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.

Protecting the Chávez legacy

Jack Staples-Butler

Yesterday we discussed a thoughtful piece by Jack Staples-Butler about the Western apologists for Venezuelan chavismo who helped Hugo Chávez gain (and regain) power – but who, as the thug’s misguided socialist project (now in the hands of his hapless successor, Nicolás Maduro) has led his country further and further into ruin, have run for the hills rather than face up to their share of moral responsibility for this colossal failure.

Diane Abbott, Labour MP

At the head of Staples-Butler’s list of unapologetic apologists is Owen Jones, who along with Members of Parliament Grahame Morris and Diane Abbott, Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, and the repulsive anti-Semite George Galloway, among others, served as official, and supposedly “independent,” observers of the 2012 election in which Chávez was re-elected. Of course, as Staples-Butler pointed out, “There was nothing remotely ‘independent’ about the observers – all were from the socialist left, all had expressed support for Chávez and most crucially, all were involved in some capacity with the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.”

Owen Jones

In an article written on the occasion of Chávez’s death in 2013, Jones recalled his fierce chavista partisanship and raised the possibility that some observers might consider him a “useful idiot.” Staples-Butler’s comment: no, he and his fellow British chavistas were not “useful idiots”; they were worse. Because they knew more about the reality of chavismo than a lot of Stalin’s “useful idiots” in Britain during the 1930s knew about the reality of Stalin’s USSR. Reporters like this website’s mascot, Walter Duranty of the New York Times, systematically whitewashed the reality of life in the Soviet Union, denying the reality of everything from the Holdomor to the Gulag. By contrast, observes Staples-Butler,

Hugo Chavez

Human Rights Watch and other organisations provided overwhelming and easily-accessible evidence that Venezuela had during the 2000s become a dictatorship, a home to mass murder and political repression sliding towards economic and social collapse. This was or should have been self-evident to any journalist, politician or educated person who visited Venezuela even if they were under the chaperone of a tightly-managed official tour. Direct contact was not even necessary to know what was happening there. Nothing more than an Internet connection and a library card would provide the mountains of information collected on political and social conditions in the country which had not been produced by Venezuelan state media.

Chavez with longtime buddy Fidel Castro

And yet they lied. Jones lied. “[W]hen it comes to his relationship with his opposition, Chávez has arguably been pretty lenient,” wrote Jones in 2012. Compared to whom? “The status of human rights deterioration and abuse in Venezuela,” maintains Staples-Butler, “was apparent and visible for the entirety of Chávez’s rule.” He cites reports by Human Rights Watch, which documented this reality year by year throughout the Chávez presidency. Also in 2012, Jones claimed that Venezuela’s “private media enjoys a 90 per cent audience share and routinely pump out vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda.” Very early in Chávez’s presidency, there was some truth in this; before long, however, journalists were being harassed, newspaper offices attacked, and censorship imposed, with serious penalties put in place for those who dared defame the caudillo. Apropos of Chávez’s alliance with such regimes as that of the Castros in Cuba, Jones pointed to the fact that the U.S. and U.K., too, had cooperative relationships with autocratic governments; the difference Jones failed to acknowledge, however, was that Chávez’s ties to Cuba weren’t just strategic, but founded in his desire “to remake Venezuela in the image” of Cuba and other dictatorships.

At this point, Staples-Butler is an obscure law student. We can only hope that he’ll soon be as widely published, read, and cited as his mendacious, tyranny-loving co-patriot Owen Jones.

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.

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.

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.

The economic Rasputin behind Venezuela’s collapse

alfredo-serrano-mancilla
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.”

diputado-jose-guerra
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).

VENEZUELA-ELECTIONS
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.

grigori_rasputin_1916
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.

syrian-president-bashar-al-assad
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.

chavez7
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.