Ever since the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez back in March, his successors have been flinging insult after insult at the United States. The volley began at the very moment of Chavez’s death, when his anointed heir Nicolas Maduro, pointing an accusatory finger at the U.S., claimed that Chavez had been “assassinated.” Maduro then accused the U.S. of plotting to kill his opposition rival, Henrique Capriles, in order to engineer a coup. Finally, after weeks of blaming the U.S. for everything from food shortages to the violence that followed the disputed April 14 presidential election, Maduro recycled a barb that Chavez had previously deployed against George W. Bush, when he declared that President Obama was the “grand chief of devils.”
Now, however, conciliatory noises are emerging from Caracas. Over the weekend, Maduro’s foreign minister, Elias Jaua, announced that Venezuela wanted to mend diplomatic fences with the United States. “We are going to remain open to normalizing relations with the United States,” Jaua said during a television interview. “The first thing would be to resume diplomatic representation at the highest level.”
One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela’s rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro’s vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.
In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be “irreversible.”
One of the celebrities given star billing at a Nicolas Maduro election rally last week in Caracas was Diego Maradona, the former Argentine soccer star. Maradona scored perhaps the most notorious goal in the history of the game during the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, when, during a match against England, he tipped the ball into the net with the outside of his fist (an unlawful play). The referee looked the other way and the goal stood. Maradona later ascribed his good fortune to divine intervention: it was the “hand of God,” he said, that was responsible for his goal.
Much the same metaphor can be applied to Maduro’s paper-thin victory in yesterday’s presidential election. When Venezuelans went to the polls last October, the now-deceased Hugo Chavez won by 11 points, a margin comfortable enough to prevent his opponent, Henrique Capriles, from challenging the result. But last night, it was a very different story; according to the official returns, Maduro won 50.66 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent for Capriles. In a normal democracy, a result as close as this one would automatically trigger a recount. Venezuela, however, is not a normal democracy, and its chavista-controlled National Electoral Council, or CNE, has already declared the outcome to be “irreversible,” despite angry demands from the opposition MUD coalition for a proper audit of the votes.
With a little under a month to go before Venezuela’s presidential election on April 14, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, is starting to exhibit the boldness that many wished he’d displayed when he challenged the now deceased Hugo Chavez last October.
Addressing a college rally earlier today, Capriles declared that in the event of his victory, the long-standing Chavista commitment to provide subsidized oil to Cuba would end. “Not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros,” he told the crowd.
It’s hard to overstate the consequences of such a move. Assisting the Cuban Communists to maintain their grip on power was the most cherished foreign policy imperative of the Chavez years; abruptly removing the Cuban oil crutch would deal a death blow to one of the foundations of chavismo. For the Cubans, meanwhile, the prospect of a future without subsidized Venezuelan oil conjures up memories of the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
If the Chavistas currently running Venezuela have their way, the cult of Hugo Chavez will be even more overwhelming after his death than during his life. This morning, as the country prepared for the grand state funeral of Chavez, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced that the late President’s cadaver would be embalmed and placed on permanent display in a Caracas museum.
“It has been decided that the body of the comandante will be embalmed so that it remains eternally on view for the people,” Maduro said. “Like Ho Chi Minh, like Lenin, like Mao Zedong. The body of our commander in chief, embalmed in the museum of the revolution, in a special way so he can be in a glass case and our people can have him there present always.”
When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in June 1989, there was a brutal heat wave in Tehran. Iranian forces sprayed the crowds who took to the streets with water to prevent heat stroke. The quip on the streets of Tehran at the time was “the old man was so senile, he forgot to close the door on the way down.” With the passing of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, Khomeini surely has company.
The relationship between Chavez and the Islamic Republic of Iran was too often dismissed in policy circles. Some in the State Department approached it almost as an amusing curiosity, while on the right it became exhibit A in the strange confluence of radical Islamism and unrestrained leftism.
Finally, after weeks of speculation, the news is official: Hugo Chavez is dead. Venezuela’s Comandante, who kept an iron grip on power for 14 years, left this world, appropriately enough, on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death.
The similarities between the two dictators are compelling. Both Stalin and Chavez profoundly believed in a new, revolutionary morality that dispensed with such trifles as a free press and an independent judiciary. Even more pertinently, just as Stalin was, in his final months, obsessive to the point of paranoia about doctors in the pay of Zionism and Western imperialism poisoning him and his closest colleagues, so are Chavez’s cohorts. His appointed successor and vice president, Nicolas Maduro, ventured earlier today that the cancer which afflicted Chavez was somehow planted in his body–a suggestion the American government has already dismissed as “absurd.”
“Hugo Chavez returns to Venezuela after Cuba cancer care,” announced the BBC. “Hugo Chavez returns home to Venezuela,” reported the Associated Press. “Chavez in surprise return from Cuba,” said Reuters. All these headlines make clear that after a two-month sojourn in Cuba for cancer treatment, Chavez is back.
Or is he? Buried in the Reuters story is the following sentence: “Unlike previous returns to Venezuela after treatment, state media showed no images of Chavez this time.” Even Venezuela’s state broadcaster was reduced to using an archive image showing Chavez on one of his previous returns from Cuba. Indeed, the only evidence we have of Chavez’s return are three tweets issued from the Comandante’s feed, which until today had been dormant since November 1st.
As indecent as it seems to find humor in the world’s tyrannies, it’s hard not to, especially when it comes to Venezuela and Iran.
On January 21, Tahmasb Mazaheri, the former governor of Iran’s Central Bank, was arrested by German police at Dusseldorf Airport after he was found carrying a check worth 300 million Venezuelan Bolivars–the equivalent of $70 million–in his hand luggage. Mazaheri, who flew into the German city from Turkey, is suspected of involvement in money laundering. His own explanation is that the check “was designed to finance the Venezuelan government’s construction of 10,000 homes.”
Given Mazaheri’s staggering incompetence in transporting this enormous sum of money, it’s tempting to ask where, exactly, these “homes” he referred to are being built. In Caracas? Or perhaps in Havana, where the Castro brothers have set themselves up as Cuba’s de facto rulers? Maybe in Tehran, where the ruling mullahs have engaged in a love-in with the regime of Hugo Chavez for more than a decade?
Perhaps the least disturbing aspect of today’s abandoned presidential inauguration ceremony in Caracas is that the incumbent, Hugo Chavez, didn’t turn up.
Ever since Chavez returned to Cuba last month seeking further treatment for the cancer consuming him, it’s been clear that January 10 would go down in Venezuela’s history as a no-show on the part of the comandante. Nothing has been heard from Chavez during that time. Meanwhile, his various subordinates, among them Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his appointed successor, along with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, have issued irregular and sometimes contradictory bulletins about Chavez’s health. Currently, Venezuelans are being told that Chavez is suffering from a lung infection, but there is no reason to trust these statements. Indeed, the two years of sustained government deceit over Chavez’s health situation–last July, Chavez himself announced that he was completely cured–provides enough cause to speculate over whether he is, in fact, still alive.
Word came yesterday evening that the House of Representatives has agreed with a Senate amendment and so Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-South Carolina) “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act” will head to the White House for President Obama’s signature.
If the bill becomes a law—and presumably it will because the White House did not oppose it—then the secretary of state will have to report to Congress on a broad range of Iranian activity in the Western hemisphere. According to the Congressional Research Service’s summary, the report will include:
“Free, free, totally free,” Hugo Chavez bellowed at reporters during a July 9 press conference in Caracas, when asked about the treatment he’d been undergoing in Cuba for the cancer he was diagnozed with one year earlier. That claim of a miraculous cure sustained him throughout the summer, as he fought off a concerted opposition attempt to defeat his bid for a fourth presidential term in the October election.
In the end, Chavez pulled off a victory with 55 percent of the vote–though, as I wrote at the time, had the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, “been fighting in his campaign in a conventional democracy, he would have won handsomely.” But Venezuela under Chavez is much closer to a dictatorship, which means that state-run media outlets are closed to opposition voices, Chavista thugs roam the streets beating up opposition activists, and lying to the voters–as Chavez has done over his cancer–is perfectly acceptable in the name of the revolution.
Yesterday, the lie was laid bare for all to see. Chavez announced that he was returning to Cuba for further medical treatment, and that he was designating his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor. In naming Maduro, Chavez was faithfully following the playbook of his hero, the ailing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who in 2006 preemptively anointed his brother, Raul, as the island’s next leader.
On Monday, Hillary Clinton issued a press release stating that the U.S. is “pleased” at its election to a second term on the notorious UN Human Rights Council. Like the winner of an academy award, she said she wanted to “thank the countries that voted for us in what was a highly competitive race” among “several qualified Western candidates.” Susan Rice held her own briefing the same day to say how “pleased and proud” the U.S. is, and to “thank all four of our highly qualified competitor countries for what was a very spirited campaign.”
All 192 members of the UN vote on each UNHRC candidate, but membership is limited by region. The U.S., Germany, and Ireland beat out Greece and Sweden for the three available Western spots. Fifteen states from other regions were also elected on Monday, including seven countries that (according to Freedom House) “clearly fail to meet the Council’s criteria for membership” (since they do not “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”): Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. All seven got substantially more votes than the U.S. did.
Over Sunday brunch, an opposition Russian journalist mentioned a State Department policy that symbolizes everything that is wrong with the American approach toward autocratic regimes: In order for foreign journalists to get State Department credentials, the journalists must not only have a letter in hand from the organization for which they work, but they also need a cover letter from the press attaché from their country’s embassy in Washington.
Opposition Russian journalists must therefore get a letter testifying to their journalist credentials from the Russian government or the Russian embassy in Washington; Opposition Venezuelan journalists must get credentials from the Venezuelan embassy; and opposition Turkish journalists must get certified by the Turkish embassy. Needless to say, these countries grant credentials only to those journalists who at worst sing the praises of Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and at best self-censor.
Recent days have brought dispiriting news for those us who believe that democracy is the best form of government and that the U.S. government should be doing its utmost to promote its spread around the world.
In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez’s lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of “undecided” voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting “You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!”
Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday’s election.
New York City isn’t the only place in the world where preventing the consumption of sugary sodas has become a political imperative. In his televised broadcast yesterday, Venezuela’s Comandante, Hugo Chavez, urged his viewers to safeguard their waistlines by ditching Coca-Cola and Pepsi in favor of a locally-produced fruit juice.
Reports the Associated Press:
Chavez says consumers should buy “Uvita,” a grape juice made by state-run Corpozulia as a means of increasing the consumption of Venezuelan-made products instead of buying sugary sodas made by foreign companies.
Venezuela’s socialist leader often dispenses advice to supporters during his marathon televised speeches, calling on them to eat healthy foods, get plenty of exercise, and avoid drugs and alcohol.
Gustavo Dudamel may not be Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, but for those who follow the world of classical music, there’s little doubt the 31-year-old is a very big deal indeed these days. The native of Venezuela is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has become the latest superstar of the symphonic set. His charisma and trademark hairdo of flowing curls have helped propel his orchestra into a series of performances that are being broadcast in movie theaters around the country. But the talented conductor is also the focus of some unflattering coverage because of the political implications of his ties to Venezuelan institutions.
As the New York Times reported yesterday, the LA Philharmonic’s tour of Dudamel’s native land has thrown a spotlight on his mentor José Antonio Abreu and the youth music program El Sistema that set him on the path to stardom. Whether he intended to do so or not, Dudamel has allowed himself to be used as a prop of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s dictatorial president whose office took over El Sistema two years ago. Instead of using his international prestige to stand up against Chavez’s efforts to subvert democracy, Dudamel may have become one more artistic façade for a government hell-bent on destroying human rights in Venezuela. In doing so, he has become part of a long tradition of morally obtuse musicians who played for dictators.
Last weekend, the Obama administration eased travel restrictions to Cuba. And now the Cuban government has decided to thank them by suspending postal service to the U.S. indefinitely:
The suspension follows the introduction of stricter security measures by the US last year after the attempted mailing of explosives from Yemen.
The Cuban postal service says large amounts of mail were refused entry and returned in the following months.
Correspondents say the cost of so many returns may have led to the decision to stop the service.
It was President Obama who resumed postal service between the U.S. and Cuba (via third-party countries) back in 2009. Before that, it had been blocked for 42 years.
Establishing better relations with Cuba was one of Obama’s campaign promises, and so far it’s turned out to be a total failure. Despite the administration’s attempts to ease the embargo on Cuba, Havana has responded with indifference — and now this. Obama’s election was supposed to herald a new age of diplomacy between the U.S. and South America. Instead, his overtures toward both Cuba and Venezuela have blown up in his face.
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is still treated as a mainstream civil-liberties group by much of the media. Indeed, last summer, as the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque heated up, representatives of the group were regularly trotted out as the moderate and reasonable representatives of a supposedly aggrieved community. But recent activities by some of its chapters around the country are making clear that its main agenda remains rooted in its origins as a political front for an illegal group whose purpose was to raise funds for the Hamas terrorist organization. Though spokesmen for the group have been at pains to present it as opposing terrorism (though when pressed, they will never admit that, for example, attacks on Israelis should be considered acts of terror) and promoting cooperation with law-enforcement agencies, the truth is that its goal is quite the opposite.
Terror expert Steven Emerson’s the Investigative Project on Terrorism reports that CAIR’s California chapter is sponsoring an event on Feb. 9 in Oakland whose purpose is to counsel noncompliance with federal investigations of terrorism. Indeed, the group’s website shows a poster for the gathering that features the headline: “Build a Wall of Resistance.” The artwork shows a sinister FBI agent being faced with slammed doors. The tagline reads: “Don’t Talk to the F.B.I.”
According to Emerson, this attempt to obstruct a government probe is in response to FBI efforts to uncover a network of supporters of two terror groups: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Revolutionary Armed Force of Columbia (FARC). The FBI raided the homes of “activists” in Minneapolis and Chicago who may be tied to these two known terror groups in September. The PFLP is a radical leftist Palestinian group that is opposed to peace with Israel and that has, over the years, murdered many Israelis and Americans. FARC is the quintessential narco-terrorist organization and has sought the overthrow of the democratic government of Colombia and has specialized in kidnapping with the aid of the leftist government of Venezuela led by Hugo Chavez.
You would think that if CAIR were the upstanding group of ordinary Arab- and Muslim-Americans who just wanted fair treatment under the law, as it claims to be, the last thing it should be doing is counseling its members to refuse to talk to the authorities investigating lethal criminal enterprises such as the PFLP or FARC. Nor should it be setting up a meeting whose purpose is to generate support for the 23 “activists” who are refusing to comply with subpoenas that require them to testify before grand juries about these terror groups.
Instead, CAIR’s California chapter is treating the Obama administration’s Justice Department probes into terror groups as an effort to “repress our movements for social justice and divide our communities.” CAIR’s Chicago and Michigan chapters have also blasted the federal investigation. The statement from the Chicago chapter made it clear that its opposition to the investigation was not based on alleged questions of civil liberties but rather the group’s sympathy for both the PFLP and FARC, and termed the probe an effort to repress dissent about U.S. foreign policy, leading one to conclude that CAIR’s members believe the administration is too supportive of democratic governments trying to defend themselves against violent terror groups.
This attempt to obstruct justice once again shows that CAIR’s true purpose is not to defend ordinary Americans who happen to be Muslim but instead the defense of anti-American terror organizations.