Commentary Magazine


Topic: Venezuela

“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:

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

Rubio and Paul Trading Places?

Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

Read More

Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

Rubio seemed to sputter in 2013 as Paul saw his moment in the sun. Paul’s famous filibuster not only won him plaudits from both sides of the aisle but also got his fellow Republican senators–Rubio among them–to appear on the chamber floor as supporting characters. Then the Edward Snowden affair happened, and Paul appeared to go from potential dark horse candidate in 2016 to the top tier. As the NSA domestic surveillance revelations were easily folded into the broader narrative of President Obama’s intrusive, big-government agenda, Paul took a step toward the front of the pack.

Part of Paul’s appeal was a term and a concept we’ve come to prize in American politics, with its ubiquity of television cameras and endless debates: authenticity. Paul came across as genuine and comfortable in his own skin, and he spoke confidently and fluently to any audience that would hear from him. It was no surprise that Paul and Christie developed something of a (brief) rivalry; neither pulls punches.

But Paul comes across as genuinely uncomfortable talking about foreign crises where the choice isn’t war or peace but something in the middle. Ukraine has made the contrast with Rubio clear, not just on policy but on the fact that events have shifted onto the latter’s turf. Paul’s TIME magazine piece on the appropriate American reaction to the Crimean crisis has already come in for some tough criticism, for example from National Review’s Patrick Brennan, who called Paul’s ideas “terrible or delusional.” But what caught my attention was more the stylistic clumsiness of the messaging–not that U.S. senators should be graded on whether their prose matches up to Tolstoy’s but to their own. In other words, Paul’s surefootedness is completely absent. For example:

America is a world leader, but we should not be its policeman or ATM.

At the end of the day, I still agree with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen — the greatest threat to America’s security is our national debt.

Russia, the Middle East or any other troubled part of the world should never make us forget that the U.S. is broke. We weaken our security and defenses when we print money out of thin air or borrow from other countries to allegedly support our own.

Like Dwight Eisenhower, I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less.

Like Ronald Reagan, particularly regarding Russia, I also believe, “Don’t mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve.”

That’s just a sample, but much of the piece is written that way. It’s unlike Paul to speak without saying something, but he comes close to doing so on Ukraine. More than a week before Paul’s piece was published, Rubio published at Politico an immediate reaction to the crisis, whose applicability showed he was either prepared for the Russian action or he didn’t need to be to know how to react.

The issues underpinning Rubio and Paul’s fortunes demonstrate something else: unlike Christie’s “bridgegate,” which involved his staff, for Paul and Rubio events beyond their control have exerted upward or downward pressure on them–in Paul’s case, the NSA revelations and for both the crisis in Ukraine (and to a lesser extent Venezuela). It shows the degree of uncertainty and luck in the process. But then again, that’s often how it is in the White House too.

Read Less

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.”

Read More

 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.  

Read Less

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.

Read More

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?

Read Less

Rubio Gives Harkin a Lesson in History

Foreign affairs, when not involving American troops, are rarely prioritized by the public. But there are domestic issues that carry very strong foreign-policy implications as well as benefit those with broad knowledge about the world, such as immigration. A coherent foreign-policy outlook on the part of leading politicians also tells us much about the way they view America, and thus its place in the world.

The two–why people come to America, and why America goes out into the world–are often related. That helps explain Marco Rubio’s appeal to conservatives, and yesterday he offered a reminder, in the form of a fifteen-minute floor speech shaming those who accepted and regurgitated mindless and stale propaganda in defense of Cuban tyranny. Specifically, he took aim at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin–chair of the Senate’s committee on health, education, labor, and pensions–who gushed Michael Moore-like about Cuba’s health-care system.

Over at the Miami Herald, Marc Caputo set the scene and noted that although the subject was socialist totalitarian repression, this was no dated conversation:

Rubio’s speech was about current events: the protests in Venezuela, the Maduro government and the ties it has with the Castros, who repress their own people and helped inspire the suppression in Caracas.

Venezuela is becoming the new Cuba.

For 14 minutes and 16 seconds, Rubio gave the best oration of his political career, speaking largely off the top of his head and with only the barest of notes. Rubio sometimes dripped with sarcasm or simmered with indignation as he made the case to Congress that the United States needs to continue Cuba sanctions and punish Venezuela.

Indeed, Rubio came alive during the speech, and though the text doesn’t do the speech justice (Caputo has the video, which is also worth watching), here is the opening of Rubio’s response to Harkin:

Read More

Foreign affairs, when not involving American troops, are rarely prioritized by the public. But there are domestic issues that carry very strong foreign-policy implications as well as benefit those with broad knowledge about the world, such as immigration. A coherent foreign-policy outlook on the part of leading politicians also tells us much about the way they view America, and thus its place in the world.

The two–why people come to America, and why America goes out into the world–are often related. That helps explain Marco Rubio’s appeal to conservatives, and yesterday he offered a reminder, in the form of a fifteen-minute floor speech shaming those who accepted and regurgitated mindless and stale propaganda in defense of Cuban tyranny. Specifically, he took aim at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin–chair of the Senate’s committee on health, education, labor, and pensions–who gushed Michael Moore-like about Cuba’s health-care system.

Over at the Miami Herald, Marc Caputo set the scene and noted that although the subject was socialist totalitarian repression, this was no dated conversation:

Rubio’s speech was about current events: the protests in Venezuela, the Maduro government and the ties it has with the Castros, who repress their own people and helped inspire the suppression in Caracas.

Venezuela is becoming the new Cuba.

For 14 minutes and 16 seconds, Rubio gave the best oration of his political career, speaking largely off the top of his head and with only the barest of notes. Rubio sometimes dripped with sarcasm or simmered with indignation as he made the case to Congress that the United States needs to continue Cuba sanctions and punish Venezuela.

Indeed, Rubio came alive during the speech, and though the text doesn’t do the speech justice (Caputo has the video, which is also worth watching), here is the opening of Rubio’s response to Harkin:

A few moments ago, the body was treated to a report from the senator from Iowa about his recent trip to Cuba. Sounded like he had a wonderful trip visiting, what he described as, a real paradise. He bragged about a number of things that he learned on his trip to Cuba that I’d like to address briefly. He bragged about their health care system, medical school is free, doctors are free, clinics are free, their infant mortality rate may be even lower than ours. I wonder if the senator, however, was informed, number one, that the infant mortality rate of Cuba is completely calculated on figures provided by the Cuban government. And, by the way, totalitarian communist regimes don’t have the best history of accurately reporting things. I wonder if he was informed that before Castro, Cuba, by the way, was 13th in the whole world in infant mortality. I wonder if the government officials who hosted him, informed him that in Cuba there are instances reported, including by defectors, that if a child only lives a few hours after birth, they’re not counted as a person who ever lived and therefore don’t count against the mortality rate.

I wonder if our visitors to Cuba were informed that in Cuba, any time there is any sort of problem with the child in utero they are strongly encouraged to undergo abortions, and that’s why they have an abortion rate that skyrockets, and some say, is perhaps the highest the world. I heard him also talk about these great doctors that they have in Cuba. I have no doubt they’re very talented. I’ve met a bunch of them. You know where I met them? In the United States because they defected. Because in Cuba, doctors would rather drive a taxi cab or work in a hotel than be a doctor. I wonder if they spoke to him about the outbreak of cholera that they’ve been unable to control, or about the three-tiered system of health care that exists where foreigners and government officials get health care much better than that that’s available to the general population….

I heard about their wonderful literacy rate, how everyone in Cuba knows how to read. That’s fantastic. Here’s the problem: they can only read censored stuff. They’re not allowed access to the Internet. The only newspapers they’re allowed to read are Granma or the ones produced by the government.

Then he set his sights on Venezuela:

It is shameful that many members of Congress who traveled to Venezuela and were friendly with Chavez, some even went to his funeral, sit by saying nothing while this is happening in our own hemisphere. And this wonderful Cuban paradise government that we heard about? This is what they support. Just this morning, the dictator that calls himself a president — never been elected to anything, Raul Castro — announced he is there for whatever they need to help them do this. 

I listen to this stuff about Cuba and I listen to what’s happening in Venezuela, they’re very similar. Not just in the repression part, but the economics part. You know Venezuela’s an oil-rich country with hardworking people? They have a shortage — we don’t have an embargo against Venezuela. They have a shortage of toilet paper and tooth paste. Why? Because they are incompetent. Because communism doesn’t work. They look more and more like Cuba economically and politically every single day. 

Rubio showed pictures of the victims of Venezuela’s government crackdown, humanized them, and put the Venezuelan authorities on notice he would soon be outlining sanctions and other responses the United States government can take, setting Venezuela alongside Iran, North Korea, and, yes, Cuba.

There’s something amazing about having this conversation in 2014. There is of course a full discussion to be had on the virtues and effects of embargoes and sanctions. But you can detect a note of disbelief at the opening of Rubio’s response, before the intensity sheds it. Are there still those in the United States Congress so easily fooled by totalitarian propaganda? Yes, there are, apparently.

And that’s an important point. We’re not talking about the Sean Penns of the world. We’re talking about a five-term U.S. senator. Hopefully Harkin learned something from Rubio’s speech, though I doubt it. I imagine, however, many Americans learned something about Tom Harkin.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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

Read More

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.

Read Less

NBC’s Cuddly Dictators

NBC has earned some well-deserved scorn for treating Soviet history, as recalled during the Olympic ceremonies, as if it were the political equivalent of New Coke: an interesting idea that flopped. But one is tempted to dismiss it not as leftists’ unwillingness to condemn their efforts to excuse mass murder, slavery, and torture in the name of forced equality but as typical media kowtowing to authoritarian thugs in the name of access.

After all, NBC aired yesterday and today its interview with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov as part of its Olympics coverage. The interview looked as though Kadyrov himself produced the segment. He is portrayed as a deeply devout leader who modernized postwar Chechnya and brought stability where there was chaos. There was the requisite question about accusations that he’s a “dictator,” quickly waved off by Kadyrov and dropped by the interviewer so the segment could move on to neighboring Dagestan, portrayed as mostly rubble where Kadyrov’s Chechnya, especially Grozny, gleams.

The strangest part of the segment was when the interviewer says Kadyrov “has aligned himself with Russia.” Does NBC think Chechnya is an independent country? It’s easy, after watching the Kadyrov interview, to just dismiss the network’s airbrushed version of Soviet history as part of its dictators-are-cuddly pathology. But I think that lets them off too easily. Nonetheless, we can turn this into something constructive–by taking them at their word. As Jonah Goldberg wrote about NBC’s whitewashing of history:

Read More

NBC has earned some well-deserved scorn for treating Soviet history, as recalled during the Olympic ceremonies, as if it were the political equivalent of New Coke: an interesting idea that flopped. But one is tempted to dismiss it not as leftists’ unwillingness to condemn their efforts to excuse mass murder, slavery, and torture in the name of forced equality but as typical media kowtowing to authoritarian thugs in the name of access.

After all, NBC aired yesterday and today its interview with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov as part of its Olympics coverage. The interview looked as though Kadyrov himself produced the segment. He is portrayed as a deeply devout leader who modernized postwar Chechnya and brought stability where there was chaos. There was the requisite question about accusations that he’s a “dictator,” quickly waved off by Kadyrov and dropped by the interviewer so the segment could move on to neighboring Dagestan, portrayed as mostly rubble where Kadyrov’s Chechnya, especially Grozny, gleams.

The strangest part of the segment was when the interviewer says Kadyrov “has aligned himself with Russia.” Does NBC think Chechnya is an independent country? It’s easy, after watching the Kadyrov interview, to just dismiss the network’s airbrushed version of Soviet history as part of its dictators-are-cuddly pathology. But I think that lets them off too easily. Nonetheless, we can turn this into something constructive–by taking them at their word. As Jonah Goldberg wrote about NBC’s whitewashing of history:

What to say of the gormless press-agent twaddle conjured up to describe the Soviet Union? In its opening video for the Olympic Games, NBC’s producers drained the thesaurus of flattering terms devoid of moral content: “The empire that ascended to affirm a colossal footprint; the revolution that birthed one of modern history’s pivotal experiments. But if politics has long shaped our sense of who they are, it’s passion that endures.”

To parse this infomercial treacle is to miss the point, for the whole idea is to luge by the truth on the frictionless skids of euphemism.

Agreed. But let’s take the “infomercial treacle” to its logical conclusion. If socialistic governance is a “pivotal experiment,” then we can all agree it’s taught us a valuable lesson, because it’s an “experiment” that failed. (Why the left needs an experiment to learn that gulags and death camps aren’t the way to go is another question entirely.) I would almost be willing to ignore the “pivotal experiment” nonsense if they actually treated it like an experiment.

For example, the violence, repression, and anti-Semitism of the regime of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela could earn him plenty of cogent and accurate descriptors. On the day of his funeral, however, NBC’s news anchor went looking for a phrase to sum up Chavez’s legacy, and landed on “harsh critic of the U.S. who ruled for 14 years.” Proponent of a “pivotal experiment” would have been a step up from that.

Chavez’s successor isn’t an improvement, and as Ben Cohen explained here last week, Venezuela is continuing its descent into misery and chaos. AFP has the latest on Venezuela’s version of the pivotal experiment:

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday accused Washington of plotting with anti-government protesters and expelled three US diplomats in retaliation.

Maduro’s order came on the same day that fugitive opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez re-appeared and called for a mass rally on Tuesday and challenged the government to arrest him at the event.

Nearly two weeks of anti-government protests spearheaded by students have become the biggest challenge to Venezuela’s socialist rulers since the death of longtime leader Hugo Chavez in 2013.

The oil-rich country is mired in a deep economic crisis critics blame on policies that Maduro largely inherited from Chavez.

Strict controls on currency and prices have created huge bottlenecks that have fueled inflation and emptied store shelves.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s the wonder of the socialist experiment. Deprivation, violence, paranoia. Goldberg is correct when he implores readers to “Imagine the controversy” if the Olympics were held in Germany and an opening ceremonial program involved a floating swastika. Would broadcasters, when eulogizing the Nazis, talk of a “pivotal experiment”? Now imagine the controversy if a Nazi leader had been described as a “harsh critic of the U.S.” as his identifying characteristic.

There is moral clarity with regard to the Nazis that there simply isn’t with regard to other socialists, as Goldberg notes. And part of that is because leftists don’t mean it even when they gloss over socialist horrors as an “experiment.” Martin Malia has written that because the Soviet project was conducted on behalf of global socialism, the way those in the West talked about Russian socialism was infused with a self-consciousness about the way it reflected on socialism everywhere.

“It is only by taking the Soviets at their ideological word, treating their socialist utopia with literal-minded seriousness, that we can grasp the tragedy to which it led,” Malia wrote. That advice can be broadened: we should take not just socialists but their enablers, excusers, and whitewashers at their word.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

Globalization and Democracy Can Coexist

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

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

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

It’s Time to Close the Camps

The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

Read More

The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

The United States might have little leverage over China and North Korea, but low-hanging fruit which could be resolved with American diplomatic pressure does exist. The Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO) is correct to castigate those who believe that the Iranian government or its militia proxies should enjoy an open season on group members. Opposing massacres is not synonymous with support for the group, however; it may no longer be a U.S.-designated terror group, but remains just as much an authoritarian cult. And while MKO spokesmen may castigate the Iraqi government and the Iranian regime, the real victims of the MKO lay within the group itself. Camp Liberty—the successor to Camp Ashraf—exists as much if not more to keep MKO members insulated from the real world and under the control of MKO leader Maryam Rajavi’s commissars than as a means of protection for group members.

Other camps exist in the Tindouf province of southwestern Algeria. Here, perhaps 40,000 residents of southern Morocco, Algeria, western Mali, and northern Mauritania languish in camps controlled by the once-Marxist Polisario Front, largely kept from returning home by the group’s political commissars and the Algerian government. During a recent visit to Dakhla, in Western Sahara, I had the opportunity to speak to former members who described not only their own escape from the camps, but the attempts by others who were forcibly returned to the camps, where Polisario authorities punished them for the audacity of seeking to return home rather than languish in camps 22 years after the war between Morocco and Algeria ended. Simply put, Polisario realizes that if the camps close, the gravy train of international assistance would end and the Polisario would lose its raison d’être.

The Polisario is not the only Cold War remnant stubbornly holding hostages. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia also engages in the practice, holding some prisoners for more than a decade. While some journalists parachute in and whitewash just what happens in FARC camps, it is hard to see “cultural programming” as anything other than an attempt at ideological re-education.

The Obama administration came into office seemingly committed to prioritizing human rights, never mind the debates about how best to guarantee rights, freedom, and liberty. The State Department became a revolving door not only for journalists, but for human-rights advocates, most notably Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski and writer Samantha Power. Increasingly, however, it seems such figures are either window dressing for an administration so disinterested in human rights that it is willing to sanction political concentration and re-education camps or, worse yet, that these figures are so permeated by moral equivalency and skewed in their understanding of what universal human rights are that they are willing to normalize with the regimes, sponsors, and groups which engage in such practices.

Concentration camps and slavery (discussed in a previous post) are two phenomena that simply should not exist in the 21st century. That they do is a sad testament to the reality of regimes like North Korea’s, China’s, Algeria’s, Venezuela’s, and Cuba’s, and the choices which successive U.S. administrations–both Democrat and Republican–have made to not let such issues be stumbling blocks to engaging with the United States on other issues.

Read Less

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:

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

“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.

Read Less

In Oil and Gas, We’re No. 1

Guess who is the world’s largest producer of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbon fuels (oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids)? For years it has been Russia, which is deeply dependent on the production and export of such products (taxes and tariffs on them provide 40 percent of the government’s budget).

But this year, probably already, Russia will be overtaken by the United States, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. U.S. oil production increased by more than a million barrels a day last year, the largest annual increase since oil production began in 1859. Russian oil production has been falling.

Read More

Guess who is the world’s largest producer of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbon fuels (oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids)? For years it has been Russia, which is deeply dependent on the production and export of such products (taxes and tariffs on them provide 40 percent of the government’s budget).

But this year, probably already, Russia will be overtaken by the United States, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. U.S. oil production increased by more than a million barrels a day last year, the largest annual increase since oil production began in 1859. Russian oil production has been falling.

This has huge geopolitical implications and those implications all favor the United States. Imports of oil and gas are falling, down 15 and 32 percent respectively in the last five years, improving the balance of trade and reducing the political leverage of such countries as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.

Whether the environmentalists like it or not (and they don’t), the world runs on hydrocarbons and will for the foreseeable future. Having ever more abundant domestic supplies, with vast additional supplies in neighboring, and friendly, Canada and Mexico, is a strategic advantage that would be very hard to overestimate.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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. 

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less

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.

Read More

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.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.