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Quote of the Day

Few of today’s intellectuals would risk a sentence like this one: “The links between Jugend and culture, or more specifically between it and die Moderne, are too obvious to require comment.” They would fear being inaccessible, if not outrageously elitist. Yet it’s clear [Eric] Hobsbawm believes there is a body of knowledge that is the common inheritance, the patrimony, of all educated citizens — and that should be assumed. It’s in this, as much as through any argument he spells out, that the author shows how much has changed — and reveals himself as an emissary from a vanished world.

None of this is to suggest that Hobsbawm is a stuffy presence on the page. On the contrary, his prose is regularly enlivened with choice facts — “The first American productions of Ibsen were in Yiddish” — and elegant metaphor: “Operatic production, like Shakespearean play production, consists of attempts to freshen up eminent graves by putting different sets of flowers on them.”

What’s more, his range of reference is dazzlingly wide. Even in his 90s, he was able to comment on heavy metal, rave culture, football, Disneyland, social media, the movie “Man on Wire” and the Occupy movement against the “1 percent.” He makes some playfully unlikely connections. Noting that the decade after 1965 saw a decline in vocations for the Roman Catholic priesthood, he adds, “Indeed, 1965 was the year in which the French fashion industry for the first time produced more trousers than skirts.”

Unexpectedly, perhaps, for a Marxist, he is, in Isaiah Berlin’s well-worn formulation, more of a fox than a hedgehog, a knower of many things rather than the advocate of a single big idea. Indeed, Hobsbawm’s Marxism is lightly worn and anything but dogmatic. True, he remains a theoretical materialist, regularly tying developments in culture to changing economic circumstances, but those looking for Communist polemic will need to look elsewhere. In an essay on manifestoes, he describes the “Workers of the World Unite” slogan as “well past its sell-by date.” Elsewhere he calls the Enlightenment, not Communism, “the most admirable of all human movements.”

Yet Hobsbawm remains controversial. After his death, London’s Daily Mail ran a piece under the heading “He hated Britain and excused Stalin’s genocide. But was . . . Eric Hobsbawm a traitor too?” Earlier, and more respectably, Tony Judt had written that his fellow left-leaning historian “refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name; he never engages the moral as well as the political heritage of Stalin and his works.” Plausibly, Judt wondered if Hobsbawm’s failure to denounce Stalinism was an act of loyalty to his “adolescent self,” the boy who had witnessed the ascent of Hitler and remembered the Communists as the Nazis’ most strident opponents. The Reds had stood against the brownshirts and so Hobsbawm would forever stand with them. There is nothing in this collection to suggest that Judt got that wrong.

The book has its flaws. If anything, it is too foxlike, ranging so widely that it ends up spread too thin: A chapter on religion is a global tour d’horizon that can’t help being superficial. Like many anthologies, it can feel disjointed rather than a coherent whole: Its title, “Fractured Times,” is unintentionally apposite. Some may dislike the curmudgeonly asides: He brands Tex-Mex food “a barbaric mutation” of Mexican cuisine.

But these are minor. To read this book is to travel through what Hobsbawm called the “short 20th century,” accompanied by one of its sharpest minds — waving much of that era goodbye.

Jonathan Freedland on Eric Hobsbawm. Compare and contrast the fanboy adulation Freedland displays–and we have seen other such examples of fanboy adulation before–and Freedland’s claim that “Hobsbawm’s Marxism is lightly worn and anything but dogmatic,” with the following passage, which neither Hobsbawm’s ghost nor any of his admirers should ever be allowed to live down:

The purpose of all Hobsbawm’s writing, indeed of his life, has been to certify the inevitable triumph of Communism. In the face of whatever might actually have been happening in the Soviet Union and its satellites, he devised reasons to justify or excuse the Communist Party right to its end–long after Russians themselves had realized that Communism had ruined morally and materially everybody and everything within its reach. He loves to describe himself as a professional historian, but someone who has steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth, is nothing of the kind, neither a historian nor professional.

It becomes quite a good joke that Communism collapsed under him, proving in the living world that the beliefs and ideas in his head were empty illusions, and all the Marxist and Soviet rhetoric just claptrap. This Hobsbawn cannot understand, never mind accept. His best-known book, Age of Extremes, published as recently as 1994, still attempts to whitewash Communism as “a formidable innovation” in social engineering, glossing with fundamental dishonesty over such integral features as enforced famine through collectivization and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and omitting all mention of the massacre at Katyn, the terrifying secret police apparatus of Beria, and the Gulag. At the same time, Hobsbawm depicts the United States “unfortunately” as a greater danger than the Soviet Union. Presenting him with a prestigious prize for this farrago, the left-wing historian Sir Keith Thomas said, “For pure intelligence applied to history, Eric Hobsbawm has no equal.” Another left-winger, the journalist Neal Ascherson, held that “No historian now writing in English can match his overwhelming command of fact and source.” So much for Robert Conquest, Sir Kenneth Dover, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Bernard Lewis, and other genuine scholars.

A mystery peculiar to the twentieth century is that intellectuals were eager to endorse the terror and mass-murder which characterized Soviet rule, at one and the same time abdicating humane feelings and all sense of responsibility towards others, and of course perverting the pursuit of truth. The man who sets dogs on concentration camp victims or fires his revolver into the back of their necks is evidently a brute; the intellectual who devises justifications for the brutality is harder to deal with, and far more sinister in the long run. Apologizing for the Soviet Union, such intellectuals licensed and ratified unprecedented crime and tyranny, to degrade and confuse all standards of humanity and morality. Hobsbawm is an outstanding example of the type. The overriding question is: how was someone with his capacity able to deceive himself so completely about reality and take his stand alongside the commissar signing death warrants?

Not long ago, on a popular television show, Hobsbawm explained that the fact of Soviet mass-murdering made no difference to his Communist commitment. In astonishment, his interviewer asked, “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Without hesitation Hobsbawm replied, “Yes.” His autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, (1) conveys the same point, only rather more deviously. On the very last page, it is true, he is “prepared to concede, with regret, that Lenin’s Comintern was not such a good idea” though for no very obvious reason (except as a cheap shot) he concludes the sentence by cramming in the comment that Herzl’s Zionism was also not a good idea. Note that slippery use of “Comintern” as a substitute for Communism itself. The concession, such as it is, is anyhow vitiated by an earlier passage when he attacks America and its allies, bizarrely spelled out as India, Israel, and Italy, and referred to as rich and the heirs of fascism. In this passage he predicts, “The world may regret that, faced with Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of socialism and barbarism, it decided against socialism” (Which leaves Americans as barbarians.) By my count, these are the only two expressions of regret in this long book. In contrast, the October revolution remains “the central point of reference in the political universe” and “the dream of the October revolution” is still vivid inside him. He cannot bring himself to refer to Leningrad as St. Petersburg. Learning nothing, he has forgotten nothing.

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This Passes for “Moderation” in Iran

Those who believed that an era of political and social liberalization was about to dawn in Iran will not like reading this article:

Eight social media activists in Iran have been sentenced to a total of 127 years in prison, after they criticised the country’s government on Facebook.

The eight people – whose identities have not been revealed – were administrators of unnamed Facebook pages.

An Iranian court found them guilty of using the pages to spread anti-government propaganda, attemp to undermine national security, and insult Iran’s leaders. It is unclear whether they were acting together.

It is understood that those convicted will appeal the ruling, having each been handed sentences between 11 and 21 years, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported according to Sky News. The terms were passed in April after the eight appeared in court several times.

The rest of us will be appalled, but entirely unsurprised.

Your Unsurprising News of the Day

“Happiness in Short Supply in Iran.” Tell us about it:

The media storm that erupted after police arrested six young Iranians for dancing to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy” in an online video prompted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to tweet, “Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.” Iran’s leadership is right to be concerned about the country’s happiness. Gallup’s most recent rankings of positive emotions find Iran at 93 on a list of 138 countries. Iranians also reported the highest negative emotions in the world, second only to Iraq.

[. . .]

Iranians have every right to feel negative, given the high unemployment coupled with high inflation in their country that has crippled their ability to provide for their families, along with international sanctions over their nuclear program that have hurt their livelihoods. Additionally, 48% of Iranians in 2013 said they would not recommend their city or area where they live to a friend or associate as a place to live.

(This story was covered here.) So, I guess the big takeaway here is that it just happens to be very difficult to feel happy in a country run by a repressive, totalitarian, dictatorial government which lacks any sense of priorities or perspective, and which repeatedly acts against the best interests of Iran and the Iranian people.

Who woulda thunk it?

“Moderate” Governments Don’t Jail People Over Facebook Postings

Just thought I’d throw that opinion out there:

An Iranian court has sentenced eight people to jail terms ranging from seven to 20 years for crimes including anti-regime propaganda posted on Facebook, an opposition website has said.

Kaleme, which did not cite a source for its report, said the sentences were delivered last week giving the eight Facebook users a combined 123 years in jail.

They were charged with “insulting the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and the authorities, anti-regime activities, sacrilege and spreading lies,” Kaleme said.

There was no official confirmation of the court ruling and AFP could not independently verify the report.

Incidentally, are we still under the impression that the current Iranian president–weak though he is in comparison to the supreme leader–is a moderate?

Behold the “Moderate” Iranian Government

In all of its glory:

An Iranian court convicted on Sunday the editor and a contributor of a banned newspaper over a series of charges, including lying about Islam and spreading anti-regime propaganda, reports said.

The media watchdog banned the reformist Bahar daily in October 2013 after it published an article the authorities deemed as an insult to Shiite Islam for questioning one of its core beliefs. Its editor-in-chief, Saeed Pourazizi, who was detained and released on bail following the closure, was on Sunday convicted of “propaganda against the establishment and spreading lies and rumours,” ISNA news agency reported. The Tehran criminal court found Ali Asghar Gharavi, the article’s author, guilty of writing “against the standards of Islam” and “spreading lies and rumours,” the agency added.

On Priorities and the Regime in Iran

They don’t seem to get along:

A red carpet peck on the cheek by Leila Hatami, the Iranian actress at the Cannes Film Festival has been reported to the country’s courts by activists who are seeking a public flogging as punishment for violating Islamic laws.

Hizbullah Students, a group of university students with links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard yesterday filed a complaint with Iran’s judiciary for the prosecution of the film star who starred in the Oscar-winning, A Separation.

Miss Hatami was condemned by Islamic Republic officials for kissing Gilles Jacob, the President of Cannes Festival, while attending the event as a member of the jury.

Mr Jacob tried to play down the incident, describing it as “a usual custom in the West” after it was condemned as an insult to Iranian womanhood.

“I kissed Mrs Hatami on the cheek,” Mr Jacob said. “At that moment, for me she represented all Iranian cinema, then she became herself again.”

According to the Guards-run Tasnim news website, the Hizbullah Students organisation called for Hatami to be flogged for “kissing a strange man”. The maximum sentence the offence can incur is 50 lashes.

[. . .]

Hossein Nushabadi, Iran’s deputy minister of culture, declared Hatami’s appearance in Cannes “in violation of religious beliefs”.

“Iranian woman is the symbol of chastity and innocence,” he said.

Apparently, we are supposed to believe that life in Iran is so incredibly problem-free that the authorities can afford to get outraged over patently non-outrageous things.

Quote of the Day

Just days after Iran’s president denounced Internet censorship as “cowardly,” six young Iranians were arrested and forced to repent on state television Tuesday for the grievous offense of proclaiming themselves to be “Happy in Tehran,” in a homemade music video they posted on YouTube last month.

By uploading their video, recorded on an iPhone and promoted on Facebook and Instagram, the group was taking part in a global online phenomenon, which has resulted, so far, in hundreds of cover versions of the Pharrell Williams song “Happy” recorded in more than 140 countries.

“Happy in Tehran” was viewed more than 165,000 times on YouTube before it attracted the attention of the police and was made private.

Robert Mackey. We are now entirely justified in paraphrasing Mencken; theocratic government in Iran is defined by the haunting fear that Iranians, somewhere, may be happy.

A Proper May Day Remembrance

When you read this, remember that excuses like “oh, but communism/Marxism wasn’t properly applied/implemented in this case” just don’t cut it. No matter how one tries to apply/implement communism/Marxism, things like the following just keep happening somehow:

After graduating from college, Müller was for years harassed by the Romanian secret police, the infamous Securitate. When she refused to become an informant, they orchestrated a campaign against her. She was subject to arbitrary interrogations, death threats, surveillance, and false rumors meant to discredit her, including the rumor that she was an informant. At its core this campaign was not about bruises, broken limbs, and shattered windows, but about things unseen. The regime’s violence was primarily mental, not physical. The battlefield here is not your body, but your mind and the language you speak; against such a regime you defend yourself not in the street, but in your head. It is Müller’s great achievement in this book, as elsewhere, to depict the individual’s confrontation with the totalitarian system as a fight over words, discourses (official or dissident), life stories (big or small), historical accounts, grand narratives, history textbooks, and archives. For totalitarianism, above all, is a linguistic project.

Even the most brutal episodes of Müller’s confrontation with the secret police are language-centered. She was investigated, to start with, because she was suspected of having made “pronouncements against the state.” In line with such an accusation, the interrogator would not use torture instruments against her, but words. “During the turbulent phases of the interrogations he called me a piece of shit, a piece of filth, a parasite, a bitch. When he was calmer, a whore or an enemy.” At the next stage there come the death threats. Yet that’s still bearable. “They are part of the only way of life one has, because one can have no other.” Facing death threats can make you stronger: “You defy fear, deep in your soul,” Müller says. Indeed, a death threat is a form of recognition: you are treated as an enemy, acknowledged as something the regime needs to take into account. Worse are the slanders that the regime fabricates and circulates to annihilate you socially. As Müller finds out, “slander robs you of your soul. You are completely surrounded.” This tactic does not offer you any trace of recognition—you are treated as negligible, as trash.

Such slander campaigns could make the secret police in totalitarian regimes look like literary workshops. For what they do is create characters; they make people up and release them into the world. When, years after the collapse of communism, Müller gained access to her secret police file, she discovered that in the archives she was not one, but two distinct people. “One is called Cristina, an enemy of the state, who must be taken on.” Except for the name, this character looked familiar to Müller, a version of herself as reconstructed by the regime’s spies and scribes. The second character was pure fiction. To compromise the real one, the secret police created a fake Müller, Cristina’s “double.” This literary product had all “the ingredients that would be most damaging to me—hardened Communist, ruthless agent, party member.” Working for the Party—or for its “Shield and Sword,” as the secret police was endearingly called—was often seen as a dirty job, something that could rob you of social respectability. Apparently the inner Party knew this better than anyone else.

Ilya Somin thinks that May Day should be designated as “Victims of Communism Day.” No decent person can disagree with that suggestion.

Torture in Iranian Prisons

Needless to say, this is both entirely obscene, and entirely unsurprising, given the nature of the current regime in Tehran:

Political prisoners in Tehran’s Evin prison have allegedly been subjected to humiliating physical abuse, including being forced to run a gauntlet of guards armed with batons, it has emerged.

Iran‘s president, Hassan Rouhani, has been silent despite chilling details being revealed by prisoners and their families about how Thursday’s disturbances marked a dark episode in one of the country’s most notorious prisons.

Dozens of inmates held in Evin’s ward 350, including journalists, lawyers and opposition members, were injured, with some suffering skull fractures, broken ribs, wounds and swelling on their bodies after guards and intelligence officials created a tunnel and made prisoners run through it as they beat them with batons, according to opposition sources.

Emad Bahavar, who is serving a 10-year sentence because of his political activities, recounted some of the horrific moments in a letter sent out of jail and published on an opposition website, Kaleme, on Tuesday.

In separate interviews, a group of relatives who met a number of prisoners beaten up in Evin’s violence last week echoed Bahavar, saying some could hardly speak and others had bruises on their bodies. The incident has been described by activists as Iran’s “black Thursday”.

“‘Beat them up,’ they shouted. Forty guards armed with batons then rushed down the stairs … they sent more guards as it went on,” Bahavar wrote in his letter. “They made us stand in a row facing the wall in ward 350’s corridors while being handcuffed and blindfolded. They started to beat us up from behind. You could hear a whining noise. Outside the ward’s gate, the guards stood liked a tunnel and forced us to go through it before taking us on to a minibus. You could see blood on the way and inside the minibus.”

Recall that the election of a supposedly “moderate” president was supposed to alleviate at least some of the totalitarian burdens that Iranians are forced by their government to bear. This has not happened because (a) the president is not all that powerful in the Iranian system of government, and (b) because the Iranian president may not be the moderate people think he is.

Iran Is Not a Theocracy. It Is a Theocratic Mafiocracy.

To wit:

The 82-year-old Iranian woman keeps the documents that upended her life in an old suitcase near her bed. She removes them carefully and peers at the tiny Persian script.

There’s the court order authorizing the takeover of her children’s three Tehran apartments in a multi-story building the family had owned for years. There’s the letter announcing the sale of one of the units. And there’s the notice demanding she pay rent on her own apartment on the top floor.

Pari Vahdat-e-Hagh ultimately lost her property. It was taken by an organization that is controlled by the most powerful man in Iran: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. She now lives alone in a cramped, three-room apartment in Europe, thousands of miles from Tehran.

The Persian name of the organization that hounded her for years is “Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam” – Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam. The name refers to an edict signed by the Islamic Republic’s first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, shortly before his death in 1989. His order spawned a new entity to manage and sell properties abandoned in the chaotic years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Setad has become one of the most powerful organizations in Iran, though many Iranians, and the wider world, know very little about it. In the past six years, it has morphed into a business juggernaut that now holds stakes in nearly every sector of Iranian industry, including finance, oil, telecommunications, the production of birth-control pills and even ostrich farming.

The organization’s total worth is difficult to pinpoint because of the secrecy of its accounts. But Setad’s holdings of real estate, corporate stakes and other assets total about $95 billion, Reuters has calculated. That estimate is based on an analysis of statements by Setad officials, data from the Tehran Stock Exchange and company websites, and information from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Just one person controls that economic empire – Khamenei. As Iran’s top cleric, he has the final say on all governmental matters. His purview includes his nation’s controversial nuclear program, which was the subject of intense negotiations between Iranian and international diplomats in Geneva that ended Sunday without an agreement. It is Khamenei who will set Iran’s course in the nuclear talks and other recent efforts by the new president, Hassan Rouhani, to improve relations with Washington.

The supreme leader’s acolytes praise his spartan lifestyle, and point to his modest wardrobe and a threadbare carpet in his Tehran home. Reuters found no evidence that Khamenei is tapping Setad to enrich himself.

But Setad has empowered him. Through Setad, Khamenei has at his disposal financial resources whose value rivals the holdings of the shah, the Western-backed monarch who was overthrown in 1979.

Don Corleone would have been proud.

Quote of the Day

In 1970, when China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Hongbing, a 16-year-old in Guzhen, a county in Anhui Province, made a fateful decision. During a family debate that year, his mother, Fang Zhongmou, had criticized Mao Zedong for his cult of personality. Her son and his father, believing her views to be counterrevolutionary, decided to inform on her. She was arrested that same day.

Mr. Zhang still recalls how his mother’s shoulder joints gave a grating creak as her captors pulled the cord tight. Two months later, she was shot to death.

In 1980, four years after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the verdict on Fang Zhongmou was reversed. A local court declared her innocent.

In the months and years that followed, Zhang Hongbing and his father scrupulously avoided all reference to this episode. Only in retirement did his father raise the subject: As an adult at the time, he took responsibility for what they had done.

In 2013, the Chinese media reported the lifelong regrets of Mr. Zhang, then 59 years old. For years he would often break down in tears, howling and wailing. “I see her in my dreams,” he said, “just as young as she was then. I kneel on the floor, clutching her hands, for fear she will disappear. ‘Mom,’ I cry, ‘I beg your forgiveness!’ But she doesn’t respond. Never once has she answered me. This is my punishment.”

Why, in those dreams, does Ms. Fang never say a word to her son? It’s not, I think, that she wants to punish him, for she knows that the true blame lies with others — with those who were in power at the time. She — like the souls of all who perished during the Cultural Revolution — is awaiting their apology. She has been waiting for 44 years.

Yu Hua.

In Venezuela, the Catastrophe Continues


Alvaro Villarueda starts his morning the same way every day — putting in a call to his friend who has a friend who works at a Caracas, Venezuela, supermarket.

Today, he’s looking for sugar, and he’s asking his friend if he knows if any shipments have arrived. As he talks on the phone, his wife Lisbeth Nello, is in the kitchen.

There are 10 mouths to feed every day in this family — five of them children. The two youngest are still in diapers.

“The things that are the scarcest are actually what we need the most,” Nello says. “Flour, cooking oil, butter, milk, diapers. I spent last week hunting for diapers everywhere. The situation is really tough for basic goods.”

There are times when further comment would be superfluous. This is one of those times.

What Iranian “Reformers” Hath Wrought

Presumably, this is what we are supposed to expect from a government that allegedly is more enlightened than it used to be:

At least 80 people and perhaps as many as 95 have been executed in Iran already this year, a surge in the use of the death penalty that has dampened hopes for human rights reforms under President Hassan Rouhani, the United Nations said on Friday.

[. . .]

In September, dozens of political prisoners were released, raising hopes that he would also improve human rights in a country that ranks second after China on Amnesty International’s list of states with the highest use of capital punishment.

“There were some encouraging signs last year where political prisoners were released … But it appears at least in the past seven weeks that in fact executions have been scaled up,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told a news briefing.

“We regret that the new government has not changed its approach to the death penalty and continues to impose capital punishment for a wide range of offences. We urge the government to immediately halt executions and to institute a moratorium.”

Last year Iran executed between 500 and 625 people, including at least 28 women and two juveniles, Shamdasani said.

“A number of individuals were also executed in secret and at least seven people have been executed in public this year,” she said, adding that most were killed by hanging.

Possession or transport of drugs, “even in relatively small amounts” of less than 500 grams, frequently leads to execution, said Roya Boroumand, director of the U.S.-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation that tracks executions in Iran.

“More than 100 crimes carry the death penalty,” Boroumand told Reuters. “If the international community takes lightly the execution of drug dealers, it is leaving a free hand to the police and judiciary to do what they want,” she said.

We won’t even get into the nightmares with which political prisoners need to put up.

Quote of the Day

It’s a thought experiment I often present to the Western Chavista, one that usually ends up demonstrating that sympathizers of the regime, both in this country and in Europe, have something of a colonialist attitude towards Venezuela. Because one wonders the reaction of these faux progressives if Prime Minister David Cameron, President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel–pick your the imperialist lackey!–arrested an opposition leader who had organized peaceful street protests? Or if the CIA shut off the internet in politically restive cities like Berkeley and Brooklyn; blocked Twitter traffic it found politically suspect; and took over PBS, forcing it to broadcast only pro-administration agitprop, never allowing the opposition party to traduce the government across public airwaves? Or if the president forced the removal of BBC America from all cable providers for being too anti-American?

Perhaps reactions would be muted if motorcycle gangs loyal to President George W. Bush circled anti-Iraq War protests physically attacking–and occasionally murdering–demonstrators. How about if a judge ruled against President Obama’s domestic spying apparatus and, in return, the White House ordered that judge thrown in prison? How long would an American president be allowed to run up massive inflation, despite massive oil revenues coming into government coffers? How long would it be considered reasonable–and not the president’s responsibility–to preside over 23,000 murders in a country of just under 30 million people, a rate that would horrify the average resident of Baghdad? How long could supermarket shelves remain bare of basic staples like bread and milk before The Nation or The Guardian would gleefully decide that America was a failed, kleptocratic state? Or if Bush or Obama’s economic policies meant that toilet paper could no longer be found on the open market?

So I ask a rather straight-forward question to those who pretend to care about the Venezuelan people (much like those who miraculously lost interest in the Vietnamese people after 1975 or the Nicaraguan people after 1990), those who care so deeply for the poor and destitute in Latin America: Why the double standard?

Michael Moynihan, who calls supporters of the Maduro regime in Venezuela “useful idiots.” The epithet sticks because it fits.

Venezuelans Rise Up

I am sure that apologists for Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro will continue to try to ignore the protests against authoritarianism, political repression, and garden variety tyranny in Venezuela, but everyone else is paying very close attention:

Protests against President Nicolás Maduro’s government escalated Thursday, with thousands of demonstrators burning tires and cars and security forces fighting back to gain control of the streets in the capital and in other cities.

At least five people, four protesting the government, have died since protests by university students over high crime and a crumbling economy turned violent last week. Dozens of others have been injured or jailed, including opposition leader Leopoldo López, a former mayor whom the government has accused of instigating the violence.

Leonardo Velasco, 25 years old, said dozens of national guardsmen and other armed supporters of the government swept down on demonstrators in a protest in which he participated on Thursday. “I heard a bunch of shots and hit the ground.” Mr. Velasco said he and other demonstrators fought back with Molotov cocktails, as tear gas spread and people ran in different directions. “I was half blind, stumbling and running,” he said.

One protester in Caracas was shot by what appeared to be members of the National Guard, according to a video posted on several Venezuelan media sites. The incident couldn’t be independently verified. The protester remained in critical condition on Friday, according to El Nacional newspaper.

Other videos online showed dozens of armed men on motorcycles entering areas held by protesters during the night, amid sounds of gunfire and fireworks.

“The government came out to kill people, to try to shut up people with lead,” Henrique Capriles, a leading opposition figure, said in a news conference on Thursday. Calls seeking comment over the past week to government officials haven’t been returned.

No one can claim that the thuggish nature of the Venezuelan dictatorship has not been revealed for all to see. Predictably, the government is trying to crack down by censoring Internet services and the international media (fortunately, this latter effort appears to have failed for the moment, at least as far as CNN is concerned). I guess this is the kind of thing that happens when an entire government fails to peacefully and cogently rebut its critics. This story nicely points out why Venezuelans are fed up with the current regime:

Saturday’s competing mass rallies in the capital laid bare a chasm between those who support Maduro and those who oppose him, in an oil-rich country that despite having the world’s largest proven reserves is grappling with basic goods shortages, rampant inflation and violent crime.

[. . .]

“I can’t stand the situation. It’s not fair that we’re in one of the richest countries in the world and still can’t get food,” 24-year-old student Joel Moreno told AFP.


Question of the Day in Venezuela: “Where Are We Going, and What’s With the Handbasket?”

I imagine that most port-side pundits, politicians and bloggers in the United States who in the past showed sympathy for Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro are busy trying to be very, very, very quiet about this:

Fugitive Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez calmly turned himself in to authorities Tuesday as thousands of pro- and anti-government supporters rallied in the capital Caracas.

President Nicolas Maduro — whose government is under fire over what protesters say is rampant crime and deteriorating living conditions — had banned the opposition march called by Lopez at the Plaza Brion.

Lopez’s surrender marked a dramatic inflection point after two tension-filled weeks of protests in the oil-rich country, led by students also angry over the jailing of demonstrators.

The Harvard-educated economist told thousands of his supporters, all clad in white, that he hoped his arrest would highlight the “unjust justice” in Venezuela, to an explosion of cheers from the crowds.

Maduro, speaking to pro-government oil workers dressed in red in the western part of the city, countered that Lopez would have to “answer for his calls to sedition.”

The Venezuelan leader last week ordered Lopez’s arrest on charges of homicide and inciting violence after violent street clashes in Caracas left three dead.

So, protesting in Venezuela is verboten. Never mind the massive amounts of government incompetence that Venezuelans have to deal with. Never mind the corruption. “Good” citizens are the ones who ignore the problems that the country has, or deny that the country currently has any problems that the government might bear some responsibility for and blame the opposition/the United States/space aliens for the existence of problems that may exist. And if they don’t do these things, they get charged with sedition, and murder, and get arrested.

And of course, Chávez/Maduro supporters in the punditocracy have absolutely nothing whatsoever to say about any of this. They are probably too busy trying to come up with new ways to argue that George W. Bush was the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, or something.

Not ignoring the disaster in Venezuela is Peter Wilson:

Old campaign posters for Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez still flutter above the state-owned Mercal grocery store that Roberto Briceno runs in a working-class neighborhood in this industrial city of 150,000.

Briceno says he should post another sign: “Closed.”

He hasn’t opened the store, which sells cooking oil, powdered milk, chicken, and other basic foodstuffs at deeply subsidized prices, for more than 10 days.

“I have nothing to sell,” he said in February. “I have been calling the Mercal warehouse everyday and they say they have nothing. I don’t know what they expect us to eat.”

Briceno isn’t alone. Many storeowners throughout Venezuela are facing the same predicament, thanks to uncertainties about the country’s new foreign-exchange policies.

In January 2014, Venezuela revamped its currency system — one historically riddled with corruption and an overvalued bolivar that only stoked a raging black market. The official exchange rate is now 6.3 bolivars to the dollar for food, medicines, and goods that the government deems priorities. But the government has transferred other foreign-exchange transactions, like travel and remittances, to the Sicad exchange rate — Venezuela’s other rate in its currency-control system — to 11.7 bolivars to the dollar. The black market rate is now 84 bolivars to the dollar.

The government has dramatically reduced access to dollars to protect its dwindling international reserves. Consequently, some retailers, like Briceno, don’t have any inventories at all, while others are finding it difficult to import goods. Meanwhile, exasperated consumers grouse about the lack of products, while spending hours each day, trudging from store to store. And to make matters worse for storeowners, President Nicolas Maduro has made retailers lower prices or face expropriation — a move he put in place in November 2013.

Maduro asserts that the country’s new exchange system will go a long way to alleviate shortages of food, toilet paper, medicines, and other daily necessities. Critics, however, argue that by transferring many transactions to the Sicad rate in Venezuela’s dual-rate system, this is nothing but disguised devaluation and it will only spur inflation.


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