Friday, May 24, 2019

The Erickson Report - Page 3: A Deeper Look: Venezuela

A Deeper Look: Venezuela

What happened to Venezuela as a news story?

It was all over news in April, you couldn’t turn your head without bumping into a Venezuela story. Ever since January we had breathless media reports of building tensions, we had reports of massive demonstrations by opponents of the government, all against a backdrop of - as our media would have it - a dictator desperately trying to cling to power against a rising tide of internal resistance and international condemnation. How long can he hold out, he’s going to fall, it’s got to happen, any day now, any day now, any day now!

Now, there’s still news, but by comparison, it’s crickets. So what happened?

The two leading characters in this are Nicolás Maduro, winner of the last election for president of Venezuela, and Juan Guaido, head of the National Assembly, who have been metaphorically butting heads for four months.

The roots go back earlier - of course you can always go back earlier, claiming ever-earlier roots of most any conflict, but the immediate roots date to 1999. That was when Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela as the face of a movement to raise the poor: to raise their living standards and to raise their voices.

Chavez launched big poverty-reduction programs that had measurable impacts:
- between 2003 and 2009, the poverty rate was cut by more than half
- between 2001 and 2007, illiteracy was cut by nearly a third
- government programs brought food, housing, and health care to the needy

Nicolás Maduro
But during his time in office, he made three serious mistakes, all of which bear on the present moment:

For one, his anti-poverty measures were paid for with oil income, which accounts for 98% of the country’s foreign earnings, which meant they depended on oil prices remaining high.

Notice on Graph 1, which displays the world price for oil, that I’ve marked when Chavez came into office. It was a time of increasing oil prices. Not in an unbroken string, but overall, yes, clearly increasing. Prices continued to generally climb - until around 2008-2009 when they crashed to less than a third of what they had been, saddling Venezuela with debts it couldn’t pay and sending the country into a deep recession from which it has still not recovered.

Juan Guaido
Second, he didn’t account for - or at least didn't count enough for how much international finance and transnational corporations would hate him and how much they would hate what he was trying to do for the poor, how much they would try to smear him, how much they would try to undermine the economy. When he nationalized some parts of the oil industry, the reaction among those self-labeled Masters of the Universe was to declare Venezuela unsafe for investment.

Even though unless they were in certain segments of the oil industry they had no reason to be concerned, even though foreign investment was still welcome, even though private enterprise continued across the economy, still Venezuela was declared too risky for investment, thus denying it needed foreign capital. That hatred, including among his domestic elites, was enough to see an attempted (and US-endorsed) coup in 2002.

Hugo Chavez
They couldn’t stand what he was trying to do and they especially couldn’t stand that despite their best efforts, he kept winning elections that even his opponents were forced to admit were free and fair.

Before Chavez died in office in 2013, he had named Nicolás Maduro as his preferred successor. Maduro was elected in April 2013 but by the thin margin of 1.6 percentage points.

During his first term in office, the economy, still suffering from the effects of the price crash of 2008-2009, sank even further when oil prices hit another decline, leaving the people increasingly struggling and Maduro increasingly unpopular.

Even so, Maduro was re-elected to a second six-year term in May 2018, but in an election that could politely be called controversial. In fact, there is good reason to regard that election as at best unfair if not illegitimate. Most opposition parties boycotted it because the most popular opposition parties were barred from running, leading to charges the poll would be neither free nor fair. As a result, Maduro's re-election was not recognized by the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition.

Which relates to Chavez’s third failing: He failed to build a movement that would survive him. The movement was Chavez, Chavez was the movement. When he died, he left behind him a party structure, but there was no movement beyond that structure, no broad base of organized support to call on, to not only hold that party up, but to hold it to point. Yes, Chavez could be authoritarian - although he was never near the incipient dictator much of the media here would have him be - but he could be authoritarian but at least it could be said of him that it was in service to that idea of lifting the poor.

For Maduro, being authoritarian - and he most certainly is that and more than Chavez ever was - is in service to idea of staying in power.

On January 10 of this year, Maduro was inaugurated into his second term. Almost immediately, the National Assembly held itself to be the only legitimate governing body and Guaido, as head of the Assembly, declared himself the legitimate "acting" president. The US recognized Guaido, and the players were all in place.

Graph 1
The US got others to go along with its endorsement of Guaido, intentionally setting the conflict up as an ideological proxy war between the hideous phantasm specter of "socialism" as pesented by the US foreign policy apparatus on the one hand and fields of flowers "democracy" on the other. The crisis in Venezuela deepened and sharpened complete with the US repeatedly dangling the possibility of sending in the Marines.

Across this time, the US kept claiming its only interest was the welfare of the people of Venezuela, but that was a lie. Already reeling from a the deep recession caused by 2008-2009 the collapse of oil prices, Venezuela has been hit with two rounds of severe economic sanctions from the US.

The first round, in August 2017, prohibited the Venezuelan government from borrowing in US financial markets, making it impossible for the country to restructure foreign debt, which made it impossible to obtain more financing which made it impossible to recover from the recession and caused oil production to crash.

Look Graph 2. It compares domestic oil production in Venezuela and Colombia, with Venezuela’s in the dark blue. I want you to notice the vertical dashed line closer to me. It marks the imposition of the 2017 sanctions. Notice what happens to Venezuela’s production in their wake. The result was driving the economy from a state of very high inflation to one of hyperinflation, with all the attendant effects of the population.

The second set of sanctions, laid down in January of this year, prohibited the sale of oil from Venezuela’s national oil company in the US, which has previously been the customer for more than a third of Venezuela’s oil, and also froze nearly $18 billion in Venezuelan assets.

Moreover, the US has pressured other countries not to buy the oil that previously had been imported by the US and has instructed oil trading houses and refiners around the world to further cut dealings with Venezuela or face sanctions themselves, even if the trades are not prohibited by published US sanctions. Put another way, the US has declared to the world “do not deal in, do not refine, do not even transport Venezuelan oil or we will come for you.”

In a report issued in April, economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs calculate that US sanctions have resulted in the death of 40,000 Venezuelan civilians between 2017 and 2018, with an additional 300,000 at risk “because of lack of access to medicines or treatment” and another four million with diabetes and hypertension who cannot access needed medicine. They say the numbers “virtually guarantee that the current sanctions are a death sentence for tens of thousands of Venezuelans.”

Some have challenged those figures, claiming they are inflated - but significantly, the challengers have not disputed that fact that the sanctions have resulted in Venezuelan deaths, they only dispute how many.

The US is literally killing thousands of Venezuelans to oust Maduro - and remember, these sanctions started in August 2017 - nearly a full year before the suspicious elections that are supposedly the basis for declaring Guaido the president.

Graph 2
The lie about the welfare of the people also lead to that staged “relief caravan” at the border with Colombia, with the US bringing trucks of “aid” to the starving, desperate people of Venezuela because the US government was just so moved by their need, aid they knew would be refused, aid that was intended to be refused, intended to be refused as part of a cynical political carnival so transparent that international aid organizations refused to take part. In other words, the US was oh so graciously offering some minimal help in order to relieve suffering for which it itself was significantly responsible. Meanwhile, the response of the Maduro government was in effect “don’t send aid, unfreeze our assets and we’ll buy what we need.”

And so we stumbled forward until April 30 when Juan Guaido, apparently believing that the venom and froth coming from such as John Bolton meant the US really was ready to invade on his behalf, declared “the final phase” and “the time is now” for an uprising, declared it in a video designed to make his supporters believe the military had switched sides and he may have already seized a military base near the capital of Caracas.

It turned out that the two dozen or so soldiers appearing with him on the video were all he had and his call for an uprising quickly fizzled, as did his call the next day for a general strike. The opposition could and still did generate mass protests, but they were neither large enough nor, more importantly, sustained enough to force change. Instead of being forced out, Maduro seemed even more secure.

This is not to say things are resolved or that it’s all over - although it is, interestingly and revealingly, that point at which our mainstream media lost interest and Venezuela disappeared from the front page, to be replaced by the latest shiny penny.

But let it be known that there are clear signs that there is more to be told about Venezuela and the opposition might not be reduced to issuing defiant proclamations, our media to the contrary.

For one, Guaido is still dreaming of US military support. On May 5 he told the BBC that he was considering asking the US to launch a military intervention and a few days later he asked for a meeting with the US military for “strategic and operational planning” and said he "welcomes the support of the United States and confirms our government's willingness to begin discussions regarding the cooperation that has been offered." In response, a representative of the US Southern Command said “We are currently following up with” Guaido’s representative in the US, which could mean he's not the only one still thinking about it.

For another, there are signs that Maduro may be bending. On May 13, Venezuela lifted foreign exchange controls on banks for the first time in 16 years. Observers were skeptical that it will do much to lift the economy, but it is a shift.

There was also a report that Maduro was inviting a range of local officials to meet with him and suggest changes in his policies, which could mean he is feeling confident in his position but could also mean he feels the need to look flexible in order to deflect some of the pressure.

And finally, there are multiple reports that representatives of both sides have traveled to Norway for exploratory talks on resolving the crisis. Members of the National Assembly confirmed the reports on background and while Maduro has not directly commented, he did say May 15 that Minister Jorge Rodríguez was on a "very important" mission outside the country.

And finally, on something else that may - emphasize may - help to move things toward a resolution, it develops that the US is unlikely to grant a request from the Venezuelan opposition for an executive order protecting the nation’s assets from creditors. That means Guaido will need to make a critical bond payment by the end of this month to ensure that investors don’t try to seize Citgo, which is owned by the Venezuelan national oil company and was put up as collateral on the note. Supposedly this reluctance is because President Tweetie-pie doesn’t want to get too involved in the opposition’s economic agenda, but in reality it means that the US will not shield Guaido’s administration from the banks - and Juan Guaido may just gotten his first lesson in whose interests he is truly supposed to act.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Erickson Report - Page 2: Listen Up!

Listen Up!

Okay people, it's time to listen up.

There has been a lot of talk about impeachment of late, impeachment, that is, of President Tweetie-pie*. Some folks say it has to happen, some say it's inevitable, some say there is no point, and of course he has his defenders insisting that nothing he's done or accused of justifies it, it’s all "fake news" and in any event nothing rises to the Constitutional definition of "treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors."

Well, listen up: We can't not do it. We can't not impeach. We can't say that what we have seen is acceptable. We can't say that obstruction of justice is okay. We can't say that ignoring the emoluments clause is okay. We can't say cooperating with agents tied to a foreign government to influence our elections is okay.

We can't allow endorsing white supremacy to be okay. We can't say returning to the days when bigotry was the law of the land and publicly acceptable is okay. We can't say a president acting like a mafia boss is okay.

We cannot not do it. Even if know will lose, even if we know the right wing Senate won't convict, even if we are fearful that the mouth-breathing bigots who are such a big part of his base will get all riled up, we can't not do it.

The contrary argument is that it’s better to avoid the conflict and beat him in 2020, an argument spun mostly by people like Nancy Cluck-Cluck Pelosi whose sole concern is how impeachment might affect the political fortunes of the Democrats in 2020, preferring to run and hide for fear of what the GOPpers will say about them, as if they wouldn't say it all anyway, fearful that Tweetie-pie will make himself out the victim as if he won't anyway, as if he hasn't already.

The argument, ultimately, is based on a claim about the Clinton impeachment, noting that his popularity went up in the wake of it - but the comparison is weak if not bogus.

First, Bill Clinton was a popular president: His approval rating was in the mid-50s to the low 60s through all of 1997; when scandal broke into the media in January 1998, it stood at 60.

Trump is an unpopular president; his approval rating has never been above 46; it’s averaged about 42; and is often in upper 30s.

Second, the Clinton impeachment was seen by many as purely political (which it was); many argued the impeachment was wrong because it involved a personal matter that had nothing to do with his job as president and did not involve offenses to the body politic, which are the sort of offenses the authors of the Constitution intended to be the focus of impeachment.

You can’t say any of that about Trump.

What's more, waiting for the election doesn't resolve the issue of the damage that we have seen.

If we let this pass, we are saying that a president can obstruct justice, ignore the emoluments clause, break campaign finance laws, undermine Constitutional government and corrupt the political process, ignore subpoenas, refuse to obey laws even if the plain black letter of the law says otherwise, subvert the very rule of law by turning the Attorney General into their personal lawyer, subvert free speech by encouraging violence against protestors, subvert the free press by calling any critical coverage "fake news" from "the enemies of the people"and even declaring their own twitter feed the only source of truth, even refuse to recognize Congress as a co-equal branch of government - all of that and more, with no consequence beyond maybe losing an election.

We can't let this pass without at least trying to lay down a marker saying this is not acceptable!

Listen up, people: We cannot not impeach.

*So named because of his addiction to tweeting out his every passing thought.

The Erickson Report - Page 1: Abortion rights are under attack and it goes beyond that

Abortion rights are under attack and it goes beyond that

It should come as no surprise that the anti-choice, anti-freedom, anti-abortion, forced birth crowd is feeling pretty good these days, especially as the elevation of Brett The Liar Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is giving them wet dreams of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Six states have enacted so-called "heartbeat bills" that ban abortions, with very few exceptions, once a fetal heartbeat can be detected - which is usually at about six weeks, a point before which most women even know they are pregnant. Four of those six - Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Georgia - have passed such laws this year.

It should be noted that none of these laws have gone into effect: Kentucky's, which was to go into effect immediately, has been blocked in federal court. Mississippi's is intended to go into effect July 1, Ohio's July 10, and Georgia's January 1, 2020 - and all three are certain to be blocked by suits in federal district court because they so obviously conflict with Roe v. Wade. But of course the point is not to get them in force immediately - supporters know they will lose in lower courts - but to get one or more of them before the Supreme Court.

Still, it does seem that each is vying to be the most restrictive and to be the one that makes it to SCOTUS and so obtains the glory of being the one that results in Roe being overturned and thus the return of back-alley abortions.

For example, last November, a federal judge ruled Mississippi's ban on abortion after 15 weeks was unconstitutional - and the state responded by banning it after six weeks and adding that a physician who performs an abortion after that time could lose their state medical license.

The Ohio law not only bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, it provides no exceptions for rape or incest.

In Georgia, the law extends the legal definition of "natural persons" to include the fetus once a heartbeat is detectable, which means that women who have abortions after six weeks along with those who perform them could be prosecuted for murder. Even if the woman goes to a different state where the procedure is legal, she could be charged with conspiracy to commit murder, punishable by 10 years in prison.

And don’t wave that off like it can’t happen because it already has. In 2015, in Georgia, a woman named Kenlissia Jones was prosecuted for "malice murder" for taking an abortion pill. The charges were only dropped when prosecutors had to admit that there was no provision in state law allowing for such prosecution. If this new bill were to become law, there would be.

The Alabama legislation is perhaps the most extreme, as it seeks to outlaw abortion outright. It bans all abortions in the state except when "necessary to prevent a serious health risk" to the woman. It classifies abortion as a Class A felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison for doctors. It does say a woman who gets an abortion can't be prosecuted, but also makes no exceptions for victims or rape or incest.

Overall four states passed such laws this year, but similar bills have been introduced in 13 more and some are moving through state legislatures.

For example, in Missouri, a bill banning abortion after eight weeks has been approved by the state Senate - with no exceptions for rape, incest, or human trafficking. A doctor who performs an abortion after that point could be charged with a felony and face up to 15 years in prison.

But Ohio has a new twist: Following on its "heartbeat bill," the legislature is considering a bill to bar insurance companies from covering abortion services unless the procedure is necessary to save the woman’s life. The bill defines this kind of abortion as a “nontherapeutic abortion,” which “includes drugs or devices used to prevent the implantation of a fertilized ovum.”

This is important: By that definition, using the pill is abortion. Using an IUD is abortion. Use the patch, use the ring, it's all abortion under this proposed law.

There have long been warnings, too often ignored or dismissed, that this issue would not end at abortion; that even if the anti-choice bigots got their way and abortion was outlawed in every state, they would not be satisfied but they would come after birth control next.

Admittedly, some of the effects of this proposed Ohio law are the result of an astonishing level of ignorance about the biology of human reproduction and the very basics of how something like the pill works, but the blunt truth is that a fair about is due to ideology.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed to that, noting that abortion bans "aren't just about controlling women's bodies. They're about controlling women's sexuality. Owning women. Ultimately, this is about women's power. When women are in control of their sexuality, it threatens a core element underpinning right-wing ideology: patriarchy."

Exactly. Ultimately, this is not about abortion. That is the current and necessary battlefield, but it’s not the war.

It's not even about birth control. But AOC is too limiting when she says it's about women's sexuality or controlling women's sexuality. It's about more. It's about controlling women's entire lives, controlling their options, limiting their choices. It is about too many men - and, let it be said, a not inconsiderable number of women - looking for a world of Stepford wives (if you're anywhere near AOC's age, look it up) and barefoot and pregnant homilies.

It is about, ultimately, people so rigid and narrow in their thinking, so trapped in their presumptions, so fearful, indeed so terrified, of the future, that they are striving to undo decades of social change and social progress because that's where their ideology, one based on an inability to deal with change, leads them.

Abortion is the current battlefield, but that is the war.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Erickson Report - May 21-June3

The Erickson Report for May 21 - June 3, 2019

This week:

- Abortion rights are under attack and it goes beyond that

- Listen Up! We can't not impeach

- A Deeper Look: Venezuela -16-years-63015289
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