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

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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?

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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.

George Ciccariello-Maher, tenured radical

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George Ciccariello-Maher

Until just a few weeks ago, George Ciccariello-Maher had a dream career in the academy. In 2010, after studying government and political science at St. Lawrence University, Cambridge, and Berkeley, he had neatly settled into a sinecure at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, where he was Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies.

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One of Ciccariello-Maher’s books

He’d published precisely the kind of stuff you need to produce in order to attain such an exalted position: in addition to articles for such far-left journals as Monthly Review and Radical Philosophy Review and for such equally “progressive” general-audience outlets as The Nation, Salon, and Counterpunch, he’d written a couple of book-length billets-doux to chavismo entitled We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (2013) and Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela (2016). He also had a third tome – ready to be published this year – with the delectably postmodern title of Decolonizing Dialectics. As if all this weren’t impressive enough, he was co-editor of a new book series called Radical Américas. And most of this stuff bore the colophon of the today’s top academic publisher, Duke University Press, which may well be responsible for the dissemination of more pretentious, politically radical gibberish than any other such establishment on the planet.

As indicated by his choice of book topics, Ciccariello-Maher was especially enamored of Venezuela – or, more specifically, of what Hugo Chávez did to it. His several articles on the subject in Jacobin Magazine (self-described as “a leading magazine of the American left”) have offered little in the way of original reporting, acute observation, or incisive analysis, but have made up for those failings by being fervently on the right – which is to say, the left.

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Frantz Fanon

His formula: one part glib mockery of hard-working, middle-class Venezuelans who were justifiably alarmed to see an economically illiterate socialist ideologue dragging their country’s economy into the toilet (and whom Ciccariello-Maher ridiculed, perversely, for their excellent, unaccented English); one part equally glib enthusiasm for working-class chavistas rooted not in any real concern for or understanding of their specific plight but, rather, in his own coldblooded ideological imperatives and in an inane romantic association of their role with that of the sans culottes in the French Revolution of 1789 (without a trace of irony, Ciccariello-Maher praised these revolutionaries as “proudly violent”); all tossed lightly and mixed in with plentiful admiring references to Frantz Fanon, whose 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, with its sympathy for underclass violence and the wholesale destruction of bourgeois values and wealth (not to mention bourgeois men and women) influenced such heroes of the earth’s wretched influenced (among others) Che Guevara and Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver and is one of the founding texts of today’s pernicious academic postmodernism.

In short, Ciccariello-Maher had made splendid use of his sympathy (faux or not) for the downtrodden peasants of Venezuela to make a lucrative career for himself in the academia norteamericana. But then he did something that put all of it at risk.

He sent out a tweet.

More tomorrow.

No peacenik: Tom Hayden

As we saw yesterday, Sixties radical Tom Hayden, who died on October 23 and was remembered in one obituary after another as a champion of peace, was, in fact, the very opposite of a peacenik.

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1968 Chicago riots

Here are a few more highlights. In a 1967 article in the New York Review of Books, he served up detailed prescriptions for organized urban bloodshed. That same year, contemporaneous observers blamed his incendiary rhetoric for “causing nearly a week of rioting” in Newark. During the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, he encouraged civil disruption in the form of “spreading nails on a highway” and firebombing police cars. At Berkeley in 1969, he led a “training center” where would-be revolutionaries were taught to use firearms and explosives. Also in 1969, he took part in a “war council” in Flint, Michigan, at which he and some of his comrades officially declared war against America and called for “violent, armed struggle.”

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Hayden the politician

To be sure, after the madness of the 1960s dissipated, Hayden shifted gears. In the 1980s and 90s, he got himself elected to the California legislature, taught courses at Harvard, UCLA, and elsewhere (despite having no degree beyond a B.A.), and gave speeches at innumerable universities.

gospelBut he remained a radical rabble-rouser. In 1996, quick as ever to embrace a trendy left-wing cause, he wrote his own book on environmentalism, The Lost Gospel of the Earth, even though he had no expertise whatsoever in the field and absolutely nothing original to say about it. Echoing Kirkpatrick Sale’s vapid, ultra-PC Conquest of Paradise (1990) and other recent contributions to the genre, Hayden drew an embarrassingly crude contrast between the perfectly saintly American Indians and the unwaveringly evil Europeans. “His descriptions of Indian virtue and wisdom,” wrote Vincent Carroll in a review for the Weekly Standard, “are no less monochromatic than his most gullible exhortations on behalf of the Viet Cong – if anything, they are more so.”

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Seattle riots, 1999

And so it went. In 1999, Hayden encouraged street riots to protest World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. In 2001, he blamed the 9/11 attacks on American imperialism. In 2005, ever eager to socialize with America’s enemies, he met in London with Iraqi terrorist leaders; afterwards, his naivete as intact as it had been decades earlier, he wrote an article painting these ruthless jihadists as gentle, peace-loving patriots. When Hugo Chávez died in 2013, Hayden wrote: “As time passes, I predict the name of Hugo Chávez will be revered among millions.” In 2014, he declared in an op-ed that the Cuban Revolution had “achieved its aim: recognition of the sovereign right of its people to revolt against the Yankee Goliath and survive as a state in a sea of global solidarity.”

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Older, but not wiser

How to sum up the life of a man who combined moral depravity with sheer doltishness? Carroll made a couple of good points in his review of The Lost Gospel. Citing Hayden’s “dreadful sanctimony and self-absorption” and air of “moral superiority,” Carroll wrote: “one continuously marvels that a man of Hayden’s superficiality has played such a prominent role in left-wing political thought for more than 30 years.” But we can’t say we’re too surprised: after all, Hayden was far from the only narcissistic, barricade-charging ideologue of the 1960s who was treated as a cultural hero in the decades that followed and whose fatuity, ferocity, and malice were transformed, in his obituaries, into wisdom, peacefulness, and love.

Asner’s Castro connection

Actors Ed Asner, John Newton, Alice Evan and Peter Jason, took a break from their Nov. 29, 2006 tour of the Pentagon to pose the Defense Department's podium in the briefing room. The group was in town to promote the movie and Hallmark's "Cards for Troops" program and had spent time visiting with wounded servicemembers at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesday and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Ed Asner

Actor Ed Asner, who turns 87 today, has been a longtime fan of Fidel Castro, 90, and has been active in a number of organizations and campaigns designed to shore up the Castro dictatorship. Among them: the International Peace for Cuba Appeal and the Actors and Artists United for the Freedom of the Cuban Five. (The Cuban Five, whom we’ve discussed briefly on this site, were spies who were imprisoned in the U.S. for several years.) Routinely, Asner has blamed America for Cuban Communism, his argument being that the U.S. embargo forced Fidel into the arms of the Kremlin. (Don’t try to explain to him that he’s reversed cause and effect.)

Not that he seems particularly bothered by Castro’s Communism. In 1998, visiting Cuba with Muhammed Ali, the American TV star had a friendly meeting with the Caribbean dictator; there is no record of his having breathed a word in criticism of the system Fidel had imposed on his people.

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Ever the good guy

On the contrary, Asner has more than once twisted himself into rhetorical knots in an effort to defend that system. Discussing the Cuban situation in 2003 on MSNBC, Asner was asked about Castro’s imprisonment of his critics. Asner didn’t hesitate to stand up for this practice, maintaining that Fidel had been compelled by (once again) the U.S. embargo of Cuba to resort to such “excesses.” When Pat Buchanan, his interlocutor, requested that Asner explain the connection, Asner asserted that Castro “feels the imminent threat of the Bush administration.”

030114-O-0000D-001 President George W. Bush. Photo by Eric Draper, White House.
Ever the villain

Did this mean, Buchanan inquired, that Asner seriously believed Bush intended to invade Cuba? Asner, while not replying with a direct and unequivocal yes, warned darkly that George W. Bush was “beginning to lower the crunch on Castro.” As evidence for this claim, Asner noted that the president had “just canceled student scholastic trips and museum trips to Cuba.” Buchanan proceeded to remind Asner that Fidel Castro had “persecuted his own people” and “denied them free elections for forty years” and that he was, in fact, “an unelected dictator who puts people in prison on his own.” Asner’s comeback, which demonstrated that the actor had long since accustomed himself to engaging in reflexive moral equivalence, was that America hadn’t had a free election in 2000, either.

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Asner in Elf

In 2003, a group called Patriotic Americans Boycotting Anti-America Hollywood protested the casting of the pro-Castro Asner as Santa Claus in the movie Elf, then in production. “If he dislikes the country that has afforded him the lifestyle and luxury that his earnings as a celebrity have afforded him,” asserted the group’s leader, “then maybe he should see how wonderful Cuba really is. I doubt he would be able to enjoy the freedoms he has here were he under Castro’s rule.” The campaign failed, and Asner has in fact played Santa several times now.

Age hasn’t withered Asner’s devotion to his cigar-chomping pal in Havana. Three years ago, in a letter addressed to donors to a Cuba-friendly group, he invited them to join him on a delightful trip to Fidel’s tropical prison. “This is a great chance,” he wrote, “to experience for yourself the lively, inspiring and creative people-to-people exchange the right wing is trying to block.”

Oh, and let’s not forget this: Asner was also hugely supportive of Hugo Chávez’s regime in Venezuela, signing a 2004 letter calling chavista Venezuela “a model democracy.” Chávez’s policies have since destroyed the Venezuelan economy, of course, but if Asner has issued any expression of regret for having encouraged all this, we haven’t been able to find it.

But that’s not all. More tomorrow. 

Last idiots standing?

In his lifetime, Hugo Chávez was a hero. After his populist, anti-gringo rhetoric won him the Venezuelan presidency, he rivaled the Castro brothers as an international symbol of socialism – and as a desired chum for chuckleheaded American celebrities eager to boost their coolness factor.

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Danny Glover and Hugo Chávez

We’ve previously discussed some of Chávez’s Hollywood conquests. One of them, Danny Glover, visited Chávez several times; they were so close that El Presidente actually arranged financing for a couple of movies Glover planned to make about Simón Bolivar and Touissant L’Ouverture. Nor did Glover’s enthusiasm for chavismo die with Hugo himself: in 2014, he led a list of showbiz luminaries – among them Oliver Stone and Tom Hayden – who signed a letter to the U.S. Congress in support of the caudillo‘s successor, Nicolás Maduro.

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Sean Penn con el caudillo

Another big-name A.D.H. (amigo de Hugo) was Sean Penn, who after Chávez’s death in 2013 tweeted “Today the people of the United States lost a friend it [sic] never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion….Venezuela and its revolution will endure under the proven leadership of vice president Maduro.”

Not long after Maduro took over, of course, the chickens came home to roost. (Which is actually not the best metaphor in this case, because in reality chickens, and most other foodstuffs, all but disappeared. Earlier this year, a video was posted on You Tube showing a mob of starving Venezuelans who’d stopped a truck on a highway and pulled live chickens out of their cages.) 

As we noted  last May, one side effect of the social and economic collapse now underway in Venezuela is that the celebrities who once cheered Chavez’s policies have been keeping their distance now that the Venezuelan people are being forced to live – or try to live – with those policies’ calamitous results.

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Dan Kovalik

We did point out that a couple of foreign fans of chavismo seem to have hung in there. As of last December, anyway, Dan Kovalik of the University of Pittsburgh was still claiming that Chavez’s policies worked; in March of last year, Greg Grandin of NYU, writing in The Nation, complained that the shortage of basic goods in the Bolivarian Republic was being sensationalized, and approvingly quoted another far-left fool who proposed that the solution to Venezuela’s problems was even more socialism (for example, Stalin-style collective farms).

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Lukas Hass and Jamie Foxx with the First Couple of Venezuela

But while a few clowns in academia may still cling to chavismo, almost all of the film stars who once celebrated the Bolivarian Revolution have lost Nicolás Maduro’s phone number. With two exceptions. As the Associated Press reported a few days ago, Jamie Foxx, who won the 2004 Academy Award for his impersonation of Ray Charles, had just dropped in on Maduro in Caracas in order to “support the country’s socialist revolution and attend the signing of an agreement between Venezuela and its allies for the construction of houses for the poor.”

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Lukas Haas in Witness

Accompanying him was actor Lukas Haas, who three decades ago played the little boy in Witness and has since turned up in movies like Woody Allen’s Everybody Says I Love You and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. At the Fusion website, Manuel Rueda provided a couple more details of this visit, informing us, for instance, that Foxx had sat in on “a strange and tedious ceremony where the Venezuelan leader signed construction contracts with a Jordanian housing firm.” In other words, Soviet-style entertainment. A video of this event confirms that it was indeed strange and tedious:

Then there’s this news clip, in which Maduro can be seen meeting the actors and showing them a couple of the historical treasures in the Miraflores Palace:  

Fusion posted a number of tweets by Venezuelans who were furious at Foxx for providing their incompetent leader with positive PR. (Sample: “you should’ve asked Maduro to take you to the public hospitals in Caracas where people are dying because of the medical scarcity.”) And Fox News Latino quoted an opposition leader who wondered how much public money had been spent on these high-profile shenanigans at a time when Venezuelans are literally starving to death. As of this writing, meanwhile, neither Foxx nor Haas has issued a public explanation of their friendly call on the detestible Maduros.