Venezuela: still plummeting

For years, many members of the U.S. news media treated the chavista regime in Venezuela with far more respect than it deserved. Hugo Chávez, Americans were told, might not be perfect – he might not, for example, be as devoted to democratic principles as some of us might prefer – but he was a true hero, using his power (albeit quite ruthlessly at times) to bring fairness and equality to his country.

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A cockatoo in every pot?

If there’s anything good about the current economic decline of Venezuela, it’s that such glowing reports are now rather thin on the ground – almost as thin, indeed, as many an indigent Venezuelan who goes to bed hungry every night because there’s nothing on the grocery shelves.

One prominent instance of the new media frankness about Venezuela was a January 29 article in the Washington Post, in which Matt O’Brien explained that both that country’s government and its economy “are well into their death throes.” Experts, he noted, now “expect Venezuela to default on its debt in the very near future. The country is basically bankrupt.” This, even though it has “the largest oil reserves in the world.” But as O’Brien pointed out, that’s the genius of chavista socialism.

The recipe for this disaster? Hand out freebies you can’t pay for. Replace skilled officials at the state-owned oil company with incompetent friends of the regime. And when the money runs out, just start printing more. Quoth O’Brien: “Lenin was wrong. Debauching the currency is actually the best way to destroy the socialist, not the capitalist, system.”

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At least the supply of grocery carts seems undiminished.

Thanks to the wisdom of chavismo, Venezuela’s supermarkets have empty shelves, the breweries don’t have “enough hops to make beer,” its factories have insuffienct “pulp to produce toilet paper,” and so on. “The only thing Venezuela is well-supplied with are lines,” wrote O’Brien. Long, long lines of people waiting to buy things that are in short supply – if they’re in stock at all. Readers will recall that we’ve already discussed this socialist triumph on this site; the one new twist here, identified by O’Brien, is that the Venezuelan government has actually started rationing spots on those grocery-store queues, “kicking people out of line based on the last digit of their national ID card.” 

A February 3 article by Kejal Vyas in the Wall Street Journal provided some more illuminating details.“Millions of pounds of provisions, stuffed into three-dozen 747 cargo planes, arrived here from countries around the world in recent months to service Venezuela’s crippled economy,” reported Vyas from Caracas. But the “provisions” to which Vyas was referred weren’t food items or medical supplies – they were shipments of currency, “at least five billion” freshly printed bank notes, which reportedly doubled the amount of cash in circulation.

What does this stunning development portend? We’ll talk about that tomorrow. 

Shilling for Maduro

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Sean Penn, Hugo Chávez

Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion.” That’s Sean Penn, Oscar-winning actor, political activist, and ex-spouse of Madonna, upon hearing the news of Hugo Chávez’s death. “I lost a friend I was blessed to have,” Penn lamented, adding that “Venezuela and its revolution will endure under the proven leadership of vice president Maduro.”

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Hugo Chávez, Michael Moore

On the same occasion, Michael Moore tweeted: “Hugo Chávez declared the oil belonged 2 the ppl. He used the oil $ 2 eliminate 75% of extreme poverty, provide free health & education 4 all. That made him dangerous. US approved of a coup to overthrow him even though he was a democratically-elected president.”

We’ve already surveyed Oliver Stone‘s tributes to Chávez, which included not only any number of embarrassingly fulsome press releases but two classic examples of film agitprop. But in addition to this trio of ill-informed Hollywood stooges (whose equally deplorable Fidel fandom we’ve previously covered), the putatively humble-yet-heroic Hugo – and his less colorful but equally vile successor, Nicolás Maduro – have also accumulated praise from people who actually should know better.

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Joseph P. Kennedy

One of them is ex-Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II – JFK’s nephew; Bobby and Ethel’s oldest son – who today runs a green-oriented nonprofit called Citizens Energy. In February 2014, under the headline “A Kennedy Shills for Maduro,” Sohrab Ahmari reported in the Wall Street Journal that TV ads for Citizens Energy were praising Maduro for providing free heating fuel to underprivileged Bay Staters. Calling the commercials “an almost-perfect exercise in demagoguery,” Ahmari described one of them as follows:

The cold can overwhelm even the toughest amongst us,” Mr. Kennedy says, as a sad piano tune plays and images of children with cancer fill the screen. “The heating bills just keep piling on,” Mr. Kennedy goes on, and we see him hugging a young cancer survivor, who smiles but also seems slightly uncomfortable. Then, following a burst of upbeat music, Mr. Kennedy says: “The people of Venezuela and President Maduro are once again . . . the only country to answer our call to provide heating assistance to the poor.”

As Ahmari noted, the ads didn’t mention such “other hallmarks of the Maduro regime” as outrageous corruption, soaring crime, shortages of food and medicine, and the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López. “Given the situation at home,” Ahmari summed up, “Maduro must be thrilled that he can count on useful idiots like Joe Kennedy to sing his praises to the world.”

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Belén Fernández

Then there’s Belén Fernández, who in February 2014 published an article at the Al Jazeera website that was one long sneer at the “absurd hysterics that typify the Venezuelan opposition,” a.k.a. the “doom-and-gloom squawking of the elite.” Fernández’s case in point: a Caracas blogger, Emiliana Duarte, who’d written about having to visit ten different supermarkets in order to find all the ingredients she needed to bake a cake.

Duarte’s account nicely illustrated the impact of chronic shortages on everyday Venezuelan life; but for Fernández, it was nothing but an “elite right-wing…sob story” and a “less than persuasive evidence of the supposedly brutal tyranny under which Duarte and her socioeconomic cohorts are forced to reside.” Of course, the story wasn’t intended to provide evidence of brutal tyranny but of economic mismanagement; in any event, Fernández had nothing to counter it with but mockery. For her, plainly, any criticism of any aspect of chavismo is nothing but elitist treason, motivated by a longing for (as she put it) “the deliverance of Venezuela into the imperial [American] embrace.”

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Dan Kovalik

Or take “social-justice” activist Dan Kovalik, who has called Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution “the most benevolent revolution in history.” In a piece that ran at Huffington Post on February 20, 2014, Kovalik spun chavismo this way: it’s benefited “the very poor and those of darker skin tone,” so if the U.S. government and media smear Venezuela as a “basket case” and condemn its “alleged lack of democracy,” it’s because they’re racists who “openly side with the white, wealthy elite – such as Kenyon and Harvard trained right wing leader Leopoldo López.”

Kovalik’s mention of López was, alas, not well-timed: two days before Kovalik’s article appeared, López was put under arrest; he’s been behind bars ever since, and both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch consider him a political prisoner. (HRW described his detention as exemplary of “the classic tactics of an authoritarian regime.”)

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Venezuelans waiting in line outside a supermarket

As for the Venezuelan economy, Kovalik called “claims of ‘economic collapse’…quite exaggerated,” citing as evidence import and export figures that proved nothing. (The shortages went unmentioned.) And the country’s high level of violence? Kovalik attributed it – with a straight face – to opposition agitators, and even maintained that “the Venezuelan government has exercised great restraint” in its response to that violence.

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Empty shelves in a Venezuelan supermarket

Sheer fiction. Kovalik’s piece made one thing clear. For him, as for Fernández, any criticism of chavismo, however legitimate, should be recognized as part of a perfidious effort to “reverse” Venezuela’s “liberation” from U.S. domination – and, consequently, even the most deceitful response to such criticism is justifiable as a blow for the glorious revolution.

Oh, and by the way: in April, 2015, the Fusion website reported that some hotels in Venezuela were now asking foreign tourists to bring their own toilet paper and other basic supplies. “For over a year,” lamented one hotelier, “we haven’t had toilet paper, soap, any kind of milk, coffee or sugar. So we have to tell our guests to come prepared.” Another hotel owner admitted that in all good conscience, she couldn’t advise visitors from abroad to come to Venezuela: “As soon as they get off the plane they will encounter risks.” 

Welcome to “liberation,” chavista style.

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More Venezuelans queuing up to buy groceries

 

 

South of the border

We’ve met some of the corrupt characters who made up Hugo Chávez‘s inner circle – most of whom are today part of (or very close to) the government of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro.

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Hugo Chávez

A few months after Chávez’s 2013 death, the consequences of his and his cronies’ corruption were deftly described in the British Spectator by James Bloodworth. Under the headline “Venezuela: a shining example of how not to help the poor,” he summed up these leeches’ dubious achievement:

While Brazil is on the verge of global power status…15 years of “21st century socialism” has left Venezuela with one of the world’s “highest inflation rates, worst misalignment of the exchange rate, fastest-growing debt, and one of the most precipitous drops in productive capacity,” according to former Venezuelan minister Moises Naim. The country is also a more dangerous place to live than Iraq….

The real shame is that Hugo Chávez is no longer around to witness the Venezuelan masses pay for his government’s idiocy.

Michael Moynihan, writing last year in the Daily Beast, had a few questions for Western chavistas. To begin with: how would they react if the U.S. president, say, arrested an opposition leader, or shut off the Internet in politically unreliable cities, or had demonstrators murdered, or jailed a judge who ruled against his intelligence operations? How long would Americans allow their president “to run up massive inflation?” Or:

How long would it be considered reasonable – and not the president’s responsibility – to preside over 23,000 murders in a country of just under 30 million people, a rate that would horrify the average resident of Baghdad? How long could supermarket shelves remain bare of basic staples like bread and milk before The Nation or The Guardian would gleefully decide that America was a failed, kleptocratic state? Or if Bush or Obama’s economic policies meant that toilet paper could no longer be found on the open market?

Every word, as they say, is true. And then some. Yet there’s been no shortage of “cheerleaders” (as Bloodworth put it) willing to set the facts aside and sing the praises of what Bloodworth (quite properly) calls Chávez’s “clownish revolution.”

Consider these excerpts from a piece that ran on CNN’s website, no less, after the caudillo’s death:

Hugo Chávez was beloved by millions around the world. He changed the course of a continent and led a collective awakening of a people once silenced, once exploited and ignored. Chávez was a grandiose visionary and a maker of dreams.

An honest man from a humble background ….Chávez dreamed of building a strong, sovereign nation, independent of foreign influence and dignified on the world scene. He dreamed of improving the lives of his people…

President Chávez made those dreams come true.

The author concludes by recalling a statement by Chávez to the effect that he was “just a soldier.” Her comment:

Yes, Chávez, you are a soldier, a glorious soldier of a dignified, proud and kind people. And you are a maker of dreams for millions around the world.

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Eva Golinger

The piece – with its over-the-top, Pyongyang-style encomia for the Dear Leader, its mastery of the good old Stalinist cult-of-personality style – precisely exemplifies the kind of rhetoric about Chávez that his own regime promoted. No surprise, then, that its author, Eva Golinger, turned out to be a longtime professional chavista – a policy adviser to the Venezuelan government, editor of a newspaper published by the Venezuelan government, and a former head of the New York-based Venezuela Solidarity Committee.

But what is surprising – or should be – is the number of people who presumably aren’t on the government payroll but who, despite the disastrous repercussions of Chávez’s rule, have persisted in praising him. Among them are reliable Hollywood lefties Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, and Michael Moore.

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Hugo Chávez, Oliver Stone

We’ve seen how Stone – a writer and director of considerable talent but staggeringly poor political judgment – made not one, not two, but three documentaries in praise of Fidel Castro; as it happens, he’s also directed two pictures about Chávez, South of the Border and My Friend Hugo, the latter of which was released last year on the first anniversary of the dictator’s demise. The New York Times reported that the problems with South of the Border

begin early on, with his account of Mr. Chávez’s rise. As “South of the Border” portrays it, Mr. Chávez’s main opponent in his initial run for president in 1998 was “a 6-foot-1-inch blond former Miss Universe” named Irene Sáez, and thus “the contest becomes known as the Beauty and the Beast” election.

But Mr. Chávez’s main opponent then was not Ms. Sáez, who finished third, with less than 3 percent of the vote. It was Henrique Salas Romer, a bland former state governor who won 40 percent of the vote.

The Times’s Stephen Holden called South of the Border a “provocative, if shallow, exaltation of Latin American socialism”; Entertainment Weekly called it “rose-colored agitprop.” Confronted with a series of discrepancies between the historical record and the film’s account of it, Stone’s co-writer, Tariq Ali, explained: “We were not writing a book, or having an academic debate. [Our goal] was to have a sympathetic view of these governments.”

Yes, whether the facts warranted it or not.

stone_chavez2Time film critic Richard Corliss’s review of South of the Border was headlined “Oliver Stone and Hugo Chávez: A Love Story.” Commenting that Stone “sees the geopolitical glass as all empty (the U.S. and its world-banking arm, the International Monetary Fund) or all full (Chávez and his comrade Presidentes in South America),” Corliss summed up the film as follows:

Every step of the way, Stone is by, and on, on the President’s side. He raises no tough issues, some of which are summarized in Amnesty International’s 2009 report on Venezuela: “Attacks on journalists were widespread. Human-rights defenders continued to suffer harassment. Prison conditions provoked hunger strikes in facilities across the country.” Referring to the 2006 election in which Chávez won a third term, Stone tells viewers that “90% of the media was opposed to him,” and yet he prevailed. “There is a lesson to be learned,” Stone says. Yes: support the man in power, or your newspaper, radio station or TV network may be in jeopardy.

The good news about South of the Border? It tanked in – guess where? – Venezuela. “Despite round-the-clock promotion on Venezuelan state television and government-subsidized screenings in the capital of Caracas,” Stone’s nauseatingly hagiographic pic “grossed only $18,601 on 20 screens in the 12 days after its June 4 debut.”

stone_chavez3(By comparison, at around the same time, the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It took in $2.1 million from Venezuela audiences.)

Not that this poor showing dampened Stone’s outsized cariño for Chávez. When His Holiness kicked off, Stone eulogized him as follows: “I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people and those who struggle throughout the world for a place….Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chávez will live forever in history.”

Yeah. Just like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

Supermarket sweep

Historically, we Americans – regardless of sex or region or ideological orientation or economic status or educational background – have tended to be suspicious of politicians. We’re not in a hurry to trust them. We see them as a necessary evil. Many of us assume they’re corrupt.

And indeed many of them are.

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Nicolás Maduro

But when it comes to corruption, the great majority of U.S. politicians look like total amateurs compared to pretty much everybody in the government of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, heir to Hugo Chávez. These guys often seem like competitors in some perverse, hyped-up version of that old game show Supermarket Sweep, on which contestants raced up and down the grocery aisles at top speed, dumping as much merchandise as they could into their shopping carts before the buzzer went off.

(This comparison is perhaps especially apt given the way in which chavismo corruption has emptied Venezuelan supermarket shelves.)

In short, chavista politics is a grotesque grabfest – a hustle wrapped in a dodge wrapped in a racket. The shame factor is at zero. One after another chavista politician has been all but penniless when he took his first oath of office – and next thing you knew, the dude had a parking lot full of cars, a fleet of planes, and a half dozen mansions in as many countries. Rarely, moreover, does anybody raise an eyebrow about any of this obvious criminality, let alone look into the source of the lucky guy’s newfound lucre.

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Hugo Chávez

In chavista culture, grotesque corruption is taken for granted.

When Hugo Chávez became President in 1999, he rechristened the country as the “Bolivian Republic of Venezuela,” in honor of the noble nineteenth-century revolutionary Simón Bolívar, who is universally known as the “George Washington of South America.” Chávez claimed Bolívar as a hero, but Bolívar himself would doubtless have been appalled by pretty much everything about Chávez.

In any event, the nation’s newly minted name spawned a number of corollary monickers: bolichicos, a label for young Chávez-connected businessmen in a hurry; boliburgueses (i.e., boli-bourgeoisie), a term for supposedly socialist Chávez loyalists who are also suspiciously successful big-time capitalists; and bolifuncionarios, that is, pals of Hugo who were handed top jobs for which they had absolutely no visible qualifications and who proceeded to steal pretty much everything that wasn’t nailed down.

No, let’s not put it quite that way. Describing these crooks as mere sticky-fingered second-story men isn’t giving them enough credit. After all, they don’t just back up the truck and start loading it; they work hard at their thievery. Indeed, some of them have come up with such ingenious money-stealing stratagems that you can’t help thinking that if they’d devoted a fraction as much intelligence and energy to something that would benefit (rather than rip off) the Venezuelan people, the country’s economy would be thriving, rather than in the toilet.

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Tarek El Aissami

Most of these creeps’ careers have followed essentially the same basic pattern. They started by being lucky enough to run across Chávez (or some Chávez intimate) in their youth. In addition to knowing Chávez, many of them have (to put it mildly) shady pasts: at college, Tarek El Aissami, current head of the ruling PSUV party, ran the dorms like a prison warden, using them to hide stolen cars, carry out drug sales, and house guerrillas. But such dicey résumé items are never held against these scoundrels.

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José David Cabello

Routinely, these chavistas started out in government at the very top – going straight from a job as (say) an ordinary accountant or farm worker to becoming the #1 guy at the state oil or transport or telecom firm, or serving as Minister of this or that. Also routinely, they jump from one of these top jobs to another – or even, in some cases (in defiance of both the Venezuelan Constitution and good administrative policy), hold more than one top job at the same time. For example, current Minister of Industries José David Cabello has previously served as head of the state tax agency (Seniat), as a board member of the state agency for international commerce (Cencoex), as head of the national airline (Conviasa), and as Minister of Infrastructure.

These top jobs all have two things in common: first, they require skills, education, and/or experience that none of these well-connected appointees has ever had; second, they give these guys access to piles and piles of dough. This combination of stellar incompetence and magnificent opportunities for corruption is exactly why the country is now a shambles.

Now, as to the specifics of their larceny. As noted, they don’t just walk off with sacks of cash. No: they devise baroque ripoff schemes that are more complicated than the plot of a Renaissance play. These subterfuges typically involve the creation – for purposes of money laundering – of any number of fake banks and holding companies in places like Luxembourg, Switzerland, Belize, and the Cayman Islands.

They also often involve the creation of fake companies that are awarded lucrative no-bid contracts for government projects, which are then subcontracted to real companies for lower sums, with the bolifunctionario pocketing the difference. Some of these guys are especially ambitious in their perfidy: in order to make it harder to follow the trail of stolen taxpayer cash, Aissami runs a “multilayered and vast network of shell companies” that are based in a range of countries and, on paper, are run by various friends and relatives.

Broad-scale nepotism and kickbacks are a standard part of the picture, too. Several of these guys, moreover, own sports teams, which provide a whole separate – and wonderfully rich – set of opportunities for illegal enrichment. Indeed, these gangsters have their fingers in all kinds of pies one didn’t even realize existed.

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Victor Vargas

The result of all this masterful duplicity is that it can be difficult, in Venezuela, to know who really owns what, how much money they have, where it came from, and where exactly they’re keeping it. Victor Vargas, a bank president popularly known as the “Chávez banker,” is “widely believed to own Cadena Capriles,” the country’s biggest media conglomerate – but since it was purchased abroad through a proxy firm, nobody can be sure whether he owns it or not.

Eventually, many of these sleazeballs have been fingered as crooks, either by opposition politicians or by foreign governments, or both; in some cases, Venezuelan prosecutors have actually gone after them, with two or three of them becoming defendants in a dozen or more corruption-related lawsuits at a time. When they are caught red-handed, none of these guys ever evinces remorse or shame; the typical move, instead, is to denounce one’s accusers as enemies of the revolution and tools of American imperialism.

VENEZUELA-ELECTIONSIn any event, however much public attention is drawn to these flimflam men’s irregular activities, almost none of them ever loses his job. Yes, once in a long while one of them is actually fired for corruption – perhaps to make the regime look above-board, or perhaps just because the person in question has crossed the Dear Leader or become inconvenient to him. But for the most part, these malefactors enjoy absolute impunity.

Next time around: a rogues’ gallery of bolifuncionarios.