January 18, 2014

Can a Beauty Queen's Murder Bring Down Socialism?

How the murder of a former Miss Venezuela is threatening the post-Chavez regime.

By David Paulin

Originally published at The American Thinker  blog and FrontPage Magazine

Beauty queens are revered in Venezuela, none more so than those crowned “Miss Venezuela.” So when a beloved former “Miss” named Mónica Spear and her ex-husband were murdered by highway bandits, the crime sparked national outrage — touching off street protests, non-stop media coverage, and an ongoing national conversation about the socialist government’s failure to stop a runaway murder epidemic. 

Now, outrage over the murders is prompting many Venezuelans to confront the contradictions of Venezuela-style socialism. One of the biggest ironies: violent crime has exploded since President Hugo Chávez, a firebrand leftist, took office 15 years ago. This has happened, moreover, as capitalism has increasingly been dismantled – supposedly replaced by more economic equality and “social justice” in the oil-rich yet impoverished South American nation.

Chávez, who died last March of cancer, coined the term “21st Century socialism.” He contended it would reverse corruption-riddled Venezuela’s long economic decline, as would his strategy of pursing anti-American alliances. But as fallout continues over the high-profile murders, many Venezuelans are becoming more cynical about President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist agenda as tens of thousands of Venezuelans are being murdered annually. Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor, is grappling with food shortages, falling oil prices, and annual inflation topping 50%. He rules a politically polarized country where just over 50 percent of voters support his leftist agenda. A former bus driver and union leader, he possesses neither Chávez’s charisma nor mystical connection to Venezuela’s poor majority.

Spear, crowned “Miss Venezuela” in 2004, died in a hail of gunfire on a dark highway on Monday, January 6, with ex-husband Henry Thomas Berry, a 39-year-old British citizen who specialized in adventure tourism at a local travel agency. Their 5-year-old daughter suffered a leg wound.

Police said several bandits laid sharp objects on the road that flattened the car’s tires; other reports said the car was disabled after hitting a pothole — a common problem on poorly maintained roads. The couple locked themselves in their car as the bandits showed up, but to no avail: Six shots were fired as a tow-truck arrived. The couple’s ill-fated holiday in the spectacular mountains and plains of western Venezuela had been intended to give them a new start together.

With Spear and Berry’s murders, Venezuela’s skyrocketing murder rate suddenly has human faces – and President Maduro is on the defensive. He’d been focusing on deepening “21st Century socialism.” This included an “economic offensive” against the commercial class: from owners of supermarkets to electronics stores to car dealerships – all were being ordered to offer government-set “fair prices.” And before November’s make-or-break municipal elections, he’d won votes by taking bread-and-circuses populism to new heights, tacitly giving Christmas shoppers, as some observers saw it, a green light to loot electronics stores. “We’re doing this for the good of the nation,” he said. “Let nothing remain in stock!” A number of retailers were jailed — accused of speculating, hoarding, and unfair lending.

Now, sensing political trouble over Spear and Berry’s murders, Maduro is shifting his attention away from his “economic offensive.” He’s instead calling for an unprecedented anti-crime program, and he recently met with big-city mayors, governors, and administration officials to come up with a plan. Details remain sketchy. But hopefully, Maduro will focus on improving the nation’s often corrupt and inefficient police forces and criminal-justice system. In the past, he and Chávez had believed socialism would address what they believed were crime’s root causes: capitalism and class-conflict; poverty and economic inequality — and even violent American movies shown on Venezuelan television and movie theaters.

Venezuela suffered the world’s fourth highest murder rate in 2010 after Honduras, El Salvador, and Jamaica, according to United Nation’s statistics. Official Venezuelan crime statistics are non-existent: the government stopped providing them ten years ago. But sociologist Roberto Briceño León, president of the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, a watchdog group, estimates that yearly homicides have increased 427% since Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998, after campaigning on a platform to seek a “third way” between socialism and capitalism, and to reverse rampant corruption and declining living standards. “In 1998, we had 4,550 homicides in the country, but we closed the past year with 24,000,” Briceño León recently told Globovision, a Caracas television channel, in a segment about the Spear and Berry murders. To put those grim murder numbers into perspective: war-torn Iraq’s population is comparable in size to Venezuela’s, yet it suffered 7,800 killings in 2013 — about one third of Venezuela’s homicides. “A third of our murders, and yet the international community says absolutely nothing about the violence in Venezuela. Shame on them,” wrote Juan Cristobal Nagel, an opposition blogger at Caracas Chronicles.

To outraged Venezuelans, the couple’s murders were especially tragic because their lives were caught up with the rise and fall of the Venezuelan dream – an ideal that existed from the 1970s to mid-80s, the era of “Saudi Venezuela” when oil prices were soaring. Berry’s British parents had immigrated to Venezuela more than 40 years ago, when Caracas was a charming place known as the “city of red roofs.” His father was a mathematics professor at Simón Bolívar University.

Spear, a fifth runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant, attended junior college in Florida before graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2004.  "She was a powerhouse. She really wanted to be an actress," said one of her acting teachers, John DiDonna.  In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel,  DiDonna recalled having Spear confront a student portraying the devil. "She just went off... she had an incredible argument with Satan right in the classroom. She was just fabulous."

The devil, of course, is capable of wearing many attractive disguises. Socialism is one of them.

Spear went onto because a successful soap-opera actress for the Spanish-language Telemundo network. In 2011, she had moved to Florida, one of more than 500,000 Venezuelan now living aboard to escape Venezuela-style socialism. Many are members of the business and professional classes, people whom class-warrior Chávez saw as part the problems ailing Venezuela.

Police investigating Spear and Berry’s murders quickly rounded up nine suspects who were part of a gang that preyed on motorists; they were carrying credit cards and a digital camera that belonged to the couple. It was splendid police work. But to most Venezuelans it underscored that their country, even under “21st Century socialism,” has two standards of justice: one for the well-connected and famous, and the other for ordinary Venezuelans, observed Briceño León, the sociologist. Indeed, most Venezuelans doubt that police would have expended such an effort for ordinary Venezuelans, he explained. “People can commit crimes without any consequences,” sociologist Luis Cedeño, director of civic group Active Peace, told Globovision.

Whatever crime-reduction plan President Maduro implements will face a major problem: Venezuela is broke. Draconian currency exchange and price controls have left many supermarket shelves empty; even toilet party is in short supply. Attracting significant foreign investment is not an option — not after Chávez nationalized large swaths of the economy. Recently, Bloomberg News reported that Venezuela’s “economic distress is so acute that the central bank stopped releasing regular statistics for the first time ever, threatening to increase borrowing costs further as the nation faces $10 billion of financing needs.” Benjamin Wang, a money manager at PineBridge Investments LLC, was quoted as saying: “There’s no transparent data to measure the risk.”

As the fallout over the death of a beauty queen plays out, cynicism is likely to grow toward Venezuela-style socialism. So will murder, corruption, and economic decline. How ironic that a beauty queen’s death may serve as a catalyst for positive change that opposition candidates have been unable to achieve by defeating Hugo Chávez or Nicolás Maduro at the polls.

Venezuela rocked by murder of soap opera star and former 'Miss Venezuela'

By David Paulin

Originally published at The American Thinker blog

Socialism has yet to bring "social justice" to Venezuelans -- only empty store shelves, roaring inflation, and one of the world's worst murder epidemics. Now, the chaos has a human face -- a former beauty queen named Mónica Spear who was murdered Monday night by roadside bandits. Beauty queens are revered in Venezuela, and Spear's murder has caused a public uproar -- setting off street protests and putting Nicolás Maduro's socialist government in an uncomfortable spotlight in politically polarized Venezuela.

Spear, crowed a "Miss Venezuela" in 2004, died in a hail of bullets along with her ex-husband, Thomas Henry Berry, a 39-year-old British citizen. Their 5-year-old daughter suffered a leg wound.

Police said several bandits apparently laid sharp objects on the road that flattened the car's tires. When the couple locked their car, the bandits started shooting as a tow truck arrived. One news report said the couple's holiday outing in the mountains and plains of western Venezuela was intended to give them a new start together.

A popular soap-opera actress for the Telemundo network, Spear, 29 years old, was visiting Venezuela for the holidays. In 2011 she had moved to Florida, joining tens of thousands of other Venezuelan expatriates who'd fled Venezuela during the socialist rule of Hugo Chávez, who died last March of cancer.

Nearly 25,000 Venezuelans were murdered last year, making the oil-rich but impoverished South American nation one of the world's most violent. Most of the victims are poor.

"This is a blow to all of us," President Maduro said on state television, while vowing to pursue the killers with "an iron hand." Strangely, Maduro later opined that hired killers might have targeted Spear and her family. But he cited no evidence to support that claim, which seemed calculated to deflect public outrage. In the past, Maduro has often blamed oligarchs, businessmen, and Yankee imperialist for Venezuela's economic mess.

Amid street protests over Spear's death on Wednesday, Maduro held a security meeting in Caracas with the country's governors and mayors of major cities.

When Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, Venezuela had one of the region's fastest growing murder rates, but since then the murder rate has soared. Now Venezuela is ranked by the United Nations as the world's fifth most violent country. There's an irony here, because under Chávez crime and violence "were viewed as the product of capitalism and poverty," Venezuela sociologist Roberto Briceño told The Washington Post. He attributed the crime wave "to a lack of basic law enforcement."

Spear attended junior college in Florida before graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2004. "She was a powerhouse. She really wanted to be an actress," said one of her acting teachers, John DiDonna.

Recalling an acting exercise involving Spear, DiDonna told the Orlando Sentinel that she was told to confront a student portraying the devil. "She just went off... she had an incredible argument with Satan right in the classroom. She was just fabulous."

The devil, of course, is capable of wearing many attractive disguises. Socialism is one of them.

New York Times Puts ‘Guns & Ammo’ Magazine in Crosshairs

By David Paulin

Originally published at The American Thinker blog and FrontPage Magazine

Guns & Ammo magazine has fallen into the liberal cross-hairs of The New York Times – the target of a bogus scandal the Gray Lady dished up as part of its anti-gun crusade.

“Banished for Questioning the Gospel of Guns.” So read the front-page headline calculated to shock the naïve and gullible. The article’s shocking revelation: Guns & Ammo has chummy relationships with advertisers and panders to its readers. That, of course, is how things work at all those specialty magazines that are chock-full of ads. Yet as the newspaper that helped elect Barack Obama sees things, there’s a nefarious conspiracy going on involving Guns & Ammo parent company InterMedia Outdoors and malevolent gun manufacturers — all of whom supposedly abhor free speech and will go to appalling lengths to advance an absolutist pro-gun agenda.

What sent The Times into its hand-waving frenzy was Guns & Ammo’s recent firing of long-time columnist Dick Metcalf, who had outraged advertisers and readers with a column titled “Let’s Talk Limits.” It argued that Second Amendment rights were not absolute. “The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be,” Metcalf wrote. “Freedom of speech is regulated. You cannot falsely and deliberately shout, “Fire!” in a crowded theater.”

Personally, I find nothing over the top about this statement, and many readers here would probably agree. But that’s not how Guns & Ammo’s advertisers saw things. They wanted Metcalf out, as did many of Guns & Ammo’s 400,000 readers who “threatened to cancel their subscriptions” and even sent the magazine death threats, according to The Times’ article by reporter Ravi Somaiya. Political fallout over the controversy also caused Guns & Ammo’s editor, Jim Bequette, to announce that he’d speed up his retirement plans and bring his successor on board ahead of schedule.

Yes, it’s all very sad when talented and well-intentioned people lose their jobs due to politics – and one silly mistake. But there’s also nothing to prevent Metcalf and Bequette from going to work for another magazine, one that would perhaps be a better fit for them. Perhaps they could start up their own publication.

Yet as The Times sees things, the shake-up at Guns & Ammo suggests dark forces are thwarting reasonable discussions at gun magazines about Second Amendment issues and, more specifically, that Metcalf’s departure “sheds light on the close-knit world of gun journalism, where editors and reporters say there is little room for nuance in the debate over gun laws. Moderate voices that might broaden the discussion from within are silenced.” But wait a minute: Couldn’t you say something similar about the dearth of people with conservative political opinions in The Times’ newsroom?

How many of its reporters and editors are Republicans? Inquiring minds want to know.
Guns & Ammo, of course, operates just like other specialty magazines that depend on advertising dollars. “We take care of those who take care of us,” a publisher at one of the country’s most widely read aviation magazines used to tell his staff, according to a former boss of mine who, earlier in his career, had been one of that magazine’s senior editors. He recalled how the editor-in-chief at the time, a well-known aviation journalist and author, used to write scathing inter-office memos about new airplanes he’d flown, and hated — yet none of those negative critiques ever made it into his published articles, because this would risk losing advertising dollars. I heard these revelations while working as an associate editor at a “Consumer Reports”-type aviation for light-plane pilots: No ads allowed! And without ads, we were free to say whatever passed muster with the magazine’s libel lawyer. The Times, incidentally, described Metcalf, a former history teacher at Yale and Cornell, as ”one of the country’s pre-eminent gun journalists.” Yet one example of a gun review by Metcalf on

InterMedia Outdoors’ television show has the feel of an informercial; certainly not the type of journalism that would past muster at The Times; and yet The Times essentially puts a halo over Metcalf’s head to support its anti-gun agenda.

None of this is to suggest, to be sure, that magazines like Guns & Ammo write dishonest product reviews; but those reviews will definitely not read quite the same way as they would if done by gun magazines with a no-advertising policy; and nor would Guns & Ammo and other well-managed publications do anything to antagonize readers. By the same token, The Times would be a far different newspaper, and perhaps a more profitable one, if it wasn’t an echo chamber for liberal reporters and editors.

That the agenda-driven Times singles out and vilifies Guns & Ammo for doing what other specialty magazine do is no surprise. Perhaps the Gray Lady’s editors need to ponder their own biases — and to recall a truism from A. J. Liebling, the legendary writer at The New Yorker who observed: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

Death of Phil Everly of 'Everly Brothers' recalls America's lost age of innocence

By David Paulin

Originally published at The American Thinker blog

Phil Everly and his older brother, Don, formed the Everly Brothers - a clean-cut musical duo that churned out some of America's most treasured pop songs. His death on Friday at age 74, in a hospital near his Southern California home, is getting prominent news coverage revolving around his life and rich contribution to America's musical heritage. But what cannot be emphasized enough is that the Everly Brothers' classic pop songs -- during the 1950s and early 60s -- are iconic expressions of a lost era of American innocence.

In one of the better articles about Phil Everly's passing, The New York Times explained

 The Everlys brought tradition, not rebellion, to their rock 'n' roll. Their pop songs reached teenagers with Appalachian harmonies rooted in gospel and bluegrass. Their first full-length album, "The Everly Brothers" in 1958, held their first hits, but the follow-up that same year, "Songs Our Daddy Taught Us," was a quiet collection of traditional and traditional-sounding songs.

My favorite song by the group was "Bye Bye Love," a blockbuster hit of 1957. This was the same year that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was inaugurated for a second term....and Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the third time, and was shown only from the waist up.

Conservatives admire the era for its social unity and values; liberals despise it for its social conformity and unresolved social problems. Both views have merit, (though my own feeling, like many who are reading this, is that there was far more to admire than despise about the 1950s). Other hits songs from the duo included "Wake Up Little Susie," "Cathy's Clown," "All I Have to Do Is Dream" and "When Will I Be Loved?"

Phil Everly is survived by his brother. As up-and-coming musicians, their most formative years were in Iowa, Indiana, and Tennessee.

In this YouTube clip of a 1950's television show, the young duo sings "Bye Bye Love." The brothers and audience project a wholesomeness that has all but vanished in much of America, though probably not in its vast interior; what liberals cynically call fly-over country -- a place that nevertheless was the wellspring from which the Everly brothers and their legendary music emerged, with all its purity and innocence.