reveal his tax returns and every last detail of his financial existence but as far as the Washington establishment is concerned, Cruz’s questions were a “smear.” They think he’s a bumptious, arrogant right-winger who doesn’t know his place and the chattering classes will do their best to besmirch his reputation until he pipes down. They shouldn’t hold their breath.

I don’t agree with Cruz on every issue. I think his qualms about the bipartisan immigration reform proposal put forward by other senators are unpersuasive and worry whether his desire to cut back spending places him among those who would denude our national defense. Yet what really bothers Washington liberals about Cruz is that he didn’t come to Washington to enjoy the benefits of being a member of one of the most exclusive and powerful club in the world — the U.S. Senate — and to play the time honored go-along to get-along game that greases the wheels of the country’s big government spending addiction. He intends to stand up for his principles and speak out.

I’m skeptical that more digging in Hagel’s financial records will reveal anything that will derail his nomination. But there’s nothing offensive about Cruz’s insinuation that Hagel might have something to hide. As has been made clear in just the last couple of days, what we already know Hagel’s extreme views about making nice with Iran and offensive statements about Jews and Israel may be just the tip of the iceberg. What the Washington establishment and the White House wanted was a collegial confirmation process for Hagel that would give the appearance of scrutiny rather than a genuine investigation about his suitability for a sensitive and powerful post. And that is something that a man like Cruz won’t tolerate.

In his first weeks in office, Cruz has not played the usual role of freshman senators and kept quiet. Instead, as another Politico story noted, he has stepped on a lot of toes and the owners of those toes aren’t happy. They say it will decrease his influence. Others will agree with Marcus about his bad manners and do their best to shun him.

About that, I have two thoughts.

One is that liberals don’t always think ill of freshman senators who don’t defer to senior colleagues. When Barack Obama arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2005 he might not have been as tough as Cruz but he wasn’t shy about asserting himself. As one senator told me, he showed up acting as if he had been there for 20 years and his colleagues didn’t like it one bit.

The other is that all the blather we’ve been hearing lately about the virtues of compromise can be overrated. It is true that politics is the art of the possible and that getting anything done requires accommodation as well as advocacy. But the problem with Ted Cruz isn’t so much that he strikes some Washingtonians as obnoxious as it is that he won’t play the part assigned to him in their vision of the future of the Republican Party. We may need dealmakers but we also need politicians who take ideas more seriously than the kabuki dance of Capitol Hill manners.

The Hagel contretemps illustrated perfectly why we need people in the Senate who won’t pull their punches. Given the commitment of the president to his nominee, stopping an unsuitable and dangerous man like Hagel from being given the Pentagon required courage and a willingness to drop the faux courtesy that would have allowed him to skate through without tough questions or real scrutiny.

I daresay Ted Cruz isn’t bothered by Marcus’s jibe that he isn’t going to win Senator Congeniality. Neither should the voters of Texas who sent up there to speak up and not fit in. A few more like him wouldn’t do the Congress any harm.

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Little Princes Survive the Arab Spring

The so-called Arab Spring began more than two years ago when a Tunisian fruit vendor, upset by the Tunisian regime’s corruption and lack of accountability, set himself on fire. It soon became apparent that nearly every Arab country was a tinderbox, smoldering under dictatorship and popular discord.

A chief symbol of regional corruption was the leader’s son. Hosni Mubarak had his son Gamal, a bag man for the regime and for Mubarak’s personal fortune. Muammar Qaddafi had Saif, who traveled across Europe and the halls of Congress, charming almost every diplomat or congressman he met, and signing billions of dollars of deals along the way. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, penned a Foreign Policy piece about how the sons of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have transformed their connections into fortunes.

Throughout much of the rest of the Middle East—Kurd, Persian, and Turkish—the pattern is the same: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had Qubad Talabani; Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani had his son Masrour Barzani; and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has Ahmad Maliki. Indeed, across the Iraqi and Kurdish political spectrum, there are few politicians who do not transform their sons into business agents or recipients of nepotistic largesse.

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The so-called Arab Spring began more than two years ago when a Tunisian fruit vendor, upset by the Tunisian regime’s corruption and lack of accountability, set himself on fire. It soon became apparent that nearly every Arab country was a tinderbox, smoldering under dictatorship and popular discord.

A chief symbol of regional corruption was the leader’s son. Hosni Mubarak had his son Gamal, a bag man for the regime and for Mubarak’s personal fortune. Muammar Qaddafi had Saif, who traveled across Europe and the halls of Congress, charming almost every diplomat or congressman he met, and signing billions of dollars of deals along the way. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, penned a Foreign Policy piece about how the sons of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have transformed their connections into fortunes.

Throughout much of the rest of the Middle East—Kurd, Persian, and Turkish—the pattern is the same: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had Qubad Talabani; Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani had his son Masrour Barzani; and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has Ahmad Maliki. Indeed, across the Iraqi and Kurdish political spectrum, there are few politicians who do not transform their sons into business agents or recipients of nepotistic largesse.

In Iran, they even have a nickname for such children: Popularly, they are referred to as Aghazadeh-ha, the sons of the nobles, a term which refers to the ability of men like Mehdi Rafsanjani or his brother Yasser to make tens of millions of dollars off the political connections of their father, former president Al Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

And the leadership of Turkey, which is far more Middle Eastern today than European, indulges in the same pattern. Behind closed doors, be it in Ankara, Moscow, Riyadh, or Washington, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not shy about telling foreign leaders or prominent businessmen that if they want pipelines or other deals to proceed, they should contract Çalik Holdings in which his son-in-law Berat Albayrak is chief executive.

[Çalik Energy, a subsidiary of Çalik Holdings, was a donor to the Atlantic Council, according to a disclosure which Atlantic Council chairman Fred Kempe made to the Wall Street Journal regarding questions surrounding former senator Chuck Hagel's chairmanship; he might have simply said Erdoğan donated, because the laundering of cash through Çalik is standard operating procedure for the Turkish strongman].

Alas, the Arab Spring may have swept away one generation of dictators but it did not do away with the “Little Prince” phenomenon. David Schenker, perhaps Washington’s most consistently correct Arab affairs analyst, notes the pattern has now re-emerged in Cairo. According to the Associated Press:

Egypt’s aviation minister says the hiring of President Mohammed Morsi’s son to a highly-paid government job was justified, dismissing accusations of nepotism… Omar, one of the president’s five children and a recent university graduate, got the internally-advertised job in a department that usually hires with a starting monthly salary of $5,000. Such a figure is unheard of for new graduates in Egypt, where the starting salary for a government job can be as low as $75.

Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood is just as corrupt as the regime it replaced, if not more so.

It is a shame that the sons (or son-in-law, in the case of Turkey) of Middle Eastern leaders diminish themselves by seeking easy cash rather than to excel in their own fields. What a powerful symbol it might make if the son of a leader sought to excel as a doctor, engineer, or teacher. Cynics may say it’s understandable, and both realists and pessimists might point out that this is simply local culture. Regardless, perhaps there is no better metric of the seriousness of reform for diplomats to point to than the behavior of leaders’ children.

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Saving the Republican Party

The Republican Party is in trouble: In the wake of the presidential election, everybody has said so, and everybody is right. From there, however, a hundred paths diverge and a thousand voices have been heard. The relevant questions are these: How deep is the trouble? How much of it is self-inflicted and how much is a function of circumstance? Can the problem be repaired, and if so, by what means? 

These questions are ones the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson and I take up in the forthcoming (March) issue of COMMENTARY magazine. 

The essay recapitulates presidential elections 1968-1988 v. 1992-2012 to show how dramatically things have shifted against the Republican Party; argues that the GOP faces systemic, not transient, problems; and provides a brief history of what Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did to revivify their parties. We believe the Republican Party is nearing a Clinton-Blair moment, meaning a substantial recalibration is necessary. It faces more than a “messaging problem.” 

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The Republican Party is in trouble: In the wake of the presidential election, everybody has said so, and everybody is right. From there, however, a hundred paths diverge and a thousand voices have been heard. The relevant questions are these: How deep is the trouble? How much of it is self-inflicted and how much is a function of circumstance? Can the problem be repaired, and if so, by what means? 

These questions are ones the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson and I take up in the forthcoming (March) issue of COMMENTARY magazine. 

The essay recapitulates presidential elections 1968-1988 v. 1992-2012 to show how dramatically things have shifted against the Republican Party; argues that the GOP faces systemic, not transient, problems; and provides a brief history of what Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did to revivify their parties. We believe the Republican Party is nearing a Clinton-Blair moment, meaning a substantial recalibration is necessary. It faces more than a “messaging problem.” 

From there we argue that the GOP faces five challenges, including (a) appealing to the economic concerns of working- and middle-class America; (b) becoming a party that welcomes rising immigrant groups; (c) demonstrating a commitment to the common good and social solidarity; (d) engaging vital social issues forthrightly and in a manner that is aspirational rather than alienating; and (e) harnessing the Republican Party’s policy views to the findings of science.

We supply policy suggestions within each category — policies we believe to be substantively right and symbolically useful. We then argue that the challenge for primary voters, party activists, and party leaders is to create the conditions that will give the talented field Republicans do have the intellectual support and leeway to an agenda relevant to our time.

For more, a link to the essay can be found here

 

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