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Venezuela: Drifting Towards Civil War

“I am no Mussolini,” insisted Venezuela’s beleagured President Nicolas Maduro on television early this month, but if things go on this way he could end up like Mussolini. That would be very unfortunate for him, and also for Venezuela.

The daily street protests against Maduro’s rule are now in their second month, and around forty people have already been killed, most of them by the police. “Molotov cocktails” (fire-bombs) are old hat; the new fashion is for “poopootovs” – containers of human or animal excrement that are thrown at the security forces. Nobody knows when it will all end, but most people fear that it will end badly.

It didn’t begin all that badly. Hugo Chavez, a radical former army officer who had led a failed coup attempt in 1992, was elected to the presidency quite legitimately in 1998. Venezuela was the richest country in South America because of its oil wealth, but most of the 31 million Venezuelans were very poor, and Chavez proposed to change that.

He had strong popular support – majorities of around 60 percent in the 2002 and 2006 elections, and still 55 percent even in 2012 – and he had lots of money to give to the poor. But he died of cancer in 2013, and his successor, a former bus driver called Nicolas Maduro, got barely 50 percent of the vote in a special election later that year. He has not had a quiet moment since.

The problem is money. Chavez ran up massive deficits to finance his spending on health, education and housing, which really did transform the lives of many of Venezuela’s poor, but the bills only came in after he died. The world price of oil collapsed, Venezuela’s income did too, and everything went sour.

Now Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world (700 percent this year), and the economy has shrunk by almost one-fifth. There are chronic shortages of food and medicines: three-quarters of Venezuelans say they are eating less than two meals a day, and the child death rate is up by 30 percent. And a lot of people, including former Maduro supporters, are very angry.

Maduro’s response has been to blame all the problems on the local business elite, who he claims are hoarding goods to cause shortages, and on the United States, which he says is plotting with the local opposition parties to overthrow the elected government. But plots are hardly necessary: he barely scraped into office in the 2012 election, and he would lose massively in an election held today.

To stay in power, Maduro must avoid an election, and the next presidential election is due next year. The opposition had already won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in 2015, so Maduro’s first move, in late March, was to have the Supreme Court (packed with his supporters) simply declare that the National Assembly was “in contempt” of the country’s laws and shut it down.

That was what brought the protesters out on the streets in such numbers that three days later Maduro lost his nerve and the Supreme Court revoked its decree. But the protests, fueled by the growing shortages of practically everything, just kept going, and now the demonstrators were demanding that the next presidential election be brought forward from 2018 to this year.

Maduro is cornered. He could not win a presidential election this year, or in 2018 either. It’s not even certain that the rank-and-file of the security forces can be relied on to defend him forever. So he has played his last card: a new constitution.

The last constitution was written by Chavez himself and adopted in 1999. At the time, he said it was the best in the world and promised it would last for centuries, but on May 1st Maduro said the country needs a new one. He is going to call a “constituent assembly” to write it, although he was vague on how its members would be chosen. Some might be elected, and others would be chosen from “social organisations” (i.e. his cronies).

The Chavez constitution does not give Maduro the authority to do this, but the man is desperate. He needs an excuse to postpone elections he knows he would lose, and this is the best he can come up with. It won’t work, because the opposition understands his game and will not accept it. The country is drifting towards civil war.

“I don’t want a civil war,” Maduro said while announcing his constituent assembly, but he is laying the foundations for one. He might even win it, in the short term, if the army and police stay loyal to him. But in the longer run he really does risk ending up like Mussolini: executed without trial and hanging upside-down in a public square.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7. (“Maduro’s…today”)

The Other Clinton Presidency

Shortly before John Kasich dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, leaving Donald Trump as the only candidate, the Ohio governor put up a spoof video on the internet. Modeled on the old-fashioned intro that scrolls up the screen at the start of each Star Wars movie, it envisioned a future in which Trump won the candidacy, lost the presidential election, and left Hillary Clinton triumphant.

Titled “Our Only Hope”, Kasich’s video began: “Upon defeating Donald Trump in the largest landslide since Reagan in 1984, President Hillary Clinton is preparing to name her newest Supreme Court justice, Elizabeth Warren. (House) Speaker Nancy Pelosi is planning new tax hikes, hoping that Senate President Chuck Schumer and his new Democratic majority can swiftly get it to the President’s desk for her signature.”

“New executive orders restricting the Second Amendment are being drafted while increased federal spending on Obamacare is readied. Meanwhile, our allies across the world are swiftly losing faith in America’s role as a global leader, empowering our enemies and leaving America in a more dangerous position. But we have hope it can be different…”

It was a roll-call of all the nightmarish things that Republicans fear a Clinton presidency would do: create a “liberal” majority on the Supreme Court, raise taxes, bring in gun control, and spend more money on health care for poor Americans. Kasich, of course, was the “Only Hope” to prevent this disaster. (It was his video, after all.)

If Kasich didn’t get the Republican nomination, according to the video, then Trump would win it, but then lose the national election and put Hillary Clinton into the presidency. That would be followed shortly by dragons, plagues and strange portents in the sky, leading to the full-on End Times during her second year in office.

Well, Kasich is out of the race, Trump will get the Republican nomination, and Clinton will win the presidency by a landslide, just like the video says. Not only that, but the Democrats really may win control of both houses of Congress.

Hillary Clinton probably will create a liberal majority on the Supreme Court, tax the rich a bit more, and expand the Affordable Care Act (what Republicans call “Obamacare”). She probably will tackle gun control, too, although you should not hold your breath while awaiting a positive result.

She will certainly push on with Obama’s intiatives on climate change and add to them. (She talks about wanting “half a billion more solar panels deployed in the first four years.”) But will she do anything genuinely surprising? It would be astounding if she did. Hillary Clinton is “a safe pair of hands,” not a radical.

On foreign policy, she belongs to the “Washington consensus”, so she is suspicious of Russia and Iran, reflexively pro-Israel, and uncertain what to do about China. She resents the fact that people still bring up her vote in support of George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it does highlight her inability to think outside the box that the rest of the consensus is trapped in at any given time.

She takes the standard liberal positions on practically every domestic issue from gay marriage and abortion (cautiously pro) to immigration (no mass deportation of illegals). She has talked about the need to reform the rules on political campaign finances, but would have trouble in getting that through even a Democratic-controlled Congress (“the best Congress that money can buy”), and might just decide not to waste her political capital that way.

If all this makes Hillary Clinton sound like a profoundly unexciting president, that would not bother her a bit. Nearly three decades of experience with the political game at the highest level has reinforced her natural tendency to think only in terms of incremental change, and her whole approach to politics is managerial, not transformational. She will not rock the boat.

This is perhaps not such a bad thing in a peacetime national leader – and the United States really is at peace, despite the small overseas military commtments that entail an occasional military casualty.

It is perhaps especially not a bad thing in the First Female President in American history, just as it was not a bad thing for her predecessor, the First Black President in US history. When you are setting a new precedent for who can hold the office, steady competence is a better advertisement for the new rules than high excitement.

It’s also the best way to assure a second term in office – which could also be within Hillary Clinton’s grasp if the Republican Party splits before either before or after the electoral debacle that, with Trump as its candidate, now seems almost certain. Although that would make her 77 at the end of her second term.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“It is perhaps…excitement”)

Brazil’s Corruption Crisis

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Next Sunday, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil faces an impeachment vote in the lower house of Congress. The charge? That she manipulated government accounts to make the deficit look smaller than it really was before the last election.

But that’s ridiculous. Governments always try to downplay the deficit before an election. I’ve covered dozens of elections, and at least one-third of the time it later came out that the government had been hiding how bad the financial situation was. It’s naughty, but it’s not a hanging offence.

Never mind. The knives are out for Dilma Roussef in Brazil, and if she loses the Congressional vote this weekend she is heading straight for impeachment. That would mean that she would be suspended for 180 days even if she ultimately survived the process. So who would take over while Rousseff is on trial?

Vice-President Michel Temer, of course, and he would be more than happy to do that. In fact, a recently leaked audio tape reveals him rehearsing the speech he would make after Rousseff was suspended. “Many people sought me out so that I would give at least preliminary remarks to the Brazilian nation, which I am doing with modesty, caution and moderation…” he modestly begins.

Rousseff was furious, accusing Temer of betrayal (he only led his party out of her coalition government last week), and she now talks about him as the chief conspirator in a coup plot against her democratically elected government. But she shouldn’t worry too much about Temer, because he is also facing impeachment, on the very same charge of cooking the government books to hide the scale of the deficit.

Who would take over if Temer was also impeached? The speaker of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, is next in line – but he is facing money-laundering and other grave charges connected with an immense scandal in the state-owned oil company, Petrobras. (His secret Swiss bank accounts hold over $5 million.)

So the job of running Brazil would go to the speaker of the Senate, Renan Calheiros – except that he is also being investigated on the same charges. Indeed, more than 150 members of Congress and government officials are currently facing charges of bribery, corruption and money laundering as part of the “Operation Lava Jato” (Car Wash) investigation into the affairs of Petrobras.

This is not some banana republic. This is Brazil, a country of 200 million people with the sixth biggest economy in the world. Yet the entire political class is under suspicion of criminal behaviour, apparently with good reason, and day after day the streets are full of angry demonstrators.

Brazil has been fully democratic for the past three decades, yet Rousseff now worries openly about a coup. Some of the anti-government demonstrators are openly calling for a military takeover. This is a country in meltdown – but why now? Because the economy has gone belly-up.

The global economy was booming when Rousseff’s Workers Party first came to power in 2003 under the leadership of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, and Brazil’s economy was booming with it. There was money then for huge social spending – enough to lift 40 million Brazilians out of poverty – and Lula was beloved by all.

But the Crash of 2008 had already taken the bloom off the rose before Dilma Rousseff succeeded Lula in 2011, and Brazil’s export-dependent economy has taken a terrible beating since then. It was growing at 3.5 percent annually under Lula. It was already down to 2.2 percent in Rousseff’s first term, but it shrank at the rate of 4 percent annually in 2014 and 2015.

It’s mostly not Rousseff’s fault, although she could have done better. China, Russia and South Africa have seen similar declines as commodity prices plunged and exports dwindled.

Indeed, among the BRICS, the big, fast-growing economies of the former Third World, only India has escaped. And this collapse in growth is why opinion polls show that 68 percent of Brazilians now want to see Rousseff removed from power.

There is unquestionably a major political crisis in Brazil, but it may not be quite as bad as it looks. The latest head-count suggests that the vote in the lower house of Congress may not produce the two-thirds majority of votes that is needed to impeach Rousseff.

Even if it does, Rousseff can appeal to the Supreme Court. If that fails, the Senate must vote on impeachment – and if it also votes yes, Rousseff can appeal to the Supreme Court again. And so far the military show no signs of wanting to seize power again.

So Rousseff may still be lumbered with the miserable and deeply unpopular task of running a large and boisterous country that is going through a severe cyclical economic downturn for another two and a half years. She’ll probably be glad when her term is up.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The global…2015”)

Zelaya’s Game

22 September 2009

Zelaya’s Game

By Gwynne Dyer

Let us suppose that Manuel Zelaya, the ousted former president of Honduras, is an intelligent man with a good understanding of how politics works. Then the question is: what is his game? Because he started all this.

He was removed from office three months ago in circumstances of doubtful legality. Both the Supreme Court and the Congress had demanded his removal for “repeated violations of the constitution and the law,” but the way it was done – woken up by soldiers and hustled out of the country by plane – smelled more like an old-fashioned military coup.

A member of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, Roberto Micheletti, the speaker of Congress, was sworn in as interim president, and everybody promised that normal democratic service would be fully restored after the elections due on 29 November. But every non-Honduran with access to a microphone took up Zelaya’s cause, from the Organisation of American States to the US State Department, and he emerged as a fully-fledged democratic martyr.

The left-wing leaders who have proliferated across Latin America in recent years were particularly supportive of Zelaya. Despite Brazilian president Luiz Inacio (“Lula”) da Silva’s firm denials, the suspicion lingers that Zelaya’s sudden re-appearance inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa on Monday did not come as a complete surprise to the Brazilians.

Zelaya says he hiked in from the border, dodging border guards and military checkpoints, and that is probably true. But he must have had a plan for what he would do when he reached the Honduran capital to avoid arrest (his opponents have brought corruption charges against him), and those plans probably involved the Brazilian embassy from the start.

Now he is holed up there, surrounded by the Honduran army. It’s the perfect scene for a media watch that puts enormous pressure on Zelaya’s opponents to make concessions – or alternatively, the ideal location for a massacre of his supporters by trigger-happy soldiers, in which case popular opinion shifts to Zelaya’s side and he returns triumphantly to power.

Or at least, that is probably his plan. Am I being too cynical? Okay, let’s consider the evidence.

Manuel Zelaya was in the closet before he became president. He secured the nomination of the Liberal Party, a slightly left-of-centre party which has traditionally alternated in power with the right-wing National Party, and he narrowly won the presidency in the 2006 election. But it was only after he was safely in the presidential mansion that he dropped the mask and started moving Honduras sharply left.

He restored diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1962, and signed up for Petrocaribe, the agreement by which oil-rich Venezuela sells oil to poorer countries in the region at a reduced price. He promised to join Alba, the Venezuelan-backed alternative to the free trade agreements backed by the United States. He even refused to accept an American ambassador for a time.

But he did not achieve much in practice for the Honduran poor, and he failed to build mass support for his policies. Opinion polls this year put his popular approval at only 25 percent.

Moreover, he was running out of time, since the Honduran 0Aconstitution only allows presidents one term in office and his term ended this year. So he did something peculiar: he announced that there would be a non-binding referendum on creating a constituent assembly to change the constitution and allow presidents a second term.

It was peculiar because he had no legal right to hold such a referendum, nor does the Honduran constitution allow a constituent assembly to be elected for such a purpose. Even if the illegality of the process was ignored, there was no chance that it could all happen in time to let him run for a second term in the November election. In any case, his own party would refuse to re-nominate him. So what was his game?

Zelaya’s only chance of holding on to power was to create a crisis that would sweep all of those considerations aside. He pressed ahead with his plans for a referendum last June even after the Supreme Court declared it illegal. When the army refused to assist in the referendum, he fired the commander-in-chief. So the Congressional and judicial authorities moved against him, although they would have been wiser just to wait him out.

Zelaya may not have foreseen the precise manner of his removal from office, but he was clearly seeking a confrontation that would destabilise the existing constitutional order. It was his only chance of staying in power.

He’s halfway there. His dramatic return to the country has created semi-siege conditions in the capital, and it’s unlikely that the November elections can go ahead in the circumstances. That already improves his prospects, because it drives the country beyond the usual constitutional procedures.

Zelaya has already painted himself as the democratically elected victim of a military coup, and as such he enjoys unprecedented foreign support. If his domestic opponents are stupid enough to use force, he could actually win. Judging by their past performance, they may be that stupid.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Zelaya…start”); and (“He restored…time”)