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Why Venezuela’s People Are Suffering

Eric Zuesse

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The case that will be documented here is that Venezuela’s people are suffering from a tragic national situation which actually cannot be reversed by anything that’s within the power of Venezuela’s Government to do or to block. In order to understand this very unfortunate reality (if one wants to understand it), one must first understand the relevant parts of the broader situation in the world that affects Venezuela. What’s dooming the country isn’t merely a local situation, but instead is global and environmental. It also is economic, pertaining to the role that Venezuela is playing in the global economy. But the economic factor is definitely not  of the kind that it’s commonly assumed and alleged to be. It is instead very different.

Here, this very different reality will be both described and documented (instead of just founded upon assumptions — many of which are false — such as the standard, basically local, economic ‘explanation’ of Venezuela’s troubles is, which focuses on Venezuela’s socialism, or the economy’s being not sufficiently capitalist).

What it all comes down to, stated in its briefest terms, is that no nation can do anything but lose money by selling the world’s dirtiest oil, tar-sands oil, which costs $100+ to clean and produce, into a global oil market that’s paying less than $100 (currently around $65) per barrel. Venezuela was able to sell it profitably when oil-prices were high, but is getting crushed now, because its oil is no longer profitable to produce and sell. But 95% of Venezuela’s export-earnings come from oil. Unless and until oil-prices are again above $100 (which probably won’t happen again, except perhaps for very brief periods), Venezuela is doomed. Venezuela’s only chance to diversify its economy away from “the natural resources curse” (from which it especially suffers) was long ago, decades before the current Government came into power. That chance was missed. This ship is now sinking, and no one can save it. (And the U.S. Government and its allies have no actual interest in saving it, but only in exploiting it, parasitically.)

So, here the real history and context for what is happening in and to Venezuela will be presented, and the reader will be able easily to verify any detail of it (by means of the links) — on one’s own, (not accepting anything on mere ‘authority’, which, in such a politically charged matter as this, is almost invariably propaganda). The reader can verify any allegation here simply by clicking onto the given link, at any point in the presentation that might seem to be questionable.

These links are directly to the items of evidence, in the specific case of: why Venezuela’s people are suffering.

Here is that case — the realistic case, without any propaganda, but with only  credible news reports and source-documents as constituting its basis — regarding this question.

THE CASE

The two lands that produce the world’s highest-cost-to-produce oil are Canada and Venezuela. Both extract their oil overwhelmingly from tar-sands, which is the dirtiest of all oil and thus (by far) the costliest to refine. (Thus, it’s called “extra-heavy crude”, and that is the least desirable type. It’s also the type that, in a global-warming world, should remain in the ground, never be burned at all, as will also be explained here.)

An accurate summary statement in Wikipedia is that, “With present technology, the extraction and refining of heavy oils and oil sands generates as much as three times the total CO2 emissions compared to conventional oil,[20] primarily driven by the extra energy consumption of the extraction process.” That reference at “[20]” also states: “As the price of oil rises and as conventional hydrocarbon resources become scarcer, increased exploration and production activity is occurring in heavy oil, tar sands, and bitumen deposits. While these contribute significantly to the global energy …, they also contribute a greater share to … the detriment of the global environment.” (That’s referring to “a greater share” of “detriment” than normal crude does.) As another source phrased this matter in more explicit terms: “85 gallons of water, two tons of soil, 700-1200 cubic feet of natural gas, and 170 pounds of greenhouse gases make one barrel of crude oil” from tar-sands. That oil is simply not usable as-is to go into refining, like, for example, the standard Brent crude is. Furthermore, to produce that barrel of tar-sands-derived oil requires also the production of tons of sheer waste, none of which is left behind from producing normal oil. The cost of dealing with that waste is not factored into the cost of the barrels of oil. For examples, the future “impact upon water supplies,” and that “this water is polluted by toxic substances,” are not counted in. Therefore, the full cost of such oil has never been calculated. And yet, even so, everyone recognizes that tar-sands-derived oils are the costliest to produce.

On 25 January 2013, HSBC Global Research issued a landmark report, “Oil & Carbon Revisited: Value at risk from ‘unburnable’ reserves”. It defined the key concept of  “Unburnable reserves: The IEA’s World Energy Outlook (2012 edition) estimated that in order to have a 50% chance of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2ºC, only a third of current fossil fuel reserves can be burned before 2050. The balance could be regarded as ‘unburnable’.”

The oil in Canada and in Venezuela is the world’s least  burnable, the most “heavy,” and therefore it’s not only the costliest to produce, but it’s also the worst environmentally. There is consequently increasing pressure upon large investment funds such as Harvard’s 39-billion-dollar endowment fund, to disinvest in fossil fuels. Because of interlocked boards of directors or trustees, and the needs that such ‘charities’ have to appeal to wealthy donors, these public pressures are often (as in Harvard’s case) ignored, but the movement toward divestment is gradually gaining strength in the less corrupt investment funds.

On 13 December 2018, the environmental organization 350.org headlined “Landmark fossil fuel divestment reached! 1000+ institutions are withdrawing investments from coal, oil and gas companies”, and announced:

The 1000th institution to divest was the Caisse des dépôts et consignations (CDC), which manages France’s public sector pensions, savings, and investments worth €173 billion (USD$196 billion). It recently announced that from 2019 it will no longer invest in companies that make more than 10% of their business from coal – this implies that the top 200 companies in the coal-industry are now effectively blacklisted. …

On the momentum for divestment since 2013 – Nicolas Haeringer, an organiser who supports divestment groups globally, at 350.org said:

“This is a moral movement as well as a financial one. Just five years ago we had 181 divestment commitments and USD$50 billion shifted away from polluting industries and today we’re over 1000 and approaching USD$8 trillion dollars.”

This has already helped to drive many coal companies out of business. Though coal-mine owners and employees might lose from that, the entire world gains vastly more from it. Such a transition is called “progress.” Transition in the opposite direction — toward more bad than good — is called “regress,” or, simply, “harm.” Some people call it “conservatism,” but whatever it is, certainly isn’t  progress. Not in any way. But that’s what the U.S. Government and the Canadian Government want: extreme conservatism — not conservation. And they view Venezuela’s tar-sands oil as being a prize that they could profit from if Venezuela’s Government could be ‘persuaded’ to reduce their environmental regulations on extracting it. However, in 2012, Venezuela strengthened, instead of weakened, its environmental laws. That strengthened the motivation for the U.S. and Canada to take over Venezuela. Hugo Chavez died in 2013, and Nicolás Maduro replaced him. Then, in 2016, Maduro instituted a new policy, to weaken environmental enforcement in Venezuela. Perhaps he was hoping that this would reduce the U.S.-and-allied efforts to overthrow him. Venezuela’s economy was already on the ropes. The U.S. continued its efforts to overthrow Maduro. Now desperate, he started selling off 12% of the land to international mining companies. Environmental enforcement at PDVSA also plunged, and on 24 November 2018, Bloomberg News bannered “Venezuela Is Leaking Oil Everywhere”. Apparently, the weaker Maduro gets, the worse he becomes. He had entered a doomed office as the president, and seems willing to do anything not to drown in it. Apparently, the weaker he gets, the more that U.S.-allied billionaires want to take over the country, entirely on their own terms. It’ll be like what had already happened in Greece, when the Syriza Party there capitulated to the international financial firms in 2015, and the Government stripped pensions, education, social services, etc., and privatized the infrastructure. But the path toward that end is quite different in Venezuela.

With the world’s increasing move toward renewables, the disinvestment in oil companies will increasingly be targeted toward selling the stock in the ones that have invested the most in oil fields in Canada and Venezuela. However, the situation is radically different for Venezuela than it is for Canada. Here is why:

The biggest market for Canadian oil is just next door, the United States. Most of the oil that’s imported into the U.S. comes from Canada. And, because most of the oil companies that are producing oil in Canada are U.S. owned or allied (such as in UK), the U.S. Government isn’t sanctioning Canada and trying to bring its Government down by reducing Canada’s oil-sales via sanctions, such as is the case with regard to Venezuela’s oil-sales. The U.S. Government doesn’t need to do that in order for America’s corporations to become enabled to sell the oil that comes from Canada: they’re already selling that oil, and Canada’s Government (as well as America’s Government) is already helping America’s companies to do this. America’s and Canada’s aristocracies are allied — not only with Venezuela’s aristocracy (which wants to replace Venezuela’s existing Government), but also with each others’ aristocracy.

Furthermore, unlike Venezuela, Canada isn’t nearly 100% dependent upon its oil-sales in order to support its economy, such as Venezuela tragically is. Venezuela receives around 95% of its export-income from its oil. That’s ridiculous and, for geostrategic and geoeconomic reasons, should never have been tolerated by Venezuela’s Government, but it nonetheless has been tolerated by them — and, for many decades, not only by Venezuela’s present Government. Indeed, Oil&Gas Journal headlined on 8 February 2010, “All about Orinoco” and reported that there had been “early efforts to produce heavy crude from the [Orinoco] belt” and these efforts “led PDVSA predecessors to output by the early 1980s of 93,000 b/d.” Furthermore, “Petroleos de Venezuela SA estimated 1.18 trillion bbl of oil in place in the Orinoco in 1987 and revised that in 2006 to a median of 1.3 trillion bbl, a maximum of 1.4 trillion bbl, and a minimum of 900 billion bbl.”

At that time, Richard Turcotte, of Peak Oil Matters, warned about this report, by headlining “A Look at Venezuela”, and pointing out that:

Unlike the light sweet crude oil produced by the U.S. and the light oil which has made Saudi Arabia such a force, the Orinoco oil is “heavy oil” found in oil sands — similar in characteristics to the tar sands bitumen found in Alberta, Canada. (See my prior post here.) The Venezuela oil is thus much harder to extract and refine, making it more costly. Significant investments of time and money are required to provide adequate refinery capabilities. Needless to say, extracting this heavy oil is a much more energy-and time-intensive effort than is the process for extracting the more familiar light crude. It is not anyone’s answer in the next few years.

Lead researcher and USGS geologist Chris Schenk admitted that their report is not asserting that the “technically recoverable” oil is in fact “economically recoverable.” That’s a significant distinction, and one that needs to be emphasized. All the presumed underground reserves in the world won’t mean much if it makes no sense to invest the time, effort, and money to try and extract them.

The USGS nonetheless estimates that a stunning 40 – 45% of that resource will be ultimately recoverable. One prominent geologist (and a former board member of Petroleos de Venezuela SA — Venezuela’s state oil company) is already on record as doubting anywhere near that amount can be recovered, and stated that much of what might actually be recoverable would in fact be too expensive to produce. 

Perhaps Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and his predecessors were thinking that if the U.S. Government says that this oil is an asset, then it is reasonable to consider it to be an asset; but if the U.S. Government was instead merely aiming to get Venezuelans to think that it’s an asset so as to keep that country accepting its existing oil-monoeconomy (its over-dependence upon oil), then ultimately as the disappointment hits when the Venezuelan people experience the poverty after having hoped and tried to develop that ‘asset’, the U.S. Government will become welcomed in, to take over Venezuela’s failing Government. Anyway, that would be a conceivable reason why the U.S. Government would be promoting the ‘economic potential’ of the Orinoco belt. The aristocracy’s agents (in this case the petroleum industry) tend to be very clear-eyed about what’s of benefit to their paymasters. For whatever reason, the actual fact — that this oil was no asset — has remained hidden from the Venezuelan public. It still isn’t publicly acknowledged by Venezuela’s Government. Nor is it publicly recognized by America’s.

So, this tragic error (of presuming that tar-sands oil should be developed) goes back even to well before the time of Hugo Chavez. Moreover, it’s worth pointing out that the actual source of the ‘error’ is the petroleum industry itself, which, like the tobacco companies before it, constantly propagandized for increased production and sales, regardless of what the science says. A good example of that propaganda is the Editorial in Oil&Gas Journal on 24 January 2019, headlining “Costs, energy needs discredit ‘keep it in the ground’ agenda”. It says: “Preemptive opposition to oil and gas projects by ‘keep it in the ground’ activists promises needless hardship in two broad areas.” This is a denial of the entire concept of “unburnable reserves.” They want, instead, to burn it all — and even to keep prospecting to find yet more  oil and gas (at this time of already greatly excessive inventories of cleaner reserves that should be burned before any of Canada’s or Venezuela’s filth is). They could lay off their entire teams of oil-explorers, who are wasting their time to find yet more dirty energy sources that won’t ever need to be used by anybody. Either these people are stupid and insane, or else they are psychopaths who care only about keeping their existing jobs and don’t care at all about the world that future generations will be experiencing. If their children knew, then what would they think of what their parents had done to the world that they will be living in?

Consequently (perhaps after — for whatever reason — listening too much to self-interested advisors), Venezuela’s Government has allowed itself to become trapped by its addiction to selling its extraordinarily filthy oil. There was no Governmental demand, no sufficient priority placed upon Venezuelan firms, for them to diversify the economy away from petroleum. Neither the present Government, nor any previous Government of Venezuela, did.

Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro didn’t create this problem; but, now, and especially on Maduro’s watch, the oil-market transformations that result from the global-warming phenomenon are accelerating; and, unlike Canada, which is part of the U.S. empire, Venezuela isn’t receiving U.S. Government protection of its investors, and so there is no helping hand from the U.S. Government (i.e., from America’s aristocracy) to assist Venezuela’s oil sales (such as the U.S. does provide regarding Canada). There is, instead, to the contrary — as Venezuela’s Government has become weaker and weaker, and has less and less public support while global oil prices have plummeted — the grabbing hand, of both the U.S. and Canadian Governments, to take over Venezuela’s Government, whose biggest sin, actually, was to have left itself open to such a take-over, by its having failed to diversify its economy away from the country’s doomed, and dooming, extraordinarily costly-to-refine, and undesirable to refine, oil. It’s now just a coffin in the ground, but it’s nonetheless still the source of virtually all of Venezuela’s export sales. No government could sustain supporting such a zombie. It’s a deadweight that’s dragging Venezuela down and economically suffocating all Venezuelans. And the documentation that this situation exists is incontrovertible:

The current WTO report on Venezuela indicates that 96.9% of the country’s exports are of “Fuels and mining products,” and that over 98% of this 96.9% consists of oils. Also shown is that the biggest five importers from Venezuela account for only 1.9% of Venezuela’s exports, and therefore all other countries account for 98.1%. So, when Venezuela loses its U.S. market, that would mean loss of only 0.6% of its total export market.

However, America’s sanctions will additionally cause some U.S. vassal nations such as in Europe to stop importing from Venezuela. So, Maduro is very vulnerable, indeed. Diversifying the markets (to that 98.1%) isn’t what was needed by Venezuelans; diversifying the economy was; and neither he nor his predecessors did any of that.

On February 2018, Petroleum Science headlined “Analysis of Venezuela’s oil-oriented economy: from the perspective of entropy” and reported that, “the current breakeven price has achieved to over $100/bbl in Venezuela.” Right now, oil is selling at around $65 per barrel. So, how can Venezuela make money selling its $100+ oil into the global $65 oil market? It’s just not possible, at least not sustainably. The Petroleum Science article therefore said that “it is unwise for Venezuela to count on selling raw oil to support the country’s economy,” because any per-barrel price that’s lower than Venezuela’s $100+ per barrel production cost will produce a loss on the sale of that barrel of oil, and because there will be very few if any future days when the per-barrel oil-price will again be above $100. The more that the world cuts back on petroleum and increases non-carbon energy-sources, the lower that the price of oil will become. And the more that investment funds steer clear of high-carbon firms, the lower the corporate stock of those companies will sink in value. Both investors and consumers are therefore going to be turning away from them.

When global oil prices were high, Venezuela could sell even its costly-to-refine oil profitably, but those times are now long gone and probably will never return, as the world increasingly switches away from fossil fuels. Especially tar-sands oils, such as from Canada and from Venezuela, should stay in the ground, and not only because today’s oil prices are too low to sustain selling them, but also because those extra-heavy oils are the worst to burn, from the standpoint of causing global warming.

As an example of this economic reality, a major U.S. corporate investor in Venezuelan oil is Chevron Corporation, and Zacks Investment Research headlined on 5 October 2011, “Chevron Sees Carabobo Oil in 2012”. It stated:

According to a company executive, U.S. energy behemoth Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX – News) may see the start-up of an oil field in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt next year. The super-major is confident that it can commence production from Orinoco’s Carabobo Project 3 – which has estimated reserves of 66 billion barrels – in the third quarter of 2012. …

Chevron holds a 34% interest in Carabobo Project 3, while Venezuela’s national oil company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (or PDVSA) controls 60%. The remaining stake is owned by Venezuelan and Japanese firms.

Following the first production of 50,000 barrels per day, … [Chevron] is looking to boost volumes by an additional 50,000-100,000 barrels per day every two years. Carabobo 3, one of several Orinoco projects, is estimated to reach a maximum output of approximately 400,000-480,000 barrels of crude oil per day by 2016.

There is no public indication, at least not online, that even the “first production of 50,000 barrels per day” has been yet achieved, though it had been expected to occur within a year. Chevron’s 2017 Annual Report (covering the year 2016) is the latest online, and it doesn’t so much as even mention “Carabobo.” And this was after  the 5 October 2011 prediction that “Carabobo 3, one of several Orinoco projects, is estimated to reach a maximum output of approximately 400,000-480,000 barrels of crude oil per day by 2016.” Clearly, that’s a poorly performing investment. Chevron’s current web-page on “Venezuela” says “Chevron has a 34 percent interest in Petroindependencia, S.A., which includes the Carabobo 3 Project,” but it provides no number of barrels of oil being produced there (if any) — not even now, in 2019. Bad investments die in silence and in obscurity, but good investments get trumpeted everywhere — and this one is being trumpeted nowhere.

Any oil sales from those fields will not only be delayed until when oil prices are again high enough to sell those dirty oils at a profit (which is increasingly unlikely ever to happen again). The investment values of those companies will likewise be especially hard hit as the problem of unburnable reserves becomes increasingly widely recognized and understood by the public. The public won’t remain ignorant and deceived about these matters forever. This is like a Ponzi scheme.

Russia’s Government seems determined never to accept this U.S. coup imposing America’s “regime-change” upon the sovereign nation of Venezuela, and has made the decision to send military assets, and to invest both in Venezuela’s Government and in the oil company. On January 29th, Russia’s Interfax News Agency headlined in Russian, “The Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation hopes to get external debt payments from Venezuela”. The neoconservative Jamestown Foundation remarked about that on January 31st by saying that “These debts may eventually be written off by a new opposition Venezuelan government led by the self-proclaimed interim president, Juan Guaido, if it manages to push Maduro out (see EDM, January 28, 2019). Yet, even if Maduro somehow succeeds in clinging to power with Russian help, he will hardly have the resources to service the loans.” That, unfortunately, happens to be true. The only sensible reason why Russia would be committing itself to protecting Venezuela’s sovereignty would be in order to say to Washington that America’s long string of foreign regime-changes (Iraq, Libya, Syria, Honduras, Ukraine, etc.) has now ended — to establish the principle (as Russia has recently done in Syria) that no longer will Washington’s invasions and coups be tolerated, no more conquests (additions to its empire) will be allowed. Somebody has to draw the line, finally, and the other nuclear superpower could be the one to do it. Other than that, however, Russia, like other investors, can only experience losses from investments in Venezuela. Venezuela is now an asset only in “The Great Game”. Russia’s protecting in Venezuela the principle of national sovereignty — no coups, no conquests, at all — is as moral as America’s repeatedly rejecting that principle is immoral; but, as an investment, Venezuela simply is a loss. If “The Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation hopes to get external debt payments from Venezuela,” then Russia’s Ministry of Finance should be expecting to be disappointed in that “hope.” But that hope wouldn’t, in any case, be a sound reason for what Russia is doing there. The only “asset” to be won in Venezuela is protection of the most basic principle of international law: the independence and sovereignty of each nation. Hitler and his fascist allies, and Stalin and his communist allies, violated that principle; but now fascist America and its allies routinely violate it. Venezuela’s allies (unlike Neville Chamberlain) are supporting the foundation-stone of international law: national sovereignty and independence. For the U.S. and its allies to reject the results of Venezuela’s (or of Syria’s or of Iran’s) elections is no basis for invalidating those results, and the U.S. Government’s stooge Juan Guaido is simply a Venezuelan traitor, and should be treated as such, by an appropriate trial for treason. Certainly, there is no Constitutional basis for Guaido’s power-grab, despite the lies to the contrary by the putchists such as in America and its allied regimes.

All oil-exploration should therefore now stop, and existing tar-sands oil fields should simply be abandoned altogether. Only the easiest-to-refine (the “lighter”) oils should be sold and burnt right now. There is going to be a rush for the exits in the stocks of those “extra-heavy oil” companies, and the only question is when it will happen. Regarding that rush, the situation is very different in Venezuela than it is in Canada, because the U.S. Government will delay as long as possible the collapse of Canada’s oil-sales, but the U.S. (and Canada) want to expedite the collapse of Venezuela’s — at least until and unless the current Venezuelan coup succeeds. (And Canada’s Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, did the key preparatory work for U.S. President Trump to pull the plug on Venezuela’s Government; so, both of those governments have actually led in overthrowing and replacing Venezuela’s non-U.S.-allied Government.)

Venezuela became addicted to selling its filthy oil, but now can only lose money with every barrel it sells of its oil. Each day of the company’s operations is simply eating the company’s seed-corn — and there is nothing like Canada has, to soften the blow. That’s not only unsustainable, it has already become a crisis, and Washington is exploiting it.

PDVSA’s latest online financial report is for 2016 and it shows that “Profit before income tax” was $16,317,000 in 2014, then $1,469,000 in 2015, and then $955,000 — less than a million dollars — in 2016. During the three-year period, “Current assets” declined from $55.2 billion to $54.6 billion, and “Current liabilities” declined from $55.7 billion to $50.0 billion. “Financial debt” declined from $40.0 billion to $33.9 billion. “Total assets” declined from $217.4 billion to $189.7 billion; and “Total liabilities” declined from $127.7 billion to $102.6 billion. Probably the company is already operating in the red now, but with every year of deteriorating infrastructure, just wearing out, with more and more and longer deferred maintenance, and with a bad long-term prospect for profitability, could the Government even sell the company? If Trump succeeds and PDVSA and every other state-owned asset in Venezuela becomes privatized, Venezuela’s citizens will be left with nothing, and the only beneficiaries will be the international bankers, even as international investors will need to take haircuts on their existing Venezuelan loans. The oil that PDVSA sells shouldn’t even be bought; it should simply remain in the ground.

According to the latest public information, PDVSA showed less than a million dollars of profit in 2016 — and the trend was downward. Anyone in Venezuela who thinks that the country can be sustained in the future, as it was in the past, from the sale of Venezuela’s exceptionally costly-to-produce oil, isn’t taking into account the broader picture, and the impact that the global-warming phenomenon will inevitably have upon the fossil-fuels industries.

There may be ways to jiggle the books to make PDVSA fool some investors into buying the company, but only the international bankers would be profiting from a sale of that firm.

Foreign Policy magazine, which represents America’s aristocracy, headlined on 5 June 2018, “It’s Time for a Coup in Venezuela”, but even if that turns out to be the final solution to the Venezuelan problem for America’s aristocrats, it won’t solve anything for the Venezuelan public — basically like Hitler’s “final solution” did nothing to benefit Germany’s Jews. Germany’s aristocracy did nothing for Jews then, and America’s aristocracy will do nothing for Venezuelans now. They’re all on their own. The leaders of the U.S.-allied nations don’t want to save them, and instead follow in the fascist and Nazi tradition. The leaders in Venezuela’s current Government, who want to save them, simply can’t save them. It’s far too late for them to start now, to do what needed to start back in “the early 1980s of 93,000 b/d” from Venezuela’s Orinoco belt — which would have been for them to stop what ought never even to have been started there: extraction of that oil.

CONCLUSION

The poverty and violence that now rack Venezuela result from a broader situation in which selling what shouldn’t even be bought has run its miserable course until the final act, which is a Government that has reached the stage where it can produce income only for international bankers and for the aristocrats who control them. Any oil company now that would want to buy those assets would merely be adding to its assets — chiefly the dirty oil in the ground — ‘assets’ (oil reserves) that can never even be used (unless the propaganda becomes even more effective in the future than it has always been until now, which might be impossible to achieve). Oil companies already have lots more of that dangerous filth than anyone except people in finance will ever be able to benefit from buying or selling.

For Venezuelans, this is a great tragedy. The U.S. and its allies are (and have been) doing everything they can to exploit the tragedy.

It’s like a hungry lion chasing a fleeing exhausted deer, who now is finally trapped.

That’s the ugly reality.

Author’s note: first posted at strategic-culture.org

Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010

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Americas

Billionaires, Vanity and Modern Democracy

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The bullying in Washington is the current trend.  On Monday, the British ambassador resigned his post after Trump refused to deal with him.  Well-liked in Washington and the halls of Congress, his downfall was an honest assessment of the Trump administration as ‘inept’ and ‘dysfunctional’.  The letters were leaked in the U.K.

Suppose the president tweets comments contrary to current established policy, does that mean a policy change?  Do departments adapt promptly.  Nobody knows.  That’s dysfunctional, and everyone knows it.  In the meantime, he has enjoyed 17 golf outings since February averaging three a month.  No wonder he is that rare president who does not seem to age in office from the stresses of the job.  Obama’s hair turned gray.

But then a lighter hand on the tiller has kept us out of war, whereas Obama, the Nobel Peace Laureate, destroyed Libya and escalated in Afghanistan.  The consequences are still being felt in Southern Europe particularly, through the hordes of refugees still continuing to arrive.  Also in the resurgence of anti-immigration political parties in northern Europe.

The supreme irony is the fact of refugees being rescued from ramshackle boats and dinghies or often dying in one part of the Mediterranean while the Obamas cruise on a billionaire’s luxury yacht in another.  Is that a metaphor for democracies in the modern world?  One is also reminded of Mr. Modi’s specially woven pinstripe cloth repeating his name endlessly on the stripes in the material. 

Fortunately, the current president does not like the sea, or we would never see him in Washington.  As it is he has had 14 visits to golf clubs (not as much time on the course however) since the beginning of June.  He once had a small yacht that lay anchored in New York until he sold it.  His pleasures have generally centered on the more mundane:  cheeseburgers and women — the younger the better, although perhaps not as young as those that have gotten his friend Jeffrey Epstein in trouble again.  To be fair, Trump had a falling out with him ‘about 15 years ago’ he said recently.  ‘I was not a fan of his, I can tell you,’ he added although he called him a ‘terrific guy’ in 2002.

At least one party had 28 girls to a so-called calendar-girl party at Mar-a-Lago (Trump’s estate and club) in Florida, meaning selection of a calendar girl.  The male celebrities attending, according to the man assigned the task of finding the girls, happened to be Trump and Epstein, and no one else!  So surprised, the man still remembers the story.  The falling out between Trump and Epstein was rumored to have been a business deal.

It brings us to the second resignation, that of Alex Acosta the Labor Secretary.  A Harvard-educated lawyer, Mr. Acosta was the US attorney for the Southern District of Florida when he made a generous agreement with Epstein who had been charged with sex crimes.  For a 13-month sentence of mostly community work, usually from his mansion, Mr. Epstein was protected from further prosecution.  In a clear rebuke to Acosta, the case has been re-opened with a new charge of sex-trafficking minors.

As a result, Mr. Acosta has had to bow to the chorus of calls for his resignation.  The real question:  How ever did Trump get elected?  A mainstream press failure?

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What has happened to Western liberal idea?

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In the recent interview with President Putin, the Financial Times seems to have launched a discussion on liberalism only at its own peril. Inadvertently, a real problem was touched upon, whose pressing nature is no longer denied by anyone in the West. The newspaper had to admit it in its Editorial of 29 June. Its authors claim that the threat to liberalism comes from within, including President Trump and his policies, Brexit and, certainly, the rise of “populist nationalism”. They refer to voters’ disillusionment with liberalism and loss of confidence in the economic system and trust in political elites. The latter are invited to redouble their efforts to take into consideration issues raised by voters and “to renew liberalism”.

Hence, the Russian leader has only identified a problem that Western elites are unable to acknowledge, desperately defending the status-quo as having no alternative. But where is the problem?

The systemic crisis of Western society, if we are to call a spade a spade, has its roots in Reaganomics and Thatcherism. In early 1980s, disregard for the lessons of the Great Depression led to Anglo-American attempts to sort of try the pre-1929 Pure Capitalism. This unleashed the forcers of a “self-regulated market” with the state playing a minimal role – a key concept of liberal economics. The idea of social accountability of business had no place in that system.

At the same time, financial sector was deregulated through the step-by-step repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was one of key elements of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Its architect was British economist John Maynard Keynes. It was only natural that the 2008 crisis also started in the financial sphere which had practically lost touch with the real sector of economy.

Then neoliberalism (as it became known) came to be imposed by Anglo-Saxon nations on the whole of the EU through the Lisbon agenda. The then Prime Minister Tony Blair was pretty good at it. When asked what she considered as her key legacy, Margaret Thatcher pointed to Blair who continued her economic policies under the “New Labour” slogan.

For instance, everyone knows what the nationalization of British railways led to. Profits are reaped by operators, while costs are borne by taxpayers who finance UK Rail, the state-run company responsible for railroad infrastructure. And this is not the only way to privatise profits while collectivising costs. In fact, globalisation has become one such practice for Western elites. Its original motive was quite liberal and far from being altruistic or even geopolitical (Donald Trump has reassessed this part of it when he blamed globalisation for China’s economic rise). It was about cheap labour for increased profits. The jobs  that were to be transferred abroad should have been compensated for by a new technological revolution. But it’s not happening, not even in the second generation. Information technologies do not create as many jobs, and we are already talking of robotisation and artificial intelligence, as well as a universal minimum living allowance as a solution to the problem of poverty and unemployment. It was Keynes who said: “Free trade assumes that if you throw men out of work in one direction you re-employ them in another. As soon as that link is broken the whole of the free trade argument breaks down”.

Liberalism in politics, especially after the end of the Cold War, has degenerated into averaging and alternative-free policies in the “end of history” spirit. Even Henry Kissinger admitted in his “World Order” (2014) that Western elites had again relied on automaticity, as was the case with the market. But as it was shown by Karl Marx supported by modern economists (Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Thomas Picketty and others), free markets always give advantage to the investing classes, which only leads to more inequality.

In this respect, the 45-year post-WW2 period was an exception to the rule due to the creation of a social welfare state – the one that is now being destroyed by the neoliberal economics. Along with it the middle class is being destroyed – the pillar of Western democracy. For these reasons the real discourse of democracy is being substituted in the West by a discourse of liberalism. This involves labelling all protest voters as “populists” and “nationalists”, allowing to side-step the issue of the inability of the actual political system to represent this silent majority. Yet, that is what’s going on when differences blur between the Right and the Left, Tory and Labour in Britain, Republicans and Democrats in the US, or Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany’s “Grand coalition”. Is it any wonder that when an opportunity arises to have a say, this majority votes for Brexit, Trump, or newly-created anti-system parties and movements, often with marginal ideologies?    

In social terms, as BBC is trying to explain in this ongoing debate, liberalism is about protecting the rights of minorities of all kind, including transgender persons. It turns out that there’s nobody to protect the interests of the majority. Yet, we are speaking of the post-war “social contract”, which simply does not work in liberal economics. Anglo-Saxons are on the path of further liberalisation, which the continental Europe cannot afford. Boris Johnson, contributing to the discussion, has said the other day that Brexit is precisely aimed at giving a new lease of life to it by following the US in income tax reductions for business and private individuals.    

British political analyst David Goodhart (in “The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics”, 2017) shows another perspective of the issue. In his opinion, the elites have become cosmopolitan, but the majority has remained rooted in their own countries, regions and communities. In other words, the majority sticks to its national identity, unlike the elites. Even the European middle class, united by similar living standards and occupations, becomes aware of its nationality when hit by bad economic times.

Those who accuse Russia of meddling in internal affairs of Western countries are essentially denying their voters the right to vote, while the genesis of the liberalism crisis clearly points to its roots and origins inside the system. It was no-one else but Angela Merkel who in 2010 spoke of failure of multiculturalism in Germany, while calling for intensifying efforts at integrating immigrants into German society.

It was not Moscow that drew the attention to this problem. As early as 2007, the Economist wrote of a “secular overreachl” in the West, while today many are voicing concerns over a “liberal overreach”. Speaking broadly, it can be said that in the absence of a competitive environment in the realm of ideas after the end of the Cold War (which ended up doing a disservice to Western elites), liberalism has mutated into a dogma, a totalitarian ideology which does not tolerate dissent or pluralism of ideas. No wonder that the elites have resorted to political technologies, media control and political correctness to tighten the grip on the freedom of speech and generate semblance of an alternative-free existence. Social media have put an end to this, becoming a tool for politically alienated electorate to self-organize. As a measure to protect the status quo, the elites are now constructing an artificial dichotomy of liberalism vs authoritarianism, i.e. if not one, it’s definitely the other.

It is, therefore, not about the end of the liberal idea, just as President Putin pointed out, but that it cannot claim to be a one-size-fits-all model negating the wealth of ideas in Europe and the world. The problem is that any ideology, as history has shown, is always aggressive when it claims the ultimate truth, exceptionalism and, as a result, becomes a threat to the world. The notion of a “liberal world order” has also been introduced only recently, as a defensive reaction of the West when its dominance in global politics, economy and finance is coming to an end. Everything could have been different, had Western elites bothered to make this order, Bretton Woods institutions included, truly liberal, open and inclusive. Nobody was preventing them from doing so.

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Could Trump’s tricks boost his ratings and settle the Syrian conflict?

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Recently the U.S. President Donald Trump formally launched his 2020 re-election campaign in front of a large crowd in Orlando, Florida. The campaign is gaining momentum. We have already seen the celebrities and politicians speeches, preliminary ratings and even the economic models of the New York Times predicting Trump’s victory. For his part, the candidate keeps on delighting the world community by posting promising Tweets to increase his popularity and to retake votes from his opponents. According to Gallup, 45% of U.S. adults said Trump should be impeached and removed from office over the matter, while 53% said he should not be. 45% is too much for the sitting president, so it has been decided to increase his positions in the eyes of freedom fighters.

In this case, we are not speaking about the strict implementation of all his statements, but only about election promises that can snatch the next agenda from competitors. For instance, the situation is so with Trump’s report on the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It looks like the White House analysts are working on the same scenario.

Last Monday President Trump told Fox News that he would leave an intelligence presence in Afghanistan, though he has long hoped for a full withdrawal of U.S. military presence from the country. So, according to Trump’s statement, the U.S. will retain intelligence in the region. That’s ridiculous! Washington has been trying to withdraw troops from Afghanistan for several years.

Boutros Marjana – the head of Syria’s parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee in response stated that this action was focused on the media, to make the average American to believe that the unnecessary and external conflict is over. “Tramp said the same on Syria. However, a radical change in the area of hostilities has not happened. The situation on the ground is quite different from what was stated. So far, in my opinion, the United States has not developed a strategy for the situation in the eastern coast of the Euphrates River”, Marjana said.

And while Trump is posting Tweets for his electorate, the U.S.-led international coalition carried out another air raid on the residential area in Idlib province. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) units were the alleged aim of the aviation. The details on casualties among civilians have not been reported. It worth noting, that during the previous bombardment, apart from the extremists, 49 civilians in a mosque were killed.

U.S. Central Command announced that the attack had been initiated in response to HTS terrorist acts in residential areas. It is unlikely that Trump will actually withdraw from Syria or Afghanistan because the killing of terrorists and civilians does not stop.

Moreover, telling the world about the withdrawal of troops the White House decided to put pressure upon Germany to expand its participation in the Syrian conflict (apparently instead of Washington).

Currently, Germany supplies weapons and surveillance planes to Syria. However, the United States insists on Germany to send its ground forces.

It is hardly surprising that some international coalition members suddenly proclaim their participation in the joint operation against ISIS terrorists under any pretext. In fact, their contingent will be intended to replace the U.S. troops that following Trump’s intention should be withdrawn from Syria. Wonder who will get all the U.S. military bases in Syria? In this situation, the obvious question arises: why should the EU troops be located in Syria instead of the U.S.? And who is going to replace the U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

At the same time, Israel is also playing an active role in the ‘peacemaking’ process in Syria. On June 1, at least 15 citizens, including five women and a child, were killed as a result of the Israeli air strike on Syria.

Anyway, illegal U.S. forces presence is a considerable obstacle to the political settlement of the Syrian conflict. And the cynical Israeli air attacks, as well as its international policy, break any hope for resolving all disputes peacefully. Trump may make the only right decision that will let him increase his ratings using the Syrian issue. The current president should do his best to reconcile the parties, suspend cooperation with Israel, and also establish a dialogue with Turkey, Russia, and Iran. That is very unlikely. Therefore Trump has to go on tricks with a contingent from other states.

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