March 31, 2014

In Caracas, students shame OAS with peaceful protest

Ignoring human rights abuses in Venezuela in exchange for cheap oil

This is an updated version of a piece originally published at FrontPage Magazine

By David Paulin

Massive and bloody anti-government street protests have roiled Venezuela for two months. But for a week now, hundreds of protesters have gathered at a tent camp set up outside the United Nations' offices in Chacao -- an upscale municipality in metropolitan Caracas and opposition stronghold. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and Chavista thugs on motorcycles had not yet made an appearance as of this past weekend.   

This has been a peaceful protest -- a headline-grabbing bit of political theater that started last Monday, March 31, and coincided with parallel protests outside the embassies of Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Oil barrels were lined up outside each embassy as students carried protest signs and unfurled banners.

Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua, like 18 other left-leaning countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, have remained silent over Venezuela's brutal crackdown against massive anti-government protests that have raged for nearly two months -- leaving at least 37 people dead and hundreds injured. Most were students. Hugo Chávez, a firebrand socialist, used sweetheart oil deals to make friends and build anti-American alliances soon after becoming president in 1999.

The students are demanding a formal inquiry into Venezuela's rights abuses by the Organization of American States, and they were protesting the shameful meeting recently held at the OAS's headquarters in Washington, D.C., where Venezuelan opposition lawmaker María Corina Machado got a cold shoulder from most OAS members. They had no interest in hearing her discuss Venezuela's abuses even though they have been condemned by rights groups.

The OAS's mission includes promoting peace and democracy; yet its members argued for hours about whether Machado, a 46-year-old engineer, should or should not be allowed to speak. Coming to her defense, Panama eventually made her a temporary part of its delegation -- a procedural maneuver it hoped would allowed her to discuss Venezuela's abuses in a formal and public session. But Venezuela's left-leaning allies ultimately prevailed, voting only to hear her during a private session reserved for ad hoc matters. The vote was 22 to 11.

Keeping the session private was unusual for an organization claiming to support transparency; whose charter allows for sanctioning rights abusers within its ranks. Yet Venezuela's OAS member Carmen Luisa Velasquez defended the closed session and, according to The Wall Street Journal, provoked loud laughter when explaining to audience members:  "With total transparency: in privacy."

It was an Orwellian remark, the sort of language you might expect in a communist state like Cuba, where language is turned on its head to serve a corrupt state. Machado said as much, blaming the behavior of the OAS on the influence of Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro and Cuba. Under Maduro -- a former bus driver and union leader -- Cuba has gained an even bigger role in Venezuela than it had during Hugo Chávez's days, say many observers. Chávez died of cancer a year ago.

"They are afraid of the truth," Machado told reporters after the OAS meeting. "They don't want the truth to come out about the massive repression taking place in Venezuela. They don't want it to be known in the world and in our America."

Machado is hardly alone in speaking out against Cuba. In recent months, its growing influence in Venezuela has provoked anti-Cuban protest marches; anti-Cuban graffiti ("Cuba Out!); and Cuba has been a frequent topic on social media. Venezuela's twitter users -- when not sometimes blocked by Venezuela's Internet censors -- have buzzed with accounts of Cuban goons and military equipment playing a part in the brutal crack-down of the student-led protest movement. Cuba receives an estimated 110,000 barrels a day of Venezuela in exchange for various technical support, including the use of Cuban doctors in medical clinics set up in low-income areas. Cuba has long regarded Venezuela as a prize, having sponsored guerrilla insurgencies there in the 1960s. Recently, El Nuevo Herald, sister paper of The Miami Herald, documented the extensive role that Cuba's security forces are playing in Venezuela, based on interviews with ex-intelligence agents in Venezuela.

The Cubanization of Venezuela is not only reflected in the repression which the OAS doesn't want to hear about, but in the Maduro administration's harassment and marginalization of opposition leaders -- a strategy right out of the Castro brothers' playbooks. After addressing the OAS, for instance, Machado was called a traitor by some Venezuelans lawmakers. The leader of Venezuela's congress, Diosdado Cabello, even said her OAS appearance had violated the constitution; and so she had lost her seat in the legislature and was no longer immune from being prosecuted for allegedly provoking violent protests.

And earlier this week, security agents arrested one opposition mayor, and another was sentenced to ten months in prison. Both were accused of inciting rebellion by having failed to dismantle street barricades set up by anti-government protesters. This follows last month's arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López, a former mayor, for allegedly inciting protesters; or what President Maduro claimed was a call to murder, arson, and terrorism -- charges Amnesty International called a "politically motivated attempt to silence dissent. "To this day, no evidence of any kind has been presented," López wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Times.

Machado, for her part, is no stranger to Chavista thuggishness. Last April, Chavista lawmakers attacked her in congress and broke her nose.

OAS members who supported Panama's effort to give Machado's a public hearing were: Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, United States, Guatemala, Honduras, México, Paraguay, and Perú. Among those opposing Panama's effort: Brazil, Nicaragua, Uruguay, El Salvador, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and the Caribbean island-states minus Barbados, which abstained.

The Obama administration has spoken out against Venezuela's rights abuses, but it has yet to impose sanctions or take other actions. While the OAS meeting was discouraging for U.S. interests and democracy supporters, it did have an upside, as pointed out by Venezuela analyst Francisco Toro at Caracas Chronicles. "Nearly twice as many people live in the eleven countries that voted against the Maduro regime than in countries that voted with it. Out of the 17 Spanish speaking countries in OAS, 9 voted against the Maduro regime, just 8 for it." 

Machado reportedly took this video with her to explain what has been happening in Venezuela:

March 24, 2014

El Salvador's Dance with the Devil

Is El Salvador another Venezuela in the making? 


 Originally published at FrontPage Magazine

By David Paulin

Some leftists have smartened up. Guerrilla insurgencies are passé for them. So are AK-47s from Cuba or the Soviet bloc or China.

They saw an easier way to seize power; and so they got shaves, put on suites, and ran for office claiming to be left-leaning pragmatists. But after their election wins, they took advantage of a polarized citizenry and weak institutions to tear the system apart – more or less legally – from inside out.

The stealth approach worked well for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela where Cuban agents and goons are now pitching in to put down anti-government protesters fed up with Venezuela’s “21st Century Socialism.” During his first election campaign, Chavez denied he was a socialist and portrayed himself as a moderate despite having led an aborted coup against a democratic government.

Now, El Salvador seems poised to follow that same path after a former Marxist guerrilla leader – 69-year-old Salvador Sánchez Cerén – was elected president by a razor-thin margin and amid allegations of voting irregularities, which included claims that gang members were recruited to intimidate voters who opposed him. Sánchez Cerén had been El Salvador’s vice president — a hardliner in the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, named after a legendary Salvadorian rebel leader, Farabundo Martí, from the 1930s.

Sánchez Cerén had an uneasy relationship with President Mauricio Funes, a 54-year-old former television reporter who had never been a guerrilla but identified with the left.
Five years ago, the two teamed up in a union of political convenience that drew voters from across the political spectrum – and they won. Their election victory ended nearly two decades of conservative rule by the center-right National Republican Alliance (Arena). But President Funes’s political strategy was a pact with the devil. During his 5-year-term, his relationship with Sánchez Cerén and other FMLN hard-liners become increasingly strained, according to political observers.

Arena has yet to accept the outcome. But barring unexpected developments, Sánchez Cerén will take office on June 1. He will be the first guerrilla leader to govern the Central American country, where an atrocity-filled civil war raged nearly 13 years, killing at least 75,000 people and sending tens of thousands of refugees to the U.S. A peace accord was signed in 1992 between the military-led government and leftist groups that had fought under the FMLN umbrella. They were subsequently absorbed into the FMLN political party.
Venezuela’s turmoil overshadowed El Salvador’s bitterly contested election; for 50 percent of 

Salvadorians deeply fear the ideological left. They doubted Sánchez Cerén was a pragmatist who would work with opposition leaders and uphold El Salvador’s constitution. They had good reasons to be afraid: Sánchez Cerén has a long history as a Marxist ideologue. What’s more, he had a hand in murder and kidnappings during El Salvador’s horrific civil war – a dark past mentioned in a secret U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks. His “commitment to law and order cannot be easily assumed,” observed the missive for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dated September 30, 2009, and signed by Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Blau.

Sánchez Cerén, an admirer of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution, received 50.11% of the vote compared with 49.89% for Norman Quijano of Arena. Quijano was a former mayor of San Salvador, the nation’s capital.

A mere 6,364 votes carried Sánchez Cerén to victory in a run-off election on March 9. Some 3 million ballots were cast in the country of 6.2 million people.

Amid allegations of voter fraud, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal did a partial recount and, four days later, declared Sánchez Cerén the winner. Arena supporters have reason to be suspicious of the tribunal’s decision, because as some political analysts pointed out, most of its members have ties to the FMLN. Quijano hinted that the military might intervene, but military leaders said they were keeping out of the bitterly contested election.

Sánchez Cerén grew up in a working-class family — the ninth of 12 children whom his parents struggled to support. Five years ago, his campaign for the vice presidency was overshadowed by Funes’s campaign, but his entrance into the political arena did attract the attention of Washington and the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. Embassy officials seemed skeptical that Sánchez Cerén had indeed traded the bullet for the ballot. They wondered if he remained a Marxist ideologue who was merely echoing the talking points of FMLN’s more moderate presidential candidate.

“We are struck by the irony of Sánchez Cerén commenting on the need for tolerance at the end of a week where media featured his having ordered summary executions of accused infiltrators during the civil war,” observed a confidential diplomatic cable dated September 26, 2008, and signed by then-U.S. Ambassador Charles L. Glazer. “It is still an open question whether he or Funes calls the FMLN shots.” The cable’s title: “FMLN VP Candidate Sánchez Cerén: Hard-liner’s Soft Sell.” It was sent to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, among others.

Last week, after the electoral tribune ruled that Sánchez Cerén had won fair and square, the president-elect declared: “We have the people’s sovereign mandate; starting June 1 we will govern for five more years. We are ready for a dialogue to build El Salvador.”

But Diario Latino, a Salvadorian newspaper, summed up the fears of 50 percent of the population with an editorial stating the obvious: Sánchez Cerén had dedicated much of his life to teaching and defending “Marxist-Leninist principles” and thus could be counted on to take El Salvador toward socialism.
Sánchez Cerén, for his part, provided the first indication of where he was heading when naming his transition team – six former guerillas. At least two were mentioned in U.S. diplomatic cables for their unsavory pasts as guerrilla fighters: José Luis Merino was involved in arms trafficking and Manuel Melgar in murder.
Funes was unable to run for reelection because El Salvador limits presidents to 5-year terms. But he had left El Salvador poised for growth.

“The last government has prepared the ground work in many ways for private investment to take off. It’s not for a lack of policy, the issue is political,” said Joydeep Mukherji, a managing director for Standard & Poor’s during a conference call with Bloomberg News.
Even so, Sánchez Cerén will lead a country with one of the world’s worst murder rates caused by violent gangs. The government has negotiated a truce with them but has yet to rein them in; they control neighborhoods and extort money from residents and businesses. About 35 percent of the population remains in poverty.

If Sánchez Cerén lives up to his reputation, expect to see El Salvador descend into Venezuela-style political chaos and economic decline, and for another wave of Salvadorian refugees to flee to America. President Funes must be regretting his pact with the devil right about now.

March 11, 2014

Honoring a Venezuelan Tyrant Amid Bloody Protests

Latin leftist and Hollywood elites turn blind eye to Venezuela's anti-government protests and mounting death toll

Originally published at FrontPage Magazine

By David Paulin

      Massive and bloody anti-government protests have been roiling Venezuela for more than a month – provoked by an out-of-control murder rate, food shortages, and myriad instances of inept governance. But that didn't stop a rogues gallery of Latin leftists, including Cuban President Raul Castro, from turning up in Caracas to honor the late Hugo Chávez on the first anniversary of the Venezuelan leader's death.
     Security forces and pro-government militias have responded with a vengeance against the protesters, leaving at least 21 dead and hundreds injured. Most were students.
     The tear gas, rubber bullets and Chavista thugs on motorcycles, however, were out of sight and mind for Castro and fellow leftists, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and his Nicaraguan counterpart Daniel Ortega, among others. Like Castro, they enjoyed Chávez's oil largess over the years. Chávez had promoted himself as the savior of Venezuela's poor yet gave away billions of dollars of their oil wealth as a way to expand his influence and build alliances against the United States. The firebrand socialist, famous for his colorful anti-American broadsides, died a year ago of cancer, on March 5th, at age 58.
        A couple of Hollywood heavy weights – director Oliver Stone and actor Danny Glover – lent their celebrity to Wednesday's ceremonies that included a military parade and civic events. Glover and Stone considered Chávez a friend and ideological soul-mate.
        Chávez's hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro – a 51-year-old former bus driver and union leader – led the ceremonies at “El Comandante's" sacred tomb – situated in a former military museum in Caracas that had served as the command center for a disorganized and bloody coup attempt that Lt. Colonel Hugo Chávez led on February 4, 1992, against a democratic government.
        "Hugo Chávez was, without a doubt, the great leader who brought democracy. Never in history has there been a leader who so authentically loved the people of this country," Maduro told cheering Chávez loyalists. The ceremony featured goose-steeping soldiers, columns of tanks, and low-flying Russian Sukhoi jets.
        A lavish spectacle, it came amid the economic and social chaos produced by what Chávez called “21st Century Socialism," and the bread-and-circuses populism is being deepened by Maduro in the oil-rich yet impoverished South American nation. Venezuela has long been a prize for Cuba, which sponsored leftist insurgences there in the 1960s. Now, socialist Venezuela has come to look more and more like Cuba, where basic goods also are scarce.
        Ironically, Chávez had portrayed himself during his first presidential campaign as a moderate seeking a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. Claiming he'd traded the bullet for the ballet, he pledged to reverse declining living standards and root out Venezuela's rampant corruption. But months after his landslide election victory, he did an about face, praising Cuba's communism and forming a close friendship with Fidel Castro. Soon he was forming anti-American alliances with Middle Eastern strongmen such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. He nationalized large swaths of the economy in Venezuela; or to be precise: the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Early into his first term, Chávez insisted on the name change as he pushed through a rewritten constitution in a Congress packed with his loyalists.
        As for Venezuela's corruption, Chávez took it to new heights by allowing for the emergence of a new social class; what a Venezuelan journalist famously called the “Boliburguesía” -- a portmanteau of the word's Bolivarian and bourgeoisie. As has been reported often over the years, in print and broadcast media, they became rich overnight thanks to sweetheart contacts, cronyism, and corruption.
        Glover, however, spoke only of Chávez as a man of the people to enthusiastic applause from Chávez loyalists. “His memory lives with us through the work that you do as citizens of this great nation,” he said.
        Stone didn't attend but in an interview with a local news outlet talked wistfully of his departed friend Hugo. “I miss Chávez, miss his spirit and presence,” he said. Stone allowed his documentary film, “My Amigo Hugo,” to premier on Venezuela television. (The government required all television stations, both state-owned and private, to broadcast it.)


      Social media, for its part, has helped organize the protests and shown the world the brutal handiwork of Venezuela's security forces. Twitter's SOSVenezuela has buzzed with photos claiming to show Cuban troops and military aircraft in Venezuela. Opposition protesters are convinced that Cubans are participating in the repressive crack-down against students. Over the years, Chávez invited many Cuban security agents and advisers into the country to help solidify his socialist rule.
        Bread and circuses populism has a long history in Venezuela, as does statism and authoritarianism. But Chávez took these things to new heights. Now after 11 years of Chávez, and one year of Maduro who is doubling down on Chávez's policies, Venezuela is sliding toward basket case status. It has one of the world's worst murder rates. Shortages of basic goods -- including milk, medicines, and toilet paper – are common due to currency exchange and price controls that have made it unprofitable for business to import goods. And things are bound to get worse after recent government edicts requiring retailers and business to offer government-set “fair prices.” “Good Morning, Communism!” declared the respected newsletter VenEcomony after analyzing the impact of Maduro's recent “economic war” against supposedly bourgeoisie retailers and businessmen. Maduro has called the opposition “fascists” and dupes of “Yankee imperialists.”
        Venezuela has become a polarized country divided into two ideological camps, thanks mainly to class-warrior Chávezm who repeatedly told poor Venezuelans that they were  poor because others were rich. And last month, opposition leader Leopoldo López, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated politician and former mayor, was sent to jail on trumped up charges, including murder and inciting rioters, for having lent his support to the ongoing street protests.
        “HE WHO tires, loses”: that was the slogan printed on a T-shirt worn by López when he was arrested among a sea of supporters. To Maduro's outrage, López had urged protesters to continue taking their grievances to the streets with peaceful protests; it's the only option they have left against an authoritarian government. Unarmed student demonstrators have been using two valuable weapons: twitter (#SOSVenezuea) and YouTube. Powerful videos like this have gone viral.
        In last April's presidential election, Maduro prevailed over opposition leader Henrique Capriles, a state governor and former mayor, by a razor-thing 50.6 percent of the vote. Protesters rightly believe that Capriles ought to be leading the country in light of Chávez and Maduro's demagoguery and populism on top of illegal campaign spending and threats against state employees who supported opposition candidates.
        Students come mainly from the middle-class and have been the backbone of the nationwide protest movement. It started in early February in San Cristóbal, a college town in the Andean mountains of 650,000, following the sexual assault of a female student. Initially, the protests were provoked by out-of-control crime. But as they spread to every major city in Venezuela, students added additional grievances to their manifesto – corruption, electrical blackouts, and other quality-of-life issues. Here and there, there have been reports in social media of the protests spreading to working-class areas that have been traditional Chávez strongholds.
        But the hope of pulling off a Ukrainian -style revolution seems remote. The military is with Maduro, by all accounts. The students and other protesters are a minority; and so far their rage has been vented mainly against the symptoms of bread and circuses socialism – not against the system itself; and that system is without a doubt corrupt. It revolves in part around the popular belief, especially among the poor majority, that Venezuelans ought to be rich and entitled by dint of their oil wealth -- an impossibility in Venezuela today. It's a sirens song – the paradox of plenty, as some call it – that keeps free-market policies at bay, keeps power concentrated in the hands of a few, and lends itself to a mentality that blames others. In this culture, anti-Americanism flourishes. Free-market policies and investor-friendly laws, on the other hand, would create wealth – far more than could be pumped out of the ground.
        The prophetic warning of Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, a Venezuelan intellectual who was instrumental in founding OPEC, is often cited and worth quoting in respect to Venezuela's long decline and current crisis. “Ten years from now, twenty years from now, you will see: oil will bring us ruin… Oil is the Devil's excrement.”