Friday, September 30, 2016

And now malaria...

I am a retired child protection social worker and a seventy year old New York taxi driver. I have a degree in Political Science from The College of Staten Island (Formerly know as Richmond College, City University of New York.)

I served in the United States Army from 1967 - 1969.

I live in Harlem and am married to a Venezuelan woman. I've visited Venezuela twice, most recently from November 2014 to February 2015 staying in the homes of a truck driver, a shoe store sales clerk, a taxi driver, and a construction laborer. I traveled by car from Caracas to Michelena on the Colombian frontier.

I feel qualified and driven to speak up for a change in the policies of the United States and Venezuela.

I follow publications and articles reflecting all points of view regarding Venezuela and I'm in contact with my wife's family who are having a difficult time in Venezuela. I am concerned about them and millions like them. It's now becoming apparent that malaria, a tropical scourge is making a comeback in Venezuela is which once had been a leading country in the eradication of this dread disease.

If I stole ten thousand dollars from you and then lent you a thousand dollars how much would you owe me? If your children were so hungry they couldn't do their school work what would you do first, pay your debt to me or buy food for your kids? Most sensible people would say that you owed me nothing, and that in any case feeding your children should be your top priority.

Venezuela is mentioned 241,000 times in the Panama Papers. While not every mention necessarily points to corruption it does indicate widespread capital flight, the very thing Venezuelan foreign exchange policy was said to be intended to prevent. 

Venezuela imports over seventy percent of the food and other items it consumes, making purchases with American dollars, and the government is the source of ninety-six percent of those dollars. Imports are expected to be valued at $15 billions this year, one fourth the level of imports in 2012. 

To understand how hundreds of billions of dollars were embezzled and removed from the Venezuelan economy one has to understand the country's foreign exchange system. The national currency is ironically called the bolivar fuerte, (strong bolivar). What a bolivar is worth in dollars "all depends." The government has virtually all of the dollars there are in Venezuela because the national petroleum company (PDVSA) is responsible for 96 percent of Venezuela's exports. The government sells those dollars at different prices in bolivars according to the purpose the dollars are supposedly being used for. Currently most dollars are sold for ten bolivars each. These dollars are supposed to be used to import food staples, medical supplies and inputs for domestic agricultural and industrial production, all to be sold at cheap "fair prices." A lesser used rate that supposedly floats and is restricted is around 645 bolivars. Recently the black market price of a dollar in bolivars is reported to be around 1,025 bolivars to the dollar. 

The inflation, the shortages and the spiralling violence that is being spurred on by hunger may or may not reach the level of a "humanitarian crisis" yet but they are on the path to just that.  The unfolding malaria epidemic portends catastrophe in a country whose public health system is collapsing. and malnutrition stalks the land. Something must be done. 

As much as the dramatic fall in oil prices is blamed for Venezuela's crisis the shortages began in 2013 when oil was still worth $100 a barrel. This was the year that President Hugo Chavez died and Nicolas Maduro succeeded him. 2012 was Venezuela's most prosperous year. Imports of all goods was at $60 billion. The embezzled money, at its lowest estimate is the equivalent of over four years of imports in a country that imports 70 percent of what it consumes. This clearly would've contributed greatly to the crisis. Amnesty International says "Unless those in power do a drastic U turn in the way they are handling this dramatic crisis, what is already an extremely serious situation will turn into an unthinkable nightmare."  This statement was made before the threat of malaria arose. "Those in power" now includes not only the government, but the political opposition and major stakeholders like the United States and China. If the government of Venezuela wants to continue denying that the situation is a crisis and refuses to request assistance this simply must be gotten around. Lethal ovitraps can be used to kill the mosquito that carries not only malaria but also dengue fever, yellow fever, chikunguya and a new threat, mayaro fever.

Venezuela owes billions of dollars to American citizens and to China. Venezuela still is a major exporter of oil and an estimated 100,000 Chinese expatriates live in Venezuela.President Obama ought to revoke his official claim that Venezuela constitutes a threat to American security. This incredible claim helps to isolate Venezuela in financial markets. It also lends credence to allegations that The United States is hostile to Venezuela and is waging an economic war against Venezuela. The U.S. should also "out" Venezuelan money that is sheltered in the United States. Much of this money is ill gotten and there is a proposal that this money should be taxed by the Venezuelan government. 
The United States could and should offer unconditional emergency shipment of medicines and staple foods. Concern that such aid will be misused is legitimate but right now a neighboring country of thirty million people is facing an imminent humanitarian crisis. If initial shipments are abused the aid can be discontinued. At the least insecticides, lethal ovitraps and mosquito netting could be sent through private channels without the government needing to acknowledge the aid.

Both China and the United States should do whatever possible to avert an "unthinkable nightmare."

Monday, September 19, 2016

I'm not a celebrity like Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Jeremy Corbyn and Naomi Campbell but I'm someone who praised Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez. I've read and heard so much like the New York Post opinion piece below that I feel compelled to reply on my own behalf.

A few little words in defense of socialism before I take up my personal apologies to Venezuela. Venezuela is not and never was a socialist country. The deformed type of socialism that once existed in the USSR with all of its warts raised a backward and illiterate rural empire into the power that did 90 percent of the fighting against Hitler and in so doing is probably responsible for the fact that Karol Markowicz is alive today. But some people are incapable of even the slightest display of gratitude.

About Venezuela. I am married to a Venezuelan woman and I've traveled to Venezuela twice. I've spent time with some of her family and friends, humble working people, most recently during a three month visit during the winter of 2014 - 2015. Things were pretty tough then and things are very much worse now.

I most appreciated Chavez because I knew that during his presidency the material lives of poor working Venezuelans improved a lot  I also appreciated the fact that from a Venezuelan and Latin American point of view he stood up for self determination. I always thought and often said that Venezuela had the right to rule itself and even make its own mistakes. And those it most certainly did.

To bring Markowicz and others up on some facts, there are privately owned banks in Venezuela. The petroleum industry was nationalized long before Chavez won his first free and fair election for the presidency. Private contractors, including Bechtel, have been active participants in the petroleum industry all along. Most of the economy outside of oil is in private hands. 

One thing Chavez campaigned on was the issue of corruption. I felt and saw evidence during my first visit in 2006 that this was a battle that he had far from won but frankly I was incapable of grasping just how serious the problem of corruption was. It's been the unmaking of the populist aspiring to be socialist experiment in Venezuela.

When Chavez died in 2013 oil prices were at around $100 a barrel. This is also the time when nuisance shortages of food (but not the widespread hunger of today) began. By nuisance I mean you might have to stand on line hoping to buy some beef and some pasta and end up settling for chicken and yucca or rice. 

Shortages today are much more serious as oil prices, which the government and the economy depend on have not recovered and might never return to the days of $140 per barrel. In those days there was enough to build houses, open clinics and import food to be sold cheap with plenty left over for connected people and companies to steal. Or maybe it was the other way around- plenty to steal with lots left over to share with the poor and needy.

The Venezuelan opposition movement is rooted in the corrupt old regime. Venezuelans voted for them to punish the government, not out of trust. 

Many Venezuelans still revere Hugo Chavez' memory yet disapprove of the current government that rules in his name. The largest voting bloc is "neither nor" not too different from our own country.

The government is unwilling to admit just how bad things have gotten for fear that it would open the door to a foreign (United States) takeover. 

This video, produced by government television explains in English the root of the disaster - a major embezzlement of hundreds of billions of dollars. In 2013, when things were starting to get bad $259,000,000,000 had already been embezzled. The video skips over the fact that government officials had to be in cahoots with private sector crooks for the embezzlement to have succeeded. To understand just how serious the embezzlement is realize that Venezuela imports almost all of the food and other things it consumes. 2012 was the last really good year and imports were valued at $60 billion This year imports are expected to be valued at $15 billion. A hallmark of a socialist or "communist" society is central economic planning, and almost non existent crime. Venezuela turned communism upside down.

As sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, Hollywood stars will take insanely dumb political positions and suffer no repercussions because of it.
But few positions are quite as backward and awful as their support for a political system that has been discarded by nearly every country that has tried it and continues to cause extreme suffering by those unlucky enough to still live under it. I’m referring, of course, to full-fledged socialism.
As Venezuelans scream “we want food” in ongoing protests roiling the country, it’s important to remember how many of our celebrities plumped for the corrupt regimes that led to the starving people in the streets — celebrities who were, are and will continue to be free and well-fed. 
Sean Penn was pretty much Hugo Chávez’s BFF, praising him at every opportunity. When Chávez died, Penn mourned him and said, “Venezuela and its revolution will endure under the proven leadership of vice president [Nicolas] Maduro.”
And so it has. Maduro has continued Chávez’s policies with results that would only surprise people like Penn.
Michael Moore, who never misses an opportunity to stick his fingers in a dictatorial pie, always talked up the way Chávez allegedly shared his country’s oil profits with the people. After meeting Chávez, he tweeted, “He used the oil $ 2 eliminate 75% of extreme poverty, provide free health education 4 all.”
In 2007, Naomi Campbell interviewed Chávez for British GQ, calling him a “rebel angel” and praising Venezuela’s social programs.
“I am amazed by what I have seen here in only 24 hours,” Campbell was quoted as saying after visiting the new Children’s Heart Hospital in Caracas. “It’s marvelous to know and see what is being implemented here in Venezuela.”
Where’s Campbell now? CNN reports violent crime is rampant and gunshot victims are sitting in filthy hospitals with no medical supplies. One victim of an armed robbery had a “makeshift surgical drain, made from an empty gallon bottle, [that] draws fluid from his lungs. All the supplies, from gauze to syringes, had to be purchased out of his pocket.”
Where’s Michael Moore touting this free health-care? Did the armed robbers get the free education, or what?
You’d think that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Commie-and-socialist-loving dummies would rethink their support for an ideology that leads again and again to mass violence, mass oppression and mass starvation. But no, they keep on spouting their nonsense as if they haven’t been proven wrong at every turn.
It’s particularly painful for people like me, whose family survived the Soviet Union, made it to America and have to hear these know-nothings, lucky enough to have always lived in freedom, pontificate about how awesome people have it in countries like Venezuela and Cuba.
They get to fly home on their private jets having seen exactly what the dictator of the hour wanted them to see and then spread the ludicrous message that a system that’s an abject failure is actually a success when you look at it in the right light.
While he’s not a Hollywood celebrity, David Sirota’s 2013 article in Salon, titled “Hugo Chávez’s economic miracle,” should not be forgotten, either. In it, Sirota suggested the United States follow Venezuela’s example and nationalize the oil and bank industries.
“Chávez became the bugaboo of American politics because his full-throated advocacy of socialism and redistributionism at once represented a fundamental critique of neoliberal economics, and also delivered some indisputably positive results,” Sirota gushed.
Ronald Reagan said that freedom and democracy “will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history,” but he may have underestimated the usefulness of Hollywood idiots.
Sirota and his friends need to look the people of Caracas, dehydrated because they have no water, in the face and tell them about these supposed positive results. The people of Venezuela are owed something from these people.
As Penn, Moore, Campbell, Sirota and many others sleep in their comfortable beds in free countries, they should spare a thought for the people they left to live under the boot. An apology is the least they could do.