“Chaebol sniper” or chaebol masseur?

 

Kim Sang-jo

Last January, the Economist offered an optimistic forecast of the future of South Korea’s economy under Kim Sang-jo, that country’s newly appointed antitrust czar. Kim’s task, during his three-year term, was to “tame the chaebol,” those massive, family-run corporate conglomerates that were the engines of South Korean economic growth after since the Korean War but that in recently decades have increasingly served as a hindrance to further growth – and, in particular, to the establishment and successful development of small businesses. (The Korean language even has a word – gapjil – for the way in which the chaebol bully more modest-sized enterprises.) Moreover, the chaebols, which were once universally admired for having led South Korea out of Third World status, are now more and more the objects of public resentment because of their top leaders’ chronic corruption and impunity.

Moon Jae-in

At the time of his appointment, Kim, a former activist for the rights of shareholders, enjoyed the strong backing of President Moon Jae-in as well as of the great majority of his countrymen, who refer to him as the “chaebol sniper.” All these months later, has he lived up to that nickname? How much, exactly, has he accomplished?

For a close reader, the article in the Economist contained a few hints that Kim might, in fact, prove to be something less than a bull in the chaebols’ china shops. “The sniper,” we read, “would rather his targets surrender willingly and is encouraging ‘voluntary’ reform.” Some sniper! Indeed, the Economist admitted that some critics of the chaebols “carp that Mr Kim now seems to be more chaebol sympathiser than sniper,” though the Economist was quick to assure us that this view of Kim was “unfair.”

Hanjin Group headquarters, Seoul

Fast forward five months. Kim, reported the Korean media, was accusing the Hanjin Group, the parent company of Korean Air, of “breaching market rules.” At a press conference marking the end of his first year on the job, the “chaebol sniper” lamented the standard practice by chaebols of doing business with, say, real-estate firms and ad agencies that are affiliated with them rather than dealing with independently owned firms in those same sectors. “I honestly ask conglomerates,” said Kim, “to sincerely review if it necessarily needs these businesses that are owned solely by their controlling families.”

Wow, tough talk!

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

Kim said his agency had “tried to work on encouraging conglomerates to change their…management practices.” Tried? Encouraging? “We’re seeing positive changes,” he said, but “we still have a long way to go.” He said he regretted “not being able to bring changes that the public can actually feel,” and admitted that some observers might feel that his achievements thus far had fallen “short of expectations.”

No kidding. Is this a sniper or a masseur?

Coming to a theater near you: a buddy movie about Marx and Engels!

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Karl Marx would have turned 200 on May 5, and during the last couple of weeks we’ve been noting that more than a few bien pensant types on both sides of the Atlantic manage to ignore – or explain away – the disastrous history of the twentieth century and to view Marx’s legacy with fondness. On Tuesday we examined a recent piece in the Independent, the British broadsheet, arguing that Marx’s time has finally come; today we’ll look at another contribution to the Independent, this one by Kaleem Aftab, who interviews celebrated director Raoul Peck about his new film The Young Karl Marx.

Raoul Peck

The film is, by Aftab’s account, a hagiography – a loving account of the close friendship between Marx and Friedrich Engels, his collaborator on The Communist Manifesto. Aftab likens the movie to Walter Salles’s 2004 biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, a cinematic billet doux to Che Guevara. “Both films,” Aftab explains, “are more interested in the youthful antics of the protagonists than their later work and exploits.”

This makes sense, if you think about it: such films are intended not for mature, serious audiences who have faced the truth about Communism but for those who still romanticize it. The better, then, to view these figures in their early years, through the pink lens of youthful idealism and intellectual excitement. Better to observe the germination of the ideas than the bloody results thereof.

Kaleem Aftab

The other people we’ve been profiling during the past two weeks see Karl Marx as being more relevant now than he ever was. Peck agrees. Like others, he cites the 2008 financial crisis as definitive evidence of capitalism’s unworkability and inevitable failure, even as he refuses to recognize that the deterioration and collapse of one Communist regime after another demonstrates anything whatsoever. “You sum up the articles [by Marx] and it is exactly the description of the 2008 crisis,” says Peck, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2016 documentary feature I Am Not Your Negro, about the author James Baldwin. “It’s like the children’s book of the history of capitalism and you can trace it until today. So what other proof do you need?”

August Diehl as Marx and Stefan Konarske as Engels in The Young Karl Marx

Peck’s “desire to connect to the present,” writes Aftab, “has led to him make a movie that at times seems like an overly theoretical political analysis, and in other moments like a fun bromance, capturing the hijinks of ordinary young men.” Terrific – a totalitarian buddy movie! Peck’s hope is “that young people will recognise themselves in the film” and take inspiration from it in their efforts to “fight back.” And precisely what, Aftab asks, is crying out “to be fought against right now?” Like others whom we’ve discussed this week, Peck’s answer can be reduced to a single word: Trump.

Promoting Marxism in the U.K.: Youssef El-Gingihy

An East German stamp honoring Marx

Last week, in the wake of Karl Marx’s 200th anniversary, we discussed on this website a couple of recent New York Times op-eds, both by academics with impressive-sounding credentials.

One of them, Jason Barker, sang Marx’s praises and hoped for a time when his magnificent ideas will be implemented by some enterprising government; the other, James A. Millward, while never mentioning Marx or Communism, cheered Communist China’s current approach to international relations, comparing it very favorably to that of the current American president.

Youssef El-Gingihy

But the New York Times isn’t alone in its enthusiasm for Marx and his heirs. The Independent, a left-leaning British broadsheet, celebrated Marx’s birthday with an article headlined “The world is finally ready for Marxism as capitalism reaches the tipping point.” As evidence of Marx’s current relevance, the piece’s author, Youssef El-Gingihy, noted that “[t]he world’s most populous state and rising superpower, China, is officially communist, albeit nominally.” It wasn’t entirely clear what one was to make of El-Gingihy’s description of China as only “nominally” Communist. Was he suggesting that China is not, in fact, a totalitarian or authoritarian country? Does he dissent from the verdict of, for example, Freedom House, which considers China “Not Free”?

Hugo Chavez

El-Ginghy, an Oxford-educated physician and ardent champion of Britain’s National Health Service, further noted that “socialist ideas remain prevalent throughout the world,” and as an example of this prevalence he cited “the Chavismo new left wave of Latin American politics.” He added that chavismo is “admittedly now in the process of being rolled back” in Venezuela, although it would have been a good deal more honest, of course, to say that chavismo is in the process of dying a torturous death at its own hands – and is taking heaven knows how many Venezuelan lives with it. El-Gingihy also pointed to the electoral successes of Bernie Sanders in the U.S., of “unapologetic socialist Jeremy Corbyn” in the U.K., and of Jean Luc Mélenchon in France as examples of just how popular Marx is in the West – though we consider them proof of just how ignorant many Westerners are of the monstrous reality of Marxism.  

Mao Zedong

Denying that the fall of the USSR discredited Marxism, El-Gingihy argued that, on the contrary, the 2008 worldwide financial crash discredited capitalism. “Mao Zedong’s description of capitalism as a paper tiger seems as pertinent as ever,” he wrote, apparently unashamed to be citing with approval the most murderous individual in human history. Mao, El-Gingihy suggested, was only one of many brilliant figures who constitute Marxism’s “rich legacy of thinkers.” El-Gingihy praised the Communist Manifesto as “a call to arms, as well as a work of canonical sublimity and literary fecundity; by turns poetic, inspired and visionary.” And he concluded by asserting that in a time when “late capitalism is economically, socially and ecologically unsustainable, not to mention bankrupt,” Marx is the answer. How bizarre that, in a time when free markets are lifting up economies and radically improving the lives of ordinary people around the world – even as the utopian, reality-defying ideas of Marx’s followers have turned places like North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela into nightmarish hellholes and killing fields – presumably intelligent people are still capable of raising their fists in Marxist solidarity.  

Beijing good, Trump bad: lessons from James A. Millward

Before the fall: a 1988 Soviet stamp commemorating Marx

On Tuesday we pondered the fact that Karl Marx, who would have turned 200 on May 5, has been getting awfully positive press lately in the Western media. We cited a recent New York Times op-ed whose author, a philosopher named Jason Barker, looked forward breathlessly to a golden future time when some government actually puts Marx’s ideas into practice – as if most of the large-scale human tragedies of the last century weren’t a result of precisely such efforts.

Barker’s piece, as it happens, was nothing new for the Times, which during the last year or so has been using the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution as an excuse to regularly run op-eds that put a pretty face on Soviet Communism.  It has been difficult, indeed, not to conclude that the Gray Lady, in her dotage, seems to be going through a period of nostalgia for the grand old days of that master apologist and Pulitzer winner Walter Duranty

James A. Millward

Although it didn’t mention Marx, another recent Times op-ed took as blinkered a look at Marxism as Barker’s. On the very day before Marx’s birthday, China scholar James A. Millward (who teaches in the school of Foreign Service at Georgetown University) celebrated China’s current “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which involves the development of “highways and a string of new ports, from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean to Africa and the Mediterranean,” on a scale that surpasses “even the imagination of a sci-fi writer.” Breathlessly, Millward cheered “China’s economic progress over the past century,” noting that it had lifted “hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty.” One might have expected Millward to acknowledge that the same government that lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty also murdered a similar number of its people. But presumably Millward didn’t consider this little detail revelant to his topic.

Mao Zedong

Yes, Millward did admit in passing that China is flexing its muscles and challenging U.S. global dominance. “To the cynical,” he stated, the cultural elements of the One Belt, One Road program are “just so much propagandistic treacle.” But he wasn’t about to be cynical. China, he argued, “is stepping up to be a global good citizen concerned about the economic well-being of its neighbors.” One Belt, One Road “invests China’s prestige in a globalist message that sounds all the right notes – peace, multicultural tolerance, mutual prosperity – and that rhetoric sets standards by which to hold China accountable.” Millward contrasted this sweetness and light with – what else? – “the protectionism and xenophobia displayed by President Trump and emerging nationalistic ideologies in Europe, India and elsewhere.” Yes, that’s right: Millward favorably compared a Communist regime to the democratic governments of the U.S., India, and various European countries that are too “nationalistic” for his tastes. Yet even as Millward provided Xi and his henchmen in Beijing with this terrific piece of free P.R., he omitted to so much as mention the word “Communism.”

Catching up with Marxist Mayor Bill de Blasio

Bill de Blasio

In recent years, while many other major American cities have declined precipitously in quality of life, with crime statistics booming and workers and taxpayers fleeing to the suburbs, New York City has thrived. This is no coincidence. After the living nightmare of the 1970s and 80s that can still be seen in movies like Death Wish (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976)a time when the subways and Central Park and whole neighborhoods seemed to have been taken over by criminal gangs and the police had been defanged by feckless, politically correct mayors such as John V. Lindsay, Abe Beame, and David Dinkins – Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (1994-2001) turned everything around by making vigorous use of the police department and city courts. Things kept running relatively smoothly under Mayor Michael Bloomberg (2002-13), although one could argue with his nosy nanny-state policies, such as attempts to control the consumption of soft drinks.

De Blasio and family

But then along came de Blasio. On the surface, his election made no sense. Giuliani had almost surely saved the Big Apple from fiscal disaster and civil disorder of the sort that has plagued cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Baltimore. De Blasio, an out-and-out Marxist, was fiercely opposed to the kind of governance that had pulled New York back from the brink. He bought into the idea that heavily policing high-crime black neighborhoods is racist. In July 2015, we made note on this website of a proclamation he had recently issued congratulating The Nation, a far-left weekly published in New York, on its anniversary. The proclamation painting a glowing picture of The Nation, depicting it as a positive moral force that “mobiliz[ed] its readers to articulate and reaffirm their values and to take action in the name of progress (necessarily ruffling not a few feathers along the way).”

De Blasio with Al Sharpton

In fact, as we pointed out at the time, The Nation was the flagship publication of American Stalinism. Over a period of decades, it passionately defended (or minimized the significance of) Stalin’s Gulag and show trials, systematically demonized Stalin’s critics, and mocked and vilified American freedom. Nor did The Nation‘s insipid politics evaporate with the death of Stalin or the fall of the USSR. After 9/11, Christopher Hitchens, a longtime Nation columnist, quit the magazine because he was disgusted by its editors’ view that America had deserved what it got. He called The Nation “the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” De Blasio’s praise for The Nation should have discredited him for all time in the eyes of every New Yorker who had lived through the city’s darkest day. But it didn’t. 

De Blasio at a mosque

Nor, bafflingly, have New Yorkers been put off in significant numbers by his various social and economic policies, which have changed New York’s course, heading it once again for that proverbial cliff. By ordering an end to the NYPD’s spectacularly effective “stop and frisk” strategy, which certain self-styled leaders of minority communities had criticized, de Blasio showed that he cared more about good relations with race hustlers than about the safety of New Yorkers. Similarly, by putting an end to an equally successful Muslim surveillance program, de Blasio showed that he was more interested in being praised by groups like CAIR than in protecting his city from another 9/11.

Cops turn their backs on de Blasio at funeral for slain colleague Wenjian Liu, January 4, 2015

Also, De Blasio repeatedly gave the impression that he viewed cops as racists. When two police officers were murdered during his term, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association blamed their deaths on de Blasio’s anti-cop rhetoric. Not long after, when he attended the funeral of a policeman who’d been killed in the line of duty, the police officers in attendance turned their backs en masse on the mayor.

Rudy Giuliani

One might have hoped and expected that some Democrat would have come along and mounted a serious challenge to de Blasio at the primary level, or that the GOP would have found a candidate capable of defeating him in the general election. But no – de Blasio sailed smoothly to re-election without much at all in the way of opposition. It’s not only one of the more puzzling chapters in recent American political history, but also a potential tragedy for the one American metropolis that has done the best job of weathering a decades-long tide of destructive political correctness in the nation’s City Halls.

Whitewashing Communism for eco students

Bryan Caplan

A professor at George Mason University, research fellow at the Mercatus Center, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and blogger for EconLog, Bryan Caplan knows his stuff – his stuff being economics. And so last February, when we ran across a statement by him that his first encounter with eco textbooks proved many of them to be alarmingly “pro-communist,” we kept reading. Those books, he maintained, were “very positive relative to communism’s historical record” and their authors “seemed deeply ignorant of actual communism.” They were, in fact, “communist dupes,” spreading “a radically overoptimistic image of communism.”

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok

Is this still the case? Now, a generation later, Caplan is helping his son, a high-school student, prep for an advanced-placement eco exam. The main text in the subject, Modern Principles of Economics by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, gets good grades from Caplan: it “includes accurately horrifying details about life under communism.” But the test prep books are something else again. The Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Economics is “mostly a normal econ text,” but its account of Communism, Caplan says, is nothing less than “awful.” He takes it apart sentence by sentence: “Communism,” it states, “is a system designed to minimize imbalance in wealth via the collective ownership of property.” In fact, Caplan points out, collective ownership “was never primarily a means of ‘minimizing wealth imbalance’”; for Communist leaders, it was “an end in itself,” kept in place despite the fact that it “caused horrifying famines in the short-run, and low agricultural productivity in the long-run.”

Cowen and Tabarrok’s textbook: good on Communism

The Princeton Review prep book goes on: “Legislators from a single political party – the communist party – divide the available wealth for equal advantage among citizens.” Caplan’s comeback is blunt:

What actually happened under communism was rather different. Communist regimes began with the mass murder of their political enemies, businessmen, and their families. Next, they seized the peasants’ land, leading to hellish famines. In time, they launched major “industrialization” campaigns but obsessively focused on building up their militaries, not mass consumption. And no communist regime has ever tried to “divide wealth for equal advantage.” Bloodbaths aside, communist regimes always put Party members’ comfort above the very lives of ordinary citizens.

The Princeton Review’s book: not so good on Communism

The prep book goes on: “The problems with communism include a lack of incentives for extra effort, risk taking, and innovation.” Caplan’s reply: “Communist regimes did provide poor incentives to produce consumer goods for ordinary citizens. But they provided solid to excellent incentives in the sectors they really cared about: the military, secret police, border guarding, athletics, space programs, and so on.” Finally, Princeton had this to say: “The critical role of the central government in allocating resources and setting production levels makes this system particularly vulnerable to corruption.” Caplan: “Talk about praising with faint damnation. Never mind mass murder, famine, pathological militarism, and state-mandated favoritism for Party members. What’s really telling is that communism was ‘particularly vulnerable to corruption.’” What kind of a book “leaves students with the impression that corruption was communism’s chief defect”?

Those chavista Brits

Jack Staples-Butler

Jack Staples-Butler, a British law student, wrote an interesting article recently about Venezuela – not about the social and economic crisis itself but about the government’s response to it, namely “systemic and organised psychological denial,” which largely takes the form of “externalis[ing] blame through conspiracy theories.” Nicolás Maduro’s regime has spread “[f]antasies of ‘economic warfare’ waged by ‘hoarders’ led by the United States,” and has used these fantasies as an excuse to seize food from grocery stores and impose price controls on food products. “The most disturbing recent development,” wrote Staples-Butler, “is the prospect of Venezuelans becoming a population of forced labourers in government-run agricultural projects, a solution that would take Venezuela from Zimbabwean levels of hunger and inflationary poverty to Cambodian levels of state-led starvation.”

Nicolas Maduro

It is madness – dangerous madness. Yet, as we have noted frequently on this website, Maduro has, until very recently, had more than his share of eager Western supporters. “As recently as June 2015, when this starvation crisis was already in full-swing,” wrote Staples-Butler, “an event organised by the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign in London” to cheer chavismo as a heroic challenge to “neoliberalism and privatisation” drew such prominent figures as Jeremy Corbyn (now head of the British Labour Party) and two other members of Parliament, Grahame Morris and Richard Burgon.

Jeremy Corbyn

But more interesting to Staples-Butler than the lingering enthusiasm of British politicians – as well as British intellectuals and journalists – for the Bolivarian Republic is the role they played years earlier in the creation of this crisis. Among the names he mentions, in addition to Corbyn, Morris, and Burgon, are several other prominent MPs and former MPs, including Diane Abbott, John McDowell, and Colin Burgon, journlist Owen Jones (whom we’ve profiled at length on this site). After the 2012 elections, influential British figures organized a propaganda tour of the UK for chavismo politicians and union bosses. Left-wing British groups held events all over the UK to celebrate Venezuelan socialism; among the speakers were Seumas Milne (whom we’ve also profiled here), London mayor Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones (again), and chavismo enthusiasts from Cuba and Argentina.

The rewards of socialism: a Venezuelan supermarket

All of these figures, charged Staples-Butler, bear a “moral responsibility” for “the continued suffering of the Venezuelan people at the hands of a regime which they passionately supported.” Yet these Western chavistas, who are accustomed to viewing themselves as moral exemplars, are incapable of admitting to themselves their moral responsibility for the current outrage. “What is most striking in the Western socialist left’s response to Venezuela’s agony,” therefore, “is the absence of response.” They can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge that there’s anything wrong. Venezuela, writes Staples-Butler, “has become a collective unperson to those who formerly proclaimed it an example for humanity’s emulation.” (There are exceptions. The Morning Star, a Communist newspaper to which Corbyn contributes, “continues repeating Venezuelan state propaganda,” describing anti-Maduro protests, for instance, “as a right-wing ‘coup plot.’”)

Hugo Chavez

Staples-Butler predicted that when the international left finally works out a “history” of contemporary Venezuela with which it can live, it will take the line that Hugo Chávez was, indeed, a great man whose brilliant socialist program brought Venezuela prosperity, but that Maduro (who took over after Chávez died in 2013) was a criminal whose corruption ruined everything. Such a fantasy, suggested Staples-Butler, would rescue not only Chávez and socialism but, more important, themselves from responsibility. If this lie were to take hold, it would not be the first ever historical example of such revisionism: after the USSR fell, many ardent Western Communists dealt with the reality of Soviet evils by blaming them entirely on Stalin and depicting him as having betrayed the supposedly benevolent – and beneficial – ideology of Lenin.

Of all the Western apologists for chavismo, Staples-Butler singled out one for special censure. It’s somebody whom we’ve discussed at length on this site – Owen Jones. But Staples-Butler’s comments on Jones in connection with the downfall of Venezuela are reason enough to return to Jones yet again. We’ll do that tomorrow.

Birth of a baby chavista

On May 16, Tucker Carlson welcomed a guest on his Fox News TV show who looked as if he was about twelve years old. He was, in fact, a 19-year-old college student named Dakotah Lilly who was there to defend chavismo in Venezuela and to deny that any of that country’s current problems – including the collapse of food supplies and medical services – were caused by socialism.

In the interview (which begins at about the thirty-minute mark in the video below), Carlson asked Lilly to address the fact that wherever socialism has actually been tried, it has been a disaster. Sidestepping Carlson’s list of Soviet bloc countries whose modern histories prove his point, Lilly simply parroted Maduro administration propaganda. “What Venezuela is currently facing right now,” said Lilly, “is terrorism at the hands of the opposition” – an opposition that, he insisted, is deliberately destroying “the progress Venezuela has made over the past few years.”

From beginning to end, Lilly’s portrait of Venezuela today was Alice-through-the-looking-glass stuff. The real victims of violence in the country, he charged, are supporters of the Maduro government. The real causes of Venezuela’s economic problems are (a) sanctions by the United States and (b) “hoarding by multinational corporations.” He even defended the Supreme Court’s closing, on Maduro’s orders, of the National Assembly. Carlson asked whether Lilly could speak Spanish or if he had actually ever been in Venezuela, but never got an answer to either question.

Dakotah Lilly

Who is Lilly? He’s currently a student of political science at Eugene Lang College (a unit of the New School in New York City) and a member of Students and Youth for a New America (SYNA), whose website makes it clear that it’s basically a bunch of junior Communists. Lilly isn’t the only SYNA member who has drunk the Kool-Aid on Venezuela: the group’s site features an article in which one Caleb T. Maupin (a frequent contributor to Iran’s Press TV) sneered at the idea that the downfall of the Venezuelan economy confirms “clichés [Americans] heard in elementary school about how ‘Communism just doesn’t work.’” Maupin claimed that, on the contrary, “millions of Venezuelans have seen their living conditions vastly improved through the Bolivarian process.”

Cindy Sheehan giving a hug to everyone’s favorite race hustler and shakedown artist, Jesse Jackson

As for Lilly’s own oeuvre, in September 2015, Cindy Sheehan (a famous antiwar activist during the George W. Bush administration who all but disappeared from the media once Barack Obama became president) posted on her website a “guest article” by Lilly entitled “Socialism, A Love Story.” Excerpts: “Capitalism isn’t working and it never has….Capitalism is a system that has run its course, much like slavery and feudalism. The future however is optimistic and a new system is on its way to being established, that system is Socialism.” As to the argument that socialism “never works in practice,” Lilly confidently asserted: “This could not be farther from the truth. Humans are naturally co-operative beings and to suggest that exploiting each other for valueless paper is somehow embedded in our genes is ludicrous.”

Caleb T. Maupin

What about China or the USSR? These weren’t really socialist countries, argued Lilly, although “Socialist elements of the USSR and Cuba, have led to the launching of the Sputnik and the eradication of homelessness and hunger. Imagine what the potential of Socialism is in a nation as rich and developed as the USA.” At the time he wrote that article, Lilly was, according to his contributor’s note, the 17-year-old “leader of Lehigh Valley Youth Democratic Socialists” whose “first mass action was joining Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox and other organizations in March in WDC for Spring Rising; in his spare time he likes smashing patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism and defending the oppressed.”

Those now-iconic empty Venezuelan grocery-store shelves

Why would such a callow and obscure character as Lilly be invited on Carlson’s show in the first place? The answer, one suspects, is that all the heavy hitters who were standing up for chavista economics as recently as a couple of years ago have either changed their tune or changed the topic. You might suggest that the best way to respond to the puerile views of a Dakotah Lilly is to ignore him; but this is the sort of person who, in a couple of years, will be out of college and in a first-rung position at some think tank or NGO or congressional office in Washington, D.C., or some other power center, using his twisted opinions to help set the nation’s future agenda. Best to be aware of these people as soon as possible, and to remember to track them as they move from the classroom into positions of authority. 

Death and desperation in Venezuela

Nicolas Maduro

The weeks go by, and Venezuela continues to plunge toward toward chaos. One reads the stories and looks at the pictures, and things can hardly seem to get worse; and yet they keep getting worse. Last month, President Nicolás Maduro dissolved the National Assembly, leading to day after day of street protests by outraged citizens some of whom called Maduro “a ‘Bolivarian’ version of Vladimir Putin” and accused him of engineering a “socialist nightmare.” On April 28, we quoted The Week to the effect that “the economy shrank by 18 percent last year, with unemployment at 25 percent, and inflation slated to be 750 percent this year and 2,000 percent the next.” Chavismo has taken a particularly big toll on the nation’s health: according to The Week, “children are suffering from malnourishment for the first time in the country’s modern history” and “hospitals are running out of even basic drugs.”

May 3, 2017 in Caracas: in the foreground, Bolivarian National Guards; in the background, anti-government protesters

Now come reports that anti-government protesters are being tried by military tribunals, where they may be sent to prison for up to 30 years. In the city of Coro, noted the Associated Press, medical students and music students who were guilty of nothing but public assembly had been thrown in a military jail even though they are all civilians – a violation of the Venezuelan Constitution. As of May 10, over 250 protesters had reportedly been brought before military courts during the previous week (although some sources said the number was much higher).

Luisa Ortega

Maduro has defended the use of the military courts as “emergency measures” that are necessitated by what he describes as an effort by foreign powers (guess who?) to bring down his socialist government. “Some opposition leaders,” reported the AP, “believe the use of the military tribunals reflects Maduro’s weakening grip on power and a desire to circumvent someone who’s become a surprising irritant: Venezuela’s semi-autonomous chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has shown signs of unusual independence.”

On May 11, Agence France Presse brought even more sobering news. In 2016, 11,466 infants under the age of one died in Venezuela, as compared with 8,812 the year before – a 30% increase. This crisis has occurred during a time when the collapse of that country’s economy has resulted in a drastic shortage in basic items required by hospitals. (To quote AFP, Venezuelan doctors say that “hospitals have only three percent of the medicines and supplies that they need to operate normally.”) At the same time, the country experienced a 76% rise in malaria – the raw number of cases being no less than 240,000.

In the meantime, on May 10, CNN reported that Maduro’s three stepsons had gone skydiving with our professional athletes, Amy Chmelecki, Mike Swanson, Jon DeVore, and Noah Bahnson, who are sponsored by Red Bull and whose escapade with the Maduro boys was paid for by an outfit called SkyDive Caribbean.

In the midst of all this horror, the destruction by protesters of a statue of Hugo Chavez was cited as an illustration of the fact that the Venezuelan people’s rage is, in many instances, overcoming their fear. The only thing that’s sure here is that this story is not yet over.

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.