Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Bolivarian Oblivion

“What’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created … The transformations that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact”
 —Linguist/activist Noam Chomsky, in 2009

“These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who’s the banana republic now?”
 —Senator Bernie Sanders, on his web site in 2011

“The election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
 —Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, in 2012

“[Venezuela president Hugo] Chavez showed us that there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice and it’s something that Venezuela has made a big step towards.”
 —Soon-to-be UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, in 2013

“Venezuela’s problem isn’t too much socialism—it’s not enough. The country, whose former president Hugo Chavez proclaimed ‘21st century socialism’, is deep in crisis. It has the world’s highest inflation rate—720 percent and rising. Its currency has plummeted to less than 1 percent of its official value, making it hard to import food. Hunger is endemic. Buying food at subsidised shops where price controls operate involves queuing for four hours, only on certain days, and sometimes still getting nothing. Medicines and sanitary products are scarce. Chronic power blackouts have seen factories close and public sector workers move to a two-day week. Growing numbers are emigrating, or depend on products sent by relatives abroad.”
 —Dave Sewell, writing in the Socialist Worker last August
Politicians from all the British political parties—including Labour—have been condemning the chaos, violence and ongoing power grab in Venezuela by the country’s wanton president, Nicolás Maduro. Notably absent among them, though, is Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn. Members of his own party are urging him to speak up. He has not spoken publicly about Venezuela since praising Maduro two years ago. He did, however, recently delete a post from his web site praising Venezuela for “seriously conquering poverty by emphatically rejecting … Neo Liberal policies.” In Spain, by contrast, Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez has said he “strongly condemned the destruction of the democratic freedoms that is taking place in Venezuela.”

In Ireland a group representing Venezuelan citizens living here has gone on record as rejecting the Constituent Assembly whose members were elected on Sunday. The assembly, whose members will come exclusively from Maduro’s Socialist party, will be able to dissolve the congress, which is controlled by the political opposition but which has been stymied by Maduro’s authoritarianism and packing of the courts. A reported ten people died in violence that erupted from protests in the the Venezuelan streets on election day. Two opposition leaders, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, have been arrested in their homes.

In the interest of fairness, on its morning news program today, Ireland’s state broadcaster RTÉ interviewed a recently returned observer of Sunday’s election, Adrian Kane, who is an organizer for Ireland’s Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU). Kane defended the integrity of the vote—which has been criticized by other observers—citing glowing reports of past Venezuelan elections from The Carter Center and other organizations and saying that everything looked fine at the five polling stations he had visited.

He also dismissed the following comment on social media from Luis Rondon, one of five directors of the electoral council: “For the first time since I took up this commitment to the country, I cannot guarantee the consistency or veracity of the results offered.” The quote was from a Reuters report citing mathematical inconsistencies in internal electoral council data reviewed by Reuters and the 8.1-million-voter turnout reported by the government. Kane also seemed unaware that The Carter Center, which he had cited, had issued a statement which read, in part, “We condemn Sunday’s process to elect a National Constituent Assembly. The process was carried out in the complete absence of electoral integrity, posing serious problems of legitimacy, legality, and procedure. The measures taken by the government to prevent freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right to peaceful demonstrations contravene the democratic values of plurality and the democratic and participatory clauses protected in the Venezuelan constitution.”

Kane blamed the violence entirely on the political opposition, saying it was “engaged in acts of terror” and calling the government response “restrained.” He accused the media of spreading a false narrative about Maduro wanting to be a dictator.

I can understand the allure that figures like Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez have for idealistic people who would like to see the world become more fair and just. The problem is that the cascading series of laws, rules and regulations necessary to enforce that fairness inevitably meet opposition from not only sectors of society that stand to lose but also from the very ones who are meant to be lifted up. More critically, as we see in Venezuela, the burden of government control invariably translates into bad economics and a lower standard of living, which mostly afflicts the less well off. The standard ideological response is to blame a colonial past and poverty. The problem for that excuse in Venezuela’s case is that the country is blessed with oil wealth that has been controlled by its own government. Apologists are left to mutter about a period of low oil prices.

Less understandable is why many, though by no means all, erstwhile admirers and defenders of Chávez and Maduro are so stubborn about conceding they made a mistake with their earlier praise. No one likes to advertise the fact they were wrong about something. That is only human nature. Still, it looks even worse to appear more concerned about your own ego than about people dying in the streets and about families suffering from economic deprivation for no good reason.

My guess is that the Corbyns of the world, along with the young starry-eyed idealists in the political trenches, will come around to condemning what’s happening in Venezuela—once they have found a way to rationalize an explanation that has nothing at all to do with the government-directed economic policies they themselves espouse.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Macron en Marche

An aide explained that his thoughts were too sublime to be comprehended by journalists, prompting the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné to print a spoof interview with Macron.
 Questioner: “So, it’s all over for interviews and press conferences?”
 Macron: “Affirmative. They will be replaced by the publication every month of a scan of my brain, so that the public may marvel at the complexity of my reasoning.”
 To critics, his lofty attitude recalls a remark made by Napoleon himself to his cabinet in 1804: “We are here to guide public opinion, not to discuss it.”
—News article on France’s new president by Michael Sheridan in the UK’s Sunday Times, July 9
I still do not have a handle on Emmanuel Macron.

The standard narrative of European state broadcasters and the American corporate media was that he was the political savior who brought voters to their senses after a string of witless decisions in Europe and the U.S. A surging tide of unfathomable populism and nationalism had caused a narrow victories for anti-European Union forces in Britain’s referendum last summer and for Donald Trump in November. Fear had been palpable that another unlikely surprise could result in the National Front’s Marine Le Pen ascending to the Elysée Palace in May. When Macron won the presidency handily, there were huzzahs all around. The E.U. and liberal democracy were safe. The epidemic of insanity was over.

Not so fast.

The funny thing is that, had there been a viable Socialist candidate in the race, I have no doubt Macron would have been painted by much of the press as some sort of populist reactionary. No more than the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., the long-running major French parties—the Socialists and the ever-name-changing Guallist/conservatives (currently called Les Républicains)—more or less imploded and/or at least ground to an intellectual halt from lack of inertia. Socialist François Hollande’s term was so disastrous that he did not bother running for re-election. Two other leftist candidates—one of whom was out of the mainstream even by French standards—divided the vote. On the right, François Fillon might well have won if not for an inconvenient scandal involving high-pay/low-duty jobs for his wife and children. So far neither he nor anyone else, by the way, has blamed the Russians for his defeat.

As it is, some have compared Macron to Barack Obama because of his youth, freshness, photogenic image and the fact that he represents a break from the political past. I wonder, though, whether a comparison with Trump is not more apt. After all, he had never before held elected office, he campaigned successfully against all the established political parties, and his agenda was always unabashedly pro-business. Still, all that mattered in the final round was that he was not Marine Le Pen, so he was clearly the good guy. Also, unlike Trump, he was pro-European-Union and did not emit untoward tweets or cringe-worthy off-the-cuff remarks. So far, by the way, Le Pen has not blamed her defeat on misogyny.

Like Trump, however, Macron seems to be finding that, while having no long-term well-established major party support can sometimes be an aid to election, it does not make it particularly easy to govern. Trump, a nominal Republican, arrived in Washington with majorities in both houses of Congress. Macron’s barely-year-old party La République en Marche swept the legislature. Yet, as an article in The Guardian this week notes, in Macron’s first full month in office, there were no fewer than four high-profile resignations and investigations into two separate scandals. His approval rating has dropped from 64 percent in June to 54 percent this week—lower than Hollande’s at this stage. Much of the drop has been among pensioners and France’s sizeable number of civil servants, that is, l’état profond (the deep state), as no one is actually calling it. Why? Because Macron actually seems to be doing what he promised—trying to reform the country’s bloated bureaucracy.

Whatever happens next, it will be fascinating to watch. After the last French election—in which the top finishers were a novice independent and a far-right nationalist—will France’s politics eventually revert back to tradition or will it all have to be reborn? Similarly in the U.S.—where one major party still does not seem to realize how unpopular it is on a national level and the other one is fragmenting into bickering factions—can things ever go back to “normal” again?

The collective sigh of relief over Macron’s electoral triumph may have been just a tad premature.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Autoimmune Response

“ ‘Washington Post’ Reporter Frustrated Every Space In Parking Garage Taken Up By Anonymous Source”
 —Headline from The Onion, May 30
The improbable rise and election of Donald Trump has flummoxed people so badly that they struggle to find some comparable historical figure to help make sense of him. Quite a few of the more excitable ones quickly reached for the almost-always-inadvisable Hitler comparison, as well as fascists like Benito Mussolini. Some went for Argentina’s populist crook Juan Perón. Others likened President Trump to his putative bromance partner Vladimir Putin. I myself wrote in this blog of a potential similarity to Italy’s buffoonish media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

Lately another comparison has occurred to me, and I am confident few others have thought of it—Chile’s Salvador Allende. Sounds nuts, right? Politically, two men could not be further apart. If you have any admiration at all for one of them, you will certainly have no time at all for the other.

The late Chilean president has been on my mind because my novel authoring efforts have again transported me back to South America in the early 1970s. (Yes, I have indeed seized upon a topic that allows me to plug my available-real-soon-now third book.) Events of that era in Chile figured into the plot of my first novel, Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. They figure even more prominently in the sequel, which follows the further adventures of twentysomething Californian Dallas Green, who insists he is not interested in politics but keeps getting drawn into political situations anyway.

Indulge me with this Trump/Allende thing. First, let’s note the stark differences between them. Allende was a veteran politician and the head of a well-established political party, which was the Socialist Party. Trump is a businessman whose political views over time have been all over the map. His first ever elective office was president of the United States. He was elected on a platform that was pro-business and nationalistic. Allende, as a self-avowed Marxist, was very much into state control of the economy and spoke the language of international solidarity. The two are clearly poles apart ideologically—and that assumes Trump even has a real ideology.

So why do I see a correlation between the two? For one thing, both were presidents elected legally but by electoral minorities. Allende received just 36.6 percent of the popular vote, a slight purality ahead of Jorge Alessandri, the conservative independent candidate, who received 35.3 percent. The Chilean Congress functioned as an effective Electoral College, and the centrist Christian Democrats threw their votes to Allende. They came to regret that strategy. Nearly three years later they joined the rest of the political opposition to declare Allende’s presidency illegal. As for Trump, he of course won the Electoral College despite receiving only 46.1 percent of the popular vote.

In another parallel, both Allende and Trump caused alarm by perceived ties to foreign leaders. In Allende’s case, he was well known to be a personal friend of Fidel Castro. He was photographed several times holding an AK-47 Castro had given him as a gift. When the military came to oust him, he used that weapon to take his own life. (For years his supporters insisted he had been murdered, but eventually his family conceded that he had died by his own hand.) In Trump’s case, many observers were puzzled—if not outright unnerved—by the fact he was given to praising Vladimir Putin’s leadership and did not subject the Russian leader to the same outbursts he directed at most other world leaders. This hysteria continued to the point where Trump’s former campaign is being examined with an eye to possible collusion with the Russians and Trump himself has been reported to be a target for his possible interference.

The fundamental similarity between Trump and Allende is that each, in his own way, represented a threat to his society’s establishment. In Chile’s case, the conservative establishment—with support from the U.S. government—resisted him at every turn. Things reached a crisis when Congress condemned Allende for disregarding judicial rulings, ruling by decree, unlawfully confiscating land, and allowing his supporters to arm themselves while others were not so allowed. Three weeks later the military removed him and took control of the country.

In the current American case, it is the modern liberal establishment that cannot abide Trump. Talk of impeachment began before he was even inaugurated. From the outset, his administration has been undermined by a tide of leaks, not only from his own staff but from intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The leaking campaign extended as high as then-FBI director James Comey, who acknowledged in testimoney before Congress that he had leaked his version of a conversation with Trump with the (successful) intention of triggering a special counsel investigation. That investigation is headed by Comey’s personal friend and longtime colleague Robert Mueller. He has a sterling reputation, not unlike Comey’s, although Comey’s has suffered some since his recent testimony, where he came off more as an insider schemer than the boy scout had seemed before. As for Mueller, some are now looking askance at the fact that his hires for the probe are tending heavily toward those on record for having donated generously to Democratic candidates and political action committees. Moreover, the investigation is unusual in that, as far as I can remember anyway, it is the first one which is trying to establish whether a crime was actually committed as opposed to investigating a crime that has already been established as having been committed.

If there is one overriding similarity between Allende and Trump, it is that their presidencies both evoke the image of a foreign organism pushing its way into the body politic like a pathogen, causing a furious reaction from antibodies trying to ward off the infection. In Allende’s case, it was conservative society, businesses and the military that reacted. In Trump’s case, it is the Democratic party, the corporate media and, most of all, the legions of entrenched career government employees to whom some refer as the “deep state.”

What seems to be forgotten in the heated political environment is that, in a democracy, the political leader you revile was put there by millions of people. Allende may have been a threat to Chilean democracy, but he was supported by a large segment of the population. Many of his supporters wound up being imprisoned, tortured, killed or forced into exile.

What has gotten precious little acknowledgement since the U.S. election is the fact that nearly 63 million people voted for Donald Trump. Those voters had not seen their most serious concerns, fears and problems recognized and treated seriously by politicians of either major party. Rightly or wrongly, they tried to send a message by electing a president opposed by the establishments of both parties. If they turn on the news or pick up a newspaper—and who knows how many of them even bother anymore—what do they see?

Maybe some number of them read the president’s tweets and/or blogs sympathetic to him and still urge him on. Those who do not, on the other hand, must see little sign that their message in November was received or taken to heart by anyone in Washington or the corporate media.