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Neoliberalism in the Venezuela protests

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For about a month now, Venezuela has become embroiled in bitter protests against its huge murder rate, chronic food shortages, and a mounting inflation level of 56%.

The student movement initiated the protests challenging the Nicolas Maduro Government to correct their concerns. And Opposition Leader Henrique Capriles’ supporters later joined ranks with the student movement, together creating a strong  and largely middle-class force. While frequent murders, food shortages and high food prices are real to Venezuelans and there is no disagreement these concerns are part of the reality in Venezuela, there are several dimensions to review in interpreting reasons for the protests.

Irene Caselli of the BBC (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-26335287) reported that the protesters are largely from the middle class; that the Maduro government’s support remains strong among its supporters, as validated by its good showing in last December’s local elections; that Maduro believes that Washington is trying to stage a coup similar to what happened in 2002 against Chavez; and that Maduro expelled three American diplomats and appointed a new Ambassador to Washington.

In international relations, it is no secret that there is bad blood between the U.S. and Venezuela. It, therefore, is not surprising that, in recent times, the U.S. is fingered each time as the culprit behind any political instability in Venezuela; this may not be difficult to figure because since around 2000, the U.S.-Latin American relations have regained its hot spot status in the world, largely due to the prominence of former President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez, according to Corrales and Romero’s new book (2013).

The book spoke about former President Chavez’s anti-U.S. statements, such as: conspiring to produce coups, hatching presidential assassinations, planning invasions to take ownership of Venezuela’s oil assets, instigating genocide, etc. The book also addressed Washington’s thinking as a response to Chavez’s, such as: likelihood of new instability in Venezuela and other parts of Latin America, possibility for financial catastrophe should Venezuela impose an oil embargo on the U.S., potential of Venezuela being an uncompromising veto player at the Organization of American States (OAS), becoming Russia’s largest weapon importer, and procuring satellite technology from China.

Corrales and Romero’s book also noted that despite these incisive differences between the two nations, both sides maintain a mutually working, non-punitive relationship with each other. For instance, although Venezuela has a massive stockpile of weapons, it constitutes no military threat to the U.S.; and Venezuela is a dependable oil supplier to the Americas; and I would add that the extent of both countries’ anguish toward each other is reduced to expulsion of diplomats.

However, unlike Corrales and Romero, I would argue that while Venezuela is no match for the U.S., the U.S. can be an overwhelming force against Venezuela; but U.S. strategy and tactics against Venezuela do not have to be military-based. The U.S. in consort with other powerful Western nations still has its trump card of neoliberalism to play as needed in its global promotion of the gospel of imperialism. The core of neoliberalism, according to Brenner and Theodore (2002, p. 350) is that open, competitive, and unregulated markets, freed from governmental interference, constitute the best tool for economic development. The stakes in Venezuela are high for the U.S. right now, as the promotion of U.S. interests, using neoliberalism as its instrument, faces bottlenecks in Venezuela which could spread to other parts of Latin America.  For while Chavez is no longer on the scene, Nicloas Maduro and his government comply rigidly with the Chavez strategy to root out neoliberalism. In Mahmood and Muntaner’s study (2013, p. 64), Chavez significantly dismantled neoliberalism in Venezuela’s health reforms, and the same can be effected for other sectors of the economy.

There is the Chavez view which may now be the view throughout the region that the foreign debts of Latin American countries in the 1980s brought about deep asymmetries among them, and were caused by the multilateral agencies, as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc., through their neoliberalism and conditionalities, totally backed through the Washington Consensus.

There was a passion for the formation of UNASUR to create symmetries among countries in Latin America and as a regional body to marginalize the impact of the World Bank and IMF, and other international financial institutions. And Chavez established the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) as a regional initiative to eliminate the asymmetries among countries in the region. ALBA comprises Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In all of this, Chavez hoped that not only Venezuela but the region would achieve genuine political stability; but not the false political stability that has scarred Venezuela’s history and unable to contain neoliberalism. Let me offer some examples of false political stability from the literature.
Venezuela experienced a fair amount of political stability in the 1960s with the advent of the Punto fijo, a pact between major political parties in 1958. At that time, a small elite in Venezuela, an oil-based economy, took control over this key source of economic power with strong alliance to the political directorate. But Wilpert’s study (2007) showed that this political stability only brought exclusionary policies that gave rise to mounting inequities among the masses of the poor and vulnerable. This was false political stability and, indeed, there was more to come!
In 1989, Alvarado et al. (2005, pp. 95-109) noted that the Caracazo emerged as an uprising against the inequities, marking the beginnings of the fight against neoliberalism. False political stability punctuated the 1990s. For instance, Mahmood and Muntaner (2013, pp. 63-64) mentioned the policy behaviors of two former presidents: President Carlos Andrez Perez had an anti-neoliberal platform, yet when he took office in 1989, he implemented the World Bank and IMF’s recommendations called El Paquete; Rafael Caldera became President in 1993 and did the same thing as Perez; his neoliberal plan was the Agenda Venezuela.  And given the current protests, perhaps, there is an expectation for a return to neoliberalism.
There is a view (http://www.thefinancialist.com/a-dire-economy-causes-unrest-in-venezuela/) that the current protests in Venezuela have to do with its dire economy with price regulations, chronic underinvestment, and currency control; and that as a remedy, the government now seems ready to launch a new foreign exchange system which will improve foreign exchange flows to the private sector; also, the government has increased public sector wages and has enabled the lower-income people to shop at subsidized supermarkets. How dire is the economy when the government increased public sector compensation as well as making available affordable food items?
These reasons pertaining to a dire economy are manifest indicators for the protests. But there are also latent reasons which relate to undermining the anti-neoliberal Maduro government. Mahmood and Muntaner (2013, p. 60) noted that the social cleavages in Latin America strictly along class lines are fertile lands for installing neoliberal policies, with Venezuela feeling the impact of such cleavages as evidenced by the current middle class protests.

References:
Brenner, N. and Theodore, N., 2002. Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism”. Antipode, 34 (3), p. 350.
Corrales, J. and and Romero, C.A., 2013. U.S.-Venezuela Relations since the 1990s. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-26335287 (Accessed March 12, 2014).
http://www.thefinancialist.com/a-dire-economy-causes-unrest-in-venezuela/ (Accessed March 12, 2014).
Mahmood, Q. and Muntaner, C., 2013. Politics, class actors, and health sector reform in Brazil and Venezuela. Global Health Promotion, 20 (59).
Wilpert, G., 2007. Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government. New York, USA: Verso.

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Weather and White House Turmoil as Elections Loom

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc as it traversed the Florida panhandle.  The first Category 5 hurricane to hit the area since 1881 when records began, its 155 mph winds (only 5 mph short of Category 6) felled massive trees, blew away houses, collapsed buildings and left devastation in its wake.  Relatively fast moving at 14 mph, it was soon gone continuing as a Category 3 into neighboring Georgia and then further up its northeasterly path.  It seemed to signify a stamp of approval for the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on holding earth to a 1.5 degree Celsius warming issued a couple of days earlier.  We are at one degree now so storms can only be expected to get worse.

In northeastern Turkey, a 300-year old stone bridge disappeared overnight.  Villagers convinced it had been stolen called in the police.  Further investigation concluded it had been washed away by a flash flood caused by a sudden summer thunderstorm further upstream — clearly far more intense than in the previous three centuries.

Ever more powerful hurricanes, monsoons and forest fires point to a proliferation of extreme weather events that experts relate to global warming.  Yet President Donald Trump and his administration remain obdurate in climate change denial.

Thins are certainly warming up in the White House.  Nikki Haley announced her resignation in an amicable meeting with the president.  A staunch defender of many of Mr. Trump’s most egregious foreign policy changes, the UN Representative will be leaving at the end of the year to pursue opportunities in the private sector.  So said the announcement.  An astute and ambitious politician she has probably reassessed the costs versus benefits of remaining in a Trump administration.  Some tout her as a future presidential candidate.  Should she be successful she will be the first woman president, who also happens to be of Indian and Sikh ancestry.

The rap singer Kanye West visited the president in the Oval office.  A ten-minute rant/rap praising him was followed by a hug for which Mr. West ran round the wide desk that had been seemingly cleared of all paraphernalia for the performance.  He is one of the eight percent of blacks voting Republican.  Sporting the Trump trademark, Make-America-Great-Again red hat, he claimed it made him Superman, his favorite superhero.  And some suggested it was all further proof the place had gone insane.

A little over three weeks remain to the U.S. midterm elections on November 6th.  Their proximity is evidenced not by rallies or debates rather by the barrage of negative TV ads blasting opponents with accusations of shenanigans almost unworthy of a felon.  A couple of months of this and you lose any enthusiasm for voting.  Perhaps it is one reason why nearly half the electorate stays home.  Given such a backdrop, the furor over ‘Russian meddling’ in elections appears to be a trifle misplaced.  Others call the whole business a ‘witch hunt’ and state flatly the U.S. does the same.

The old idiom, ‘put your own house in order’ is particularly apt when we realize the beginning of this affair  was a Democratic National Committee email leak showing ‘the party’s leadership had worked to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign’.  It resulted in the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Always fair, aboveboard elections?  Not bloody likely, as the British would say.  Given the rewards, it’s against human nature.

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The hot November for Trump is arriving

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Political turmoil in the United States has become extremely unpredictable. The turn of events became worse with an op-ed at the New York Times on September 5. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon described it as a coup against Donald Trump.

The reality is that the president faces domestic problems in his second year in office. This has rarely happened in the US political history. The issue is of great importance with regard to the approaching mid-term congressional elections in November. Republicans have the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but they feel the risk of losing the majority in both houses due to Trump’s record.

Indeed, a feeling has emerged among some American politicians that their country is heading in the wrong direction because of Trump’s policies. Even former President Barack Obama has joined the election campaigns by breaking his promise not to get involved in political affairs.

The situation is not also good for Trump internationally. Disagreement with the European Union – a traditional ally of the United States – over trade and political issues, trade war with China, increasing tension with Russia, exit from international treaties such as the Paris climate agreement and the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement Iran, have all made Trump to look dangerous in the eyes of the world. All these issues have made the situation unfavorable for Trump and his government at home and abroad.

But what is the answer of the president of the United States to these criticisms? The answer to this question is one word: economy. However, Trump is proud of his economic record.

According to statistics, the Labor Department published on September 8, US employment growth in August has beat market expectations, the non-farm payrolls increased by 201,000 from the previous month. Analysts were expecting growth of about 195,000.

The unemployment rate for August remained low at 3.9 percent. The average hourly wage rose 2.9 percent from the year before. That’s the highest level since June 2009. The latest figures are increasing speculation that the Federal Reserve will raise its key interest rate this month. The US economy expanded 4.2 percent in the April-to-June quarter, and is expected to grow more than 3 percent in this quarter.

But the economy cannot keep the president of the United States from the edge of criticism. Trump is in a difficult situation and worried about the result of the election and possible control of Congress by Democrats.

Issues such as the confessions of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen on bribing women for having affairs with Trump and Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 presidential election could possibly lead to his impeachment and his dismissal from power.

The US constitution says that the impeachment of the president should be endorsed by representatives from both chambers of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats now have 49 seats in the 100-member Senate, and if they get 51 seats in the November election, they will still need at least 15 Republican senators to impeach Trump.

Still, if Democrats win the November election, even if this victory does not lead to Trump’s impeachment, it can put further pressure on him and cripple his government. According to a CNN poll, decrease in Trump’s popularity even among his supporters shows that the days following the November election will be hard times for Trump and his government.

First published in our partner MNA

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From Obama to Al Gore: Democrats taking stance against Trump

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Overcoming the current president of the United States has turned into the main goal of the Democrats in the United States. American Democrats who have been isolated in the last two years, and lost the White House, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and many governorates, are now planning to win the Congress elections.

On the other hand, the public dissatisfaction raised over the performance of the US President has given hope to the Democrats for winning the midterm elections.

The president of the United States, speaking among his proponents, has warned about the Democrats’ victory in the US midterm elections. Trump has explicitly stated that if Democrats win the elections, many of his decisions will be destroyed. The US Democrats believe that if they fail in midterm elections, they won’t be able to return to power at least until 2024. Therefore, the Democrats will do their best to succeed in the upcoming elections. As we get closer to the Congress elections in November, we will see an increase in the verbal and political attacks of Democrats against Trump and his companions at the White House. Some analysts believe that if the Republicans fail in the mid-term elections, we’ll see a broad gap formed between the traditional Republicans and the Trump government. This gap exists at the moment, but the leaders of the Republican Party and its affiliated media avoid from fully disclosing it. However, it seems that if the Republicans lose the US Congress, it will be difficult for the Republican leaders to continue this game! In this case, Trump will be the main accuser of this defeat. The Democrats know well that the Republican defeat in the midterm elections will intensify the disagreement between the party members, and thus will lead to the possible defeat of Trump in the next presidential elections.

In recent days, many of the American Democrats have intensified their verbal and political attacks on President Donald Trump. Former Secretary of State John Kerry implicitly stated that he would not rule out running for president in 2020. Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president in 2004 but ultimately lost the election to former US President George W. Bush. He had also emphasized on the critical situation of the United States following the presence of Trump at the White House. Also Al Gore, the former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate, publicly called for President Donald Trump to resign. Moreover, former US President Barack Obama challenged the existing policies in the United States during John McCain’s funeral, without naming Trump. Delivering his eulogy, Obama said: “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage.”

The fact is that one of the main goals of the American Democratic Party leaders in their recent political attacks on Trump is winning the US mid-term elections and the conquest of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Right now the republicans hold the majority of the Congress, and many members of the party, while opposing Trump’s policies, are not willing to confront him and stand up against the White House. But the Democrats, on the other hand, are trying to provide the ground for their victory in the 2020 presidential elections by explicitly criticizing, and even resisting to some of Trump’s decisions. Democrats such as John Kerry, believe that if the Republicans fail in the Congress midterm elections and lose their dominance on the House of Representatives and Senate, it will be difficult for Trump to win the 2020 presidential elections. However, if the democrats fail this time against Republicans, just like the way they did in 2016, and lose seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate, Trump will not have a difficult way to win the next presidential election. Many American think-tanks and analysts believe that the mid-term elections this year (2018) will turn into a rigorous opposition between Trump’s supporters and opponents.

It should be noted here that Democrat candidates for the presidential election in 2020 are not yet introduced. As John Kerry has announced, this is supposed to be after the Congress elections. Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and John Kerry are considered as possible candidates for the next US presidential elections. However, some Democrat leaders believe that they should introduce a new figure for this battle.

It is yet not clear that who will be the final nominee of the Democrats, but it seems that many of the party’s supporters do not have much confidence in their leaders anymore! In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Bernie Sanders became the sacrifice of the secret lobbies of the Democrats’ senior figures. Later on, it became clear that Democrat leaders had agreed on Hillary Clinton’s presence from the very beginning, and the impartial gesture in the Clinton-Sanders competition was nothing but a lie. This caused many of the American citizens to vote for Trump instead of Sanders. Anyway, this time the Democratic Party has a hard time to persuade the party’s supporters, and the Congress elections will, to a great extent, depict the political and social composition in the United States.

First published in our partner MNA

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