Tag Archives: venezuela

Overshadowed by scandal, Trump calls for López’s release in Venezuela

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Before Thursday’s jaw-dropping 77-minute free-form press conference, US president Donald Trump made a rare foray into Latin American politics on Wednesday night, publicly calling for the release of Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan opposition leader imprisoned by the chavista government since 2014. Venezuela Flag Icon

It was a surprising move by Trump, who was having dinner Wednesday night with López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, and Florida senator Marco Rubio. Trump joins many figures from across the political spectrum over the last three years, including former US president Barack Obama and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who renewed calls to release López on Thursday.

López, on the third anniversary of his arrest, is now at the heart of the Venezuelan opposition struggle in its daunting task of removing an increasingly undemocratic chavista regime through democratic means. Despite Trump’s call on Twitter to free López, a Venezuelan appeals court upheld the opposition leader’s sentence Thursday morning, and foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez chided Trump in response.

In February 2014, when protestors were already taking to the streets against Maduro’s government (and when the economic situation, though dire, was far better than today), López was leading the way calling for peaceful protests in hopes of toppling the government through show of popular disapproval. Those protests, however, turned deadly when police deployed lethal force against the protesters and 43 people died. López was promptly arrested and, months later in September 2015, found guilty of public incitement of violence.  His imprisonment is widely considered to be politically motivated by international groups and figures ranging from the United Nations to the Dalai Lama, and his arrest was one of the reasons why the South American trading bloc, MERCOSUR, suspended Venezuela’s membership in December 2016, citing problems with human rights and the rule of law.  Continue reading Overshadowed by scandal, Trump calls for López’s release in Venezuela

Mask slips on potential Rendón dirty tricks across Latin America

J.J. Rendón is the most well-known political strategist in Latin America. (El País / Colprensa)
J.J. Rendón is the most well-known political strategist in Latin America. (El País / Colprensa)

If you haven’t had a chance yet, you should drop everything to read the amazing 4500-word-plus scoop from Bloomberg about the potentially criminal role of hacking in the political universe of J.J. Rendón and his still-unclear ties to Andrés Sepúlveda, a Colombian hacker now serving a decade-long prison sentence for hacking, espionage and other crimes related to the 2014 Colombian election.Mexico Flag IconColombia Flag Icon

Even if you take Sepúlveda’s accusations with a fair share of skepticism, that he’s sitting in jail and subject to such heavy security from the Colombian government lends at least some credence — and the chicanery in that 2014 election is only one example in a story that looks and feels like it was ripped right out of the latest season of House of Cards:

He says he wants to tell his story because the public doesn’t grasp the power hackers exert over modern elections or the specialized skills needed to stop them. “I worked with presidents, public figures with great power, and did many things with absolutely no regrets because I did it with full conviction and under a clear objective, to end dictatorship and socialist governments in Latin America,” he says. “I have always said that there are two types of politics—what people see and what really makes things happen. I worked in politics that are not seen.”

The very mention of Rendón’s name can strike fear into the heart of an opponent in any Latin American election. He’s been called the ‘Karl Rove’ of Latin America and, it’s true, he’s helped dozens of center-right candidates win office. He helped boost Juan Manuel Santos, both when he was minister of defense in Colombia, and in the 2010 election, in which Santos won the presidency.

In 2014, however, after Santos launched landmark peace talks with FARC and Santos’s one-time mentor, former president Álvaro Uribe, turned on Santos, Sepúlveda found himself working for a right-wing opponent Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who wanted to end the peace talks. Though Zuluaga narrowly won the first round, Santos triumphed in the runoff, and the talks have deepened and progressed in Santos’s second term. (Rendón was working for Santos, though he resigned after accusations linking him financially to drug cartels.)

It’s not just Colombia, though. Continue reading Mask slips on potential Rendón dirty tricks across Latin America

Beyond Cuba: why Caribbean debt crisis could become American security crisis

Cuban president Raúl Castro met US president Barack Obama Monday morning in Havana. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald)
Cuban president Raúl Castro met US president Barack Obama Monday morning in Havana. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald)

It’s not just voters in Spain, Ireland and Greece who are weary of austerity economics.PRjamaicacubaUSflag

Voters in Jamaica last month narrowly ejected their prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, giving opposition leader Andrew Holness and the nominally center-right Jamaica Labour Party a razor-thin 32-31 majority in the House of Representatives. Though Jamaican politics has been famous since the 1970s for its polarization, Holness will govern with the narrowest margin in the House since 1949.

What he does with his mandate could matter not only for Jamaica, but the entire Caribbean.

Simpson-Miller, who took power in 2012 and secured yet another IMF bailout in 2013 for the debt-plagued island, marked some success in bringing the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio down from 140% to around 125%. For now, Holness is working with IMF officials, but he won election after pledging to spend more revenues on health care, education and stimulating the economy, part of a generous and populist 10-point plan that will be difficult for him to enact under current fiscal restraints.

The Caribbean’s self-cannibalizing debt crisis

Holness will find himself in a trap all too common in the 21st century Caribbean, where manufacturing, tourism and, in some cases, modest oil production, have not been sufficient to boost economies and incomes. Without higher GDP growth, Holness will face two difficult options. If his government spends too much, he’ll unwind the careful work of his predecessor and send Jamaican debt levels spiraling upwards again. If Holness spends too little, he will alienate the electorate that gave him a majority and that, like Americans and Europeans, are weary of roller-coaster economic uncertainty and a widening inequality gap.

It’s a story that is increasingly familiar across the region and, today, it’s not just Jamaica that is falling into the debt trap. Barbados and Grenada have both marked 60% increases in their debt/GDP ratios in the last 15 years, and the Bahamas, Bermuda and other countries, not typically associated with imprudence, are also struggling with rising debt. Islands like Martinique and Guadeloupe thrive as fossils of France’s colonial empire, thriving due to hefty subsidies from Paris. Trinidad and Tobago, only recently flush with the promise of offshore oil drilling, has watched its expectations plummet with global oil prices. Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, endures a grinding debt default amid prolonged economic misery with little hope that legislative action can fix its economy. Despite years of advanced warning, neither Democrats nor Republicans have the inclination or ability to provide relief from Capitol Hill.

Taken together, the spiraling debt and economic stagnation of the Caribbean represents an overlooked security challenge in the years ahead that China, Russia or even the Middle East might exploit.

Cuba, Cuba, Cuba

Jamaica’s election didn’t generate the same excitement in the American media as U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic trip this week to Havana, the first since Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928. But it’s only the third time that Obama himself has traveled to the Caribbean at all – he visited Jamaica in April 2015, and he went to Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, when it hosted the 5th Summit of the Americas. Continue reading Beyond Cuba: why Caribbean debt crisis could become American security crisis

The comparison between Sanders and Venezuela is misguided and facile

'Socialism' may be at the heart of chavismo and the Sanders campaign, but they come from two very different political traditions.
‘Socialism’ may be at the heart of chavismo and the Sanders campaign, but they come from two very different political traditions.

One of the more popular comparisons of critics of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is between the brand of ‘democratic socialism’ that Sanders has espoused in his Democratic presidential campaign and Venezuelan-style socialism.Venezuela Flag IconUSflag

But for reasons I’ll describe below, it’s a facile and wrong-headed comparison, and it’s an insult both to Sanders and to the Venezuelan opposition that’s struggling so hard against something much more insidious than just ‘democratic socialism.’

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RELATED: Eight things Americans should know about the Danish (and Nordic) welfare state

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Sanders has looked to countries like Sweden and Denmark, arguing that the US social welfare net should look more like the Nordic social welfare net. Those are countries that, by and large, conduct free and fair elections with a firm dividing line between government and party, squeaky-clean transparency, a tradition both of consensus-building  and more recently, a reformist nudge that’s tried to retool creaking social welfare system toward more competition and liberalism.

No one disputes Venezuela’s problems, which faces today probably the globe’s most painful economic crisis. They are immense.

But it didn’t get there through Scandinavian-style socialism. Or social democracy. Or democratic socialism.  Continue reading The comparison between Sanders and Venezuela is misguided and facile

Why global oil prices seem likely to remain low throughout 2016

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Iran is looking forward to ‘implementation day,’ when its nuclear energy deal takes effect and global sanctions are relaxed, allowing it to export oil more easily. (Reuters)

In 2015, we saw how falling oil prices affected world politics from Alberta to Nigeria. Net exporters like Venezuela, Russia and the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are feeling the drop in revenues, and that could accelerate political agitation as oil prices force budget cuts. USflagIran Flag Icon

As Brad Plumer wrote yesterday for Vox, explaining the fall in oil prices is simple. Supply has outstripped demand, and while global demand is still growing, it’s growing at about half the rate that it was even in mid-2015.

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RELATED: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

RELATED: Could Norway benefit from the oil price decline?

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The difference between $30 oil (about the current price level), $20 oil or $50 oil could make or break incumbents seeking reelection — lower oil prices mean fewer goodies at election time.

In 2016, that means oil prices could affect Scotland’s May regional elections by dampening the economic case for Scottish independence and, therefore, the electoral support for the Scottish National Party. It means that Russia’s September legislative elections could engender the same kind of political protests (or worse) that met the last elections in 2011. Lower oil prices are already endangering Ghanian president John Dramani Mahama’s hopes for reelection in December, given how much Mahama has staked on Ghana’s oil potential. It could even push Venezuela’s opposition, newly empowered as the majority in the National Assembly, to seek chavista president Nicolás Maduro’s recall even more quickly.

More generally, it could make life difficult for Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari. Not only will lower oil revenues hurt his capacity to deploy resources across Africa’s most populous country, but Buhari must find a way to deliver to Nigeria’s impoverished Muslim north, where Boko Haram continues to pose a security challenge, and Nigeria’s southeastern Igbo population, including Rivers state and Delta state, where much of Nigeria’s oil reserves are located. The southeastern challenge is particularly precarious, in light of the fact that Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan, the first president to come from Nigeria’s oil-rich southeast. A wrong step by Buhari could catalyze long-simmering demands for greater political autonomy or even secession.

On the demand side, the European Union (as a whole) imports more oil than any other country in the world — by a longshot. Lower prices could bring about the kind of truly robust economic growth that has eluded the eurozone for decades. That, in turn, could ameliorate the pressures of democratic backslide among the central European Visegrad Group, and it could goose economic activity in Mediterranean countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece, where no single political party has enough support for a majority government. That, in turn, could reduce support for radical leftist parties and bolster more moderate coalitions. It could, marginally, benefit incumbent governments in Ireland, Romania and elsewhere in 2016 and France in 2017. (The same effect, by the way, relieves a lot of pressure on faltering ‘Abenomics’ policy in Japan, too).

In his final state of the union address last night, even US president Barack Obama bragged about lower oil prices. If prices stay consistently low throughout 2016, it could marginally help Obama’s Democratic Party win the November general election.

Autocratic countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Angola, Algeria and Kazakhstan, could face popular protests.

So where are oil prices going? No one knows, but here’s what you have to believe if you think oil prices are going to rise substantially anytime in 2016: Continue reading Why global oil prices seem likely to remain low throughout 2016

Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

Henry Ramos Allup is set to become the next president of Venezuela’s National Assembly today.

Without a doubt, the victory of the anti-chavista opposition in the December 6 elections was one of the most improbable and most impressive wins in world politics in 2015.Venezuela Flag Icon

With a two-thirds majority that the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) is still trying to defend from attacks from the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the opposition today took control of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), the legislative branch of Venezuela’s government. That will continue to be true, no matter if the PSUV tries to invalidate a handful of MUD deputies or if president Nicolas Maduro tries to create an alternative chavista-dominated popular assembly.

For the first time since 1999, the chavistas haven’t controlled the National Assembly. Naturally, it was a momentous occasion. For now, the Venezuelan people seem firmly behind the opposition, in the hopes that they can push Maduro toward reforms to provide economic relief after years of socialist policies and, perhaps more damningly, widespread corruption, handouts to socialist allies like Cuba and Nicaragua and mismanagement of PdVSA, the state petroleum company, which has only accelerated losses stemming from the global decline in oil prices.

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RELATED: Venezuela’s opposition supermajority must prioritize recalling Maduro

RELATED: No matter who wins, the December 6 elections will not be chavismo‘s last stand

RELATED: A primer on the MUD, Venezuela’s broad opposition coalition

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But that’s also why it’s so disappointing that the MUD coalition chose as the president of the National Assembly the 72-year-old Henry Ramos Allup, a longtime fixture on the Venezuelan opposition and a throwback to the ancien régime that proved so corrupt and incapable that it opened the path to Hugo Chávez’s perfectly democratic election to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998.

Let’s start with the good news. Ramos Allup, it’s true, was chosen through a democratic process, an internal vote among the 112 MUD deputies. He easily defeated Julio Borges, another opposition figure close to former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, by a vote of 63 to 49 over the weekend. He’s one of the few figures within the opposition to have some experience of Venezuelan governance before chavismo and, truth be told, he’s a tough and wily character who will not easily be rolled. (Though, almost immediately after the new majority took power in the National Assembly, the chavista deputies, including the former Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, promptly walked out).

Then again, for an opposition that hopes to present itself as a fresh movement of good government and reform capable to bringing change to Venezuela, it’s a curious choice. Continue reading Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

Spain readies for historic, four-way election on December 20

Spain's new young king, Felipe VI, may ultimately shape his country's new country from the Palacio Real if the unprecedented four-way race leaves no party with a majority after December 20.
Spain’s new young king, Felipe VI, may ultimately shape his country’s future from the Palacio Real if the unprecedented four-way race leaves no party with a majority after December 20.

Five days before the Christmas holiday, Spanish voters will go to the polls to choose a new government in an election that’s being hailed as the country’s most important since 1982.Spain_Flag_Icon

Indeed, voter turnout may well exceed the 80% levels not seen since 1982, when Spain had only just emerged from its Francoist dictatorship and was four years away from joining the European Economic Community, the predecessor to today’s European Union. Moreover, it will also be the first general election to take place under Felipe VI, whose father Juan Carlos I abdicated in June 2014 after guiding the country’s transition to democracy in the mid-1970s.

But what makes the December 20 election so unique is that economic crisis has shattered Spain’s stable two-party electoral tradition, leaving a four-way free-for-all that could force unwieldy coalitions or a minority government at a time when the country has only just started its economic recovery. Distrust in both major parties, moreover, has opened the way for a popular far-left movement at the national level and greater discord at the regional level, most notably in Catalonia, where support for the independence movement is growing. No matter who wins power in the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, the next Spanish government will face difficult decisions about GDP growth, lingering unemployment, and federalism and possible constitutional change.

For decades, Spanish elections were essentially, at the national level, a fight between the conservative Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) and the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). In the most recent 2011 election, the PP won 186 seats in the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the Spanish parliament’s lower house, while the PSOE won 110 seats.

Both parties can point to massive successes over the past three decades. Under longtime PSOE prime minister Felipe González, Spain consolidated its liberal democracy and benefited greatly from closer economic and financial ties to Europe, while Barcelona’s emergence as the host of the 1992 Summer Olympics catapulted it into a world-class city. Under conservative prime minister José María Aznar, Spain joined the core of western European countries as a founding member of the eurozone in 2002 and developed widening security ties with the United States. When the PSOE returned to power in 2004 under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the government enacted same-sex marriage in 2005 and later negotiated a peaceful ceasefire with the paramilitary Basque nationalist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA).

The pain in Spain

Widespread anti-austerity protests, spearheaded by the 'indignados' movements mobilized even before the previous elections in 2011. (El País / Carlos Rosillo)
Widespread anti-austerity protests, spearheaded by the ‘indignados’ movements mobilized even before the previous elections in 2011. (El País / Carlos Rosillo)

But the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and subsequent eurozone crisis of 2010 knocked Spain off its pedestal.

Not unlike Florida, Nevada and parts of California in the United States, property values in Spain fell as rapidly as they once climbed, and an economy driven by construction and easy credit sputtered to near-depression levels of contraction. Despite running a more parsimonious fiscal policy in the 2000s than even Germany, Zapatero’s government soon found its expenses far exceeding revenues, and his government engaged in a series of tax increases and spending cuts.

The Spanish electorate ousted Zapatero in December 2011, ushering the People’s Party back to power under Mariano Rajoy, whose main goal was to prevent Spain from needing to seek an emergency bailout. Despite some scares over the Spanish banking system in 2012, Rajoy succeeded in keeping Spain bailout-free, but at the cost of ever greater spending cuts and tax hikes. The Rajoy government’s tough fiscal medicine, to some degree, has worked. Yields on Spanish 10-year debt have steadily fallen from a high of over 7.2% in July 2012 to less than 1.8% today. For a country without economic expansion since 2008, the Spanish economy returned to fragile growth in 2014, and it maintained growth throughout 2015 — notching 1% growth in the second quarter of this year and 0.8% in the third.

But voters are not enthusiastic about the prospects of reelecting Rajoy, a leader who never quite managed to win over Spanish hearts. Spain’s unemployment rate today is still 21.2%, a drop from the record-high 26.9% level recorded in early 2013. But that’s still a far higher jobless rate than anywhere else in the European Union (with the exception of Greece).

In the 2008 election, before the bottom fell out of the Spanish economy, the two major parties together won 83.8% of the vote. By 2011, that percentage fell to 73.4%. If polls are correct, that percentage could fall below 50% on Sunday, as both the PP and the PSOE struggle against the surging popularity of the anti-austerity Podemos (‘We can’) on the left and the liberal, federalist Ciudadanos (C’s, Citizens) on the right.

If the election were held today, the PP would win around 110 seats, the PSOE around  90, and Podemos and Ciudadanos would each win around 60, leaving none of them with a clear majority. The uncertainty of the four-way race has both energized the electorate (in  a manner reminiscent to those first early elections in the post-dictatorship era) and enhanced the chances of post-election uncertainty that both Greece and Portugal have endured this year.  Continue reading Spain readies for historic, four-way election on December 20

Venezuela’s opposition supermajority must prioritize recalling Maduro

Henrique Capriles (right) and Leopoldo López (left) campaigned together in the 2013 presidential election.
Henrique Capriles (right) and Leopoldo López (left) campaigned together in the 2013 presidential election.

I write Friday for The National Interest a follow-up post on Venezuela’s legislative elections. Venezuela Flag Icon

With the unexpected results, which not only gave the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) a victory, but a two-thirds supermajority in Venezuela’s National Assembly, a critical blow to the ruling chavista government of Nicolás Maduro.

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I make the case that the MUD must prioritize a recall referendum that could remove Maduro from office early in 2016:

In a “normal” democracy, it would not be atypical for a divided government to emerge, in the same way that Republicans today control the legislative branch and Democrats control the executive branch in the United States. Gridlock might come to dominate Venezuelan governance, it’s true. But Maduro, who lacks a powerful presidential veto, would be forced to accept the MUD coalition’s policy prescriptions to get the economy back on track, however painful the compromises for both sides.

Yet neither Maduro nor the chavista high guard has shown the slightest bit of respect for the democratic process. Though Chávez came to power — and stayed in power — on the strength of a bona fide popular and democratic mandate, his government and Maduro’s government have gone out of their way to make a mockery of democratic norms. They have diverted government funds, including the country’s dwindling oil revenues, to nakedly political purposes for so long that it’s difficult to know where chavismo ends and Venezuela’s government begins. They’ve imprisoned opposition leaders like Leopoldo López and former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma without due process on charges that even López’s prosecutor (speaking safely from exile in Miami) admits were politically motivated. Chavistas have dominated the Venezuelan media so thoroughly that it’s hard to speak of any real press freedom; in 2015, it had the worst record in South America, according to Reporters Without Borders. The outgoing head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, has bullied and harassed the opposition at every step, is reported to have ties to drug traffickers and other criminal elements, and shows no sign of accepting the docile role of loyal opposition leader. The list goes on and on (and Rory Carroll’s excellent 2013 book, Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, exhaustively catalogs the abuses, both petty and serious). Though there was once a democratic basis for chavismo’s legitimacy, its unique record since 1998 demonstrates that it simply cannot be trusted to execute the new National Assembly’s laws in good faith. In crisis mode, with the worst performing economy in the world, Venezuela simply cannot wait until the scheduled 2018 presidential election to turn the page on chavismo.

Though there is some risk of ‘overreach’ in calling a recall referendum, and though a snap presidential election could create real tensions within the MUD coalition, I also argue that the far greater risk is failing to learn the lessons of chavismo and the risk of a divided government wholly unable to meet the critical task of rebuilding Venezuela’s economy in the next three years.

No matter who wins, Sunday’s elections will not be chavismo’s last stand

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Despite a late surge in the election campaign, socialist president Nicolás Maduro still faces a major defeat in this weekend’s elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly.

In a set of free and fair elections, it would not be difficult to predict that Venezuela’s long-suffering opposition would win a wide majority in December 6’s legislative elections; for many Venezuelans, despite marked disadvantages, the question is not whether the opposition will win, but by how much.Venezuela Flag Icon

That doesn’t mean the anti-chavista coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) is anywhere near taking real power in Venezuela. No matter what happens, on December 7, Venezuelans will still wake up to president Nicolás Maduro, the oft-ridiculed successor to the late Hugo Chávez. Maduro only narrowly won the presidency in April 2013, following Chávez’s death, and Venezuela’s economy, already in dire trouble two years ago, has failed dramatically ever since.

What’s more, short of a massive supermajority, Venezuela will be gridlocked for the next three years when the next presidential election will held, at a time when its economy has reached crisis-level proportions of failure.

Dependence on oil revenues meant that even before global oil prices plummeted, Venezuelans were facing shortages of basic products, from food to medical supplies to toilet paper, and inevitable scenes of government-mandated rationing. Massive inflation, in tandem with an unofficially depreciating currency, has inflicted even greater economic pain for a country dependent on foreign imports, at least for those without access to US dollars. The economy is expected to contract by as much as 10% in a single year, making Venezuela’s the worst-performing in the world in 2015. Earlier this spring, conditions were so bad that chavista supporters took to throwing mangoes at Maduro at political events in desperate search of basic necessities. Maduro, meanwhile, has campaigned hard on Chávez’s memory and fear tactics that the opposition will reverse the government’s many social welfare programs.

Voters will be choosing all 167 members of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), where the chavistas currently hold 99 seats, while the opposition coalition holds just 64.  Yet few observers believe that the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the chavista party that for 16 years has governed the country in a way that’s blurred the line between political and governance activity, can win a majority in the elections. Datanálisis, one of Venezuela’s most respected polls, pitted the opposition coalition’s support at over 63%, with just 28% support for the chavistas in an October poll. Over at Caracas Chronicles, Francisco Toro argues that, for the first time in years, the December 6 elections represent the re-introduction of ‘politics’ to Venezuelan life.

But for a country where chavismo has now become so entrenched in its government and commerce, no one knows for sure exactly what the MUD’s margin of victory might be and how many seats it will ultimately procure. Under the dual voting system, most members are elected in single-seat districts, while 30% are elected by closed-list proportional representation. Rural areas, where the poorest voters support Maduro and chavismo more strongly for the generous social welfare programs introduced since 1999, are over-represented, as compared to urban areas, where the opposition’s support is strongest. A simply majority will give the opposition less power than a three-fifths majority or a two-thirds majority, with which the MUD could even forced a recall referendum against Maduro.  Continue reading No matter who wins, Sunday’s elections will not be chavismo’s last stand

Why ‘normalization’ with Cuba will be harder than advertized

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HAVANA — On December 17, U.S. president Barack Obama announced that his administration would pursue executive policies designed to engage Cuba diplomatically and, potentially, restore relations between the two countries severed in 1960 – one year before Obama was born, as he himself noted in a joint conference with Cuban president Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas, the first time since the summits began in 1994 that a Cuban leader was invited to the affair. USflagcuba

It’s not only the White House that argues the 55-year embargo hasn’t worked – Republicans and Democrats alike, and Cubans, Americans and many others have long held that the embargo’s worst effects have fallen on the Cuban people, even as the policy gave Fidel Castro a convenient foil and excuse for the failures of his own government. No medicine? Blame the embargo, not the Revolution that guarantees universal health care to everyone. No food? Blame the embargo, not the abrupt end of Soviet subsidies, which plunged Cuba into what Castro euphemistically christened the “Special Period in a Time of Peace,” three years of hunger and deprivation where the average caloric intake dropped from around 3,000 calories per day to 1,400, according to some estimates. For all the initial promise of the Revolution, the reality fell far short for many Cubans, most especially for LGBT Cubans shuttled off to labor camps in the early 1970s and Afro-Cubans, who suffer from race-based income inequality decades after the Cuban government’s declaration that the Revolution “ended” racism. Even Fidel Castro admitted as much in a remarkable interview with Jeffrey Goldberg five years ago.

You don’t have to be a Nobel-winning economist, however, to realize that Cuba’s most recent financial benefactor, Venezuela, is going through some tough times. Two years after the death of leftist populist Hugo Chávez, oil prices are down and so is the level of production from PdVSA, the country’s state oil company. The official rate of the Venezuelan bolívar is comically lower than its market value, inflation runs rampant and shortages and rationing of basic foods and household goods is common. These days, everyday chavistas, who still hold faith in the socialist Bolivarian revolution, have taken to lobbing mangoes at Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, with messages desperately scrawled on them. Those less charitably inclined to Maduro, including opposition leader Leopoldo López and former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, have been imprisoned. It’s dawning on the Castro regime that the days of exchanging Havana-trained doctors, Cuban intelligence agents and revolutionary slogans in exchange for cheap oil and other goodies may be coming to an end.

William LeoGrande, a professor at American University and the author of a new book on decades of back-channel negotiations between Havana and Washington, argues that the current round of negotiations isn’t the first time that U.S. and Cuban officials have sat down for talks, including the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic relations. This time around, the implosion of Venezuela, has refocused Cuban interest in reconciliation with the United States, which could provide Cuba the kind of tourist revenue and foreign development aid it desperately seeks.

“In one sense, Washington wants [normalization] more,” he said. “The United States was facing lots of diplomatic pressure from Latin America to change its policy towards Cuba. Now, the president has won a lot of credit, not just in Latin America, but around the world, for announcing his willingness to change policy. And it’s an important part of his foreign policy legacy, so I think the administration very much wants these negotiations to succeed.”

Privately, State Department officials agree that the Obama administration and the Castro regime are locked in a giant wager by launching a new era last December. The U.S. government is betting that a wave of liberalization and modernity will drag Cuba into the 21st century by empowering U.S. companies to do business directly with Cuban entrepreneurs, a step that will embolden individual freedom. The Cuban government is betting that it can liberalize à la carte by opening its economy, but not its politics, press or Internet, an approach that China and Vietnam have more-or-less successfully pursued.

News coverage since December paints a rosy, possibly naïve, tapestry of a partnership moving steadily forward. First were reports that Netflix would soon come to Cuba, something of a cruel joke for a country where Internet access is heavily restricted and censored, available for up to $10 an hour at designated government-run Internet cafes, universities and top tourist hotels. Then came AirBNB’s foray into Cuba, where homestays in casa particulares are a more popular option than overpriced hotels. JetBlue, earlier this year, announced grandiose plans to launch a commercial nonstop flight from New York to Havana by year’s end, followed this spring by hopes to re-establish a ferry service across the Straits of Florida between Key West and Havana. In March, Conan O’Brien hosted a virtual commercial for the faded glamour of a Caribbean playground filled with 1957 Plymouths, watered-down daiquiris and overpriced nights at the Tropicana. A high-profile delegation led by New York governor Andrew Cuomo and a group of state business leaders dropped in to talk about future opportunities. Havana is keenly anticipating a scheduled visit from Pope Francis in September, and there are promises of a possible stop by U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and even whispers that Obama himself might make a trip. A visit last month from French president Francois Hollande, the first Western European leader to visit the island since 1986, included an hour-long colloquy with Fidel Castro himself, though it also drew a critique from prolific blogger Yoani Sánchez  when Hollande failed to meet any dissidents during his short trip.

Even in a best-case scenario, the Obama administration’s move could go awry simply because of the political gravity of presidential term limits. None of the nearly two dozen 2016 Republican presidential candidates, excepting Kentucky’s libertarian senator Rand Paul, supports the opening to Cuba. Two candidates, Senator Marco Rubio, himself the son of Cuban immigrants, and former governor Jeb Bush, come from Florida and swear fealty to the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban community in Miami. It’s true that, given the widespread cultural and economic interest among Americans in Cuba’s future, no Republican may be able to undo Obama’s work by the time January 2017 rolls around. In the fight to lift the embargo, the momentum is on Obama’s side, and many business interests, including the American farm lobby, are enthusiastic about accessing Cuban markets. But if the U.S. interests section in Havana is converted into a full embassy, a hawkish Republican in the Oval Office will have vastly greater leverage to undermine the Cuban regime in far more serious ways than broadcasting churlish messages from an electronic ticker or funding outlandish USAID programs to design fake Twitter programs like “ZunZuneo” (the latter ultimately backfired when its popularity crested, filling the coffers of the state-run mobile phone company).

Cuba, too, is set for its own political transition in 2018, when Raúl Castro has pledged to step down as president. For now, his likely successor is 54-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel, appointed as first vice president in 2013. Alternate reports describe Díaz-Canel as either a hard-liner or a reformer, with varying strengths of ties to the Cuban military (though Díaz-Canel isn’t himself a military figure).

In short, few have credible insight into what Díaz-Canel truly believes, whether he’ll even make it to 2018 as the heir apparent and, if so, whether he’ll just be the civilian puppet that perpetuates the rule of the Cuban military. In the meanwhile, Raúl Castro has groomed his son, 49-year-old Alejandro, a rising figure within Cuba’s all-important MININT. Alejandro traveled with Raúl to the Summit of the Americas, lingering in the background in the photos where Raúl  shook hands with Obama. Some Cubans believe that he will eventually emerge as the next Castro to rule the island. No one knows for sure, however, what the retirement of the elderly Castro brothers will mean for Cuba.

In the meanwhile, young Cubans are waiting for neither the Obama administration nor the Castro regime to deliver change to them. They’re getting on with making lives for themselves in a Cuba that, though still hampered by a heavy-handed state sector, provides more opportunities for them in decades. An informal poll of young Cubans on one weekend night in late May on the Malecón, the long walkway that rings the edge of Havana’s sea walls and where Cubans of every age and background flock on weekend nights, indicated that while Cuba’s youths are generally excited about closer ties with Americans, they don’t necessarily believe it will translate into better futures personally.

For those who believe that reform will not come soon enough, the United States continues to beckon. In the wake of Obama’s December announcement, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that a sharp uptick of Cubans took to boats in hopes of emigrating to the United States, fearing that reconciliation would mean the end of the favorable U.S. immigration policy towards Cubans. Under the current iteration of the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act, the “wet foot, dry foot” policy extends a path to residency for any Cuban who makes it to American shores (though not to any Cubans caught by the Coast Guard en route to Florida).

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In the 2012 film Una noche, a highlight of Cuban cinema in the past decade, NYU-trained Lucy Mulloy directed the neorealistic tale of three young Cubans who ultimately attempt to leave the country on a makeshift raft. Life imitated art when, a year later, two of the three co-stars, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre and  Javier Núñez Florián (pictured above), decided to stay in Miami en route to a film festival in New York. Though they play brother and sister in the film, they fell in love during filming and now live in Las Vegas with their young son.

Unlike the previous generations of Cuban emigrants to the United States, Núñez Florián wasn’t overly concerned about politics when I spoke to him last week. He said that he had always hoped to one day live in the United States and that his decision was about building a better future for himself and his family. He added that it’s not difficult to balance his life between the two worlds, that half his friends are still in Cuba, and that it’s easy for him to visit Cuba. Though he initially demurred when I asked him about the dynamics of US-Cuban relations, he agreed that he sees it in a positive light.

“Yes it’s good,” he said. “The U.S. is meeting in the middle, little by little getting closer to Cuba, and Cuba the same. Little by little everything is changing for the better.”

“Little by little,” though, is the key phrase. It’s easy to forget that, amid the excitement over Cuba’s opening, the Revolution took place only six years after the final armistice that divided North Korea and South Korea. Americans who believe that Cuba will suddenly be transformed, as if overnight, will be sorely disabused. Cuba’s modernization will be a difficult process that moves in zigs and zags.

Former Bush-era commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez, himself a Cuban-American, believes that Cuba can be a veritable Caribbean Singapore, but that’s hard to believe after a few days on the ground in Havana. The “romance” of 1950s jalopies subsides after a couple of taxi rides in an overcrowded Soviet-era Lada from the 1970s, and Havana suffers from all the other shocks of decades of economic mismanagement, exacerbated by U.S. stubbornness. On my first Friday night in Havana, I stopped at a bar for a little refreshment but by 10 p.m., it was out of shrimp, it was out of tostones (which I’d thought were ubiquitous throughout the region) and, the greatest sin of all, my waiter informed me that mojitos were no longer available. This wasn’t a flashy hotel or a secluded resort in the foreigners-only enclave of Varadero, but it was still a Chilean-themed bar directly across from the Malecón. From transportation to distribution networks, Cuba is woefully unprepared for a deluge of American tourists who won’t take kindly to surly rooms with Soviet air conditioners and bars that run out of mojitos.

Cubans may also find that competing for U.S. customers will be equally difficult. For years, cigar experts have warned that the Cuban tobacco-growing industry suffers from inconsistent quality control. The Havana Club brand, if it ever makes it into the American market given the copyright tangles with Bacardi, will face stiff competition from much smoother aged rums. After the post-taboo novelty of Cuban cigars and rum wear off, Millennial cognoscenti may find they prefer to sip on Guatemalan rum and smoke Nicaraguan cigars.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s infrastructure is broken. The Cold War never turned hot in Havana, but it did singe Nicaragua, Grenada and Panama City, where U.S. forces bombed the city’s charming Casco Viejo district in its ultimately successful 1989 push to arrest the drug-fueled strongman Manuel Noriega. Remarkably, large swaths of central Havana resemble Casco Viejo as it existed ten years ago, when it was still a bombed-out shell. Today, shopping boutiques and gelato shops adorn the Panamanian neighborhood, but central Havana continues to crumble. Buildings routinely fall to the ground in disrepair and floods in early May resulted in the deaths of at least three residents. Cuba’s currency system is also a mess, with the moneda nacional for Cubans and a fixed-rate convertible peso for tourists that’s created a two-tiered economy of have-nots and have-even-less. Neither currency is worth much internationally, and the Cuban government benefits from the privilege of collecting the hard currency of euros and dollars when tourists arrive to the island. Plans to merge the two currencies worry middle-class Cubans, chiefly in the tourism and hospitality industries, who fear that a botched attempt could wipe out the real gains of the past two decades.

It’s not an exaggeration to argue that the 1959 revolution both won Cuba its independence and conclusively ended the Monroe Doctrine, not only for Cuba but for all of Latin America. The relationship between the United States and Cuba has been troubled since the beginning. In 1854, U.S. president Franklin Pierce came close to annexing the island through the Ostend Manifesto proclaimed by Southern Democrats anxious to expand the geography of American slavery. Many Cubans believe the United States, by entering the Spanish-American War in 1898, stepped into a fight against a colonial Spanish force already chiefly defeated by Cuba patriots. For the next sixty years, under the Platt Amendment and a series of other measures designed to maximize American influence on the island, Cuba became a satellite of the U.S. government, with barely more de facto independence than Guam or Puerto Rico. If Cuba seems to have more in common with post-colonial African countries that won sovereignty in the late 1950s and 1960s, that’s because it suffered the same kind of post-independence growing pains under the penumbra of the Cold War.

“The U.S. has a history of meddling in Cuban affairs well before 1959,” said Arturo López-Levy, a Cuban-born scholar and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. “In fact, this is in part what led to the Revolution. Cubans haven’t forgotten that. A normalization of relations doesn’t erase this history, and Cubans are weary of the United States opening an embassy and using it as a base to influence opposition groups.”

That, in part, explains why Americans don’t always understand that Che Guevara is such a hero to Latin America and the rest of the world, no matter how brutal his guerrilla techniques, and that when Fidel Castro dies, his name will be uttered in the same breath as the likes of Nelson Mandela. “Normalization” of U.S.-Cuban relations, as sought by the Obama administration, is really the promise that, for the first time, the United States will treat Cuba as a sovereign equal.

 

Photo essay: Cuba on the cusp… but for what kind of future?

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HAVANA — On my first evening in Cuba , my bar ran out of mojitos, as fitting metaphor as any for nearly a week in the Cuban capital.cuba

Sure, it wasn’t the bar at Havana’s Hotel Nacional, but it was still a reasonably tourist-oriented cantina with a Chilean theme hugging the Malecón, the popular avenue that runs along the sea. For the record, the restaurant also ran out of shrimp and tostones (the fried plantain chips I’ve always thought taste like fried discs of baking powder with a hint of banana).

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I’ve been to poorer countries, but it’s hard to think of a place that’s more broken. The keys, the doors, the cars, the buildings, the stores, the distribution channels and yes, even the much-vaunted health care system. The idea that the United States and its legions of consumers and tourists will transform the country virtually overnight is incredibly fanciful.

For many Americans, there’s an element of romance to seeing old cars from the 1950s and the faded mojitos-and-daiquiris glamour of what was once a Caribbean playground. There’s also an electricity that comes from a place that’s so close geographically but so distant ideologically, politically, economically and culturally. One comparison that springs to mind is the 12-mile distance between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

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Another comparison is Korea — for all the easy talk about reconciliation between the United States and Cuba, the distances between the two countries are nearly as stark as those today between North Korea and South Korea. That isn’t quite so surprising because Fidel Castro came to power only six years after the 1953 armistice than ended the Korean War in quasi-permanent stalemate. Today, there is a Cuban-American culture that is as distinct from Cuban culture as Sicilian-American culture is from life in modern Palermo. Celia Cruz and Cafe Versailles belong to the former, Osmani García and the inventive home-grown paladar restaurants belong to the latter. Continue reading Photo essay: Cuba on the cusp… but for what kind of future?

Obama’s move to remove Cuba from terror list was long overdue

obamaraulPhoto credit to Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty.

Fully 15 out of 19 hijackers in the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were Saudi nationals, products of a country governed by a royal family in a centuries-long symbiotic relationship with fundamentalist Wahhabism. When US special forces finally found and killed Osama bin Laden (also a Saudi national) in 2011, he was being protected by Pakistani forces, with plenty of sympathizers within Pakistan’s  military and intelligence community.USflagcuba

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Pakistan, however, have ever been designated by the US State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list, which has always had more to do with the geopolitics of American foreign policy than with reality.

So on the heels of US president Barack Obama’s meeting with Cuban president Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas last weekend (pictured above), the Obama administration announced on Tuesday that it would recommend removing Cuba from the ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list. The recommendation will take effect in 45 days, following the Obama administration’s notification to the US Congress. Though Congressional action is unlikely to halt Obama’s decision, Obama will need the Republican-controlled Congress to approve any measure to lift the embargo initially imposed on Cuba in 1960 by the United States. Former president George W. Bush took a similar decision with respect to North Korea in June 2008 in consideration for the reclusive country’s decision to allow greater inspection of its nuclear sites.

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RELATED: Six key questions about the landmark Cuba deal

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Republican president Ronald Reagan initially added Cuba to the list in 1982, when it became clear that its leader Fidel Castro was supporting leftist guerrilla movements across Latin America that the Reagan administration believed imperative to stop. Nevertheless, Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua in the 1980s and Hugo Chavez’s firmly anti-American government in Venezuela in the 2000s never landed on the list. The most recent 2013 State Department review that justified Cuba’s continued ‘terror sponsor’ status reads like satire, noting that the Cuban government is harboring fugitives from the US justice system, Basque nationalists and Colombian rebels. Never mind the Spanish government concluded a ceasefire with the Basque guerrilla ETA in 2011 and even though Havana was by 2012 hosting talking between the Colombian government and the left-wing FARC.

Though a few dozen US nationals are currently in Cuba evading American law, Cuba is hardly the only country guilty of this. Edward Snowden has been in Russia nearly two years. Yemen, Somalia and dozens of other countries are likely harboring individuals who pose much greater threats to US national interests than Cuba these days. The decision leaves just Syria, Sudan and Iran on the list, all of which have ties to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah or the Palestinian group Hamas.

Cuba participated in the pan-American summit last week in Panama City only for the first time since 1994 when the first summit was held, and though Obama and Castro outlined their countries’ respective differences at length, Obama argued that the longstanding enmity between the two countries originated in another time:

“The United States will not be imprisoned by the past — we’re looking to the future,” Mr. Obama, 53, said of his approach to Cuba at the summit meeting’s first plenary session on Saturday. “I’m not interested in having battles that frankly started before I was born.”

“The Cold War,” he added, “has been over for a long time.”

Critics, from hawkish Republicans to Democrats like former Senate foreign relations committee chair Robert Menendez condemned Obama’s decision, and it’s not clear that Obama will succeed in his quest to lift the embargo in the remainder of his administration. Obama’s critics also include the Miami-born Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida and the son of Cuban immigrants. Rubio, who became the third major Republican to announce a presidential campaign on Monday, sharply denounced the Obama administration’s overtures to Cuba, putting him out of step with many American voters, including increasingly younger Cuban Americans.

Though the decision to remove Cuba is mostly symbolic, it will open Cuba to the global payments system because international banks with links to the United States have largely avoided handling Cuban funds, out of fear of repercussions from the US department of justice. That, in turn, will facilitate the formal re-opening of embassies in both Havana and Washington. Lifting the designation also means that the US government may now provide greater economic assistance.

Domestic policy considerations have long delayed the thawing of US-Cuba relations, but Cuba hasn’t been sponsor of terrorism in decades, and there’s no evidence that Cuba ever supported any kind of terrorism that truly threatened US national interests. Even in the absence of the parallel US opening to Cuba, the Obama administration’s decision to remove Cuba from the list of terrorism sponsors was long overdue.

15 in 2015: Fifteen world elections to watch in 2015

2015Photo credit to letyg84 / 123RF.

Over the past 12 months, the world witnessed a pivotal general election in India, presidential elections in Indonesia, congressional midterm elections in the United States, European parliamentary elections and elections (of varying competitiveness) in over a dozen of additional countries in the world, all pivotal in their own ways — Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, South Africa, Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Serbia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Belgium, Sweden and independence referenda in Scotland and Catalunya.

After such a crowded 2014 calendar, it’s not surprising that 2015 will not bring the same volume of electoral activity. But there’s still plenty at stake, especially as volatile oil prices, Chinese economic slowdown and the return of recession in Europe and Japan could stifle global economic potential. The most important of those elections that will determine policy that affects the lives of billions of people worldwide.

Without further ado, here is Suffragio‘s guide to the top 15 elections to watch as 2015 unfolds — beginning in Greece, where the government fell earlier this week.  Continue reading 15 in 2015: Fifteen world elections to watch in 2015

Six key questions about the landmark Cuba deal

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In one of the most significant foreign policy steps of his administration, US president Barack Obama announced widespread changes in the US-Cuba relationship on Wednesday, including the reestablishment of the first US embassy in Cuba in over a half-century and relaxed rules for US commerce, travel and engagement with the island nation of 11.25 million.cubaUSflag

It’s a historic play, and it yanks one of the biggest straw-men arguments out from under Cuba’s aging Castro regime. But the announcement brings with it more questions than answers for both the United States and Cuba, as the two countries begin negotiating a new chapter in a troubled relationship, even long before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs / Playa Girón invasion and the 1962 missile crisis. Cuban disenchantment with the United States stretches back to at least the 1903 Platt Amendment that established unequal relations through much of the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the brutal regime of US ally Fulgencio Batista, overthrown in Castro’s 1959 revolution. Obama shrewedly signalled in his statement Wednesday that he understands the broader arc of Cuban-American relations by quoting José Martí, a founding father of Cuban independence who was killed in 1895 by Spanish forces.

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continued US embargo on Cuba

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As the two countries, which represent two very different brands of political thought within the Western hemisphere, begin to set aside their differences, here are six questions that are as unclear today as they were last week. Continue reading Six key questions about the landmark Cuba deal