Posts Tagged ‘Castro’


Fidel: ‘Cuban Model Doesn’t Even Work For Us Anymore’

By Jeffrey Goldberg
There were many odd things about my recent Havana stopover (apart from the dolphin show, which I’ll get to shortly), but one of the most unusual was Fidel Castro’s level of self-reflection. I only have limited experience with Communist autocrats (I have more experience with non-Communist autocrats) but it seemed truly striking that Castro was willing to admit that he misplayed his hand at a crucial moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis (you can read about what he said toward the end of my previous post – but he said, in so many words, that he regrets asking Khruschev to nuke the U.S.).

Even more striking was something he said at lunch on the day of our first meeting. We were seated around a smallish table; Castro, his wife, Dalia, his son; Antonio; Randy Alonso, a major figure in the government-run media; and Julia Sweig, the friend I brought with me to make sure, among other things, that I didn’t say anything too stupid (Julia is a leading Latin American scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations). I initially was mainly interested in watching Fidel eat – it was a combination of digestive problems that conspired to nearly kill him, and so I thought I would do a bit of gastrointestinal Kremlinology and keep a careful eye on what he took in (for the record, he ingested small amounts of fish and salad, and quite a bit of bread dipped in olive oil, as well as a glass of red wine). But during the generally lighthearted conversation (we had just spent three hours talking about Iran and the Middle East), I asked him if he believed the Cuban model was still something worth exporting.

“The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore,” he said.

This struck me as the mother of all Emily Litella moments. Did the leader of the Revolution just say, in essence, “Never mind”?

I asked Julia to interpret this stunning statement for me. She said, “He wasn’t rejecting the ideas of the Revolution. I took it to be an acknowledgment that under ‘the Cuban model’ the state has much too big a role in the economic life of the country.”

Julia pointed out that one effect of such a sentiment might be to create space for his brother, Raul, who is now president, to enact the necessary reforms in the face of what will surely be push-back from orthodox communists within the Party and the bureaucracy. Raul Castro is already loosening the state’s hold on the economy. He recently announced, in fact, that small businesses can now operate and that foreign investors could now buy Cuban real estate. (The joke of this new announcement, of course, is that Americans are not allowed to invest in Cuba, not because of Cuban policy, but because of American policy. In other words, Cuba is beginning to adopt the sort of economic ideas that America has long-demanded it adopt, but Americans are not allowed to participate in this free-market experiment because of our government’s hypocritical and stupidly self-defeating embargo policy. We’ll regret this, of course, when Cubans partner with Europeans and Brazilians to buy up all the best hotels).

But I digress. Toward the end of this long, relaxed lunch, Fidel proved to us that he was truly semi-retired. The next day was Monday, when maximum leaders are expected to be busy single-handedly managing their economies, throwing dissidents into prison, and the like. But Fidel’s calendar was open. He asked us, “Would you like to go the aquarium with me to see the dolphin show?”

I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. (This happened a number of times during my visit). “The dolphin show?”

“The dolphins are very intelligent animals,” Castro said.

I noted that we had a meeting scheduled for the next morning, with Adela Dworin, the president of Cuba’s Jewish community.

“Bring her,” Fidel said.

Someone at the table mentioned that the aquarium was closed on Mondays. Fidel said, “It will be open tomorrow.”

And so it was.

Late the next morning, after collecting Adela at the synagogue, we met Fidel on the steps of the dolphin house. He kissed Dworin, not incidentally in front of the cameras (another message for Ahmadinejad, perhaps). We went together into a large, blue-lit room that faces a massive, glass-enclosed dolphin tank. Fidel explained, at length, that the Havana Aquarium’s dolphin show was the best dolphin show in the world, “completely unique,” in fact, because it is an underwater show. Three human divers enter the water, without breathing equipment, and perform intricate acrobatics with the dolphins. “Do you like dolphins?” Fidel asked me.

“I like dolphins a lot,” I said.

Fidel called over Guillermo Garcia, the director of the aquarium (every employee of the aquarium, of course, showed up for work — “voluntarily,” I was told) and told him to sit with us.

“Goldberg,” Fidel said, “ask him questions about dolphins.”

“What kind of questions?” I asked.

“You’re a journalist, ask good questions,” he said, and then interrupted himself. “He doesn’t know much about dolphins anyway,” he said, pointing to Garcia. He’s actually a nuclear physicist.”

“You are?” I asked.

“Yes,” Garcia said, somewhat apologetically.

“Why are you running the aquarium?” I asked.

“We put him here to keep him from building nuclear bombs!” Fidel said, and then cracked-up laughing.

“In Cuba, we would only use nuclear power for peaceful means,” Garcia said, earnestly.

“I didn’t think I was in Iran,” I answered.

Fidel pointed to the small rug under the special swivel chair his bodyguards bring along for him.

“It’s Persian!” he said, and laughed again. Then he said, “Goldberg, ask your questions about dolphins.”

Now on the spot, I turned to Garcia and asked, “How much do the dolphins weigh?”

They weigh between 100 and 150 kilograms, he said.

“How do you train the dolphins to do what they do?” I asked.

“That’s a good question,” Fidel said.

Garcia called over one of the aquarium’s veterinarians to help answer the question. Her name was Celia. A few minutes later, Antonio Castro told me her last name: Guevara.

“You’re Che’s daughter?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“And you’re a dolphin veterinarian?”

“I take care of all the inhabitants of the aquarium,” she said.

“Che liked animals very much,” Antonio Castro said.

It was time for the show to start. The lights dimmed, and the divers entered the water. Without describing it overly much, I will say that once again, and to my surprise, I found myself agreeing with Fidel: The aquarium in Havana puts on a fantastic dolphin show, the best I’ve ever seen, and as the father of three children, I’ve seen a lot of dolphin shows. I will also say this: I’ve never seen someone enjoy a dolphin show as much as Fidel Castro enjoyed the dolphin show.

In the next installment, I will deal with such issues as the American embargo, the status of religion in Cuba, the plight of political dissidents, and economic reform. For now, I leave you with this image from our day at the aquarium (I’m in the low chair; Che’s daughter is behind me, with the short, blondish hair; Fidel is the guy who looks like Fidel if Fidel shopped at L.L. Bean):

fidel and goldberg.jpg

This article available online at:
http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/fidel-cuban-model-doesnt-even-work-for-us-anymore/62602/

Fidel: ‘Cuban Model Doesn’t Even Work For Us Anymore’ – International – The Atlantic

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Fidel to Ahmadinejad: ‘Stop Slandering the Jews’

By Jeffrey Goldberg
The Atlantic
(This is Part I of a report on my recent visit to Havana. I hope to post Part II tomorrow. And I also hope to be publishing a more comprehensive article about this subject in a forthcoming print edition of The Atlantic.)
A couple of weeks ago, while I was on vacation, my cell phone rang; it was Jorge Bolanos, the head of the Cuban Interest Section (we of course don’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba) in Washington. “I have a message for you from Fidel,” he said. This made me sit up straight. “He has read your Atlantic article about Iran and Israel. He invites you to Havana on Sunday to discuss the article.” I am always eager, of course, to interact with readers of The Atlantic, so I called a friend at the Council on Foreign Relations, Julia Sweig, who is a preeminent expert on Cuba and Latin America: “Road trip,” I said.

I quickly departed the People’s Republic of Martha’s Vineyard for Fidel’s more tropical socialist island paradise. Despite the self-defeating American ban on travel to Cuba, both Julia and I, as journalists and researchers, qualified for a State Department exemption. The charter flight from Miami was bursting with Cuban-Americans carrying flat-screen televisions and computers for their technologically-bereft families. Fifty minutes after take-off, we arrived at the mostly-empty Jose Marti International Airport. Fidel’s people met us on the tarmac (despite giving up his formal role as commandante en jefe after falling ill several years ago, Fidel still has many people). We were soon deposited at a “protocol house” in a government compound whose architecture reminded me of the gated communities of Boca Raton. The only other guest in this vast enclosure was the president of Guinea-Bissau.

I was aware that Castro had become preoccupied with the threat of a military confrontation in the Middle East between Iran and the U.S. (and Israel, the country he calls its Middle East “gendarme”). Since emerging from his medically induced, four-year purdah early this summer (various gastrointestinal maladies had combined to nearly kill him), the 84-year-old Castro has spoken mainly about the catastrophic threat of what he sees as an inevitable war.

I was curious to know why he saw conflict as unavoidable, and I wondered, of course, if personal experience – the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 that nearly caused the annihilation of most of humanity – informed his belief that a conflict between America and Iran would escalate into nuclear war.  I was even more curious, however, to get a glimpse of the great man. Few people had seen him since he fell ill in 2006, and the state of his health has been a subject of much speculation. There were questions, too, about the role he plays now in governing Cuba; he formally handed off power to his younger brother, Raul, two years ago, but it was not clear how many strings Fidel still pulled.

The morning after our arrival in Havana, Julia and I were driven to a nearby convention center, and escorted upstairs, to a large and spare office. A frail and aged Fidel stood to greet us. He was wearing a red shirt, sweatpants, and black New Balance sneakers. The room was crowded with officials and family: His wife, Dalia, and son Antonio, as well as an Interior Ministry general, a translator, a doctor and several bodyguards, all of whom appeared to have been recruited from the Cuban national wrestling team. Two of these bodyguards held Castro at the elbow.

We shook hands, and he greeted Julia warmly; they have known each other for more than twenty years. Fidel lowered himself gently into his seat, and we began a conversation that would continue, in fits and starts, for three days. His body may be frail, but his mind is acute, his energy level is high, and not only that: the late-stage Fidel Castro turns out to possess something of a self-deprecating sense of humor. When I asked him, over lunch, to answer what I’ve come to think of as the Christopher Hitchens question – has your illness caused you to change your mind about the existence of God? – he answered, “Sorry, I’m still a dialectical materialist.” (This is funnier if you are, like me, an ex-self-defined socialist.) At another point, he showed us a series of recent photographs taken of him, one of which portrayed him with a fierce expression. “This was how my face looked when I was angry with Khruschev,” he said. 

Castro opened our initial meeting by telling me that he read the recent Atlantic article carefully, and that it confirmed his view that Israel and America were moving precipitously and gratuitously toward confrontation with Iran. This interpretation was not surprising, of course: Castro is the grandfather of global anti-Americanism, and he has been a severe critic of Israel. His message to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, he said, was simple: Israel will only have security if it gives up its nuclear arsenal, and the rest of the world’s nuclear powers will only have security if they, too, give up their weapons. Global and simultaneous nuclear disarmament is, of course, a worthy goal, but it is not, in the short term, realistic. 

Castro’s message to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, was not so abstract, however. Over the course of this first, five-hour discussion, Castro repeatedly returned to his excoriation of anti-Semitism. He criticized Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust and explained why the Iranian government would better serve the cause of peace by acknowledging the “unique” history of anti-Semitism and trying to understand why Israelis fear for their existence.

 
He began this discussion by describing his own, first encounters with anti-Semitism, as a small boy. “I remember when I was a boy – a long time ago – when I was five or six years old and I lived in the countryside,” he said, “and I remember Good Friday. What was the atmosphere a child breathed? `Be quiet, God is dead.’ God died every year between Thursday and Saturday of Holy Week, and it made a profound impression on everyone. What happened? They would say, `The Jews killed God.’ They blamed the Jews for killing God! Do you realize this?”

He went on, “Well, I didn’t know what a Jew was. I knew of a bird that was a called a ‘Jew,’ and so for me the Jews were those birds.  These birds had big noses. I don’t even know why they were called that. That’s what I remember. This is how ignorant the entire population was.”

He said the Iranian government should understand the consequences of theological anti-Semitism. “This went on for maybe two thousand years,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say much more than the Muslims. They have been slandered much more than the Muslims because they are blamed and slandered for everything. No one blames the Muslims for anything.” The Iranian government should understand that the Jews “were expelled from their land, persecuted and mistreated all over the world, as the ones who killed God. In my judgment here’s what happened to them: Reverse selection. What’s reverse selection? Over 2,000 years they were subjected to terrible persecution and then to the pogroms. One might have assumed that they would have disappeared; I think their culture and religion kept them together as a nation.” He continued: “The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.” I asked him if he would tell Ahmadinejad what he was telling me. “I am saying this so you can communicate it,” he answered.

Castro went on to analyze the conflict between Israel and Iran. He said he understood Iranian fears of Israeli-American aggression and he added that, in his view, American sanctions and Israeli threats will not dissuade the Iranian leadership from pursuing nuclear weapons. “This problem is not going to get resolved, because the Iranians are not going to back down in the face of threats. That’s my opinion,” he said. He then noted that, unlike Cuba, Iran is a “profoundly religious country,” and he said that religious leaders are less apt to compromise. He noted that even secular Cuba has resisted various American demands over the past 50 years.

We returned repeatedly in this first conversation to Castro’s fear that a confrontation between the West and Iran could escalate into a nuclear conflict. “The Iranian capacity to inflict damage is not appreciated,” he said. “Men think they can control themselves but Obama could overreact and a gradual escalation could become a nuclear war.” I asked him if this fear was informed by his own experiences during the 1962 missile crisis, when the Soviet Union and the U.S. nearly went to war other over the presence of nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba (missiles installed at the invitation, of course, of Fidel Castro). I mentioned to Castro the letter he wrote to Khruschev, the Soviet premier, at the height of the crisis, in which he recommended that the Soviets consider launching a nuclear strike against the U.S. if the Americans attack Cuba. “That would be the time to think about liquidating such a danger forever through a legal right of self-defense,” Castro wrote at the time.

I asked him, “At a certain point it seemed logical for you to recommend that the Soviets bomb the U.S. Does what you recommended still seem logical now?” He answered: “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it all.”

I was surprised to hear Castro express such doubts about his own behavior in the missile crisis – and I was, I admit, also surprised to hear him express such sympathy for Jews, and for Israel’s right to exist (which he endorsed unequivocally). 

After this first meeting, I asked Julia to explain the meaning of Castro’s invitation to me, and of his message to Ahmadinejad. “Fidel is at an early stage of reinventing himself as a senior statesman, not as head of state, on the domestic stage, but primarily on the international stage, which has always been a priority for him,” she said. “Matters of war, peace and international security are a central focus: Nuclear proliferation climate change, these are the major issues for him, and he’s really just getting started, using any potential media platform to communicate his views. He has time on his hands now that he didn’t expect to have. And he’s revisiting history, and revisiting his own history.”

There is a great deal more to report from this conversation, and from subsequent conversations, which I will do in posts to follow. But I will begin the next post on this subject by describing one of the stranger days I have experienced, a day which began with a simple question from Fidel: “Would you like to go to the aquarium with me to see the dolphin show?”

This article available online at:
http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/fidel-to-ahmadinejad-stop-slandering-the-jews/62566/

Copyright © 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved
Fidel to Ahmadinejad: ‘Stop Slandering the Jews’ – International – The Atlantic


Socialism and communism: the same thing

The Property Rights Alliance’s latest International Property Rights Index ranks Venezuela 123rd out of 125 nations, below Zimbabwe and Cuba and above only Ivory Coast and Bangladesh.
This index reflects what is obvious for the vast majority of Venezuelans: that over the past eleven long years, their property rights have been ignored.
This sad story started with the “rescue” of agricultural land on the pretext of fighting against the latifundios or large estates. But that did not prevent the government from snatching properties of all types and sizes, many of them modest and clearly productive. And now, the latest amendment to the Lands Act introduces so many justifications for expropriating a plot of land that, in practice, it eradicates private ownership of agricultural land.

Then came the expropriation of a large number of companies with the excuse that they were supposedly “strategic.” Using this rationale, the entire oil and electricity sectors, a large part of the telecommunications sector, and companies in basic sectors and companies engaged in food distribution and a whole series of associated activities were nationalized.
Meanwhile, in the cities, the authorities were encouraging squatters to invade and take over plots of land and buildings that were in strategic locations or were allegedly abandoned or being remodeled.
At that time, experts warned that the attack on property was not only aimed at large landowners or corporations and that, sooner rather than later, the regime would go after small landowners and owners of small businesses, as this was an attack on the foundations of the Venezuelan economy and against people’s freedom to engage in the economic activity of their choice, progress, and have the means to meet their needs without depending directly on the government and its handouts.
This has become more than clear in recent months. At the end of 2009, President Chávez ordered the expropriation of buildings in downtown Caracas housing dozens of small businesses, with the result that hundreds of ordinary workers were left without a job. Another group whose rights have been restricted is that of the concessionaires in municipal markets that have come under the aegis of a mayor sympathetic to the government. Today, these small merchants cannot dispose of the businesses they have built up, they are forbidden to transfer and even bequeath their concessions, and they now have to comply with conditions that make their continuing in business unviable, and meanwhile they are being harassed and threatened.
Just this week, a small shoe store was suddenly evicted in downtown Caracas. The excuse was the expropriation of Edificio Gradillas, a building that belongs to the Episcopate. The shoe store’s elderly owners, who had been in business for more than 40 years, were left out on the street along with their three employees and 14,000 pairs of shoes.
 
Then there is the case of Friosa, the largest food distribution company in Bolívar state that was intervened in May this year for 90 days. During that time, sales fell by 70% and working conditions were adversely affected. The workers have publicly shown how the company’s facilities and vehicles have been allowed to deteriorate and even how food that was going bad was being used to provide meals at the basic companies, but all their protests have been to no avail. The intervention has been extended for another 90 days and now anyone who protests runs the risk of losing his job.
 
As Fidel said: socialism and communism are the same thing.
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Colombia, Venezuela Agree to Restore Diplomatic Relations After Dispute

(Corrects date of Bolivar’s death in sixth paragraph.)
Venezuela and Colombia agreed to restore diplomatic relations and vowed to step up security along their border to prevent Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers from mounting attacks or using dense jungle for hideouts.
The two countries will form joint committees to work on any lingering issues, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said yesterday after meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez. The nations had been locked in a dispute over Colombian accusations that Venezuela was harboring rebels.
“We are starting this relationship from zero in a frank and sincere way,” Santos, who was inaugurated as president Aug. 7, told reporters in a joint news conference with Chavez in the town of Santa Marta. “The two countries will re-establish diplomatic relations and create a roadmap so that all aspects of relations can progress, advance and deepen.”
The agreement paves the way for a restoration in trade between the countries, which plummeted during the past two years amid accusations that Chavez was aiding the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in its campaign to disrupt the government. Chavez put troops on high alert along the 1,375-mile (2,200- kilometer) border July 30 after Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, said as many as 1,500 rebels are launching cross-border attacks from Venezuela.
Chavez, speaking after Santos, said he doesn’t allow illegal groups to operate in Venezuela. He said he examined documents that Colombia said proved the existence of rebel camps in Venezuela and found that there were no outposts.
‘Always Doubts’
“There are always doubts, but President Santos has promised to believe me when I say that Venezuela’s government does not support Colombian guerrillas,” Chavez told reporters after the meeting at the estate where his 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar died in 1830. “If I supported the guerrillas the results would be quite notable — they would have weapons and money.”
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin will travel to Caracas within two weeks to jumpstart relations, Chavez said.
Venezuela gave assurances that it will pay debts to exporters dating from July 2009 when Chavez first froze commerce, Santos said. Venezuela owes some $800 million to Colombian exporters, according to the Venezuela-Colombia Chamber for Economic Integration, a Caracas-based business group.
Trade between the nations tumbled to $651 million in the first five months of this year from $2.26 billion in the same period of 2008, the last year of normal relations, according to Colombia’s statistics agency. Colombia’s central bank, while acknowledging that the ongoing row cut into trade, says the impact is being offset by the global economic recovery.
‘Kick in the Pants’
“Santos knows he needs better diplomacy with Venezuela, he knows he can’t enter office kicking Chavez in the shins, he has to open talks and look super reasonable,” said Myles Frechette, U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 1994 to 1997. “He won’t be confrontational but he will give Chavez a good kick in the pants if need be.”
Venezuela’s economy will shrink 2.6 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
“It would be convenient to reopen the border, but it’s not a matter of life or death for Colombia’s exporters,” said Rafael Mejia, president of the Colombian Agriculture Society. “The real issue is that Venezuela doesn’t pay.”
The yield on Colombia’s benchmark 11 percent bonds due 2020 has dropped to 7.2 from 7.96 since Santos’ election June 20. The peso has gained 4.7 percent over the same period, the most among major Latin American currencies tracked by Bloomberg.
Even if Chavez opens the border to trade, many exporters are wary of rushing back, said Jorge Bedoya, head of the National Federation of Colombian Poultry Farmers.
Trade Tensions
“It’s important that Chavez takes it seriously and abides by the rules,” said Bedoya, whose members lost as much as $60 million in trade to Venezuela before finding new markets locally and in Asia.
The collapse in commercial ties likely contributed to rising prices in Venezuela because of the costs of importing food and other items from longer distances, said Luis Alberto Rusian, president of the Venezuelan-Colombian Chamber for Economic Integration, or CAVECOL.
“Colombia’s natural market has always been Venezuela just as the natural market for Venezuela is Colombia,” Rusian said. “We also need to rebuild confidence between businesses and this is going to take some time.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Helen Murphy in Bogota at hmurphy1@bloomberg.net

Colombia, Venezuela Agree to Restore Diplomatic Relations After Dispute – Bloomberg


venezuela in the news this week… we’ll see what comes of it…

this is the latest one from the Financial Times.
(Note: Highlights in bold and italics, MasterBlog)

Venezuela: Bolivarian bravado

By John Paul Rathbone and Benedict Mander

Published: August 5 2010 23:20 | Last updated: August 5 2010 23:20

Hugo Chávez

The giant Pepsi globe that once loomed above Plaza Venezuela in the traffic-clogged heart of Caracas had long been a landmark of the South American capital’s skyline. Now it is gone, dismantled piece by piece in June.

Much like the demolition of a statue of Christopher Columbus in the same square six years earlier, its removal was a crude symbol of President Hugo Chávez’s self-appointed role as the region’s anti-US, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist standard-bearer.

It was also a reminder of faded hopes that relations would improve either with the US under President Barack Obama, following the mutual antagonism of the George W. Bush era; or with America’s closest ally in the region, neighbouring Colombia. If anything, Mr Chávez has raised the volume of his nationalist-Marxist rhetoric as his problems have grown both at home and abroad.

In July, when Colombian leaders again accused Venezuela of sheltering Marxist guerrillas intent on destabilising their country, and were confident enough of their case to present it to the Organization of American States, Mr Chávez promptly called it an act of US-inspired “aggression” and broke off relations with Bogotá. Havana, which receives subsidised Venezuelan oil in return for medical services, lent Caracas rhetorical support: “We strive for peace and harmony,” said President Raúl Castro. “But … let no one have the least doubt on which side Cuba will stand.’’

Meanwhile, with the country in recession, red-hued government propaganda in multiple media hails Mr Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”. The president has taken to expounding how it is “bad to be rich” – though one graffito snipes back from a grimy Caracas wall: “If it’s bad to be rich, it’s worse to be poor.”

All this might otherwise be ignored as the bitter internal politics of a volatile tropical republic were it not for Venezuela’s strategic importance and fears that Mr Chávez might consolidate his grip on power at legislative elections next month.

“Elections are of great importance for Chávez. They give him legitimacy both at home and abroad – they give him an air of respectability,” says Teodoro Petkoff, a garrulous former leftist guerrilla who now edits the Caracas-based newspaper Tal Cual.

A clear victory for Mr Chávez’s United Socialist party of Venezuela at the September 26 polls would be likely to herald further radicalisation of his socialist project, ease the way for his election to a third six-year term in 2012 and thus boost worries elsewhere about regional tensions.

Watching the results most closely will be neighbours in the Andes – a regional tinderbox, given the prevalence of clashing ideologies, well-equipped troops and armed guerrilla and paramilitary groups – and Cuba, as Venezuela’s closest ideological ally.

A further geopolitical consideration stems from Venezuela’s role as transshipment point for what is said to be more than half the cocaine shipped across the Atlantic to Europe every year. The country’s trafficking situation is deteriorating, the UN warns in its latest World Drugs Report.

Also watching the election closely will be those energy importers who ogle the country’s vast crude oil reserves, the largest outside the Middle East. As those reserves are easily accessible and use proved technologies, BP’s deep-water oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has heightened their strategic value still further. That is as true for the US, which remains Venezuela’s biggest single oil market, as for rising energy users such as China, which recently curried favour as well as securing future oil supplies with a $20bn soft loan to Caracas.

With term limits abolished following a referendum last year, Mr Chávez has frequently expressed a wish to remain in office until 2021 – the 200th anniversary of independence from Spain – to see through his revolution. Yet, after 11 years in power, the extent to which he has succeeded in instilling in voters a mindset compatible with what he calls “21st century socialism” is debatable. (For example, he has condemned a widespread fondness for whiskey and Hummers.)

The government has therefore been working to boost its chances of maintaining in September the two-thirds majority necessary to push legislation through the National Assembly.

Changes to the electoral system this year mean rural areas will return more deputies than before, hindering the metropolitan-based opposition. State-owned media can meanwhile drench the country in pro-government propaganda. (While newspapers such as Mr Petkoff’s are highly critical, private sector broadcasters have been largely cowed into submission.)

Most unsettling of all is the possibility that Mr Chávez’s party might lose the vote yet still maintain effective control. In 2008, for example, the president res­ponded to the election of an opposition candidate as Caracas mayor by inventing a more senior post and ap­pointing a candidate of his choosing.

Another possibility, much discussed in the capital, is that he could rule by decree during the 100 days between the elections and the new deputies taking up their seats, changing irrevocably the legal landscape to his liking. A recent 40 per cent pay rise ensures the army’s loyalty.

“Chávez will not leave power voluntarily,” says Diego Arria, a leading opposition figure and former governor of Caracas. “This is a president whose motto is: ‘fatherland, socialism or death’. When they say death they mean us, not themselves.”

Such drastic outcomes may never come to pass. Despite the recession, crumbling public services, a series of damaging scandals and rampant violent crime, Mr Chávez still commands the support of about two in every five Venezuelans – roughly the same ap­proval rating as Mr Obama in the US.

In large part, this is due to his emotional bond with the poor, who in 2008 made up 28 per cent of the population, according to the UN. “Even with hunger and unemployment, I’m sticking with Chávez,” runs one refrain popular in the capital’s slums.

Gregory Wilpert, editor of pro-Chávez website Venezuelanalysis.com, emphasises that many have benefited from the government-run social programmes. “The process of devolving local governance to communities via the communal councils and other forms of participation also gives many people a real feeling of being a part of the political process,” he adds. Critics say such councils usurp the power of elected municipal governments.

. . .

Either way, to gain a decisive victory, Mr Chávez will need to win over undecided voters – the ni-nis, or neither-nors – who account for about one in three of the electorate, according to polls.

In 2006, when he was re-elected at the peak of both his popularity and the oil price boom, that problem was partly solved by throwing money around. The trouble for “chavistas” today is that there is less to spend. This year, for example, while the rest of the region is expected to grow by 5.2 per cent, Venezuela’s economy is forecast to shrink by 3 per cent, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America estimates. Inflation, meanwhile, is running at about 30 per cent.

Paradoxically, because oil prices are hovering around $80 a barrel, a healthy level historically, government finances are not in perilous shape. Rather, the main cause of the continuing recession is mismanagement – the biggest rock on which Mr Chávez’s revolution has floundered.

PDVSA, the state-owned oil company that is the dynamo of the economy, has been leached to fund social projects with cash that otherwise would have been used for much-needed investment. The non-oil economy has been hobbled too.

Capital flight has been propelled by the nationalisation drive Mr Chávez has launched in a range of sectors, including energy, finance and telecommunications. Attempts to prevent such flight have made matters worse. The rationing of foreign exchange has made importing harder, fuelling scarcity, inflation and a flourishing black market – dollars sell for about four times the cheapest official rate.

The multinationals that once made the country their regional base, attracted by its relative stability and large internal market, have upped sticks. A web of regulations has tightened around those private companies that have remained – most publicly at Polar, the food and beverage company that is an emblem of Venezuelan popular culture, which Mr Chávez has threatened to nationalise against union wishes. Private investment has slumped amid the deteriorating business climate. As for nationalised companies, the state has been unable to pick up the slack.

Since nationalisation in 2008, production in the cement sector has fallen 20 per cent, and in the steel sector by as much as 80 per cent, according to Caracas-based consultancy Ecoanalítica. Most embarrassing of all were the 100,000 tonnes of food found recently rotting in the warehouses of state-run food distribution network PDVAL. Mr Chávez blamed “US-backed fascist oligarchs”.

The opposition has failed to capitalise on such problems. One reason is that much of the electorate remains distrustful following early at­tempts to unseat the president including a botched coup in 2002 and a national strike that paralysed the economy.

. A final factor is that many of its candidates are drawn from two discredited parties, Democratic Action and the Social Christians, which once dominated the country’s politics.

Dissidents from Mr Chávez’s party and former personal allies pose a potential threat. But some of the most prominent opponents have been hounded out of the country or imprisoned. General Raúl Baduel, a former close friend who called the president a “traitor” has been controversially jailed for corruption.

. . .

All this has devalued Mr Chávez’s reputation abroad. He still enjoys occasional celebrity support, from Argentine footballer Diego Maradona and Hollywood film producer Oliver Stone, for example. Oil also ensures Caracas secures the odd multibillion-dollar deal – most notably an arms agreement with Moscow, after the US stopped selling weapons to Venezuela in 2006. Caracas and Havana remain locked in a symbiotic embrace. But the president’s vision retains little credence with the region’s leftwing, and many of the area’s leaders and diplomats are embarrassed by his virulent rhetoric and off-colour jokes.

Mr Chávez has thus failed to bring closer to reality the Latin American union he espouses in evocations of his 19th century independence hero, Simón Bolívar. Sometimes, as when he closed the frontier with Colombia, he has worked against it.

Yet his command of Venezuela – its economy, army and institutions, including the judiciary – has never been stronger. There is therefore every chance that Mr Chávez, whose political style tends towards confrontation rather than negotiation, will endure. ¡Venceremos! – “we will conquer” – as the former tank commander is fond of saying.

venezuela

see related post from the same FT piece:

FT.com / Comment / Analysis – Venezuela: Bolivarian bravado

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Slouching to Populism

Friday, March 20, 2009
Embattled democrats in Latin America read the State Department’s reticence as weakness and indifference.
Those of us who have worked to promote democracy in Latin America have seen our share of disappointment in the choices voters in the region are making at the ballot box—topped off by last Sunday’s results from El Salvador.
Why are we worried? In 1998, Venezuelans handed the presidency over to a trash-talking lieutenant colonel who led a bloody coup only six years earlier. Bolivians gave an unprecedented margin of victory in 2005 to a candidate who had a role in the violent overthrow of two preceding presidents. Nicaraguans elected a former dictator president in 2006. Ecuadoreans forced several presidents from office and, in 2006, elected a man who promised to uproot the political order.
One would like to think that the undemocratic way in which Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega, and Rafael Correa have run their respective countries would have been a cautionary tale to our friends in El Salvador. Alas, last Sunday, voters in that Central American country—arguably the United States’ best friend in the hemisphere—chose as their president the front man of a communist rebel group whose members have killed U.S. servicemen, are allied with terrorist groups, and celebrated the 9/11attacks. It remains to be seen whether El Salvador’s new president, Mauricio Funes, keeps his pledge to govern moderately or is overwhelmed by the leftist extremists who really run his party.
Followers of the rightist ruling party in El Salvador have not had time to reflect on what they accomplished for their people after 20 years in power. Indeed, they negotiated an end to a bloody civil war, implemented the peace accords, and will preside over their nation’s first peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party since that war. Candidates campaigned freely. U.N. peacekeepers were not required to patrol the streets. An independent media (from whence the opposition candidate, Funes, came) criticized both parties with vigor. National electoral observers monitored an orderly, tranquil process. An impartial electoral council published the results, which the losing candidate accepted without rancor, within several hours of the last ballot being cast.
A majority of Salvadorans decided that two decades with one party in power was plenty. The impact of crime on personal security is a nagging problem in a country that is home to the region’s nastiest gang, Mara Salvatrucha. The ruling party candidate’s stint as public security chief apparently left some voters underwhelmed. After years grappling with spiraling energy costs, El Salvador’s dollarized economy was hit hard by the recent U.S. economic crisis and the drop in remittances from migrants, which are that country’s largest source of hard currency. And, after a spirited campaign, the opposition candidate touting moderate change scored a narrow victory. So be it.
That is the way democracy is supposed to work. Democrats from Mexico to Chile to Brazil to the United States take that sort of process for granted. We each have our share of extraordinary challenges, but, as long as we sort them out democratically, we assume that things are going to be just fine.
Over the past several years, representative democracy has empowered people in Latin America who had been locked out of power; it also uncorked class tensions and unrequited demands that weak democratic institutions and poor states were hard-pressed to confront. Market reforms and trade produced economic growth, but in the absence of accountable and representative institutions, the poor majority saw themselves losing ground to privileged elites. So, it is no surprise to see a ruling party or an entire political class upended at the ballot box.
Does this mean that democracy is working? Well, yes and no.
For example, competitive (and even extraordinarily close) elections in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and elsewhere have ushered in strong governments with mandates to tackle serious problems. When leaders on the left or right win elections and set out to govern democratically, institutions gain credibility and strength.
In a handful of countries, elected caudillos (strongmen) have abused the power they gained through the ballot to tear down the democratic institutions that are vital to dealing with dissent, settling disputes, or producing a consensus to confront the corrosive problems that are far too common in these weak states. As a result, entire nations find themselves depending on the whims of authoritarian populists.
The results are objectively negative. Bolivia’s Morales has mugged his country’s judicial and political systems to ram through sweeping constitutional reforms. Correa is working from an eerily similar playbook in Ecuador. In Nicaragua, Ortega has stolen local elections that observers say were won by the opposition, and last week he hinted at changing the “unjust” ban on his reelection. Venezuela’s Chavez is in a class by himself, using a series of progressively more bogus elections to wrest absolute control over the national assembly, courts, national oil company, central bank, electoral council, etc. When he loses an election, he usually lies about the result. In response to opposition victories last November in Caracas and several important states, Chavez plans to appoint a new vice president to supersede these local authorities, whom he already has stripped of all revenue and power.
Chavez has used his petrodollars to bankroll acolytes throughout the region who share his vision and casual attitudes about democracy and the rule of law. Although he is bound to lose influence in the region and popularity at home as the price of oil dips, the damage is done. He has politicized the military and militarized politics so that he will never again have to pretend to win an election if that suits him.
So, why do we care? Beyond the fact that genuine democracy is an inherent good that produces more just societies and political stability, we have other interests at stake. Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have rejected cooperation with U.S. anti-drug efforts and have given safe haven, political backing, or financial support to a narcoterrorist group battling our ally, Colombia. The loss in El Salvador eliminates a key friend in a region beset by illicit drug trafficking displaced by Mexico’s stepped-up counternarcotics campaign. No other Central American nation has the security resources or the political will to confront this deadly threat. As economies deteriorate and people flee political unrest or drug-related violence, the flood of refugees northward will spell big trouble for Mexico and the United States.
There may be little the United States can do to reverse this dangerous trend in the region. Indeed, American diplomats have calculated that publicly defending democratic values will merely provoke our enemies. Well, the fact is our enemies are doing fine; it is our friends we should worry about. It is tragic that embattled democrats in the region read the State Department’s reticence as weakness and indifference.
President Barack Obama can begin to turn things around as he looks across the table at a handful of troublemakers at the Summit of the Americas next month in Trinidad and Tobago. He should do his fair share of listening to our friends in the region, but he can crib from his inaugural address for a ready-made message for opponents of the United States and our values:
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense…. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West—know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
Words are not enough, but these words—laden with values and resolve—will serve to remind everyone what is at stake and where we stand in the Americas.
Roger F. Noriega was a senior official in the State Department from 2001 to 2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, a Washington advocacy firm that represents U.S. and foreign governments and companies.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group


A Satirical Site Skewers Chávez and Politics
CARACAS, Venezuela — This may be a perilous time to operate a Web site focused on politics here, given President Hugo Chávez’s recent push for new controls of Internet content. But one plucky Venezuelan satirical site is emerging as a runaway success in Latin America as it repeatedly skewers Mr. Chávez and a host of other leaders.
Named in honor of the capybara, the Labrador retriever-sized rodent that Venezuelans are fond of hunting and eating, the 2-year-old Web site, El Chigüire Bipolar, or Bipolar Capybara, is rivaling or surpassing in page views leading Venezuelan newspapers like the Caracas daily El Nacional.
The rise of Chigüire Bipolar, which has already drawn the wrath of state-controlled media here, and a handful of other popular Venezuelan sites focused on politics is taking place within a journalistic atmosphere here that international press groups say is marked increasingly by fear, intimidation and self-censorship.
Before threatening to impose unspecified Internet controls this month, Mr. Chávez pushed RCTV, a critical television network, off the airwaves andrevoked the licenses of 34 radio stations across the country. Mr. Chávez has also forced broadcasters to transmit live his speeches and televised appearances, which last hours.
“Chávez is a master communicator and a natural-born comedian, but one who doesn’t realize he’s at the center of the joke,” said Juan Andrés Ravell, 28, a part-time television scriptwriter who is one of the three founders of Chigüire (Tchee-GWEE-reh).
Mr. Ravell ascribes much of their success to the use of social media like Twitter and Facebook to lure readers to the site. Once there, they are treated to satirical videos and photo montages lambasting Mr. Chavez and other Venezuelan figures, sometimes even from the anti-Chavez camp.
Other Latin American leaders are frequent targets, too. For instance, Chigüire mocks the feel-good diplomacy of Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, portraying him as a bong-smoking bon vivant with a taste for Twinkies. Another montage derides frequent visits here by Iran’s president,Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, contending that he and Mr. Chávez have grown so close that they have glued their hands together.
Chigüire Bipolar’s biggest success so far arrived in February in the form of a 5-minute video inspired by the American television series “Lost,” in which Latin American leaders of various ideologicals stripes find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island, forced to fend for themselves.
The video, called “Presidential Island” and viewed more than 450,000 times on YouTube, depicts Mr. Chávez and Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales, as star-crossed lovers who dine on American bald eagle. Colombia’s right-wing president, Álvaro Uribe, comes across as a prude, and Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as a temptress who entrances Brazil’s Mr. da Silva. King Juan Carlos of Spain makes an appearance in which his dentures fall into the sea.
Oswaldo Graziani, 30, another of the site’s founders, said they drew inspiration from American television shows like “The Colbert Report” and Web sites like The Onion and also from a rich tradition here of political satire, including defunct humor magazines named after Venezuelan fauna like Morrocoy Azul (The Blue Tortoise) and Camaleón (Chameleon).
Mr. Graziani said going after Mr. Chávez’s critics, in addition to the president himself, and critiquing certain aspects of Venezuelan society were also priorities. For instance, Chigüire Bipolar has lampooned the student movement here by showing students more interested in swilling beer on the beach than in protests.
Another frequent target of ridicule is Mr. Ravell’s own father, Alberto Federico Ravell, a strident critic of Mr. Chávez and a prominent media executive here who said he was fired this year by the television network Globovisión as part of an effort to alleviate pressure exerted on the organization by Mr. Chávez’s government.
“We make it a principle that no one is immune, not even ourselves,” said Mr. Graziani, noting that their motto is “Partial, unfounded news from a rodent with psychological issues.”
“It’s difficult for anyone to battle against the supremacy of humor,” he said.
Some here try to wage that fight, however.
Mario Silva, the host of “La Hojilla,” or “The Razorblade,” a somber nightly talk show on state television that Mr. Chávez’s government uses to attack its critics, has condemned Chigüire Bipolar, describing its founders in February as partisan anti-Chávez drug-addicts. “We appreciated the publicity,” Mr. Ravell said in response to the state-television tirade against them.
In a separate episode this year, Mr. Chávez’s information minister, Blanca Eekhout, demanded that Laureano Márquez, a humorist who writes for the newspaper Tal Cual, be prosecuted after writing a short column imagining Venezuela free from the grasp of a ruler named “Esteban,” a code name for Mr. Chávez.
“Chávez’s government unfortunately doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about itself, which is why Bipolar Capybara has become an essential fixture in the national debate,” said Andrés Cañizález, a researcher on media freedom here for the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders.
Others fixtures persist in criticizing Mr. Chávez, especially print media like Tal Cual, El Universal and El Nacional. And the surging use of Twitterhere to transmit antigovernment missives has prompted a sharp reaction from Mr. Chávez, who recently warned Venezuelans against using social networks.
Pressure is building now for political Web sites to bend to the government’s will. Noticias24, a leading news site here, barred visitors from commenting on articles this month after Mr. Chávez threatened to introduce Internet controls.
Mr. Chávez issued his threat after another site, Noticiero Digital, published in its comments section a false claim that at least one of his ministers had been assassinated.
The government has not announced any official measures, and so far Noticiero Digital is the only site under investigation. However, several pro-Chávez officials have said that site administrators should follow the law applied to broadcasters and be held responsible for comments.
Mr. Ravell and Mr. Graziani, who earn a living as freelance television producers and scriptwriters, finance Chigüire Bipolar out of their own pockets and with a meager revenue stream from advertising and sale of T-shirts printed with their logo.
They produce the site with a third Venezuelan partner based in Miami, Elio Casale, in a chaotic flurry of e-mail, instant-messaging and BlackBerry text messages.
“We don’t actually talk to each other that much,” Mr. Ravell said.
In an interview, Mr. Ravell said he remained hopeful that Chigüire Bipolar was opening the way for more multifaceted debate in Venezuela instead of representing a final burst of expressive ebullience online in a scenario in which Mr. Chávez might succeed in exerting control over a medium that until now has largely escaped his sway.

“Satire,” he said, “always evolves to resist the attempts to extinguish it.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/21/world/americas/21venezuela.html
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