Commentary Magazine


Topic: Venezuela

U.S. Should Reject Venezuela’s Overtures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Venezuela Answers Fraud Charges with Threats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chavez’s Absence Emboldens Opposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why is the U.S. Honoring Hugo Chavez?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Venezuela Should Come Clean on Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Death of Another Tyrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Strange Return of Hugo Chavez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chavez’s Shady Dealings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chavez the Phantom Remains in Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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President Should Sign “Counter Iran in the Western Hemisphere” Act

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:

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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:

(1) Descriptions of the presence, activities, and operations of Iran, the IRGC, the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Hezbollah;

(2) descriptions of the terrain, population, ports, foreign firms, airports, borders, media outlets, financial centers, foreign embassies, charities, religious and cultural centers, and income-generating activities utilized by Iran, the IRGC, the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Hezbollah;

(3) descriptions of the relationship of Iran, the IRGC, the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Hezbollah with transnational criminal organizations;

(4) descriptions of the relationship of Iran, the IRGC, the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Hezbollah that may be present with governments in the Western Hemisphere;

(5) descriptions of federal law enforcement capabilities, military forces, state and local government institutions, and other critical elements, such as nongovernmental organizations that may organize to counter the Iranian threat in the Western Hemisphere; [and]

(6) descriptions of activity by Iran, the IRGC, the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Hezbollah that may be present at the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada and at other international borders within the Western Hemisphere

Under Secretary of State Clinton and her two Bush administration predecessors, the State Department’s attitude toward Iran in the Western hemisphere has been “hear no evil, see no evil, report no evil.” Yet, the Iranian government has pursued an active strategy in the region. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Roger Noreiga has written a great deal on the Iran-Venezuela nexus, including here at COMMENTARY. His analysis has been remarkably prescient; most critics counter not Roger’s evidence, but simply the fact that the State Department has yet to second his findings. The reason for that is, more often than not, because diplomats refuse to look. Let us hope that Obama signs the bill: Information should not an enemy for policymakers.

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Chavismo After Chavez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Proud and Pleased to Join Venezuela

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.

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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.

At yesterday’s State Department press conference, spokesperson Mark Toner was asked if the U.S. had a reaction to Venezuela’s election. He gave this response:

MR. TONER: Well, you buried the lead, because we’re very pleased to have been elected by the UN General Assembly to a second term on the Human Rights Council. And I believe Ambassador Rice spoke to this yesterday from New York. We certainly thank the countries that have voted for us in what was a very highly competitive race among several well-qualified Western European and Others Group [WEOG] candidates.

QUESTION: What was it, three out of five got elected?

MR. TONER: We received 131 votes, first-place in the WEOG group.

QUESTION: Ooh, first place.

In other words, the big story (in the view of the State Department) in an election packing the UNHRC with still more human-rights violators is: the election of the U.S. to another term. It shows that the world likes us. It really, really likes us (although not as much as Venezuela, Kazakhstan, et al.). On the other hand:

QUESTION: Don’t you think there is like a contradiction because Venezuela has been pointed out at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for not accomplish [sic] with human rights? So how do you put this in context, or –

MR. TONER: Well, in creating the Council, member states pledge to take into account the contribution of candidates, the promotion and protection of human rights. We think some countries elected to the Human Rights Council on clean slates have failed to show their commitment.

QUESTION: Aha. That’s what I want to get at. Because quite apart from Venezuela, you’ve got such paragons of human rights protection as Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan –

MR. TONER: I didn’t single out Venezuela.

QUESTION: – Pakistan, Gabon. Are you comfortable sitting on a body that’s supposed to make judgments about other countries’ human rights records when there are serial offenders on it?

MR. TONER: Again, Ambassador Rice in New York spoke to this very effectively yesterday. … We decided four years ago that we could best improve the Council by working within it rather than criticizing from outside.

The State Department also released Monday a fact sheet on U.S. “accomplishments” during “our first term,” including eight resolutions on Syria since 2011 (count ’em!); “suspending” Libya in 2011 from its seat on the Council (for massacring its own citizens); and a special rapporteur “speaking out” on human rights violations in Iran (which does not seem to have had any effect).

Missing from the list is any reduction in what the department diplomatically calls the UNHRC’s “excessive and unbalanced focus” on Israel. As Elliott Abrams more forthrightly notes, that focus is “ludicrous”: the “only country listed on the Council’s permanent agenda” is Israel — “Not North Korea, not Sudan, not Cuba — only Israel.” After four years, smart power has been unable to address that problem, but the U.S. is pleased and proud to have been re-elected.

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Why Does the State Department Help Autocrats Silence Journalists?

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.

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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.

There is no waiver for journalists from such countries who would use their residence in the United States to report critically about their home countries. President Obama may on occasion talk about democracy and freedom but, in effect, the State Department’s policy carries water for the world’s worst dictators and uses a pointless bureaucratic impediment to help them silence the very people whom the United States should be doing the most to support. Perhaps it’s time to reset the bureaucratic mindset in Washington, and help Russian journalists while we are at it.

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Two Uneasy Steps Forward for Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cuba Anxiously Eyes Venezuelan Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hugo Chavez: “Let Them Drink Juice”

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

Reports the Associated Press:

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

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

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

Reports the Associated Press:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hope someone in Atlanta is paying attention.

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Dudamel is Not Another Toscanini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cuba Suspends Postal Service to the U.S.

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.

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.

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CAIR Urges Muslims to ‘Resist’ FBI Terror Probes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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