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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Africa-Caribbean connection

by Bevan Springer:

Following recent visits to Africa and the Caribbean, more and more the Africa-Caribbean connection appears to me to be worth serious exploration.

Bevan Springer is a New York Amsterdam News columnist who writes frequently on travel and tourism issues. He also produces the Caribbean Media Exchange on Sustainable Tourism - CMEx.I always felt this during my educational pursuits in North America and remain indebted to my West African brothers and sisters for teaching me so much about the French language, not to mention helping me pass my examinations!

After an incredible visit to the mother continent, I invited my media colleague Ogo Sow and tourism executive Aziz Gueye - both from Senegal - to the Caribbean for a taste of West Indian hospitality after they so graciously hosted yours truly and a group of media and travel representatives in Senegal a month earlier.

The ease with which my African brothers assimilated into Caribbean culture while attending the Caribbean Media Exchange on Sustainable Tourism (CMEx) meeting in St Lucia this month was heartwarming, but even more so was their collective will to promote tourism to the region and encourage more Caribbean nationals to set foot in the land whence we came.

So just how do we do promote cultural exchanges between the Caribbean and Africa, or America and Africa? How do we explore trade opportunities? How do we create new communications links among media organisations and the more contemporary social media platforms? How do we trace our roots and let our children and grandchildren understand the richness of our African heritage?

Well, New York native Gregg Truman, considered an honorary West Indian after spending numerous years working for Air Jamaica, now spearheads the marketing charge at South African Airways (SAA) and he is clearly making a difference.

Truman, SAA's Vice President of Marketing, said the African-American and Caribbean-American Diaspora are critical to the airline's overall strategies for success and in promoting the airline's routes throughout Africa. "The rich cultural diversity of both West Africa and South Africa provides members of the Diaspora an opportunity to experience the continent in extremely personal ways," he said.

The multilingual Amat Kane of Africa Connection Tours educates visitors to the historic Gorée Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Senegal.

Truman, who accompanied us on our recent Senegal sojourn, was impressed with what the West African nation offered to visitors. "In addition to Gorée Island and the Slave Houses - an incredibly touching experience - the ability to go off-roading on massive sand dunes and enjoy a wonderful Caribbean-style beach holiday allowed us to appreciate some of what Senegal has to offer," he said, adding that the wide ranging hotel product - from Club Med to Le Méridien and the new four-star TERROU-BI Dakar, positions Senegal as a great choice for a unique holiday.

Like all of us, Truman was impressed with the art and music in Dakar, which provided "an amazing backdrop for a rich vibrant vacation where one can spend some time on the beach, but can also appreciate a truly cultural experience and gain a better understanding of the human condition."

It is certainly helpful that Senegal is only seven and a half hours from Washington DC's Dulles Airport, offering daily non-stop flights which depart in the late afternoon and get visitors to Senegal early the next morning. SAA also has two daily flights to South Africa, including a non-stop flight from New York City's JFK airport to Johannesburg.

With SAA providing friendly infrastructure to connect the Caribbean and America with Africa, the sky's the limit for the exploration of new linkages.

December 31, 2009


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mixed fortunes for Caribbean economies in 2009, says new report

GEORGETOWN, Guyana -- The Caribbean Economic Performance Report 2009, compiled by the Caribbean Centre for Money and Finance, recently projected the member states to end this year with mixed fortunes, as some will see growth while others will be in deficit.

The report says many Caribbean economies remain in recession, awaiting the recovery of the United States and other Industrial economies, which supply the region’s tourists, remittance and foreign direct investment, and which absorb Caribbean exports.

It adds that advance tourism bookings are reported to be dismal, and natural gas prices remain low, even though oil prices have recovered substantially.

Foreign exchange inflows continue to decline compared to 2008, economies remain depressed and unemployment is on the increase, in spite of efforts by governments and private firms to minimize the loss of jobs.” the report noted.

However, it added that balance of payments pressures have abated in Jamaica, the country most severely affected by outflows, and the exchange rate there has stabilized.

“Foreign exchange levels remain acceptable throughout the region, aided by a small increase in the global allocation of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) by the International Monetary Fund (IMF)," the report outlined.

Five member countries of the OECS have accessed modest amounts of IMF financing, and the Jamaican authorities remain in discussion with the Fund for financing under a Standby Arrangement.

“Aruba, Belize, Guyana, Haiti and the Netherlands Antilles all recorded higher levels of foreign exchange reserves, comparing the latest month with a year earlier, with increases ranging from 10 to 30 percent,” the report states.

The 27 page document also noted that the average growth rate for the region is expected to be 1.6 percent this year, with Belize, Dominica, Guyana, Haiti and Suriname expected to record positive but slow growth in 2009.

It noted too that Guyana, despite a decline in growth of real output during the first quarter of 2009, which was due primarily to losses in the sugar sector, rebounded due to mixed output in the manufacturing and services sectors and the rice industry.

In the first quarter of 2009, the report says, Guyana’s inflation rate dropped sharply to 1.95 per cent compared to the 7.45 per cent it recorded for the same period in 2008. This was due to the fall in international oil and commodity prices as well as falling domestic prices of food items.

Caribbean economies cannot expect to emerge from recession before the US does. Advance tourism bookings are reported to be dismal, and natural gas prices remain low, even though oil prices have recovered substantially. Most tourism economies and the energy and mineral industries depend mainly on the US market.

The prospects for agriculture and those tourism economies that are less dependent on the US are not much better, because the economies of Canada, the UK and the rest of Europe all depend heavily on exports to the US to help fuel the recovery of economic output.

The policy responses of Caribbean governments are beginning to take effect as they marketing and promotional activity, and measures for some degree of amelioration of the adverse social impact of the economic contraction. So far the impact on government budgets and debt service has been mild, but much of the additional expenditure is yet to come on stream.

The economic recession has depressed fiscal revenues everywhere, and the impact has been especially severe because of the region’s increasing dependence on the Value Added Tax (VAT), which is especially sensitive to a fall in spending.

Even though governments’ efforts to contain the adverse impact of the crisis have resulted in only modest increases in spending, it says, the extent of revenue loss meant that the overall fiscal position deteriorated badly everywhere.

The unfinanced fiscal gap was the main motivation for OECS countries to seek financing from the IMF and other international financing agencies.

December 30, 2009


Monday, December 28, 2009

Facing a new wave of social and economic bedlam under the IMF - Jamaica's dilemma

By Fritz-Earle McLymont:

My heart goes out to the families of the 117,000 civil servants who are planned casualties of the Jamaica government’s transformation program. I pity the official upon whom the responsibility for implementing this disaster has been thrust.

Following the resignation of the head of the Central Bank and the Commissioner of Police, I saw the red flag of the IMF. I just concluded reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine that chronicles the effects of economic “shock therapy” and the consequences to the local economies. From Bolivia, to Chile to Argentina to Russia, the stories are the same: the citizens suffer. Klein attributes much of the disaster to the attempt to carry out Friedmanite economic policies, with the support or complicity of the IMF. But the results have been the same: disaster and terror for large segments of the population whose leaders seek sustenance at the IMF trough.

The IMF issued its first full-fledged “structural adjustment” program in 1983. For the next two decades, every country that came to the fund for a major loan was informed that it needed to revamp its economy from top to bottom. According to Shock Doctrine, David Budhoo, an IMF senior economist who designed structural adjustment programs in Latin America and Africa throughout the eighties, admitted later that “everything we did from 1983 onward was based on our new sense of mission to have the south privatized or die; towards this end we ignominiously created economic bedlam in Latin America and Africa in 1983-88.” I have yet to see real long-term social and economic progress in any of these IMF-adjusted countries.

Somewhere between 1979 and 1981, I was spared personal disaster while managing a government enterprise in Jamaica. I persuaded the workers and union to accept minimum increases in wages for two years to enable the company to increase its assets and consequently its income. The plan worked and when the time came to give the big wage increase from earnings that did accumulate, I was told that IMF guidelines prohibited me from giving the promised increase. Given the social and political tensions in Jamaica at the time, I had no intention of facing more than 150 Jamaican workers to tell them that the deal was off. No one from the IMF was willing to do so either. Fortunately, I learned that the IMF instruction was not a law of the Jamaican government, but a directive from Washington. I found a creative way to get around the IMF policy and my workers got their increase, leaving me safe to walk the streets of Montego Bay.

A few countries, such as Malaysia, have rejected IMF medicine and survived. In the 1990s, when the IMF offered to help the “Asian tigers” withstand a financial assault on their fast-growing economies, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad declined the offer, saying that, with relatively small debt, he did not have to “destroy the economy in order that it should become better.” The IMF official in charge of the talks at the time said, “You can’t force a country to ask you for help. It has to ask. But when it is out of money, it hasn’t got many places to turn.” Malaysia proved him wrong. A predominantly Muslim country whose people had been instructed to save for the pilgrimage to Mecca, it turned to local banks that were flush with pilgrimage cash.

Can we instill in Jamaicans a similar behavioral change of sacrificing a little today for a long-term benefit? In the 1990s I witnessed the fever pitch in long, patient lines as Jamaicans sought quick money from the Partner scams. This same patience, faith and commitment must now shift Jamaica into productive energy if our country is to survive. For the global challenge in this century will be productivity not money.

Jamaicans often compare Jamaica with economically successful Singapore, both former colonies. Jamaica is a victim of its own choices. At about the same time that Singapore’s leaders chose to invest heavily in the development of their productive capacity, Jamaica rejected the direction of industrial development, advocated by Jamaican industrialists such as Robert Lightbourne, and opted for quick money, either borrowed or donated. Tourism, bauxite and agriculture were expected to be significant contributors to growth, but they have performed feebly in spite of considerable investment of the borrowed or donated funds. Today’s generation is paying for those choices in the form of debt burden. From 1980 to 1986, Jamaica's total debt doubled, making the island one of the most indebted countries in the world on a per capita basis. Jamaica's debt peaked in the mid-1980s at US$3.5 billion. With IMF and World Bank conditionalities in force, Jamaica experienced a 30 percent leap in unemployment, a 30 percent fall in public investment and a fall of 48 percent in real incomes between 1983 and 1985. By 1984 the World Bank proclaimed Jamaica one of its success stories because its trade balance had shifted into surplus. But it was a 'success' in which 29 percent of children under three years old were malnourished, 43 percent of mothers were anemic, and polio deaths had appeared for the first time in 30 years. Between 1996 and 2003, Jamaica’s public debt rose by 71 percentage points of GDP – a growth considered a reflection of changing circumstances at home and conditions abroad.

Today, with a public debt in the range of US$15 billion, Jamaica’s Ministry of Finance is preparing the country for another IMF hit. Moody’s, the rating service, has downgraded Jamaica’s rating for internal and external bonds. Alessandra Alecci, its vice president/senior analyst, explained why: “The negative outlook reflects uncertainty associated with the potential consequences of protracted delays in reaching a final agreement with the IMF. Such a situation would lead to a loss of confidence that could negatively affect the exchange rate and exert upward pressures on domestic interest rates. If these conditions were to materialize, they could create a situation in which the government's liquidity would be stretched and investors would face higher losses as the decision to restructure debt would be made under duress.”

I do not expect the financial news out of Jamaica to improve any time soon. However, if change is actually taking place globally, paying serious attention to infrastructure improvement and production by Jamaicans may be the good news for the future. The words of a Morgan Stanley executive on the Asian crisis of the 1990s are worth heeding: “What we need now in Asia is more bad news. Bad news is needed to keep stimulating the adjustment process.”

Let’s respectfully accept the words of such foreign experts as opinions not prescriptions.

There is some consolation in the fact that most of Jamaica’s debt is held by local institutions, which should be more open than foreign lenders to seeking long-term solutions that ease the pain. The short-term situation is bad. Estimates are that over 55 percent of the central government’s revenue goes to service debts that stand at 16 percent of GDP for the current fiscal year. Over the past ten years Jamaica’s public debt to GDP ratio remained above 100 percent. Jamaicans must accept the challenge to produce for its domestic needs. Growth and productivity must come from within, as proven by Singapore’s success.

In a recent interview, Prime Minister Golding acknowledged the positive impact of Rastafari on the Jamaican society over the past 50 years. Much can be learned from the Rastafari experience, a uniquely Jamaican development -- from recycling rubber tyres for shoes and building shelter from scrap to providing a multibillion-dollar cultural product (Reggae) to the global music and entertainment industry. The Ital lifestyle (Google Ital) pioneered in Jamaica is now part of a global alternative lifestyle representing a multibillion-dollar industry. These are testimonies to Jamaica’s ability to produce from within.

While some have been seeking external solutions to our financial and economic problems, our homegrown professionals have been producing world class athletes and performing artists with a fraction of the investment that other countries incur. The health, wellness and sports industries are multibillion-dollar sectors not yet fully exploited.

I hope the next group of esteemed Jamaicans pondering solutions to the island’s productivity challenge will look to Usain Bolt and Mutabaruka, two of the island’s most recognized talents now lecturing to a global audience, as further examples of homegrown successes in their respective industries in and outside the island. They follow such international Jamaican icons as Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey. How far removed these performers seem from the “crisis,” where “a situation in which the government's liquidity would be stretched and investors would face higher losses as the decision to restructure debt would be made under duress.”

I have been known to offer advice when not asked and I shall do it again. Jamaica’s Prime Minister should take the Jamaican creditors for a few days’ retreat in the Cockpit country of Trelawny, a major producer of yam. Start the day with an early morning jog with Bolt, one hour per day with a producing yam farmer, and evenings in a reasoning session on “success” with Mutabaruka.

Somewhere I learned that success is not where you are but the obstacles you had to overcome to get where you are. I remain optimistic about Jamaica’s future success. We have a long history of overcoming obstacles. Our political leaders must look at this history for answers.

Fritz-Earle S. McLymont, a Jamaican, is Managing Partner of McLymont, Kunda & Co. an international trade and development strategist firm, and Managing Director of NMBC Global, a not for profit organization involved in international development. He can be contacted at

December 28, 2009


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mama make the Johnnie Cake, Christmas coming!

By Mutryce A Williams:

“Morning, morning and how are you this morning? Morning, morning this is Christmas morning! Mama make the Johnnie Cake, Christmas coming! Mama, make the Johnnie Cake, Christmas coming! Christmas coming and New Year’s morning,” he jolted forward and bellowed at the top of his lungs. Bewildered to say the least, I asked, “Are you okay?” We were sitting in his ‘drawing room’ discussing the predictions of the McDonald’s Farmer’s Almanac. The outburst seemed to come from out of thin air and, trust me, it didn’t help any that it was mid May and Christmas was months and months away. He said, “Pusa dear, draw the curtain for me. Open up de big trunk and hand me the things you see in it one by one.”

Mutryce Williams is a native of St Kitts and Nevis. She is a social commentator who writes weekly commentaries for 98.9 WINN FM, as well as the Leewards Times newspaperHe burst into song once again. This time he had the pair of shack-shacks in hand. Shaking them fiercely, tapping his foot, voice as strong as ever he continued, “Mama make the Johnnie Cake, Christmas coming. Mama make the Johnnie Cake, Christmas coming!” He passed the shack-shacks to me and said, “You got the beat right! Now pass me the banjo. One, two, three let we go. Mama make the Johnnie Cake, Christmas coming! Sing louder man. Sing. Sing a tell you, sing!” Fully immersed in the Christmas spirit, I was now strumming away at the banjo totally transformed I tell you, as if I had gone to the school of that St Paul’s banjo maestro they called Lil Tom. At that moment Papa and I had what I call an alternating string bang. We switched from shack-shack, to banjo, baha, to the big drum, guitar, to cow bell, triangle, to mouth organ and indulged in the sweet ‘feeleeleet’ of the fife. Out of breath, I plopped down on the chair, ‘Well, that was fun!’

When I thought that the excitement was all finished still humming he said, “Child, take the back way and go over the road by you Aunty Mae. Tell she a say hurry up come up here for the pork before I sell it off or give it way and tell she don’t forget to send up me black cake, cassava bread and two bottle a sorrel. I know you mother in there making hers, but is Christmas you see and you could never have too much black cake, sorrel, cassava bread and rum…and rum…and ruuummmm…ha, ha, ha is Christmas girl and me belly ain’t got no end. I going eat and eat and eat till me belly burst…aaaah. Wait, who that there out there out there over the doving pot helping she with the Johnny cake, roast pork and turning the cassava bread? Oh is she! I hope she don’t think she going go with more than wha she bring you know. Every year she do it. Who is that there calling me? I say who is that there calling me? Oh is you, Uncle Joe. Tell he I tuning the banjo and when I done I going meet he down the road and we going go round the village serenading.”

Smile on my face but with a heavy heart I knew that he thought that I was my mother. His brain has been going ‘addle’ as we like to call it, senile or now they have a word for it. It is called Alzheimer’s. Instead of trying to will him back to the present, I held his hands and allowed him to take me back there. He looked in the direction of the kitchen and shouted to my grandmother, “Woman you ain’t done cook yet? How the roast pork and Johnny Cake coming? Maude I know that woman does come say a help but no let she go with more than what she bring I tell you, mind you hear, mind.”

He looked at me and seeing me as me now but still thinking it was Christmas, he said, “Girl where you going to this Carnival thing,” He continued, “Don’t get me wrong you know is a good thing it have its place but that there itself ain’t Christmas. Yes, Christmas is for Christ and all that but it is a time of real merriment, family, sports and when I tell you sports I mean Clowns, Mummies, David and Goliath and lord them Japanese girls with they umbrella and short, short skirt. Girl you ain’t want see plenty, plenty sports, I mean Actor, Neagre Business, Indian and Cowboy, Masquerade, Bull and Them Thing. You member if I did tell you about the time I used to play Bull. Well, well, well them there was some sweet, sweet days, is so I catch she in there you know but no tell she I say so cause she would set up she face like ten rat trap and stop talk to me and I can’t deal with this this time of year here, man… any other time but not Christmas time I tell you… cause this is food, more food and belly burst down time.”

He continued, “Christmas is the time when me and boys go round serenading. Maude and she church people them do go caroling. Is the time that Maude love to fuss, paint, clean and put up she lovely, lovely curtain them. Wait there who that coming there. I sure is one she sisters them from Englandt. She don’t even tell me that they a come home. One by one they show up and the thing is you know for a whole six weeks me have to sleep a ground. We have to give up we good warm bed and be hospicable… that woman there just want turn the place into a hotel you see… in she mind I guess that is what Christmas is all about. Oh, John, me boy is you that.”

He shouted to Granny, “Hey Maude, bring me shoes there let me shine them now and don’t forget to patch the li’l hole in me jacket and starch my shirt. I have to look like a sharp boy going to church this Christmas Sunday.” He took down his tie off the ledge and showed it to John, he said, “You see this tie here is me first son George send this for me from inna America. He say is how they make them now. Tell me something John, you have anything go so? Tell me something there, you people them in a away just member you a Christmas time? Peep out there in the kitchen you see something is whole three barrel we family send from overseas. If you want a tin of sardine or two don’t ‘fraid to ask. You know we is giving people. We ain’t going eat down the whole thing we self and know you in want and ain’t give you any.” John just smiled.

Granny shook her head, sat down beside him and rubbed his hands. He was zoning in and out. He looked in my direction and shouted, “Hey wait there, Pusa you done praptice you recitation? I hope so you know ‘cause you have to say it good in Church this Sunday at the Christmas concert. Say it hard and clear you know. Make me proud. You know as soon as you done is me first going stand up and clap the hardest and say hey that is mine there… mine… You know wha’, stand up and say it now let me hear you. Stand up straight and watch the people in they face no bend you head.” At this point there were tears in Granny’s eyes. She shook her head and said, “Boy, this Alzheimer’s thing, well, well, well.”

Alzheimers is a horrible disease. It was eating away at him however it allowed me to see Christmas through his eyes. I envied the Christmases that he had. The look on his face said it all. One can tell that it was his favourite time of year. It wasn’t about Santa. It wasn’t about decking the halls with holly. It wasn’t commercial. It wasn’t about Carnival. It wasn’t about how much money you had or how many gifts you got. It seemed like a time of merriment and joy that he shared with his family and friends. It was a time of butchering pigs and sharing what you had in your cupboard or barrel. It was a time of roast pork and Johnny Cake, black cake, sorrel, cassava, lovely curtains, sports/folklore, serenading, caroling, string band and church going. It’s now Christmas. What does this Christmas mean to you? How would you compare your Christmas now to the ones you had then? Were they better? What’s missing and if anything how do you intend to fix it? Do you have that Christmas spirit? Are you in a zone of merriment strumming your banjo, shaking your shack-shack and singing, “Mama make the Johnny Cake, Christmas coming!”

December 23, 2009


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Festivus!

By Anthony L Hall:

Even long before William Shakespeare patented this literary device, jesters had been used in plays and other forms of entertainment to highlight the folly in prevailing thoughts and customs of the day.

Therefore, it seems entirely fitting that it took jesters on the comedy show Seinfeld to highlight the blithe spirit with which we have made Christmas a celebration more of crass commercialism than of the birth of Christ. For it was on this show that most Christians worldwide were first introduced to the celebration of “Festivus for the rest of us.”

Anthony L. Hall is a descendant of the Turks & Caicos Islands, international lawyer and political consultant - headquartered in Washington DC - who publishes his own weblog, The iPINIONS Journal, at offering commentaries on current events from a Caribbean perspectiveFestivus, which is celebrated on December 23, began in 1965 as a family ritual in the home of writer Dan O’Keefe. And, interestingly enough, it was his son Daniel, a writer for Seinfeld, who wove the entire history and meaning of Festivus into the December 18, 1997 episode of the show.

I saw this episode; and I can attest to the fact that the uproarious laughter all references to Festivus elicited was surpassed only by the cunning messages about the real meaning of Christmas that I felt compelled to ponder long after the end of this episode.

Ironically, Festivus is a wholly secular attempt to remind us that Jesus is the reason for the season. Accordingly, it encourages us to utterly shun not only the indulgent ritual of shopping but all of the other hedonistic activities Christians engage in this time of year.

The O’Keefes reportedly do this by engaging in the antic practices of having an “Airing of Grievances” meal, at which each person tells other family members all the ways they disappointed him or her over the past year. This meal is then followed by a “Feats of Strength” performance, during which family members must wrestle and pin the head of household to the floor to bring the celebration of Festivus to a close...

Of course, since there’s no religious dogma associated with this holiday, you do not have to follow the O’Keefe’s fashion when celebrating this holiday. Instead, you can choose whatever non-commercial activities you wish to engage in to celebrate Festivus. For example, I think the most spiritual way of doing this would be to take a family walk on the beach and commune with nature.

In any event, I urge you to think – “What would Jesus do?” – before joining the madding crowd of those rushing out in a last-minute dash to spend money in a patently perverse effort to celebrate His birth.

Happy Festivus ... and Merry Christmas!

December 23, 2009


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Say a prayer for Jamaica this Christmas

One of the ways in which the global recession is beginning to impact disposable incomes of people in the Caribbean is the fact that governments throughout the region have sought, or will seek, to raise taxes. With three days to go before the last Christmas of the first decade of the 21st century, it may have been a little unusual to see parliamentarians in Port-of-Spain debating legislation as fundamental as the major reform to the country’s system of property taxation. One of the points about the proposed property tax is that it seeks to provide the Government with a substantial new revenue plank at a time when the country’s revenue base has been challenged by the sharp decline in earnings from the country’s energy sector. The fact is that the Government forecasts that it will earn $37.9 billion in revenue from all sources in the fiscal year October 2008 to September 2009. This is a 39 per cent decline in tax revenue from the year before.

Based on an assumption of an oil price of US$55 per barrel and a natural gas price of US$2.75 per million cubic feet, the Government predicts that total revenue for the current fiscal year will amount to $36.6 billion. But while the decision by the Government to proceed with the new property tax has led to a great deal of heat, T&T nationals should consider the situation in which our neighbours to the north find themselves. In Jamaica, the Minister of Finance last week tabled in their Parliament the third set of revenue-raising measures for their fiscal year which ends in April. The Jamaican economy has been devastated by the sharp decline in its three main sources of foreign earnings: taxes on its alumina and bauxite resources, revenue collected from tourists who visit the island, and money sent to Jamaicans by friends and family members living in the US, Canada and the UK.

Jamaica has also been impacted by years of living beyond its means—by spending significantly more than it collects—with budgets over the years being balanced only because the country has been able to borrow from international and local banks at ever-increasing interest rates. But with three credit rating agencies downgrading Jamaica’s foreign debt to levels that indicate that there is an expectation that the country will not be able to service its debts, there are few commercial banks that would be brave enough to lend Jamaica money—even if banks the world over did not face liquidity concerns. As a result of global downturn and its own lack of fiscal prudence over the last three decades, the country has been forced back into the arms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—with which Jamaica has had a fractious relationship.

In preparation for the new stand-by agreement with the IMF, the Jamaican Government has been placed in the invidious position of having to announce a punitive package of new and increased taxes a little more than a week before that country celebrates Christmas. Among the measures that were announced in the Jamaican Parliament to be implemented on January 1 were an increase in the general consumption tax (GCT) from 16.5 per cent to 17.5 per cent and an expansion in the tax base of the GCT to include many food items such as fresh fruit and vegetables, ground provisions, sugar, salt, flour and cooking oil. Jamaica’s Minister of Finance also announced increases in the taxes on electricity and gasoline. Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who made an unannounced visit to Port-of-Spain last Wednesday as the country seeks to divest its national air carrier, made it clear in a statement on Sunday that he has no choice but to raise taxes.

“I urge the Jamaican people to understand that our choices are extremely limited and there is no easy way out. Our current revenues cannot meet our required expenditures and we cannot continue to borrow our way into an even worse crisis,” said Mr Golding. While we say a prayer for our brothers and sisters in Jamaica, we also need to learn from them the dangers of living beyond our means.

22 Dec 2009


Monday, December 21, 2009

Climate Summit deal 'falls short of what's required to avoid catastrophe'

Tribune Staff Reporter

THE critical two-week long UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen ended on Friday without a legally-binding deal being reached on efforts to curb global carbon emissions and no set future date by which attempts would be made to achieve such an agreement.

Chairman of CARICOM, President of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo, told The Tribune yesterday that the deal reached between a number of countries at the summit "has some positive elements but falls short of what is required to avoid catastrophic climate change".

The so-called Copenhagen Accord brokered between the US, China, Brazil, South Africa and India involves "significant departures from CARICOM's position" on what the Summit needed to achieve for the benefit of its members and the world in the fight against global climate change, added the President.

Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham was one of three CARICOM leaders including Mr Jagdeo who, along with dozens of world leaders, decided to personally attended the UN Climate Summit last week in the hope of helping to ensure a meaningful outcome would be reached.

While at the Summit, Mr Ingraham made a speech in which he reiterated his warning that the Bahamas "will suffer catastrophic results if emissions are not stabilized and reduced".

"A temperature rise of two degrees Celsius will result in sea level rise of two metres and will submerge 80 per cent of our territory," stated Mr Ingraham.

Yesterday Mr Jagdeo noted that the Accord announced late Friday night by US President Barack Obama "seeks to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels (but) the commitments listed (by individual countries on cutting carbon emissions) in its appendices would lead to an increase of over 3 degrees".

CARICOM and the Alliance of Small Island States, of which The Bahamas is a part, had both called for countries to commit at Copenhagen to doing what is necessary to limit temperature increases to 1.5 celsius above pre-industrial levels if its members and other countries are "to stay alive".

Speaking at the close of the Summit, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called the deal "an essential beginning" but cautioned that serious work lies ahead to turn it into a legally binding treaty.

Nonetheless he praised the fact that "all countries have agreed to work towards a common long-term goal to limit the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius; many governments have made important commitments to reduce or limit emissions; countries have achieved significant progress on preserving forests; and countries have agreed to provide comprehensive support to the most vulnerable to cope with climate change".

President Obama called the Accord an "important breakthrough that lays the foundation for international action in the years to come" but also admitted that it leaves the world with "much further to go" to get the legally binding agreement that is agreed to be necessary to avert the most devastating potential impacts of climate change.

And besides the question of turning the Accord into an agreement with legal teeth, the criticism remains that while it "recognises" the scientific case for keeping global temperature rises to no more than two degrees celsius in total it does not contain the kind of commitments by countries to reductions in emissions that would achieve that goal.

Meanwhile, it is not yet known whether all 192 countries outside of the small group who ultimately negotiated the Accord will adopt it.

Yesterday Mr Jagdeo, who has been a strong advocate for action on climate change, said that based on what transpired at Copenhagen, he does not think the type of agreement which climate experts say is necessary to save small island and low lying states like The Bahamas and Guyana can now be reached by the end of 2010.

December 21, 2009


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest

By David Roberts:

First the good news. Support for democracy in Latin America is at its highest level since the late 1990s, according to the latest version of the highly respected Latinobarómetro survey, published a few days ago. And that's despite the quasi coup in Honduras and the financial crisis-cum-economic slump.

Overall explicit support for democracy - those believing it is preferable to any other system of government - stands at 59%, according to the survey of some 18,000 people in all Latin American countries except Cuba. Last year the figure came in at 57% and the year before 54%.

"Implicit" approval, meaning accepting democracy has its shortcomings but it's still better than other systems - what Latinobarómetro calls Churchillian democracy based on his famous quote paraphrased in the headline of this column - stands at 76% in the 2009 survey.

"In summary… Latin America is more democratic after the 2009 crisis, it is more tolerant, is happier," the survey's authors conclude, as reforms in the region are starting to bear fruit. It seems we've never had it so good, to paraphrase another former British prime minister.

Interestingly, support is strongest in Venezuela, a country where many regard democracy as being under threat at present, at 85% in the explicit category and 90% in the implicit one, the 2009 version of the survey concludes. Perhaps if Cuba had been included it would have scored even higher. Next, in the explicit category, come Uruguay, Costa Rica and Bolivia.

A little disturbingly, however, at the other end of the scale support is a mere 42% in Mexico (explicit) and 62% implicit. It's also worryingly low in Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Guatemala, at least according to the 115 page survey produced by the Santiago-based NGO.

It's easy to pick holes in a survey of this type, but one thing is for sure: Latin America is in much better shape now than it was two or three decades ago, at least in terms of democracy and stability.

In the 1970s and 80s, military regimes ruled large parts of South America (Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay) while Paraguay was under the iron fist of Alfredo Stroessner. Bolivia's "palace coups" were all too frequent, and Mexico was effectively a one-party state.

In the 1980s, civil wars were raging in Central America, Cuba was seen as a real military threat to much of the region and Peru was rocked by terrorist violence, while Colombia was being torn apart by guerrillas, drug barons and paramilitaries. Then there was the US invasion of Panama, and in the 1990s came the Zapatista "uprising" in Mexico's Chiapas.

And while the recent crisis has hit the region hard, especially Mexico and those countries more dependent on manufacturing and US markets, things need to be put into perspective. In the 1980s, we had hyperinflation in many countries in the region, the infamous debt crisis and banking meltdown after meltdown, and that's not to mention the Tequila and Asian crises that followed.

Today, with the one obvious exception of Cuba and the less obvious one of Honduras given the recent elections and the prospect that the "civil coup" will simply peter out after Porfirio Lobo takes office, democracy in some form or another prevails universally throughout the region, as witnessed most recently by Sunday's elections in Chile. In the meantime, there are plenty of signs that the region and the world are emerging from the recent economic crisis.

So, reasons to be cheerful there are indeed, although as Latinobarómetro says, the positive results of this year's survey provide no motive to celebrate just yet given the problems in the region and the potential to return to instability.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Caribbean Region needs to focus more on environmental leadership

There must be more emphasis on environmental leadership and regional co-ordination in the Caribbean.

This was the message of Dr. Mark Griffith, as his organisation CaribInvest
honoured seven regional luminaries that have made an outstanding contribution to environmental sustainability. The event took place on Wednesday evening as part of the two-day Second Caribbean Dialogue on Caribbean Economic Expansion, Investment and Opportunities Arising from the Economic Partnership Agreement at the PomMarine Hotel.

Griffith noted that the environment had not been one of the key issues taken on by CARICOM, but noted that there had been a lot of work on the issue in past decades which was not necessarily being recognised. To this end, the recipients have also been honoured in a book entitled “Nuts and Bolts” by Griffith and Derrick Oderson that is dedicated to issues relating to Caribbean Community law and regional environmental co-ordination.

“Essentially, the publication seeks to put into perspective what has taken place in the region since the late 1980s,” Griffith said during the presentation. This, he said, was derived from the lack of historical perspective on what our negotiators have achieved in terms of the evolution of environmental and sustainable development co-ordination in the Caribbean.

Griffith said the book was dedicated to several people who have made a significant contribution to the area of environmental sustainability, explaining, “The period late 1980s–mid-1990s is described in the book as the golden period of regional co-ordination.”

The honourees included Dr. Ted Aldridge, a Jamaican, who worked tirelessly to promote regional environmental co-ordination and Charles Leeward, a former Ambassador from Guyana to the United Nations Environment Programme, for his strong role in environmental co-ordination; both are deceased. In addition, Professor B. Persaud, former Director of Economic Affairs Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat and Minister Lincoln Myers of Trinidad and Tobago, who Griffith described as one of the most outstanding Ministers of Environment in the region, were both noted for their roles in the 1994 Small Island Developing States (SIDS) conference in Barbados. Furthermore, Myers was noted for his role in spearheading the creation of the Alliance of Small Island States, which was launched in 1989 and helped direct more focus on small island developing states.

Former Guyanese Foreign Minister Rashleigh Jackson was also honoured for the important guidance he provided for the designation of SIDS. Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Teresa Marshall, was recognised for her role in ensuring the success of the First Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of SIDS, which was held in Barbados in 1994. Griffith said Marshall played a significant role in bringing together the developing states to partner, without which the conference would not have been a success. Finally, former Prime Minister of Barbados, Sir Lloyd Sandiford, was lauded for the support he showed for the conference being hosted in Barbados despite the economic difficulties being faced. (NC)



Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Extradited Jamaican has case dismissed

Mark Beckford, Staff Reporter:

Another Jamaican has had his court case dismissed by a United States judge because of lack of evidence, after being extradited to that country on charges of trafficking of cocaine and money laundering.

Adrian Armstrong's case was dismissed on September 23 after being extradited to the US in 2006. This was after spending two years in custody in Jamaica.

Armstrong's ordeal began when he was arrested on July 11, 2004 on a narcotics charge.

On July 13, 2006, he decided to discontinue his fight against the charges in the US after reportedly "losing faith" in the local justice system.

Armstrong's charges were based on evidence offered by a co-operating witness known as Duffis Alexander, who presented himself as a witness.

The witness purported to have taped and recorded telephone conversations between himself and Armstrong regarding cocaine trafficking and money laundering. Neither the tape nor a transcript of the tape was supplied with the extradition request.

Applications to the resident magistrate and to the Supreme Court, as well as requests to the requesting state's representative for the tape, were unsuccessful.

In the US, these tapes were presented in court and subsequently examined by an expert on behalf of Armstrong, and two experts, on behalf of the government.

Examination of these tapes revealed there were several discrepancies.

These included stop-start features on the recording, a possibility that there was over-recording, anomalies which question its moral integrity and the possibility of tampering.


Based on evidence, on December 30, 2008, the US judge ordered the suppression of the tape, but denied the motion to dismiss on the basis of outrageous government conduct.

The prosecution then offered Armstrong a plea to a lesser offence, which he refused.

Armstrong's lawyer persisted with the motion to dismiss, which was finally granted on the government's application on September 23.

Armstrong has not yet returned to the island, his lawyer Jacqueline Samuels-Brown told The Gleaner.

She said she was in contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as her client had no passport for travel. She said he was in the process of gathering these documents to return home.

Picking up the pieces will not be so easy, Samuels-Brown said, as Armstrong has reportedly expressed disappointment at how he was treated.

"The way I would characterise him is that he is a patient person, a fighter, and his spirits remain strong. He has reiterated his love and commitment to his country, but he is disappointed that his country did not afford him the facilities and the protection of the law," said Samuels-Brown.

December 16, 2009


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More tax for Bahamas Banking sector

By Scott Armstrong ~ Guardian Business Editor ~

The domestic banking sector of The Bahamas is set to be hit by increased taxes next year, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham has vowed.

Speaking at a press conference at Nassau' airport the Prime Minister said: "The banking sector in The Bahamas is under-taxed, we've made that point before. We began last year increasing the licensing fees for banks in The Bahamas, that is inadequate.

"The banking sector should pay more and in due course they will be required to pay more."

One leading light in the financial world to agreed that the banking sector should be taxed harder.

President/chief executive of British American Financial Chester Cooper said: "Many offshore centers like the Bahamas appear to be increasing indirect taxes with a view to avoiding the implementation of more direct means of taxation such as income taxes or Value Added Taxes (VAT).

"Quite frankly, in time we will find that we have delayed the inevitable. Direct taxation although not without its challenges will be more efficient in terms of collections and otherwise, but is more progressive and equitable as well.

"It has long been the view that banks in the Bahamas are under-taxed and the formula quite rightly needs to be re-assessed. Insurers for example, pay a percentage of top line Gross premiums by way of premium taxes. This amount can work out to be inequitable and substantial, as there is no regard for whether the company makes a profit or not."

December 15, 2009


Monday, December 14, 2009

Our leadership paradox in the Caribbean

Michael Harris:

This past week I was in Jamaica where the venerable daily newspaper the Gleaner took the unprecedented step of publishing a series of four consecutive special editorials essentially calling on all sectors of Jamaican society to rally together to find solutions to the deep and seemingly endemic problems which that country faces.

In addition to the Gleaner’s own editorials, the paper also invited several prominent citizens to a round-table discussion in which they were asked not only to address what they saw as the causes of the problems but to put forward their views as to the required solutions.

What struck me about the whole discussion was the almost unanimous view of the several participants that a key component of the problem was the failure of leadership in the years since independence. What makes such a perspective really remarkable is the fact that Jamaica has had, since independence, a progression of exceedingly powerful and, in some cases, extremely charismatic leaders.

From the heroes of the nationalist movement, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante, to Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, to PJ Patterson, Jamaica has had no dearth of strong leaders. How is it then that today, 47 years after independence, prominent voices in society, including former prime minister Seaga himself, could look at their history and conclude that a key contributory factor to the nation’s problems was a failure of leadership?

That question goes to the heart of the political conundrum not only of Jamaica but of the entire English-speaking Caribbean. The key political legacy in all these countries was a model of governance in which all power and authority resided in the person of the governor, the representative of the imperial power.

In some countries, some sectors of the society enjoyed varying degrees of representation but even in such instances these sectors still saw themselves and their status in relation to their degree of access to such centralised power. As for the people in general theirs was a condition of total powerlessness and zero access to power.

The only real change in the model had come a few years before political independence with the general introduction of full adult suffrage which meant that the masses of people could no longer be completely ignored but had to be wooed periodically for their support.

This in turn, after a while, led to the advent of political parties as the most effective means of corralling the support of people behind different political leaders. However these political parties for the most part never became institutions of people participation, where the ordinary supporters could engage in policy debate and discussion, and be exposed to political education and development.

The consequences of this in the post-independence period were several. In the first place the leaders who came into government inherited the enormous powers of the colonial executive but did not have, either inside their political parties or outside, any institutionalised channels for consulting the views of the people on the policies and programmes to be adopted.

On the other hand the political parties themselves, being simply vehicles for electoral mobilisation rather than political mobilisation, possessed no powers of constraint on the exercise of governmental power by their leaders.

The further result was a critical disconnect between the political leaders in government and the mass of their supporters, a disconnect which, for electoral purposes, could only be bridged by the sustained proffering of patronage. There is no country in the English-speaking Caribbean in which this is not the essential characteristic of the major political parties.

Herein lies the heart of the leadership paradox in Jamaica, as in Trinidad, as in every one of our Caribbean countries. Our leaders possess enormous amounts of legal and constitutional authority which they inherited when they took over the colonial model of governance. They are, in fact, our modern-day governors. The problem is that they are incapable of transforming such overwhelming authority into genuine political power, if we understand political power to be the ability to persuade and commit.

And the truth is that under conditions of independence, our governments, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how ’strong’, will never be able to solve the kind of economic and social problems we have in the Caribbean without persuading the vast majority of citizens to commit themselves to the effort and the sacrifices necessary for the solutions which we need to work.

That is the paradox. So many powerful leaders possessing so little leadership capacity. For leadership capacity does not depend on oratorical skills, it does not depend on intellectual ability, it does not depend of innate goodness and it certainly does not depend on divine drunkenness.

Leadership capacity depends on the existence and maintenance of institutions of political information, consultation and exchange between leaders and supporters which, when used in a genuine way and on a sustained basis, allows the leaders to time and space to persuade and commit. In short it depends on the existence of genuine political parties rather than election mobilisation outfits.

I am not familiar enough with Jamaica to hazard a guess as to what will happen there. Here in Trinidad however all the signs point to a total collapse of the old politics and with it the old political parties. That eventuality surely must present us with a golden opportunity to fashion new institutions of leadership.

December 14th 2009


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jamaican senator wants marijuana decriminalised

KINGSTON, Jamaica (JIS) -- Jamaican Senator Dennis Meadows has revived interest in the debate on the decriminalisation of marijuana (ganja) in Parliament.

"What I am advocating is that ganja, at the level of spliffs for private use, (should) be treated similarly to a traffic ticket," Meadows argued in his contribution to the 2009/10 State of the Nation Debate in the Senate on Friday

"What now obtains is only serving to criminalise our already marginalised young men and women, thereby creating a reservoir of hopelessness," the Senator suggested.

He said that, for example, many young men were unable to take advantage of the Government's farm work programme, because of a previous ganja conviction, at the level of a spliff (or joint).

"Decriminalisation, among other things, will serve to free up the police resources and the already stressed justice system to focus on more serious crimes," Meadows insisted.

He also suggested that the government take steps to debate the recommendations of the Report of the National Commission on Ganja in Parliament, and to pursue diplomatic efforts to avoid international repercussions.

He noted that there are persons who would argue that, because of treaty obligations, any attempt to decriminalise ganja will be met with far reaching diplomatic repercussions, particularly as it relates to the United States. However, he said that the Jamaican people wanted closure on the issue and were demanding action, now.

The National Commission on Ganja had recommended, among other things, that use of small quantities of marijuana should be decriminalised.

December 14, 2009


Trinidad and Tobago: 80 % of citizens unhappy with Manning Government

Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago are not at all satisfied with the manner in which their country is being run by the Manning administration.

The level of public approval is shockingly low, notwithstanding the fact that fieldwork for the survey was conducted during the run up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) when activities were undertaken which should have boosted the image of the Prime Minister and his regime.

Eighty per cent of the sample said they were dissatisfied with the manner in which the country was being managed.

Thirty-five per cent were ’very dissatisfied’ while 45 per cent were ’dissatisfied.’ Only four per cent were ’very satisfied’ and 12 per cent were ’satisfied,’ an aggregate of 16 per cent. This figure was seven points lower than what was recorded in our November 2008 Survey when 23 per cent of the sample said they were satisfied.

Four per cent could not make up their minds as to whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied. Surveys conducted by other agencies show similar evidence of disenchantment.

Not surprisingly, more Indo-Trinidadians reported that they were dissatisfied with Manning’s performance than Afro-Trinidadians.

Eighty-seven per cent of them were disenchanted compared to 76 per cent of the latter. Unhappiness is ubiquitous and felt across the board.

Citizens were also of the view that the Government was squandering public money. As many as 76 per cent averred that government was frittering away tax payers money which could be more productively used. Eighteen per cent ’disagreed’ and five per cent could not say for sure.

More Indo-Trinidadians (85 per cent) complained about waste than did Afro-Trinidadians (69 per cent).

Notwithstanding all the social support programmes and policies that have been put in place as part of Government’s 20-20 vision, many Trinidadians say they are worse off today than they were in October 2007 when the government was returned to power. Forty-four per cent report that they are ’worse off’ or ’much worse off;’ 39 per cent however say that their circumstances are the ’same.’ Only 17 per cent said they were ’better off’ or ’much better off.’ Twice as many Indo-Trinidadians (62 per cent) perceived themselves as being worse off than did Afro-Trinidadians (31 per cent).

December 13th 2009


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chavez must look homeward to nurse his ailing revolution

By Monique Blanco, COHA Research Associate:

In 1998, Venezuelans broke with political tradition by electing a well-known and controversial populist colonel named Hugo Chávez Frias as president. They ignored precedent because the long-established, IMF-inspired, neoliberal prescriptions were hurting the nation and no longer credible.

In the eleven years since his rise to prominence, Chávez has changed the fabric of Venezuelan society through his self-denominated Revolución Bolivariana. Long-sought changes aimed at different sectors of Venezuelan society, such as the political system and the economy, have come at a heavy price: crime and violence are rampant, inflation is soaring, and Chávez’s often picante rhetoric has become an international punch line.

While it is undeniable that he has brought about vast social change in his country and region, his explosive administrative style and the alarming divisive state of the country call into question his ability to manage his socialist revolution.

Venezuelan Leader Begets Problems

For many of the twenty-eight million Venezuelans, equality in the nation’s social, economic, and political forums is a top priority. This basic principle is the essence of la Revolución, which provided the provenance for the promises that carried Chávez into office on a wave of popularity.

Despite the winds of change, Venezuela has shown considerable vulnerability in the current global recession, with an ailing economy, hunger, and huge inflation rates. Furthermore, the deteriorating safety net that has protected many of his core constituency—those who have been lifted from poverty by his social programs—has begun to exhibit signs of serious slippage. To top it all off, there has also been a growing dissatisfaction throughout his national constituency.

It is up to Venezuelans to decide whether Chávez is honoring his own pledge to sustainably implement his promises, rather than mishandle a golden opportunity. Chávez’s policies, both his achievements and his failures, must be examined in order to analyze whether the principles set forth by la Revolución have been strategically advanced. Ultimately, the verdict will rest in the hands of average Venezuelans who will judge the effectiveness of Chávez’s approach based on their long-standing aspirations for a more just society.

Venezuela before Chávez

Before Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, Venezuela was a vastly different country than it is today. While it was still one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America, the elite political and economic establishments systematically mistreated and marginalized the larger segment of Venezuelan society: the poor. For four decades, only two parties ruled—Acción Democratica (AD) and Partido Social Cristiano de Venezuela (COPEI). Both of these traditional parties were effectively blind to the masses while they faultlessly catered to the political and economic elite. This system was a foundation for the growth of severe economic stratification prevalent throughout the region. The poor were largely invisible to the rich, with little or no access to the country’s natural resources and foundations of power. Millions of Venezuelans struggled to survive and lacked the political voice to affect their circumstances. These conditions were rooted in a deeply entrenched system of neo-liberal economic fundamentals and a corrupt bureaucracy led by a series of tough-minded presidents who were democrats only in name.

By the 1970s, when President Carlos Andrés Peréz first came to power, the Venezuelan government had an unalterable profile of being pro-business and pro-United States. However, the debt crisis of the 1970s-80s plagued Venezuela, along with the rest of Latin America, eventually leading to an IMF-architected free-market restructuring in 1989, which was championed by Peréz. This directly contradicted Peréz’s “no IMF” campaign promise and stirred waves of civil unrest. The intensification of neoliberal adjustments consisted of privatization and the elimination of oil subsidies that had been used for social programs and domestic staples. The elimination of these subsidies sorely tested Venezuelans, and in reaction to Peréz’s implementation of the IMF policies, people took to the streets in protest beginning on February 25th, 1989. The result was a tremendous violence that ultimately became known as el Caracazo, which took the lives of anywhere up to three thousand Venezuelans.

After the violence subsided, an air of anger swept over the nation. Venezuelans were tired of ineffective US-inspired free-market policies and a corrupt political system that underrepresented them. The resulting undercurrent boiled over again in 1992 when two separate coup d’etats were attempted, the more famous led by Hugo Chávez, who was later pardoned by President Rafael Caldera. In 1998, Chávez rode that very same wave of frustration and anger all the way into office, providing a fresh face, new voice, and promises to break the suffocating status quo. He swore to transform the government’s focus from catering to the elite to responding to the poor, leaving the neo-liberal system behind in favor of a socialist one. Eleven years later, the socialist Venezuela of today still remains a divided country embroiled in turmoil and engulfed by violence.

Chávez: Social Policies and Impacts

In his decade-long tenure, Chávez unquestionably has endeavored to improve conditions for the average Venezuelan. Of his many achievements, perhaps the most obvious is the hope and excitement he has brought to the country’s poor. Before his presidency, millions of Venezuelans had felt deserted, neglected, and marginalized by their government to the point where they could not envision change. Chávez reintroduced them to a hope that had previously been squelched. These promises of hope and equality for the poor took shape through his social misiones.

Barrio Adentro is one of Chávez’s original misiones that officially began in 2003. Its goal was to provide a national single payer system of health care comprised of free health clinics in poor Venezuelan barrios. The first clinics, which covered basic health care, dental care, and sports training, were so successful that the government created Barrio Adentro II. This second phase introduced more advanced and comprehensive diagnostic and rehabilitation centers. Individual bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have praised these programs for their numerous successes, such as the drop in female infant mortality rates from 1.9% to 1.7%. Approximately 30,000 individuals, including thousands of Cuban doctors, staff the Barrio Adentro network of clinics. The program’s success can also be attributed to the job opportunities it has provided for the poor as staffers in the clinics.

Building on the success of the Barrio Adentros, Chávez implemented similarly structured missions covering such fields as nutrition (Misión Alimentacion), literacy (Misión Robinson), and eye diseases (Misión Milagro), among others. He’s also allocated US$57 million for future independent community improvement projects. Chávez has even extended his vision of equality and support to the indigenous community through Misión Guaicaipuro, specifically working to protect indigenous peoples from land expropriation, human rights abuses, and resource exploitation. There is still a long way to go, but under Chávez, these groups have experienced a higher degree of attention, protection, and integration than many had thought possible.

The misiones also have served to significantly reduce the degree of extreme poverty in the country. According to a study in the academic journal Social Medicine, between 1998 and 2007, extreme poverty drastically decreased from 20.6% to 9.41%. Overall poverty also declined during this period, from 42% of households living in poverty in 1999, to 37.8% in 2005. The extensive network of social programs and the lowered poverty levels are impressive examples of Chávez’s conversion of revolutionary campaign promises into tangible social results.

Although Chávez continues to implement positive social programs, he is also seemingly attempting to cement his position, prompting accusations of constitutional and civil rights violations. Whether or not Chávez is purposely attempting to create division, his approaches have left many feeling alienated, vulnerable, and disenfranchised, the media being a prime example. Much of the international community has become concerned over free speech violations as Chávez’s adversary treatment of the media in Venezuela has become widely documented, although his critics tend to downplay the media’s often unprofessional assaults against Chávez. While the hostilities are largely mutual, to Chávez critics, the government has a responsibility to remain unbiased in its law enforcement. On the other hand, Chávistas see this argument as lacking substance because of the opposition’s own virulent tactics.

Chávez’s confrontation with the media partly stems from a 2005 law that prohibits the writing and airing of material that is “deemed a danger to national security,” a violation punishable by jail time. There has been intense speculation that by lawfully establishing a vaguely worded prejudicial atmosphere, Chávez could implicitly intimidate the press by enforcing self-censorship, all the while avoiding accusations of doing so. In 2007, the conversation turned from speculation to accusation when Venezuelan authorities refused to renew Radio Caracas Television Internacional’s (RCTV) license. For many, this was blatant censorship given the fact that RCTV has been Chávez’s most formidable critic since 1998. Chávez advocates came forth with a powerful charge of their own, accusing the network of being actively engaged in the 2002 coup and other unprofessional actions, thus completely warranting its shutdown.

Outright hostilities grew when approximately 200 radio stations across the country were shut down in August of 2009, most of which were very small, local opposition stations. Here, government officials responded by warding off charges of censorship through an insistence that these stations were being closed because of license requirement violations, and not their political convictions. Chávez’s critics maintain that rather than talk, he is attempting to aggressively silence them and that his failure to negotiate a compromise has brought justified criticism upon his administration. Regional specialists also found that, like many of his other controversial policy moves, Chávez took a divisive approach, which has resulted in a propaganda war. This on-going confrontation alone runs the risk of escalating into an irresolvable conflict, which many fear could lead to civil war.

On a different front, Chávez is currently attempting to pass a law that would subject labor union elections to state scrutiny, which would be a clear violation of constitutional self-determination provisions. However, government officials make a good case that the notoriety of union leaders and their alleged penchant for corruption warrant the close government oversight of the current legislation. There also have been reports of pro-Chávez officials arbitrarily charging labor protesters with subversion because of protests in close proximity to designated security zones, i.e. the factories where they work. Chávez’s opponents insist that in trying to undermine the main unions, he has antagonized one of the most powerful allies of leftist governments, a mistake that could come back to haunt him. On the other hand, Chávistas cite the unions’ involvement in the 2002 failed coup as justification for the president’s wariness.

With his administration already embroiled in warfare along any number of sectors, Chávez’s choice to continue performing a constitutional tight rope act seems unwise. On February 15, 2009, President Chávez oversaw the passage of a constitutional amendment that eliminated term limits, allowing him and other elected officials, to run for re-election indefinitely. Despite international opposition, the referendum was carried out legally, but with troubling implications. Chávez pursued a change in one fundamental aspect of democracy—legally-mandated self-succession, making long-term abuses of power more possible. In addition, by eliminating presidential term limits, Chávez has made the revolution almost entirely synonymous with himself. This is a risky move because once Chávez is replaced, the revolution may have no chance of surviving without the guidance of its iconic leader.

With no term limits and with a discretionary eighteen-month period of rule by decree, accusations of a virtual Chávez dictatorship are not surprising. It seems that President Chávez, instead of subscribing to a philosophy that unifies his country by bringing differing elements of the population together, has chosen a different path. He continues to pursue ex parte measures to accomplish his goals, such as twice attempting to pursue elimination of term limits instead of finding more conciliatory means to maintain his influence after his initial referendum was rejected by the electorate. The results of such choices are obvious when looking at the violence, deep political polarization, and biting rhetoric, which has threatened the long-term viability of the revolution.

A Faltering Economic Transformation?

Some of President Chávez’s most progressive feats have been in the economic arena. Here, he has experienced two particular triumphs: restructuring the banking system and protecting Venezuela’s main sources of wealth. Chávez enforced stepped-up measures of banking regulatory provisions in order to prevent institutional misconduct. By implementing comprehensive regulations, Chávez has ensured the curbing of future banking abuses, saving Venezuela from a possible Wall Street-like debacle that could profoundly damage the national economy.

Secondly, while certainly controversial, Chávez’s nationalization campaign of large private industries has translated into a number of real benefits for the country. Instead of Venezuelan resources being exploited by profiteering foreign corporations, Chávez has made sure that the nation is the primary beneficiary of its national resources. The profits from oil and other minerals’ extraction and refinement, as well as the resources themselves, are now in the hands of their real owners—the Venezuelan people. This gives the government enhanced revenue for a greater number of social programs, as well as the raw materials needed to sustain its industrial sector. With the extra funds coming from the growing state-owned sector, Chávez’s social programs have helped Venezuela better weather the recent economic tribulations than other nations. For instance, according to the IMF, Venezuela’s predicted 2009 GDP growth is -1.9%, while countries like the Czech Republic and Germany are suffering through -4.3% and -5.2% contractions, respectively. While Venezuela is certainly not immune to outside trade and investment permutations, especially due to its dependency on oil revenues, the government’s social programs have been able to mitigate some of the immediate negative consequences impacting average Venezuelans.

It is certainly important to acknowledge the government’s aforementioned accomplishments, it is also important to address the massive setbacks that have developed under the Chávez administration. While a number of Venezuela’s current economic quandaries are in reality out of his control, many either have been poorly handled by the Venezuelan leader. One example that combines both outside circumstances and Chávez’s personal missteps can be found in specific corners of the Venezuelan economy. Despite nationalizing profitable industries, the economy is ailing due to high rates of inflation, an over-reliance on falling oil revenues, and a shortage of foreign direct investment. Inflation rates are astronomical, reaching 30% in recent months. Even though the rates of poverty have improved in recent years, that improvement is now unraveling.

Presently, inflation is so high that the average member of the lower class cannot afford basic amenities on their real wage salaries, and as a result, are sliding back into poverty. Inflation has not only affected the lifestyles of individuals: even discount food stores have suffered greatly. Many of these stores are closing down around the country because people cannot afford basic food items, even with the forty to fifty percent price cuts called for by the government. Although poverty rates have been steadily falling for a decade, today, around 40% of the population still can be found below the poverty line, a number that is inching upwards.

Chávez could have taken measures to ensure the structural integrity and sustainability of la Revolución Bolivariana. Instead, he at times miscalculated and now leads a country that still relies on oil for 90% of its export revenue and 50% of its federal budget. This has made for an asymmetrical economy with a devastating lack of FDI. Even though much of this plight pre-dates Chávez, his system of allowing Venezuela to rely almost entirely on oil for its revenue has put the country at the mercy of volatile international markets. In good economic times, oil prices are high and the country flourishes. However, when oil prices drop, Chávez’s misguided policies allow the economy to falter. Unfortunately, diversifying the country’s economy has not been the top priority for the Venezuelan leader and little progress has been made in this area.

As poverty continues to increase, people have been counting on the social programs which are also massively suffering. Not only have a number of Barrio Adentro clinic projects been abandoned, (only 3,000 of the planned 8,000 were actually constructed), budgetary cuts have also meant the scaling back on many of the services they once provided. Chávez has been forced to reduce expenditures and subsidies for hospitals, food, energy, and education. In 2009 alone, funding of social programs by Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) dropped from US$7.1 billion to US$2.7 billion. Today, the programs are in a precarious position due to Chávez’s miscalculated over-reliance on oil proceeds for program funding which has placed the entire network in jeopardy. Consequently, even though the president has gone ahead with building the social safety net he promised, mistakes in the planning process may significantly reduce his ability to provide for a soft landing.

Venezuelans must now live with the financial repercussions of having no easy economic recourse in the event of low oil prices. Millions of Venezuelans are now hoping that the recession will pass quietly and without serious collateral damage to the country’s social structure. To make a bad situation worse, Chávez’s hostility towards foreign investors has scared off money from overseas, despite historical grounds for Chávez’s justified fears of private sector abuses. Nationalizing major industries has helped to keep the wealth at home, but it also has discouraged a number of potential investors and much needed foreign capital. As The Economist points out, state run and private corporations alike are apprehensive over investing in Venezuela. Chávez’s proposed contracts for oil extracting ventures are today demanding “a 60% share and operational control in each block while not putting up any money. On top of that the government will take a 33% royalty and a windfall tax.” Many corporations are wary of investing in Venezuela under such harsh terms with no assurances that Chávez will not expropriate their installations down the road. This fear has resulted in the country witnessing capital flight without any economic remedies to offset the dire transitional effects of such a rush.

While Chávez has made miscalculations when dealing with the national economy, on the international economic front, he has fared far better. Due to his differences with the US government, Chávez has tended to steer away from the historically dependent relationship with Washington in favor of building financial ties with other nations such as Cuba, Iran, Russia, and most recently, China. Russia has agreed to begin joint oil drilling ventures, Venezuela and Iran are exploring the country’s uranium deposits, and China has invested in Venezuelan oil fields, all providing sizable sums of investment. While these relationships are largely considered controversial, they could provide Venezuela with a much-needed alternative to the narrowly structured US-Venezuela trade relation. More important than even the symbolic rebellion over the unprecedented nature of these ties are their portentous economic implications. While oil revenues can cover much of the governmental costs for Venezuela’s expensive social programs, no nation can have a robust economy without a stable FDI structure. Given Venezuela’s tense relationship with Washington, Chávez has found a natural substitution with trade alternatives presented by Russia and China.

Chávez’s initiatives have not been limited to other continents alone. In fact, his most newly established involvements have been very close to home. Under his guidance, Venezuela has grown into a regional power player with deep investment in South American integration and development. In 2007, Venezuela and Brazil started a joint financial venture called BancoSur. This organization is meant to be a friendlier, Latin American-equivalent of the IMF, and is designed to provide financial aid in continental development projects, such as roads, pipelines, and railways. Chávez, along with other regional leaders, also launched TeleSur, a Latin American regional TV network that according to its chairman Andrés Izarra, has a “[common] aim to present Latin America’s vision of itself to the world.” In addition to these ventures, Chávez has been instrumental in founding PetroSur and PetroCaribe, organizations that facilitate the financing of subsidized oil purchases for Latin American nations and other parties.

Perhaps most importantly, Chávez has initiated a new concentration on continental trade. Countries can exchange subsidized Venezuelan oil for non-traditional products from otherwise underutilized industries as a way of boosting regional integration and development. One example is the 2006 trade deal between Venezuela and Bolivia where, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, Bolivia agreed to exchange goods and services for discounted Venezuelan oil and a US$1.5 billion investment.

Latin American integration and growing economic independence from the United States is becoming more of a reality everyday. In this regard, Chávez has done an innovative job of navigating regional politics and economic arrangements. Chávez and the Venezuelan economy have managed to make progress in weakening US influence in the region while promoting Venezuelan interests and projecting its power, no small accomplishment in a region historically dominated by the United States.

A Tarnished Image

Since appearing on the world stage in 1998, Hugo Chávez has become an international figure with his erratic personal behavior, legendary incorrect commentary, and often offensive evaluations of other leaders. Rather than comporting himself as a decorous world leader and sober national representative, he has at times behaved as what some have described as “a petulant child.” After calling former President Bush “the devil” at the UN General Meeting in 2006, leaders across the globe have cited the incidence as evidence of his “clownish” behavior and lacking political gravitas.

Chávez’s raffish style is further exemplified by his behavior at an Ibero-American Conference in 2007 in which he repeatedly interrupted the Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, causing a rare outburst from the Spanish King Juan Carlos I, who told Chávez “que te calles.” Of course, to many, Chávez scored a winning response when he addressed the Spanish monarch as “Mr King”, reminding him that he did not achieve office via election. Chávez admirers would further argue that Chávez’s derelictions are mainly a matter of style, that the Venezuelan leader is a preeminent democrat, and that his multiple shortcomings are trivial in nature.

Where is la Revolución Bolivariana Going?

Although now in diminishing numbers, clearly a majority of Venezuelans still feel confidence in their leader. They have elected him three times by wide margins, reinstated him after an attempted coup, and eventually passed a referendum to end term limits on his presidency. Despite the continued confidence in him, there is a growing sense of doubt and disaffection over the direction in which Chávez is taking the country. For those who lived during the second term of Carlos Andrés Peréz, Venezuela looks much like it did then—a country of deep political divisions, an economy in trouble, and the resumption of widespread poverty. These similarities to the 1980s show that, like Peréz, most of Chávez’s major promises of a systemic overhaul of the country’s institutions remain largely unfulfilled.

Yet, it is undeniable that Chávez has brought fundamental change to Venezuela. The poor have been given a political voice with an attentive audience and hope for a better future, something Peréz could never boast accomplishing. Nonetheless, Chávez’s unique opportunity for equalizing Venezuelan society may be slipping through his fingers; instead of reorganizing his priorities and devoting himself to the careful management of his revolution, he continues to choose making unsubstantiated grand-standing speeches. If Chávez is to make progress in achieving his 21st century Socialist Revolution, he may want to go after more bunt singles than home runs that turn out to be strikeouts.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, visit or email

December 12, 2009


Friday, December 11, 2009

Castro accuses Obama of cynicism over Nobel prize

HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters) -- Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro criticized US President Barack Obama on Wednesday for accepting the Nobel Peace Prize as he steps up the US war effort in Afghanistan by deploying more troops.

Castro said just two months ago that it was "a positive measure" for Obama to be awarded the prize by the Nobel Committee, a decision that stunned the White House when it was announced in October.

Obama will frame the war in Afghanistan as part of a wider pursuit for peace when he accepts the prize in Oslo on Thursday, a US official said.

But Castro, who has generally written positively about Obama, was more critical in a column published in state-run media.

"Why did Obama accept the Nobel Peace Prize when he'd already decided to fight the Afghanistan war to the last? He wasn't obliged to commit a cynical act," Castro wrote.

"The president of the United States doesn't say a word about the hundreds of thousands of people, including children and innocent elderly people, who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, adding that Washington's current policy is "the same as Bush's."

Castro, 83, ran Cuba for almost 50 years after taking power in a 1959 revolution but was sidelined by illness and handed over the presidency to younger brother Raul Castro last year.

The elder Castro has been seen only in occasional photos and videos since having surgery for an undisclosed intestinal ailment in July 2006. But he still has a behind-the-scenes role in government and keeps a high profile through his writings.

Climate change has been a prominent theme in his columns, and in Wednesday's article he said rich countries should make the "maximum sacrifice" at UN climate talks that began this week in Copenhagen.

December 11, 2009


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ahmadinejad - No great bargain for a struggling Chavez

By Ethan Katz, COHA Research Associate:

Since the initial election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran has become one of Venezuela’s most durable allies. But as this self-described “Axis of Unity” has developed, a predictable group of detractors has emerged. In a widely noted September op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, long-standing Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau argued that this alliance between “two of the world’s most dangerous regimes” has supplanted Iraq and North Korea as the new Axis of Evil. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has somewhat more cautiously echoed Morgenthau’s diagnosis, describing the relationship as “quite disturbing,” and not in the US national interest. These responses continue to employ a black and white logic of friend and foe that defines the ties between Venezuela and Iran solely as a function of their opposition to the US, effectively reducing them to allies, and nothing else, in a zero-sum game of competing geopolitical interests.

However, others might argue that Washington can no longer afford to view the two countries through the Manichean lens of the Bush Doctrine, which dictates “You are either with us or you are against us.” It is easy to make the error of defining Presidents Chávez and Ahmadinejad in terms of their proximity or distance from US interests, without offering a more nuanced and substantive understanding of the individual social and political projects on which they can be better judged. Only a deeper analysis of the motivations behind the budding relationship between Venezuela and Iran will allow policy makers to constructively engage them as growing regional powers, with rational goals that make sense for their own national interest.

Ahmadinejad likes to present himself as a Middle Eastern counterpart to Chávez: a populist whose standard stump speech invariably promotes the rights of the working class and the poor. But questions must be raised regarding exactly how similar are their policies, and in light of this, why Chávez has afforded Ahmadinejad near limitless support. Ultimately, Venezuela’s relationship with Iran may best be delineated as a rejection of the historical dominance of Western powers and the irreverence, if not contempt, they all too often have shown to the developing world. Nonetheless, uncritical support for Iran, based only on a rejection of perceived Western imperialism, without reference to the low points of Tehran’s domestic policy, can only injure Chávez’s already deeply controversial reputation and further obscure his actual and notable accomplishments. While the shared struggle against imperialism is important, it alone should not provide a wide enough foundation for a relationship of the magnitude that now exists between, according to Washington’s perspective, the two pariah nations.

The beginning of a wonderful friendship?

Hugo Chávez has been courting Tehran’s leaders since his election in 1998. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Chávez had a strong rapport, exchanging multiple visits and constructing a strong foundation of bilateral economic agreements in energy, housing, and agriculture, among other sectors. Both of the countries were founding members of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and maintained a mutual interest in stabilizing oil prices and politicizing the bloc to be more responsive to the needs of the developing world. In 2005, Chávez awarded Khatami Venezuela’s highest medal, the Order of the Liberator, as a token of their increasingly close ties. Iran reciprocated by awarding Chávez the Islamic Republic Medal, the highest state medal of Iran, and supporting Venezuela’s failed attempt to assume the U.N. Security Council’s rotating seat.

However, since the election of Ahmadinejad, an already burgeoning alliance has fully blossomed. Nuclear energy, to which Chávez has long supported Iran’s right to develop, has proved to be a major incentive in the development of their relationship. Iran’s clandestine nuclear program was shut down by Khatami after its existence was revealed in 2003. The program was revived with Ahmadinejad’s ardent support shortly after his election. In 2006, Venezuela was one of three countries in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), along with Cuba and Syria, to vote against reporting Iran to the UN for suspicions that its nuclear program was directed to ends other than energy. Chávez often speaks of a desire to develop a peaceful nuclear program at home, most recently announcing his ambition to create a “nuclear village” in Venezuela with Iranian assistance. A recent joint survey by the two nations has elaborated upon uranium deposits in Venezuela that will reportedly be put to this end.

At September’s meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, President Barack Obama’s speech was primarily dedicated to reproaching Iran for the direction of its nuclear program, again, after the discovery of another undeclared nuclear plant. Iran recently disclosed the existence of a new uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom and opened it to IAEA inspections, but only after learning that the US, UK, French, and Israeli intelligence services were about to release this information themselves. Washington and Israel have used the existence of this plant to justify allegations that Iran will soon be capable of manufacturing a nuclear weapon.

One of the potential sanctions to be levied against Iran would severely restrict its gasoline imports, for while Iran possesses enormous reserves of crude, it lacks the refineries to process it. However, the recent Iran-Venezuela deal to import 20,000 barrels of gasoline per day makes it perfectly clear that Venezuela is willing to actively subvert UN attempts to reprimand Tehran. Such maneuvers by Venezuela and Iran in protest of the asymmetrical Western attitude on rights to nuclear weapons and energy can be anticipated with a high degree of predictability. As a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is guaranteed the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program. Furthermore, as long as the UN upholds the right of Israel, India, and Pakistan to possess nuclear weapons, it will be difficult to convince hardliners in Tehran to dismantle their nuclear program, peaceful or not.

This is not to suggest that ties between Venezuela and Iran have been limited to matters of nuclear energy. There are now joint ventures in Venezuela for the production of tractors, “atomic” bicycles (a joke by Chávez regarding Venezuela and Iran’s nuclear ambitions), “anti-imperialist” (another, less comical this time) cars, and the two have signed numerous bilateral economic agreements that range from energy and oil, to agriculture and science. In opposition to the G-20 meetings of global financial elites, Iran and Venezuela have announced the “G-2″ Development Bank, based in Venezuela, with an initial funding of $1.2 billion, which will be used to challenge the fiscal hegemony of Western nations in providing aid to developing countries. The two have entered into military agreements that include the “training and mutual exchange of military experiences.” And most recently, Venezuela and Iran, along with Russia, proposed to replace the US dollar as the standard for international oil transactions.

Ahmadinejad’s troubling silhouette

The explanation for why Chávez continues to align himself with Ahmadinejad depends on an evaluation of the successes and failures of the Iranian leaders’ domestic policies, and whether they pursue the same social ideals as Chávez’s Bolivarian project. An outspoken figure, Ahmadinejad is perhaps best known for his spouting of a series of controversial declarations, such as a 2007 speech at Columbia University where he asserted that homosexuality does not exist in Iran. However, his most frequent examples of odium are directed at Israel. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for it to be “wiped off the map” and makes a divertissement of denying the Holocaust.

While Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust is irresponsible at best, taking this absurd claim literally plays directly into his hand. Such an outlandish assertion can only be understood as a ploy to redirect the conversation towards a more general dialogue about genocide, and he admitted as much in a September interview with Katie Couric.

In World War II, 60 million people were killed. Why are we just focusing on this special group alone? We’re sorry for all the 60 million people that lost their lives, equally. All of them were human beings. And it doesn’t matter whether they were Christians or Jews or Buddhists or Muslims. They were killed. So, we’re sorry for everyone.

Chávez has reiterated Ahmadinejad’s contention about Holocaust in more explicit terms.

I do not deny the Jewish Holocaust. And I condemn it. But in South America, when the Europeans arrived, there were close to 90 million Indians; 200 years later, we only had 4 million remaining. That was a holocaust. And the Europeans denied this holocaust.

Chávez and Ahmadinejad question the selective appropriation and politicization of humanitarian causes. Why does Israel continue to receive extraordinary and uncritical support from the U.S. when so many other “Holocausts” remain unspoken for? Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, while politically irresponsible, may be more of a rhetorical trap set to interrogate one’s allegiances rather than a particular attempt to promote anti-semitism.

Here it is important to distinguish between a possibly justified criticism of Israeli policies and anti-semitism, as claims of the latter often are intermeshed with the former. Many in the U.S. proved incapable of making such a distinction earlier this year, when, after threatening to break diplomatic relations with Israel in 2006 over the Lebanon War, Chávez expelled the Israeli ambassador and other diplomats in response to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. An international uproar grew a month later when a Caracas synagogue was desecrated under suspicious circumstances, precipitating an international competition to find out who could raise the charge of anti-semitism loudest, with the media accusing Chávez of playing a deliberate inflammatory role in catalyzing the incident. However, when it later was revealed that the supposed act of vandalism was really a robbery, an inside-job perpetrated by the synagogue’s security guards, the media dropped the subject.

Chávez’s diplomatic approach was meant to protest the Israeli military offensive that was condemned as a disproportionate use of force by the UN-endorsed Goldstone Report, which accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes. However, Ahmadinejad’s calls for the destruction of Israel are of an entirely different nature, and a much more dangerous provocation than his denial of the Holocaust or Chávez’s reaction to the Gaza War. While perhaps these incidents are more properly meant as a rebuke to Zionism rather than an anti-semitic act, a call for the destruction of Israel will only narrow the room for fruitful peace negotiations, darkening the prospects of a long-overdue resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Furthermore, Iran’s rather well established ties to the bombing of a Jewish Community Center in Argentina in 1994, in which 80 innocent civilians died, only adds to suspicions of Iran over its motives in supporting such inflammatory speech and even worse actions.

A gilded revolution

While often depicted as a buffoon, Ahmadinejad must be taken seriously and judged on the substance of his policies, for he is neither aloof nor jocose. Elected on famous promises to “bring oil money to people’s tables” in 2005, Ahmadinejad has manufactured a political platform around the nucleus of social justice programs and the redistribution of the country’s massive oil wealth – an Iranian-styled Bolivarian Revolution. The former mayor of Tehran likes to brandish this populist image, often stressing his personal story of a man from a humble background who refused to live in the Presidential palace and continued to drive his old car well into his political career. But Ahmadinejad is hardly a friend of the working class, organized labor, or the poor, and such claims amount only to so much posturing. An examination of Ahmadinejad’s domestic policies will show they radically diverge from the model of social inclusion and equality that Chávez has nurtured now for over 10 years in Venezuela.

When in doubt, privatize!

The widespread privatization of public assets has been Iran’s most striking economic trend in recent years. Article 44 of the 1979 Iranian Constitution stipulates a tripartite economy of state, private and cooperative sectors in which private is meant to supplement the other two as the preferential option. In the wake of the Iranian Revolution and then the Iran-Iraq War, most of the economy migrated under government control. However, the balance has since shifted in favor of privatization and placed emphasis on the importation of private capital into the economy by means of a series of five year economic development plans.

In anticipation of the fourth and most recent plan, and immediately following Ahmadinejad’s 2005 electoral triumph, Supreme Leader Khameini reinterpreted Article 44 to repeal limits set on the private sector and to order the privatization of 80% of government assets in so-called “essential sectors.” Ahmadinejad has overseen the most accelerated phase of the application of this historically unsuccessful neoliberal prescription for the mass privatization of public holdings, also known as “shock therapy.” Since 2005, roughly 250 enterprises have gone through the Iran Privatization Organization, the governmental ministry set up to manage the privatization initiatives of the past two five-year plans. In a nation already blessed with great oil wealth, disposable capital is not necessarily the problem. What is needed is the proper oversight and distribution of already existing funds to create programs that will encourage sustainable growth.

Privatization is so valued in Iran that it forms the basis for Ahmadinejad’s most significant attempt to redistribute wealth, the Shares of Justice initiative. Created to distribute shares of recently privatized companies, the initiative has been judged ineffective and has provided little more than a cash handout. In its first two years of its life, Ahmadinejad did distribute roughly $2.5 billion in stocks to nearly 6 million citizens. But many predict that such a manner of redistributing wealth will lend itself to easy accumulation by speculators and business entrepreneurs as cash-strapped citizens turn and immediately sell the shares at low prices in a roundabout model of “rigged privatization.” The redistribution of wealth under Shares of Justice could likely resemble the initial phases of Russian perestroika, the transition from a state-controlled to a capitalist economy. Before the program of shock therapy took hold, Russia had 2 million people living in poverty and not a single millionaire. But by the mid-nineties, poverty had claimed an astonishing 74 million Russians, while by 2003, 17 citizens had accumulated wealth into the billions.

The new Iranian entrepreneurs most eager to take advantage of the giant “For Sale” sign placed on the country’s economy are the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Formed in the midst of the 1979 revolution, the IRGC have transcended their military roots as ground, naval, air, and paramilitary (the basij, who received so much attention for their repression of students and protestors following the disputed June election) units to form a vast network of power that extends to nearly all corners of the Iranian economy. The IRGC’s foray into the economy began with their rebuilding of the state after the Iraq-Iran war. Since Ahmadinejad assumed power, the IRGC has been awarded over 750 government contracts, and currently, they reportedly control roughly half of Iran’s economy. In September, in the largest transaction in the history of the Tehran Stock Exchange, the government sold a majority of its stake in the country’s telecommunications company for $7.8 billion dollars to the IRGC.

Conversely, Chávez has shown an unwavering commitment to placing the means of production of the Venezuelan state in the hands of its people, and not private investors. So much so that Venezuela, as a result, suffers from a lack of foreign direct investment, as foreign businesses fear political instability and potential expropriation as the government increasingly dictates the trajectory of the economy. While Chávez has of course nationalized a host of significant Venezuelan industries and natural resources, the profits are used to support a wide array of social programs and to invest in a sustainable model of long-term growth, which is conspicuously lacking in Iran. Beginning with the 2002 battle over the PDVSA oil company, Venezuelan nationalizations have included major electricity and telecommunications firms, cement, iron and steel plants, as well as banking, mining and food processing industries. As of spring 2007, with the primary goal of achieving a position of national food security, Chávez had appropriated nearly 2 million hectares of land from the latifundistas, out of a total goal of roughly 6.6 million hectares. Half of the land was given to campesinos, 40% to strategic projects, and the remaining 10% to cooperatives.

(Un)Organized labor

In the midst of Iran’s attempts to accelerate the pace of privatization, independent labor organizations become all the more important in guaranteeing workers’ rights. However, the state of organized labor in Iran is in total disarray. While technically legal under Iranian law, independent unions must receive permission from the state to organize, and accordingly, are quite rare. If a government sponsored Islamic Labor Council already exists in the workplace though, such bodies are deemed illegal. The Workers’ Councils are anything but effective bargaining tools to assure workers’ rights, and many suggest they exist primarily to prevent workers from organizing vital and effective labor representation at the grass-roots level.

The International Trade Union Confederation recently submitted a report to the UN that lambasted the state of organized labor in Iran. Labor activists there are consistently intimidated, arrested, and beaten for attempting to independently organize for improved wages or conditions. The main tool available to disaffected workers, the strike, is often met with brutal force, sometimes with preemptive arrests, and for years now, International Workers Day has been an object lesson in the repression of free assembly. High profile leaders such as Mansour Osanloo, the president of Tehran’s bus workers’ union, remain imprisoned on completely arbitrary charges of “anti-regime propaganda” and “activities against national security.” Still, there are also many lesser known activists currently being detained and intimidated on a daily basis for campaigning for better wages and working conditions.

Meanwhile, workers form the backbone of 21st century Venezuela. Chávez has consistently raised the nation’s minimum wage, which now stands at $447 per month, the highest in Latin America, as well as reduced the workweek from 44 to 36 hours. Workers’ cooperatives and collective ownership of factories have further decentralized the leverage of business over labor, which has been an effective strategy in reducing unemployment and promoting endogenous development, both problems that continue to haunt Iran. Since Chávez came to power, the number of worker cooperatives has grown to encompass 5% of all Venezuelan wage earners.

Statistics establish that Ahmadinejad has achieved little success in fulfilling his promise to distribute oil revenues to ordinary Iranian citizens. His continual hand outs to the poor, such as the 400,000 tons of potatoes given away before the June election, are simply attempts to buy political allegiance and do not in any way address the structural causes of poverty that could lead to coherent and extended growth. Although Ahmadinejad did raise the minimum wage in 2006, the ill-timed order only exacerbated already significant unemployment and caused many businesses to go bankrupt, prompting accusations over Ahmadinejad’s unsophisticated economics. His proposed Compassion Fund, designed to provide Iranian youth with cheap loans to cope with the rising costs of marriage, housing, and education, was killed in parliament and only a limited version was able to be enacted.

Chaos in Tehran: Iran’s presidential ballot

After Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in the June 12th presidential election, with 62.6% of the vote, unprecedented numbers of citizens filled the streets in Tehran to protest the result. Led by the primary opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the protestors, who numbered well into the hundreds of thousands, were met with severe repression by the state. Reports of those arrested range from the hundreds to the thousands, and estimates of those killed hover around 30. The Iranian government banned international journalists from reporting on the protests, forcing them to remain in their hotel rooms, with severely restricted popular avenues of communication, such as the use of the internet and mobile phones. Commentators in the West were quick to celebrate the protests as the next “color revolution” that could eventually bring down the democratic-theocracy that is the Iranian government. But their projected hopes proved premature as the repressive apparatus of the IRGC proved cunningly effective at quelling the protests, which while visible for weeks after the election, slowly tapered out over time.

Chávez called to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his victory immediately after the results were released, and since then, the Venezuelan leader has almost gone out of his way to make his support for the results of the election known, whether on Alo Presidente, or through other media reports. The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry shamefully released a statement criticizing the protesters, stating, “the Bolivarian government of Venezuela expresses its firm rejection of the ferocious and unfounded campaign to discredit, from abroad, that has been unleashed against Iran, with the objective of muddying the political climate of this brother country.”

Given the concerns of democracy and human rights that were raised in the aftermath of the election, Chávez’s reaction proves troubling. It seems clear that the Venezuelan leader reacted so determinedly because of suspicions that the protests were largely manifestations of Western meddling. While Washington does not hide the fact that it favors regime change in Iran, the extent of US and UK involvement in the protests remains ambiguous, even unevidenced at this point. Supreme Leader Khamenei declared Iran free of such foreign influence, but Ahmadinejad and Gholam-Hosein Mohseni-Ejei, Iran’s intelligence minister, have declared that Western powers played an integral part in fomenting dissent. Many of the 100-some detained protestors awaiting trials have reportedly admitted their collusion with the US and UK although the legitimacy of such confessions traditionally deserve to be widely questioned and even discredited. Most frighteningly, three of the detainees have been sentenced to hang for their participation in the protests.

It is troubling, not so much that Chávez’s words did not lend any legitimacy to the demands of the protesters, but that he remained silent on the brutal and dismissive response by the Iranian government. Iran is a nation that has not been reluctant to use force against its citizens, and the latest repression of protesters only further confirms this. In 2008, Human Rights Watch released a report on the state of independent activism in Iran titled, “You Can Detain Anyone for Anything.”

Crackdowns on peaceful dissent have been a hallmark of all governments in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and there was already ample legal latitude for the persecution of government critics when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005. It is the great expansion in scope and number of individuals and activities persecuted by the government that seems to distinguish the Ahmadinejad period to date.

The report goes on to detail repression of the women, labor, and student movements over the last two years, and strongly condemns the growing trend of arbitrary arrests, detention and punishment for any challenge to the government.

Supreme Leader Khamenei held a partial recount of the election results, which was denounced by the opposition as lending legitimacy to a false result, and in fact, the recount did confirm the initial results, albeit with small irregularities. Even though the light of the opposition movement is slowly being extinguished, the election revealed significant fault lines in Iranian society and politics, and the government surely has taken note of many of its citizens’ displeasure with Ahmadinejad’s harsh and authoritarian direction for the country.

What this tells us about Chávez

Venezuela and Iran both reject a geopolitical order that has been historically dominated by Western interests. While for more than a decade Chávez has rebelled against the Washington Consensus and its free-market fundamentalism, Iran stands opposed to Washington’s seemingly never-ending efforts to establish secular democracies in the Middle East. This rejection forms the heart of their relationship, and the only way to read Chávez’s uncritical support of Ahmadinejad is that he views the Iranian leader as a key ally in the war against imperialism.

While both Chávez and Ahmadinejad claim their intentions to distribute their country’s oil wealth to the working class and the poor, Ahmadinejad’s claims of social inclusion and his attempts to redistribute wealth to traditionally excluded members of society are, as we have seen, a mere facade in comparison to the earnest and comprehensive programs undertaken by Chávez. The Venezuelan leader is hallucinating if he believes Ahmadinejad is genuinely working in pursuit of a society of equals. He must decide whether Venezuelan foreign policy is defined solely in terms of its opposition to the West (which, in fact, is the only rational basis for his intimate relationship with Tehran) or if he is intent on naively thinking he can alter Tehran’s convictions. The growing economic relationship of the two nations must be noted, but the only way of understanding Chávez’s support for Ahmadinejad hinges on the belief that Iran’s rejection of US hegemony is more important than the successes or failures of its domestic policies.

There are other questions that must be asked of Chávez. Concentration of executive and judicial power, political manipulation, and ongoing accusations of possible media censorship are all trends that must be noted, even if propaganda has often been employed by the opposition as well as US policy makers to counter moves by the Venezuelan leader. Like the Iranian economy, and due to a combination of the global recession and inadequate economic planning that depends too strongly on the export of oil and not enough on budgeting constraints and fiscal discipline, Venezuela has been hit by high inflation and unemployment that undercuts the laudatory successes of Chávez’s social programs, especially of late. Further, following in the footsteps of Iran, Venezuela has begun to exert pressure on labor unions that do not align themselves with Chávez’s politics by requiring the oversight and certification of all union elections by the government run National Electoral Council.

Nonetheless, Venezuela is still a much more democratic and free society than Iran. For example, one can weigh the balance of free speech versus the level of intimidation in Venezuela by examining the condition of the opposition. Is the anti-Chávez media afraid to confront and criticize the government for fear of reprisal? To the contrary: the opposition media in Venezuela is the primary proof that there is little fear of repression, with speech and action to a degree that would be considered unconscionable in Iran. These outlets would routinely outclass Fox News and The Weekly Standard with their inflammatory rhetoric. Tens of thousands of members of the opposition regularly rally and parade in anti-government protests in the streets of Caracas and throughout the country. At the least, one can say Chávez has inspired a generation of Venezuelans to become politically active and confident enough to articulate their views.

Chávez’s Venezuela is democratic in substance, although a case can be made that he is introducing a tone of incivility, venomous rhetoric and confrontation that may be confounding to some among his very large popular base of backers. On three occasions he has been elected president (98, 00, 06), once defeated a recall referendum (04), survived an attempted coup (02), and successfully revised the constitution twice (99, 09) while one referendum attempt was defeated (07). Ahmadinejad lacks anything like a similar democratic record to match against him, and the nature of Iran as an amalgamation of theocracy and democracy only further complicates the situation. The trajectory of Iranian politics is very much determined by the decisions of appointed or unelected religious elites who play a very strong role, along with Ahmadinejad, in shaping policy.

However, what must be asked of Chávez is consistently reduced by the international media to hyperbolic hate-speech against him that fails to contextualize or even try to minimally comprehend his actions within a larger appreciation of regional affairs. Mary Anastasia O’Grady, ranter in residence at the Wall Street Journal, who regularly vulgarizes Latin American issues in order to subjugate them to her extensive neoconservative agenda, is one of these. While hers is easily the most extremist editorial column in America today, she does have her rivals. London’s Economist published such a piece in mid-September that reproached Chávez for promoting a foreign policy giving “top priority…to forging an anti-American political alliance with Iran, Syria, Belarus, and Russia.” The author goes on to accuse Chávez of the unnecessary militarization of South America without acknowledging the new US presence at seven Colombian military bases, the lurking presence of an exhumed Fourth Fleet to be posted in South American waters, or the all too consistent history of US intervention in its “back yard” of Latin America. Similar polemics frequently appear in the mainstream media, irrespective of the outlet’s ideological loyalties, that perceive Venezuela as if it existed in a vacuum, picking fights for the sheer thrill of it. But perhaps they do have a small point here – one has to ask the question: Why does President Chávez risk his dignity and reputation by squandering his good name and political standing by picking too many fights on too many issues, in a process that inevitably leaves him weakened?

Chávez’s support for Iran is as uncritical as the routine nature of the condemnation of their alliance emanating from the US, a host of its Latin American neighbors and many overseas. There are many that believe that the anti-imperialist struggle is one that must be upheld, but not necessarily as dogma or screeching rhetoric. Therefore, it would be prudent on Chávez’s behalf, and certainly disarm many of his detractors, if he were to reconsider his ties to a government that certainly has the blood of students and other dissenters on its hands, and is personally awash with a sense of global adventurism that does not contribute to the advancement of genuine peace and reconciliation. Furthermore, serious doubts can be raised about Ahmadinejad’s economic development model that upholds principles of equality and redistribution of wealth far more in its rhetoric than its action. By aligning himself with Ahmadinejad, Chávez allows his detractors to continue to accuse him of being unwilling to find a peaceful path or concessional attitude in dealing with the US Such a revision of attitude would not necessarily call for a sacrifice of Chávez’s principles, but only for the crafting of better manners and more self-control. While his enemies may point to his sometimes boorish excesses, they should not be allowed to omit any reference to his progressive policies that have achieved major social successes in making Venezuela a far healthier society, even at the cost of gratuitous internal animosity. Perhaps the Venezuelan-Iranian relationship should be understood as a strategic alliance that should be maintained as long as it produces real benefits for Caracas, and not as a sentimental arrangement that caters to a fractured agenda, frightening away would-be friends while not advancing symmetrical interests.

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December 10, 2009