A gilded Cage

There are few people more gifted at the art of phony moral preening than your average Hollywood movie star. Most of them know next to nothing about anything, but a remarkable number of them are quick to weigh in on political issues and say whatever they think will make them look like pillars of virtue.

And yet one after another of these stars, who are already extremely well paid, are also quick to sell their services, for the right price, to any brutal dictator who comes down the pike.

Will Smith

We’ve seen, for example, that Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, have gone all-out to promote Dubai, which, of course, is one of the United Arab Emirates, where gays are executed and where straight tourists who engage in even the tamest public displays of affection are subject to long prison terms. We’ve discovered how Sting took a million or two dollars to perform for the daughter of murderous Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov and how Nicki Minaj cashed a $2 million check from the Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos for a similar gig.

Sharon Stone with Putin and unidentified girl

We’ve listed the names of several celebrities – among them Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, Mickey Rourke, and Sharon Stone – who’ve taken money from Vladimir Putin to turn up at official events in Russia, and other luminaries – including Seal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Hilary Swank – who’ve accepted payments to entertain Putin’s puppet leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Now it’s time to add another Tinseltown name to this roster of shame: Nicolas Cage. Born Nicolas Coppola, a nephew of filmland’s master of nepotism, Francis Ford Coppola, Cage, now 53, has been one of the luckiest men in the business, reaping great rewards in exchange for a very modest talent. He gets millions of dollars per picture and is reportedly worth about $25 million.

Nicolas Cage in Kazakhstan with an official of the Eurasia Film Festival

In short, he is not a man in drastic financial need. Nonetheless, in exchange for an unknown but presumably hefty sum, he recently attended the Eurasia Film Festival in Kazakhstan, a country that has been ruled for over a quarter of a century by the tyrannical Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Some people will do anything for a buck. Cage, who invariably comes off on talk shows as something of a self-important jerk and all-around dimbulb, was willing to don a native Kazakh outfit that earned him widespread mockery online. “I would be pleased to participate in some film project on the territory of Kazakhstan,” Cage told local journalists during his lucrative visit. “I enjoyed the architecture of your capital. What I saw reminded me of an old black-and-white film that depicted the future.” These stars often make such dopey, ingratiating statements in these situations. It’s hard not to believe they are reading from a script. In any event, one thing is clear: Nicolas Cage didn’t go to Kazakhstan for his health.

Prison report: Lula in, Leopoldo out

While all kinds of terrible things are happening in South America and around the globe, that continent recently supplied us with a couple of pieces of very good news.

Lula

In Brazil, almost a year after socialist President Dilma Rousseff’s removal from office, her mentor, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has been sentenced to nine years and six months in prison. Both were brought down by their roles in the Petrobras scandal, a.k.a. Operation Car Wash, the largest scandal ever in the history of that nation. Lula, a Worker’s Party politician who served two terms in Brazil’s highest office and who anointed Rousseff to succeed him, was found guilty of corruption and money-laundering. Lula plans to appeal the verdict; meanwhile, four – count them, four – other corruption trials lie ahead of him.

Dilma Rousseff

The specifics of Lula’s corruption are tawdry and rather dull: he was found guilty of taking a massive bribe – in the form of a luxury beachfront apartment – from a construction company, OAS. In addition to presenting Lula with the apartment, OAS also gave Lula’s party about $27 million in bribes in return for a suspiciously lucrative contracts with Petrobras. At the trial, Lula denied having anything to do with the apartment in question.

Protégé and mentor in happier times

It’s hard to explain just how staggering the conviction of Lula is in his home country. He’s not just a former president but a national icon. His admirers believe that his socialist policies helped boost the Brazilian economy, lifting millions out of poverty. As a result, he’s widely revered as a folk hero, the ultimate man of the people, the very personification of socialist largesse – so that the idea of him raiding the treasury on behalf of OAS in exchange for an apartment seems a particularly cheesy sort of betrayal.

Lula is actually eligible to run again for president, and, prior to his conviction, was leading the polls in the run-up to next year’s elections. But if his appeal fails, he won’t be allowed to be a candidate. In any case, his conviction has surely diminished him in the eyes of at least some of his fans.

Leopoldo López

So that’s the good news from Brazil. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Venezuela, which is basically a tool of President Nicolás Maduro, took an action that surprised the world: it ordered that Leopoldo López be removed from prison, where he has languished for more than three years, and placed instead under house arrest.

Nicolás Maduro

López, of course, is someone whose fortunes we’ve been following pretty closely on this site: as we wrote in March of last year, he is “the chavista regime’s most eloquent critic [and] the opposition’s most charismatic leader” and was plainly locked up “for no other reason than that he is …by far the most potent threat to the power of…Maduro.”

Hugo Chávez

This is a man who, as mayor of one of the five municipalities that make up Caracas, was recognized for his erudition and eloquence and showered with international awards for excellence and transparency in public service – making him the very antithesis of the crude caudillo Hugo Chávez and his lunkhead successor, Maduro. As we have put it previously:

López is so manifestly everything that Maduro is not, so completely the Gallant to his Goofus, that it seems almost too tidy a scenario; if this were a film script, the producer would almost certainly order the writer to make the villain at least somewhat less buffoonish and corrupt and the hero somewhat less noble and courageous.

Liliana Tintori at the White House in February with President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Senator Marco Rubio

Our most recent mention of López here was in March, when we noted that his wife, Liliana Tintori, had met with President Trump at the White House not long after the latter’s inauguration. At the time, Trump issued a call for López’s immediate release. It was more than President Obama had ever done for López, and it may well have made a difference.

In any event, López is out of jail, and that’s good news. But, like the rest of the people in his country, he’s not yet entirely free. We’ll continue to keep an eye on the course of Venezuela’s fortunes, and Leopoldo’s.

Enemies of reform in Brazil

Dilma Rousseff

Last August, the socialist president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office for corruption. As we’ve noted on this site, fellow socialists came to Rousseff’s defense, with David Miranda (husband of notorious Edward Snowden helpmeet Glenn Greenwald) arguing in the Guardian that Rousseff was the victim of corporations and rich people who don’t like socialism.

But in the weeks leading up to Rousseff’s removal, millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest her corrupt government and the deep and lingering economic recession over which she had presided, and to demand her departure from office. Ideologically, the protests were not unlike those currently rocking Venezuela (which, of course, is in far worse shape than Brazil): people were sick of having their freedom squelched and their economy mismanaged.

Michel Temer

Rousseff, a member of the Workers’ Party, was replaced by her vice president, Michel Temer, who belongs to the more conservative Brazilian Democratic Movement Party. Now, Temer is no saint. Like Rousseff before him (and like many others who still hold high positions in his government), he’s been implicated in the massive “Lava Jato” corruption case surrounding the federally owned oil company, Petrobras.

Here and below: some images from the General Strike

During his brief tenure, though, he has at least sought to rescue Brazil from the consequences of his predecessor’s socialist policies. Taking office in the midst of an economic crisis, he warned that Brazil’s economy faced a “meltdown” unless “severe fiscal discipline and belt tightening” were introduced.

Pronounced himself the head of a “national salvation government,” he began instituting the kind of reforms – including significant changes in public employment contracts and pension arrangements – which, although uncomfortable in the short term for many working-class Brazilians, sought to correct policies that simply could not be sustained in the long term without doing to Brazil something similar to what chavismo has done to Venezuela. Indeed, Temer’s reforms might well have helped Brazil, which has long been looked to as a nation of immense but unfulfilled economic promise, to finally develop, within a few years, a robust First World economy dominated by a large and prosperous middle class.

But many workers, unsurprisingly, weren’t happy with Temer’s new policies. The socialists felt threatened to their core. And the labor unions were outraged. On April 28, a new set of public protests began. This time, however, it wasn’t a matter of angry citizens taking spontaneously to the streets. This was a nationwide general strike, the first in Brazil since 1996, called by the labor unions. Schools were closed. So were most businesses. Public transport came to a near-total halt. The entrances to many airports were blocked. Media described the nation as “paralyzed.” There was widespread violence. Cars and trams and buses were burned. In the Sao Paulo neighborhood where Temer owns a house (he currently lives in the vice-presidential residence in Brasilia), protesters “broke up sidewalks and lobbed chunks of concrete at police.”

While socialist leaders celebrated the general strike as an effective pushback against Temer, others disagreed. Yahoo News, for example, quoted landscape architect Marcelo Faisal as saying that “reforms need to take place” and that the strike hadn’t (in Yahoo’s words) “lived up to the hype.” A shipping news website seconded this view, reporting with relief that the strike had “impacted the country’s ports, especially the largest port of Santos, less than originally feared.” Doubtless we haven’t heard the last of the enemies of reform in Brazil, but it may well be that despite their occasional noise-making, the necessary reform will, after all, be able to proceed. And in the end that will likely be good news for almost everyone in that huge and promising country.

South Korea kicks out Samsung’s pet prez

Park Geun-hye

For the last few months, we’ve been following the growing South Korean corruption scandal that involves the Samsung Corporation, President Park Geun-hye, and the President’s best friend Choi Soon-sil. In a country where corruption scandals involving ties between top political leaders and the powerful chaebol – the immense, family-controlled conglomerates that are the pillars of the nation’s economy – are a frequent occurrence, the present scandal was the biggest ever.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court

On Friday, that scandal came to a climax as the eight justices on the country’s Constitutional Court voted unanimously to remove Park Geun-hye from the office of the presidency for committing acts that “betrayed the trust of the people and were of the kind that cannot be tolerated for the sake of protecting the Constitution.” The court’s move, which followed the suspension of Park’s powers in December when the national legislature voted for impeachment, and which took effect immediately, was without precedent in South Korean political history.

Choi Soon-sil in police custody

The unseating of Park caused joy in some quarters and fury in others. A protest outside the courthouse by supporters of Park turned violent, with two protesters dying in the melee. As for Park, now that she no longer enjoys the immunity from prosecution that comes with being president, she is likely to be tried on charges of bribery, extortion, conspiracy, and abuse of power for having extorted millions of dollars from Samsung and other firms in collaboration with her lifelong friend Choi Soon-sil.

Lee Jae-yong

Park’s ouster on Friday followed the arrest, on February 17, of Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung, and the announcement on February 28 that prosecutors would be indicting Lee “on charges of bribery and four other offenses.” As Choe Sang-hun wrote in the New York Times, “Samsung, the nation’s largest conglomerate, has been tainted by corruption before. But the company has been considered too important to the economy for any of its top leaders to spend time behind bars — until now. The jailing of Mr. Lee, who is facing trial, is another potent sign that the old order is not holding.”

The Constitutional Court’s ruling marked a victory for honest government and above-board business practices. As Choe noted, the constitutional orderliness of the process also demonstrated how how far South Korean democracy has come in the last half-century. Ahn Byong-jin of Seoul’s Kyung Hee University told the Times that “the curtain is finally drawing on the authoritarian political and economic order that has dominated South Korea for decades.”

Park’s supporters clash with police

The verdict may also, alas, turn out to have a serious downside. To quote Choe, Park’s departure “is expected to shift South Korean politics to the opposition, whose leaders want more engagement with North Korea and are wary of a major confrontation in the region. They say they will re-examine the country’s joint strategy on North Korea with the United States and defuse tensions with China, which has sounded alarms about the growing American military footprint in Asia.”

Hwang Kyo-ahn

In other words, South Korea, which in recent years has been a reliable bulwark of democracy in the region, may end up being led by people who are eager to appease Kim Jong-un and Beijing and to distance themselves from the U.S. and other democratic allies. The election to replace Park must take place within sixty days; in the meantime, an ally of Park’s, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will serve as acting president. According to the Times, the Trump government “is rushing a missile defense system to South Korea so that it can be in place before the election.”

Will Samsung’s Lee be in handcuffs tomorrow?

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Samsung headquarters in Seoul

When we last left our South Korean friends in the Blue House and the chaebol boardrooms, the probe into Samsung’s cash transfers to foundations linked to presidential chum Choi Soon-sil – apparently in exchange for support for a merger between two Samsung subsidiaries – had entered a new phase. Documents had been confiscated at several locations, including the homes of several Samsung executives; the independent counsel had issued an arrest warrant for Choi’s daughter; and Samsung vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong, who is the firm’s de facto top dog and the son of its founder and chairman, Lee Kung-hee, had been barred from leaving the country.

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Lee Jae-yong

The latest update came on Monday in the Wall Street Journal. The special prosecutors, reported Eun-Young Jeong, Jonathan Cheng, and Timothy W. Martin, were seeking an arrest warrant for Lee on charges of bribery, embezzlement, and perjury. In order to be able to issue the warrant, they need to solicit approval from a South Korean court, which is scheduled to hold a hearing tomorrow to entertain that request. If approval is granted, Lee – who spent 22 hours last week being interrogated – will be taken into custody while the prosecutors continue to pursue their investigation. Samsung was quick to reply to the prosecutors’ request for an arrest warrant, repeating previous denials that it had made contributions in exchange for favors or made any “improper requests related to the merger of Samsung affiliates or the leadership transition.”

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Lee Kun-hee

The Journal noted that if Lee is indeed incarcerated for any length of time, the conglomerate “could face a leadership vacuum while smartphone maker Samsung Electronics Co. is also reeling from a massive recall of its Galaxy Note 7 device. It could also put on hold any further attempts to reorganize one of the world’s most complex business empires.” Indeed, it would almost certainly have a significant impact on the South Korean economy, given that Samsung alone, as the Journal pointed out, “accounts for nearly one-third of South Korea’s stock-market value.”

Meanwhile President Park Geun-hye’s fate also lies in the balance. Last month the National Assembly voted to impeach her, and the Constitutional Court is debating whether to unseat her from the office she has held since February 2013. If the evidence proves that Lee is guilty of the charges leveled against him, it is more likely that the same evidence will help convict Park as well.

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Park Geun-hye

It should be underscored that the current Samsung probe is far from the first to target one of the chaebol – the massive, family-run conglomerates that have formed the foundation of the postwar South Korean economy. Over the years, other chaebol executives – including Lee’s father, who reportedly pocketed $8.9 billion in Samsung funds – have been indicted and convicted on corruption charges. But almost all of them have received presidential pardons that kept them out of jail. The history of brazen, high-level corruption at the conglomerates has underscored the special privileges enjoyed by the clans that own and run them as well as the intimate, one-hand-washes-the-other relationship that has long existed between them and the office of the president.

This time, however, the story may take a fresh turn: the #1 man at the nation’s #1 company may end up going down for good, and when he does, he may very well take the president down with him. Stay tuned.

Cristina’s Christmas present

cristina-kirchner-3
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

Well, it’s happened again. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Argentina, Julian Ercolini, ordered a trial of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was president of that country from 2007 to 2015, on charges of corruption.

Also ordered to face trial were Julio de Vido, Kirchner’s sometime Minister of Federal Planning, and José Francisco López, former state secretary for public buildings.

According to the indictment, all three former officials are accused of forming an illegal association that was “created to commit crimes” involving the theft of “funds that were assigned to road works” – specifically, 52 projects in Santa Cruz province, where Kirchner’s late husband, Néstor Kirchner, served as governor before preceding her as president.

lazaro-baez
Lázaro Báez

Already in court is contractor Lázaro Báez, whose company Austral Construcciones profited from the corruption scheme. Austral, it is reported, received over $4 billion in road-construction contracts from the Kirchner administration; of that amount, about $1 billion is estimated to have constituted illegal surcharges.

Judge Ercolini also froze $893 million in Kirchner’s personal assets.

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Cristina Kirchner with Axel Kiciloff

It’s the second time this has happened since she left office: in May, Kirchner, along with her former Economy Minister Axel Kiciloff and former Central Bank head Alejandro Vanoli, was indicted on charges of making illegal contracts to sell U.S. dollars at below market rates, supposedly with an eye to strengthening the peso. Instead of helping the Argentinian economy, these hijinks are said to have damaged it.

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José Francisco López

Inveterate readers of this site may recall that López, a longtime crony of Nestor Kirchner and “right-hand man” to de Vido, was arrested in June while trying to hide plastic bags full of money at a Buenos Aires convent. In addition to the plastic bags, he had a suitcase full of money, and he had driven these bags and suitcase to the convent in a car whose trunk was also full of money. The total stash: about $7 million dollars in the form of U.S. dollars, euros, yen, and other denominations. He also had a bunch of jewelry and several watches. And was packing a gun.

Apparently, all that dough was just a fraction of the massive sum fleeced from Argentinian taxpayers by by Kirchner, de Vido, López, Báez and company.

Kirchner, who was indicted in May for incompetent administration, was not taken into custody.

Digging up Samsung’s dirt

samsung-headquarters
Samsung headquarters

The probe into corruption at Samsung and the Blue House – South Korea’s presidential palace – entered a new stage on Wednesday, with investigators racing to get to the bottom of last year’s shady merger between Samsung C&T and another Samsung affiliate, Cheil Industries.

A quick summary of what we already know: last year, Samsung donated $20 million to two entities, the Mir Foundation and K-Sports Foundation, that are linked to Choi Soon-sil, an intimate of President Park Geun-hye. Samsung also funneled sizable amounts of cash to Choi and her family through a German corporation she controls and even underwrote her teenage daughter’s pricey equestrian activities.

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Choi Soon-sil

Why exactly did they fork over all this dough to Choi & co.? The working theory, in three words: quid pro quo. Try to follow this reaction pathway: Samsung bigwigs are believed to have bribed Choi to lean on her BFF, President Park, to order the National Pension Service – a major Samsung stockholder – to approve of the C&T/Chiel merger. The pension execs, as it happens, did indeed end up voting for the merger, even though their analysts had urged them to give it a thumbs-down.

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Lee Jae-yong

In short, the guardians of South Korea’s retirement funds didn’t do what was best for retirees or for fellow C&T and Cheil stockholders (who, recognizing the merger as unfavorable to their interests, fiercely opposed the merger). They did what was best for the powers that be at Samsung, period. Especially Samsung vice chairman Lee Jae-yong.

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President Park Geun-hye

At least that’s where the available evidence – largely acquired during a previous round of prosecutorial raids – seems to point. Now two investigative teams, one of them led by special independent counsel Park Young-soo, are intensifying the probe. On Wednesday, seeking further evidence, Park’s team – which has 70 days (with a 30-day extension if necessary) to complete its work – confiscated documents and hard drives at about ten locations, including the National Pension Service’s asset management office, the headquarters of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and the homes of several Samsung executives.

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Chung Yoo-rah

That’s not all. The independent counsel has also secured an arrest warrant for Chung Yoo-rah, Choi’s horse-happy daughter, now 19. Since Chung is believed to be in Germany, the counsel has asked German officials to extradite her, has requested her German credit-card and phone records,  and has arranged for the cancellation of her passport. The investigators are even scrutinizing Chung’s high-school record, which turns out to have been faked. (The national educational department has already revoked her diploma.)

Meanwhile Lee – who, since his father, Lee Kung-hee, suffered a heart attack in May 2014, has been Samsung’s de facto top dog, and hence South Korea’s most powerful businessperson – has been barred from leaving the country. Earlier this month, the younger Lee testified at a parliamentary hearing that he didn’t know Choi and that Samsung’s payouts to her and her organizations were not bribes. According to one source, the independent counsel’s main goal is to find out whether or not that’s true.

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A car that was reportedly set on fire by an exploding Samsung Galaxy 7 phone

The whole scandal is, of course, a huge blow to Samsung, South Korea’s largest conglomerate and the ultimate symbol of the nation’s postwar economic success. And it’s happening, note well, at a time when Samsung is still smarting from its exploding-phone fiasco.

So start the countdown: seventy days. For our part, we can’t wait to see what Park Young-soo and his colleagues dig up.