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.  

David Sirota’s Venezuelan “miracle”

In a recent series of posts, we explored the puzzlement that is Mark Weisbrot, an American economist who – for reasons either ideological or pecuniary, or both – has persisted in lauding the socialist economic policies of Venezuela and Argentina, even as those policies have dragged those countries’ economies into the mire.

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David Sirota

Another commentator who’s taken the same line on the same topics is David Sirota. Who? Born in 1975, Sirota has worked as a left-wing radio host, a contributor to Salon and The Nation, and a political operative for a long list of Democratic politicians, centers, foundations, and the like. Among his career highlights are stints as a spokesman for Bernie Sanders and as a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-wing spin machine. In 2003, Newsweek described him as “well schooled in the art of Washington warfare.” A New York Times review of his 2006 book Hostile Takeover said Sirota possessed “a take-no-prisoners mind-set” toward Republicans and centrists. Election handicapper Nate Silver has accused Sirota of “playing fast and loose with the truth.”

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The Boston Marathon bombers

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Sirota gained plenty of media attention with a Salon article headlined “Let’s Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber Is a White American.” Why should we have such hopes? Because of “the dynamics of privilege.” Sirota explained: when members of unprivileged religious or ethnic groups commit mass shootings, the groups they belong to are “collectively slandered and/or targeted with surveillance or profiling (or worse).” Not so “white dudes,” who, when they commit mass shootings, are treated as “lone wolf” types. The word jihad, of course, did not appear anywhere in Sirota’s article; to recognize that religious identity tends to be a highly relevant detail in acts of terror committed by Muslims is to violate the kind of reality-challenged political correctness for which Sirota (like Salon) stands. Islam expert Robert Spencer called Sirota’s piece “appallingly stupid”; Greg Gutfeld of Fox News wondered aloud if, in hoping that the terrorist attack in Boston had been committed by a white American, Sirota had meant white Americans “like the Occupy Wall Streeters on trial in Cincinnati? Or Bill Ayers, the nutty professor?”

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The late, great caudillo

Sirota is, then, a creep and a clown on a number of fronts. But for now, we’re concerned about his views on Latin American economies. In March 2013, he actually published a piece – once again in Salon – entitled “Hugo Chavez’s economic miracle.” Sirota began with a sneer: for a long time, Americans of certain political persuasions had treated Hugo Chávez as “a boogeyman synonymous with extremism,” made him the subject of “over-the-top political rhetoric,” acted as if he was a “radical.” While making the pro forma acknowledgment that “Chavez was no saint,” for example on “human rights and basic democratic freedoms,” Sirota was quick to make the leap into moral equivalency (America, he proposed, had recently been guilty of “drone assaults, civil liberties abuses, and [a] war on voting”) and to accuse Chávez’s critics of hypocrisy (“it is not as if [America’s] political establishment sees an assault on democratic freedoms as deplorable”).

No, Sirota insisted: what made Chávez “the bugaboo of American politics” was not the bad aspects of his record, but the good ones – namely, the “indisputably positive results” of his economic policies, which, for the American establishment, raised uncomfortable questions about, say, the wisdom of nationalization and of aggressive income redistribution. But now that Venezuela’s economic success was so utterly undeniable, America had to stop demonizing “everyone from Martin Luther King to Michael Moore to Oliver Stone to anyone else who dares question neoliberalism and economic imperialism.”

Quick note: MLK has a national bank holiday; Moore and Stone have won Oscars. So much for “demonizing.” Anyway, that was Sirota in 2013. And since? We’ll get to that tomorrow.

Weisbrot’s friends

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Mark Weisbrot

We’ve devoted this week to Mark Weisbrot, who for years has served as an economic advisor to and ardent defender of the most notorious, incompetent, and corrupt regimes in South America. Since he’s the founder and grand poobah of something called the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), it’s not unreasonable to ask a few questions. For example: who, exactly, is providing the funds to pay Weisbrot’s salary and keep his “center” afloat? And who are the other powerhouses who make up this “center,” which represents itself as a hotbed of serious economic analysis?

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Walden Bello

Well, as it turns out, most of CEPR’s staffers and directors have more of a background in organized left-wing activism on issues like global warming and women’s rights than in economics. No fewer than three members of CEPR’s small staff (John Schmitt, Deborah James, and Alexander Main) used to work for the “Information Office” of the Venezuelan government – which isn’t exactly famous for its world-class economic acumen. As for CEPR’s “board of directors,” it includes Filipino congressman Walden Bello, a critic of capitalism and globalization who’s written such books as Capitalism’s Last Stand?: Deglobalization in the Age of Austerity (2013). In a piece on free trade, Bello put the word “free” in scare quotes. In November 2010, Bello called Néstor Kirchner “remarkable,” “an exemplary figure in the Global South when it came to dealing with international financial institutions.” Pronounced Bello: “Along with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Lula of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Kirchner was one of several remarkable leaders that the crisis of neoliberalism produced in Latin America.”

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Danny Glover

Also on the CEPR’s board is Julian Bond, an activist and former NAACP head who’s compared the Tea Party to the Taliban. Neither Bello nor Bond is a trained economist. The most familiar name on the list is Danny Glover – yes, that Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon fame, whose love for Hugo Chávez, for Fidel Castro, and for Communism generally we’ve already discussed on this site. Needless to say, Glover isn’t an economist either.

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Dan Beeton

Then there’s CEPR’s International Communications Director, Dan Beeton. In August 2014, he wrote a paean to Cristina Kirchner’s newly appointed Minister of the Economy that read less like the work of a sober economist than of an overly gushing publicist. Excerpt: “Alex Kicillof, the telegenic economy minister famous for his Elvis-style sideburns, has emerged on the international stage as a heroic figure championing the Argentine people. Kicillof is perhaps reminiscent of another bold, young economy minister in a different South American country: Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, whose public sparring with the World Bank in 2005 helped to launch his political career.”

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Robert Naiman

Finally, check out CEPR staffer Robert Naiman, who, after Néstor Kirchner’s death, eulogized him at the Daily Kos website for “defying Washington and the International Monetary Fund.” Naiman also recommended Oliver Stone’s documentary South of the Border, which represented Kirchner as a hero – and which, as we’ve seen, was written by Weisbrot. Who’s Naiman? In addition to his work at CEPR and his writing for sites like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post, he’s served as Policy Director for a website called “Just Foreign Policy,” and as head of the board of the “progressive” news website Truthout, as a member of the steering committee of Gaza’s Ark (which is all about repeatedly violating Israel’s sea blockade of the Palestinian territories).

Back to Weisbrot tomorrow for a wind-up.

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.

Hugo’s fans: where are they now?

The headlines don’t mince words. “Socialism in Venezuela: No toilet paper, TV, or long distance call service.”  Venezuela nearing total ‘collapse.’”  “Venezuela’s Collapse Brings ‘Savage Suffering.’” “Venezuela has a crazy new plan to save electricity.” (The “plan” is to change the country’s time zone.)

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Nicolás Maduro

It was only a couple of years ago – but seems much, much longer – that celebrity fans of chavismo in the U.S. were still proudly proclaiming their support for the so-called Bolivarian Revolution. Consider the March 2014 letter written by a bunch of Hugo’s stateside admirers to members of the U.S. Congress, chiding them for the passage of H.R. 488, a bill expressing support for Venezuelans “as they protest peacefully for democratic change and calling to end the violence.” The letter fiercely defended the chavista government, stating that it “may have legitimate reasons for arresting and detaining” many opposition members, and accused the U.S. Congress of “politicization of human rights.” In a classic change-the-subject gambit, the letter asked why the Congress was exercised about human rights in Venezuela and not, say, in Colombia or Peru? And in conclusion, the letter warned that “Congressional resolutions steeped in hyperbolic rhetoric that portray Venezuela as a repressive government or even a dictatorship threaten to undermine the integrity of the U.S. Congress in the eyes of our Latin American neighbors.”

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Hugo with Danny Glover

Who were the signatories of this missive? The big names were actor Danny Glover, director Oliver Stone, and aging hippie Tom Hayden. But there were also several academics, some of them pretty big names in their fields – George Ciccariello-Maher, a political scientist at Drexel; Arturo Escobar, an anthropologist at Chapel Hill; Dan Kovalik of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law; Miguel Tinker Salas, a historian at Pomona; Sinclair Thomson and Greg Grandin, both historians at NYU; John Womack, Jr., a retired Harvard historian and economist; Gilbert M. Joseph, a historian at Yale; and Gerardo Renique, a historian at CUNY.

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Dan Kovalik

Where are these champions of chavismo now? Where, c’est-à-dire, are the schmoes of yesteryear? A few quick Google searches suggest that, of all these admirers of the Bolivarian Revolution, Kovalik is one of the two or three buffoons on the above list who’ve weighed in most recently on Venezuelan affairs. And what did Kovalik have to say? Scribbling in the Huffington Post in December, he lamented the opposition’s victory in the parliamentary elections: “Ultimately, it is the impoverished people of Venezuela who suffered the biggest loss in the recent elections, for the Chavista revolution has been focused on improving the once-neglected poor of Venezuela.” Kovalik was, at that point, still making great claims for the economic results of chavismo: “the Chavista government has done a laudable job in greatly reducing poverty and in reducing economic inequality.”

Then there’s Grandin. We’ll get around to him tomorrow. 

Bye-bye to the bloviating Bolivian?

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Beware of socialists bearing gifts

We last looked in on Bolivian bossman Evo Morales a few months ago, after he gave Pope Francis a unique present: a “cross” made out of a hammer and sickle. As we noted at the time, Morales – “like the Castros in Cuba, the Kirchners in Argentina, and Nicolás Maduro (and Hugo Chávez before him) in Venezuela” – is “a card-carrying member of Latin America’s hard-left club.” Like those other socialist strongmen, moreover, he’s palled around with useful Hollywood stooges, such as Benicio del Toro, Oliver Stone, and Jude Law.

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Cristina Kirchner

But the winds have been shifting south of the border. As contact between Cuba and the U.S. increases, the Castros’ island prison seems to be on the verge of transformation. In Argentina, the corrupt, cronyist Kirchner era – that long national nightmare that climaxed in a sovereign-debt default – is finally over. In Venezuela, chavista socialism – which has resulted in Soviet-style shortages of toilet paper and other basic goods – is being taken on by a National Assembly newly dominated by the pro-freedom opposition.

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Rafael Correa

That’s not all. Rafael Correa, the longtime Chávez amigo and America-basher who’s been turning Ecuador into a socialist paradise since 2007, has said he won’t run for re-election next year. In Chile, a raft of corruption scandals – at least one of which is an ugly mess involving her son and daughter-in-law – has tanked the popularity of formerly beloved lefty President Michelle Bachelet. And in Brazil, which not long ago was on its way to genuine First World prosperity, President Dilma Rousseff’s socialist policies and massive corruption, as we’ve seen, have turned the economy into a Greece-like basket case. 

Latin America’s socialist leaders, in short, are being challenged on every front, buffeted by the gusts of liberty. And Evo Morales isn’t immune.

In office since 2006, Morales was re-elected in 2009 and 2014. During his presidency, he’s nationalized major sectors of the economy, created a massive welfare state, forged close ties with his fellow autocrats in Havana, Caracas, and Tehran, presided over widespread corruption, and entertained his followers with racist rants about the evil “gringos.”

His current term ends in 2020, and he’s prohibited from running for a fourth term. So on February 21 he had the electorate vote on a rewrite of the constitution that would let him stay in office.

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Zapata’s arrest

Bolivia voted no.

Morales was still dealing with this kick in the butt when another blow struck. On February 26, Gabriela Zapata, an executive with a Chinese construction company that’s been awarded lucrative Bolivian government contracts, was arrested on corruption charges. This is important because Zapata isn’t just any businesswoman: she’s Morales’s ex-girlfriend, and the two of them have allegedly conspired to sell influence in exchange for Chinese cash.

This one should be be fun to watch. It’s always entertaining to see an oligarch brought to his knees.

 

Maduro’s descent into madness

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Nicolás Maduro

Over the last few months, we’ve seen that a whole gallery of American celebrities are fans of Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro. Last year Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s oldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy II, who’d lent his name to some Massachusetts power-supply initiative (presumably to burnish his image in his family’s home state), effusively thanked Maduro (who’d made a token contribution to the effort in order to burnish his image in America’s bluest state), for “answer[ing] our call to provide heating assistance to the poor.” Also last year, Danny Glover, Oliver Stone, Tom Hayden, and several other clueless Hollywood luminaries signed a letter to the U.S. Congress singing Maduro’s praises.

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Maduro with Danny Glover

Why are we serving up this reminder? Because of a Daily Beast article in late September whose headline asked a head-turning question – namely, “Has Venezuelan President Maduro Gone Insane?” Maduro, wrote Jeremy Kryt, “has grown so erratic some are calling him ‘the South American Hitler.’” In the course of a few weeks, he’d “come to the brink of war” with both Colombia and Guyana. He’d turned Venezuela into “an Orwellian dystopia, complete with the highest inflation rate in the world,” not to mention rampant violence, crime, and kidnappings, and shortages that are “so severe that it’s sometimes impossible to buy a roll of toilet paper in Caracas.” He’s told the media in all seriousness that he receives “advice from the deceased Chavez via a talking bird” – a claim that brings to mind the off-the-wall statements by the victorious leader of a coup d’êtat in a fictional Central American country in Woody Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas. (“From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish.”) 

Maduro’s paranoia has led him to jail popular opposition leader Leopoldo López. It’s led him to order “the use of deadly force against demonstrators he sees as a threat to his regime.” Adam Isaacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) told Kryt, “If he believes a lot of what he’s saying about the conspiracy theories against him, then he’s not the sanest man in the world….Internationally there’s no trust of Maduro at all….He says things that aren’t true, and he’s quite erratic….Something very ugly could happen in the next few months.”

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Maduro and his wife, Cilia

To top all this off, on November 10, Haitian officials arrested two nephews of Maduro’s wife and turned them over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which flew them to New York for arraignment on charges of drug trafficking. Longtime observers of chavismo weren’t surprised: in today’s Venezuela, the principal activities of the leaders and their families are raiding the treasury, laundering money, and selling narcotics.  

But were Kennedy, Glover, Stone, and Hayden surprised? Have any of them said anything about any of this? Not that we know of. As far as we’re aware, they’re all still in Maduro’s corner. What, one wonders, would it take to shake their faith in the caudillo? The mind reels. For such people, it’s clear, ideology will always trump reality.