Apocalypse no?

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Mark Weisbrot

Yesterday we began taking a long look at Mark Weisbrot, whose enthusiasm for chavista economics appears to know no bounds. In November 2013, he ruled out the possibility of a “Venezuelan apocalypse” of the kind that is now well underway. Then came last December’s parliamentary elections, when, as we’ve seen, the Venezuelan electorate registered its loathing for President Nicolás Maduro’s incompetent handling of the economy, his increasing restriction on civil rights, and other outrages. But Weisbrot hadn’t given up the fight. In an article  headlined “What Next For Venezuela?”, he started out by trying to put a good face on the people’s verdict. For one thing, he applauded Maduro for accepting the results of the vote. (In short, he praised the prez for doing the right thing and not violating the constitution; one might, in the same way, give somebody a pat on the back for not committing murder or rape.) For another, he attributed the heavy anti-Maduro tally to the opposition’s supposedly greater financial resources and to media support. 

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Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López

Weisbrot strove throughout, in fact, to paint the chavista regime as responsible, law-abiding, and prepared to work harmoniously with its critics to fix the economy; meanwhile, he depicted those critics as violent, polarizing extremists who, unreasonably, refused to cooperate with the government in the interest of bringing the economy around. He also persisted in his now utterly ludicrous claim that life in the Bolivarian Republic had “changed substantially for the better” under Chávez and Maduro. Yes, he felt obliged to acknowledge the current economic crisis; but what he wouldn’t admit was that it was the predictable result of policies he himself had supported and helped devise. Nor did his pretty picture of the Maduro regime take into account such violations of human rights as the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo López.

Former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner gestures as he arrives for a ceremony at the Casa Rosada Government Palace in Buenos Aires, June 17, 2008. Kirchner's wife Argentine President Cristina Fernandez's image deteriorated further in June as a nasty dispute with the farm sector entered its fourth month, according to a poll released on Tuesday. Her center-left government raised soy export taxes in mid-March, sparking farmer protests that have caused occasional food and fuel shortages. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci (ARGENTINA)
Late Argentine President Nestor Kirchner

All right. So who is Mark Weisbrot? He’s an economist who’s associated with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Sounds impressive, right? But his pronouncements on Venezuela and Argentina make it clear that Weisbrot is just about as far from the consensus on these nations’ economies as possible. Serious, objective members of his profession have been warning for years that Chávez, Maduro, and the Kirchners were leading their countries down the garden path. In September 2014, for example, The Economist ran an article about Venezuela subtitled “Probably the World’s Worst-Managed Economy.” It began: “A big oil producer unable to pay its bills during a protracted oil-price boom is a rare beast. Thanks to colossal economic mismanagement, that is exactly what Venezuela, the world’s tenth-largest oil exporter, has become.” A few months earlier, the same periodical ran a piece headlined “The Tragedy of Argentina: A Century of Decline.” A sampling: “Its standing as one of the world’s most vibrant economies is a distant memory….it trails Chile and Uruguay in its own back yard…. It has shut itself out of global capital markets…Property rights are insecure….Statistics cannot be trusted.”

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Cristina Kirchner

Such, more or less, is the verdict of virtually all respected economists on these two countries. But Weisbrot sings a different tune. In 2007 – five years after Argentina defaulted on its sovereign debt – he toasted Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s victory in that year’s election, calling it “not difficult to explain” given her husband’s glowing performance in office during the previous four years. In 2011, with the country’s inflation rate hovering at around 25%, Weisbrot – under the headline “Cristina Kirchner and Argentina’s Good Fortune” – assured readers of the Guardian that Argentina under Cristina, who was then running for re-election, was doing “remarkably well” and undergoing a “remarkable expansion.”

And then? More tomorrow.

Mark Weisbrot, Bolivarian booster

It’s all happening at once. Venezuela’s socialist economy is crashing and burning; Brazil’s socialist president is being impeached for doctoring budget figures to make that country’s faltering economy look better; Argentina’s socialist ex-president is on trial for defrauding her economic basket case of a country to the tune of five billion dollars.

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Oliver Stone

All of these corrupt, incompetent, and ideologically misguided regimes – as we’ve pointed out time and again on this website – have had their share of foolish celebrity admirers north of the border, from Oliver Stone to Sean Penn. But as these economies have nose-dived, the gushing has tended to die down, and the fans have tended to scatter. In late May, we focused our gaze on Nick Dearden, a full-time anti-capitalist activist and one of the few stooges who’ve continued to be lured by the siren song of South American socialism. He’s recently blamed Argentina’s woes on its creditors, and in January he actually described Venezuela as an economic “beacon of hope.”

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Mark Weisbrot

Another member of this curious club is Mark Weisbrot. The difference between the two men is that while Dearden, who runs a group called Global Justice Now, is pretty much what he presents himself as being – namely, a far-left street-agitator type who never quite seems comfortable without a protest sign in his hand or his fist in the air – Weisbrot actually poses as a serious economist of the first order.

Is he? Well, put it this way. Some stooges are more useful than others; Weisbrot is a really useful one. Want a defense of the indefensible from somebody whose credentials as an economic expert sound legit? Want an economist whose loyalty to the creeps in the Milaflores Palace and to the sticky-fingered czarina who recently vacated the Casa Rosada outstrips the devotion of the most zealous fan of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber – no matter how dismal the latest quarterly results? Look no further. Weisbrot’s your man.

Venezuelan acting President Nicolas Maduro raises his fist during a campaign rally in San Carlos, Cojedes State, on April 4, 2013. The presidential campaign to replace Venezuela's Hugo Chavez formally kicked off Tuesday, with Maduro -- Chavez's hand-picked successor -- battling opposition leader Henrique Capriles for the forthcoming April 14 vote. AFP PHOTO / JUAN BARRETOJUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

We’ll spend this week probing Weisbrot’s history of defending socialist regimes in South America. But let’s start with a couple of his more recent pieces on Venezuela, which he wrote during a period when other enthusiasts for the Bolivarian Republic were heading for the hills. Take an article he wrote for The Guardian in November 2013.  Its headline: “Sorry, Venezuela haters: this economy is not the Greece of Latin America.” Its subtitle: “Predicting a Venezuelan apocalypse won’t make it happen.”

“For more than a decade,” Weisbrot sneered, “people opposed to the government of Venezuela have argued that its economy would implode.” For years, he stated, the predictions had failed to come true. But now Venezuela was “facing economic problems that are warming the cockles of the haters’ hearts” – as if the critics of chavista economics hated the Venezuelan people, when in fact what they hated was the socialist policies that were gradually destroying those people’s lives.

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Empty supermarket shelves in Venezuela

Noting that supplies of consumer goods were shriveling, that consumer prices had risen 49% in the last year, and that the U.S. dollar was worth seven times the official rate on the black market, Weisbrot might have acknowledged a degree of personal responsibility for the way things were going. Instead, he slickly made the critics of his approach into the bad guys: “Will those who cried wolf for so long finally see their dreams come true?”

Customers line up to get in for shopping at a state-run Bi centenario supermarket in Caracas May 2, 2014.  President Nicolas Maduro is introducing a controversial shopping card intended to combat Venezuela's food shortages but decried by critics as a Cuban-style policy illustrating the failure of his socialist policies. Maduro, the 51-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, trumpets the new "Secure Food Supply" card, which will set limits on purchases, as a way to stop unscrupulous shoppers stocking up on subsidized groceries and reselling them. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3NL83
One of Venezuela’s long, long grocery lines. (This was May 2014; it’s worse now, of course.)

His answer: no. While Maduro’s opponents saw Venezuela as being “caught in an inflation-devaluation spiral,” Weisbrot insisted that “a government with more than $90bn in oil revenue” could not – and would not – “end up with a balance-of-payments crisis…..This government is not going to run out of dollars.” Nor, he maintained, was the country in serious danger of hyperinflation; notwithstanding the current problems, Venezuela was “very capable of providing healthy growth even while bringing down inflation.” While the country was “facing serious economic problems,” they weren’t the kind of problems that were being experienced by Greece and Spain.

Even last December, by which time Venezuela was clearly circling the drain, Weisbrot maintained his boosterish take on chavismo. Tune in tomorrow.

Kuba with a K

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, left, poses with the models who participated in the presentation of his "cruise" line for fashion house Chanel, at the Paseo del Prado street in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. With the heart of the Cuban capital effectively privatized by an international corporation under the watchful eye of the Cuban state, the premiere of Chanel 2016/2017 "cruise" line offered a startling sight in a country officially dedicated to social equality and the rejection of material wealth. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Karl Lagerfeld in Havana with some of his models

As more and more clueless and uncaring characters have made their way to Cuba during recent months, we’ve been following them there. Recently we took note of the Chanel fashion show that Karl Lagerfeld brought to Havana, spreading a thick layer of Seventh Avenue glitz over that crumbling city’s decades of Stalinist grit and grime. We’d be remiss if we didn’t add to the list the family whose name has become synonymous with the utter indifference of privileged Western celebrities to political and economic systems that have denied other people the rights and opportunities that have made them (i.e., the celebrities) rich and famous. We’re talking, of course, about that awful, ubiquitous clan whose name begins with a K and who, in early May, took their reality show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, to the island prison as part of their endless effort to stay in the spotlight and cultivate world-class photo ops. 

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Kim Kardashian, husband Kanye West, and their child North West in Havana

“Both the Karl Lagerfeld Chanel fashion show and Kardashian trip to Cuba for their TV show is emblematic of celebrity culture at its worst,” Cuba-born Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told the Los Angeles Times. “I know it might be a high bar to ask famous folks to draw attention to human rights abuses by the Castro regime, but playing a role in making Cuba a fun, no-worries destination is nothing but a cruel trick on the Cuban people. The Kardashians are taking lots of selfies in Havana, but are they taking stock of the reality on the streets they walk on?”

khloe-kardashian-blasted-by-social-media-users-for-posing-under-fidel-castro-sign-in-cubaIf you believe the gossip corner of the New York Post, Page Six, the Kardashians were “freaking out they [couldn’t] post on Snapchat in Cuba.” Even better, they didn’t managed to scare up the kind of attention there that they’re accustomed to. “Finally,” observed CNN’s Emily Smith, “there’s a place where no one cares about the Kardashians.” But this doesn’t mean that their slumming didn’t make headlines back home. In a welcome departure from the usual stateside indifference to such hijinks – at least according to Refinery29 (“the fastest growing independent fashion and style website in the United States”) – a photo posted by Khloé K. on Instagram, which put on display “the Kardashians’ apparent lack of knowledge (or disregard for) the country’s fraught political and social history,” made many social-network mavens “livid.” The picture (above) shows Khloé standing in front of a wall on which is written Fidel, the name of the never-elected monster who led the Cuban “Revolution” and served as “president” of that totalitarian empire for nearly half a century until, in 2008, he yielded power, nominally or not, to his brother, Raúl.

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A couple of the K. ladies in Havana

The picture, reported Refinery 29, “garnered comments on Instagram accusing the Kardashian[s] of disrespect and ignorance,” with some followers comparing the picture “to a tacit endorsement of Hitler.” Charged one commenter: “Might as well stand in front of a picture of hitler [sic] with emoji hearts in your eyes! I’m Cuban and this is fucking disrespectful.” Many social-network fans noted that the snap was particularly bemusing given the fact that Khloé “has spoken up about the Armenian genocide.” But the surprising thing, needless to say, isn’t that these PR whores are insensitive about Cuban Communism; it’s that one of them has even heard of the Armenian genocide.

Who is Malcolm Harris?

Yesterday we examined a recent New Republic piece in which a writer named Malcolm Harris, who’s connected with an online rag called New Inquiry, strove to pull off a one-man rehabilitation of Communism.

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A photo from the Times profile of New Inquiry (Harris is not in the picture)

Who, we wondered, is this audacious fool? And what, for that matter, is New Inquiry? Well, the New York Times provided an answer to the latter question back in November 2011, when (for reasons we cannot begin to fathom) it ran a full-length profile of the “scrappy” Upper East Side “literary salon” cum online journal whose members, all recent college grads, uniformly came off as obnoxious, privileged brats. One of them whined about not getting a job “at a boutique literary agency”; another (“an aspiring novelist who graduated magna cum laude from Cornell in 2009”) resented having to work at a real job (sweeping movie theaters); yet another had actually secured a job at the New Yorker only to walk away from it in boredom. Harris, then 22, was described as a young man who’d been “sifting through grad-school rejection notices a year ago” but had since “written for N + 1 and Utne Reader.”

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Malcolm Harris

The Times didn’t mention it, but to many observers Harris is best known not an aspiring littérateur but as an early leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In a September 2012 postmortem on OWS, Mark Ames, a veteran of MSNBC and The Nation – in other words, a solid left-winger – waxed cynical about the movement, whose failures he attributed largely to Harris, whom he mocked as a self-seeking “twenty-something hipster” and poster boy for a certain “brand of marketing-concocted ‘anarchism.’” Wrote Ames: “one look at Malcolm Harris – his anarcho-hipster sneer, his marketing-guy hipster glasses – and you’ll be reaching for the nearest can of pepper spray.”

10/10/11 New York Broadway and Liberty AV . .A protest on Wall Street is in 4 weeks, with more people showing up every day. The group is still working on its message, and it doesn't really have any demands. But the protesters say they are tired of struggling to make a living while the big banks get help from the government. Original Filename: Wall st Protest 21.JPG
OWS, October 2011

Ames provided some bio: Harris’s father was a “Silicon Valley corporate lawyer turned State Department diplomat.” As for Harris himself, he “was one of the very first to capitalize on the marketing possibilities of Occupy, and how he might exploit the marketing and messaging to quickly build his own brand.” Only a month after OWS got off the ground, it turns out, Harris signed up with a speakers’ agency; when a California branch of the movement, Occupy Redlands, asked him to come address its members, Harris’s agent replied “that if they wanted to hear Malcolm Harris talk about anarchism and the 99%, they’d have to pay him a $5,000 speaking fee. Not including travel and hotel expenses.” The news that an OWS “anarchist” was trying to squeeze five-grand payments out of allied groups around the country spread like wildfire, apparently, and did not exactly make Harris a movement hero.

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Harris in court, December 2012

Then came the lawsuit. In December 2012, after denying for over a year that he and other OWS activists hadn’t been warned by police to stay off the Brooklyn Bridge during an October 1, 2011, march – and hinting through his lawyer that, on the contrary, police had deliberately lured protesters onto the bridge – Harris’s own tweets from that day, which he’d fought to keep secret but which Twitter had provided to the court, showed that he was lying. Facing trial on a charge of disorderly conduct, he pleaded guilty. Even his lawyer was reprimanded for having played fast and loose with the facts.

Harris has continued writing prolifically – and in a thoroughly predictable vein. In January he contributed an article to Al Jazeera’s website entitled “Wealthy Cabals Run America”; in February the same site ran a piece of his entitled “Hooray for Cultural Marxism.” He’s also contributed plenty of articles to Jacobin, “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” That there are nasty corners of the Internet prepared to give space to this mendacious young stooge is hardly surprising; but it’s depressing that The New Republic, once known for its staunch liberal anti-Communism, should welcome him into its pages.

Malcolm Harris’s Soviet nostalgia

Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris sits in the courtroom before a hearing in Manhattan Criminal Court stemming from his arrest in a protest march over the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Malcolm Harris

In late April, the New Republic – which until recently was the flagship of liberal anti-Communism in America – published a reprehensible piece, “Who’s Afraid of Communism?,” by Malcolm Harris, a young editor at a website called New Inquiry and a frequent contributor to Al-Jazeera. The essay, an apologia for Communism, began with Harris mocking Hillary Clinton for her praise of NATO, which she’d called “the most successful military alliance in probably human history.” Harris dismissed this as “a bizarre assertion,” maintaining that NATO has only conducted a few “major military operations.” How, then, he sneered, could it be called successful?

Um, how about its four decades of success at keeping the USSR from overrunning western Europe as it had eastern Europe?

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But don’t tell Harris anything negative about the Soviets. He’s quick to remind us that in World War II the USSR “lost the most people, 50 times as many as America did.” He doesn’t mention that while members of the Red Army were fighting to defend their own homeland after it was invaded by Hilter (prior to which their own dictator, Stalin, had been allied with Hitler), America, by contrast, was fighting to rescue fellow democracies from totalitarian conquest by Germany – and, after the war, joined with those democracies in NATO to prevent totalitarian conquest by the USSR.

It’s outrageous to even have to remind anyone of these facts.

Lenin_CLHarris does at least admit that it was America that won the Cold War. But for him, what won was not democracy but capitalism, that ugly thing. For Harris, the USSR was not truly an evil empire but a “bogeym[a]n.” For Harris, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War wasn’t a matter of the U.S. feeling compelled to align itself with certain less-than-admirable authoritarian regimes in the cause of long-term victory over a far worse totalitarian enemy; no, it was a matter of the US being the villain, and the USSR the hero, in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere. For Harris, not only were the Soviets heroic, but American Communists were, too, in the fight against Jim Crow; ditto Cuban Communists, in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. To view things in any other way, claimed Harris, was sheer “bullshit” – an attempt to continue to repress the glorious “story of communism’s struggle against fascism and white supremacy.”

maoNone of this would matter, of course, except that – as Harris himself points out – his own perverse view of things is widely shared among young Americans today. “A new poll of adults under 30,” he wrote, “found that 51 percent ‘do not support capitalism.’” A disproportionate number of those who showed up to cheer socialist Bernie Sanders at his rallies were quite young indeed. What young Americans need, Harris insisted at the conclusion of his piece, is “a more nuanced version of the Cold War narrative.” No. These are kids who’ve already been sold a whitewashed picture of Communism by the media, their schoolteachers, and their college professors; what they desperately need is a thorough, honest education in its barbaric history.

Nick Dearden vs. the “vultures”

Yesterday we met Nick Dearden, head of an anti-capitalist British group called Global Justice Now and frequent contributor to the Guardian. As recently as January of this year, Dearden described Venezuela as a “beacon of hope.” He’s also blamed the poverty of countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo on American “vulture funds.”

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Nick Dearden

The word vulture appears frequently in Dearden’s work. In a 2011 piece, he wrung his hands over the economic plight of Argentina, which, again, he blamed not on the Kirchner regime’s massive corruption and financial irresponsibility but on the creditors who actually dared to expect the Buenos Aires government to honor its debts. Dearden gave a thumbs-up to Argentina’s 2001 default (which “was undoubtedly the right thing to do”) and slammed creditors (a.k.a. “vulture funds”) for refusing to walk away meekly and let Kirchner & co. screw them over. He further accused Argentina’s main creditor, NML Capital, of “harassing” Argentina – by which he meant that NML, in order to try to collect the money it was owed, had had to take the Kirchner government to court .

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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

Meanwhile, the closest he would come to admitting the deep, endemic problems afflicting the Kirchner regime was to say that “Everything is not perfect in Argentina to this day.” He acknowledged that Argentina shouldn’t have borrowed such massive sums in the first place – but instead of criticizing the Kirchner regime for taking out loans, he blamed the banks for making them. Fighting poverty, Dearden asserted, requires profound systemic change: “The financial system…needs to be directed for the benefit of people everywhere.” And part of this change is that “[c]reditors must accept the downside when investments go wrong just as they happily accept the upside when they go right.” Meaning, apparently, that when debtors choose not to pay their debts, creditors should just shrug and walk away.

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Joseph E. Stiglitz

We’ve written at length about Joseph E. Stiglitz, the economist, who, among other things, is a big U.N. booster, championing the idea that the U.S. and other countries should effectively hand over their sovereignty to the international organization. Dearden is in the same camp, contrasting the G8 – which he views as a gang of imperialist, colonialist bullies that “should by rights be dead and buried” – with the U.N. itself, which he see as a compassionate force for the world’s poorer and less powerful countries.

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Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann

In a 2009 article for the Guardian, Dearden cited Stiglitz approvingly and at length on the need for thoroughgoing “reform” of “the international trade and financial system,” including extensive debt cancellation, a “new reserve currency to replace the dollar.” Dearden also quoted, with hearty agreement, the then-president of the General Assembly, Nicaraguan priest Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, to the effect that “[t]he anti-values of greed, individualism and exclusion should be replaced by solidarity, common good and inclusion” and that our “profit-centred economy” should give way to “a people-centred economy.”

Presumably like the terrific, robust one in Nicaragua. Or Venezuela, that “beacon of hope.”

“Beacon of hope”: Nick Dearden’s Venezuela delusion

Over the last year or so, as Venezuela’s economy has plummeted and the Venezuelan people have suffered increasingly from food shortages, electricity shutoffs, and the like, many longtime cheerleaders for chavismo have dummied up. Not Nick Dearden. In January, in a piece that read like some kind of twisted Onion-like attempt at a joke, he enthused over Venezuela’s “food revolution.”

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Nick Dearden

Food revolution? What? Dearden explained: just before the new, anti-socialist National Assembly was seated in January, supporters of the regime passed a new law that, in Dearden’s words, laid “the foundation for a truly democratic food system” by banning genetically modified seeds and setting up “democratic structures to ensure that seeds cannot be privatized and indigenous knowledge cannot be sold off to corporations.” The new law, Dearden maintained, would promote “a form of farming that works with nature” and that would “make the country independent of international food markets.” This, pronounced Dearden, was “hugely impressive…because it extends decision making deep down into Venezuelan society.” In sum: “Venezuela has lit a beacon of hope.”

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Venezuela’s “food revolution”

Yes, a beacon of hope. A curious way (to put it mildly) to describe a country where people are now storming grocery stores and eating cats and dogs. The lights have, quite literally, gone out: in late April, in yet another example of its sharp economic thinking, the government imposed a two-day work week to conserve electricity.  

But whacked-out judgments are par for the course for Nick Dearden. Currently the director of something called Global Justice Now (which describes itself as “a campaign group that mobilises people in the UK for change, and act[s] in solidarity with those fighting injustice, particularly in the global south”) and formerly director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign (a “coalition” of UK groups “calling for the unjust and unpayable debts of the poorest countries to be cancelled”), he’s a one-man storehouse of bad ideas, which he’s shared frequently over the years in op-eds for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere.

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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

This is a guy who believes that capitalism ruins everything. When it comes to foreign aid, he’s a fervent supporter of the longstanding Western policy of throwing truckfuls of money at Africa, which has mainly served to enrich dictators and keep poor countries from getting off the ground. After a so-called “hunger summit” in 2013, Dearden decried the idea of trying to encourage the development of market economies in Africa, and mocked “the idea that ‘the market knows best.’” Instead, he supported land redistribution and collective farming. (After all, look how spectacularly successful that approach has been in Venezuela.)

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Mobutu

In a 2012 article, he pondered the phenomenon of poverty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). In real life, the principal villain in the story is Mobutu Sese Seko, who was the country’s dictator from 1965 to 1997, and who, like many another tyrant on that continent, soaked his nation’s treasury for all he could. But Dearden places the real blame on Western banks that loaned money to Mobutu and that have had the audacity to seek to have their loans repaid. Dearden actually put the word “repayment” in scare quotes, accused creditors of “draining the DRC of wealth,” and (of course) smeared those creditors as “vultures.”

As we’ll see tomorrow, the word vulture crops up a lot in Dearden’s writings.