An end to chavismo?

Venezuelans queue up to buy groceries that may or may not be on the store shelves

Since we’ve devoted so much space at this site to the plight of Venezuela under chavismo, it’s only right for us to acknowledge – and celebrate – an extraordinary turning point in the history of that country.

We need hardly go into detail here about the devastation wrought upon Venezuela, once one of the richest nations in the world, by hard-core socialism. That the land with the world’s largest oil reserves should decline into such terrible poverty – to say nothing of the steady erosion of individual liberty and human rights – is a classic lesson in the horrible consequences of socialist policies.


Juan Guaidó

On January 5, Juan Guaidó, a fierce opponent of chavismo, was sworn in as President of Venezuela’s National Assembly. Five days later, Nicolás Maduro, who had succeeded his mentor, Hugo Chávez, as President of Venezuela, in 2013, was inaugurated for his second term after being re-elected in what was widely considered an illegitimate election. The next day, Guaidó led a massive rally, attended by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, at which it was announced that, in accordance with the Venezuelan Constitution, he would be assuming the presidency. On January 15, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Guaidó headlined “Maduro is a usurper. It’s time to restore democracy in Venezuela.”

Nicolas Maduro

“We are living in a crisis without precedent in Venezuela,” the op-ed began. “We have a government that has dismantled the state and kidnapped all institutions to manipulate them at will.” Truthfully enough, Guaidó called Maduro a dictator, but a dictator with a difference, who had “ties to drug trafficking and guerrilla groups,” but whose nation continued to have “a functioning, democratically elected parliament, the National Assembly,” which enjoyed “the backing of the international community and the majority of Venezuelans.”

On January 23, Guaidó formally declared himself President of Venezuela. Almost immediately, he was recognized as the country’s legitimate head of state by U.S. President Donald Trump. By the end of day, he had been recognized as President by the Organization of American States as well as by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru. In all of Latin America, only Communist Cuba and socialist Bolivia reiterated their full support for Maduro, while Mexico’s new left-wing leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, criticized Guaidó but instead of totally backing Maduro called for “dialogue.”

Mauricio Macri

The swiftness with which so many Latin American governments endorsed Guaidó’s ascent to power is a reflection of the degree to which socialism in that region has, in a relatively short time, given way to a renewed wave of democratic capitalism. A few years ago, for example, Cristina Fernandez, then President of Argentina, would surely have stood behind Maduro; now, her successor, Mauricio Macri, took to Twitter and explicitly cheered on “all efforts toward rebuilding democracy in Venezuela and reestablishing conditions of life worthy of all its citizens.” Likewise, in Brazil, the new president, Jair Bolsonaro, widely known as the Trump of Latin America, tweeted that “Brazil supports politically and economically the transition back to democracy and social peace in Venezuela.”

To be sure, it’s all easier said than done. At this writing, Maduro seems determined to stay in Miraflores, the White House of Caracas. He still enjoys the support of the military, of the Supreme Court (which he has packed with cronies), and of the powerful and notoriously corrupt national oil company, PDVSA. So it will be interesting to see how things develop in the days and weeks to come.

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.  

Mark Weisbrot, Bolivarian booster

It’s all happening at once. Venezuela’s socialist economy is crashing and burning; Brazil’s socialist president is being impeached for doctoring budget figures to make that country’s faltering economy look better; Argentina’s socialist ex-president is on trial for defrauding her economic basket case of a country to the tune of five billion dollars.

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Oliver Stone

All of these corrupt, incompetent, and ideologically misguided regimes – as we’ve pointed out time and again on this website – have had their share of foolish celebrity admirers north of the border, from Oliver Stone to Sean Penn. But as these economies have nose-dived, the gushing has tended to die down, and the fans have tended to scatter. In late May, we focused our gaze on Nick Dearden, a full-time anti-capitalist activist and one of the few stooges who’ve continued to be lured by the siren song of South American socialism. He’s recently blamed Argentina’s woes on its creditors, and in January he actually described Venezuela as an economic “beacon of hope.”

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Mark Weisbrot

Another member of this curious club is Mark Weisbrot. The difference between the two men is that while Dearden, who runs a group called Global Justice Now, is pretty much what he presents himself as being – namely, a far-left street-agitator type who never quite seems comfortable without a protest sign in his hand or his fist in the air – Weisbrot actually poses as a serious economist of the first order.

Is he? Well, put it this way. Some stooges are more useful than others; Weisbrot is a really useful one. Want a defense of the indefensible from somebody whose credentials as an economic expert sound legit? Want an economist whose loyalty to the creeps in the Milaflores Palace and to the sticky-fingered czarina who recently vacated the Casa Rosada outstrips the devotion of the most zealous fan of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber – no matter how dismal the latest quarterly results? Look no further. Weisbrot’s your man.

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
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

We’ll spend this week probing Weisbrot’s history of defending socialist regimes in South America. But let’s start with a couple of his more recent pieces on Venezuela, which he wrote during a period when other enthusiasts for the Bolivarian Republic were heading for the hills. Take an article he wrote for The Guardian in November 2013.  Its headline: “Sorry, Venezuela haters: this economy is not the Greece of Latin America.” Its subtitle: “Predicting a Venezuelan apocalypse won’t make it happen.”

“For more than a decade,” Weisbrot sneered, “people opposed to the government of Venezuela have argued that its economy would implode.” For years, he stated, the predictions had failed to come true. But now Venezuela was “facing economic problems that are warming the cockles of the haters’ hearts” – as if the critics of chavista economics hated the Venezuelan people, when in fact what they hated was the socialist policies that were gradually destroying those people’s lives.

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Empty supermarket shelves in Venezuela

Noting that supplies of consumer goods were shriveling, that consumer prices had risen 49% in the last year, and that the U.S. dollar was worth seven times the official rate on the black market, Weisbrot might have acknowledged a degree of personal responsibility for the way things were going. Instead, he slickly made the critics of his approach into the bad guys: “Will those who cried wolf for so long finally see their dreams come true?”

Customers line up to get in for shopping at a state-run Bi centenario supermarket in Caracas May 2, 2014.  President Nicolas Maduro is introducing a controversial shopping card intended to combat Venezuela's food shortages but decried by critics as a Cuban-style policy illustrating the failure of his socialist policies. Maduro, the 51-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, trumpets the new "Secure Food Supply" card, which will set limits on purchases, as a way to stop unscrupulous shoppers stocking up on subsidized groceries and reselling them. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3NL83
One of Venezuela’s long, long grocery lines. (This was May 2014; it’s worse now, of course.)

His answer: no. While Maduro’s opponents saw Venezuela as being “caught in an inflation-devaluation spiral,” Weisbrot insisted that “a government with more than $90bn in oil revenue” could not – and would not – “end up with a balance-of-payments crisis…..This government is not going to run out of dollars.” Nor, he maintained, was the country in serious danger of hyperinflation; notwithstanding the current problems, Venezuela was “very capable of providing healthy growth even while bringing down inflation.” While the country was “facing serious economic problems,” they weren’t the kind of problems that were being experienced by Greece and Spain.

Even last December, by which time Venezuela was clearly circling the drain, Weisbrot maintained his boosterish take on chavismo. Tune in tomorrow.