Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hugo Chavez

Maduro’s Empty Call for “Dialogue”

Nicolas Maduro’s ghost writer should be commended for making the Venezuelan dictator sound, in his op-ed in today’s New York Times, like a reasonable man in search of a reasonable solution. You would never know, on the basis of this article alone, that this is the same Maduro who claims to have encountered the ghost of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, on the Caracas subway system; who instinctively denounces his opponents as “Nazis” and “fascists”; who alleged a conspiracy involving former Bush administration officials to assassinate a senior opposition leader to “create chaos” in Venezuela.

What the piece–written in reaction to a stirring Times op-ed by Leopoldo Lopez, a senior opposition leader incarcerated by the Maduro regime on charges of “terrorism”–attempts to do is persuade the reader that Venezuela is really a socialist paradise warmed by the Caribbean sun. Hence, Maduro trots out the some of the standard themes which are familiar to observers of chavismo, for example that the revolution inaugurated by Chavez has shattered income inequality, along with former President Jimmy Carter’s belief that Venezuela’s electoral process “is the best in the world” (an old but much utilized quote that will serve as an eternal reminder of Carter’s obsequious stance toward the chavistas).

But there are other themes that are, significantly, absent from the op-ed. Until quite recently, the chavistas made much of the bold percentage increases in the national minimum wage, but Maduro wisely chose not to mention this “fact.” Wisely, because Venezuela’s currency, the Bolivar, has been devalued by an accumulated total of 2,000 percent over the last 15 years, rendering meaningless any minimum wage boosts. As CENDAS, a Caracas-based research institute, has discovered, thanks to the shortages and inflation that have worsened radically during Maduro’s first year in power, each Venezuelan now needs four minimum wages to meet basic expenses for food, clothing, and health care.

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Nicolas Maduro’s ghost writer should be commended for making the Venezuelan dictator sound, in his op-ed in today’s New York Times, like a reasonable man in search of a reasonable solution. You would never know, on the basis of this article alone, that this is the same Maduro who claims to have encountered the ghost of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, on the Caracas subway system; who instinctively denounces his opponents as “Nazis” and “fascists”; who alleged a conspiracy involving former Bush administration officials to assassinate a senior opposition leader to “create chaos” in Venezuela.

What the piece–written in reaction to a stirring Times op-ed by Leopoldo Lopez, a senior opposition leader incarcerated by the Maduro regime on charges of “terrorism”–attempts to do is persuade the reader that Venezuela is really a socialist paradise warmed by the Caribbean sun. Hence, Maduro trots out the some of the standard themes which are familiar to observers of chavismo, for example that the revolution inaugurated by Chavez has shattered income inequality, along with former President Jimmy Carter’s belief that Venezuela’s electoral process “is the best in the world” (an old but much utilized quote that will serve as an eternal reminder of Carter’s obsequious stance toward the chavistas).

But there are other themes that are, significantly, absent from the op-ed. Until quite recently, the chavistas made much of the bold percentage increases in the national minimum wage, but Maduro wisely chose not to mention this “fact.” Wisely, because Venezuela’s currency, the Bolivar, has been devalued by an accumulated total of 2,000 percent over the last 15 years, rendering meaningless any minimum wage boosts. As CENDAS, a Caracas-based research institute, has discovered, thanks to the shortages and inflation that have worsened radically during Maduro’s first year in power, each Venezuelan now needs four minimum wages to meet basic expenses for food, clothing, and health care.

In tandem with the omissions are the lies and distortions that one would expect from Maduro; for example, the fabricated charge that students protesting the sexual assault of a young female by National Guard members “burned down a university in Táchira State.” He demonizes the last two months of protest as the temper tantrum of a spoiled, entitled middle class, asserting that “the protests have received no support in poor and working-class neighborhoods.” What he doesn’t add is that the overwhelming presence, in the same neighborhoods, of the paramilitary colectivos is something of a disincentive to participating in demonstrations that highlight the damage the regime is doing to everyone, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Maduro ends his piece with an appeal for “dialogue to move forward.” Who, exactly, will he dialogue with? Leopoldo Lopez is in jail, while his colleague Maria Corina Machado has been stripped of her parliamentary immunity. As the perceptive Argentinian journalist Daniel Lozano noted in his report of the attempt by Machado and her supporters to reach the National Assembly building, what they found resembled a “military fortress”:

An enormous deployment of the National Guard blocked off the National Assembly. An attempt at dialogue with them, once again, did no good. A group of government supporters surrounded the deputy shouting “Imperialist! Traitor! Murderer!” The rising tension forced Machado and her group to abandon the scene…Machado couldn’t speak to the chamber but made use of the street stage to ask a question. And to answer it. “Why do they want to silence me? Why do they want to do that? Because they are terrified of the truth and people on the streets fighting for their liberty.”

And it’s not just Lopez and Machado. Enzo Scarano and Daniel Ceballos, the respective mayors of the opposition strongholds of San Diego and San Cristobal, have been summarily dismissed and imprisoned. Nobody yet knows the total human cost of the regime’s brutal operation to drive demonstrators off the streets of San Cristobal. As for Maduro’s laughable statement in his Times piece that the government will prosecute human-rights abusers in the security forces, the complete collapse of Venezuela’s independent judicial system over the last decade is the best counter-argument to that claim.

Inter alia, Maduro says, “My government has also reached out to President Obama, expressing our desire to again exchange ambassadors. We hope his administration will respond in kind.” Responding “in kind” would signal that the U.S. government is, at best, indifferent to the fate of Venezuela under continued chavista rule. Far better to point out that the friendship of the United States is a privilege, and not a right. If Maduro releases the thousand-odd political prisoners detained during the protests and reins in the colectivos, perhaps then, and only then, might there be something to discuss.

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Hugo Chavez, One Year On

 Today marks the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, and the world’s tyrants are mourning appropriately. The Russian President Vladimir Putin took a short break from invading Ukraine to send a message of sympathy to Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor. “A year has passed since the demise of the extraordinary Venezuelan leader and great friend of mine, Hugo Chavez,” Putin wrote. “Through joint efforts, we can continue to put the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

 As I noted in a COMMENTARY post on this day last year, Chavez’s death was announced on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s passing. “It took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death,” I said. “One shudders at the thought that chavismo will last as long.” In the intervening months, we have witnessed Maduro come to power through a fraudulent election, the emergence of a siege economy with its attendant price controls and currency devaluations and, finally, the eruption of a student-led protest movement that seeks to point the chavistas to la Salida – the Exit. Surely, time is running out when it comes to putting “the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

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 Today marks the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, and the world’s tyrants are mourning appropriately. The Russian President Vladimir Putin took a short break from invading Ukraine to send a message of sympathy to Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor. “A year has passed since the demise of the extraordinary Venezuelan leader and great friend of mine, Hugo Chavez,” Putin wrote. “Through joint efforts, we can continue to put the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

 As I noted in a COMMENTARY post on this day last year, Chavez’s death was announced on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s passing. “It took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death,” I said. “One shudders at the thought that chavismo will last as long.” In the intervening months, we have witnessed Maduro come to power through a fraudulent election, the emergence of a siege economy with its attendant price controls and currency devaluations and, finally, the eruption of a student-led protest movement that seeks to point the chavistas to la Salida – the Exit. Surely, time is running out when it comes to putting “the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

Except that, in periods of acute crisis, authoritarian regimes are far better equipped to retain power than the democratic counterparts. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq outlasted more than a decade of punishing sanctions. Ditto for the mullahs in Iran and for Robert Mugabe, another “great friend” of Chavez, who has just embarked on his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe.

These regimes stay in power chiefly because of their willingness to deploy brute force against their own populations, along with their readiness to enrich themselves and their cronies through systematic corruption and lucrative criminal activities (narcotics trafficking is a favored pursuit of the chavista Generals.) Crisis, when it descends, is explained to their subjects as deliberate sabotage on the part of an external predator, most often the United States. Hence Maduro’s constant refrain that the Venezuelan protests are the work of a few “fascists” acting under instructions from Washington.

It also helps to have a celebratory or commemorative occasion close at hand. Last week, Maduro attempted to take the wind out of the protests by announcing that the annual Carnival holiday had come early. Today, a slew of foreign leaders, including Cuban President Raul Castro, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s unrepentant Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, have arrived in Caracas to add an extra layer of gravitas to the official Chavez commemorations.

 What is now happening, as the respected Venezuelan writer Ibsen Martinez argues in a piece for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, is a shift from the “Washington consensus” to the “Havana consensus.” The Washington consensus refers to American-backed economic and democratic reforms that are denounced by opponents as “neoliberalism.” Contrastingly, the Havana consensus–so-called because of last month’s meeting of Latin American nations in the Cuban capital where absolute national sovereignty was affirmed as the continent’s guiding principle–essentially enables leaders like Maduro to fix elections and imprison dissidents at will.

 ”Today, there’s no point shouting ‘Don’t leave us on our own!’ Martinez says. “The Venezuelan people can expect nothing of the regions leaders, everything depends on us.” He is right. No outside agency–not the UN, not the Organization of American States, and certainly not the United States government–is going to take charge of a rescue operation for Venezuela.

 Yet, despite outside indifference and Maduro’s best efforts to marginalize the opposition, the protests continue. Barricades erected by opposition activists have been reported all over Caracas and further demonstrations are planned in San Cristobal, the opposition stronghold in the west of the country. None of this, of course, portends the imminent death of chavismo, one year after Chavez’s end. But the anger on the streets of the country should remind Maduro that the growing numbers of Venezuelans opposed to his rule aren’t idly waiting for a foreign cavalry to arrive.  

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Do Turks Want Democracy?

While some statesmen believe it is sophisticated to downplay the imperatives of freedom and liberty, across the globe ordinary people are proving them wrong. Ukrainians refused to accede to now former president Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to reorient Ukraine to the east. They stood up for their freedoms, and fought back when attacked. Ultimately, they triumphed—at least for now—as the parliament answered popular demands and impeached the president.

Egyptians, too, were unwilling to suffer President Hosni Mubarak’s continued corruption and increasing disdain for the ordinary public, nor were they willing to tolerate President Mohamed Morsi’s evisceration of his promises and increasing disdain for the democratic principles which he had espoused during the presidential campaigns. They returned en masse to Tahrir Square to demand Morsi compromise, and when he refused, he was ousted.

In Venezuela, as well, the people are saying no more to a government that has taken potentially one of the wealthiest nations in South America and transformed it into an impoverished backwater. While many Venezuelans may have become enamored by the rhetoric of democracy and social justice that came from the likes of late president Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, their behavior makes clear any commitment to democracy is simply a façade in a quest for power.

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While some statesmen believe it is sophisticated to downplay the imperatives of freedom and liberty, across the globe ordinary people are proving them wrong. Ukrainians refused to accede to now former president Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to reorient Ukraine to the east. They stood up for their freedoms, and fought back when attacked. Ultimately, they triumphed—at least for now—as the parliament answered popular demands and impeached the president.

Egyptians, too, were unwilling to suffer President Hosni Mubarak’s continued corruption and increasing disdain for the ordinary public, nor were they willing to tolerate President Mohamed Morsi’s evisceration of his promises and increasing disdain for the democratic principles which he had espoused during the presidential campaigns. They returned en masse to Tahrir Square to demand Morsi compromise, and when he refused, he was ousted.

In Venezuela, as well, the people are saying no more to a government that has taken potentially one of the wealthiest nations in South America and transformed it into an impoverished backwater. While many Venezuelans may have become enamored by the rhetoric of democracy and social justice that came from the likes of late president Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, their behavior makes clear any commitment to democracy is simply a façade in a quest for power.

In Turkey, too, an increasingly autocratic leader poses a challenge. While mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quipped that democracy was like a street car, “you ride it as far as you need and then you get off.” He has proven himself a man of his word, as he has moved to consolidate power, eviscerate the judiciary, crush free speech, curb the media, and imprison political opponents. While Turks rose up to protest Erdoğan’s decision to pave over one of central Istanbul’s few remaining green areas, protestors have not persisted to the degree their colleagues have in other countries.

Too many enlightened and educated Turks have preferred to keep silent, privately expressing dismay, but publicly keeping quiet. Many Turkish analysts in Washington D.C., whether out of fear for family members back home or perhaps in a cynical attempt to maintain access to a regime that punishes criticism, self-censor or, even worse, bestow false praise on Ankara’s new tyrants. A week’s protest was not enough to bring democracy to Egypt, Ukraine, or Venezuela, but rather a sustained movement, even in the face of tear gas and police violence.

Too often in the years following Atatürk’s secularist revolution, be it under İsmet İnönü, Adnan Menderes, or Erdoğan, Turkish liberals and progressives have allowed charismatic leaders to erode the foundations of democracy and set Turkey down a dictatorial path. Once again, Turkey has fallen over the precipice into dictatorship. If Turkish liberals are content to sit on their hands instead of defend their freedoms in every city and town square, perhaps it is time to conclude that despite their professions of embracing a European outlook, Turkish liberals simply don’t want democracy enough. Ukrainians are proving daily that it is they, and not Turkey, who deserve Europe.

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Globalization and Democracy Can Coexist

Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

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Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

Despite the fact that militaries could hardly be called agents of reform, middle classes in many developing nations, both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, often continued to support the armed forces as potential antidotes to popular democracy–democracy that might empower the poor, the religious, and the less educated. In this way, Egyptian liberals’ concerns about the fruits of democracy were not unique. Overall, in fact, an analysis of military coups in developing nations over the past twenty years, conducted by my research associate Daniel Silverman and myself, found that in nearly 50 percent of the cases, drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for the coup or, in polls or prominent media coverage after the coup, expressed their support for the army takeover.

Kurlantzick’s expression “the fruits of democracy” captures well the fear of being, not to put too fine a point on it, looted. Diehl, who uses the term “elite revolt” to characterize the latest round of uprisings, puts it similarly:

So why are they rebelling? Because globalization is not merely an economic story. It is accompanied by the spread of freer and more inclusive elections to dozens of countries where they were previously banned or rigged. That has enabled the rise of populists who cater to globalization’s losers and who promise to crush the old establishment and even out the rewards. In country after country, they’ve succeeded in monopolizing the political system. Hence, the elite revolt.

Diehl offers up Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as a cautionary tale. And while the original framing of the issue puts more onus on the well-to-do (with great power comes great responsibility, and all that), this seems to even things out a bit. It’s understandable that a new middle class would be opposed to empowering the next Hugo Chavez.

So all this seems to suggest that maybe states like China have it all figured out: maybe the combination of democratization and globalization is too powerful for the two events to take place simultaneously. But this argument is missing an ingredient, and it’s one Kurlantzick glances at but doesn’t dwell on: stability. That’s clearest when looking at Russia’s Putin-era backsliding on democracy. Nobody’s wealth is safe without political stability.

But this, to me, is ultimately an argument in favor of globalization and democratization–as long as the term “democratization” means more than just elections, and globalization means more than just money. In April 2012, I quoted the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer discussing the report that perhaps a majority of Chinese millionaires prefer to live in the United States to their home country, and it’s worth re-quoting here:

And yeah, it’s about quality of life. Yeah, it’s about the environment. Yeah, it’s about opportunities for their kids. It’s also about no rule of law in China and worrying about corruption and the sanctity of their assets over the long term. Your assets are okay tomorrow. The United States, we’re over-litigious. China doesn’t have that problem. You don’t have to worry about lawyers in China. You have to worry about someone ripping off your stuff or being forced out of the country or not being heard from again.

In some very real ways, it doesn’t matter how rich China gets if those with all the money will only park it in New York City. The same goes for Russia, though proximity to Europe seems to predispose that money toward London’s banks. But both New York and London are in the West, and both are in democracies (at least until the European Union gets its way). Because even the messiness of democracy–true democracy, with free institutions and the rule of law–provides more long-term stability than the arbitrary governance of autocracy.

Bremmer predicated his quote by saying we have to watch what people do with their money, not rely on what they say. And his point was that the elites in authoritarian countries are trying to protect their assets from their own country’s government–the very government that has enriched them and which speaks in their name. The “elite” can revolt all they want to protect themselves, but even when they successfully grab the reins of power, without the rule of law they still end up looking for a way out.

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Desperate Measures in Venezuela

The other day, I asked a leading Venezuelan opposition figure what he thought was the main difference between Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan comandante, and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. “If Chavez was Frank Sinatra,” came the reply, “then Maduro is the guy in the karaoke bar singing an out of tune version of My Way.”

The point here is not that Chavez was a preferable alternative to Maduro; as Roger Noriega correctly points out in the New York Post, Chavez’s “divisive, illegitimate regime polarized society and devastated the economy.” It’s that the uncharismatic, foul-tempered Maduro has, during the seven months that he’s been in power, exposed the totalitarian tendencies implicit in the ideology of chavismo, with the result that he’s fast losing support among those segments of Venezuelan society, like the three million Venezuelans now living in extreme poverty, who regarded Chavez as a savior not so long ago.

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The other day, I asked a leading Venezuelan opposition figure what he thought was the main difference between Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan comandante, and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. “If Chavez was Frank Sinatra,” came the reply, “then Maduro is the guy in the karaoke bar singing an out of tune version of My Way.”

The point here is not that Chavez was a preferable alternative to Maduro; as Roger Noriega correctly points out in the New York Post, Chavez’s “divisive, illegitimate regime polarized society and devastated the economy.” It’s that the uncharismatic, foul-tempered Maduro has, during the seven months that he’s been in power, exposed the totalitarian tendencies implicit in the ideology of chavismo, with the result that he’s fast losing support among those segments of Venezuelan society, like the three million Venezuelans now living in extreme poverty, who regarded Chavez as a savior not so long ago.

The crisis facing Maduro’s regime has coincided with a bitter political campaign around the upcoming municipal elections on December 8, which the opposition MUD coalition is billing as a referendum on the country’s future. One recent opinion poll indicates that 48 percent of electors intend to vote for opposition candidates, as against 41 percent for the ruling party, but that is not necessarily a reliable guide to what will happen on the day. Maduro can always do what he did during the April presidential election: deploy chavista thugs to hector voters arriving at the polling stations, or even rig the result in his favor.

Maduro’s behavior over recent weeks suggests that he has chosen the path of intimidation as the key to his political survival. With inflation running at 54 percent, the highest in the Americas, and a constant shortage of basic household goods like cooking oil and sugar, on November 19 Maduro railroaded through a Ley Habilitante, or Enabling Law, which allows him to bypass the National Assembly and rule by decree. Claiming that Venezuela is the victim of an “economic war” waged by the United States and its local allies, Maduro’s new powers will assist him in prosecuting what his vice president, Jorge Arreaza, delightedly calls “class warfare.”

So far at least, the regime’s offensive against those it labels “speculators” and “bourgeois parasites” has manifested in two ways. Firstly, harassment of the opposition: last weekend, just hours before an MUD election rally, military intelligence officers beat up and arrested Alejandro Silva, a senior aide (or “fascist henchman,” in the words of Andres Izarra, one of Maduro’s ministers) to opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Secondly, it has begun targeting the entire business community, from large retail chains to small merchants, with state-enforced price controls.

Mindful of the potential electoral benefits to be gleaned from the approaching Christmas holiday, Maduro has abruptly ended the long-established practice of selling consumer goods at the black market rate for U.S. dollars–currently ten times the official rate. Initially, this resulted in open looting of stores belonging to retailers like the “Daka” electronics chain. In the days that followed, police officers turned up at other stores demanding that their owners immediately reprice their wares. A video being circulated by opposition activists shows a devastated Lebanese immigrant merchant in the eastern city of El Tigre begging for sympathy: “I bought at 60 thousand Bolívares [Venezuela's currency denomination],” he wails, as he stands helplessly in front of his goods. “I can’t sell at 6 thousand!”

The main result of these measures, which have similarly impacted thousands of other merchants, will be to ruin the retail sector, since owners cannot possibly hope to recover their initial outlay if they are compelled to cut prices so radically. Further, they demonstrate the painful absence of any long-term strategy on Maduro’s part to address Venezuela’s capsizing economy.

Instead, the beneficiaries of Maduro’s policies are principally found among Venezuela’s military elite. As the constitutional lawyer Asdrúbal Aguiar observes in an interview with El Universal, military officers are now running key institutions like the Interior Ministry and a shadowy new intelligence body known as “Cesspa” (Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Motherland). Consequently, as Roger Noriega summarizes the situation:

Virtually every Venezuelan is infuriated by the daily fight for survival. The anti-chavistas are fed up with the harassment by an illegitimate and incompetent one-party state. All sides in the military are busy weighing their options.

Any act of repression, street brawl, electoral fraud or corruption scandal could unleash all the fury built up over the regime’s 15 years. Tragically, the sight of military units squaring off in the streets of Caracas is not a distant memory.

Noriega concludes from all this that the U.S. “must act urgently to prevent a Syria scenario on our doorstep.” Another equally depressing comparison can be drawn with Zimbabwe, whose dictator, Robert Mugabe, embarked on a similar price-controls crusade in 2007. Either way, the prospect of a bloody denouement cannot be ruled out.

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Venezuela’s Ministry of Happiness

“Orwellian” is an oft-misused term, mainly because those who employ it forget that it properly applies to closed societies, rather than open ones. For that same reason, “Orwellian” is the most appropriate adjective to describe Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s announcement that he has created a new “Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness,” a body that could quite easily feature in one of 1984 narrator Winston Smith’s surreptitious diary entries.

The ministry’s creation rather underlines the fact that, after enduring fourteen years of chavismo, Venezuela is a supremely unhappy society. Despite sitting atop the world’s largest reserves of oil, the country that could have been Latin America’s powerhouse is instead a basket case. Oil revenues are either squandered, for example through the annual provision of around $12 billion of heavily-subsidized oil to communist Cuba, or used to settle foreign debts, as in the case of China, which has lent $42.5 billion to Venezuela over the last six years, and which now receives close to 600,000 barrels of oil per day as repayment. Ironically, only the much-maligned United States, which receives about 800,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil per day, pays for its imports in cash.

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“Orwellian” is an oft-misused term, mainly because those who employ it forget that it properly applies to closed societies, rather than open ones. For that same reason, “Orwellian” is the most appropriate adjective to describe Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s announcement that he has created a new “Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness,” a body that could quite easily feature in one of 1984 narrator Winston Smith’s surreptitious diary entries.

The ministry’s creation rather underlines the fact that, after enduring fourteen years of chavismo, Venezuela is a supremely unhappy society. Despite sitting atop the world’s largest reserves of oil, the country that could have been Latin America’s powerhouse is instead a basket case. Oil revenues are either squandered, for example through the annual provision of around $12 billion of heavily-subsidized oil to communist Cuba, or used to settle foreign debts, as in the case of China, which has lent $42.5 billion to Venezuela over the last six years, and which now receives close to 600,000 barrels of oil per day as repayment. Ironically, only the much-maligned United States, which receives about 800,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil per day, pays for its imports in cash.

The rot eating away at Venezuela’s oil sector–run, for the last decade, by regime loyalists after the professional bureaucrats who administered the national oil company, PDVSA, were ruthlessly purged by the late Hugo Chavez–has spread to the rest of the country in dramatic fashion. Back in September, a power outage plunged 70 percent of the country, including the capital, Caracas, into darkness. Industry analysts blamed poor management practices for the interruption of the electricity supply, while the regime pointed its finger at the CIA and at the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, Henrique Capriles. Exactly the same response is offered when it comes to explaining the other woes, like shortages of basic foodstuffs and household items like toilet paper, that are plaguing the country.

The Happiness Ministry is, therefore, Maduro’s way of acknowledging that support for the Chavez model of revolution is being eroded among precisely those whom it is meant to benefit. Chavez’s program of creating “social missions” among the poorest demographics was, from the beginning, funded by a combination of external debt and misuse of oil revenues. In exchange, it guaranteed him the political loyalties and votes that Maduro is now desperate to shore up, which is why the new ministry will be in charge of coordinating the 33 missions, which cover a range of areas from improving literacy to building cheap public housing.

The opposition has countered that Maduro’s strategy is all about politics, since there is little, if any, economic logic here. Accusing anyone who stands up to him of “sabotage” conveniently masks the obvious point that these social missions cannot be indefinitely sustained. And that is why, after the September power outage, the regime’s immediate response was to deploy agents of the SEBIN secret police “across the nation to protect the population.”

With the December 8 municipal elections on the horizon, Maduro is anxious to deny the opposition the opportunity of turning the vote into a national referendum on his rule. Mindful of the widespread allegations of fraud that marked Maduro’s victory in the April presidential election, the opposition parliamentarian Maria Corina Machado–who was brutally assaulted in the National Assembly after she accused Maduro of rigging the vote–has warned that “suspending the vote or scheming up an outright fraud should not be excluded from the options of the National Electoral Council (CNE).”

Intimidating voters is another tactic which the regime has used to its advantage in the recent past. Just before he announced the creation of the Happiness Ministry, Maduro declared that the elections on December 8 would be trumped by something much more important: “a day of loyalty and love for Hugo Chavez,” as he put it, as well as a reminder that the “only enemies of the country are the ‘evil trilogy’”–Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez, and Maria Corina Machado–“who have been commissioned to sabotage electricity, food and unleash an economic war.” Anyone arriving at the voting stations on December 8 can expect to be greeted by red-shirted chavistas brandishing pictures of Chavez, exactly as happened during the April vote, when these same operatives were filmed ushering voters into the polling booths to “assist” them with their electronic ballots.

If anyone remains unconvinced that Maduro is using Chavez’s legacy to set up a full-fledged dictatorship, look no further than his proposed Enabling Law, ostensibly designed to fight corruption and economic decline. As the dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal points out, when the chavistas came to power, one dollar was exchanged for 50 Bolivars: fourteen years later, it’s 50,000 Bolivars and rising. In analyzing how the passage of the law would enable Maduro to exercise complete control over the economy, Duquenal asks, “does anyone still think we are not in a dictatorship?” Actually, it’s impossible to think anything else.

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In Venezuela, Obama Is Still An Imperialist

If the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was your sole source of news, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Obama Administration is engaged in a reckless campaign to unseat each of America’s adversaries around the world. At a time when everyone else is pondering the historic reversal of American power that the Syrian debacle represents, in Maduro’s fevered imagination the Obama administration remains, as he put it last May, “the grand chief of devils.”

The penchant of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, for conspiracy theories was legendary. Having received his political education from Norberto Ceresole, a Holocaust denier who drew liberally from both Marxism and fascism, Chavez was quick to point out Jewish plots lurking around every corner. Yet, by Maduro’s current standards, even Chavez was comparatively restrained.

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If the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was your sole source of news, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Obama Administration is engaged in a reckless campaign to unseat each of America’s adversaries around the world. At a time when everyone else is pondering the historic reversal of American power that the Syrian debacle represents, in Maduro’s fevered imagination the Obama administration remains, as he put it last May, “the grand chief of devils.”

The penchant of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, for conspiracy theories was legendary. Having received his political education from Norberto Ceresole, a Holocaust denier who drew liberally from both Marxism and fascism, Chavez was quick to point out Jewish plots lurking around every corner. Yet, by Maduro’s current standards, even Chavez was comparatively restrained.

Almost as soon as Chavez handpicked Maduro as his successor, the conspiracy accusations began mounting thick and fast. When Chavez died from cancer in a Cuban hospital in March this year, Maduro claimed that he had been poisoned by the CIA. Then, as a presidential election campaign unfolded, Maduro accused the CIA of trying to kill his rival, Henrique Capriles, in order to stage the conditions for a military coup.

Now, as Ezequiel Minaya and William Neuman report in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times respectively, virtually every obstacle Venezuela faces is explained away as an American plot. A lack of basic goods, like cooking oil or toilet paper? According to Maduro, that’s because of a motley coalition of unscrupulous storeowners, and power-hungry opposition politicians have engineered these shortages in concert with the CIA. The power outage that last week left more than 70 percent of Venezuela without electricity? That would be the CIA again, this time willfully attempting to destroy Venezuela’s infrastructure. The 2012 explosion at the Amuay oil refinery that killed more than 41 people? Needless to say, Maduro has ignored the numerous reports that placed the blame for the disaster on government mismanagement and corruption, citing “sabotage” instead.

There is more: in a television address last weekend, Maduro asserted that the United States is preparing for the “total collapse” of Venezuela this coming October via a secret plan named–with appropriate subtlety–”Total Collapse.” And after Venezuela’s security forces uncovered an alleged Colombian plot to assassinate the president, a straight-faced Maduro unveiled yet another plot, this time “to eliminate me simultaneously with the attack on Syria.”  

Plenty of madness, to be sure, but what of Maduro’s method? Opinion polls conducted in Venezuela over the last few months demonstrate that Maduro sorely lacks Chavez’s ability to win the trust of Venezuelans in even the most trying of circumstances. The country remains where it was during the election last April; heavily polarized, with Maduro’s personal disapproval ratings regularly approaching, or even exceeding, 50 percent of the electorate.

It is the April election, and specifically the opposition’s charge that Maduro’s wafer-thin victory was rigged, that continues to weigh heavily on the minds of Venezuelans. Significantly, rather than countering the opposition’s accusations with evidence that the poll was honest, Maduro’s strategy is to repeat his claims of CIA interference with sufficient frequency for people to believe him.

Capriles and the opposition, however, will not go away. On Monday, Jose Ramon Medina, an aide to Capriles, filed a request with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR,) a subsidiary body of the Organization of American States, to declare the April election void. The following day, Maduro announced that he was carrying out one of Chavez’s last wishes by withdrawing from the IACHR system, which he lambasted as “a tool to protect U.S. geopolitical interests” and “harass progressive governments.”

While no one would pretend that the IACHR is capable of restraining Maduro’s worst instincts, Venezuela’s departure is yet another sign that the post-Chavez regime is sliding into a more traditional form of dictatorship. By removing this layer of international oversight, Maduro is ensuring that he has to answer only to those bodies, like the Venezuelan National Assembly and National Electoral Council, that already uncritically accept his authority.

Already, Capriles has pointed out that the abrupt withdrawal from the IACHR is very probably illegal, since Venezuela’s constitution makes explicit mention of the international bodies and human-rights treaties the country is party to. But that is unlikely to bother Maduro, who can garner a good deal of comfort from the fact that while he sees conspiracies everywhere, he is, for the moment at least, not going to become the victim of one.

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In Venezuela, Chavez Still Haunts Maduro

Confirmation that Hugo Chavez’s allies knew all along that the late Venezuelan president was suffering from terminal cancer, despite their protestations to the contrary, has come from an unexpected source: Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. As Bloomberg reports:

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro told Correa the facts after the Ecuadorian leader visited Chavez at his hospital in Havana on the eve of his fourth operation in 18 months to treat an unspecified form of cancer.

“He told me the matter was very serious and that President Chavez had few months of life left and that we needed to prepare ourselves emotionally,” Correa said today in an interview on Telesur. Castro asked for his “absolute discretion.”

“Absolute discretion” was required, of course, to sustain the falsehood that Chavez was going to recover and return for a further term as president. Note that Correa and Castro held their conversation in December; two months previously, Chavez comfortably won the presidential election in part because he himself insisted that he was cured. In the event, Chavez missed his inauguration on January 10 of this year, handing the reins of power to his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro went on to win the emergency election of last April by a tiny margin, amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud.

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Confirmation that Hugo Chavez’s allies knew all along that the late Venezuelan president was suffering from terminal cancer, despite their protestations to the contrary, has come from an unexpected source: Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. As Bloomberg reports:

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro told Correa the facts after the Ecuadorian leader visited Chavez at his hospital in Havana on the eve of his fourth operation in 18 months to treat an unspecified form of cancer.

“He told me the matter was very serious and that President Chavez had few months of life left and that we needed to prepare ourselves emotionally,” Correa said today in an interview on Telesur. Castro asked for his “absolute discretion.”

“Absolute discretion” was required, of course, to sustain the falsehood that Chavez was going to recover and return for a further term as president. Note that Correa and Castro held their conversation in December; two months previously, Chavez comfortably won the presidential election in part because he himself insisted that he was cured. In the event, Chavez missed his inauguration on January 10 of this year, handing the reins of power to his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro went on to win the emergency election of last April by a tiny margin, amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud.

It’s tempting to think that Correa broke the silence around Chavez’s illness in order to undermine Maduro. Chavez may have been the undisputed figurehead of Latin America’s left, but that’s certainly not true of Maduro, whose government is negatively viewed by nearly half of Venezuelans. By contrast, Correa, who also runs his government on the twin pillars of drumbeat nationalism and state domination of the economy, is wildly popular in his own country, and is therefore a more credible candidate to take on Chavez’s mantle.

It’s equally tempting to suggest that Maduro is thoroughly tired of being chased by Chavez’s shadow. Yesterday, Maduro marked his first one hundred days in office on what would have been Chavez’s 59th birthday, an occasion that served as a bitter reminder that he has no choice but to invoke his predecessor to shore up his crumbling legitimacy. “It has not been easy,” Maduro told a crowd in Sabaneta, Chavez’s birthplace. “On behalf of our Comandante…[we must] become more united and prepare for new battles and new victories.” Earlier in the day, Maduro welcomed none other than Rafael Correa to Caracas. In what may well have been another swipe at his host, Correa declared that “[C]onformity, mediocrity, corruption, and inefficiency are the internal enemies of the left-wing governments of Latin America.”

Make no mistake, these are the same ills that define Maduro’s regime. Chronic mismanagement has left the government so cash starved that it is now auctioning U.S. dollars at almost twice the official rate, though the exchange still falls far short of the dollar price on the black market. Simultaneously, Venezuela’s dependence on imports has dramatically swelled the price of basic goods like corn and coffee, the net of result of an agrarian reform program denounced by a leading representative of Venezuela’s agricultural sector as a “failure” that “drove farmers out of the fields.”

Rattled by these developments, Maduro has become increasingly vindictive toward the half of the population that rejected him in April, and still rejects him now. Over the weekend, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, took to Twitter to announce that she was seeking to freeze the bank accounts of Miguel Henrique Otero, editor and publisher of the opposition newspaper El Nacional. As AP reported:

Asked whether freezing his bank accounts could affect El Nacional, Otero said, “I don’t think so, but I haven’t seen the court papers.” His lawyers also hadn’t seen the documents, he said.

Legal documents have similarly been missing from another controversial case involving Richard Mardo, a parliamentarian from the opposition MUD coalition. Mardo is accused of receiving funds ­­of approximately $100 million–the source of this money has not been specified–and of declaring only a tiny a fraction of this sum. However, Henrique Capriles, the MUD leader who stood against Maduro during the April election, is adamant that Mardo is the victim of entrapment. As with El Nacional, the real goal here, say MUD supporters, is to silence the opposition by throwing the charge of corruption–an offense normally leveled at the government–in its direction.

Given how agonizingly polarized Venezuelan politics have become, the absence of mass street demonstrations might seem surprising. Capriles, though, has eschewed this approach, opting instead for a strategy of patiently exposing Maduro’s  corruption wherever it appears, in the hope of weaning away disillusioned supporters of the regime. Whether this method is sustainable is an open question; the emergence of a “birther” movement in Venezuela, which claims that Maduro was actually born in Colombia and is demanding that the president follow Barack Obama’s example by releasing his birth certificate, indicates that the more uncompromising opponents of Venezuela’s regime are determined to get rid of it sooner rather than later.

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Jimmy Carter Gives Seal of Approval to Venezuela Election

When the Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez passed away back in March, one notably unctuous commemorative tribute came from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen,” the statement, carried on the website of the Carter Center, intoned. Carter then praised the “positive legacies” of a man famous for embracing genocidal dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, before ending with a vague plea to Chavez’s successors to forge a “new consensus” in taking the country forward.

Three months and one disputed election later, has Carter revised these views? As the Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer discovered this week when he interviewed Carter, the answer is a resounding no.

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When the Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez passed away back in March, one notably unctuous commemorative tribute came from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen,” the statement, carried on the website of the Carter Center, intoned. Carter then praised the “positive legacies” of a man famous for embracing genocidal dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, before ending with a vague plea to Chavez’s successors to forge a “new consensus” in taking the country forward.

Three months and one disputed election later, has Carter revised these views? As the Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer discovered this week when he interviewed Carter, the answer is a resounding no.

“Would Carter now approve of the results of Venezuela’s April 14 elections, which according to the pro-government National Electoral Council (CNE) were won by Chavez protégé Nicolas Maduro?” Oppenheimer asked. “Would he give some credence to opposition leader Henrique Capriles’ claims that the election had been stolen from him?” Carter’s responses on these matters were an artful fusion of tired platitudes with flagrant untruths.

“Venezuela probably has the most excellent voting system that I have ever known,” Carter began, referring to the electronic voting machines that require voters to select their favored candidate on a touch screen, before collecting a paper receipt which is then deposited in a ballot box. Well, yes, we can all agree that technology is great. But it’s what you do with it that matters.

Then there was this gem: “So far as I know, Maduro did get 1.5 percent more votes than his opponent, [Henrique] Capriles,” Carter told Oppenheimer, “and that has been substantiated by the recount of paper ballots.” And finally, the clincher: “Asked… whether Venezuela’s election process was clean, Carter asserted that ‘the voting part’ of it was ‘free and fair.’”

Actually, it was anything but. On election day, opposition monitors recorded around 6,000 violations, including red-shirted Chavista activists shepherding voters into polling booths, threats both physical and verbal against voters deemed to have opposition loyalties, and, most ludicrously, several polling stations in which Maduro’s vote was astronomically higher than that achieved by Chavez in the previous, October 2012, election, which the ruling United Socialist Party won by a comfortable margin of 11 points.

Contrary to Carter’s claim, there was never a comprehensive matching of the ballot papers to the votes registered electronically. There was, earlier this month, a cursory, partial recount whose sole purpose was to validate the original announcement of a Maduro victory.

Now, it’s possible that Carter didn’t want to rely on data provided by the opposition in asserting claims of electoral fraud (though he apparently is willing to take the evidence provided by the chavistas at face value). But if that’s the case, then the logical conclusion would be to urge Maduro and his cohorts to permit credible and independent observers to monitor the elections, so that reliable field reports are available in the event of a dispute. As Andres Oppenheimer pointed out in the preamble to his interview with Carter, “the Venezuelan government did not allow independent international election observers for the elections. It only allowed electoral tourists from friendly regional groups who arrived shortly before the voting.”

There are those who will say that however outrageous Carter’s views are, they don’t really matter. In fact, they do. Much of the Carter Center’s work involves international election monitoring, since, as the Center itself says, “more governments than ever recognize democratic elections as essential to establishing their legitimate authority.” What’s therefore shocking in the Venezuelan context is that Carter, whose organization didn’t monitor the April election, has now issued Maduro with a clean bill of health.

As a result, the chavistas now have even less incentive to admit observers to monitor the forthcoming municipal elections, currently scheduled for December. Given the likelihood that the opposition will attempt to turn this next contest into a referendum on Maduro’s rule, we can confidently expect a repeat of the violations of this past April. And we can be just as confident that Jimmy Carter will emerge, once the dust has settled, to assure us that the ballot was “fair,” “legitimate,” “free” and all the other words that give succor to those autocrats who decide what the result of an election will be before they hold one.

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U.S. Should Reject Venezuela’s Overtures

Ever since the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez back in March, his successors have been flinging insult after insult at the United States. The volley began at the very moment of Chavez’s death, when his anointed heir Nicolas Maduro, pointing an accusatory finger at the U.S., claimed that Chavez had been “assassinated.” Maduro then accused the U.S. of plotting to kill his opposition rival, Henrique Capriles, in order to engineer a coup. Finally, after weeks of blaming the U.S. for everything from food shortages to the violence that followed the disputed April 14 presidential election, Maduro recycled a barb that Chavez had previously deployed against George W. Bush, when he declared that President Obama was the “grand chief of devils.”

Now, however, conciliatory noises are emerging from Caracas. Over the weekend, Maduro’s foreign minister, Elias Jaua, announced that Venezuela wanted to mend diplomatic fences with the United States. “We are going to remain open to normalizing relations with the United States,” Jaua said during a television interview. “The first thing would be to resume diplomatic representation at the highest level.”

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Ever since the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez back in March, his successors have been flinging insult after insult at the United States. The volley began at the very moment of Chavez’s death, when his anointed heir Nicolas Maduro, pointing an accusatory finger at the U.S., claimed that Chavez had been “assassinated.” Maduro then accused the U.S. of plotting to kill his opposition rival, Henrique Capriles, in order to engineer a coup. Finally, after weeks of blaming the U.S. for everything from food shortages to the violence that followed the disputed April 14 presidential election, Maduro recycled a barb that Chavez had previously deployed against George W. Bush, when he declared that President Obama was the “grand chief of devils.”

Now, however, conciliatory noises are emerging from Caracas. Over the weekend, Maduro’s foreign minister, Elias Jaua, announced that Venezuela wanted to mend diplomatic fences with the United States. “We are going to remain open to normalizing relations with the United States,” Jaua said during a television interview. “The first thing would be to resume diplomatic representation at the highest level.”

Should the United States restore its relations with Venezuela, which were severed in 2008 when Chavez expelled the U.S. Ambassador, Patrick Duddy? Here are three good reasons why it shouldn’t do so.

First, Venezuela last month incarcerated an American filmmaker, Timothy Hallet Tracy, on fabricated charges of stoking the violence which accompanied opposition accusations of fraud against Maduro, following his election victory by a margin of less than two points. Tracy’s arrest was personally ordered by Maduro, who insists that he is a spy, while the State Department maintains that he is a private citizen.

It might be argued that a returning American ambassador could secure Tracy’s release. If that is indeed the case, then the U.S. should demand that Tracy be set free as a non-negotiable condition for the resumption of any talks about restoring diplomatic relations. Essentially, this would amount to a test of Venezuela’s honorable intentions–one there is little reason to believe the chavista regime will pass.

Reason number two: sending an ambassador to Caracas would amount to a complete reversal of the American decision not to recognize the results of the April 14 election. There should be no doubt that Maduro would portray such a move as proof that the fraud charges leveled by Capriles and the opposition have no basis in reality. Additionally, a climbdown by the U.S. would silence the only significant objection to the election process voiced within the international community. Most of Latin America has already acquiesced to Maduro’s triumph, including countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile, for whom military rule of the sort that now prevails in Venezuela–Maduro uses the sinister term “political-military command”–is a recent memory. There is nothing to be gained from the U.S. joining in with this chorus of hypocrisy.

Finally: given the degree of control the Cuban regime exercises over Maduro, one might reasonably wonder whether diplomatic relations are really being restored with Havana, and not Caracas. Venezuelans have spent much of today glued to their TV screens after the opposition released an audio recording of a conversation between Mario Silva, a prominent television anchor and incorrigible chavista, and Aramis Palacios, a senior official of the G2, Cuba’s secret police. As far as the opposition is concerned, the exchange between the two men amounts to satisfactory confirmation that Cuba is the real power behind Maduro’s throne.

The conversation, which largely consists of Silva confiding in Palacios his fears about the current situation, is certainly revealing. Silva uses some rather pungent language in describing his feelings towards Maduro’s principal rival, the National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, whose corrupt business practices, he says, are partly responsible for the successive devaluations of the Bolivar, Venezuela’s currency. Silva also voices his approval of the view expressed to him by Fidel Castro that Chavez was wasting his time with such “bourgeois” trifles as elections. “Elections here as they stand right now, they can blow us and can bring our revolution down,” the breathless Silva tells the sympathetic Palacios, inadvertently  

bolstering the opposition’s long-held belief that the chavistas will hold elections only if they are sure they can win them.

The Silva-Palacios recording builds on evidence of Cuban meddling that was recently unveiled by a former confidante of Chavez, Maj. Gen. Antonio Rivero, who defected to the opposition in 2010. According to Rivero, more than 200,000 Cubans arrived in Venezuela following Chavez’s assumption of power in 1999. Among the projects they launched was the “Strategic Cooperation Team,” which involved a wholesale revision of Venezuela’s military doctrine under the watchful eye of a Cuban commander. As Rivero’s own experience demonstrates, those Venezuelan officers who rejected their Cuban overseers quickly found themselves purged from the ranks of the military.

Meanwhile, Mario Silva’s own response to the broadcast of his conversation with a Cuban agent offers an instructive glimpse of what the U.S. can expect should it elect to deal with Maduro. Rather than comment on the substance of the exchange, Silva whined that he was the victim of a set-up. And who was responsible? Why, that bottomless pit of conspiracy and intrigue otherwise known as… “El sionismo.”

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Venezuela Answers Fraud Charges with Threats

One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela’s rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro’s vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.

In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be “irreversible.”

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One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela’s rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro’s vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.

In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be “irreversible.”

Capriles repeatedly pointed out on his Twitter feed that no evidence was produced to support these or similar claims. He also called off a rally outside the CNE’s headquarters in Caracas, citing his concern that government supporters would “infiltrate” the crowd and stir up violence that the opposition would then be held responsible for. In the end, Capriles settled for a partial recount of the vote that the CNE has already said will not change the election’s outcome.

Capriles’s decision to opt for prudence won him no favors with the regime. As Iris Varela made clear today, Capriles is being held personally responsible for the post-election violence. “We are preparing a cell for you (Capriles) where you will pay for your crimes,” Varela growled ominously during a press conference.

Whether Varela’s threat against Capriles will be implemented remains unclear. Its underlying purpose, though, is to intimidate the opposition into silence; and what better way to do so than by dangling the prospect of a prison sentence? As Julie Turkewitz reported in the Atlantic in February, Venezuelan prisons are known to be the worst in Latin America, plagued by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, and frequently run by brutal gang leaders. No opposition supporter entering one of these penitentiaries could reasonably hope to come out alive, let alone unharmed.

Another worrying signal for the opposition is the appointment of Miguel Rodriguez Torres as interior minister. Rodriguez Torres was most recently the head of SEBIN, the much-feared, Cuban-trained political police. Like Maduro, Rodriguez Torres is an orthodox chavista who brooks no dissent. His goal now will be to crack down not just on the current round of protests, but on the protests that Maduro’s government is likely to face in the coming months as the economy continues to crumble.

Herein lies Capriles’ main achievement: he has made a compelling case that any elections held under the auspices of the chavistas will be inherently unfair, and he has prepared the ground for a reinvigorated opposition that was thrown into despair last December, when the chavistas triumped in state elections. 

At the same time, Capriles is wary of giving Maduro any opportunity to portray the opposition as American stooges, which may well explain why he hasn’t called for international support. Since the election, Maduro has consistently accused the U.S. of “financing” the “violent acts” of the opposition. His foreign minister, Elias Jaua, has also warned that any sanctions that might be imposed by Washington on Caracas would be met in kind–but given that Venezuela desperately needs the revenue it receives from its export of 900,000 barrels of oil per day to the U.S., it’s hard to take Jaua’s comments seriously on this point.

As for the future of U.S. policy toward Venezuela, that remains an open question. President Obama’s decision to call for a “constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government” following the death of Chavez disappointed many in the country’s opposition circles, particularly as Maduro’s assumption of the post of acting president was of questionable constitutional legitimacy. Yet in the aftermath of the election, the U.S. has been the only foreign government of any note to have withheld recognition of Maduro’s government because of the more than 3,000 instances of electoral fraud documented by the opposition–among them the 564 polling stations where chavista activists were witnessed entering polling booths to “assist” voters, thus impacting around 1.5 million votes out of a total of 15 million­­­.

Washington will be mindful that it is already isolated on Venezuela. Maduro’s inauguration last Friday was attended by a slew of foreign leaders, among them Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, Argentine President Christina Kirchner, and Chavez’s close friend (and notorious electoral fraudster) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. In backing Maduro, all these leaders have signed up to the party line that any regime change in Venezuela will be the result of CIA interference. In the meantime, chavismo will step up its conquest of the institutions of a country that was, for much of the post-Second World War period, among the more democratic in Latin America.

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Nicolas Maduro’s “Hand of God” Victory in Venezuela

One of the celebrities given star billing at a Nicolas Maduro election rally last week in Caracas was Diego Maradona, the former Argentine soccer star. Maradona scored perhaps the most notorious goal in the history of the game during the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, when, during a match against England, he tipped the ball into the net with the outside of his fist (an unlawful play). The referee looked the other way and the goal stood. Maradona later ascribed his good fortune to divine intervention: it was the “hand of God,” he said, that was responsible for his goal.

Much the same metaphor can be applied to Maduro’s paper-thin victory in yesterday’s presidential election. When Venezuelans went to the polls last October, the now-deceased Hugo Chavez won by 11 points, a margin comfortable enough to prevent his opponent, Henrique Capriles, from challenging the result. But last night, it was a very different story; according to the official returns, Maduro won 50.66 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent for Capriles. In a normal democracy, a result as close as this one would automatically trigger a recount. Venezuela, however, is not a normal democracy, and its chavista-controlled National Electoral Council, or CNE, has already declared the outcome to be “irreversible,” despite angry demands from the opposition MUD coalition for a proper audit of the votes.

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One of the celebrities given star billing at a Nicolas Maduro election rally last week in Caracas was Diego Maradona, the former Argentine soccer star. Maradona scored perhaps the most notorious goal in the history of the game during the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, when, during a match against England, he tipped the ball into the net with the outside of his fist (an unlawful play). The referee looked the other way and the goal stood. Maradona later ascribed his good fortune to divine intervention: it was the “hand of God,” he said, that was responsible for his goal.

Much the same metaphor can be applied to Maduro’s paper-thin victory in yesterday’s presidential election. When Venezuelans went to the polls last October, the now-deceased Hugo Chavez won by 11 points, a margin comfortable enough to prevent his opponent, Henrique Capriles, from challenging the result. But last night, it was a very different story; according to the official returns, Maduro won 50.66 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent for Capriles. In a normal democracy, a result as close as this one would automatically trigger a recount. Venezuela, however, is not a normal democracy, and its chavista-controlled National Electoral Council, or CNE, has already declared the outcome to be “irreversible,” despite angry demands from the opposition MUD coalition for a proper audit of the votes.

Like his predecessor, Maduro was able to commandeer the vast resources of the state to assist his campaign. Even before the polls opened, the opposition was alleging irregularities. The most egregious example involved Maduro’s decision to carry on campaigning on state television the night before the election by broadcasting his visit, with Diego Maradona at his side, to the tomb of Chavez. Thirty-six hours later, the Capriles camp claims that it has documented more than 3,000 irregularities, from violent intimidation of voters to keeping polling stations open past their official closing time. On these matters and more, the CNE has had nothing to say.

For seasoned observers of Venezuelan politics, the inherent bias of the CNE is nothing new. Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana last week refused an invitation to observe the election, telling Tibisay Lucena, a former Chavez aide who is now president of the CNE, that voters would go to the polls “in a situation where the system of checks and balances that should guarantee fairness for all has long been skewed in favor of those who hold power today in Venezuela. The composition of the CNE is itself a reflection of this reality.” Separately, more than 200 regional dignitaries, including former Mexican President Vicente Fox and former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, issued a statement that anticipated today’s crisis by demanding “electoral transparency” and “equal access to the media and institutional resources.” The only observers on the ground yesterday–including representatives of the Carter Center, much loved by the Venezuelan regime thanks to former President Jimmy Carter’s infamous statement that the country’s electoral system is the “best in the world”–weren’t really observers. Their official designation as acompañantes (accompaniers) determined that their role was merely to rubber-stamp a Maduro victory.

It’s still early days, but a notably absent voice in this controversy has been that of the United States. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Noriega pointed out, the clearest statement thus far from the administration came in the form of congressional testimony from national intelligence chief James Clapper, who predicted a comfortable win for Maduro. “With that sort of superficial analysis, it is no surprise that Washington has no influence over whether a hostile narcostate and best friend of Iran and Hezbollah holds on to power in Venezuela,” Noriega wrote.

In considering how to respond to what may well be a stolen election–according to the official tally, Maduro won by just 235,000 votes–the U.S. should be mindful of the fact that the most vulnerable individual in this scenario is Maduro himself. In the abstract, Maduro had everything going for him. He was the anointed successor of Chavez. He had the pledge of the defense minister, Diego Molero, that the armed forces, in violation of the constitution, would support the continued reign of chavismo. He spent much of the last few weeks insinuating that state employees, among them the 115,000 workers of the state-owned oil company PDVSA, would lose their jobs if they didn’t vote for him. And he has cracked down on the last remnants of the independent media in Venezuela, most obviously the Globovision television station, which had been among the most tenacious critics of the Chavez regime.

Yet Maduro failed to persuade almost one million previously faithful chavista voters that he was a worthy inheritor of Chavez, whose personality cult in death is larger and more pervasive than when he was alive. He also presides over a bitterly divided nation that is on the edge of economic collapse–Venezuela may be a petrostate, but it is also a narcostate, as evidenced by the participation of senior military and political officials (including Molero) in the drug trade, and on the road to becoming a failed state. Indeed, some may legitimately question whether Venezuela is in fact a state in the meaningful sense of the word, given the enormous influence of the Cuban regime over Maduro, who served as foreign minister under Chavez, and the continued provision of billions of dollars of subsidized oil to Havana.

At a recent New York seminar on Venezuela for financial analysts, one panelist concluded that while chavismo had been “massively weakened,” it would be “three years” before the space for an opposition victory opened up. What yesterday’s election proves is that the death knell for chavismo has already been sounded. The question now is whether the regime will agree to negotiate with the opposition or whether it will become a fully-fledged dictatorship, thus risking a repeat of the violence that accompanied the attempted 2002 coup against Chavez. This time around, it is Venezuelan democrats who will be searching for the hand of God.

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Chavez’s Absence Emboldens Opposition

With a little under a month to go before Venezuela’s presidential election on April 14, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, is starting to exhibit the boldness that many wished he’d displayed when he challenged the now deceased Hugo Chavez last October.

Addressing a college rally earlier today, Capriles declared that in the event of his victory, the long-standing Chavista commitment to provide subsidized oil to Cuba would end. “Not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros,” he told the crowd.

It’s hard to overstate the consequences of such a move. Assisting the Cuban Communists to maintain their grip on power was the most cherished foreign policy imperative of the Chavez years; abruptly removing the Cuban oil crutch would deal a death blow to one of the foundations of chavismo. For the Cubans, meanwhile, the prospect of a future without subsidized Venezuelan oil conjures up memories of the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

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With a little under a month to go before Venezuela’s presidential election on April 14, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, is starting to exhibit the boldness that many wished he’d displayed when he challenged the now deceased Hugo Chavez last October.

Addressing a college rally earlier today, Capriles declared that in the event of his victory, the long-standing Chavista commitment to provide subsidized oil to Cuba would end. “Not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros,” he told the crowd.

It’s hard to overstate the consequences of such a move. Assisting the Cuban Communists to maintain their grip on power was the most cherished foreign policy imperative of the Chavez years; abruptly removing the Cuban oil crutch would deal a death blow to one of the foundations of chavismo. For the Cubans, meanwhile, the prospect of a future without subsidized Venezuelan oil conjures up memories of the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

From 1991 onwards, Cuba, unable to afford Russian oil at market prices, drastically reduced its oil imports by around 10 million barrels per year. When Chavez came to power in 1999, he staved off Cuba’s growing immiseration by providing the island with preferentially-priced oil that typically saved Fidel Castro between $2 and $4 billion annually. While it’s true that Castro learned from the Soviet experience by not becoming exclusively dependent on Chavez–the value of Cuba’s trade with Venezuela is perhaps half of what it was with the Soviet Union–any regime change in Caracas would certainly accelerate a similar process in Havana.

During his election campaign last year, Capriles complained that the relationship with Cuba was hopelessly one-sided. At one point, he calculated that the oil subsidies were five times more expensive than Cuba’s reciprocal provision of doctors and other healthcare professionals to Venezuela. However, Capriles stopped short of bluntly announcing–as he did today–that Chavez’s ideologically-loaded largesse toward Cuba would continue no more.

In other recent duels with the regime, Capriles has shown a previously unglimpsed mettle. In 2012, Chavez’s supporters seized upon both Capriles’ unmarried status and his Jewish origins to denounce him, variously, as a Zionist and a homosexual. Confronted with the latter assault, Capriles preferred to leave such blockheaded homophobia unchallenged, drawing attention instead to the string of glamorous women he’d dated in the past. But when, last week, Chavez’s appointed successor Nicolas Maduro tried the same tack, Capriles responded by denouncing “the homophobic declarations made by Nicolas,” which smacked, he added, of “fascism.”

Indeed, the tone with which Capriles addresses Maduro is noticeably different from that he adopted with Chavez. For example, Capriles would never have called Chavez “chico”–”boy”–as he did when he reminded Maduro, the current acting president, that the Venezuelan people hadn’t voted for him. Equally, the Capriles of last year was distinctly reticent about drawing attention to the role of the armed forces in backing the Chavistas. This year, he took to Twitter to label Venezuelan Defense Minister Admiral Diego Molero, who violated the country’s ban on military involvement in politics in pledging support for Maduro, as a “disgrace to the armed forces.”   

In adopting this confrontational strategy, Capriles is betting that it’s easier to beat a phantom Chavez than a live one. The longer Maduro presents himself as the embodiment of Chavez’s legacy, the easier it is for Capriles to lampoon him as a mediocre impostor who anxiously hangs on every word uttered by his real political master, Raul Castro. And Maduro does, to be sure, seem very nervous: his latest bout of conspiracy theorizing involves the claim that two former Bush Administration officials, Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, were engaged in a “far right” plot to assassinate none other than Capriles himself (thus inviting us to conclude that this particular ruse would end with an American invasion of Venezuela.) Without the bombastic, earthy Chavez to declaim such nonsense, Maduro looks forlorn, more than anything else.

Capriles isn’t buying the assassination scare, tweeting that should anything happen to him, the responsibility would lie with Maduro. The State Department–which issued a typically disinterested rebuttal to Maduro’s accusations against Noriega and Reich–should carefully note that statement.

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Why is the U.S. Honoring Hugo Chavez?

If the Chavistas currently running Venezuela have their way, the cult of Hugo Chavez will be even more overwhelming after his death than during his life. This morning, as the country prepared for the grand state funeral of Chavez, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced that the late President’s cadaver would be embalmed and placed on permanent display in a Caracas museum.

“It has been decided that the body of the comandante will be embalmed so that it remains eternally on view for the people,” Maduro said. “Like Ho Chi Minh, like Lenin, like Mao Zedong. The body of our commander in chief, embalmed in the museum of the revolution, in a special way so he can be in a glass case and our people can have him there present always.”

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If the Chavistas currently running Venezuela have their way, the cult of Hugo Chavez will be even more overwhelming after his death than during his life. This morning, as the country prepared for the grand state funeral of Chavez, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced that the late President’s cadaver would be embalmed and placed on permanent display in a Caracas museum.

“It has been decided that the body of the comandante will be embalmed so that it remains eternally on view for the people,” Maduro said. “Like Ho Chi Minh, like Lenin, like Mao Zedong. The body of our commander in chief, embalmed in the museum of the revolution, in a special way so he can be in a glass case and our people can have him there present always.”

In citing these precedents, Maduro unwittingly undermined those many voices that have, over the course of this week, eulogized Chavez as, variously, a social reformer, a civil rights activist, and a tribune of popular democracy. Any genuine democrat would flinch at the thought of being compared to China’s Mao, who is estimated to have starved, beaten and shot between 40 and 60 million of his own people. But Chavez was not such a leader, and his successors have left no doubts over their fealty to the 20th century’s most murderous political currents.

Among the foreign leaders and dignitaries attending Chavez’s funeral are three United States representatives, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), former Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt, and Charge d’Affaires James Derham (currently, there is no U.S. ambassador in Caracas, since Chavez rejected the Obama Administration’s nominee for the post, Larry Palmer, in 2010). It’s safe to assume that they won’t be included among the “A” List of those present; that privilege is reserved for individuals like Alexander Lukashenko, president of Europe’s last dictatorship, Belarus; the Cuban leader Raul Castro, who has spent the last three months running the Venezuelan government from Havana; and Iran’s outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who outdid even Maduro by proclaiming that Chavez would “return to Earth” together with Jesus and the Twelfth Imam.

By giving its official seal of approval to the mourning period for Chavez, the Obama administration is hoping that this goodwill gesture will enable a “reset”–there’s that word again–of its relations with Venezuela. But the Chavistas will have a different interpretation; namely, that the U.S. has resigned itself to the permanency of Chavez’s ” Bolivarian” revolution, and the continued centrality of the ideology of chavismo in Venezuela’s affairs.

As Mary Anastasia O’Grady observed in the Wall Street Journal, “[T]here may not be much the Free World can do to help Venezuela rid itself of the terrible scourge known as chavismo.” But, she added, “at a minimum, it could refuse to go along with the charade that the country is still a democracy with free elections. Repeating the lie doesn’t make it any truer.”

What facts does that charade obscure? Back in December, I pointed out that under Chavez, there was no longer a constitutional separation of powers in Venezuela. Key institutions like the National Electoral Commission, which runs the electoral process, and PDVSA, the state-owned oil company that has squandered billions of dollars in revenue on oil subsidies for Cuba, remain in the hands of loyal Chavistas. The country’s Supreme Court is packed with judges personally appointed by Chavez, while the present prosecutor-general, Cilia Flores, is married to Maduro.

Arguably the most important transformation of the Chavez years concerns the armed forces. Indeed, and in violation of the country’s constitution, the armed forces can reasonably be said to be running the country. Twelve out of the country’s 23 state governors are former military men. Several of the government ministers who will be publicly grieving for the Comandante today were involved in Chavez’s failed coup attempt in 1992 against a democratically elected government. Most grotesquely, the country’s defense minister, Admiral Diego Molero, has said that the military will back Maduro’s presidential candidacy, in flagrant violation of the ban on the military’s involvement in politics.

Against this reality, the United States should have boycotted Chavez’s funeral. By sending a delegation instead, Washington is helping to maintain the fiction that any future election in Venezuela will be more or less fair.

Still, now that our representatives have arrived in Caracas, there is one useful thing they can do. After paying their respects to Chavez, they should go and see Maria Lourdes Afiuni, one of the last remaining independent judges in Venezuela, who was incarcerated in 2009 as punishment for ending the pre-trial detention of a banker, Elegio Cedeno, who ran afoul of the Chavez regime.

While in prison, credible reports surfaced of Afiuni–dubbed by Chavez as a “bandit”–being harassed, beaten and even raped. She is now under house arrest. By visiting her and giving her case some much needed publicity, the American delegation could salvage some dignity from today’s circus.

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Venezuela Should Come Clean on Iran

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in June 1989, there was a brutal heat wave in Tehran. Iranian forces sprayed the crowds who took to the streets with water to prevent heat stroke. The quip on the streets of Tehran at the time was “the old man was so senile, he forgot to close the door on the way down.” With the passing of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, Khomeini surely has company.

The relationship between Chavez and the Islamic Republic of Iran was too often dismissed in policy circles. Some in the State Department approached it almost as an amusing curiosity, while on the right it became exhibit A in the strange confluence of radical Islamism and unrestrained leftism.

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When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in June 1989, there was a brutal heat wave in Tehran. Iranian forces sprayed the crowds who took to the streets with water to prevent heat stroke. The quip on the streets of Tehran at the time was “the old man was so senile, he forgot to close the door on the way down.” With the passing of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, Khomeini surely has company.

The relationship between Chavez and the Islamic Republic of Iran was too often dismissed in policy circles. Some in the State Department approached it almost as an amusing curiosity, while on the right it became exhibit A in the strange confluence of radical Islamism and unrestrained leftism.

There was much more to the relationship than rhetorical solidarity. Give credit where credit is due: Roger Noriega, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, has established a record of accuracy when utilizing insider sources to report on Chavez’s health. He was given accurate diagnoses when the State Department was accepting their own interlocutors, who were supplying far more optimistic accounts of Chavez’s health, going back years.

Roger has also been at the forefront of reporting on the Iranian-Venezuelan military and nuclear cooperation. Just over a year ago, Roger described “Iran’s Gambit in Latin America” in COMMENTARY. He also described the curious interaction of Venezuela and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in The American:

According to reliable sources in the Venezuelan government, Iranian Major General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the Revolutionary Guard Corps aerospace commander who previously headed Iran’s missile program, visited the facilities in Maracay and Moran in July 2009 and November 2011. An independent source who infiltrated Hezbollah on behalf of a South American security agency attended several lectures from 2006 to 2008 at the Iranian-run petrochemical training facility by radical cleric Mohsen Rabbani, who is wanted by Interpol for his role in the 1992 and 1994 terrorist bombings against the Israeli Embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Now that Chavez is gone, it should be a priority for the Obama administration and Secretary of State John Kerry to push to see just what Iran and Chavez were up to. Russia, China, and Turkey always water down or undercut sanctions by arguing there is no proof that Iran has nefarious intentions. That proof may very well lay in Venezuela. Then again, perhaps Obama and Kerry would be just as happy as Putin and Erdoğan to see no proof emerge. In that case, their best strategy might simply be not to look. If it’s a choice between being proven wrong on their strategy of outreach and protecting U.S. national security, let’s hope that Obama and Kerry put country before pride.

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Dictators and Free Lunches

For those Americans who loathed their own country’s role as a beacon of freedom, the appeal of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was irresistible. Following in the footsteps of other Western pilgrims who had trooped to the Cuban prison of Fidel Castro or to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet empire to praise these gulags as the face of the future, people like Oliver Stone and Sean Penn dutifully embraced Chavez. They liked his childish rants about George W. Bush and helped burnish the myth that he was a true man of the people even as this caudillo suppressed freedom and built a cult of personality. Chavez’s death hasn’t changed this, and in the last day we have heard more blather about populism and his concern for those in poverty. Predictably, the leftists at The Nation are eulogizing him as a humanitarian. Joseph Kennedy showed why he wasn’t up to carrying on the legacy of the previous generation of his family by also mourning the Venezuelan strongman as a caring individual.

There is nothing to be done about those who will applaud anyone who hates America. Such sentiments are nothing more than adolescent rebellion masquerading as political opinion. But the claim that Chavez deserves credit for helping the poor is worth taking down, if only because this issue carries within it a lesson that applies to democracies as well as to authoritarian states like the one he created in Venezuela. The tradition of tyrants trying to buy the love of the masses with government money is as old the Roman Empire. It often pays immediate dividends to the person handing out the goodies, but people who think they are getting something for nothing always suffer in the end.

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For those Americans who loathed their own country’s role as a beacon of freedom, the appeal of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was irresistible. Following in the footsteps of other Western pilgrims who had trooped to the Cuban prison of Fidel Castro or to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet empire to praise these gulags as the face of the future, people like Oliver Stone and Sean Penn dutifully embraced Chavez. They liked his childish rants about George W. Bush and helped burnish the myth that he was a true man of the people even as this caudillo suppressed freedom and built a cult of personality. Chavez’s death hasn’t changed this, and in the last day we have heard more blather about populism and his concern for those in poverty. Predictably, the leftists at The Nation are eulogizing him as a humanitarian. Joseph Kennedy showed why he wasn’t up to carrying on the legacy of the previous generation of his family by also mourning the Venezuelan strongman as a caring individual.

There is nothing to be done about those who will applaud anyone who hates America. Such sentiments are nothing more than adolescent rebellion masquerading as political opinion. But the claim that Chavez deserves credit for helping the poor is worth taking down, if only because this issue carries within it a lesson that applies to democracies as well as to authoritarian states like the one he created in Venezuela. The tradition of tyrants trying to buy the love of the masses with government money is as old the Roman Empire. It often pays immediate dividends to the person handing out the goodies, but people who think they are getting something for nothing always suffer in the end.

Chavez is still celebrated in some sectors for confiscating the property of oil companies and using much of that wealth to fund projects and services for the poor. Playing Robin Hood never goes out of style. Chavez enjoyed the role immensely and built himself a cult bought and paid for with state money. Traditional urban political machines in the United States worked on the same principle. Taking money from one set of people and giving it another larger group is good politics. But the Tammany Halls of the world always come to grief because the culture of “where’s mine” cannot be sustained indefinitely. Sooner or later, thug governments run out of people to fleece to pay off their followers. That’s true even for a government funded by seemingly limitless oil wealth like Venezuela.

The Chavez regime prospered on the notion that there is such a thing as a free lunch, and those who ate at his table continue to believe that there was no price for his largesse. Those who have justified and supported every dictator or totalitarian system through history have made the same wrongheaded calculation. What they fail to understand is that the giveaway of government goodies at the price of condoning theft of property and denial of rights ultimately penalizes even those who believe they are the beneficiaries of the scheme. Venezuelans now have a country without a true free press, independent judiciary or elections that can be considered genuine expressions of democracy. And they have an economic system that will ultimately fail because it is not based on the rule of law.

Concern for the welfare of the least fortunate is an obligation of all societies. But there is a vast difference between genuine social justice and a strongman doling out favors to his followers. Ultimately, socialism is organized theft, and even when executed with the panache of charismatic thugs like Chavez it is a system that is predicated on the denial of freedom by those who pose as its defenders. Those who play that game, whether mafia dons, tin pot dictators or legendary thieves, are good topics for fiction. But no decent or thinking person should ever mistake them for humanitarians.

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The Death of Another Tyrant

Finally, after weeks of speculation, the news is official: Hugo Chavez is dead. Venezuela’s Comandante, who kept an iron grip on power for 14 years, left this world, appropriately enough, on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death.

The similarities between the two dictators are compelling. Both Stalin and Chavez profoundly believed in a new, revolutionary morality that dispensed with such trifles as a free press and an independent judiciary. Even more pertinently, just as Stalin was, in his final months, obsessive to the point of paranoia about doctors in the pay of Zionism and Western imperialism poisoning him and his closest colleagues, so are Chavez’s cohorts. His appointed successor and vice president, Nicolas Maduro, ventured earlier today that the cancer which afflicted Chavez was somehow planted in his body–a suggestion the American government has already dismissed as “absurd.”

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Finally, after weeks of speculation, the news is official: Hugo Chavez is dead. Venezuela’s Comandante, who kept an iron grip on power for 14 years, left this world, appropriately enough, on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death.

The similarities between the two dictators are compelling. Both Stalin and Chavez profoundly believed in a new, revolutionary morality that dispensed with such trifles as a free press and an independent judiciary. Even more pertinently, just as Stalin was, in his final months, obsessive to the point of paranoia about doctors in the pay of Zionism and Western imperialism poisoning him and his closest colleagues, so are Chavez’s cohorts. His appointed successor and vice president, Nicolas Maduro, ventured earlier today that the cancer which afflicted Chavez was somehow planted in his body–a suggestion the American government has already dismissed as “absurd.”

Maduro, nonetheless, is determined to implicate the United States in a grand conspiracy to kill Chavez. Shortly before the announcement of Chavez’s death, two U.S. Air Force attaches in Caracas, Col. David Delmonaco and his assistant Devlin Costal, were expelled from the country. Explaining the decision, Maduro said that “scientific proof” would eventually emerge to confirm that Chavez was poisoned.

The parallels here with the “Doctors’ Plot” that surfaced in Stalin’s final months are all too clear. Ironically, though, while it took Stalin’s death for the plot accusations to be exposed as a fabrication, in Venezuela the reverse is true. Chavez’s death is an opportunity for his followers to stir up a Doctors’ Plot of their very own–and given the regime’s embrace of anti-Semitism along with anti-Americanism, these fantasies could wind up in some very dark places indeed.

What, though, of the immediate future? According to the Venezuelan constitution, elections have to be held within 30 days of the death of the incumbent president. However, in the more than three months that Chavez has been off the scene, the Chavistas have treated constitutional requirements with absolute contempt.

When Chavez failed to make his scheduled inauguration on January 15–an obvious sign of incapacitation and therefore a trigger for new elections–the Chavista Supreme Court, packed with judges personally appointed by the president, simply ruled that his absence was temporary and that new elections were not necessary. Meanwhile, Maduro went to extravagant lengths to maintain the fiction of a healthy, functioning Chavez recuperating behind close doors. As recently as two weeks ago, he claimed that he and his fellow cabinet ministers had held a five-hour meeting with Chavez. With a straight face, Maduro quoted Chavez lecturing those assembled, “…about the speculative attack on our currency and product hoarding, and said that we have to increase actions to fight the economic war being waged by the bourgeois.”

To a great extent, this strategy worked. Only five days ago, Datanalisis, a Venezuelan polling firm, reported that 56.7 percent of Venezuelans believed that Chavez would recover and return to politics. The tight control the regime exercises over the state media, its continued marginalization of independent voices like the Globovision television station, and, most importantly, its influence over the country’s National Election Commission–a body dubbed by the influential Venezuelan opposition politician Diego Arria as the “Ministry of Electing Mr. Chavez”–mean that in the event that elections are called, the opposition will find itself in a very difficult position.

An opposition candidate–currently, Henrique Capriles, who challenged Chavez last October, is regarded as Maduro’s likely opponent–will be able to articulate a cogent message. Chavez has dragged Venezuela’s economy into the gutter. Food shortages and the recent devaluation of the Bolivar against the U.S. dollar by 46.5 percent are damaging the very constituency of poverty-mired Venezuelans which the Chavistas claim to represent. The country has become a virtual colony of Cuba, which benefits hugely from Venezuela’s heavily subsidized oil supplies. Finally, during the Chavez era, relations with the world’s democracies have suffered as a result of the Comandante’s embrace of tyrants like Fidel Castro, the Iranian mullahs and the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko–relationships which have brought no material consequences other than to rob the Venezuelan people of precious oil revenues.

The Chavistas, now at their most vengeful and paranoid, will do their utmost to ensure that no one hears these basic truths. As a result, any election will more closely resemble polling day in Iran or Zimbabwe than the United States or Europe. The question, then, for the Venezuelan opposition, as it battles against accusations of plots and conspiracies, is whether to focus on elections in a system where the odds are stacked in favor of the regime, or whether to develop a mass protest movement alongside. Both these options are going to require huge investments of time, courage and willingness to continue in spite of defeats. After all, it took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death. One shudders at the thought that Chavismo will last as long.

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The Strange Return of Hugo Chavez

“Hugo Chavez returns to Venezuela after Cuba cancer care,” announced the BBC. “Hugo Chavez returns home to Venezuela,” reported the Associated Press. “Chavez in surprise return from Cuba,” said Reuters. All these headlines make clear that after a two-month sojourn in Cuba for cancer treatment, Chavez is back.

Or is he? Buried in the Reuters story is the following sentence: “Unlike previous returns to Venezuela after treatment, state media showed no images of Chavez this time.” Even Venezuela’s state broadcaster was reduced to using an archive image showing Chavez on one of his previous returns from Cuba. Indeed, the only evidence we have of Chavez’s return are three tweets issued from the Comandante’s feed, which until today had been dormant since November 1st.

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“Hugo Chavez returns to Venezuela after Cuba cancer care,” announced the BBC. “Hugo Chavez returns home to Venezuela,” reported the Associated Press. “Chavez in surprise return from Cuba,” said Reuters. All these headlines make clear that after a two-month sojourn in Cuba for cancer treatment, Chavez is back.

Or is he? Buried in the Reuters story is the following sentence: “Unlike previous returns to Venezuela after treatment, state media showed no images of Chavez this time.” Even Venezuela’s state broadcaster was reduced to using an archive image showing Chavez on one of his previous returns from Cuba. Indeed, the only evidence we have of Chavez’s return are three tweets issued from the Comandante’s feed, which until today had been dormant since November 1st.

In quick succession, Chavez thanks God for returning him to his Venezuelan fatherland, thanks Fidel and Raul Castro for their hospitality in Cuba, and assures us that through his faith in both Christ and his medical team, Venezuelans are going “ever onward to victory!!” (“Hasta la victoria siempre!!”)

Surely after two years of mischief and deceit on the part of the Venezuelan regime over Chavez’s physical state, some correspondingly healthy skepticism on the part of the media is warranted? If all we have to go on are tweets supposedly written by a man who is breathing through a tracheal tube, shouldn’t the headlines more properly read “Venezuelan Government Claims Chavez Return,” thus leaving room for a modicum of doubt?

And if, in fact, Chavez did arrive in Caracas at 2.30AM, and was then transferred to a military hospital, according to the account of Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, this begs more questions than it answers. We still know virtually nothing about Chavez’s condition. We have no idea when or whether he will be able to take the reins of government. It is precisely because of this power vacuum that Venezuela’s Supreme Court, long packed with Chavista judges, defied constitutional provisions on the absence of the president by ruling that Chavez, who missed his January 10 inauguration, could be sworn in for a fourth term at a later, unspecified date.

The continuing telenovela that is Chavez remains useful for deflecting attention from the crisis in which Venezuela is currently mired. The recent devaluation of the Bolivar by 32 per cent set off panic buying in the stores and threatens to put the price of basic goods beyond the reach of poorer Venezuelans. Open political debate is being actively muzzled; one day before Chavez’s return was announced on Twitter, the regime confirmed that it would be pursuing criminal charges against a prominent opposition politician, Leopoldo Lopez, as well as his mother, for “presumed irregularities” in accepting political donations in 1998, the year preceding Chavez’s accession to power. Ironically, the donations are said to have come from PVDSA, the state oil company that has, under Chavez’s rule, become the principal means of subsidizing Chavez’s high-profile, low-impact social programs, as well as cut price oil for Chavez’s Cuban allies.

The decision to prosecute Lopez went largely unnoticed over the weekend, as did the suggestion of the Foreign Minister, Elias Jaua, that Venezuela would be open to improved relations with the United States. For its part, the U.S. should make clear that any closer ties are contingent upon knowing who it is, exactly, we are dealing with in Caracas.

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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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Chavez’s Shady Dealings

As indecent as it seems to find humor in the world’s tyrannies, it’s hard not to, especially when it comes to Venezuela and Iran.

On January 21, Tahmasb Mazaheri, the former governor of Iran’s Central Bank, was arrested by German police at Dusseldorf Airport after he was found carrying a check worth 300 million Venezuelan Bolivars–the equivalent of $70 million–in his hand luggage. Mazaheri, who flew into the German city from Turkey, is suspected of involvement in money laundering. His own explanation is that the check “was designed to finance the Venezuelan government’s construction of 10,000 homes.”

Given Mazaheri’s staggering incompetence in transporting this enormous sum of money, it’s tempting to ask where, exactly, these “homes” he referred to are being built. In Caracas? Or perhaps in Havana, where the Castro brothers have set themselves up as Cuba’s de facto rulers? Maybe in Tehran, where the ruling mullahs have engaged in a love-in with the regime of Hugo Chavez for more than a decade?

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As indecent as it seems to find humor in the world’s tyrannies, it’s hard not to, especially when it comes to Venezuela and Iran.

On January 21, Tahmasb Mazaheri, the former governor of Iran’s Central Bank, was arrested by German police at Dusseldorf Airport after he was found carrying a check worth 300 million Venezuelan Bolivars–the equivalent of $70 million–in his hand luggage. Mazaheri, who flew into the German city from Turkey, is suspected of involvement in money laundering. His own explanation is that the check “was designed to finance the Venezuelan government’s construction of 10,000 homes.”

Given Mazaheri’s staggering incompetence in transporting this enormous sum of money, it’s tempting to ask where, exactly, these “homes” he referred to are being built. In Caracas? Or perhaps in Havana, where the Castro brothers have set themselves up as Cuba’s de facto rulers? Maybe in Tehran, where the ruling mullahs have engaged in a love-in with the regime of Hugo Chavez for more than a decade?

So far, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua–appointed after he was resoundingly defeated by opposition leader Henrique Capriles in last December’s election for the governorship of Miranda state–has issued no statement on Mazaheri’s arrest. Nothing, it appears, can stop the constant stream of bulletins from Caracas about the “improving” health of the ailing Chavez, who hasn’t been seen or heard from since he returned to Cuba for cancer treatment more than two months ago. Last Saturday, Fidel Castro himself reassured Venezuelans that their leader was “much better, recovering.” Today, Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s appointed successor, read what he claimed was a letter from Chavez to a rally in Caracas commemorating the failed coup of 1992 against then-President Carlos Andres Perez. “My spirit and my heart are among you all on this day,” Chavez is supposed to have written, “I’m with you all, wearing my red beret.” Needless to say, visual evidence that Chavez is even still alive has not been forthcoming.

The silence on the part of the Venezuelans, as well as the Iranians, over Mazaheri is understandable. The Chavez pantomime has robbed the Chavistas of any credibility when it comes to telling the truth. Recent polling from Caracas shows that Maduro, a former bus driver and orthodox Chavista ideologue, is both disliked and distrusted by the electorate. One theme that the Venezuelan opposition has capitalized upon is the network of murky relationships Chavez and his cronies have forged with rogue regimes around the world, Cuba and Iran being the most notable, which involve lucrative government contracts as well as oil subsidies that have further sapped the Venezuelan economy.

Indeed, one of the ironies of the Mazaheri affair is that it comes at a time when both countries are undergoing a massive currency crisis. Over the last year, the value of the Venezuelan Bolivar has weakened against the dollar by 53 percent; the Venezuelan journalist Juan Cristobal Nagel has compared Chavez’s economic policies to a “Ponzi Scheme” whose sources of cash are rapidly drying up. As for the Iranians, the value of the rial against the dollar tumbled by 21 percent last week to a record low.

It isn’t yet clear where Mazaheri himself fits into all this. A shady character, he was governor of Iran’s Central Bank for just one year, until President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad canned him in September 2008. A few months later, Mazaheri correctly predicted that Ahmadinejad’s economic reforms would send inflation skyrocketing, an outcome that would hit government employees on fixed incomes particularly hard.

Nevertheless, what is abundantly clear is that the cooperation between Venezuela and Iran remains as strong as ever. Public housing for poor Venezuelans has featured among the myriad collaborative economic schemes between the two countries, but it is the energy and military sectors that are truly significant. Given Iran’s lack of oil refining capacity, Venezuela has stepped into the breach, providing Tehran’s rulers with more than 20,000 barrels of oil per day. In June of last year, Chavez announced that he was building unmanned drones with Iranian assistance. An unnamed Venezuelan military officer said at the time that the drones “are made in this country with military engineers who went to do a course in the sister Republic of Iran.”

Should Maduro formally take the reins in Venezuela, business with Iran is certain to continue as usual, even if Ahmadinejad’s hated rival, Ali Larijani, wins the June 14 presidential election in Iran. Larijani–who is also, like Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier–is a true believer in the Chavista view of international relations as a conspiracy masterminded by “Zionism” and the United States. In these circumstances, the only means by which the Venezuela-Iran relationship could be transformed is if one, or both, of these regimes finally collapses.

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