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.

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.

Cubans vs. Obama

Since President Barack Obama announced the normalization of relations with the Communist government of Cuba, many conservative critics of the administration have attacked him severely.

Official Portrait
Marco Rubio

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, wondered “what, if anything, has been achieved…in terms of securing the return of U.S. fugitives being harbored in Cuba, settling outstanding legal claims to U.S. citizens for properties confiscated by the regime, and in obtaining the unequivocal right of our diplomats to travel freely throughout Cuba and meet with any dissidents, and most importantly, securing greater political freedoms for the Cuban people.”

Speaker of the House John Boehner agreed: “The Obama administration is handing the Castros a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing for the Cuban people being oppressed by this brutal communist dictatorship…As I’ve said before, relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until Cubans enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner.”

(FILES) In this 04 September1999 file photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro discusses his request to the president of the International Olympic Committee in Havana for an investigation into the treatment of certain Cuban atheletes. Castro said the communist nation is not afraid of dialogue with the United States -- and not interested in continued confrontation with its powerful neighbor. The comments came as a group of US lawmakers visited Cuba this weekend to try to end nearly half a century of mutual distrust and amid reports that President Barack Obama was planning to ease economic sanctions on the island, including travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans. "We're not afraid to talk with the United States. We also don't need confrontation to exist, like some fools like to think," Castro, 82, said in an article on the Cubadebate website on April 5, 2009. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE /FILES (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images) Original Filename: Was672139.jpg
Fidel Castro

Now their voices have been joined by those of pro-democracy activists in Cuba itself, at leat 90 of whom were arrested at an August 9 protest against the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. (One estimate puts the number at 118.) Several of the activists who took part in the protest were wearing masks of Obama – not because they support the American president, but, on the contrary, because they feel that Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba has led to an intensified crackdown on domestic critics of the Castro regime.

moya
Angel Moya Acosta

“It’s his [Obama’s] fault, what is happening,” charged Angel Moya Acosta, a prominent activist and former political prisoner who is the husband of Berta Soler, head of the anti-Castro group Ladies in White. Thanks to Obama’s action, claimed Moya, the Castro government “has grown even bolder….That’s why we have this mask on. Because it’s his fault.”

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 11: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the Iran Deal on August 11, 2015 in New York City. The U.S. Congress has until September 17 to approve a bill either supporting or rejecting the deal. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
John Kerry

A spokesman for Secretary of State John Kerry, who is scheduled to open the embassy in Havana tomorrow (Friday the 14th), deplored the arrests but, when asked if Kerry planned to meet with dissidents during his visit to Cuba, fumfered unimpressively: “I don’t have anything specific with his — on his schedule Friday when he goes down to Havana. We’ll — we’ll — as we get closer to Friday, we’ll be able to give you more details about — about does it.” On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported – surprise! – that Cuban dissidents would not be invited to “Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday, vividly illustrating how U.S. policy is shifting focus from the island’s opposition to its single-party government.” Kerry, added the AP, “intends to meet more quietly with prominent activists later in the day.” Key word: quietly. Arrange a meeting (in hopes, presumably, of muting their anti-Obama rhetoric), but don’t do anything that might win them Western media attention or help their cause.

Mind you, we’re not calling President Obama a useful stooge. But those pro-democracy activists in Cuba were certainly calling him precisely that.