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.

Venezuela continues its descent toward the ninth circle of socialist hell

Protesters in Caracas

In the wake of the March 29 dissolution of Venezuela’s National Assembly, an act that was widely condemned as a coup by President Nicolás Maduro, the economy of that poor, socialism-ravaged country has continued to circle the drain even as opponents of Maduro have taken to the streets day by day to demand their nation back, shouting “No more dictatorship!” Hundreds of thousands of protesters have filled the streets of Caracas and other cities; on Wednesday of last week, which saw the country’s largest protests in years, over 300 protesters were arrested, and pro-Maduro cops, gangsters, and soldiers have caused several deaths. (As of last Friday, the number of fatalities had risen to at least twenty.) Increasing, the capital has resembled a battle zone, with protesters setting up “burning barricades in several neighborhoods” and the military patrolling the night streets in “light-armored vehicles.”

Nicolas Maduro

Maduro himself, who has rejected the idea that the dissolution of the legislature constituted a coup, has said that, on the contrary, the protests against him – which in any free country, of course, would be protected by the right of assembly – amounted to a coup attempt. Vice President Tarek El Aissami has called Maduro’s opponents “terrorist leaders” and accused their followers of “fascist violence.” Another recent Maduro move was barring Henrique Capriles, the top opposition leader, whom Maduro has called “trash,” from running for public office.

Henrique Capriles

Late last week, engineering student David Marval, one of the protesters in Caracas, told Bloomberg News: “Everyone is asking what the plan is….For me, you have to paralyze the entire city.” Informed observers ventured that “Maduro’s grip on power is weakening.” At a press conference, opposition legislator Freddy Guevara said: “Twenty days of resistance and we feel newly born.” Raquel Belfort told Time Magazine: This is the moment….People are sick of this….we’ve touched rock bottom. I think if we take to the streets every day we’ll end this government.”

Yet in an April 21 article for The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry suggested that an end to Maduro’s tyranny is not yet in sight. Venezuela, Gobry lamented, “cannot wake up from its socialist nightmare.” Maduro, he maintained “increasingly looks like a ‘Bolivarian’ version of Vladimir Putin, holding power through corrupt patronage, fear, and the smothering of alternative voices and power centers.”

Father of the revolution: Hugo Chavez

Gobry served up a welter of chilling statistics about Venezuela’s “rotting” economy: “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.” The very real human toll of this socialist disaster is reflected in the fact that during the past year, “74 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of nearly 20 pounds each.” Also, “children are suffering from malnourishment for the first time in the country’s modern history” and “hospitals are running out of even basic drugs.” On April 20, the Wall Street Journal reported that many Venezuelans are, quite simply, too hungry to join in the protests. 

Among the recent casualties of the economic free-fall was an announcement on that same date that General Motors, in reaction to a government seizure of one of its factories, was withdrawing entirely from the country, where it has thousands of employees. Oh, and let’s not forget that Caracas is now “the murder capital of the world.” All this in a country with extraordinary human and natural resources that was once, hard as it may now be to believe, on the verge of having a First World economy.

Spy story

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Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-cover KGB spies in The Americans

In early May, the Guardian recounted a fascinating true story that, as it happens, helped inspire the current FX series The Americans. It’s about a Canadian couple, Donald Heathfield (a consultant) and Tracey Foley (a realtor), and their two sons, Tim and Alex Foley, who, on June 27, 2010, when they were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were in the middle of celebrating Tim’s twentieth birthday when “a team of armed, black-clad men holding a battering ram…streamed into the house, screaming, ‘FBI!’ Another team entered from the back; men dashed up the stairs, shouting at everyone to put their hands in the air.”

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The family’s house in Cambridge

Some of the G-men drove Don and Tracey away in handcuffs, while others remained behind to search the house. From those investigators, the boys learned that their parents were Russian spies who’d been living under deep cover since Soviet times, using names stolen from long-dead Canadians. Don was really Andrei Bezrukov; Tracey was Elena Vavilova. The deep-cover system was a well-known KGB specialty (no other country has ever trained spies to pose as foreigners) but it was widely believed to have been shuttered after the fall of the Iron Curtain. On the contrary, as it turned out, old KGB hand Vladimir Putin saw to it that it remained alive and well.

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“Tracey” with Tim in 1991

Visiting his parents in prison after their arrest, Alex, then sixteen, didn’t ask them about the charges: “I refused to let myself be convinced they were actually guilty of anything….They were facing life in prison, and if I was to testify, I would have to completely believe they were innocent.” On their mother’s advice, Tim and Alex decided (rather bemusingly) to “escape the media circus” by flying to Moscow, where they’d never set foot. There, colleagues of their parents in the SVR (the KGB’s successor agency) met them at the airport, showed them around town, and introduced them to relatives they hadn’t known existed. After a few days their parents joined them, having been exchanged, along with eight other SVR operatives, for Russians who’d been spying for the West. They “were welcomed back…as heroes.”

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“Donald” with Alex and Tim in 1999

It turned out the FBI had been on to “Don” and “Tracey” for years. Their home had been bugged. G-men had scoured Foley’s safe-deposit box as far back as 2001. Tim denies a 2012 report that his parents had told him the truth “long before the arrest” and that he’d agreed to train as a “second-generation spy” for Russia. On the contrary, both sons insist they have no affection for their parents’ homeland. Tim, now 25, says they both underwent a “real identity crisis” when, having been stripped of their Canadian citizenship, they were given Russian passports and a new surname (Vavilov). Both maintain they were eager to leave Russia ASAP. Tim, after completing college there, was able to go to London to earn an MBA; Alex, however, couldn’t get visas to Canada, the UK, or France; now 21, he is studying in an unnamed (but presumably less desirable) country in Europe. What’s the deal with them now? Tune in tomorrow. 

Galloway’s heroes

epa02375994 British PM George Galloway poses with a gift he received during his reception at the Arab Cultural Center in the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, Syria, 05 October 2010. Galloway leads the Gaza-bound Viva Palestina 5 aid convoy that arrived in Damascus on 02 October from Turkey. The convoy includes 143 trucks loaded with medical and humanitarian aids and 370 Arab and foreign activists. Galloway said he is determined to go on with his aid convoy to Palestinians under Israeli siege despite the Egyptian authorities' decision to ban his entry to Egypt. EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI
George Galloway

Recently, columnist Nick Cohen noted that the folks on the left who used to come to the defense of George Galloway have gone silent, having finally realized, apparently, just how loathsome a creature they were associating with. The same, it might be added, has been true of the defenders of Hugo Chávez: with a few exceptions, those who exulted over Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution in its first years have stopped doing so, having seen the increasingly tragic consequences of chavista socialism.

It’s no surprise that Galloway himself was an early booster of chavismo – and that, long after it declined from a chic cause into an embarrassment for the international left, he continued to eulogize it.

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Hugo Chávez

Back in 2007, Galloway lauded Chávez in the Guardian, sounding for all the world like John Reed celebrating the birth of the USSR:

The atmosphere in Caracas is fervid. The vast shanty towns draping the hillside around the cosmopolitan centre bustle with workers’ cooperatives, trade union meetings, marches and debates. The $18bn fund for social welfare set up by Chávez is already bearing fruit. Education, food distribution and primary healthcare programmes now cover the majority for the first time. Queues form outside medical centres filled with thousands of Cuban doctors dispensing care to a population whose health was of no value to those who sat atop Venezuela’s immense wealth in the past.

Galloway rejected out of hand the “mendacious propaganda that Chávez is a dictator and human rights abuser.”

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Galloway with Fidel Castro

In 2012, he actually spent two weeks in Venezuela campaigning for Hugo’s re-election; the next year, when Hugo shuffled off this mortal coil, Galloway was quick to mourn the caudillo’s death, calling it “a body blow for the poor and the oppressed,” praising his friend for having “transformed Venezuela by the force of his will,” and calling him “a veritable Spartacus” who “rallied an army of not slaves, but those despised by the oligarchy.” He celebrated Chávez for standing up to Israel and to “North American hegemony.” By this point, it was clear to every pair of eyes unblinkered by ideology that Chávez’s only accomplishment had been to destroy his country’s economy – along with its liberties and human rights. But Galloway never let real-world conditions get in the way of his uncritical admiration for absolutism and contempt for freedom.

What about Castro? Check this out. Of all the people you’ve met in your lifetime, who’s had the most positive impact on you?” an interviewer once asked Galloway. His reply: “Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro is the greatest man I’ve ever met by several miles….The most inspiring, the most charismatic, the most wise, and the most tireless of all the people I’ve ever met. He’s my real hero.”

And let’s not forget Putin. Since 2013, both Galloway and his wife have been on the payroll of the Kremlin’s RT television network. In the first half of that year alone (while still a member of the British Parliament, mind you), he earned £25,600 – about $37,000 – for going on RT from time to time to trash his own country and extol Putin. The Russian president has certainly gotten his money’s worth out of employing Galloway. In his appearances on RT, the wily Scotsman has consistently defended Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, arguing that Russia “has every right, indeed, obligation, to act in defense of its compatriots, its citizens, its economic and military assets which it has on the territory of the Ukraine by agreement and by treaty.” He’s called  the U.S. approach to the Kremlin actions “ludicrous” and counseled the EU not to “poke the bear with a stick.” And, in the ultimate act of moral degeneracy, he’s smeared patriotic, democracy-loving Ukrainians who oppose Russian intrusion in their affairs as “terrorists,” “ultra-nationalists,” and “Nazis.” There’s no low to which he won’t go. 

Bashing NATO: Stephen F. Cohen

Time to check in again with Stephen F. Cohen, the NYU prof (and hubby of limo-lefty Nation publisher Katrina van den Heuvel) who is America’s most prominent Kremlinologist – and Vladimir Putin’s most ardent and assiduous champion in the U.S.

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Stephen F. Cohen

Over the last few months, we’ve spent a good deal of time probing Cohen’s reprehensible views. One example: instead of denouncing Russia’s antigay laws, Cohen has condemned Western gays for complaining about them. Surely Cohen, a card-carrying member of the leftist establishment, is a fan of the Freedom Riders who went to the American South to march for black civil rights; surely he supported folks who traveled to South Africa to protest apartheid; and without a doubt, like the rest of the Nation gang, he cheers Westerners who go to Gaza to savage Israel. But Western gays calling for gay rights in Russia? “How is that our concern?” Cohen asked a Newsweek interviewer, his irritation palpable. “Why is it America’s job to go over there and sort out the gay problem when 85 percent of Russians think they should have no rights?”

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Gilbert Doctorow, co-founder of ACEWA

The last time we looked in on Cohen, back in November, he was busy co-founding a pro-Russia propaganda scam called the American Committee for East-West Accord. Think of it as a 21st-century version of all those Cold War-era international “peace organizations” and “peace congresses” that were actually Soviet fronts and you’ll get the idea. Cohen is, after all, a guy who, in Soviet days, wasn’t just a Kremlin expert but a Kremlin fan, the sort of leftist who blamed the downside of Soviet life on Stalin (not Communism itself, which he defended) and blamed the Cold War on America.

So what’s the latest with Cohen? In a February interview with his favorite TV channel, Putin’s own RT America (formerly Russia Today), Cohen went on a rant about NATO. Hardly the first time, to be sure. But this interview – conducted by Ed Schultz, the former MSNBC hack who’s now on Putin’s payroll – was particularly worth listening to, given that it provided a tidy summing-up of Cohen’s thinking on the topic. Sample: NATO – that means Washington and that means Obama administration – has decided to quadruple its military forces on Russia’s borders or near Russia’s borders.” This equation of NATO with the U.S. speaks volumes: for him, NATO isn’t a group of sovereign nations that have pulled together in the cause of common defense; it’s an instrument of American imperialism, period.

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Ed Schultz

“The last time there was this kind of Western hostile military force on Russia’s borders,” complained Cohen, “is when the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941.” Yes, there it was: a comparison of NATO to the Nazis. Cohen went on: “During the 40-year Cold War there was this vast buffer zone that ran from the Soviet borders all the way to Berlin. There were no NATO or American troops there. So this is a very radical departure on the part of the administration.” Some euphemism: “buffer zone”! Of course, Cohen’s referring to the countries of Eastern Europe that the Red Army overran at the end of World War II and turned into Communist satellites. Those countries were no “buffer zone”; they were captive nations, their people unfree, their governments Kremlin puppets. When Hungary tried to break away in 1956, it was invaded by Soviet tanks. Ditto Czechoslovakia in 1968.

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Cohen with his wife (and publisher) Katrina van den Heuvel

Today, those countries are free. All of them, at the first opportunity, rushed to join NATO – not, as Cohen implies, because they wanted to subject themselves to another imperial master, but because they wanted to protect their freedom in the face of what they recognized as the continued Kremlin threat. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which had been absorbed into the USSR during World War II and which gained their independence after it dissolved, joined NATO too. And Putin’s actions against Georgia in 2008, plus his later intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, made it clear that these nations’ concerns were well-founded.

Not in Cohen’s world, however. “Russia is not threatening any country on its border,” he told Schultz. Yes, he said, there is a threat – but it’s coming from the U.S., which had sparked “a new Cold War” beginning with “the proxy American-Russian war in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 2008.” Yes, Cohen actually rewrote Russia’s bullying of Georgia into a “proxy…war” with the U.S. And he went on to call NATO activity “very dangerous and reckless” because under “Russian doctrine,” born of “their weakness after the end of the Soviet Union,” the Kremlin has committed itself to “use tactical nuclear weapons” in response to any threat by “overwhelming conventional force.” So we should view Putin’s apparent readiness to use nukes – yes, nukes – as a legitimate response to the “threat” represented by NATO defense preparations.

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Just a reminder: these two are the Boris and Natasha of our time

In Cohen-land, in short, reality is turned upside down: it’s not Russia that’s rattling sabers at its neighbors and former vassals, thus compelling them to participate in a mutual-defense pact; it’s the U.S. that’s brandishing the dogs of war in the form of countries that, Cohen would have us believe, are not free and sovereign nations but American vassals – thus compelling Putin to risk playing the nuclear card. Got that? Of course you do. Believe it? Of course you don’t. Only among the type of people who read the Nation does such twisted nonsense pass muster as legitimate geopolitical analysis. 

Top ten stooges of 2015: part two

Yesterday we looked at the first five of our top ten useful stooges of 2015. Here are the rest. Again, these aren’t necessarily the very worst creeps we’ve written about here; they’re just a few of the people whose stoogery during the last year stood out in ways that we thought made them worth another quick look before we move on into 2016. 

vickKarl Vick  The dopey Time scribe gushed more than once in 2015 over Cuba’s “decaying glory” and “social equality” – by which he meant that every Cuban who’s not a member of the political elite is dirt-poor – and expressed concern that capitalism-friendly changes in that island prison might end this precious “equality” by actually raising the standard of living. This is the same guy who in 2010 won a “Dishonest Reporting Award” for a cover story, “Why Israel Doesn’t Care about Peace,” in which he vilified Israel and whitewashed Hamas, professing that its official commitment to destroying the Jewish state was only “nominal.”

cohen4Stephen F. Cohen  How could we leave Stephen F. Cohen out of this? He’s Putin’s most high-profile apologist, who – usually in league with his wife, moneyed Nation doyenne Katrina vanden Heuvel – keeps coming up with new ways to sell his hero in Moscow. In 2015, he co-founded the American Committee for East-West Accord, which pretends to promote “open, civilized, informed debate” on U.S.-Russian relations but, in the grand tradition of “committees” dedicated to U.S.-Soviet “peace,” “friendship,” and “understanding,” is patently nothing more or less than a pro-Kremlin propaganda operation. This is, after all, a dude who, in a June article, painted Ukraine’s leaders as savages and Putin as a gentle soul responding with restraint to their violent provocations. 

redfordRobert Redford  He’s directed movies crudely savaging capitalism (The Milagro Beanfield War) and lustily celebrating the despicable Maoists of the Weather Underground (The Company You Keep), and he produced The Motorcycle Diaries, a shameless hagiography of Che Guevara. In 2015 he played the lead role in Truth, one of the great cinematic falsehoods (and, fortunately, flops) in the entire history of Hollywood. Turning the facts of the 2004 Rathergate scandal upside down, the film transforms CBS Evening News anchorman Dan Rather – who lost his job for trying to sell the public on forged documents – into a hero who was fired for defending the truth. When this dreck was released in October, Redford, now 79, was out there promoting not only the picture but its profoundly mendacious message.  

seumas-milneSeumas Milne  The British Labour Party’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications (i.e., spokesman), who was named to the post in October, is a famously poisonous critic of the U.S., capitalism, and Israel, and an ardent defender of Communism, Stalin, Castro, Che, Ahmadinejad, and Putin. Oh, and jihadists. A longtime reporter and commentator for The Guardian, Milne has praised the Soviet bloc for its “genuine idealism” and lamented West Germany’s annexation of East Germany because it meant “a loss of women’s rights, closure of free nurseries and mass unemployment.” Journalist Kate Godfrey, herself a Labourite, condemned Milne’s appointment as “morally and ethically wrong,” saying it “devalues everything that Labour stands for, and everything that Labour is.”

roger_waters1Roger Waters  For years, the former Pink Floyd front man has publicly compared Israel to Nazi Germany and severely chastized fellow celebrities for performing there. In 2013, his concerts featured “a pig-shaped balloon adorned with Jewish symbols, including a Star of David.” This October, in a particularly vicious open letter in Salon (where else?), he told Bon Jovi that by accepting an invitation to Israel they were allying themselves with child-killers. Ignoring his demand that they change their mind about the trip, Bon Jovi went ahead with their plans and went onstage before a Tel Aviv audience of 50,000 only minutes after two people were killed in a Jerusalem terrorist attack.

Top ten useful stooges of 2015

We thought we’d wind up 2015 by revisiting some of the folks we’ve covered on this website during the last year. No, these definitely aren’t the ten worst human beings we’ve written about; they’re just some of the people whose activities during 2015 we found despicable in distinctive ways, and we thought that, as the year moves toward a close, they just might be worth looking at one more time.

brandRussell Brand  Last year, the holier-than-thou British comedian came out with an inane book, Revolution, in which he celebrated Castro and Che Guevara, whose transformation of Cuba he presented as a model for the 21st century. This year, his image took a big hit when it was discovered that his line of sweatshirts – which he’d represented as being manufactured in the UK – were, in fact, made by laborers in Bangladesh who worked up to eleven hours a day for 25p an hour. Also, while he’d claimed that the profits went entirely to charitable causes, it turned out that only £1.37 of the take on a £65 sweatshirt was going to charity – and the “charity” in question was a trendy London café Brand opened in March.

stellaStella McCartney  In June, flibbertigibbet clothes designer (and daughter of the immortal Beatle) threw an exceedingly high-profile party with the theme “Cuba Libre.” In the garden of her Manhattan townhouse, such guests as Alicia Keys, Liv Tyler, and Maggie Gyllenhaal sipped rum-and-cokes, grooved to the rhythms of a salsa band, and mingled with two guys dressed up as – we kid you not – Fidel and Che. McCartney’s explanation for this obscene trivialization of totalitarianism: “I simply wanted to have a fun party, and I think Cubans know how to do that.” Almost unanimously, the fashion media applauded what Women’s Wear Daily described as McCartney’s “nod to Cuba.”

maxMax Blumenthal  The spawn of unsavory D.C. operator Sidney Blumenthal, young Max has made a career out of slandering Israel in particularly nasty ways while cheering on some of its most violent enemies. This year, in collaboration with Electronic Intifada and Al Jazeera contributor Rania Khalek, he co-wrote a long piece smearing several U.S. journalists for criticizing Putin – among them Liz Wahl, a reporter who’d recently quit her anchor job at the Kremlin-run TV “news” channel RT America because she was sick of serving up pro-Putin, anti-American propaganda. Writing in Commentary, Seth Mandel called Blumenthal’s attack job “a textbook example of character assassination.”

Lanny-pic-smLanny Davis  In 2015, regular viewers of cable news saw a great deal of this shifty creep, a longtime Clinton crony and spinmeister who, during the current presidential campaign, has spent a great deal of his expensive time trying to extinguish the many scandals that have been swirling around Hillary Clinton. (During a March appearance on Fox News, Chris Wallace asked Davis, “Do you ever get tired of cleaning up after the Clintons?”) When he’s not engaged in this unenviable task, Davis keeps busy shilling for some of the planet’s most corrupt and brutal despots, including Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and Laurent Gbagbo of Cote D’Ivoire. 

gloria2Gloria Steinem  In May, the 81-year-old Ms. founder traveled to North Korea “to say we care by being physically present” because “conflicts are far more likely to be solved when people sit down together.” She then led a group of women on a “walk for peace” across the DMZ. The whole thing came off as a PR stunt to polish Pyongyang’s image. It didn’t help that the feminist icon stayed mum about the Kim regime’s treatment of women – and chose as her partner in this dubious undertaking one Christine Ahn, an open admirer of Juche ideology who routinely blames the U.S. and South Korea for North Korea’s problems.

We’ll get to the next five tomorrow. Happy New Year!

Nicki Minaj’s dirty payday

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Swank onstage in Chechnya

We’ve spent some time on this site pondering celebrities who’ve taken money to perform for – and thus help whitewash the images of – authoritarian tyrants. In 2001, for instance, Hilary Swank, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Seal took a six-figure fee to entertain Putin’s puppet leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. When Swank’s involvement in this disgraceful episode was exposed, she tried to shift responsibility to her PR firm, which promptly dropped her. She also promised to donate her paycheck to charity – but later refused to say exactly which charity, if any, she’d given it to.

Then there’s the night in 2010 when Vladimir Putin hosted Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, Mickey Rourke – and, last but not least, Sharon Stone, who according to the Independent is a regular at events promoting Putin, showing up each time for a fee somewhere in the ballpark of a quarter-million dollars. 

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Nicki Minaj

The latest example of this kind of shameless showbiz sellout: hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj. Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and raised in the South Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, the 33-year-old Minaj was the first female solo performer to have seven singles appear simultaneously on Billboard‘s Hot 100 in the United States; no female rapper has broken into the Hot 100 more times than she has. Her latest album, The Pinkprint, released in December 2014, went triple platinum. A fixture on the record charts and at the awards shows for the last five years or so, in 2015 she climbed to bigger heights than ever: at the American Music Awards she was named Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist; she walked away from the BET Awards with the trophy for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist; at the MTV Awards she won Best Hip-Hop Video, and at the MTV Europe Awards she took Best Hip-Hop.

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Minaj Barbie

In addition to the millions she’s raked in from her music, moreover, she’s pursued a highly lucrative career in merchandising and endorsement deals: there’s a Nicki Minaj Barbie doll, a Nicki Minaj brand of lipstick and lip gloss, a Nicki Minaj line of clothing, accessories, and housewares for K-mart, and several Nicki Minaj fragrances. She’s also been the face of Pepsi, Adidas, and a range of other products.

In short, this is a woman who, unless she is really bad with money, almost certainly has no cash-flow problems.

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Dos Santos with Fidel Castro, 2007

This is also a woman who has striven to polish her image, associating herself with AIDS charities, education projects, and arts funding. It’s all the more odd, then, that Minaj agreed to perform in Luanda, Angola, on December 19, in exchange for a reported $2 million fee. She announced her plans in an Instagram post only a few days before the engagement, explaining that she would be performing at a Christmas gala hosted by Unitel. And what’s Unitel? It’s a phone company controlled by none other than José Eduardo dos Santos, the autocrat who has run the country singlehandedly since 1979, and by his daughter Isabel. Dos Santos and his family, as it happens, have their fingers in a great many businesses in Angola, and are worth (as Carl Sagan might have put it) billions and billions – in a country where  half the people live on $2 a day.

It’s called corruption.

Human-rights activists were quick to blast Minaj for accepting the Angolan gig. And how did Minaj react? Tune in tomorrow.

 

Gerhard Schröder, Putin’s €250,000 pal

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Schröder and Putin – a special friendship

Among the surprisingly many members of the Western European political elite who’ve been remarkably steadfast in their, um, understanding for even the most brutal conduct by Vladimir Putin, one of the staunchest has been Gerhard Schröder, who served as chancellor of Germany from 1998 to 2005. Schröder, as it happens, sits on the board of Russia’s Gazprom, the giant government-owned natural-gas company, and is a longtime personal chum of the Kremlin thug (whom he’s called a “flawless democrat”). Putin once turned up at Schröder’s home in Hanover “with a Russian choir to celebrate his birthday.” Schröder has described Putin as having “a very close relationship to Germany” – noting that in the 1980s Putin was a KGB spy stationed in East Germany. (As we all know, of course, that’s the best way to develop a “very close relationship.”)  

Gerhard-Schroeder_2895463cAnd what a friend Schröder has been! When Putin invaded Ukraine, Schröder was quick to defend his buddy: Putin, he argued, was simply trying to keep Russia strong and on par with the U.S. Who could criticize that worthy goal? Putin, Schröder further explained was justly worried about “being encircled” – as if there were even the remotest possibility of a military incursion into Russia from Ukraine or Poland or one of the Baltic states. Schröder also made the point that Ukraine is “culturally divided,” with some Ukrainians identifying more with the West, others looking to Russia – so hey, why not let Putin seize some of the pro-Russian part of the country?

schroeder-wird-65_fullviewAt least Schröder acknowledged that the invasion constituted a clear violation of international law – but he hastened to add that the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia also violated international law. Never mind that Putin’s action was an aggressive, unprovoked land grab by a brutal dictator, and NATO’s bombing was a humanitarian effort to save the lives of people who were being targeted by a genocidal dictator.

Germany’s current chancellor, Angela Merkel, was outraged by Schröder’s support for Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Roland Nelles of Der Spiegel wasn’t impressed either. When Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin in April of last year – hot on the heels of the Crimea invasion – Nelles accused him of “making a mockery of Berlin’s foreign policy.” Yes, the two guys are pals. But still, wrote Nelles,

russland-praesident-wladimir-putin-und-altkanzler-gerhard-schroederSchröder ought to know better. If the former German chancellor believes he can continue his friendship as if nothing has happened, it’s a mistake. Schröder’s own center-left Social Democratic Party is currently the junior coalition partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, which is frantically trying to prevent his friend Vladimir from carrying out the policies of a power-drunk hegemon in Eastern Europe. In difficult times like these, a former German leader should, at least publicly, keep a safe distance from Putin….as Germany’s former leader, he is still obliged to maintain a statesman-like responsibility for his country.

Thomas Holl of Frankfurter Allgemeine agreed. Reacting to photographs of Schröder hugging Putin, he called them “macabre.”

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The hug

One interesting detail about that 70th birthday party. It was hosted by Nord Stream AG, a Gazprom subsidiary that operates a gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Guess who’s the chairman of Nord Stream’s advisory board, raking in €250,000 a year from the Russian government? None other than Gerhard Schröder. In fact, he took the job only weeks after his party lost the 2005 parliamentary elections, forcing him to hand over the chancellorship to Merkel. “Opponents,” recalled Reuters, “said the haste with which he took up the job was unseemly and the link to Russian interests too direct for a former chancellor.” In any event, the fundamental fact about Schröder now seems clear. As Bundestag member Manuel Sarrazi puts it, he’s “spreading the Kremlin’s propaganda” and is “now a paid spokesman for Russia.” 

Neil Clark’s “unpeople”

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Klaus with Putin, 2006

This week, we’ve been pondering the transformation of former Czech president Václav Klaus from a “champion of liberty” (to quote the head of the Cato Institute) into an apologist for Vladimir Putin. Many of Klaus’s former admirers have been dismayed by his seemingly inexplicable metamorphosis. One person who’s perfectly happy, however, is Neil Clark, a British journalist who’s written for many of that country’s major newspapers and political journals, including The Guardian, The Express, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, and The Spectator. He’s also, not irrelevantly, a regular talking head on Russia Today. 

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Neil Clark on Russia Today

In September of last year, The Spectator ran an admiring profile of Klaus by Clark, who called him “possibly the West’s last truly outspoken leader.” Forget the fact that Klaus’s star has dimmed in many quarters: Clark insisted that his outspokenness “doesn’t seem to have done him much harm in the popularity stakes.” As for Klaus’s current opinions, Clark liked what he heard: “Listen to Klaus in full flow on the absurdities of the EU and it’s hard to think why any sane individual — on left or right — would want their country to stay in it.”

But what about Ukraine? Klaus did mention to Clark his “reservations…about the Ukrainian crisis,” but Clark didn’t probe further. Instead, Clark readily agreed with Klaus that the discomfort some people in the West feel over Klaus’s Ukraine “reservations” is a “worrying trend,” a threat to Western freedom. This statement made no sense whatsoever, and Clark didn’t make any effort to explain what he meant.

vladimir-putin_416x416It’s hard not to wish him well,” Clark said in closing, calling Klaus a “conviction politician” – a “throwback to the days when our leaders did stand for something and weren’t afraid to speak their minds.” It didn’t seem to bother Clark at all that Klaus’s chief conviction, these days, is a slobbering loyalty to the thug of the Kremlin.

Which might be puzzling, if you didn’t know anything about Clark’s own politics. Not only is he a useful stooge; he seems to be doing his level best to become the #1 useful stooge of our time.  In a November article for Russia Today’s website that read like something out of The Onion, he spoke up for what he called “the unpeople” – whom he defined as “human beings whose views don’t matter to Western Democrats.” Among those who fall into this category, he explained, are the following – and we quote:

* The millions of Syrians – perhaps a majority – who support their government, or at least regard it as preferable to the alternatives.

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Ahmadinejad: his fans don’t get no respect

* Iranians who voted for Ahmadinejad in the 2009 Presidential election.

* Belarusians who support President Lukashenko.

* Libyans who did not support the violent NATO-backed “revolution” against Muammar Gaddafi.

* People who lived in communist countries in Eastern Europe and who thought there were positive aspects of life under communism.

* Ukrainian citizens who did not support “EuroMaidan.”

* Venezuelans who voted for Chavez and Maduro.

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According to Neil Clark, democracy apparently means giving a thumbs-up to this

* Russians who support United Russia or the Communist Party.

Get it? Supporters of tyranny and totalitarianism are today’s victims of intolerance. Clark explains: 

A belief in democracy should mean respecting the idea that all peoples’ views are equal. However, that’s not the way it works in today’s so-called “democracy.” Today, those who have the wrong views (i.e. views which don’t align with the interests of Western elites) are treated as if they don’t exist.

That’s a pretty interesting conception of democracy – that it obliges one to equate democratic ideas with non-democratic ones, such as Communism, Nazism, Juche thought, Baathism, jihadism, you name it. Speaking of Juche thought, how did Clark manage to leave enthusiasts for the North Korean regime out of his list of those who’ve been cruelly disrespected by Western democrats? How about the folks who cheered ISIS’s terror attacks in Paris? Aren’t they victims, too? 

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Václav Havel

Given his eagerness to defend supporters of the worst thugs on the planet, and his enthusiasm for the pro-Putin Václav Klaus, it shouldn’t be a surprise that when Václav Havel died four years ago, Clark rushed into print with a repulsive attack on that hero of freedom:

Havel’s anti-communist critique contained little if any acknowledgement of the positive achievements of the regimes of eastern Europe in the fields of employment, welfare provision, education and women’s rights. Or the fact that communism, for all its faults, was still a system which put the economic needs of the majority first.

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Cristina Odone

Cristina Odone, replying to Clark in the Telegraph, put it perfectly: “Havel above all would have enjoyed the irony that Clark, with his maverick views and pleasure in the sound of his own voice, would have been among the first to be taken out and shot (or maybe locked up in a mental institution) by the Soviet regimes he’s now an apologist for.”

Or, at one reader commented succinctly at Clark’s vile blog: “You really are a buffoon.”