Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela’s Election to UN Security Council Can’t Hide Its Weakness

The good news is that Turkey didn’t manage to get itself elected to the UN Security Council. The bad news is that Venezuela did, as was expected. So come January, the chavista regime will have an unprecedented say in world affairs for a two-year term as one of the Security Council’s non-permanent members.

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The good news is that Turkey didn’t manage to get itself elected to the UN Security Council. The bad news is that Venezuela did, as was expected. So come January, the chavista regime will have an unprecedented say in world affairs for a two-year term as one of the Security Council’s non-permanent members.

This marks the fifth time in the UN’s brief history that Venezuela will serve on the Council. The last occasion was in 1992-93, when its representative was Ambassador Diego Arria, who distinguished himself by highlighting the genocide then raging in Bosnia, and by speaking out on behalf of human rights more generally. Two decades later, the situation has flipped entirely–the current crop of genocidaires, rogue states, and terrorists, particularly in the Middle East, will discover to their satisfaction that there are few friends more loyal than Venezuela’s present rulers.

As Arria himself pointed out in a recent Miami Herald op-ed, Venezuela’s presence on the Security Council couldn’t come at a worse time. The country retains close links with terrorist groups both in the neighborhood, such as the Colombian FARC, which receives logistical support and cooperation in its illicit narcotics trading, as well as those further abroad, like Hezbollah, which has benefited from banking facilities and Venezuelan passports. And there are few tyrants who haven’t been embraced by President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, among them various Iranian mullahs, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, and the Syrian leader, Bashar al Assad.

Along with other Venezuelan democrats, Arria is scathing about the indifference and cowardice among the other Latin American states, none of whom voiced opposition to Venezuela’s nomination, thus allowing it to be the sole Security Council candidate from the Latin American and Caribbean region. Two points underlie this: First, many of these same countries, like Brazil, Argentina and Chile, themselves have recent experience of living under dictatorial regimes and should therefore be more sensitive to Venezuela’s predicament; second, the chavista state has been penetrated by the Cubans to such an extent that Venezuela is virtually a vassal of the communists in Havana. Consequently, it is as if Cuba itself had been elected to the Security Council.

Notably–though not surprisingly, given the overall thrust of the Obama administration’s foreign policy–the U.S. has not voiced any disquiet over the prospect of a close ally of Iran and Russia gaining a voice on the Council. Last week, a bipartisan group of six senators–Marco Rubio, Robert Menendez, Bill Nelson, Richard Durbin, John McCain, and Mark Kirk–urged Secretary of State John Kerry to actively lobby against Venezuela’s nomination. In addition to Venezuela’s global antics, such as its alliance with states like Belarus and Iran to block condemnation of Assad at the UN, the letter to Kerry cited critical considerations for the American hemisphere. It specifically noted Maduro’s undermining of “the democratic commitments of the Organization of American States” and his abuse of opposition figures at home. Yet, as AP reported, after the Venezuelan success was announced, the U.S. would not even disclose how it voted.

Still, anyone looking for a silver lining in all this might reflect that Venezuela’s participation in the Security Council will provide a much-needed reminder that its burning desire to confront the United States, Israel, and the West in general has not ebbed since the death of Chavez in March 2013. As NBC noted earlier:

One of the people representing the fervently anti-American administration of President Nicolas Maduro in the 15-member body will be Maria Gabriela Chavez, the daughter of the late Hugo Chavez, who, in a 2006 UN speech, famously referred to George W. Bush as “the devil.”

Despite no prior known work experience of any kind — unless you count maintaining a popular Instagram account featuring her father, her pet Pomeranian, and the occasional manicure shot — the 33-year-old socialite was recently appointed Venezuela’s deputy ambassador to the UN.

However fiery Ms. Chavez’s speeches at the UN may turn out to be, they will be voiced from a position of grave weakness. Venezuela is not like Qatar, an ultra-wealthy Gulf emirate that enjoys full American support while backing terrorist groups like Hamas. Indeed, in economic terms alone, Venezuela is rapidly developing the characteristics of a failed state. With oil prices now tumbling to their lowest point in four years, and OPEC  ignoring Venezuelan pleas for an emergency meeting to tackle the slump, the Maduro regime is going to find itself woefully short of the dollars it needs to pay off its external debt; its foreign currency reserves are at an 11-year low of $19.8 billion. As Alberto Ramos of Goldman Sachs pithily told Bloomberg: “They have to either adjust spending or print more money, and if they print more money that means their hyper-inflation gets even more hyper. Inflation is already running at a very high level and completely unanchored, so this is like a wildfire.”

Venezuela also faces a political crisis. The country is as radically polarized now as it was in April 2013, when Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by a wafer-thin margin, during a presidential election widely regarded as flawed and corrupt. Seizing on the opposition’s reluctance to escalate post-election protests, Maduro arrested senior opposition figures Leopoldo Lopez, Enzo Scarano, and Daniel Ceballos earlier this year; all of them remain incarcerated.

Maduro also faces unrest within his ruling Socialist Party over the brutal murder of a young and popular Socialist deputy, Robert Serra, whose bound, beaten, and stabbed body was discovered at his residence in Caracas on October 1. Given his famous accusation that the CIA was behind the death of Chavez, it was predictable that Maduro would blame Serra’s murder on “hired killers” working for the opposition. Yet in a nation with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, such rhetoric falls on skeptical ears. Evidence continues to mount suggesting that Serra was killed by members of the colectivos, criminal gangs who work as enforcers for the government.

Over the next two years, we can expect the Venezuelan regime to leverage its new-found status at the UN as camouflage for its offenses at home. But the export of chavista propaganda will do nothing to prop up an economy that stands a 75 percent chance of defaulting on its external debt within five years. And with the possibility of conflict between the government and the colectivos looming as a result of Serra’s murder, it’s not fanciful to imagine that by the time Venezuela’s Security Council term ends, Maduro will have left the scene.

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“Punished for Protesting” in Venezuela

Human Rights Watch has published a searing indictment of the Venezuelan regime’s brutal response to the recent protests in which 41 people lost their lives. Aptly entitled “Punished for Protesting,” HRW’s report is welcome for many reasons, not the least of them being the credibility that the NGO enjoys among liberal and left-wing opinion formers. Thanks to HRW’s efforts, it will be that much harder for the regime’s western apologists to stick to their portrait of chavismo as a noble exercise in wealth redistribution.

The report contains scores of harrowing testimonies from victims of abuse, medical professionals, journalists, and others. Particularly striking is the testimony of Keyla Josefina Brito, a 41-year-old woman from Barquisimeto, in the western state of Lara. On March 2, Brito and her 17-year-old daughter set out for a local butcher’s store just as the security forces were dispersing a demonstration. In the chaos, a female pedestrian was hit by a passing car. Brito and her daughter flagged down a truck and got inside with the seriously wounded woman and several others seeking to escape to safety. After driving a few blocks, the truck was stopped by the National Guard. All the passengers were detained, including the woman who’d been hit by the car and who required urgent medical attention. They then spent several hours in a detention facility where female National Guard members cut off their hair and beat them viciously with helmets, batons and fists. The women were also threatened with rape. Only when they agreed to sign a document confirming they had not been mistreated were they released.

Such outrages are not isolated instances, as HRW makes clear. Says the report:

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Human Rights Watch has published a searing indictment of the Venezuelan regime’s brutal response to the recent protests in which 41 people lost their lives. Aptly entitled “Punished for Protesting,” HRW’s report is welcome for many reasons, not the least of them being the credibility that the NGO enjoys among liberal and left-wing opinion formers. Thanks to HRW’s efforts, it will be that much harder for the regime’s western apologists to stick to their portrait of chavismo as a noble exercise in wealth redistribution.

The report contains scores of harrowing testimonies from victims of abuse, medical professionals, journalists, and others. Particularly striking is the testimony of Keyla Josefina Brito, a 41-year-old woman from Barquisimeto, in the western state of Lara. On March 2, Brito and her 17-year-old daughter set out for a local butcher’s store just as the security forces were dispersing a demonstration. In the chaos, a female pedestrian was hit by a passing car. Brito and her daughter flagged down a truck and got inside with the seriously wounded woman and several others seeking to escape to safety. After driving a few blocks, the truck was stopped by the National Guard. All the passengers were detained, including the woman who’d been hit by the car and who required urgent medical attention. They then spent several hours in a detention facility where female National Guard members cut off their hair and beat them viciously with helmets, batons and fists. The women were also threatened with rape. Only when they agreed to sign a document confirming they had not been mistreated were they released.

Such outrages are not isolated instances, as HRW makes clear. Says the report:

What we found during our in-country investigation and subsequent research is a pattern of serious abuse. In 45 cases, we found strong evidence of serious human rights violations committed by Venezuelan security forces, which included violations of the right to life; the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; the rights to bodily integrity, security and liberty; and due process rights. These violations were compounded by members of the Attorney General’s Office and the judiciary who knew of, participated in, or otherwise tolerated abuses against protesters and detainees, including serious violations of their due process rights.

This account flies in the face of President Nicolas Maduro’s claim that the violence was largely provoked by the protestors whom, for good measure, he frequently denounced as “fascists” and agents of the CIA. The response of the authorities, HRW argues, had little to do with enforcing the law. Instead, the chavistas marshaled the police, the National Guard, the secret services, and a compliant judiciary to “punish people for their political views or perceived views.”

The HRW report is a boon for those U.S. legislators who have diligently tracked the erosion of basic human rights in Venezuela over the last fifteen years, first under Hugo Chavez and now under Maduro, his appointed successor. When the House Foreign Affairs Committee convenes later this week for a hearing on the Venezuelan abuses, there will be no shortage of pertinent questions to ask–including the issue, not addressed in “Punished for Protesting,” of alleged Cuban involvement in the repression, something that Florida Senator Marco Rubio has repeatedly stressed. In making the case for sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved with the repression, Rubio has also criticized the current administration for its anemic stance toward the mounting crisis over which Maduro presides. “This current government in Venezuela acts as enemy of the United States,” Rubio told the Washington Free Beacon last month. “For those reasons alone we should care about what this government is doing, and so far under this administration the stance has been silence.”  

Maduro’s latest innovation–a “shopping card intended to combat Venezuela’s food shortages”­–will hardly allay the fear that his regime is further embracing the Cuban model of socialism. The measures accompanying the card will involve, according to Reuters, “fingerprint machines at checkout counters to keep track of supplies.” Small wonder, then, that his regime is beginning to crack from within: This week, Juan Carlos Caguaripano Scott, a captain in the National Guard, announced his decision to “break the silence” by charging the government with conducting “fratricidal war.”

While the death toll from the protests suggests that Venezuela has some way to go before reaching the depths of other authoritarian states, Scott’s words indicate that the potential to do so is there. With almost 80 percent of Venezuelans, among them supporters of Maduro, now acknowledging the country’s dire predicament, the question now is how much longer the outside world, most obviously the United States, can continue acting as a bystander.

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Maduro’s Empty Call for “Dialogue”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hugo Chavez, One Year On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carter Should Stay Away from Venezuela

Former President Jimmy Carter has a poor reputation on many issues, among them Venezuela, where pro-democracy activists view him as a stalwart ally of the ruling chavista regime. So, with much of the country still convulsed by protests, their reaction to the news that Carter is planning another visit to Venezuela is somewhere on the scale between indifference and contempt. As the Christian Science Monitor notes:

Carter is accepted by the normally anti-American government—(current President Nicolas) Maduro praised him at a news conference Friday. But some members of the opposition harshly criticized the Carter Center for validating a 2004 recall referendum that (the late President Hugo) Chavez won amid complaints that the process leading up to the vote unfairly favored him.

An especially irate response to Carter’s announcement came in the form of an open letter penned by the dissident writer Daniel Duquenal, whose blog has been one of the most incisive guides to the events of recent weeks. Here is how Duquenal signs off:

I can assure you that half of the country has no respect nor credibility for you and the other half thinks you are a mere fool that they can use and discard as needed.

I think that not only you should desist from your trip, but should never mention us again. You have cursed us enough as it is. We will appreciate your future silence since nothing good ever comes from your statements on Venezuela. Worry not, I am sure we will find more worthy mediators.

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Former President Jimmy Carter has a poor reputation on many issues, among them Venezuela, where pro-democracy activists view him as a stalwart ally of the ruling chavista regime. So, with much of the country still convulsed by protests, their reaction to the news that Carter is planning another visit to Venezuela is somewhere on the scale between indifference and contempt. As the Christian Science Monitor notes:

Carter is accepted by the normally anti-American government—(current President Nicolas) Maduro praised him at a news conference Friday. But some members of the opposition harshly criticized the Carter Center for validating a 2004 recall referendum that (the late President Hugo) Chavez won amid complaints that the process leading up to the vote unfairly favored him.

An especially irate response to Carter’s announcement came in the form of an open letter penned by the dissident writer Daniel Duquenal, whose blog has been one of the most incisive guides to the events of recent weeks. Here is how Duquenal signs off:

I can assure you that half of the country has no respect nor credibility for you and the other half thinks you are a mere fool that they can use and discard as needed.

I think that not only you should desist from your trip, but should never mention us again. You have cursed us enough as it is. We will appreciate your future silence since nothing good ever comes from your statements on Venezuela. Worry not, I am sure we will find more worthy mediators.

Since Carter is unlikely to heed Duquenal’s candid advice, it’s worth revisiting his woeful record on Venezuela. As Duquenal notes, Carter has never condemned the notorious “Tascon list”–the illegal publication, by chavista National Assembly member Luis Tascon, of the names of millions of petitioners who signed up in favor of the 2004 referendum, and who faced harassment and discrimination from the regime as a consequence.

Nor has Carter ever revised his frankly bizarre view, expressed to the Miami Herald‘s Andres Oppenheimer following the fraud-stained presidential election of April 2013, that the “voting part” of that ballot was “free and fair.” Said Oppenheimer in response:

Is it fair to call “the voting part” of an election “free and fair,” when the opposition’s claims of irregularities have not been fully investigated? Is it fair to separate the “voting part” of an election from the entire electoral process, when a president has a more than 10-1 advantage in television time? And if the election was clean, why didn’t Venezuela allow credible international election observers?

Then there was the quite disgraceful tribute to Chavez on the occasion of the latter’s death one year ago. “Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen,” droned Carter’s statement. “President Chavez will be remembered … for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad to whom he gave hope and empowerment.”

For the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans currently taking to the streets, Chavez is remembered as the architect of a system that has brought their oil-rich nation to the brink of collapse, with food shortages, hyperinflation, and rampant crime all staples of daily life. It was Chavez who appointed Maduro as his successor, and it was Chavez who empowered the army officers who stand behind Maduro. And yet, the best Carter can manage is the following anemic remark: “It is difficult for elected officials from opposition parties to resolve differences when they feel threatened and persecuted.”

Note the qualification: “they feel,” not “they are.” Note, too, the absence of any mention of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, any concern about the use of the Cuban-inspired colectivos–paramilitary gangs on motorbikes–to repress demonstrators, or any acknowledgement of the refusal of Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, to hold talks with Maduro at the Miraflores Palace on the grounds that the president’s residence “is not the place to talk about peace – it’s the center of operations for abuses of human rights.”

The wooliness, of course, is not confined to Carter. The Obama administration has also engaged in its usual equivocation, despite the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats by Maduro’s regime on the preposterous grounds that the protests have been orchestrated in Washington. Still, surely there is someone in the State Department who understands the imperative of preventing Carter from handing Maduro yet another PR victory? Can State not prevail upon Carter–perhaps more politely than Duquenal did–to stay away from Venezuela?

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Do Turks Want Democracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dictator’s Script

Is there a dictator school somewhere in the world that trains aspiring autocrats how to talk and act? You would think so given the remarkable resemblances between the pro-government rhetoric in Ukraine and Venezuela–two countries separated by an entire world but united in a shared desire to squelch anti-government protests.

Anne Applebaum (whose husband, foreign minister Radek Sikorski of Poland, is in Kiev) has a useful column laying out the rhetorical tropes being employed by the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych and his backers in Moscow. This includes referring to repression as an “anti-terrorist operation,” calling demonstrators Nazis or fascists, accusing them of trying to stage a coup d’état, and referring to Russian aid in repression as “fraternal assistance.” She might also have added Vladimir Putin’s favorite gambit, of referring to all opposition forces as being agents of the United States.

What is striking is how Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the late Hugo Chavez’s designated successor, is using nearly identical language to justify his repression of anti-government protests in Caracas. As the Wall Street Journal notes

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Is there a dictator school somewhere in the world that trains aspiring autocrats how to talk and act? You would think so given the remarkable resemblances between the pro-government rhetoric in Ukraine and Venezuela–two countries separated by an entire world but united in a shared desire to squelch anti-government protests.

Anne Applebaum (whose husband, foreign minister Radek Sikorski of Poland, is in Kiev) has a useful column laying out the rhetorical tropes being employed by the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych and his backers in Moscow. This includes referring to repression as an “anti-terrorist operation,” calling demonstrators Nazis or fascists, accusing them of trying to stage a coup d’état, and referring to Russian aid in repression as “fraternal assistance.” She might also have added Vladimir Putin’s favorite gambit, of referring to all opposition forces as being agents of the United States.

What is striking is how Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the late Hugo Chavez’s designated successor, is using nearly identical language to justify his repression of anti-government protests in Caracas. As the Wall Street Journal notes

Mr. Maduro accused what he called “fascist leaders” financed by the U.S. of using highly trained teams to topple his socialist government from power. …

He said his foes were hoping to generate chaos to justify a foreign military intervention. “In Venezuela, they’re applying the format of a coup d’état,” he said.

In a speech Thursday, Mr. Maduro also accused U.S. cable channel CNN of producing skewed coverage of the protests and said he had begun an administrative process to kick the channel off the air in Venezuela unless it moved to “rectify” its coverage.

“They want to show the world that in Venezuela there is a civil war,” Mr. Maduro said. “In Venezuela the people are working, studying, building the Fatherland.”

All one can say is that Maduro needs to get a more original script. Simply because this rhetoric has worked for Putin does not mean it will work anywhere else in the world. It does, however, show just how brain-dead so many autocratic leaders are, parroting the same shrill script in the hope that their people are too simple-minded to see through their incendiary accusations. The beauty of the Internet, at least when it’s not effectively censored, is that it makes it easier than ever to expose, refute, and parody such heavy-handed and bombastic rhetorical assaults.

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Maduro Represses Venezuela Demonstrations

Today’s edition of the Spanish newspaper El País carries a photographic essay with vivid images of the anti-regime demonstrations that convulsed Venezuela yesterday. The opening image shows a bloodied student, 24 year-old Basil Alejandro Da Costa, being pulled into a truck by fellow protestors moments after he was shot by pro-government militiamen known as colectivos. Da Costa died of his wounds later in the afternoon.

Two others also lost their lives in the clashes: Neyder Arellano Sierra, another student, and Juan Montoya, a chavista activist from one of the poorer neighborhoods of Caracas. According to Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, between 70 and 80 people were also arrested, although the organizers of the demonstrations are saying that the figure is likely to be much higher.

The demonstrations were not confined to Caracas alone: protestors took to the streets in Barquisimeto, Valencia, Maracaibo, Puerto Ordaz, and Mérida among other locations. Nor were they spontaneous: opposition activists have been pushing for demonstrations for several weeks now, rallying supporters around the Twitter hashtag #lasalida–Spanish for “the exit,” which is where the protestors hope President Nicolas Maduro’s regime is headed.

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Today’s edition of the Spanish newspaper El País carries a photographic essay with vivid images of the anti-regime demonstrations that convulsed Venezuela yesterday. The opening image shows a bloodied student, 24 year-old Basil Alejandro Da Costa, being pulled into a truck by fellow protestors moments after he was shot by pro-government militiamen known as colectivos. Da Costa died of his wounds later in the afternoon.

Two others also lost their lives in the clashes: Neyder Arellano Sierra, another student, and Juan Montoya, a chavista activist from one of the poorer neighborhoods of Caracas. According to Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, between 70 and 80 people were also arrested, although the organizers of the demonstrations are saying that the figure is likely to be much higher.

The demonstrations were not confined to Caracas alone: protestors took to the streets in Barquisimeto, Valencia, Maracaibo, Puerto Ordaz, and Mérida among other locations. Nor were they spontaneous: opposition activists have been pushing for demonstrations for several weeks now, rallying supporters around the Twitter hashtag #lasalida–Spanish for “the exit,” which is where the protestors hope President Nicolas Maduro’s regime is headed.

There are few signs of that outcome being achieved. While yesterday’s clashes bring to mind similar student-led protests in Egypt, Ukraine, and, in the wake of that country’s fraudulent 2009 presidential election, Iran, there is no clear indication whether the Venezuelan opposition has either the stomach or the capability for a sustained fight.

In part, that’s because they know that Maduro has few qualms about using his considerable resources–the National Guard, the colectivos, and the chavista-controlled judicial system–against the demonstrations. As the opposition newspaper El Universal reported this morning, armored personnel carriers are being deployed in Caracas and other cities to pre-empt further protests. At the same time, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, a faithful chavista, has accused the protestors of trying to foment a coup similar to the one in 2002 that resulted in the temporary removal of Hugo Chavez from office.

The strident tone of Díaz’s remarks was set directly by Maduro himself, who has spent much of the last week warning of a coup. Responding to earlier protests in the run-up to yesterday’s events, Maduro took to state television to declare: “I’ve had enough. You can accuse me of what you want, I am obliged to defend democracy and the peace of the people.” Later in the same speech, he added ominously, “I’m going to look for very strict norms so that anyone involved in these coup-seeking adventures can never participate as a candidate for anything again.” That was a reference to Leopoldo López, the leader of the Voluntad Popular party, who has been barred from running for office on trumped-up charges of corruption. An arrest warrant has now been issued for López, whose current whereabouts are unknown.

The targeting of López is certain to intensify an increasingly fractious debate within the opposition MUD coalition over future strategy. During last December’s municipal elections, the MUD’s declared aim of turning the ballot into a referendum on Maduro’s regime failed to pass muster–although as I wrote at the time, important gains were made, especially in Barinas, the home state of Hugo Chavez, where his brother, Adan, remains governor. Now, with no further elections on the immediate horizon, the MUD is agonizing over whether to endorse additional demonstrations, or whether to hold fire until the next election campaign at the end of 2015.

Henrique Capriles, the longtime leader of the MUD who challenged both Chavez and Maduro for the presidency, has left little doubt regarding his distrust of the protest strategy. While Capriles did join the students in Caracas yesterday, his recent statements have urged caution, reflecting his belief that disillusioned supporters of Maduro can yet be won over to the MUD if they are approached in the right way. On his Facebook page yesterday, Capriles asserted, “NO more violence, it’s obvious that the extremists have an interest in generating it.” Seasoned observers of Venezuelan politics surmise that the barb at “extremists” is directed at both López and the charismatic opposition parliamentarian Maria Corina Machado, another fulsome backer of the demonstrations, as well as toward the chavistas.

Nor can the opposition entirely rule out the prospect of the protests continuing despite the reservations of Capriles. Almost a year after Chavez passed from the scene, Venezuela has been pushed by his successors to the brink of economic catastrophe. The shortage of basic goods has plummeted to a five-year low, while inflation–by the regime’s own admission–has climbed to a whopping 56.3 percent. The knowledge that the currency crisis has actually aided by Maduro by making the price of newsprint prohibitively expensive for opposition news outlets, 12 of which have recently shut down, has bolstered the realization that peaceful resistance has its limits.

However, the response of the authorities to yesterday’s protests underlines the obvious risks of pursuing a path that can easily turn violent. Additionally, the opposition knows only too well that it can expect, at most, qualified rhetorical support from more moderate Latin American leaders as well as the United States, where the Obama administration has unsuccessfully tried to start a dialogue with Maduro.

Meanwhile, the militarization of the Maduro government continues: seven senior military officers currently serve as cabinet ministers, among them the widely-feared Gen. Rodolfo Marco Torres, who runs the Finance Ministry. Should the protests go on, no one should be foolhardy enough to rule out that a military regime like this one will react in the only way it knows how.

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Venezuela Rebuffs John Kerry

As far as Secretary of State John Kerry is concerned, last Sunday’s municipal elections in Venezuela resulted in an uncomplicated endorsement of Nicolas Maduro’s regime. Interviewed by the Miami Herald, Kerry remarked that “there are some questions of irregularities,” before adding that “they [the elections] didn’t produce the kind of change that I think a number of people thought they might.”

Then came the inevitable attempt to revive the bilateral talks that were first held last June. These were unilaterally shut down by the Venezuelan government one month later, when Maduro, angered by the criticisms of Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, over his “crackdown on civil society,” declared a “zero-tolerance” policy “for gringo aggression against Venezuela.” But Kerry evidently thinks a further attempt to soothe chavista anxieties is warranted. As he told the Herald:

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As far as Secretary of State John Kerry is concerned, last Sunday’s municipal elections in Venezuela resulted in an uncomplicated endorsement of Nicolas Maduro’s regime. Interviewed by the Miami Herald, Kerry remarked that “there are some questions of irregularities,” before adding that “they [the elections] didn’t produce the kind of change that I think a number of people thought they might.”

Then came the inevitable attempt to revive the bilateral talks that were first held last June. These were unilaterally shut down by the Venezuelan government one month later, when Maduro, angered by the criticisms of Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, over his “crackdown on civil society,” declared a “zero-tolerance” policy “for gringo aggression against Venezuela.” But Kerry evidently thinks a further attempt to soothe chavista anxieties is warranted. As he told the Herald:

“We are ready and willing, and we are open to improving that relationship. Our hope is that the government will stop using our relationship as an excuse for not doing other things internally, and really opening up more to the people. We’ve been disappointed that the Maduro government has not been as ready to move with us and to engage, and that it seems to take more pleasure in perpetuating the sort of differences that we don’t think really exist.”

Those “differences” include the accusation that the U.S. poisoned the now deceased comandante, Hugo Chavez, and that American diplomats stationed in the country were encouraging “acts of sabotage.” And going by Foreign Minister Elia Jaua’s response to the Kerry interview, the belief that the U.S. is trying to bring down Maduro’s regime remains deeply-held:

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua stated on Wednesday that in order to bring US-Venezuela relations back to normal, the United States must “once and for all” end “financing Venezuelan opposition organizations” and stop former officials allegedly plotting against the country.

“For the purpose of advancing in the normalization of relations with the United States, once and for all that Government must stop financing opposition groups and purported non-governmental organizations in Venezuela,” Jaua said in a press conference.

The “former officials” referred to are Bush administration appointees Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, whom Maduro, in September, described as a “mafia” that derailed his visit to the United Nations by planning an unspecified “crazy, terrible provocation.” And nothing Kerry says will sway Jaua’s conviction that there is a seamless connection between the previous administration, the Obama administration, and Venezuela’s struggling opposition.

Crucially, what is lost in Kerry’s fruitless overtures is an honest assessment of Sunday’s election results. It is true that the ambition of the opposition MUD coalition to turn the elections into a national referendum on Maduro was frustrated by an abstention rate of around 40 percent. But that number, which suggests a lack of faith in the electoral process in the wake of last April’s fraud-stained presidential poll, is hardly a resounding success for Maduro either.

In addition, the MUD made important gains in the cities. Antonio Ledezma, the feisty mayor of Metropolitan Caracas, was reelected to his post, and opposition candidates were victorious in major municipalities in Maracaibo, Valencia and–notably–Barinas, the home state of Hugo Chavez, where his brother Adan serves as governor. These are no mean achievements, given the context: in the weeks leading up to the election, Maduro received a much-needed boost by forcing merchants to sell luxury consumer goods at prices slashed by up to 1,000 percent, while his near-total control of the Venezuelan media led Vicente Diaz, the sole independent member of the regime-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE,) to denounce the election campaign as “the most outrageous” in the country’s history.

Now that the municipal elections are over, the opposition finds itself with a near-impossible challenge. Parliamentary elections aren’t scheduled until 2015; meanwhile, Maduro has amassed the powers of a dictator, thanks to an Enabling Act that allows him to bypass the National Assembly and rule by decree. By not even mentioning the opposition’s successes last weekend, John Kerry has bolstered Maduro’s sense of his invincibility, thus ensuring that Venezuela has taken another step along the road to a one-party state.

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Desperate Measures in Venezuela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Venezuela’s Ministry of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putting the ‘Mad’ in Maduro

It’s that time of year when the world’s tyrannies flock to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York with all the predictability of birds flying south for the winter. This year, however, their numbers were noticeably depleted.

True, the fork-tongued Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, was on hand to deny the Holocaust in one breath, while calling for “time-bound, results-oriented” talks on his country’s nuclear program in another. And the aging Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe gave a vintage performance denouncing the “illegal and filthy sanctions” imposed on his brutal regime. But the Sudanese leader, Omar al Bashir, stayed away, fearful perhaps that he would be arrested on war-crimes charges upon landing in New York. And so did Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, for reasons that will compel us to question whether he has lost his mind.

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It’s that time of year when the world’s tyrannies flock to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York with all the predictability of birds flying south for the winter. This year, however, their numbers were noticeably depleted.

True, the fork-tongued Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, was on hand to deny the Holocaust in one breath, while calling for “time-bound, results-oriented” talks on his country’s nuclear program in another. And the aging Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe gave a vintage performance denouncing the “illegal and filthy sanctions” imposed on his brutal regime. But the Sudanese leader, Omar al Bashir, stayed away, fearful perhaps that he would be arrested on war-crimes charges upon landing in New York. And so did Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, for reasons that will compel us to question whether he has lost his mind.

As I noted here recently, in the five months since Maduro won the presidency in an election widely regarded as fraudulent, barely a day goes by without him excitedly unveiling some new American plot to unseat him, or assassinate him, or destroy Venezuela’s groaning economy. Despite all these lurking dangers, Maduro nonetheless decided that he would attend and speak at this week’s 68th session of the General Assembly.

Winging his way to New York from a state visit to China, Maduro got as far as Vancouver. Rather than continuing eastwards, he elected to return to Caracas, where he visited a television studio to explain to a national audience why he was home early

One of the alleged plots could have caused violence in New York and the other could have affected his physical safety, Maduro said in a national address carried on television and radio yesterday. 

“The clan, the mafia of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega once again had planned a crazy, terrible provocation that can’t be described in any other way,” Maduro said, referring to two former U.S. officials he frequently accuses of plots against Venezuela.

Reich, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the George W. Bush administration, was accused by Maduro in March this year of planning the assassination of Henrique Capriles, Maduro’s opponent in the presidential election, as part of a plan to engineer a coup against the ruling chavistas. Reich’s rebuttal at the time is worth citing, simply because it is equally applicable now:

Though Maduro’s strategy is not original, it is not as dull-witted as it appears.  With the election in Venezuela scheduled for April 14, less than a month away, every day that the media focus on non–existent conspiracies is one day less that Venezuelans hear there may be a peaceful, honest, and democratic alternative to the Maduro regime.

Every day Venezuelans talk about foreign devils, they don’t discuss shortages of water and electricity, of cornmeal and cooking oil, of soap and diapers, of antibiotics and insulin.  It is one day less to wonder how Caracas became the third most violent city in the world and about the 150,000 Venezuelan victims of homicide in the 14 years of 21st Century Socialism.

Yesterday, Roger Noriega made much the same point as his ostensible partner in crime. “I think Maduro is under more pressure than I am, and his comments reflect that,” Noriega told the Miami Herald. “He needs a boogeyman.”

In Venezuela itself, there is increasing concern that Maduro’s confrontational stance towards the U.S., which imports around 900,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil on a daily basis, will carry negative economic consequences. In response, the Venezuelan regime is now orienting its foreign policy towards countries that are ideological bedfellows, but that won’t bleed the country dry at the same time—as does Cuba, for years the closest ally of the late Hugo Chavez, and the beneficiary of $7 billion worth of subsidized oil annually. 

Enter China. Maduro’s trip to Beijing quickly followed the announcement of a $14 billion deal with the China National Petroleum Corporation for a project to develop the Junín 10 block in Venezuela’s Orinoco region, an area that holds one of the largest oil reserves in the world. China currently imports 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Venezuela, a figure that Maduro wants to boost to the point where the Chinese, and not the Americans, are the biggest consumers of Venezuela’s main export. After all, breaking the economic dependency on the United States has been a central obsession of ruling Socialists since they came to power in 1999.

The Chinese also perceive important benefits. Suspicious of the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “pivot” to East Asia, Beijing is happy to seize on opportunities in America’s backyard. As the Mexican economist Enrique Dussel Peters noted in a recent paper on Chinese overseas investment, between 2000 and 2011, Latin America and the Caribbean became the second largest recipient of Chinese investment after Hong Kong. Dussel writes that 87 percent of this investment, directed mainly at raw materials, came from state-owned companies that are beholden to the Communist Party and its satellite institutions. In other words, the political imperatives here are as important, if not more so, than any fiscal considerations.

The Obama administration won’t be able to stop Maduro’s fulminations about assassinations and coups. Nor should it want to—the more frequent these accusations, the less that Venezuelans trust him. The real strategic challenge here is the relationship with China, and the lifeline that Beijing is dangling to the proponents of “21st Century Socialism” on the American continent. 

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In Venezuela, Obama Is Still An Imperialist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Venezuela’s Supreme Court Dismisses Electoral Fraud Charges

The war of nerves between Venezuela’s ruling chavistas and its battered adversaries intensified this week, following the decision of the country’s Supreme Court, the TSJ, to summarily dismiss opposition charges of electoral fraud during last April’s presidential election.

The charges, filed by Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, were based on thousands of reports of electoral irregularities submitted by independent observers on election day. Capriles, who was defeated by Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, by a little over 200,000 votes, insists that he was the true victor. Maduro’s triumph, Capriles says, was handed to him by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, a nominally autonomous body that has been fatally compromised by fourteen years of chavista rule.

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The war of nerves between Venezuela’s ruling chavistas and its battered adversaries intensified this week, following the decision of the country’s Supreme Court, the TSJ, to summarily dismiss opposition charges of electoral fraud during last April’s presidential election.

The charges, filed by Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, were based on thousands of reports of electoral irregularities submitted by independent observers on election day. Capriles, who was defeated by Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, by a little over 200,000 votes, insists that he was the true victor. Maduro’s triumph, Capriles says, was handed to him by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, a nominally autonomous body that has been fatally compromised by fourteen years of chavista rule.

Daniel Duquenal, a dissident blogger who monitors the macabre twists and turns of Venezuelan politics, believes that the TSJ decision is a stark sign of Maduro’s determination to dispense with the niceties of the electoral process. Notice has been served to the opposition, Duquenal wrote this week, that “the days of ‘dissent’ are over, and that we are moving toward a more classical form of dictatorship.”

In that light, one might ask why Capriles bothered to go to the TSJ in the first place. The court lost any semblance of independence as long ago as 2004, when Chavez packed the court with his supporters after pushing through a law expanding the number of justices from 20 to 32. The notion that the TSJ might rule against Maduro on something as critical as a presidential election is, quite frankly, beyond fanciful.

That, however, was precisely the point which Capriles wanted to make. None of the opposition’s allegations received a respectful hearing, even when the evidence of fraud–images of red-shirted chavistas shepherding voters into polling booths, records of votes cast by individuals long deceased, and so forth–was embarrassingly transparent. The fact that the court ended its deliberations by fining Capriles $1,500 for “offensive and disrespectful allegations” merely underlined the reality that the Venezuelan judiciary has been comprehensively conquered by the chavistas.

By exposing this institutionalized bias in all its glory, Capriles is betting that disillusioned Venezuelans will flock to the opposition’s ranks. Once critical mass is achieved, the theory goes, the chavistas will find it harder and harder to use the country’s judicial institutions as an instrument to defeat the opposition. Not everyone agrees, however: Diego Arria, a former diplomat and prominent opposition figure, is pressing Capriles to recognize that “the doors have been closed by our current institutional arrangements.” Rather than focusing on bodies like the TSJ, Arria argues, the opposition should instead direct its energies on holding a referendum that would allow the formation of a new, genuinely representative, constituent assembly.

There is also a larger problem. It isn’t clear whether the opposition can sustain its strategy of patiently exposing Maduro’s corruption, given the ruling Socialist Party’s dedication to shutting down any challenge to its authority as rapidly as possible. On the same day that the TSJ threw out the opposition’s electoral complaint, military intelligence officers descended on the home of Oscar Lopez, the chief of staff to Capriles in the state of Miranda, where the opposition leader serves as governor. According to Lopez’s lawyer, no reason was given for the raid, which resulted in the confiscation of computers, cell phones, and personal documents. MUD officials believe it was instigated by chavista members of parliament, who are hellbent on proving that the opposition coalition is illegally receiving funds from foreign sources.

This latest wave of repression extends to the media as well. Yesterday, Venezuela’s leading anti-chavista newspaper, El Nacional, was heavily fined for publishing a picture of unattended bodies piled up in a morgue, thereby demonstrating that Maduro has failed to tackle the violent criminality which has turned his country into the murder capital of the world.

The importance of such media outlets cannot be overstated. Without newspapers like El Nacional and El Universal, Venezuelans would have no record of the ruling regime’s daily failings, which this week include a hefty 30 percent decline in the National Bank’s reserves of foreign currency, along with a refusal to cut spending on low-impact, high-visibility social programs, despite soaring inflation. Meanwhile, Maduro can count on the vast state-owned media sector to do exactly as he asks; when the opposition rallied against government corruption last weekend, Maduro ensured that all television channels carried his speech accusing the MUD of being the real agents of corruption in Venezuela.

For some members of the ruling party, such measures aren’t enough. Nicmer Evans, an orthodox chavista university professor, recently criticized the government for encouraging a nostalgic longing for Hugo Chavez, at the expense of the “construction of Bolivarian and pro-Chavez socialism.” The events of this week provide generous insight into what this slogan means.

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In Venezuela, Chavez Still Haunts Maduro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jimmy Carter Gives Seal of Approval to Venezuela Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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U.S. Should Reject Venezuela’s Overtures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Venezuela Answers Fraud Charges with Threats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chavez 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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