Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hugo Chavez

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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Chavez the Phantom Remains in Control

Perhaps the least disturbing aspect of today’s abandoned presidential inauguration ceremony in Caracas is that the incumbent, Hugo Chavez, didn’t turn up.

Ever since Chavez returned to Cuba last month seeking further treatment for the cancer consuming him, it’s been clear that January 10 would go down in Venezuela’s history as a no-show on the part of the comandante. Nothing has been heard from Chavez during that time. Meanwhile, his various subordinates, among them Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his appointed successor, along with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, have issued irregular and sometimes contradictory bulletins about Chavez’s health. Currently, Venezuelans are being told that Chavez is suffering from a lung infection, but there is no reason to trust these statements. Indeed, the two years of sustained government deceit over Chavez’s health situation–last July, Chavez himself announced that he was completely cured–provides enough cause to speculate over whether he is, in fact, still alive.

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Perhaps the least disturbing aspect of today’s abandoned presidential inauguration ceremony in Caracas is that the incumbent, Hugo Chavez, didn’t turn up.

Ever since Chavez returned to Cuba last month seeking further treatment for the cancer consuming him, it’s been clear that January 10 would go down in Venezuela’s history as a no-show on the part of the comandante. Nothing has been heard from Chavez during that time. Meanwhile, his various subordinates, among them Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his appointed successor, along with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, have issued irregular and sometimes contradictory bulletins about Chavez’s health. Currently, Venezuelans are being told that Chavez is suffering from a lung infection, but there is no reason to trust these statements. Indeed, the two years of sustained government deceit over Chavez’s health situation–last July, Chavez himself announced that he was completely cured–provides enough cause to speculate over whether he is, in fact, still alive.

Has Venezuela entered a new era of Chavismo without Chavez? Paradoxically, the increasingly desperate antics of regime loyalists, who continue to dangle the prospect of Chavez returning to Caracas, suggest that we have. Instead of cheering an inauguration, Chavez supporters are being urged to turn out for a rally today outside the Miraflores Palace. Chavez’s foreign allies, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, have rolled into town for the occasion. All the more reason, then, for Nicolas Maduro to state: “A historic period of this second decade of the 21st century is starting, with our commander leading.”

But the lie that Chavez remains in command cannot be sustained by revolutionary bluster alone. Yesterday, the constitutional chamber of the TSJ, Venezuela’s Supreme Court, defied the country’s constitution when it ruled that the inauguration could be rescheduled, in the words of its leading judge, Luisa Estella Morales, at a “time and place to be determined.” The ruling provides the regime with some breathing space as it figures out what to do next, for its thrust determines, much to the chagrin of Venezuela’s opposition, that the clauses in the constitution that deal with the temporary or permanent absence of the president do not apply. As the dissident Venezuelan blogger, Daniel Duquenal, acerbically remarked: “Chavez is out on a medical trip, he just has a job leave as any Venezuelan worker would, which will last as long as he needs it to last. There is no need to replace Chavez, he is president of Venezuela even if he is on life support.”

Still, there were never any grounds to expect that the TSJ would act differently. Indeed, it can accurately be said that the foundation for yesterday’s decision was laid down nine years ago. In 2004, facing a recall referendum brought about by the opposition, Chavez railroaded through a new law that expanded the number of TSJ justices from 20 to 32. Using his majority in the National Assembly, Chavez was then able to pack the court with his supporters, including Luisa Morales. Since then, the court has faithfully served Chavez’s every whim; among its most notorious, and likely illegal, decisions was the suspension, in 2008, of the opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez from running for public office, on the basis of corruption allegations for which he was never charged, prosecuted or convicted.

Such behavior is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Chavismo, a bizarre concoction of Marxism, nationalism and populism which contemptuously rejects liberal democratic staples like the separation of powers in favor of the enduring faith of an adoring people in their leader. Cabello, the National Assembly president, summarized this system perfectly yesterday: “All of us here are Chavez, the people in the street are Chavez, the lady who cooks is Chavez, the comrade who works as a watchman is Chavez, the soldier is Chavez, the woman is Chavez, the farmer is Chavez, the worker is Chavez; we’re all Chavez.”

Even so, had the TSJ followed the letter of the constitution by ruling that Chavez’s absence necessitates elections 30 days from now, it would have been foolhardy to predict an opposition victory. For one thing, 30 days is hardly enough time to organize an election campaign, especially when the majority of media outlets are controlled by the regime. (During last October’s election, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, embarked on a grueling road trip around the country to meet the voters in person in part because he was denied meaningful air time). For another, while Maduro would most likely be the government’s technical candidate, the real candidate would be Chavez.

For today’s rally in Caracas affords a glimpse of the Chavistas’ future electoral strategy. Dead or alive, Chavez is the leader of all Venezuelans. If “21st century socialism” is to be preserved and deepened, Venezuelans should have no qualms about voting for a phantom.

The opposition, an often fractious coalition of more than 50 parties, thus faces a difficult set of decisions. Capriles himself has acted cautiously, stating his wish for Chavez’s recovery while hammering the country’s institutions for advancing the agenda of the regime. So far, however, there has been no explicit statement that these same institutions, from the National Electoral Council (dubbed by leading opposition figure Diego Arria as the “Ministry of Elections for Mr. Chavez”) through to the TSJ, are beyond redemption for as long as they remain under the boot of Chavez and his deputies.

In such a scenario, one would expect the world’s democracies to loudly proclaim that there is no longer a legitimate basis for the Chavez regime. The Organization of American States, which has tussled with Chavez in the past, may do so. The signals from the State Department, however, are not encouraging. Yesterday’s events were a golden opportunity for the U.S. administration to remind Venezuelans that the future of their country is being decided not in Caracas, but in Havana, where the Cuban leader Raul Castro is acting as Chavez’s guardian. Instead, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued the following anemic statement on the TSJ’s decision: “This is a decision that has to be made by Venezuelans, for Venezuelans, that it has to involve and take into account the views of a broad cross-section of stakeholders.”

In other words, the U.S. has no opinion on what is effectively a coup d’état spearheaded by the TSJ. One more reason, then, for the Chavistas to believe that their eternal leader is the only stakeholder who matters.

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Chavismo After Chavez

“Free, free, totally free,” Hugo Chavez bellowed at reporters during a July 9 press conference in Caracas, when asked about the treatment he’d been undergoing in Cuba for the cancer he was diagnozed with one year earlier.  That claim of a miraculous cure sustained him throughout the summer, as he fought off a concerted opposition attempt to defeat his bid for a fourth presidential term in the October election.

In the end, Chavez pulled off a victory with 55 percent of the vote–though, as I wrote at the time, had the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, “been fighting in his campaign in a conventional democracy, he would have won handsomely.” But Venezuela under Chavez is much closer to a dictatorship, which means that state-run media outlets are closed to opposition voices, Chavista thugs roam the streets beating up opposition activists, and lying to the voters–as Chavez has done over his cancer–is perfectly acceptable in the name of the revolution.

Yesterday, the lie was laid bare for all to see. Chavez announced that he was returning to Cuba for further medical treatment, and that he was designating his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor. In naming Maduro, Chavez was faithfully following the playbook of his hero, the ailing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who in 2006 preemptively anointed his brother, Raul, as the island’s next leader.

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“Free, free, totally free,” Hugo Chavez bellowed at reporters during a July 9 press conference in Caracas, when asked about the treatment he’d been undergoing in Cuba for the cancer he was diagnozed with one year earlier.  That claim of a miraculous cure sustained him throughout the summer, as he fought off a concerted opposition attempt to defeat his bid for a fourth presidential term in the October election.

In the end, Chavez pulled off a victory with 55 percent of the vote–though, as I wrote at the time, had the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, “been fighting in his campaign in a conventional democracy, he would have won handsomely.” But Venezuela under Chavez is much closer to a dictatorship, which means that state-run media outlets are closed to opposition voices, Chavista thugs roam the streets beating up opposition activists, and lying to the voters–as Chavez has done over his cancer–is perfectly acceptable in the name of the revolution.

Yesterday, the lie was laid bare for all to see. Chavez announced that he was returning to Cuba for further medical treatment, and that he was designating his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor. In naming Maduro, Chavez was faithfully following the playbook of his hero, the ailing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who in 2006 preemptively anointed his brother, Raul, as the island’s next leader.

However much Chavez wants Venezuelans to believe that a smooth transition is possible, the reality is that the Caracas regime has been plunged into a grave political crisis. The question Venezuela observers have been asking ever since learning of Chavez’s cancer–Can the system of Chavismo survive the death of its principal architect?–is now more poignant than ever.

Maduro is the archetypal Chavista, a former bus driver and labor union activist with an ideologically rigid worldview. As the leading opposition figure Diego Arria pointed out on his twitter feed, Maduro’s potential succession will be warmly welcomed by the Castro brothers, who regard him as critical to maintaining the Cuban-Venezuelan alliance. Rewarded by Chavez with the post of foreign minister in 2006, Maduro has energetically pushed Venezuela’s participation in the loose global alliance of rogue states stretching from Belarus to Iran.

Back in August, he unveiled the frankly barmy idea of a troika, composed of Venezuela, Egypt and Iran, to intervene in the Syrian civil war. This was, in fact, a thinly veiled attempt to allow the Assad regime, which has benefited from heavily subsidized gas exports from Venezuela, to carry on with its slaughter. “Before everything else,” Maduro told reporters during a stop in Tehran, “we call on the major powers to stop interfering in Syria’s internal affairs and allow the Syrian people to live in calm, peace, and independence.”

A Maduro presidency might also become transformed into something of a dynasty. His wife, Cilia Flores, is Venezuela’s prosecutor-general, who gained her reputation when she secured Chavez’s release from prison two years after he was incarcerated for a failed coup attempt in 1992. When the executive and judiciary share a bedroom, it’s a sure sign, firstly, that the constitutional separation of powers no longer exists, and secondly, that family members and other intimates should move to the front of the line when ministerial positions are doled out.

Still, Maduro is not a shoo-in–at least, not yet. In one of the more perceptive analyses that followed Chavez’s latest announcement, Sean Burgess argued:

Although Chavez is explicitly naming Maduro…as his successor and protector of the revolution, there is no wider consensus or actual agreement that the vice-president should assume the reins of power. In particular, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello harbours his own presidential ambitions.

Cabello is a prominent businessman with strong ties to the Venezuelan military. As the dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal wrote in March, Cabello is “not well-liked,” but a significant number of Chavez loyalists view him as a safe pair of hands who can keep the military onside.

Looking back on Chavez’s 14 years in power, it would be foolish indeed to believe that these internal conflicts, whether between the regime and the opposition, or within the murky world of Chavismo itself, can be resolved without violence and bloodshed. Having actively sought to enable Assad’s killing spree, it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to posit that Maduro, or, for that matter, Cabello, would resort to a Syrian-style “solution” in the event of a mass rejection of Chavez’s succession plan.

For that reason, the United States now needs to actively engage with Venezuela. For too long, the Obama administration has treated Chavez like a harmless, if irritating, eccentric, rather than a potential security threat. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to turn an enemy into a friend, by building on the opposition’s strong showing last October. Washington’s policy should therefore emphasize two points: one, that it will not recognize the legitimacy of any regime that comes to power without a fair election; two, that should Chavismo elect to survive the Chavez era by any means necessary, its leaders will find themselves on the end of the kinds of punishing sanctions already applied to Syria and Iran. It may be too late for Chavez to answer for his crimes in a court of law, but Maduro, Cabello and any other pretenders to the Chavista throne should gain no comfort from that.

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Two Uneasy Steps Forward for Democracy

Recent days have brought dispiriting news for those us who believe that democracy is the best form of government and that the U.S. government should be doing its utmost to promote its spread around the world.

In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

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Recent days have brought dispiriting news for those us who believe that democracy is the best form of government and that the U.S. government should be doing its utmost to promote its spread around the world.

In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Now in Venezuela, the anti-American demagogue Hugo Chavez, who has already been in power since 1999, has won reelection to yet another term in office, taking 55 percent of the vote over his more moderate leftist challenger. Considering that Chavez has worked to develop alliances with unsavory states such as Iran and Cuba, and with unsavory movements such as Hezbollah and FARC, and that he has done great damage to the Venezuelan economy with his nationalizations of industry, imposition of price controls, and other socialist measures–well this is certainly not the outcome that U.S. officials would have preferred.

For neither the first nor the last time, the outcomes in Georgia and Venezuela show that democratic systems are hardly perfect–at least from the standpoint of U.S. policy interests. But they also show that the best cure for a “bad” election outcome is to have another election.

That is something that Chavez allowed to occur–even if he did use the full resources of his government, which controls the radio and television broadcasts, to turn out of the vote for his candidacy. Still, this was Chavez’s lowest winning margin, and it suggests that he could conceivably lose a future election, should he live that long–or if not, at least upon his demise there is a good chance of Venezuela returning to more competitive elections.

As for Georgia, the loss suffered by Saakashvili’s party (the president himself remains in office) could actually be a blessing in disguise: Although Saakashvili has been an effective reformer, he has also been in office since 2004, and it is always healthy in any democracy to see a change of power. Indeed, that is the very test of whether a country is truly a democracy or an autocracy with fixed elections. The ability to peacefully transition authority from one party to another is crucial, and if Georgia can pull it off, that will be a boon for its nascent democracy, even if the policies advocated by the new government are not those that American policymakers would prefer.

If I had a vote in some cosmic election, I would vote for the democratic systems of Venezuela and Georgia, imperfect though they are (especially in the case of Venezuela), over the faux stability of countries such as Saudi Arabia where dissent is impossible to express in public and the only way to change the government is to overthrow it. As we have learned in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt (and as we previously learned in South Korea, the Philippines, the Shah’s Iran, and other once-authoritarian countries), the stability imposed by dictatorships comes with high costs. And in any case, it is a faux stability that only lasts until the coming of the revolution.

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Chavez Wins—So Does the Opposition

Had Hugo Chavez won yesterday’s presidential election in Venezuela by a landslide, the opposition would have justifiably accused him of committing massive electoral fraud. Especially over the last two weeks, support for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, swelled to the extent that many local pollsters believed he would pull off a narrow win at the last moment.

Instead Chavez garnered 54 percent of the vote, against 46 percent for Capriles. That margin of victory helps Chavez insofar as it staves off charges of electoral manipulation. At the same time, it confirms that Venezuela is seriously divided, with almost half the country rejecting the ideology of Chavismo pushed by the regime, along with the corruption, incompetence, and contempt for democratic rights inherent to this system of government.

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Had Hugo Chavez won yesterday’s presidential election in Venezuela by a landslide, the opposition would have justifiably accused him of committing massive electoral fraud. Especially over the last two weeks, support for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, swelled to the extent that many local pollsters believed he would pull off a narrow win at the last moment.

Instead Chavez garnered 54 percent of the vote, against 46 percent for Capriles. That margin of victory helps Chavez insofar as it staves off charges of electoral manipulation. At the same time, it confirms that Venezuela is seriously divided, with almost half the country rejecting the ideology of Chavismo pushed by the regime, along with the corruption, incompetence, and contempt for democratic rights inherent to this system of government.

The other half, as the Venezuelan dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal observed this morning, feels empowered by the social envy (el resentimiento social) that Chavez has turned into a revolutionary dogma. Says Duquenal,

[They]…hate people like me. Maybe not to the point of killing me, but to the point of trying to screw me any way they can…Now in Venezuela you will have all the trouble in the world to manage employees…to demand that public servants do the job they are appointed to do. Because if you feel that you have rights, then they will see you as a direct impingement on their comfort.

However deflated Capriles may feel today, he has won a victory of sorts. Without question, had he been fighting in his campaign in a conventional democracy, he would have won handsomely. But in Venezuela, elections are stacked against the opposition from the outset. Whereas Capriles was permitted just three minutes of airtime daily, there were no limits on Chavez’s cadenas, his trademark one-man broadcasts that often last for several hours. Nor was Chavez short of tame media outlets hailing him as the leader of socialism in its 21st century mutation.

Chavez was never obliged to debate Capriles on issues of policy. Instead, he chose to demonize his opponent, casually throwing around epithets like “pig,” “Nazi,” and “little bourgeois.” Anti-Semitism too played a central role in Chavez’s messaging. Though Capriles is a committed Catholic, he descends, on his mother’s side, from Polish Jews who arrived in Venezuela after surviving the Holocaust. Chavez, whose principal political mentor was Norberto Ceresole, an Argentinian Holocaust denier, seized on these origins with the gusto of a Julius Streicher. Cartoons lampooning Capriles often showed him wearing a Star of David. Among the many vicious profiles of Capriles in the pro-Chavez media was one by Adal Hernandez, a Chavista radio commentator, which carried the title “The Enemy is Zionism.”

Most of all, Chavez was able to call on the resources of the state to fund his campaign. PVDSA, the state-owned oil company responsible for the petroleum revenues, which make up 95 percent of the country’s foreign export earnings, has been cannibalized by the regime for all manner of pet political projects, from low-impact social programs aimed at capturing the votes of Venezuela’s poorer voters to subsidized oil programs for fellow tyrannies like Cuba and Belarus.

In a context like this one, Capriles’s achievement in winning 46 percent of the vote—Chavez’s previous challenger, Manuel Rosales, won only 37 percent in the 2006 election—is quite remarkable. Hence, while it is true that Chavez is now, as the Economist put it, “six years closer” to his goal of remaining president until 2031, Capriles has emerged as the focal point of a re-energized opposition. “He has become the indisputable leader of the opposition and his face-to-face work is a key asset for the future,” said Luis Vicente Leon, the head of the Datanalisis polling company, whose polls over the last few months showed Capriles steadily gaining on, but never quite surpassing, Chavez

The personal touch that Leon alludes to is what endeared Capriles to so many voters. Denied serious access to the media, his response was to meet the voters in person in more than 300 locations across Venezuela, earning himself nicknames like “Road Runner” and “Marathon Man” in the process. Part of the aim here was to contrast the young, good-looking and energetic Capriles with the ailing, portly, and remote Chavez—and it worked.

In defeat, then, the Venezuelan opposition has never looked stronger. As well as marshaling the support that crystallized around him during the campaign, Capriles can also call on the willingness of Venezuelan democrats to confront the regime, as they did in 2007, when Chavez’s attempt to abolish presidential term limits was defeated, and again in 2009, when Chavez railroaded these same proposals through, bypassing Venezuela’s congress in the process.

And once the Chavista celebrations have died down, Venezuelans will realize that when it comes to the two key questions that faced the country on the eve of the election—the economy and Chavez’s own health—nothing has changed. Thanks to Chavez, Venezuela’s enormous debt burden, currently at $140 billion, will continue to rise. A currency devaluation is likely in the next few months. And in marked contrast to the other members of OPEC, Venezuela has been forced to cut its oil production, since PVDSA is no longer run by professional bureaucrats but by Chavista loyalists who have no idea how to run an efficient oil industry.

As for Chavez’s health, he claims he has been cured from cancer. Given that he never provided details of his illness in the first place, there is no reason to believe that his Cuban doctors have successfully banished the disease. At the moment, therefore, it is reasonable to think that cancer will get rid of Chavez before an election does. In nearly all tyrannies, the death of the leader is followed by bitter struggles among his followers; and when that happens, Capriles will be waiting.

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Cuba Anxiously Eyes Venezuelan Election

Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez’s lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of “undecided” voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting “You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!”

Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday’s election.

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Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez’s lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of “undecided” voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting “You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!”

Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday’s election.

“Many see that things are not going well and have brought forward their decision to desert because they think the defeat of Chávez is imminent,” Yumar Gomez, a doctor who found his way to Miami, told El Universal. “And let me tell you… many don’t want to go back to Cuba.” Delia Garcia, a Cuban nurse, added: “Our leaders tell us that Chávez is not certain for October and say that the rate of desertions is now accelerating. That’s why I’m leaving. If there isn’t going to be any more misión in Venezuela, where will they send us then? To Burundi?”

The revelation that Havana’s communist rulers aren’t betting on a Chavez victory is another welcome boost for the Capriles campaign. After all, Chavez has never looked as vulnerable as he does now. His grandiose public works schemes are coming undone through the incompetence and corruption that inevitably accompanies the stuffing of political appointees into state-owned companies. For example, FONDEN, a Chavez-controlled fund that has spent $100 billion of Venezuelan oil revenue over the last seven years while bypassing the approval of the country’s congress, has come under fire for a range of misdemeanours, from abandoned building projects to the purchase of Russian fighter jets. And after a series of devastating fires and explosions at various oil installations, including one at the Amuay refinery in August in which more than 40 people were killed, it is hard to find a single Venezuelan who retains faith in PDVSA, the national oil company milked as a cash cow by Chavez.

As talk of an opposition victory on Sunday gathers pace, so does speculation that Chavez will consult the playbook of his close friend, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and manipulate the election, perhaps by intimidating voters in areas that lean towards Capriles, or even by stealing it outright. Last week, the Spanish newspaper ABC claimed that Chavez has been readying revolutionary militias, modeled on the feared Basij units in Iran, for mobilization in the event that he is defeated.

Still, as Diego Arria, the former Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN and a leading opposition figure, pointed out in a recent interview with New York’s WABC radio, such action is unlikely to be successful without the backing of the Venezuelan armed forces. And so far, Venezuela’s military commanders, mindful that Chavez may shortly succumb to the cancer eating away at him, have stated that they will respect the choice of the voters.

Is the Chavez era coming to an end? One would be foolhardy to make that exact prediction, but even so, the signs all point to the Comandante emerging from Sunday’s election chastened, and the opposition further empowered.

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Chavez Playing the Anti-Semitism Card

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is pulling out all the stops in his bid to crush opposition to his authoritarian rule in the election scheduled for October 7. Chavez is seeking to discredit challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski by pointing out his Jewish roots. Chavez has sought to intimidate Venezuelan Jews in the past as a result of the close ties he has fostered with Iran and Hezbollah and his virulent hostility to Israel. But his attacks on the leader of the opposition have escalated the latent Jew-hatred of his regime.

As the Jerusalem Post reports, a study conducted by Tel Aviv University shows that the Caracas government has produced a steady stream of vilification of Capriles that centers on his Jewish roots. Capriles is a Catholic but he is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and many of his mother’s family perished at the hands of the Nazis.

“This is done in a variety of methods, such as defamation, intimidation and conspiracy theories, many of which portray Capriles as a Zionist agent, and by mixing classic and neo-anti-Semitism,” said the report, authored by Lidia Lerner, an expert on Latin America. “A Capriles victory, it is claimed, will inevitably lead to Zionist infiltration.” …

Op-Eds warning of a “Zionist takeover” if Capriles wins repeatedly have appeared in government-controlled media since Radonski’s candidacy was announced in February, the report said. He also has been the subject of anti-Semitic cartoons.

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is pulling out all the stops in his bid to crush opposition to his authoritarian rule in the election scheduled for October 7. Chavez is seeking to discredit challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski by pointing out his Jewish roots. Chavez has sought to intimidate Venezuelan Jews in the past as a result of the close ties he has fostered with Iran and Hezbollah and his virulent hostility to Israel. But his attacks on the leader of the opposition have escalated the latent Jew-hatred of his regime.

As the Jerusalem Post reports, a study conducted by Tel Aviv University shows that the Caracas government has produced a steady stream of vilification of Capriles that centers on his Jewish roots. Capriles is a Catholic but he is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and many of his mother’s family perished at the hands of the Nazis.

“This is done in a variety of methods, such as defamation, intimidation and conspiracy theories, many of which portray Capriles as a Zionist agent, and by mixing classic and neo-anti-Semitism,” said the report, authored by Lidia Lerner, an expert on Latin America. “A Capriles victory, it is claimed, will inevitably lead to Zionist infiltration.” …

Op-Eds warning of a “Zionist takeover” if Capriles wins repeatedly have appeared in government-controlled media since Radonski’s candidacy was announced in February, the report said. He also has been the subject of anti-Semitic cartoons.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League have expressed concern about the government’s attempt to whip up Jew hatred. The Huffington Post reported in May that Chavez’s allies have compounded the vilification by trying to float the rumor that Capriles is gay as well as Jewish.

President Obama was quoted over the summer as downplaying any concerns about Chavez by saying he was not a threat to the United States even though the Venezuelan has supported terrorism in neighboring Colombia and has allowed his country to serve as a beachhead in the Western hemisphere for Iran and Hezbollah. But his re-election campaign has illustrated that he shares the ayatollahs’ anti-Semitism as well as their hatred for the United States.

Given Chavez’s control of the media as well as his armies of street thugs, it’s not clear whether Capriles has a real chance to save democracy in Venezuela. But the blatant anti-Semitism of Chavez’s campaign ought to be raising alarms in Washington and the rest of the civilized world about his continued hold on power.

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Chavez’s Latest Tool for Voter Intimidation

With two months to go before Venezuela’s election on October 7, the regime of Hugo Chavez is exploring ways more foul than fair to secure a fourth term in office for the Comandante.

For the first time this year, the fingerprint scanners used in the past to verify voter ID will be connected to the electronic voting machines themselves. Because voters will have to press down a thumb in order to activate the ballot system, there are justified fears of an electronic record of every individual vote. For tyrants who occasionally allow the public a trip to the polling station, knowing who the dissidents are is both a nasty weapon and a powerful one; in the early 1980s, Chavez’s close friend Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, punished the rebellious voters of Matabeleland with a campaign of violence, public executions and enforced famine.

If the Chavistas are trying to sow fear in the hearts of Venezuelans tempted to vote for his arrival, the moderate leftist Henrique Capriles, they appear to be succeeding:

“If the thumbprint makes the machine work, how do you know it doesn’t end up being recorded who you voted for?” asked Jacqueline Rivas, a 46-year-old housewife.

Experts say there is no evidence the system has ever been used to reveal voters’ preferences, and most opposition leaders, who stand to suffer if supporters don’t vote, have been eager to assure that the system is safe.

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With two months to go before Venezuela’s election on October 7, the regime of Hugo Chavez is exploring ways more foul than fair to secure a fourth term in office for the Comandante.

For the first time this year, the fingerprint scanners used in the past to verify voter ID will be connected to the electronic voting machines themselves. Because voters will have to press down a thumb in order to activate the ballot system, there are justified fears of an electronic record of every individual vote. For tyrants who occasionally allow the public a trip to the polling station, knowing who the dissidents are is both a nasty weapon and a powerful one; in the early 1980s, Chavez’s close friend Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, punished the rebellious voters of Matabeleland with a campaign of violence, public executions and enforced famine.

If the Chavistas are trying to sow fear in the hearts of Venezuelans tempted to vote for his arrival, the moderate leftist Henrique Capriles, they appear to be succeeding:

“If the thumbprint makes the machine work, how do you know it doesn’t end up being recorded who you voted for?” asked Jacqueline Rivas, a 46-year-old housewife.

Experts say there is no evidence the system has ever been used to reveal voters’ preferences, and most opposition leaders, who stand to suffer if supporters don’t vote, have been eager to assure that the system is safe.

But worries have persisted. Many government opponents say they see a pro-Chavez bias in the National Electoral Council and remember a previous scandal in which the names of Venezuelans who petitioned to recall Chavez in 2004 were publicly leaked. Hundreds of people alleged they were fired or suffered discrimination after their names turned up on the “Tascon List,” named after a pro-Chavez lawmaker who released it.

The thumbprint method may be a more efficient method of continuing the strategy that Chavez implemented in 2006, when he defeated Manuel Rosales in that year’s presidential election. As a State Department report noted, there were “concerns over abuse of government resources used to support the Chavez campaign, voter intimidation tactics, and manipulation of the electoral registry.” Thanks to his 2006 election victory, Chavez was able, the following year, to pass an enabling act that permitted him to rule by decree for the next 18  months. During that time, he nationalized the telecommunications and electricity sectors, and gained far greater control over the country’s petroleum industry, allowing him to sell oil to his communist allies in Cuba at a 40 percent discount.

The National Electoral Council, which is supervising the installation of the voting machines, is packed with Chavez supporters. Jorge Rodrigues, the former head of the council, is now Chavez’s campaign manager. It’s hard to imagine a team more qualified to engage in — for the moment — subtle voter intimidation, particularly at a time when the Capriles campaign is claiming a lead in the polls.

Capriles, meanwhile, has embarked on an energetic house to house tour of the country pressing his case. Given how the electoral process is stacked against him, and the domination which Chavez exercises over the Venezuelan media, he has few other alternatives. In undertaking this marathon, Capriles isn’t exactly short of campaign messages to deliver on the doorstep: he can tell voters that his plan to end preferential oil deals will save the country $6.7 billion per year, and he can ask them to consider what the bizarre, disturbing anticsat the Venezuelan embassy in Kenya, in which the acting ambassador was found murdered following a battle for his job, says about the cronies who surround Chavez. He might even promise them they will never be subjected to Sean Penn’s idiocies again.

Most of all, Capriles can argue that Chavez has yet to give a convincing explanation of his health woes, which look suspiciously like advanced stage cancer. If that’s the case, Venezuelans may decide they will no longer live with Chavismo after Chavez departs this world.

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Hugo Chavez: “Let Them Drink Juice”

New York City isn’t the only place in the world where preventing the consumption of sugary sodas has become a political imperative. In his televised broadcast yesterday, Venezuela’s Comandante, Hugo Chavez, urged his viewers to safeguard their waistlines by ditching Coca-Cola and Pepsi in favor of a locally-produced fruit juice.

Reports the Associated Press:

Chavez says consumers should buy “Uvita,” a grape juice made by state-run Corpozulia as a means of increasing the consumption of Venezuelan-made products instead of buying sugary sodas made by foreign companies.

Venezuela’s socialist leader often dispenses advice to supporters during his marathon televised speeches, calling on them to eat healthy foods, get plenty of exercise, and avoid drugs and alcohol.

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New York City isn’t the only place in the world where preventing the consumption of sugary sodas has become a political imperative. In his televised broadcast yesterday, Venezuela’s Comandante, Hugo Chavez, urged his viewers to safeguard their waistlines by ditching Coca-Cola and Pepsi in favor of a locally-produced fruit juice.

Reports the Associated Press:

Chavez says consumers should buy “Uvita,” a grape juice made by state-run Corpozulia as a means of increasing the consumption of Venezuelan-made products instead of buying sugary sodas made by foreign companies.

Venezuela’s socialist leader often dispenses advice to supporters during his marathon televised speeches, calling on them to eat healthy foods, get plenty of exercise, and avoid drugs and alcohol.

In common with other forms of dictatorship, Chavismo is based on the idea that there is nothing more important than the relationship between the leader and his people — hence, Chavez believes it is his duty as well as his right to tell Venezuelans what to consume. No matter, then, that Chavez has yet to prove that the contents of “Uvita,” whose manufacturer’s mission is to “promote the socialist development of western Venezuela,” are in fact healthier than the imperialist soft drinks he bemoans. Such detail is doubtless a bourgeois trifle.

Still, many Venezuelans will be wondering why their leader is lecturing them about their own health when he hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about his own. When campaigning for October’s presidential election began in earnest last month, Chavez was dogged by speculation about his imminent death from cancer, further fueled by his continuous absences in Cuba for medical treatment. For his main opponent, the 40-year-old Henrique Capriles, the opportunity to contrast his own sculpted physique with that of the ailing, portly Chavez has been too good to pass up.

The strong impression that Capriles, a moderate social democrat, is eminently electable explains, at least in part, the air of desperation around the Chavez camp. In what may well be a sneak peek of the October election’s aftermath, everything is being rather hastily rigged or fixed to boost Chavez’s fortunes. The story of Chavez’s cancer has been fixed; he now claims to have banished the disease, although the infrequent and carefully-planned nature of his public appearances, along with his reluctance to divulge any actual details about his cancer, suggests otherwise.

Access to the airwaves has been rigged; despite a ruling from the toothless National Electoral Commission prohibiting TV and radio messages longer than three minutes, Chavez has contemptuously refused to stop his cadenas, the marathon broadcasts that last for hours, insisting at the same time that “The major part of the radios, television channels and newspapers are in the hands of the bourgeoisie.” The campaign messaging has been fixed; Chavez has compared Capriles with Mitt Romney — and also offered Barack Obama the dubious gift of an endorsement — by asserting that the lavish social spending programs he instituted will be wiped out in the event of a defeat. Because Venezuelans are already living with spiraling inflation, rising unemployment, and a crime epidemic that threatens to turn their country into a Latin American equivalent of Zimbabwe, they can be forgiven for thinking that outcome had already been reached.

The polls, too, are being fixed. While one poll shows that Chavez and Capriles are neck and neck, the others all predict a landslide for the Comandante. In a poll conducted in the northern state of Anzoátegui by IVAD, the Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis, Chavez comes out an astonishing 30 points ahead. Writes Venezuela’s most perceptive dissident blogger, Daniel Duquenal:

Few states have been has battered as Anzoategui has been under Chavez. It holds the dubious distinction to be the state with the most blackouts, the worst roads, etc….  The fact of the matter is that in 2010 legislative election, the opposition made a grand slam in Anzoategui, surprising most pundits, some even did not expect the opposition to win there. And yet the latest IVAD gives Chavez ahead — which I can still buy, why not — but ahead by 30 points!!!!!!

Capriles should start making plans for a rigged election. As Duquenal points out, foreign election monitors from the European Union and the Organization of American States — denounced by Chavez as a tool of the U.S. — have already decided not to risk their reputations by being asked to endorse a crooked vote. Only former President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center remains in the frame, and on this one Duquenal doesn’t pull any punches:

We know very well that the Carter Center et al. are basically useless, and quite often make things worse, because paradoxically in Venezuela veiled criticism has become indirect approval, such is the state of immorality and cynicism that the regime has reached.

Let’s hope someone in Atlanta is paying attention.

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Chavez Not a Threat? Only to Obama

President Obama’s interview with a Spanish-language television station in the Miami market wouldn’t have drawn much attention if he had stuck to the normally sensitive question of Cuba on which he made it plain that better relations with the Communist regime would have to await progress on human rights there. Instead, the president drew fire for claiming that Hugo Chavez’s dictatorial government “has not had a serious national security impact on us.”

In response, Sen. Marco Rubio said this made it look as if the president “was living under a rock” not to have noticed that Chavez was not just destroying democracy in Venezuela but had turned the country into a base for international terror, a money laundering center for FARC narco-terrorists while also undermining U.S. sanctions on Syria. Rubio also mentioned that Chavez’s consul general in Miami was expelled on Obama’s watch for links to cyber attacks on the United States. But Rubio neglected to mention that Venezuela has become one of Iran’s leading trading partners and diplomatic allies and an obstacle to what the president has said is one of his key foreign policy objectives in stopping their nuclear program.

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President Obama’s interview with a Spanish-language television station in the Miami market wouldn’t have drawn much attention if he had stuck to the normally sensitive question of Cuba on which he made it plain that better relations with the Communist regime would have to await progress on human rights there. Instead, the president drew fire for claiming that Hugo Chavez’s dictatorial government “has not had a serious national security impact on us.”

In response, Sen. Marco Rubio said this made it look as if the president “was living under a rock” not to have noticed that Chavez was not just destroying democracy in Venezuela but had turned the country into a base for international terror, a money laundering center for FARC narco-terrorists while also undermining U.S. sanctions on Syria. Rubio also mentioned that Chavez’s consul general in Miami was expelled on Obama’s watch for links to cyber attacks on the United States. But Rubio neglected to mention that Venezuela has become one of Iran’s leading trading partners and diplomatic allies and an obstacle to what the president has said is one of his key foreign policy objectives in stopping their nuclear program.

If all that hasn’t “had a serious national security impact” on the United States, what is there Venezuela could do, short of start a shooting war, to ruffle the president’s feathers? This comment tells us all we need to know about this administration’s foreign policy and what we can expect in the next four years if the president is re-elected.

While the Venezuelans were merely trying to topple the pro-American government in Colombia, perhaps the global implications of Chavez’s regime could be downplayed. But his alliance with Iran changes all that.

The problem here is not just that the president is soft-peddling the most severe challenge to U.S. interests in the Western hemisphere since Fidel Castro was actively seeking to export communism to the rest of Latin America. It is that the president seems to genuinely think that the conversion of Venezuela into a safe haven for Islamist terrorists and its success in undermining the administration’s feckless attempts to isolate Iran is not a big deal.

The alliance between Iran and Venezuela is not a minor annoyance for U.S. security. If the president is truly serious about stopping Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons — a point on which informed observers can differ — then he needs to come to grips with the fact that Tehran presents a serious national security threat not just to U.S. interests but to the safety of Americans. Having a powerful, oil-rich ally in the heart of the Western Hemisphere gives the Iranians a way of fighting back against American-led sanctions. It also provides the ayatollahs with a way of launching a terrorist offensive not just in the Middle East but also in our own backyard.

This is the most severe sort of threat to American security. But not in President Obama’s eyes. If he is re-elected and gains the “flexibility” he desires to appease Russia and perhaps the Palestinians, Chavez may entertain hopes that he, too, will be treated even more gently in the second Obama administration.

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Venezuelan Oil and Iranian Arms Mean More to Syria Than American Hints

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued another ringing condemnation of the brutal oppression going on in Syria. Clinton said that in today’s Internet culture, the Assad regime’s tactics could not be sustained indefinitely, as a “breaking point” would soon be reached. What’s more, Clinton also hinted that the Syrian opposition would be “increasingly capable,” a phrase that made it clear Washington would either arm the rebels or see to it that other nations did. She also expressed the hope that Russia and China, who have served as Syria’s diplomatic bodyguards in recent weeks and vetoed United Nations resolutions aimed at Assad, would also give way to pressure.

With the world watching helplessly as Bashar al-Assad continues to slaughter his own people, one would hope Clinton is right. But evidence continues to mount that Assad’s allies are betting the dictator will not only not crack but will succeed in suppressing the protests that have been going on there since last spring. Earlier this week, I noted the reports about Iranian naval vessels, including a supply ship, visiting a Syrian port where they may well have dropped off badly needed weapons for Assad’s security forces. Now a new report indicates that the international sanctions on Syria are being flouted by Venezuela, which is shipping oil directly to Assad. With the dictator showing no sign of losing his will to resist, and with the support of Iran, Venezuela as well as that of Russia and China, Clinton’s predictions are looking more like wishful thinking than a cogent analysis of the situation.

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Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued another ringing condemnation of the brutal oppression going on in Syria. Clinton said that in today’s Internet culture, the Assad regime’s tactics could not be sustained indefinitely, as a “breaking point” would soon be reached. What’s more, Clinton also hinted that the Syrian opposition would be “increasingly capable,” a phrase that made it clear Washington would either arm the rebels or see to it that other nations did. She also expressed the hope that Russia and China, who have served as Syria’s diplomatic bodyguards in recent weeks and vetoed United Nations resolutions aimed at Assad, would also give way to pressure.

With the world watching helplessly as Bashar al-Assad continues to slaughter his own people, one would hope Clinton is right. But evidence continues to mount that Assad’s allies are betting the dictator will not only not crack but will succeed in suppressing the protests that have been going on there since last spring. Earlier this week, I noted the reports about Iranian naval vessels, including a supply ship, visiting a Syrian port where they may well have dropped off badly needed weapons for Assad’s security forces. Now a new report indicates that the international sanctions on Syria are being flouted by Venezuela, which is shipping oil directly to Assad. With the dictator showing no sign of losing his will to resist, and with the support of Iran, Venezuela as well as that of Russia and China, Clinton’s predictions are looking more like wishful thinking than a cogent analysis of the situation.

The alliance between Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez and Iran is sufficiently close that his decision to come to the aid of Tehran’s beleaguered ally is hardly surprising. But the brazen nature of this gesture is one more sign that Syria’s friends are convinced Western optimism about Assad’s imminent fall is at best premature. Indeed, so long as they are able to keep him supplied with ammunition and oil and watch his back in the United Nations, the only thing that could lead to his demise is if he loses his nerve.

Clinton’s assumption about the inevitable end of any regime such as that of Assad is based on the idea that in an era of instant communication, violent tyrannies cannot sustain themselves. But it bears repeating that Assad is cut from a different stripe than the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt who went quietly to the chopping block last year. And Syria’s geographic position and military strength make a repeat of the rebel victory in Libya over a crumbling Qaddafi regime most unlikely.

So long as Assad doesn’t lose his willingness to shed his compatriots’ blood and has the loyalty of the majority of the members of his equally bloodthirsty security services, he has an excellent chance of surviving this crisis. Moreover, unless the West is prepared to take an active role in aiding and abetting the Syrian opposition as they did for the rebels in Libya, the contest there will continue to be a mismatch. Absent an American decision to do more about Syria than make empty predictions, Assad and his allies are unlikely to give up the struggle.

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Dudamel is Not Another Toscanini

Gustavo Dudamel may not be Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, but for those who follow the world of classical music, there’s little doubt the 31-year-old is a very big deal indeed these days. The native of Venezuela is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has become the latest superstar of the symphonic set. His charisma and trademark hairdo of flowing curls have helped propel his orchestra into a series of performances that are being broadcast in movie theaters around the country. But the talented conductor is also the focus of some unflattering coverage because of the political implications of his ties to Venezuelan institutions.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the LA Philharmonic’s tour of Dudamel’s native land has thrown a spotlight on his mentor José Antonio Abreu and the youth music program El Sistema that set him on the path to stardom. Whether he intended to do so or not, Dudamel has allowed himself to be used as a prop of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s dictatorial president whose office took over El Sistema two years ago. Instead of using his international prestige to stand up against Chavez’s efforts to subvert democracy, Dudamel may have become one more artistic façade for a government hell-bent on destroying human rights in Venezuela. In doing so, he has become part of a long tradition of morally obtuse musicians who played for dictators.

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Gustavo Dudamel may not be Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, but for those who follow the world of classical music, there’s little doubt the 31-year-old is a very big deal indeed these days. The native of Venezuela is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has become the latest superstar of the symphonic set. His charisma and trademark hairdo of flowing curls have helped propel his orchestra into a series of performances that are being broadcast in movie theaters around the country. But the talented conductor is also the focus of some unflattering coverage because of the political implications of his ties to Venezuelan institutions.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the LA Philharmonic’s tour of Dudamel’s native land has thrown a spotlight on his mentor José Antonio Abreu and the youth music program El Sistema that set him on the path to stardom. Whether he intended to do so or not, Dudamel has allowed himself to be used as a prop of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s dictatorial president whose office took over El Sistema two years ago. Instead of using his international prestige to stand up against Chavez’s efforts to subvert democracy, Dudamel may have become one more artistic façade for a government hell-bent on destroying human rights in Venezuela. In doing so, he has become part of a long tradition of morally obtuse musicians who played for dictators.

In addition to the current tour that is being used by Chavez to burnish his image at home, Dudamel conducted the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (for which he also serves as music director) in the national anthem for the initial broadcasts of a new government television channel that replaced an independent channel shut down by Chavez for criticizing his administration. The televised concert was, as the Times noted, “dominated by images of Mr. Chavez and the phrase ‘Onward, Commandante!’”

So while the likeable Dudamel has become a classical star here in the United States, he has also become a symbol of the way every aspect of Venezuelan culture has been taken over by the Chavez regime to the detriment of his country’s freedom and the security of the region.

Many classical musicians have never been squeamish about taking coin from the hands of dictators or about allowing their talents to be purchased for the purpose of bolstering evil regimes. In one of the most recent instances, the New York Philharmonic accepted an invitation to play before the leadership of one of the craziest and most oppressive governments in the world: North Korea. While the New Yorkers claimed their music would be a symbol of freedom and improving relations, the only ones to benefit from the show were the Communist regime and the orchestra.

But there is another more admirable tradition in the arts: that of the artist who puts principle above all else and refuses to bow down to tyrants. The most distinguished example  is the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was an ardent foe of fascism in his Italian homeland. After an initial flirtation with Benito Mussolini’s movement, Toscanini defied the dictator and became a symbol of resistance to his rule. He suffered attacks and insults, and it was only his status as an international superstar that saved him from a worse fate. During this period it should be noted that Toscanini also conducted the inaugural performance of the fledgling Palestine Orchestra (today the Israel Philharmonic) that was largely comprised of Jewish refugees from Germany. He only returned to Italy after the Second World War and the demise of fascism.

Dudamel may be a wonderful music talent and have a long, celebrated career ahead of him. But the laurels that go to those artists, who, at their personal cost, stand up for freedom, will not go to him. He may be a fine conductor, but Gustavo Dudamel is no Toscanini.

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Iranian Nukes? Cue the Laugh Track in Caracas

The friendly relationship between the dictatorial regimes in Iran and Venezuela has long troubled the United States, but the latest expression of this bizarre alliance has implications for Washington’s efforts to isolate Tehran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in Caracas this week for another love fest with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. The highlight of their exchange was when Chavez referred to a grassy knoll in front of his palace. “That hill will open up and a big atomic bomb will come out,” said Chavez as the two authoritarians laughed about the big joke.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are no laughing matter for those who fear the Islamist regime being able to put a nuclear umbrella over its terrorist allies Hezbollah and Hamas or being able to threaten Israel with extinction. But the importance of Chavez to Iran is not his ability to provide them with moral support. The only real lever short of the use of force for the West to stop Iran’s nuclear program is an oil embargo. This week’s visit to South America is a reminder that Tehran has allies, including oil producers like Venezuela who may be willing to help them in the event President Obama finds the will to try to enforce a tough sanctions policy.

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The friendly relationship between the dictatorial regimes in Iran and Venezuela has long troubled the United States, but the latest expression of this bizarre alliance has implications for Washington’s efforts to isolate Tehran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in Caracas this week for another love fest with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. The highlight of their exchange was when Chavez referred to a grassy knoll in front of his palace. “That hill will open up and a big atomic bomb will come out,” said Chavez as the two authoritarians laughed about the big joke.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are no laughing matter for those who fear the Islamist regime being able to put a nuclear umbrella over its terrorist allies Hezbollah and Hamas or being able to threaten Israel with extinction. But the importance of Chavez to Iran is not his ability to provide them with moral support. The only real lever short of the use of force for the West to stop Iran’s nuclear program is an oil embargo. This week’s visit to South America is a reminder that Tehran has allies, including oil producers like Venezuela who may be willing to help them in the event President Obama finds the will to try to enforce a tough sanctions policy.

Ahmadinejad will also be visiting Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador, but Venezuela is the key to Iran’s effort to find friends in the Western Hemisphere. Along with friendly nations like Turkey, Venezuela can help Iran evade Western sanctions and may exercise enough economic muscle to ameliorate the effects of an embargo.

But the one piece of good news for the West is the absence of Brazil from Ahmadinejad’s itinerary. The Holocaust-denying Iranian got a good reception there during his last trip to the continent, and the failure of the Iranians to secure another visit may reflect a limited diplomatic victory for the United States. It may also show that for all of its usual willingness to jeer at Washington, Brazil has no appetite for a confrontation, especially with Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz and shut off all oil exports from the Persian Gulf.

This should be a signal to President Obama that, Venezuelan jokes notwithstanding, he will be backed, or at least not actively opposed, by much of the Third World should he decide to impose an oil embargo on Iran. The Iranians are counting on their ability to make friends abroad and Obama’s demonstrated predilection for delay to give them another year or two to complete their nuclear plans. With Iran already enriching uranium in its new mountain bunker at Fordow, time is running out for the West to act.

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CAIR Urges Muslims to ‘Resist’ FBI Terror Probes

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is still treated as a mainstream civil-liberties group by much of the media. Indeed, last summer, as the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque heated up, representatives of the group were regularly trotted out as the moderate and reasonable representatives of a supposedly aggrieved community. But recent activities by some of its chapters around the country are making clear that its main agenda remains rooted in its origins as a political front for an illegal group whose purpose was to raise funds for the Hamas terrorist organization. Though spokesmen for the group have been at pains to present it as opposing terrorism (though when pressed, they will never admit that, for example, attacks on Israelis should be considered acts of terror) and promoting cooperation with law-enforcement agencies, the truth is that its goal is quite the opposite.

Terror expert Steven Emerson’s the Investigative Project on Terrorism reports that CAIR’s California chapter is sponsoring an event on Feb. 9 in Oakland whose purpose is to counsel noncompliance with federal investigations of terrorism. Indeed, the group’s website shows a poster for the gathering that features the headline: “Build a Wall of Resistance.” The artwork shows a sinister FBI agent being faced with slammed doors. The tagline reads: “Don’t Talk to the F.B.I.”

According to Emerson, this attempt to obstruct a government probe is in response to FBI efforts to uncover a network of supporters of two terror groups: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Revolutionary Armed Force of Columbia (FARC). The FBI raided the homes of “activists” in Minneapolis and Chicago who may be tied to these two known terror groups in September. The PFLP is a radical leftist Palestinian group that is opposed to peace with Israel and that has, over the years, murdered many Israelis and Americans. FARC is the quintessential narco-terrorist organization and has sought the overthrow of the democratic government of Colombia and has specialized in kidnapping with the aid of the leftist government of Venezuela led by Hugo Chavez.

You would think that if CAIR were the upstanding group of ordinary Arab- and Muslim-Americans who just wanted fair treatment under the law, as it claims to be, the last thing it should be doing is counseling its members to refuse to talk to the authorities investigating lethal criminal enterprises such as the PFLP or FARC. Nor should it be setting up a meeting whose purpose is to generate support for the 23 “activists” who are refusing to comply with subpoenas that require them to testify before grand juries about these terror groups.

Instead, CAIR’s California chapter is treating the Obama administration’s Justice Department probes into terror groups as an effort to “repress our movements for social justice and divide our communities.” CAIR’s Chicago and Michigan chapters have also blasted the federal investigation. The statement from the Chicago chapter made it clear that its opposition to the investigation was not based on alleged questions of civil liberties but rather the group’s sympathy for both the PFLP and FARC, and termed the probe an effort to repress dissent about U.S. foreign policy, leading one to conclude that CAIR’s members believe the administration is too supportive of democratic governments trying to defend themselves against violent terror groups.

This attempt to obstruct justice once again shows that CAIR’s true purpose is not to defend ordinary Americans who happen to be Muslim but instead the defense of anti-American terror organizations.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is still treated as a mainstream civil-liberties group by much of the media. Indeed, last summer, as the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque heated up, representatives of the group were regularly trotted out as the moderate and reasonable representatives of a supposedly aggrieved community. But recent activities by some of its chapters around the country are making clear that its main agenda remains rooted in its origins as a political front for an illegal group whose purpose was to raise funds for the Hamas terrorist organization. Though spokesmen for the group have been at pains to present it as opposing terrorism (though when pressed, they will never admit that, for example, attacks on Israelis should be considered acts of terror) and promoting cooperation with law-enforcement agencies, the truth is that its goal is quite the opposite.

Terror expert Steven Emerson’s the Investigative Project on Terrorism reports that CAIR’s California chapter is sponsoring an event on Feb. 9 in Oakland whose purpose is to counsel noncompliance with federal investigations of terrorism. Indeed, the group’s website shows a poster for the gathering that features the headline: “Build a Wall of Resistance.” The artwork shows a sinister FBI agent being faced with slammed doors. The tagline reads: “Don’t Talk to the F.B.I.”

According to Emerson, this attempt to obstruct a government probe is in response to FBI efforts to uncover a network of supporters of two terror groups: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Revolutionary Armed Force of Columbia (FARC). The FBI raided the homes of “activists” in Minneapolis and Chicago who may be tied to these two known terror groups in September. The PFLP is a radical leftist Palestinian group that is opposed to peace with Israel and that has, over the years, murdered many Israelis and Americans. FARC is the quintessential narco-terrorist organization and has sought the overthrow of the democratic government of Colombia and has specialized in kidnapping with the aid of the leftist government of Venezuela led by Hugo Chavez.

You would think that if CAIR were the upstanding group of ordinary Arab- and Muslim-Americans who just wanted fair treatment under the law, as it claims to be, the last thing it should be doing is counseling its members to refuse to talk to the authorities investigating lethal criminal enterprises such as the PFLP or FARC. Nor should it be setting up a meeting whose purpose is to generate support for the 23 “activists” who are refusing to comply with subpoenas that require them to testify before grand juries about these terror groups.

Instead, CAIR’s California chapter is treating the Obama administration’s Justice Department probes into terror groups as an effort to “repress our movements for social justice and divide our communities.” CAIR’s Chicago and Michigan chapters have also blasted the federal investigation. The statement from the Chicago chapter made it clear that its opposition to the investigation was not based on alleged questions of civil liberties but rather the group’s sympathy for both the PFLP and FARC, and termed the probe an effort to repress dissent about U.S. foreign policy, leading one to conclude that CAIR’s members believe the administration is too supportive of democratic governments trying to defend themselves against violent terror groups.

This attempt to obstruct justice once again shows that CAIR’s true purpose is not to defend ordinary Americans who happen to be Muslim but instead the defense of anti-American terror organizations.

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Morning Commentary

House Republicans announced a vote to repeal health-care reform on Jan. 12, naming their bill the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” But even if the legislation passes the House, it’s almost certain to be blocked in the Senate: “The repeal effort is not expected to succeed, given that Democrats maintain control of the Senate and the president can veto the legislation. But Republicans could embarrass the White House if they persuade a number of Democrats to vote with them and, over the long term, plan to try to chip away at pieces of the law.”

Iran has invited Russia, China, the EU, and Arab nations on an all-expenses-paid tour of its nuclear facilities in an attempt to gain support before its next round of nuke talks with the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

It looks like Hillary Clinton’s brief meeting with Hugo Chavez over the weekend helped diffuse some of the diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela. The Obama administration announced yesterday that it is considering nominating a new ambassador to Venezuela after Chavez very publicly rejected the last proposal.

Those who want to see massive cuts in the defense budget are dangerously underestimating the threats the U.S. will face in the coming years, warn Alvin S. Felzenberg and Alexander B. Gray in National Review. With the growing aggression of countries like Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran, the military needs to be able to adapt in response to new challenges: “Counterinsurgency warfare and Predator-drone strikes against transnational terrorists certainly defined much of the last decade. But the next decade will witness increasing competition among nation-states for control of valuable resources and the exertion of influence worldwide.”

Apparently, Guam is a touchy subject for Michael Steele. During an interview with the Weekly Standard’s John McCormack, the embattled RNC chair went on the defensive about his spending decisions in U.S. territories: “Okay, so when you’re chairman you make that decision, and then you deal with the chairman and the national committeeman and the national committeewoman sittin’ on the phone with you, screaming at you for not helping them for $15,000. We won the governorship. The most wins here and now you’re going to sit back here and parse? Oh, well, gee if you had taken $15,000 from there and put it over here — tell me the seat you could have won with that, when you know you could have helped them out and won a groundbreaker for them in Guam.”

The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum has an intriguing theory about what may have prompted the Kremlin’s recent bad behavior: “[P]erhaps the explanation is very simple: Oil is once again above $90 a barrel — and the price is rising. And if that’s the reason, it’s nothing new. In fact, if one were to plot the rise and fall of Soviet and Russian foreign and domestic reforms over the past 40 years on a graph, it would match the fall and rise of the international oil prices (for which domestic crude oil prices are a reasonable proxy) with astonishing precision.”

House Republicans announced a vote to repeal health-care reform on Jan. 12, naming their bill the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” But even if the legislation passes the House, it’s almost certain to be blocked in the Senate: “The repeal effort is not expected to succeed, given that Democrats maintain control of the Senate and the president can veto the legislation. But Republicans could embarrass the White House if they persuade a number of Democrats to vote with them and, over the long term, plan to try to chip away at pieces of the law.”

Iran has invited Russia, China, the EU, and Arab nations on an all-expenses-paid tour of its nuclear facilities in an attempt to gain support before its next round of nuke talks with the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

It looks like Hillary Clinton’s brief meeting with Hugo Chavez over the weekend helped diffuse some of the diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela. The Obama administration announced yesterday that it is considering nominating a new ambassador to Venezuela after Chavez very publicly rejected the last proposal.

Those who want to see massive cuts in the defense budget are dangerously underestimating the threats the U.S. will face in the coming years, warn Alvin S. Felzenberg and Alexander B. Gray in National Review. With the growing aggression of countries like Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran, the military needs to be able to adapt in response to new challenges: “Counterinsurgency warfare and Predator-drone strikes against transnational terrorists certainly defined much of the last decade. But the next decade will witness increasing competition among nation-states for control of valuable resources and the exertion of influence worldwide.”

Apparently, Guam is a touchy subject for Michael Steele. During an interview with the Weekly Standard’s John McCormack, the embattled RNC chair went on the defensive about his spending decisions in U.S. territories: “Okay, so when you’re chairman you make that decision, and then you deal with the chairman and the national committeeman and the national committeewoman sittin’ on the phone with you, screaming at you for not helping them for $15,000. We won the governorship. The most wins here and now you’re going to sit back here and parse? Oh, well, gee if you had taken $15,000 from there and put it over here — tell me the seat you could have won with that, when you know you could have helped them out and won a groundbreaker for them in Guam.”

The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum has an intriguing theory about what may have prompted the Kremlin’s recent bad behavior: “[P]erhaps the explanation is very simple: Oil is once again above $90 a barrel — and the price is rising. And if that’s the reason, it’s nothing new. In fact, if one were to plot the rise and fall of Soviet and Russian foreign and domestic reforms over the past 40 years on a graph, it would match the fall and rise of the international oil prices (for which domestic crude oil prices are a reasonable proxy) with astonishing precision.”

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Morning Commentary

It looks like President Obama has finally found some backbone in his diplomatic spat with Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president rejected the U.S.’s choice for ambassador to Caracas and dared Obama to cut diplomatic ties with the country. Today Obama responded by kicking the Venezuelan ambassador out of the U.S.

Americans are still displaying a lack of confidence in both political parties, according to a new poll released by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation. While pundits from all parts of the political spectrum have lauded President Obama’s successes during the lame-duck session of Congress, a plurality of Americans remains skeptical about the president’s ability to push his policies, according to the survey. And even though a majority of the public agrees that GOP control of the House will benefit the country, that optimism isn’t necessarily due to increased trust in the Republican Party. Only a quarter believe that the Republicans will do a better job running Congress than the Democrats.

The U.S. State Department has come out strongly against the Palestinian Authority’s newest effort to push through a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, suggesting that the Palestinians may be alienating the best friend they’ve had in the White House for years. However, State Department officials still haven’t commented specifically on whether the U.S. would veto the resolution.

The Huffington Post reported recently that the number of uninsured Americans has soared to “over 50 million.” But is that really the case? At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey H. Anderson notes that the numbers come from a recent report published by the Census Bureau, which even the bureau has admitted was largely inaccurate: “The Census report also admits within its own pages that recognition of its inaccuracy led to ‘a research project to evaluate why CPS ASEC estimates of the number of people with Medicaid are lower than counts of the number of people enrolled in the program from CMS’ — in other words, to evaluate why the CPS ASEC lists millions of Americans as being uninsured while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs Medicaid and keeps the official tally of enrollees, says that these people are on Medicaid.”

Islamists are apparently still having trouble getting over that Danish Mohammed cartoon from six years ago. Five terror suspects were arrested in Denmark and Sweden yesterday for plotting to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper headquarters, which published the cartoon in 2005.

With the rest of the world unwilling to combat the growing problem of Somali pirates, the transitional federal government of Somalia has finally taken the problem into its own hands by creating a paramilitary force to fight piracy. Sources say that the militia is being funded by donors in Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

Ron Radosh joins the growing ranks of writers criticizing New Yorker editor David Remnick’s hostile rant against Israel last week. Radosh also highlights the insidious anti-Israel sentiment among today’s liberal Jewish intellectuals: “Today’s New York intellectuals are a pale imitation of their ancestors. The original group had a fidelity to the truth, and to bold assertions  they believed to be true, regardless of whom they offended. Today’s group, of which Remnick is most typical, runs to join their fellow leftist herd of no longer independent minds in Britain, assuring them of their loyalty to the influential [among] journalists and opinion makers, and if they are Jewish, making their assurance known by joining in the stampede to dissociate themselves from defense of Israel.” Jonathan Tobin discussed Remnick’s Israel problem in CONTENTIONS on Sunday.

It looks like President Obama has finally found some backbone in his diplomatic spat with Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president rejected the U.S.’s choice for ambassador to Caracas and dared Obama to cut diplomatic ties with the country. Today Obama responded by kicking the Venezuelan ambassador out of the U.S.

Americans are still displaying a lack of confidence in both political parties, according to a new poll released by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation. While pundits from all parts of the political spectrum have lauded President Obama’s successes during the lame-duck session of Congress, a plurality of Americans remains skeptical about the president’s ability to push his policies, according to the survey. And even though a majority of the public agrees that GOP control of the House will benefit the country, that optimism isn’t necessarily due to increased trust in the Republican Party. Only a quarter believe that the Republicans will do a better job running Congress than the Democrats.

The U.S. State Department has come out strongly against the Palestinian Authority’s newest effort to push through a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, suggesting that the Palestinians may be alienating the best friend they’ve had in the White House for years. However, State Department officials still haven’t commented specifically on whether the U.S. would veto the resolution.

The Huffington Post reported recently that the number of uninsured Americans has soared to “over 50 million.” But is that really the case? At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey H. Anderson notes that the numbers come from a recent report published by the Census Bureau, which even the bureau has admitted was largely inaccurate: “The Census report also admits within its own pages that recognition of its inaccuracy led to ‘a research project to evaluate why CPS ASEC estimates of the number of people with Medicaid are lower than counts of the number of people enrolled in the program from CMS’ — in other words, to evaluate why the CPS ASEC lists millions of Americans as being uninsured while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs Medicaid and keeps the official tally of enrollees, says that these people are on Medicaid.”

Islamists are apparently still having trouble getting over that Danish Mohammed cartoon from six years ago. Five terror suspects were arrested in Denmark and Sweden yesterday for plotting to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper headquarters, which published the cartoon in 2005.

With the rest of the world unwilling to combat the growing problem of Somali pirates, the transitional federal government of Somalia has finally taken the problem into its own hands by creating a paramilitary force to fight piracy. Sources say that the militia is being funded by donors in Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

Ron Radosh joins the growing ranks of writers criticizing New Yorker editor David Remnick’s hostile rant against Israel last week. Radosh also highlights the insidious anti-Israel sentiment among today’s liberal Jewish intellectuals: “Today’s New York intellectuals are a pale imitation of their ancestors. The original group had a fidelity to the truth, and to bold assertions  they believed to be true, regardless of whom they offended. Today’s group, of which Remnick is most typical, runs to join their fellow leftist herd of no longer independent minds in Britain, assuring them of their loyalty to the influential [among] journalists and opinion makers, and if they are Jewish, making their assurance known by joining in the stampede to dissociate themselves from defense of Israel.” Jonathan Tobin discussed Remnick’s Israel problem in CONTENTIONS on Sunday.

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Morning Commentary

The Iraqi parliament finally approves a diverse new unity government, ending nine months of political stalemate and concern for the fledgling democracy: “Although Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds were represented in the previous government, this is the first time that all the major factions have been included, lending hope that Iraq can put behind it the bitter sectarian struggles and divisive politics of the past five years.”

More than nine Senate Republicans are expected to support New START when it’s brought up for ratification today, which is enough to approve the treaty. So what’s the GOP getting in return for its support? According to the Washington Times, Sen. Jon Kyl’s negotiations with President Obama have secured $85 billion to modernize and maintain our nuclear arsenal, as well as a commitment to build robust missile defenses.

In the New York Post, Jonah Goldberg analyzes the field of 2012 Republican presidential candidates.

In USA Today, Sarah Palin discusses the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran: “Some have said the Israelis should undertake military action on their own if they are convinced the Iranian program is approaching the point of no return. But Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not just Israel’s problem; it is the world’s problem. I agree with the former British prime minister Tony Blair, who said recently that the West must be willing to use force ‘if necessary’ if that is the only alternative.”

Is Michele Bachmann considering a presidential run? Her $31,000 in contributions to Iowa candidates over the past year has some bloggers asking that question. Iowa’s campaign-finance report shows that Sarah Palin gave only $15,000 during the same time period.

Has it really come to this? Robert Gibbs is now seeking political help from Jon Stewart.

Ron Radosh sees similarities between Hugo Chavez’s recent power grab and the rise of Nazi power: “By passing the Enabling Act — the same term used by Chavez today — Hitler sought to abolish democracy by formally democratic means. … By banning opposition Communist delegates who had all been arrested, and preventing Social-Democrats from taking seats to which they were elected after the Reichstag fire, the Nazis now had the necessary votes to pass the Act. Clearly, Hugo Chavez must have studied Hitler’s tactics before commencing upon a similar road.”

The Iraqi parliament finally approves a diverse new unity government, ending nine months of political stalemate and concern for the fledgling democracy: “Although Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds were represented in the previous government, this is the first time that all the major factions have been included, lending hope that Iraq can put behind it the bitter sectarian struggles and divisive politics of the past five years.”

More than nine Senate Republicans are expected to support New START when it’s brought up for ratification today, which is enough to approve the treaty. So what’s the GOP getting in return for its support? According to the Washington Times, Sen. Jon Kyl’s negotiations with President Obama have secured $85 billion to modernize and maintain our nuclear arsenal, as well as a commitment to build robust missile defenses.

In the New York Post, Jonah Goldberg analyzes the field of 2012 Republican presidential candidates.

In USA Today, Sarah Palin discusses the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran: “Some have said the Israelis should undertake military action on their own if they are convinced the Iranian program is approaching the point of no return. But Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not just Israel’s problem; it is the world’s problem. I agree with the former British prime minister Tony Blair, who said recently that the West must be willing to use force ‘if necessary’ if that is the only alternative.”

Is Michele Bachmann considering a presidential run? Her $31,000 in contributions to Iowa candidates over the past year has some bloggers asking that question. Iowa’s campaign-finance report shows that Sarah Palin gave only $15,000 during the same time period.

Has it really come to this? Robert Gibbs is now seeking political help from Jon Stewart.

Ron Radosh sees similarities between Hugo Chavez’s recent power grab and the rise of Nazi power: “By passing the Enabling Act — the same term used by Chavez today — Hitler sought to abolish democracy by formally democratic means. … By banning opposition Communist delegates who had all been arrested, and preventing Social-Democrats from taking seats to which they were elected after the Reichstag fire, the Nazis now had the necessary votes to pass the Act. Clearly, Hugo Chavez must have studied Hitler’s tactics before commencing upon a similar road.”

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Honduras, Obama, and Occam’s Razor

In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote that cables released by WikiLeaks show that the administration knew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya had threatened Honduran democracy — but supported him in order to offer President Obama a “bonding opportunity” with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a chance to ingratiate himself with Latin America’s hard left.

O’Grady believes this helps explain why the administration went to such extremes to try to force Zelaya’s reinstatement despite the obvious remedy once the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court had upheld his removal for attempting to thwart the election of his successor — hold the already scheduled election between the already duly-chosen candidates, on the date already set, which was only a few months away.

I have a simpler explanation — not inconsistent with O’Grady’s analysis but closer to the common theme in Obama’s foreign policy in other areas. The day after Zelaya was removed, Obama pronounced it a “coup.” That snap judgment remained American policy even as more and more facts contradicting Obama’s description emerged. After months pushing a reinstatement that virtually every element of Honduran political and civil society opposed, and even though the proper and practical solution was apparent, Obama still engaged in mystifying diplomacy, cutting off aid to a poverty-stricken ally. Three months into the “crisis,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made this statement about the Honduran government’s intent to hold its election:

There’s a sense that the de facto regime was thinking, if we can just get to an election, that this would absolve them of all their sins. And we’re saying, clearly, that is not the case.

Crowley asserted the election the Honduran legislature and judiciary sought to preserve would not “absolve” them of “all their sins.” Honduras had apparently offended some sort of god.

Obama brought to the Oval Office a self-regard probably unmatched in American history. He apologized for his country while praising it for electing him. He thought that Iran could be handled with his outstretched hand; that a foreign head of state should receive an iPod with his speeches on it; that a video of him was sufficient for the Berlin Wall anniversary; that a prime minister should be summoned to the White House after-hours without press or pictures; that a Palestinian state would be created because this time they had Him. Russia and China were treated with respect, as was Iran, even as it held a fraudulent election and blew through his successive “deadlines.” But allies such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Israel, and Britain were treated differently.

What was visited upon Honduras last year was of a piece.

In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote that cables released by WikiLeaks show that the administration knew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya had threatened Honduran democracy — but supported him in order to offer President Obama a “bonding opportunity” with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a chance to ingratiate himself with Latin America’s hard left.

O’Grady believes this helps explain why the administration went to such extremes to try to force Zelaya’s reinstatement despite the obvious remedy once the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court had upheld his removal for attempting to thwart the election of his successor — hold the already scheduled election between the already duly-chosen candidates, on the date already set, which was only a few months away.

I have a simpler explanation — not inconsistent with O’Grady’s analysis but closer to the common theme in Obama’s foreign policy in other areas. The day after Zelaya was removed, Obama pronounced it a “coup.” That snap judgment remained American policy even as more and more facts contradicting Obama’s description emerged. After months pushing a reinstatement that virtually every element of Honduran political and civil society opposed, and even though the proper and practical solution was apparent, Obama still engaged in mystifying diplomacy, cutting off aid to a poverty-stricken ally. Three months into the “crisis,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made this statement about the Honduran government’s intent to hold its election:

There’s a sense that the de facto regime was thinking, if we can just get to an election, that this would absolve them of all their sins. And we’re saying, clearly, that is not the case.

Crowley asserted the election the Honduran legislature and judiciary sought to preserve would not “absolve” them of “all their sins.” Honduras had apparently offended some sort of god.

Obama brought to the Oval Office a self-regard probably unmatched in American history. He apologized for his country while praising it for electing him. He thought that Iran could be handled with his outstretched hand; that a foreign head of state should receive an iPod with his speeches on it; that a video of him was sufficient for the Berlin Wall anniversary; that a prime minister should be summoned to the White House after-hours without press or pictures; that a Palestinian state would be created because this time they had Him. Russia and China were treated with respect, as was Iran, even as it held a fraudulent election and blew through his successive “deadlines.” But allies such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Israel, and Britain were treated differently.

What was visited upon Honduras last year was of a piece.

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Morning Commentary

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed by Congress yesterday, but the military says that implementing the new rules will take some time: “Under the expected procedure, the Defense Department will conduct servicewide training and education for all active duty, reserve and national guard forces, and make whatever adjustments in procedures and facilities are necessary. … A servicewide memo will be sent instructing any gay or lesbian servicemembers not to openly declare their sexual orientation because they could potentially be subject to separation from the military.”

And in the aftermath of the DADT repeal, liberals have found a surprising new hero — Joe Lieberman: “‘He’s certainly one of my heroes today,’ said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. ‘His determination, his tenacity has kept this going all year. This would have not happened without Sen. Lieberman.’”

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez is planning to take full advantage of his new “temporary” power to rule by decree: “Venezuela’s lame-duck, pro-government congress has given temporary one-man rule to President Hugo Chavez, less than three weeks before a newly elected National Assembly with enough government foes to hamper some of his socialist initiatives takes office. … Speaking to supporters in a televised address Friday, Chavez left little doubt that he would use his powers to push through a range of economic and political measures that would accelerate the oil-rich country’s transformation into a socialist state.”

A soldier reflects on Time magazine’s Person of the Year: “I am not upset that [war hero and Congressional Medal of Honor winner] Staff Sgt. [Salvatore] Giunta wasn’t selected for the award. I don’t shame the periodical for not putting him on the short list. What makes me cringe is the fact that such heroic acts as Giunta’s in defense of our most beloved nation are still not ‘influential’ enough — not valued enough — to move and inspire us as a country: a country for which so many of us cry fierce patriotism, yet feel so little of its burdens.”

Michael Moore gets burned by WikiLeaks: “[T]he memo reveals that when the film [Sicko, Moore’s fawning documentary about the Cuban health-care system,] was shown to a group of Cuban doctors, some became so ‘disturbed at the blatant misrepresentation of healthcare in Cuba that they left the room’. … Castro’s government apparently went on to ban the film because, the leaked cable claims, it ‘knows the film is a myth and does not want to risk a popular backlash by showing to Cubans facilities that are clearly not available to the vast majority of them.’”

Could government policies make smoking extinct? While laws and taxes have certainly reduced the number of smokers, Kyle Smith argues that the habit is never going to go away completely: “What’s striking about a little volume called ‘The Cigarette Book: The History and Culture of Smoking’ (Skyhorse Publishing), an alphabetical guide to ciggie factoids, is how consistently smoking has been treated as a menace down the centuries. C-sticks were always just about to be hounded out of polite company for 400 years of largely ineffective taxes, warnings and bans. None of it worked.”

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed by Congress yesterday, but the military says that implementing the new rules will take some time: “Under the expected procedure, the Defense Department will conduct servicewide training and education for all active duty, reserve and national guard forces, and make whatever adjustments in procedures and facilities are necessary. … A servicewide memo will be sent instructing any gay or lesbian servicemembers not to openly declare their sexual orientation because they could potentially be subject to separation from the military.”

And in the aftermath of the DADT repeal, liberals have found a surprising new hero — Joe Lieberman: “‘He’s certainly one of my heroes today,’ said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. ‘His determination, his tenacity has kept this going all year. This would have not happened without Sen. Lieberman.’”

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez is planning to take full advantage of his new “temporary” power to rule by decree: “Venezuela’s lame-duck, pro-government congress has given temporary one-man rule to President Hugo Chavez, less than three weeks before a newly elected National Assembly with enough government foes to hamper some of his socialist initiatives takes office. … Speaking to supporters in a televised address Friday, Chavez left little doubt that he would use his powers to push through a range of economic and political measures that would accelerate the oil-rich country’s transformation into a socialist state.”

A soldier reflects on Time magazine’s Person of the Year: “I am not upset that [war hero and Congressional Medal of Honor winner] Staff Sgt. [Salvatore] Giunta wasn’t selected for the award. I don’t shame the periodical for not putting him on the short list. What makes me cringe is the fact that such heroic acts as Giunta’s in defense of our most beloved nation are still not ‘influential’ enough — not valued enough — to move and inspire us as a country: a country for which so many of us cry fierce patriotism, yet feel so little of its burdens.”

Michael Moore gets burned by WikiLeaks: “[T]he memo reveals that when the film [Sicko, Moore’s fawning documentary about the Cuban health-care system,] was shown to a group of Cuban doctors, some became so ‘disturbed at the blatant misrepresentation of healthcare in Cuba that they left the room’. … Castro’s government apparently went on to ban the film because, the leaked cable claims, it ‘knows the film is a myth and does not want to risk a popular backlash by showing to Cubans facilities that are clearly not available to the vast majority of them.’”

Could government policies make smoking extinct? While laws and taxes have certainly reduced the number of smokers, Kyle Smith argues that the habit is never going to go away completely: “What’s striking about a little volume called ‘The Cigarette Book: The History and Culture of Smoking’ (Skyhorse Publishing), an alphabetical guide to ciggie factoids, is how consistently smoking has been treated as a menace down the centuries. C-sticks were always just about to be hounded out of polite company for 400 years of largely ineffective taxes, warnings and bans. None of it worked.”

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