Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Bolivar for his Oliver

Hugo Chávez's time is up

If Venezuela's president wants to prove the Bolivarian revolution is about more than just him, he shouldn't seek a third term
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* Ian Williams
o, Friday 13 February 2009 17.30 GMT

This weekend, on February 15, Hugo Chávez has his second try at lifting term limits so that he can run for a third term as president of Venezuela when his second expires in 2013. This time he has cunningly added ending term limits for legislators, governors and mayors to the referendum to understate the personal element, even if he rather spoiled it by declaring the 10th anniversary of his election earlier this month a public holiday.

The Venezuelans convincingly elected Chávez, and it is up to them whether they want to see him haranguing them and the world ubiquitously and permanently on their TV screens. But just as foreigners watched bemused but resignedly as Americans re-elected Ronald Reagan and George Bush to second terms, we do not have to applaud their choice. Cheering every foreign leader who was rude about Bush has led to people who should know better to support Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic as saviours of the international proletariat.

Chávez is a more complicated case, not least since he has been blessed with such an incompetent and incoherent opposition at home and abroad.

One notes that Michael Bloomberg's successful attempt to overcome term limits and run again for mayor of New York has not yet earned him anything like the obloquy that conservatives have heaped on Chávez for doing the same thing. Too often the degree of political attachment to eternal principles is a function of the glue of partisan interest.

But on the other hand, one wonders what the reaction of the American and European fans of Chávez would have been if either Reagan or Bush had sought to overthrow the 22nd amendment and run for another term.

Conversely, it was of course Republicans still smarting from the New Deal that FDR had brought about who secured the amendment in the first place. While we may breathe a sigh of relief for both the New Deal and victory in the second world war that FDR defied convention with a third and indeed somewhat less momentous fourth term, there is a sound principle there.

The American-style executive presidency, like the constitution, is a fossilised relic of its time and place. In effect, the president of the United States has all the prerogatives and powers of a Hanoverian monarch – far too many, in fact. The tension between the deference due a head of state, and the default disrespect with which the media and others should treat any elected politician is shown at White House press conferences when the media actually stand for the arrival of the commander-in-chief and then metaphorically mostly fall on their knees immediately afterward, and maintain that posture thereafter.

As president, Chávez has amassed even more power than King George W and Dick Cheney did. For example, while there is a vigorous press in Venezuela, he has squeezed the opposition off the airwaves. Admittedly during the Bush years, it sometimes seemed as if that were the case in the US, but it was far from totally so. Chávez has appointed military comrades to positions throughout the administration and developed a finely honed apparatus of political patronage that makes standard US pork-barrelling seem almost halal. With the exception of the Gucci riots in the Florida vote-counting halls, Bush did not have the red-shirted cadres to take over town halls because opposition candidates won, as has happened in Caracas.

In the midst of the current economic crisis in the US, comparisons are even more odious than usual. But even so, Chávez has not prepared the Venezuelan economy for the bruising to which it is cruising. Social spending at home and vanity spending abroad, cheap oil for Cubans, London transport and American heating oil are all less sustainable now with oil prices plummeting.

Chávez has starved the state-owned oil company of re-investment and resources, and its production has fallen by a quarter while its revenues have been diverted elsewhere.

The Wall Street Journal editorialists and the like are far more concerned about Chávez using the oil wealth to buy political support and re-election from poor voters than they have been with other oil states whose rulers use the revenues to deprive the poor of both votes and handouts. Nevertheless, there is a problem. Venezuela's oil revenue made up over 90% of GDP last year. And most of the rest of the country's economic activity is devoted to spending the oil money, in services, retailing and distribution. Albeit popular, the choices that Chávez has made for spreading the revenues have not diversified the economy away from that dependence on oil - and its price.

With the referendum next week, rushed to beat the crisis, and then the election that he wants to run in, it is unlikely that Chávez will make the hard choices necessary. His manifestly messianic ego means that Chávez is unlikely to emulate the modest Nelson Mandela and step down while the going is good. With one military coup under his belt, would his attachment to democracy last an electoral defeat?

Like compulsory retirement, term limits clear the stage for new blood. The sophisticated choice for Venezuelans would be to vote "no" again in this referendum so that Chávez and his more capable ministers could tackle the impending crisis without worrying about his re-election and test the premise that there is more to the Bolivarian revolution than Hugo Chávez.

Paradise by the dashboard light

Paradise not yet regained, but inferno is postponed
February 14, 2009

THE “revolution now” crowd is disappointed, but actually feels vindicated that Barack Obama has not immediately overthrown the hegemony of Wall Street and the Israel lobby and declared the end of poverty and the advent of universal healthcare. I admit to sharing their disappointment at his silence on Gaza, but as I predicted, Obama’s presidency is not the Second Coming. However, it is is the end of the reign of the Anti-Christ, if a born-again atheist might use such eschatological metaphors. He even included non-believers in his inaugural speech.

In comparison with what went before, it has been largely good news – apart from the blow to the arts of having a reincarnation of William McGonagall to read a poem at his inauguration. But perhaps I am unfair – McGonagall could rhyme, if not scan, and the chosen bard could do neither.

For those with more cautious expectations, Obama has over-fulfilled the plan. He could have pleaded preoccupation with the economic crisis, but immediately issued the order to close Guantanamo, stipulated that torture, as the rest of the civilised world understands it, be stopped and ended the military kangaroo courts. He scrapped the financial sanctions imposed on small countries refusing to sign exclusion clauses for American citizens from the International Criminal Court. He signed a bill that reinstated the poor children’s healthcare provisions vetoed by his predecessor. He overturned the bigoted restrictions on finance for international family planning and has made massive funds available to states to finance unemployment insurance. He appointed a committed pro-union activist to be Secretary of Labour and reversed several anti union decrees on organising and equal rights.

Gaza notwithstanding, the new President is signalling a change of direction in the Middle East. His inaugural speech put Muslims up there between Christians and Jews: his first interview was with Al-Arabiya television. His first phone call was to Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and he immediately appointed George Mitchell – half Arab and well respected in the region – as his special envoy. It seems that Obama did not even clear this with the Israelis first, which is a break from the pandering of the previous four presidential terms. This achievement is all the more remarkable, since his foreign policy team includes so many previously pro-Israeli figures.

In an oblique way, Israeli politicians have made it all easier for him. The bloody, vindictive and pointless shambles of Gaza lowered Israel’s prestige even in the United States, let alone the rest of the world, while giving a new lease of life to American Jewish peace lobby. Benjamin Netanyahu is the most intransigent, arrogant and most easily disownable Israeli leader in recent history. It would also help if European politicians such as Gordon Brown stopped giving Israel a free pass.

Similarly, Obama broke with tradition in denouncing the excesses of Wall Street and putting a ceiling on bank executive pay for recipients of federal handouts. It is true that the ceiling is more symbolic than real, but the symbolism is important. For decades, American policy has been sacrificed on the altar of mammon, and to suggest that greed may have limits is almost revolutionary. In his financial stimulus package, Obama put a large pinch of incense on the altar of consensus by including billions of dollars in tax cuts and cutting spending to get Republican consensus. Since they got their amendments and he did not get their votes, he is unlikely to be so indulgent next time. And with the popular support he has, and the sense of panic underlying the country, he can afford to be merciless with them in the coming months. Once again, he has armoured himself for political infighting by appointing establishment figures in the economic departments. If he is determined, with them as shield-bearers, he could get policies through Congress that would be otherwise untenable.

So far, he seems able to distinguish between political compromises necessary to implement his policies and Bill Clinton-style triangulation – adopting his opponents’ policies wholesale. Unlike Clinton, who took the unions’ money and then denounced them as “special interests”, Obama has unashamedly declared them to be “part of the solution”.

That does not mean we should merely genuflect and let him get on with it. During his campaign, he was asked what he would do about the Middle East. Astutely, he quoted Franklin D Roosevelt. When a black union leader asked what he would do about unionisation and desegregation, FDR said that he would do as much as the unions made him. Forceful but reasoned campaigns can give elected leaders the excuse and impetus to do what they would like to do. We can be sure the bankers, generals and the rest of the establishment will be bending the residential ear. During his election campaign, grassroots campaigners used the internet and social groupings such as the churches (black ones) to get votes and money. We can hope those campaigners will maintain the pressure in a supportively critical way. It may not be paradise yet, but we are up the rungs of the ladder with our feet out of the flames of inferno.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Defying Logic

Defying logic

US arms shipments to Israel are questionable under American law. It should reconsider sending military aid

* Ian Williams

o, Wednesday 4 February 2009 15.30 GMT

As they were still reassembling dog-eaten cadavers of kids in Gaza, an envelope from Aipac dropped in my mailbox. The self-proclaimed most powerful lobby in Washington had sent me a pre-printed post card to sign and mail to my congressman, urging him to support increased military aid to the Israel over the next decade.

To compound it, just before Barack Obama's inauguration, Condoleezza Rice had signed an agreement, probably written on a fig leaf, to show that Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak had got something out of their rampage across the strip. Dangerously, it implied that the US navy is going to intercept neutral ships on the high seas looking for alleged contraband being shipped to the elected authorities in Gaza. This was of course the casus belli of the 1812 war, which the US declared against Britain for stopping American ships trading with Napoleon. The memorandum does not explain what international law is being invoked for this, although it does have shades of Kennedy threatening to do the same to Soviet ships going to Cuba.

British and European governments, in a spirit of me-tooism, rushed to offer to join in.

In welcome contrast, Peter Kilfoyle, the British Labour MP, took David Miliband, the foreign secretary, to task: "On armaments for Israel, he said just a moment ago that he would very much like to see the prevention of arms going to terrorist organisations. That is the case for everybody in this House, and on the basis of what we have just heard and what he himself just said, will he undertake to ensure that no arms at all go to Israel at the moment, given that it is guilty in many people's eyes of state-sponsored terrorism with its activities in the Gaza strip?"

Perhaps an even stronger reaction was that of another MP, Sir Gerard Kaufman, who asked the Miliband "to clarify the logic whereby we can send the Royal Navy to enforce an arms ban on Hamas while continuing to sell arms to Israel, after a conflict in which 1,200 Palestinians were slaughtered and four Israelis were killed by Hamas rockets? That is an exchange rate of one Israeli life for 300 Palestinian lives." A few days earlier he had provided background: "My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza. The current Israeli government ruthlessly and cynically exploit the continuing guilt among gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians. The implication is that Jewish lives are precious, but the lives of Palestinians do not count."

Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs who had seen the devastation at first hand echoed the call for an arms embargo, detailing the massive and continuing arms shipments to Israel – at a time when the country was defying UN security council resolution 1860 calling for an immediate ceasefire.

But while parliamentarians in other countries are taking their governments to task for selling arms to Israel, the case is superficially simpler for the US. It just has to stop giving them. Israel gets $3bn a year in military aid from the US, the highest figure in the world. Perhaps a telling contrast is the other alleged special relationship. In December 2006 the UK finally paid off the bill to the US for all the weapons it had to pay for to defeat Hitler in the second world war.

Uniquely Israel can use a quarter of its aid to buy the produce of its own arms factories, which leads to the perennial question of Israeli sales of US military technology to China, which has upset even the most complaisant Pentagon officials in the past.

Even more uniquely, much of what could be justified as a stimulus to American arms producers has been spent on buying refined fuel from the US, during a period when Americans were suffering from high oil prices and low supplies.

In Congress, aid to Israel is sacrosanct, regardless of what Israel does with it. No one ever complains about earmarks, pork-barrelling or ungrateful foreign aid recipients in this context. However, the arms shipments to Israel are questionable under American law on several levels as well being the equivalent of subsidising German car production to compete with Detroit.

Firstly, the weaponry is supposed to be for defence – and it really is a stretch to suggest that American-made phosphorous munitions dropping in UN schools and warehouses is defensive.

This has, of course, happened before. For example, the use of anti-personnel cluster weapons in the various incursions into Lebanon has been called into question, only to have the question shelved in embarrassment by Washington, even when the casings with US markings have been produced. Ironically, conservative hero Ronald Reagan actually stopped sales of cluster munitions to Israel in 1982 after clear evidence that Israel had breached agreements on their use.

Under US law, arms shipments should not be used to violate human rights – which suggests that Congress does not read its own state department reports on conditions in the occupied territories.

US law on arms sales also has non-proliferation elements. If Israel were to go public about its 200 or so nuclear weapons that the US so persistently ignores, arms shipments would be illegal.

Perhaps more tellingly is that the weaponry being sent may be about to put US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in grave danger by supporting an act of naked aggression against Iran. The Israeli ambassador to Australia last week described the Gaza debacle as a "pre-introduction" for an assault on Iran and certainly the chances are that Bibi Netanyahu's election would make this even more likely.

In any case, Netanyahu supports assassinations of Palestinian leaders, refuses to countenance a Palestinian state and wants to expand settlements. In short he will be more in violation of the "road map" conditions than Hamas. Following its own logic, Washington should refuse to talk to him, let alone arm him.

Under these circumstances, in any rational world, Obama's administration should use its considerable leverage to let Israel know that there is no free lunch. If Israeli leaders want to go it alone, then they should face the risk of being on their own. There is no reason for credit-crunched American taxpayers to subsidise what rational Israeli leaders have proclaimed to be suicidal polices.

So back to the Aipac post card. I forwarded it to my congressman with "not" interposed before all the relevant verbs. But alas, Kilfoyles and Kaufmans are thin on the ground on Capitol Hill.

Tata for Now

Look east, old CEO

Ian Williams says India has the answer for Detroit

Speculator, IR Magazine, January

The big three automotive CEOs’ private jets caused a traffic jam in the airspace over Washington when they flew in to ask for taxpayer handouts. Their notorious preference for lobbying for tax breaks and against mileage and emissions restrictions rather than investing in new products people might want to buy has led to understandable reluctance to give them a taxpayer-funded parachute.

Their short-lived ecological disasters on wheels have always been hard to sell abroad. Now they can hardly give the vehicles away at home. It wasn’t just bad business; it was also environmentally irresponsible and fundamentally unpatriotic to hold their country hostage to international oil markets while ruining the health of the globe and of the US citizens choked and mown down by these behemoths.

On the positive side, the Big Three, under pressure from the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, have created a corporate welfare state, with healthcare and pensions of the kind governments provide in Canada and western Europe. Indeed, Walter Reuther, the democratic socialist who led the UAW for many years, said he had negotiated to fill the gap left by federal failure.

It is indeed unfair that the Big Three should be penalized because they are maintaining civilized industrialized world standards. But those CEOs have not been doing good because they like it or make money from it. They have been doing it because the union has them by the vitals.

The first item in my three-point plan is for one – or all – of the car companies to be taken over by the successful and accomplished boss who is on record as having said: ‘Companies that are not good corporate citizens – those that don’t hold to standards and that allow the environment and the community to suffer – are really criminals in today’s world.’

Those are the words of Ratan Tata, head of the Tata Group, which has produced a new model automobile that meets and exceeds emissions and mileage standards, and costs just $2,500. When Tata took over Land Rover, there were some snobbish sneers that it would devalue the brand. It would be a bold auto executive who could get up from his knees in front of congress and say that now.

The second point in my plan is to put the lobbying power of the Big Three behind a Taiwanese-style healthcare system. Ten years ago, Taiwan introduced a comprehensive and universal system that costs around one third the proportion of GDP that the US pays.

Third is something at which Tata would excel: retooling some car plants to produce environmentally sound products like wind turbines, solar cells, mass transit buses and trains. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds: during World War II, auto plants converted to making planes and Chrysler became a major part of the atomic bomb program.

It may be that the three wise men with their hands out in Washington are not up to the challenge. But Ratan Tata’s blend of social concern spiced with entrepreneurial gumption is. Give him the tasks, the $25 bn bailout and the companies. Let him pretend the companies are banks and allow him to dip into the $700 bn for this new Michigan Project. It won’t go on bonuses and compensation, you can be sure.