‘Tough times’ for post-Chávez Venezuela (or end cheap oil for Cuba)

“Doing business in post-Hugo Chávez  Venezuela is not for the faint of heart,” writes AP’s Fabiola Sanchez:

Thousands of companies suffer under currency controls that all but deny them the U.S. dollars they need to import vital items into this oil-rich country, from food to cars to spare parts — even gasoline. Venezuelan firms must sell their wares at state-controlled prices that don’t reflect the 22 percent inflation rate, the highest in Latin America. Even Venezuela’s socialist government admits the controls don’t work — but its attention is focused on the April 14 election to replace the late President Hugo Chávez .

It’s a largely improvised economic policy that, despite oil earnings, has turned people’s lives upside down and produced shortages of flour, coffee, butter and medicines. It’s also a mess that will immediately challenge whoever becomes the president of this 28 million-person country.

Neither Chávez  successor Nicolas Maduro nor opposition candidate Gov. Henrique Capriles has proposals to resolve the crisis, said Alejandro Gutierrez, an economics professor at the University of the Andes.

“We are facing a transition situation, and they are going to wait until this situation is cleared up,” Gutierrez said.

Only Capriles has suggested a possible way of injecting more dollars into the economy: Ending subsidized oil exports to Cuba that began under Chávez .

The late leader had aided his allies by providing oil at preferential terms to more than a dozen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba receives Venezuelan oil worth around $3.2 billion a year, estimates Jorge Pinon, a University of Texas energy analyst. Nicaragua gets about $1.2 billion worth of oil, according to economist Nestor Avendano.

“No one thinks that Capriles can radically reduce crime overnight or transform over half a century of the kind of ‘resources curse’ that has left Venezuelan civil society and its non-oil economy atrophied,” note Suffragio analysts:

But by reducing the worst corruption of the chavismo era, by allaying the basketcase business environment in Venezuela and by transforming Chávez’s misiones and other social welfare programs from a slapdash system of handouts into a more sustainable and lasting social safety net, a Capriles presidency could wind up solidifying the gains of Chávez’s revolution in a more enduring manner than Maduro ever could.

Contrary to suggestions that Chávez pursued a radically pro-poor agenda, The Economist (above) recently noted that Venezuela’s reductions in poverty were in line with general reductions in poverty across Latin America.

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Yoani calls for unity, agrees Payá’s death ‘must not be squelched’

“Cuba’s best-known dissident, journalist Yoani Sanchez, received a hero’s welcome from the Cuban-American exile community in Miami, her latest stop in an 80-day tour of more than a dozen countries,” Reuters reports:

Unlike other dissidents, who have been received with suspicion in Miami, Sanchez appears to have won the exile community over with her charm and wit, as well as her straight-talking blog.

Credit: Cubanet

But another dissident, Ailer Gonzalez (right), was detained upon her arrival back on the island, notes the Babalu Blog: State Security officials took Gonzalez aside and held her in a room as they interrogated her and did an exhaustive search of her baggage.

“When people ask me about democratic rights,” Sanchez said, “they always ask about the embargo. And I tell them there are much more important things.”

The (Cuban) government has exaggerated its importance,” said Sanchez, adding that different opinions about the embargo were not a reason for division.

“No one has been more effective in denouncing what’s going on in Cuba and the myths of the Cuban regime,” said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a prominent Cuban exile politician and journalist.

Asked on Monday how she has been able to finance her trip between the United States, Europe and Latin America, Sanchez praised the generosity of friends and universities that have invited her to speak.

“The Cuban government says I am a millionaire. It’s true. I have millions of friends,” she said.

Sanchez repeated her call for an independent investigation into the deaths of Oswaldo Payá (left) and fellow dissident Harold Cepero in a car crash reportedly caused by state security agents.

The United States recently voiced support for an inquiry “with independent international observers” into the deaths, said US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“The people of Cuba and the families of these two activists deserve a clear, credible accounting of the events that resulted in their tragic deaths,” she added during a news briefing.

Cuba’s Communist authorities claimed that Spanish youth activist Angel Carromero caused the deaths when he accidentally drove the car into a tree. Carromero was imprisoned on charges of vehicular homicide, but released to Spain in December. Western democracies have largely ignored Carromero’s subsequent revelation that the car was rammed from behind by a vehicle with official license plates.

“The next question is who will have the principled courage of Mr. Payá and lead an investigation to extract the truth from Cuba….The suspicious circumstances of the deaths of Mr. Payá and Mr. Cepero demand an investigation that won’t be tainted by the Cuban authorities,” says The Washington Post:

“What was it about a simple petition drive more than a decade ago that so frightened Fidel Castro?” the Post asks:

In the end, Mr. Castro squelched the Varela Project. But the timeless goals of the petition are still relevant in the search for truth about the deaths….. To read the Varela document again today is to see that Mr. Payá struck where the regime is most vulnerable: at its legitimacy to rule from above. Mr. Payá insisted that legitimacy came from below, from “the participation of citizens in the political, economic and cultural life of the country as free people.” Perhaps that is why, although not imprisoned, Mr. Payá had been subjected to death threats for so long.

Last week, a bipartisan group of six US senators signed a letter calling on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the deaths.

“Recent interviews published in Spanish news media indicate that Carromero is innocent and that the vehicle carrying Payá was deliberately attacked by Cuban government officials,” the letter said.

The letter was sent to ICHR executive secretary Emilio Alvarez Icaza and signed by Senators Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, his Republican counterpart Marco Rubio, Arizona Republican John McCain, Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia and Illinois Republican Mark Kirk.

In her Miami speech, Sanchez (right) told a story of a conversation with a young man in Berlin, who asked her, “You’re from Cuba? From the Cuba of Fidel or from the Cuba of Miami?”

“My face turned red, I forgot all of the little German I knew and I answered him in my best Central Havana Spanish, `Chico, I’m from the Cuba of Jose Marti,’” Sanchez said, referring to Cuba’s most famous national hero and poet.

“That ended our brief conversation,” Sanchez said. “But for the rest of my life, that conversation stayed in my mind. I’ve asked myself many times what led that Berliner and so many other people in the world to see Cubans inside and outside the island as two separate worlds, two irreconcilable worlds.”

“I am finding Cuba outside of Cuba,” she said. “I was raised in Cuba and indoctrinated that the exiles were the enemy, that they had betrayed the country. And here I am, seeing Cubans preserving Cuba, preserving the culture, the history, the music.”

She named her blog Generación Y, a nod to Cubans her age who were given names beginning with Y at a time when the Soviet Union held greater sway over the island, The New York Times adds. The blog receives millions of hits a month, the vast majority from people outside the island because Cuba restricts Internet access. She also has 459,000 Twitter followers.

Natalia Martinez, the communications director for Roots of Hope, a network of 4,000 young professionals who work to help young people in Cuba, said Ms. Sanchez spoke often about the need for a diversity of opinion and emphasized the importance of empowering Cubans on the island.

“She addresses the fact that there is a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, associated with the Cuba issue, and she doesn’t dismiss it,” Martinez said. But, she said: “Cuban-Americans have more opportunities to be involved in Cuba now than they had before, and Yoani has come to symbolize some kind of joint agency between them. That resonates here.”

 “She is focused on building a narrative about the future.”

“I don’t know of any dissident from the island who has been this warmly received,” said Felice Gorordo, co-founder of Roots of Hope, a group of young, Cuban American professionals and university students. “She has the ability to speak to the pain of the exiles and to the daily struggles of life in Cuba.”

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CCP pluralism ‘a first step’ to China reform? Ask Chen Guangcheng

China’s ruling Communist Party should allow internal factions to emerge as a step towards political reform and constitutional democracy, says a leading expert on the party’s history.

But a leading dissident, a potent symbol of resilience and empowerment,” stresses the importance of rule of law as a constraint on the party’s arbitrary rule.

“As a first step, allowing factions would foster an air of competition. And when the factions are out in the open, multi-party politics would be one of the viable options,” says Yang Jisheng (left), a reformist party member of 49 years:

Yang believes that enabling members with different aspirations to legitimately form factions and engage in their own political campaigns, and even elections, would usher in much-needed checks and balances within the party – a necessary step in reining in rampant graft and restoring its legitimacy …..Having competing factions would create the conditions for multi-party democracy in the future, he adds.…..

Democratization initiatives within the party – such as separating the functions of the party and the state, direct election of people’s congress representatives and party cadres, and granting members genuine freedom to air dissenting views – are all necessary steps towards political stability.

“If [the CCP] can carry out top-down reform of its own accord, it will cause the least shock [to the political system],” said Yang, the author of Tombstone, which details the Great Famine of 1958-1962 that cost some 36 million lives.

“If it’s handled well, there is no need for the Communist Party to collapse,” he told today’s South China Morning Post. “It could step down, and it could come back to life again like a phoenix reborn in fire,” he said, citing the precedent of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang.

“If you don’t go through this transformation, it’s impossible to spurn the corrupt forces,” Yang said. “But when you have stepped down, you really have to genuinely work for the interest of the people, or else you won’t be in power again.”

But a leading dissident fears that the current leadership is disinclined to pursue genuine reform.

“Presently in China, the human rights condition is not very satisfactory and it’s hard to seek justice,” Chen Guangcheng (right) told a meeting at Princeton University.

Establishing rule of law is an essential precondition of sustainable democratization, he suggested.  

“No matter when and where, it’s always my task to promote the construction of legal systems and democracy in China,” said Chen, a recipient in absentia of the National Endowment for Democracy‘s 2008 Democracy Award.

“Chinese people have been awakened by human rights,” he said. “The situation has to change because the Chinese common people have been awakened.”

The blind human rights advocate, whose escape from house arrest last May created international headlines, spoke at China Aid’s annual banquet last week.

Bob Fu (left), China Aid’s president and founder, was instrumental in securing Chen’s freedom.

The George W. Bush Institute will host a live-streamed conversation with Chen, when he makes his first visit to Dallas to record an interview for the Freedom Collection on April 3, 2013: 

Chen was recently described by Britain’s Guardian newspaper as “a potent symbol of resilience and empowerment,” and his visit marks the first anniversary of the online Freedom Collection. 

James K. Glassman, Founding Executive Director of the Bush Institute, will conduct the LIVE discussion with Chen about his continued advocacy for the rule of law and basic freedoms in China. People of all ages are invited to tune in for the lunch-time chat and are encouraged to submit questions for possible inclusion through Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #AskChen. 

What:                   LIVE Conversation Online with Chen Guangcheng

When:                  12:30 p.m. CST, Wednesday, April 3

Where:                www.freedomcollection.org/askchen

Chen Guangcheng is an activist and freedom advocate from China’s Shandong province. Blind since infancy, he enrolled in elementary school as a teenager, taught himself law, and became a legal advocate for farmers and disabled individuals. In 2005 Chen filed a lawsuit against authorities in Shandong’s Linyi City over their harsh enforcement of China’s one-child policy. For this activism, he spent four years in prison and another two years under house arrest. He is studying law at New York University.

The Bush Institute is the policy arm of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. The Freedom Collection is a living archive that features online interviews, documentaries and discussions with people who have been instrumental in the advancement of human freedom.

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