Thursday, February 21, 2019


This is a cartoon from Politicked that was making the rounds this week on the social media. Political cartoons often unveil the humor behind the news by exaggerating the truth, much like a caricature artist exaggerates facial features for comic effect.
In this case, however, the subject is so spot on that the effect is chilling. From his 2016 campaign to the present, Donald Trump’s presidency has indeed sown the seeds of this divisive spawn, making this cartoon seem more tragic than funny.

And once these seeds have sprouted, you can’t just shove them back underground again.

Monday, February 18, 2019


The United States is facing a national emergency. But it’s not the one that President Donald Trump just declared. Indeed, Donald Trump is the first and last name of the emergency, one that has nothing to do with illegal immigration, the incidence of which is at an all-time low, but with the president’s consistent efforts to circumvent and undermine democracy while trafficking in lies and titillating his most reactionary base.

Finding ways to duck under and around the rules is not something alien to Trump’s modus operandi. He has turned profiting from bankruptcy loopholes, skirting taxes and non-payment of providers into a sort of cottage industry that has been, perhaps, as much of a core activity in his business dealings as real estate, construction, hotels and casinos have. But it is, clearly, alien to the office of the presidency of the United States. True, not all presidents in living memory have been the choir boy type. But all of them have understood the gravity of the post and responsibilities bestowed on them and the need to govern for all Americans, not just a small proportion of them.
Past presidents have, in short, bowed to the checks and balances imposed by every properly functioning democratic system and by the US Constitution. Trump has not. Just as in his businesses where he has sought to slip past state, local and federal legal codes, as president, he is intent on finding ways around the highest law of the land. And he has further sought to ridicule and vilify the liberal democratic system as a whole in the minds of his most blindly loyal base.
In this sense, the current president of the United States is a clear and present danger to democracy. And his latest attempt to bypass the Legislative Branch by declaring a “national emergency” on the US southern border (an emergency that only exists in his mind and in those of his most xenophobic followers) is a patent example of the disdain with which he views the democratic process and of the invented dread with which he manipulates and indoctrinates the simplest among his constituents. Furthermore, this is a dog-eared page from the playbook of would-be tyrants of every color around the world.
Speaking of tyrants, on numerous occasions, Donald Trump has openly expressed his admiration for, friendship with and trust in the authoritarian leaders of other nations, who should arguably be viewed as potential or effective enemies of the United States, and surely as enemies of democracy. He has demonstrated this bizarre attitude with regard to every dictator from Kim Jong Un (the murderous absolute ruler of North Korea who literally views himself as a god and who has threatened to nuke the Unites States), to ruthless Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte, who has dispensed “justice” in his country from the barrel of a gun—sometimes wielded by Duterte himself—with a number of other universally condemned dictators in between also being inducted, unsolicited, into the Trump gratuitous admiration society.
Of Kim Jong Un (after first insulting him as “little rocket man” and threatening him with the mass destruction of North Korea) Trump would eventually come full circle and say, “You gotta give him credit. How many young guys—he was, like, 26 or 25 when his father died—take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden ... he goes in, he takes over, and he's the boss. It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn't play games. And we can't play games with him.” In other words, killing the competition seemed to Trump to be an admirable and respect-worthy leadership trait. This would seem to give new meaning to Trump’s campaign statement—an expression of desire?—that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters.”
Trump said he had “a great relationship” with Rodrigo Duterte, who heads up The Philippines’ current “thugocracy”, which makes former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s brutal kleptocracy look almost tame by comparison. Trump blithely ignored the worldwide discussion swirling around Duterte’s abominable human rights record which includes literally thousands upon thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out by his government with not only the Filipino strongman’s overt approval but also with his self-confessed participation.
On a state visit to Manila, the US president ignored the issue of human rights altogether and chose to concentrate on his favorite subject: himself.  “It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received,” Trump said. “And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little, but really for our county. And I’m really proud of that.” It might be noted that the way to show respect for the United States is by emulating its liberal democratic tenets and the rule of law, not by imposing or praising a bloody dictatorship. And receiving an extraordinarily warm welcome from a sitting tyrant is something that the leader of the world’s largest democracy should, perhaps, take with suspicion or at least with a grain of salt. But it seems apparent that the advancement of democracy does not form part of the current president’s core beliefs.
Trump has also had words of praise for Syrian dictator Bashad al-Assad, comparing him favorably against by then lame duck US President Barack Obama. “I think in terms of leadership,” Trump said, “he's getting an A and our president (Obama) is not doing so well.”
A staunch ally and virtual dependent of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, Assad is perhaps the most universally condemned authoritarian leader among Western democracies. He is maintained in power (which he inherited from his autocratic father) by Russian military and political backing, despite being directly responsible for the deaths, incarceration and torture of tens of thousands of his own people as well as for triggering the worst civil (and proxy) war in recent memory—a war which has claimed the lives of more than half a million Syrians and has sparked the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Recently, Trump announced that US troops would be pulled out of Syria entirely, thus abdicating American resistance to Russia’s geopolitical advancement in that part of the Middle East, and giving Assad a freer hand to crush all opposition to his historically bloody dictatorial regime.
Another authoritarian leader that Trump has praised is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to Trump, “Frankly, he’s getting very high marks. He’s also been working with the United States. We have a great friendship and the (two) countries—I think we’re right now as close as we’ve ever been.” He went on to say that “a lot of that has to do with a personal relationship.”
Trump made these statements right after Erdogan’s harshest crackdown yet on his opponents, the media and civil society as a whole. Ever since he first came to power, Erdogan has sought to gradually choke the life out of Turkish democracy. Parallel to this, he has taken Turkey from being a staunch NATO ally on the doorstep of the Middle East to sidling up to Vladimir Putin next door to the country in which Russia is exercising its greatest Middle East influence.
In the Syrian War, Erdogan has played both sides against the middle, pretending to be on the side of the US-led coalition fighting ISIL, but continuing his bitter war against that coalition’s Kurdish allies who have provided the most effective ground-fighting of any combat group against ISIL and other pro-Assad forces. The thanks that Trump has given to the Kurds is to announce US withdrawal and to abandon them to their fate in the face of Erdogan’s vow to wipe them out.
There are persistent reports that, within his delusions of grandeur, Erdogan is even entertaining the dream of seeking to recapture some of the past glory and unbridled expansionism of the now-defunct Ottoman Empire, which ruled a vast part of the world from the 14th to the early 20th centuries.
Regarding Egyptian authoritarian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Trump has said, “We agree on so many things. I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
El-Sisi seized power in Egypt by means of a military coup following the country’s fleeting romance with democracy resulting from the Arab Spring uprisings. Trump’s own Department of State has accused el-Sisi of “excessive use of force by security forces, deficiencies in due process, and the suppression of civil liberties.” The civil liberties advocacy group Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, reports that el-Sisi’s regime has “maintained its zero-tolerance policy towards dissent,” adding that it has encouraged “near-absolute impunity for abuses by security forces under the pretext of fighting ‘terrorism.’”
Even China’s so-called “paramount leader”, Xi Jinping, has gotten a shout-out from Trump, despite the trade war that the US president has sparked between the world’s two most powerful economies. Last year, CNN reported obtaining a recording of Trump’s comments during a Mar a Lago gathering praising the Chinese strongman, in which he said, among other things, “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
Everywhere else in the Western world and in much of China itself, Xi’s chairman-for-life power grab within the country’s all-powerful Communist Party (shades of Stalin and Mao) was seen as a highly negative authoritarian trend that drew sharp and widespread criticism. The fact that Trump alone saw it as positive and even “something we’ll have to give a shot someday” is telling...and chilling.
But Trump’s greatest praise and deference have been consistently reserved for Vladimir Putin, who, with the help of his straw man Dimitry Medvedev, has managed to perpetuate his position as the supreme leader of the Russian Federation for nearly two decades, with no sign of giving up that seat any time soon. His regime’s suppression of resistance in Georgia, it’s annexation of Crimea and its military action against Ukraine, as well as its aggressive role in the Syrian (proxy) War in favor of the anti-Western Assad regime have all put America’s Western allies on red alert since Putin has made no secret of his desire to return Russia to the height of its power and hegemony under the Czarist empire and the Soviet Union.
Trump, meanwhile, has famously never had any criticism for Putin’s regime. In fact he has praised it on multiple occasions. For instance:
Just prior to the 2018 US-Russia Helsinki summit, “I'd have a very good relationship with President Putin if we spend time together.” And also in the run-up to the summit, "Hopefully someday, maybe he’ll be a friend. It could happen...”
He also said, “You know what? Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people.” And when former Fox News superstar Bill O’Reilly reminded Trump that Putin was a dictator and “a killer,” Trump fired back, “There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent?”
The cruelest cut of all was when 13 US intelligence agencies told Trump that there was little if any  doubt that Putin would have had to have been involved in the plot to hack the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 election campaign and instead of taking his own intelligence chiefs’ word as fact, he stood on a stage in Helsinki in the company of Putin and said,  "Every time he (Putin) sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe…he means it.”
Also during that campaign he compared then-US President Barack Obama to Putin saying, "He is a strong leader, unlike what we have."
Sometimes his admiration for Putin almost verges on a “boy crush”, like when he said, “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow. If so, will he become my new best friend?"
It seems clear, then, that Trump’s attempt to elude the checks and balances provided by a three-branch system by declaring a phony state of emergency must be viewed against the backdrop of his often repeated admiration for (and tacit envy of) authoritarian leaders. He is a president who clearly seeks by any means necessary to have the prerogatives of an absolute monarch.
But at the same time, it is a no less phony political ploy. He has made it clear that he knows perfectly well that his emergency declaration will face an uphill battle in Congress where even many Republicans think it’s a bad idea. The fear is that if Trump sets a precedent of arbitrary declarations of national emergencies any time he doesn’t like the results of political negotiations, Democrats could invoke “the Trump precedent” to do the same on issues that the GOP, and especially the Trump-usurped GOP, have resisted tooth and nail, like climate change and medical-coverage-for-all legislation.
So in the end, it’s a win-win proposition for Trump, since his “national emergency” will either stand or be challenged and shot down in Congress and the courts. In the first case, he will get his way and energize his base. In the second, he will be able to tell his followers that he tried to “make America great again", but was shot down by the opposition, thus gaining supporter sympathy.
Be that as it may, both major parties should realize that there is a lot more at stake here than immigration, Trump’s wall, or the precedent that a phony national emergency sets for the future. What is at stake is no less than the system of checks and balances that, since the earliest days of the republic, has ensured that no one branch of the government and especially the Executive, ever concentrates a monopoly on power. In short, what is at stake is the essence of democracy itself. And as history has shown again and again, democracy dies by the hand of apathy, vested interests and appeasement.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019


The dramatic crisis that is unfolding in Venezuela has formed part of the international news cycle since mid-January, but it has been in the making for nearly a decade. And it finds its roots in the controversial popular authoritarian regime of Comandante Hugo Chávez, who ruled the country from the previous decade, until his death in 2013.

The late Comandante Hugo Chávez...where it all began

In this latest chapter, a nationwide crisis has been sparked over who, indeed, is the legitimate president of the country. This constitutional crisis took shape when, in early January, the National Assembly, in which the opposition holds a majority, pointed to alleged election tampering and declared the 2018 re-election of leftist authoritarian Nicolás Maduro null and void.
In Maduro’s stead, the Assembly named opposition candidate Juan Guaidó to serve as acting president until new elections could be called. The pro-Maduro Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Venezuela’s supreme court) has declared the National Assembly’s de-authorization of Maduro and the appointment of Guaidó to be unconstitutional. This is where the battle-line has been drawn separating the two diametrically opposed sides in the crisis—a test of strength between the legislature and the judicial branch of government.
The National Assembly, for its part, is responding to the Supreme Tribunal by quoting the very Constitution enacted under Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, as backing its authority to question the legitimacy of the elections and to appoint an interim president. The specific constitutional passages that the opposition is invoking include Article 333 and Article 350.
The first of these states that the Constitution “shall not be rendered invalid through any act of force or because it is repealed by any method other than that (legally) provided for.” It goes on to say that “should this happen, every invested citizen shall have the duty to cooperate in the re-establishment of its effective validity.”
Embattled president Nicolás Maduro 
Article 350, meanwhile, states that “the Venezuelan people, in keeping with their republican tradition, (and) with their struggle for independence, peace and freedom, shall not recognize any regime, legislation or authority that might run counter to these democratic values, principles and guarantees, or that undermine human rights.”
International support for one side or the other in diplomatic circles has divided along what might be considered logical lines, with Russia and its allies supporting Maduro and the US and Europe pledging their backing for Guaidó. US President Donald Trump—who, in other instances, has often indicated his admiration for authoritarians—has demonstrated vehement opposition to the Maduro regime and has imposed economic sanctions against Maduro’s government. Although the European Union and the Trump-era United States see eye-to-eye on very little these days, in terms of the Venezuelan crisis they are both clearly siding with Guaidó and the National Assembly and against the continued presence of Maduro as head of state.
Where the US and EU disagree is on Trump’s openness to possible military action in Venezuela should it be necessary to wrest power from Maduro’s hands by force. Most European leaders agree that this course of action would not only be inadvisable, but also potentially disastrous and counterproductive. Considering the checkered history of US intervention in Latin America, many observers feel any direct action by Washington in Venezuela would quickly sour the mood of other South American countries that are currently pleased that the US has joined them in bolstering democracy by welcoming Guaidó and censuring Maduro. US military action in any South American nation would very likely be considered an attack and a renewed act of imperialism by the United States on South America as a whole, and would thus be more likely to help rather than hurt Maduro’s standing.  
The current national socioeconomic crisis, with Maduro as its focal point, has been brewing since 2010, beginning, briefly, under Hugo Chávez but intensifying under Maduro. Venezuela’s economy has long been largely dependent on oil revenues, which at one time made it the wealthiest country in Latin America. Comandante Chávez drew his vast support as a populist authoritarian from the re-distribution of oil profits, without seeking diversification of the country’s economy. But when the bottom fell out of the international oil market, it also fell out from under his presidency, which Maduro inherited on its way down following Chávez’s death. Maduro’s ineffectiveness in dealing with this crisis led to extreme hyperinflation (over a million percent) and severe shortages of everything, including basics such as food and medical supplies, with the standard of living for average Venezuelans plummeting—in many cases, to the point of starvation. Through the “magic” of hyperinflation and prices pegged to international currency, there were cases of bottled water or a single trip to the grocery store costing as much as or more than many Venezuelans made in a month.
This crisis also led to rampant murders, abductions and other crimes, turning Venezuela’s cities into some of the most dangerous in the world. This situation led not only to violent street protests in which casualties have numbered in the hundreds on both sides, but also to the election of an opposition majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 1999, when Chávez took over as the country’s flamboyant leader. But the lame duck pro-Maduro Assembly quickly stuffed the Supreme Tribunal with Maduro allies in order to have that institution act as a counterbalance to the opposition’s legislative majority. Not content with that, the Maduro government also managed to strip three opposition leaders of their seats in the Assembly, citing “irregularities” in their election. This kept the opposition from gaining a super-majority, by which it would have had the constitutional power to pose a direct challenge to Maduro’s authority.
Maduro’s friends in the Supreme Tribunal invented and granted extensive new powers to him in 2017. Armed with this increased authority, Maduro mounted a so-called Constituent Assembly, with the aim of drafting a new Constitution to replace the one enacted by his predecessor in 1999. Members of this Constituent Assembly were not elected to it but were appointed from within the ranks of Maduro supporters.
This drew worldwide attention since it indicated a bid by Maduro to remain in power indefinitely. In diplomatic circles it was deemed important by many to take a stand against increasing authoritarianism in Venezuela, and scores of countries made it clear that they would not recognize the Constituent Assembly. On the domestic front, however, in the face of a virtual opposition boycott of these government moves, the Constituent Assembly was handed an inordinate quota of power. It became the body that guaranteed non-interference with measures “in solidarity” with the presidency. For all practical purposes, this meant that, between the power of the Supreme Tribunal and the all-pervading power of the Constituent Assembly, the legitimately elected legislative branch of the Venezuelan political system was stripped of any power that it had managed to retain until then.
Due to oil-price instability, an under-diversified economy and Maduro’s clear lack of ability to deal with the economic situation, the once wealthy Venezuela has been plunged into a prolonged crisis described by some economists as being far worse than the Great Depression. This has led to a vast humanitarian crisis in the country. Although less is being reported about it than the crises in Middle Eastern war zones, the Venezuelan socioeconomic situation is no less grave. For several years now, there has been a constant flow of socio-economic refugees hemorrhaging from Venezuela’s borders in search of a better life in other parts of Latin America and the world.
The greatest numbers of displaced persons—over a million of them—have settled in neighboring Colombia. But there are also large Venezuelan diaspora communities in other major countries, such as Argentina. So far, about three million Venezuelans have left the country in search of peace and prosperity. That’s about one out of every ten Venezuelans who has opted to leave.
Provisional President Juan Guaidó
Provisional President Juan Guaidó has called on all Venezuelans to protest against the Maduro government. And over the course of the past month, the response to this call has been enormous, with hundreds of thousands taking to the street again and again in mass anti-Maduro rallies.
Maduro is already suffering defections in pockets of the military. Small groups of active-duty and retired military personnel—some currently living in exile—have vowed to come to the defense of the National Assembly against the Maduro regime should the situation morph into increasing civil strife. There are also defections in the Venezuelan diplomatic corps including Venezuela’s top diplomat in the United States, José Luis Silva, a military man who has, nevertheless, stated recognition of Guaidó as his president. Yajaira Flores, Venezuela’s consul general in Houston, Texas, told Guaidó that she was “at your service and at your disposal to serve my country”, while the top Venezuelan consular official in Miami, Scarlett Salazar, offered her support to Guaidó, “in keeping with my democratic principles and values.” She urged other diplomats to do the same. Venezuela’s Ambassador to Iraq Jonathan Velasco swore his loyalty to the National Assembly and its decision to appoint Guaidó provisional president, saying that the Assembly was “the only government branch attached to ethics, legitimacy and legality.”
At mid-month last month, Venezuelan intelligence agents loyal to Maduro detained Guaidó after intercepting the car in which he was traveling. The BBC claimed it was an ambush created to intimidate opponents to the regime. But Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro was quick to call the arrest “a kidnapping”, and US Secretary of State Mike Pampeo decried it as an “arbitrary detention”. The government ended up releasing Guaidó within 45 minutes and reprimanding the arresting agents.
OAS chief Almagro was among the first leaders of organizations and governments to lend official support to Guaidó. Brazil quickly followed suit. Spain and most of the rest of Europe swiftly concurred. And the plethora of support for the decisions and democratic legitimacy of the Venezuelan National Assembly continues to burgeon.
With sanctions levied on his oil exports, a freeze placed by the Bank of England on Venezuelan gold reserves in its vaults and three quarters of all Venezuelan imports coming from countries that now recognize Guaidó as the country’s president, Maduro is being backed ever tighter into a corner. It can only be hoped that his patriotism will overcome his authoritarian ego and that he will withdraw quietly and with no further bloodshed in a country that has suffered far too long under his pernicious regime.