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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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Americas

Trump’s New Wall? Mexico’s Southern Border

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza

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For much of modern history, Mexico defined itself in opposition to the United States. In recent years, the two countries stepped up cooperation on almost all relevant issues, and the two nations are now deeply intertwined politically, economically and culturally. This is bound to change. After months of ignoring Donald Trump’s provocations, López Obrador reacted rapidly to Trump’s shakedown and agreed to a number of resolutions of extraordinary scope and urgency: the new Mexican administration agreed to deploy the country’s federal police to its southern border to crack down on immigration; and opened the door to the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy that would turn Mexico into a Third Safe Country in less than a month from now.

As stated in the agreement, Mexico would take in all the refugees that the US decides to send back to Mexico to await resolution of their asylum process. This could take years, given the substantial immigration backlog in American courts. The agreement goes further: Mexico is responsible for the provision of education, health care and employment for such refugees. This could easily lead to a serious humanitarian crisis that Mexican institutions will be unable to deal with.

This approach contradicts previous Mexican presidential vows for regional development and humanitarian relief rather than confrontation and enforcement. Conditions on the ground in Mexico are far harsher than the Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister, Marcelo Ebrard and the President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, would like to admit, and this is partly due to the current administration’s miscalculations: López Obrador has dramatically cut the budget for governmental agencies responsible for managing refugees and processing removals. Mexican border towns are also ill-equipped for handling transient migrant populations; and Mexico also faces other more systematic challenges, such as corruption and lack of rule of law enforcement. The new policy agreed with the American government is likely to result in a significant increase in claims filed for asylum in Mexico. Mexico’s immigration bureaucracies are utterly overwhelmed, and López Obrador’s misguided budget cuts have exacerbated their failings.

Mexico’s immigration policy is now bound by an immoral and unacceptable deal that will effectively turn Mexico into Trump’s border wall. The global system for the protection of refugees is based on the notion of shared responsibility among countries. It is very dangerous for the US to use Mexico as a pawn to set an example and ignore its international responsibility. This agreement also violates international law on refugees: Mexico is a life-threatening country for undocumented migrants. Human trafficking, recruitment for organised criminal organisations, abduction, extortion, sexual violence, and disappearances are some of the issues migrants face in Mexico. Finally, Mexico’s National Guard, the agency that will be in charge of monitoring the southern border, was created by López Obrador to tackle domestic crime. Its members have no training nor knowledge on immigration matters. It is an untested new military force that could end up creating more problems than the ones it is trying to solve.  Deploying agents to the border could also have a high political cost for the president.

The agreement with Trump gives López Obrador 45 days to show progress. If Mexico fails, Mexico will be forced to set in motion some version of Safe Third Country agreement, or face further tariff bullying from the US. This deal has been sold by the new Mexican administration as a victory over the US. More migrants, less money, extreme violence and a recalcitrant, unpredictable northern neighbour are the ingredients for a potential, impending refugee crisis, not a diplomatic victory.

Could Mexico have taken a different approach? Yes. Trump’s decision to impose tariffs would exacerbate the underlying causes of immigration in the region and do nothing to address it. His bullying to force Mexico to crack down on immigration was a cheap electoral ploy to mobilise its base with a view to winning the 2020 elections. This is nothing new. Trump is not seeking a solution; he is seeking a political gain. He built his first presidential campaign on an anti-Mexico and an anti-immigrant rhetoric. It worked in 2016, and he is planning to repeat the same formula.

The Mexican administration lack of knowledge on diplomatic matters, and their inability to play politics let a golden opportunity go. Using trade to bludgeon Mexico into compliance with an immigration crack down makes no sense: Mexico is not responsible for the increase in migratory flows. Central America’s poverty and violence trace back to American policies in the 1980s. Mexico is not responsible either for America’s famously dysfunctional immigration system. Trump’s economic threats against Mexico may not even have been legal: both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the newly agreed US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) require most trade between members to be tariff free.

Mexico could also have hit back with by levying tariffs that would have hurt swing-state voters, and in turn hurt Trump. This was the golden opportunity Mexico let slip from its hands. Mexico could have responded by hitting Trump where it hurts: Tariffs on American goods heading south. Mexico responded in a similar manner in June last year in response to the steel and aluminium tariffs. Mexico could have raised those tariffs each month in tandem with American levels.

This retaliation would have highlighted the gap between Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric and the underlying interdependence of the US and Mexico with stark consequences for the US presidential elections of 2020. Many of the biggest exporters to Mexico such as Arizona. Florida. California, Michigan and Illinois are swing states. New tariffs could have thrown Texas into recession and put its 38 electoral votes into play. It is all too late now, Mexico could have inadvertently helped Trump to get re-elected. Mexico has less than a month left to show some backbone and demand real American cooperation on the region’s shared challenges and rejecting Trump’s threats once and for all. The relationship between Mexico and the US could have been an example of cooperation under difficult conditions, but that would have required different American and Mexican presidents.

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Scandinavia Veers Left plus D-Day Reflections as Trump Storms Europe

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Mette Frederiksen of the five-party Social Democrat bloc won 91 of the 169 seats in the Danish parliament ending the rule of the right-wing Liberal Party group that had governed for 14 of the last 18 years.  The election issues centered on climate change, immigration and Denmark’s generous social welfare policies.  All parties favored tighter immigration rules thereby taking away the central issue dominating the far-right Democrat Freedom Party which has seen its support halved since the last election in 2015.

Ms Frederiksen promised more spending to bolster the much loved social welfare model and increased taxes on businesses and the wealthy.  A left wave is sweeping Scandinavia as Denmark becomes the third country, after Sweden and Finland, to move left within a year.  Mette Frederiksen will also be, at 41, the youngest prime minister Denmark has ever had.

Donald Trump has used the 75th anniversary of D-Day commemorations to garner positive publicity.  The supreme promoter has managed to tie it in with a “classy” (his oft-chosen word) state visit to the UK spending a day with royals.  It was also a farewell to the prime minister as her resignation is effective from June 7.  Add a D-Day remembrance ceremony at Portsmouth and he was off to his golf course in Ireland for a couple of days of relaxation disguised as a visit to the country for talks — he has little in common with the prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who is half-Indian and gay.

Onward to France where leaders gathered for ceremonies at several places.  It is easy to forget the extent of that carnage:  over 20,000 French civilians were killed in Normandy alone mostly from aerial bombing and artillery fire.  The Normandy American cemetery holds over 9600 soldiers.  All in all, France lost in the neighborhood of 390,000 civilian dead during the whole war.  Estimates of total deaths across the world range from 70 to 85 million or about 3 percent of the then global population (estimated at 2.3 billion).

Much has been written about conflict resolutions generally from a cold rational perspective.  Emotions like greed, fear and a sense of injustice when unresolved lead only in one direction.  There was a time when individual disputes were given the ultimate resolution through single combat.  Now legal rights and courts are available — not always perfect, not always fair, but neither are humans.

It does not take a genius to extrapolate such legal measures to nations and international courts … which already exist.  Just one problem:  the mighty simply ignore them.  So we wait, and we honor the dead of wars that in retrospect appear idiotic and insane.  Worse is the attempt to justify such insanity through times like the “good war”, a monstrous absurdity.

It usually takes a while.  Then we get leaders who have never seen the horror of war — some have assiduously avoided it — and the cycle starts again.

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Americas

To Impeach Or Not To Impeach? That Is The Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Robert Mueller let loose a thunderbolt midweek.  Donald Trump had not been charged, he said, because it was Department of Justice policy not to charge a sitting president.  Dumping the issue firmly into Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lap, he reminded us of the purpose of the impeachment process.  According to Mueller there are ten instances where there are serious issues with the president obstructing justice adding that his report never concludes that Trump is innocent.

So here is a simple question:  If Mueller thought the president is not innocent but he did not charge him because of Justice Department policy, and he appears also to favor impeachment, then why in heaven’s name did he not simply state in his report that the preponderance of evidence indicated Trump was guilty?

Nancy Pelosi is wary of impeachment.  According to the rules, the House initiates it and when/if  it finds sufficient grounds, it forwards the case to the Senate for a formal trial.  The Senate at present is controlled by Republicans, who have been saying it’s time to move on, often adding that after two years of investigation and a 448-page report, what is the point of re-litigating the issue?  They have a point and again it leads to the question:  if Special Counsel Mueller thinks Trump is guilty as he now implies, why did he not actually say so?

Never one to miss any opportunity , Trump labels Mueller, highly conflicted, and blasts impeachment as ‘a dirty, filthy, disgusting word’,  He has also stopped Don McGahn, a special counsel at the White House from testifying before Congress invoking ‘executive privilege’ — a doctrine designed to keep private the president’s consultations with his advisors.  While not cited anywhere in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has held it to be ‘fundamental to the operation of government and inextricably rooted in the Separation of Powers under the Constitution.’  Separation of powers keeps apart the executive branch, the legislature and the judiciary, meaning each one cannot interfere with the other.

Nancy Pelosi is under increasing pressure from the young firebrands.  Rep Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has already expressed the view that it is time to open an impeachment inquiry against Trump given the obstruction of lawmakers’ oversight duty.

Speaker Pelosi is a long-time politician with political blood running through her veins — her father was Mayor of Baltimore and like herself also a US Representative.  To her the situation as is, is quite appealing.  Trump’s behavior fires up Democrats across the country and they respond by emptying their pockets to defeat the Republicans in 2020.  Democratic coffers benefit so why harm this golden goose — a bogeyman they have an excellent chance of defeating — also evident from the numbers lining up to contest the Democratic presidential primaries, currently at 24. 

Will Trump be impeached?  Time will tell but at present it sure doesn’t look likely.

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