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.

Venezuela continues its descent toward the ninth circle of socialist hell

Protesters in Caracas

In the wake of the March 29 dissolution of Venezuela’s National Assembly, an act that was widely condemned as a coup by President Nicolás Maduro, the economy of that poor, socialism-ravaged country has continued to circle the drain even as opponents of Maduro have taken to the streets day by day to demand their nation back, shouting “No more dictatorship!” Hundreds of thousands of protesters have filled the streets of Caracas and other cities; on Wednesday of last week, which saw the country’s largest protests in years, over 300 protesters were arrested, and pro-Maduro cops, gangsters, and soldiers have caused several deaths. (As of last Friday, the number of fatalities had risen to at least twenty.) Increasing, the capital has resembled a battle zone, with protesters setting up “burning barricades in several neighborhoods” and the military patrolling the night streets in “light-armored vehicles.”

Nicolas Maduro

Maduro himself, who has rejected the idea that the dissolution of the legislature constituted a coup, has said that, on the contrary, the protests against him – which in any free country, of course, would be protected by the right of assembly – amounted to a coup attempt. Vice President Tarek El Aissami has called Maduro’s opponents “terrorist leaders” and accused their followers of “fascist violence.” Another recent Maduro move was barring Henrique Capriles, the top opposition leader, whom Maduro has called “trash,” from running for public office.

Henrique Capriles

Late last week, engineering student David Marval, one of the protesters in Caracas, told Bloomberg News: “Everyone is asking what the plan is….For me, you have to paralyze the entire city.” Informed observers ventured that “Maduro’s grip on power is weakening.” At a press conference, opposition legislator Freddy Guevara said: “Twenty days of resistance and we feel newly born.” Raquel Belfort told Time Magazine: This is the moment….People are sick of this….we’ve touched rock bottom. I think if we take to the streets every day we’ll end this government.”

Yet in an April 21 article for The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry suggested that an end to Maduro’s tyranny is not yet in sight. Venezuela, Gobry lamented, “cannot wake up from its socialist nightmare.” Maduro, he maintained “increasingly looks like a ‘Bolivarian’ version of Vladimir Putin, holding power through corrupt patronage, fear, and the smothering of alternative voices and power centers.”

Father of the revolution: Hugo Chavez

Gobry served up a welter of chilling statistics about Venezuela’s “rotting” economy: “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.” The very real human toll of this socialist disaster is reflected in the fact that during the past year, “74 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of nearly 20 pounds each.” Also, “children are suffering from malnourishment for the first time in the country’s modern history” and “hospitals are running out of even basic drugs.” On April 20, the Wall Street Journal reported that many Venezuelans are, quite simply, too hungry to join in the protests. 

Among the recent casualties of the economic free-fall was an announcement on that same date that General Motors, in reaction to a government seizure of one of its factories, was withdrawing entirely from the country, where it has thousands of employees. Oh, and let’s not forget that Caracas is now “the murder capital of the world.” All this in a country with extraordinary human and natural resources that was once, hard as it may now be to believe, on the verge of having a First World economy.

Tightening the screws in Venezuela

Venezuelans lining up for groceries

Ever since this website got underway, we’ve been following the inexorable economic decline of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela under the rule of Hugo Chávez’s hapless yet ruthless protégé and successor, Nicolás Maduro. We’ve seen how Maduro’s stubborn devotion to socialist policies has led to shortages in basic goods and even – in a country that’s one of the world’s largest oil producers – to an inability to provide Venezuelan motorists with enough gasoline to keep their cars and trucks going.

Political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez

A year ago, the Venezuelan electorate dealt chavismo a huge blow by electing a National Assembly dominated by opponents of the Maduro regime. The vote was viewed as a potential game changer. Observers assumed there would be major changes in the offing. For example, it was widely believed that Maduro’s most high-profile political prisoner, the folk hero Leopoldo López, would soon be free.

Donald Trump, Liliana Tintori, Mike Pence, and Marco Rubio at the White House on February 15

Well, López is still behind bars. (His wife, Liliana Tintori, met  with President Trump in February, after which Trump called for Lopez’s immediate release.) And not much else has changed, either. At least not for the positive. On the contrary, Maduro has flexed his muscles more aggressively than ever – limiting the authority of the National Assembly, stepping up arrests of opposition leaders, imprisoning people without trial, canceling elections, violently crushing protests, closing down CNN en Español, and barring the New York Times’s Caracas correspondent from the country. In late March, according to the Times, “the United States, Canada and a dozen of Latin America’s largest nations called for Mr. Maduro to recognize the National Assembly’s powers, a rare joint statement that reflected deep impatience with his government.”

A Venezuelan protester holds up a flag bearing the slogan: “No dictatorship”

Alas, Maduro, instead of responding to this statement by developing a newfound respect for the National Assembly, did precisely the opposite. On March 29, Venezuela’s Supreme Court, which is dominated by Maduro loyalists, essentially dissolved the National Assembly and said that henceforth it, the Court, would be exercising legislative powers in its stead. In one fell swoop, this outrageous action effectively removed from the scene the major challenge to Maduro’s authority. As the Times noted, “In taking power from the National Assembly, the ruling removed what most consider to be the only remaining counterbalance to the president’s growing power in the country.”

Julio Borges protesting the Court’s action

Of course, there’s a word for this sort of thing: coup. Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, did not hesitate to call it precisely that. The U.S., Mexico, and Colombia all officially denounced the Supreme Court’s action; Peru cut off diplomatic relations with Venezuela. Julio Borges, president of the National Assembly, denounced the Court’s ruling as “garbage,” stating: “They have kidnapped the Constitution, they have kidnapped our rights, they have kidnapped our liberty.”

Nicolas Maduro

The Miami Herald quoted Peter Schechter, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, as saying that Venezuela should henceforth be treated as a “pariah state.” Stated Schechter: “If there was any doubt before, there should no longer be one: Venezuela is a dictatorship.” The Times echoed this view, noting that the Venezuelan government, which until recently had been described by many as “an authoritarian regime,” was now widely viewed as “an outright dictatorship.”

To anyone familiar with the dreadful, depressing history of institutionalized socialism, none of this should be terribly surprising. The implementation of socialist ideology inevitably leads, sooner or later, to economic crisis, food shortages, and the suppression of human rights; and this combination of disasters, in turn, almost invariably causes the tyrants in charge not to reverse their catastrophic policies but to tighten the screws and intensify their grasp on power.

Briefly put: this can’t end well.

Socialism’s triumph: Oil-rich Venezuela is out of gas

Nicolas Maduro

As the Venezuelan economy continues to circle the drain, perhaps the quintessential symbol of the extraordinary personal incompetence of President Nicolás Maduro and of the thoroughgoing failure of the socialist system he inherited from his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, has been the mind-boggling inability of this, one of the top oil-producing nations on earth, to meet its own people’s demand for gasoline. This shortfall has occurred despite the fact that Venezuela has actually been importing fuel – for most of which, according to reports, it has been unable to pay its bills.

Cars lined up for gas at Maturin, Venezuela, on March 23

Over the last few months, despite continual reassurances by Maduro, the supply crisis has only gotten worse. On February 21, Maduro promised “good news soon” because he had installed a “new PDVSA board” that was dedicated to fighting “corruption and unnecessary costs.” On March 22, however, thanks to maintenance issues, production challenges, shipping difficulties, and a shortage of working trucks attributed to a lack of spare parts – in other words, significant problems at pretty much every stage of the oil extraction and distribution process – the situation had deteriorated to a point at which the entire nation was experiencing a critical shortage of petrol. At gas stations across the country, dozens of cars could be seen queued up, their owners hoping in vain to be able to fill their tanks.

Eulogio del Pino

Aside from the magnificently unmasterly Maduro himself, the personification of this embarrassing dilemma is Eulogio del Pino, president of the country’s colossal oil entity, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), which is the primary engine of the nation’s economic power, such as it is. Or was. In a touch that would seem insane in the policies of any country but that these days seems par for the course for the Bolivarian Republic, just a couple of days ago came the news that Venezuela, despite its domestic oil crunch and its emergency oil-import policy, had not only continued but stepped up fuel exports to Cuba, Nicaragua, and other allies.

On March 23, a man in Maturin pushes his car after running out of gas

But, as with much else about Venezuela’s current, many-faceted nightmare, the chief culprit here seems to be Maduro himself. Apparently more interested, even now, in shoring up and enhancing his own power than in trying to rescue his nation from catastrophe, he’s dismissed relatively skilled key officials in the PDVSA and replaced them with his political and military cronies, most of whom have little or no background in the oil business – or, for that matter, in the competent management of anything. Other PDVSA executives, recognizing that Maduro’s hirings and firings are only helping to drive the state-owned company even further into the ground, have jumped ship of their own accord, presumably recognizing that at this point, under present governance, the whole massive enterprise is, quite simply, doomed.  

In the midst of all this drama, Del Pino, in what can only be read as a display of the remarkably tone-deaf insouciance that so often characterizes the mindless, mediocre agents of ineffectual and indifferent authoritarian states, visited a fuel distribution plant where, in response to a chorus of irate complaints by laborers about their working conditions and salaries, simply smiled inanely, loftily ignoring their concerns. Somehow, that distant and detached reaction seemed the perfect summing-up of the whole ridiculous tragedy.

The economic Rasputin behind Venezuela’s collapse

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Alfredo Serrano Mancilla

On this website we’ve covered the ongoing and ever worsening nightmare that is chavismo frequently and from a number of angles. One name we’ve failed to mention so far, however, is that of Alfredo Serrano Mancilla, who was described recently as “the man behind Venezuela’s economic mess” – not exactly the most coveted label of our time. The Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional said that it’s “entirely” thanks to Serrano that the nation “continues to insist on the economic models of socialism in the 21st century, despite the queues, shortages, and inflation.”

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José Guerra

Who is Serrano? A native Spaniard, he studied economics in Barcelona and Quebec, then relocated to Latin America along with several other anti-capitalist economists in search of the opportunity of putting their theories into action. According to the Wall Street Journal, they were soon “advising leftist leaders in Bolivia and Ecuador on economics, setting up social programs and the drafting of new constitutions.” José Guerra, an opposition legislator and economist, told the Journal that “Serrano is a typical European leftist who came to Latin America to experiment with things no one wants at home: state domination, price controls and fixed exchange rates.” In 2014, Serrano “established a think tank in Ecuador called the Latin American Strategic Center of Geopolitic.” (Although its think tank identifies him as “a professor at eight universities across Spain and Latin America,” the Journal managed to establish that he was not on the staff of any of them.) He also reportedly holds the title of coordinator at a Spain-based group called the Center for Political and Social Studies (CEPS).

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Hugo Chávez

His contribution to the trainwreck of Venezuela began relatively recently. In his 2014 book, The Economic Thought of Hugo Chávez, he lavished praise upon the late president’s social and economic planning. His view, as summed up by the PanAm Post, is that “the socialist economic model of the 21st century is unquestionable, and that any failure is the result of attacks from the opposition.” Pause to contemplate that one for a minute: in 2014, by which time the writing was already on the wall for the Venezuelan economy, this guy – a professional economic consultant – was prepared to get up and say that the solution to the country’s problems lay not in changing course but in doubling down. It was beyond idiotic – but it impressed Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, himself an idiot, who has called Serrano “a man of great courage” and “a very intelligent, very qualified man who’s building new concepts for a new economy of the 21st century.” He’s even dubbed Serrano “the Jesus Christ of the economy.”

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
Nicolás Maduro

Next thing you knew, Maduro was slavishly following every last one of Serrano’s aggressively radical prescriptions. Among them: the government expropriation of private property and seizure of private businesses, the promotion of “urban agriculture” on people’s apartment balconies, the inauguration of a Soviet-style system for supplying goods to consumers, and the Maoist-style practice of forcing city residents to work on state-owned farms.

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Grigori Rasputin in 1916

In addition to formulating all these suicidal policies, Serrano wrote speeches for Maduro in which the president vigorously defended them and refused to let humanitarian aid into the country (a position apparently rooted in a good old Stalinist-style desire to “hide the crisis” from the outside world). And while Maduro has followed this Rasputin’s advice, he’s utterly ignored other insiders who’ve urged him to undertake more conventional, market-friendly reforms to halt economic collapse. We can only hope that when Venezuelans finally do take their country back, Serrano – along with Maduro – will get the payback he deserves. Unfortunately, like so many other Western socialists who love enjoying their own prosperity and privilege as much as they love engineering other people’s poverty, he’ll probably get away with his destruction, beating a hasty retreat back to Spain, where he can continue to spread his terrible ideas in academic books and university lecture halls.

Sheila Jackson Lee: The ultimate useful idiot?

sheila-jackson-lee
Sheila Jackson Lee

As we’ve pointed out before on this blog, some useful stooges are simply too smart to refer to as useful idiots. But some of them definitely are idiots. Case in point: Sheila Jackson Lee, who has been a congresswoman from Texas since 1995.

First, her stoogery.

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Bashar al-Assad

During a 2003 “fact-finding mission” to Europe and the Middle East, Jackson Lee met Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and returned home saying she’d been “impressed” by him and had invited him to America to speak – even though Syria was a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism and rogue nation. “He’s a 39-year-old president who even gave us a picture of him and his children,” Jackson Lee told a reporter, in a daffy, head-scratching non-sequitur of a sort she has long specialized in.

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Hugo Chávez

Jackson Lee was the first House member to visit Hugo Chávez after his 2007 re-election as president of Venezuela, and despite his relentless, poisonous anti-American rhetoric, she described herself as a “friend” of his and called for “an immediate repairing of the relations between the United States and Venezuela.” She even insisted that the U.S. help Chávez strengthen his military – even though his clearly stated purpose in building up his military was to prepare for war with the U.S.

As for her idiocy:

In 1997, Jackson Lee – who at the time was a member of the House Science Committee and of the subcommittee that oversees NASA – asked a question which made it clear that she thought Neil Armstrong, in 1969, had walked on Mars, not the Moon. In 2010, she said: “Today we have two Vietnams, side by side, North and South.” Of course, South Vietnam had been absorbed into North Vietnam in 1976. In 2011, she suggested that repeal of Obamacare would violate the Constitution, a claim that made no sense whatsoever. In 2014, she said that the Constitution was 400 years old. (She was off by over a century and a half.) In an interview this past October, she vociferously denounced Wikipedia – she meant to say Wikileaks.

When called out on gaffes like these, Jackson Lee has often replied with charges of racism. She has made a habit, in fact, of calling people racists. In 2005, she complained that the names given to hurricanes were too “lily white” and insisted that they should also be given more black-sounding names like Keisha and Jamal. She also maintained that racism (directed at President Obama) was the reason why House Republicans refused to raise the debt limit. She even accused a 2011 Super Bowl commercial for Pepsi-Cola of racism.

Oh, and on top of her stoogery and idiocy, she’s also an extremely unpleasant creature who has repeatedly been named the meanest member of Congress.

The top ten stooges of 2016

Time again, kids, for our annual top-ten list. As before, these aren’t necessarily the worst human beings we covered last year; they’re people whose deplorable activities stood out in some way or another. One more thing: this time around, we’ve decided to forego the old cranks and creeps and focus instead on relatively youthful stooges – young-to-middle-aged characters who are especially worth keeping tabs on because their most high-profile and influential stoogery probably lies ahead of them…alas. Anyway, here goes:

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Max Blumenthal

To quote Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Max Blumenthal “is quite simply one of the most biased, anti-Semitic, terrorist-defending, Israel-has-no-right-to-exist haters out there.” And here’s what fellow leftist Eric Alterman had to say about Max’s 2013 anti-Israel screed Genesis: “this book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club.” The vile spawn of ethically bankrupt Clinton lackey Sidney Blumenthal (one of the slimiest operatives ever to set foot inside the Washington Beltway), Sonny Boy routinely equates the Jewish state with Nazi Germany; this year he praised a massacre of IDF soldiers by Hamas commanders. In short, he’s as low as they go – and a dyed-in-the-wool chip off the old block.

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Nick Dearden

In 2016, while other fans of chavismo hid in shame as the system they’d celebrated brought the Venezuelan economy to its knees, British activist Nick Dearden was actually cheering what he described as that country’s “food revolution.” What on earth was he talking about? Answer: a new law that bans genetically modified seeds and prohibit the sale to corporations of “indigenous knowledge” in the field of agriculture. The result, Dearden enthused, would be “a truly democratic food system” that made the Bolivarian Republic “a beacon of hope.” Tell that to all the people who are eating their pets and breaking into bodegas to steal bread.

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Malcolm Harris

When Occupy Wall Street went bottom-up, blame focused largely on Malcolm Harrisa founder of the movement who’s been accused by fellow left-winger Mark Ames of exploiting OWS to “build his own brand.” Meaning what? Well, when leaders of Occupy Redlands in California invited Harris to give a lecture, they heard back from a speakers’ agency: the fee would be $5,000, plus travel and hotel. This year Harris wrote a piece called “Who’s Afraid of Communism?” – a call for millennials to reject capitalism and take a fresh, “nuanced” look at Mao and Stalin. When the Revolution comes, will he still be allowed to charge five grand for a speech?

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David Sirota

In June, we met chavismo enthusiast and former Bernie Sanders flunky David Sirota. Described by Newsweek in 2003 as “well schooled in the art of Washington warfare,” by the New York Times as a guy with a “take-no-prisoners mind-set” toward Republicans and centrists, and by election expert Nate Silver as a dude who plays “fast and loose with the truth,” Sirota wrote an article after the Boston Marathon bombing expressing the hope that the perpetrator was a white American. Like Dearden, moreover, Sirota has cheered Venezuela’s “economic miracle.” Of course, the only “economic miracle” in Venezuela is that the country, despite its massive petroleum resources, now has to import oil. 

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Colin Kaepernick

On August 26, San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick protested racism in America by refusing to stand up for the National Anthem before a game. This started a trend that has spread to a variety of sports at every level. Whatever one thinks of it, one part of this episode is unambiguously contemptible: at his press conference that day, Kaepernick wore a T-shirt covered with pictures of Fidel Castro and Malcolm X. The message was clear: the U.S. is a contemptibly racist nation and Cuba a model of racial harmony. Pure Communist propaganda, of course: in reality, aside from being a totalitarian state, Cuba is a country where intense racial prejudice is still a fact of life. Too bad Kaepernick is so ill-informed – and that his ignorance has given rise to such a divisive movement.

Five more tomorrow.