Saturday, January 19, 2019

Creation of poverty out of prosperity: the magical realism of Venezuela

Nicolas Maduro started his second term for six years as President of Venezuela on 10 January. But the political drama of his rigged re-election, the economic collapse of the country and the traumatisation of the society resemble the story of “one hundred years of solitude” by the Colombian Nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Venezuelan reality is even more bizarre than the magical fiction of Marquez in which the people of Macondo are cursed to suffer one disaster after another. Creation of poverty in Venezuela which was the richest Latin American country in the recent past, is pure Magical Realism.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, more than that of Saudi Arabia. Besides oil, the country is blessed with minerals, hydroelectric potential, arable land, pleasant climate, beautiful beaches and many Miss World and Universe titles. In the sixties, the per capita GDP of Venezuela was many times bigger than that of Brazil and Colombia. Caracas was only destination for Concorde flights in Latin America. The Venezuelan middle class people used to go to Miami for shopping during weekend. The country had a vibrant democracy while many countries in Latin America went under military dictatorship during the cold war. 

But today, Latin America has progressed and moved on to the twenty first century with a new paradigm of democratic maturity and economic growth. But Venezuela has gone backwards with a toxic combination of authoritarianism, political chaos, economic disaster, hyperinflation, shortage of food and medicine, rampant crime and corruption.  The Chavistas have given a bad name to socialism which had seen resurgence in the region in the last two decades.

The GDP of Venezuela has contracted consecutively for the last five years to over fifty percent. It is forecast to shrink by another ten percent in 2019. The country has the highest inflation in the world running into six digits. The government has stopped publishing inflation and other economic statistics. Since most of the domestic manufacturing industry and agriculture have been destroyed, the country has become desperately dependent on imports. But there is severe shortage of foreign exchange reserves which are inadequate to cover even essential imports. The Venezuelan currency Bolivar has lost 99.9% of its value and has become worthless. The government keeps changing currencies and exchange rates, which has given rise to huge black market for dollars and goods, run by those with Chavista connections. 

Poor people scavenge for food in the rubbish bins. Soviet-Cuban style queues are common in front of super markets and shops which are often empty and running short of medicines,food and essential items such as toilet paper and soap. There are frequent power cuts and shortage of water. Most international airlines have stopped flights to Venezuela due to payment issues.

Crime and violence is rampant in Caracas which has one of the highest murder rates in the region. The city has become unsafe even for diplomats who need to use bullet proof cars. The happy-go-lucky party-loving people of Caracas have stopped going out in the night.   

According to UNHCR, three million Venezuelans (ten percent of the total population) have fled to other countries to escape the poverty, misery and persecution. This has become the biggest migration and humanitarian crisis in the history of Latin America. This is disgraceful, given the fact that over a million South Americans used to work in Venezuela which offered better prospects than their countries. 

The country’s oil production has come down from 3 million barrels per day to 1.5 mbpd due to mismanagement and lack of investment. PDVSA, the state oil company, which had the best oil experts and managers in the region, is run these days by unprofessional Chavistas. Neither the company nor the government  publish figures of oil exports and revenue which are kept as secrets. A significant part of oil is sent to China as barter payment for the 50 billion dollar plus debt.

The people of Venezuela, subjected to the worst suffering, are seething with frustration and outrage. Chavez himself was a product of such a public anger against the two establishment political parties which plundered the country and got the country into a mess in the nineties. Hugo Chavez asked, “ Venezuela is a rich country. Why are you people poor?”. The masses voted for him overwhelmingly in 1998 and the two traditional parties were completely discredited and decimated. Chavez started off as a real revolutionary who wanted to uplift the poor with sincere commitment. But later his agenda got totally lost in hubris and anger against the opposition which overthrew him (for 48 hours) in the 2002 coup. Chavez went on a ruthless revenge against the political and business oligarchs as well as the middle class with a series of destructive measures such as currency, import and price controls and systematic dismantling of checks and balances of democratic instituitions. He squandered the windfall oil profits in wasteful and fancy projects.

Maduro’s re-election in May 2018 has been called as illegitimate and  has not been recognised by the Venezuelan opposition parties. The Maduro government had banned opposition parties and imprisoned or exiled many leaders preventing participation in the elections on trumped up charges. The snap election itself was called prematurely by an illegal Constituent Assembly which usurped the powers of the legitimate Congress in which the opposition has the majority. If a proper election is held, the opposition would come to power undoubtedly as they won in the Congressional elections in 2015.

The Venezuelan opposition, which used to organise vigorous protests in the past has now run out of steam and is divided. They tried dialogue with the government through the mediation of Vatican. This too failed. People fear coming out for protests after violent crackdown in which over one hundred protestors were killed in police shootings in 2017.
Clearly, the country is crying out for liberation from the hopeless mess. There is no possibility of economic recovery or correction of political course under President Maduro who is simply incompetent and impotent. His rivals are waiting to stab him in the back at the first opportunity. He has ensured the support of the military by giving them control of lucrative businesses such as food distribution and the petroleum sector. The Chavistas and their military collaborators plunder the country with impunity and in a hurry since they do not know how long the regime would last.
Chavez, a long time admirer of Fidel Castro sought the “merger of the two revolutions. He nominated Maduro as successor from his deathbed in Havana, on the advice of the Castros. The Cubans have been helping the Chavista regimes with intelligence through their advisors in Venezuela. They guide Maduro how to survive American conspiracies and sanctions, based on their long experience. The thousands of Cuban doctors who work in the slums and rural areas of Venezuela are the eyes and ears of the Chavista government. In return, Cuba gets Venezuelan oil on generous terms. 

Venezuela has become like a Cuba with shortage of essential items, long queues and citizen controls. But there is a big difference. The Cuban people, although denied freedom, do not go hungry. They have the best healthcare and education. They are optimistic that life could become only better in the future. The Cubans have a joke, ‘It is only the first hundred years of the revolution which are difficult, before the socialist paradise’. But the Venezuelans suffering under the Chavista regime for the last twenty years are wondering if they are in for “One Hundred years of Suffering”.  

The twelve Latin American countries of the Lima Group (including Brazil, Argentina and Colombia) as well as the European Union, Canada and USA have  condemned the rigged re-election of Maduro and refused recognition. They have threatened sanctions and restrictions to further isolate Venezuela which has already been suspended from Mercosur. But Venezuela receives some limited support from China, Russia and Turkey as well as from Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico in Latin America.

The Maduro regime would collapse if the US imposes oil sanctions against Venezuela, as it did in the case of Iran. US, the largest importer of Venezuelan oil, can afford to forego since it has become much less dependent on imported oil thanks to the shale revolution which has made US as the largest oil producer in the world again. Although the US has imposed some cosmetic sanctions against Venezuelan bonds and leaders, the Administration does not want to cause losses to the few American refineries which use exclusively Venezuelan crude. In any case, the US is not in a hurry to stop the bleeding of Venezuela since it is enjoying the spectacle of the Venezuelan misery as a scarecrow deterring the spread of socialism in the region. Along with Venezuela, Ortega’s authoritarianism in Nicaragua and the traditional bogey of Cuba have given a new agenda to fight against the “ Troika of Tyranny and Triangle of Terror” for the neo-cold war warrior National Security Advisor John Bolton who is eager to repeat interventions in the ‘backyard’ since the days of the Monroe Doctrine.

India is the second largest importer of Venezuelan oil, importing around 350,000 barrels per day annually. In 2017-18 imports were 5.85 billion dollars. In the first six months of 2018-19 (April-October), the imports increased to 4.6 billion dollars due to the rise in oil prices. These imports are part of the strategic energy policy of India to reduce overdependence on the Middle East and to diversify sources of imports. ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) has invested over a billion dollars in the Venezuelan oil fields. Although India’s exports are not high, there is potential for growth. With these interests, India does not comment on Venezuelan domestic affairs and maintains relations with the government in power pragmatically.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Bolsonaro, Bible and Bullet

When the Argentine cardinal Francis was elected as Pope, the Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff was asked for her reaction by an Argentine journalist. She said ” The Pope might be Argentine but the God is Brazilian”. God seems to have sent his messenger in the form of Jair Messias Bolsonaro who has taken over as President of Brazil on 1 January.  The middle name Messias means Messiah. Bolsonaro has promised to take the country to “Jewish-Christian tradition” and place “God above all”. Bolsonaro, the ex-army captain is a firm believer in the power of bullet besides that of bible. 

As part of his victory celebrations, Bolsonaro attended a worship service conducted by the celebrity evangelical pastor Silas Malafia who declared, “ God will change the fortune of Brazilians. Brazil belongs to Lord Jesus”. 

Ernesto Araujo, the new foreign minister, seems to be even more close to God than his boss. In an article published after his nomination, he says, “ My detractors have called me crazy for believing in God and for believing that God acts in history—but I don’t care. God is back and the nation is back: a nation with God; God through the nation”. He has ended the article saying, “Tony Blair’s spokesman Alastair Campbell famously said of Britain: “We don’t do God.” Well, in Brazil, now we do”.In his personal blog “Metapolitica 17 contra globalismo” (újo states his goal is to “help Brazil and the world liberate themselves from globalist ideology”, which he sees as anti-Christianand anti-human beings. He claims that the ultimate aim of globalization is to break the link between God and man. He quotes Biblical texts extensively to support his divine views including about Brazil’s place in the Western world in international affairs. Araujo believes that theophobia is a bigger problem than xenophobia.

These words of Bolsonaro and Araujo from the country which has the world’s largest catholic population, should be music to the ears of Pope. Not exactly. On the contrary, he should be worried. The number of catholics keeps going down in Brazil and is less than 70 % of the population. More and more people are drawn to evangelical sects attracted by the Prosperity Theology. In return for the divine help, the followers are made to contribute (tithe) a part of their income to the Industry of Faith of the pastors some of whom have become multimillionaires. The charismatic and pop-star like evangelical pastors of Brazil have converted more than twenty five percent of the Catholics to various evangelical sects which have become rich and powerful. Edir Macedo is the richest pastor with a wealth of more than a billion dollars and private jet costing 45 million dollars. His Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has over five million members and 13,000 temples across Brazil, as well as presence in several other countries, including the United States. This church owns the second-largest TV station in Brazil, Rede Record, as well as newspapers and radio stations across 27 states.Macedo has been accused of money laundering and other illegal activities for which he spent a few days in jail. The Evangelicals use the entertainment industry to spread their message across Brazil. There are 128 Evangelical record labelsandmore than 600 radio stations dedicated exclusively to gospel programming.

These evangelical churches are politically active and advise their members to vote for evangelical candidates and sympathisers with the slogan “Brother votes for Brother”. The Biblical caucus in the Congress is proactive on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Bolsonaro himself has said that he would prefer a dead son over a gay one.

Bolsonaro calls himself catholic while his wife and son are Baptists. In May2016, Bolsonaro was baptizedin the Jordan River by Pastor Everaldo, a prominent leader of the Assembly of God. Bolsonaro came back from the trip full of praise for Israel’s military prowess andachievements.

Bolsonaro reaffirmed in his inaugural speech, “ Good citizens deserve the means to defend themselves through gun ownership”. His supporters in the Congress greeted him by pointing their fingers in the shape of a gun. 

He has inducted seven ex-military officers in his 22-member cabinet, besides choosing a General as his Vice President. He has plans to strengthen the armed forces. Never mind, the country does not face any external threat. Brazil, which has borders with ten South American countries, has no territorial disputes and has never faced any aggression from neighbours.  The only enemy the Brazilian armed forces has fought and killed in the modern history is its own people during the military dictatorships. The Brazilian armed forces got away with its crimes with impunity under the amnesty law unlike some other South American countries which had brought the killer Colonels to justice. Bolsonaro is proud of the criminal military dictatorship and his only complaint is that not enough were killed. He wants to give extra powers to the police to shoot and kill. His son Carlos, who is his social media manager, circulates video clips praising police shootings. Bolsonaro was part of the Bullet Caucus in the Congress which lobbied for easy access to guns, tough policies against crimes and privatisation of prisons. The members of the Bullet Caucus are mostlyformer police and military officials, many of whom have received major campaign contributions from Brazilian handgun manufacturing giant Taurus and the Brazilian Cartridge Company, the nation’s largest ammunition manufacturer. Not surprisingly, the share price of Taurus has almost doubled after the election of Bolsonaro.The Bullet Caucus successfully prevented a bill in 2006 to ban the civilian purchase of hand guns. The Brazilian lobby benefitted from the support of the National Rifle Association of US.

Araujo believes that climate change is  part of a plot by “cultural Marxists” to stifle western economies and promote the growth of China. He claims that climate science is merely  a dogma which has been used to justify increasing the regulatory power of states over the economy and the power of international institutions on the nation states and their populationsJust like Bolsonaro, Araujo is a fervent admirer of U.S. President Donald Trump, whom he believes can “save the West.”
The God and Gun rule of Bolsonaro is a reminder of how the Portuguese and Spanish conquered and colonised Latin America with “the Sword and the Cross”. The colonisers exterminated millions of indigenous people, destroyed their faiths and converted most of them. Bolsonaro, has launched an assault on environmental and Amazon protections with an executive order transferring the regulation and creation of new indigenous reserves to the agriculture ministry – which is controlled by the powerful Bible, Beef and Bullet caucus (known as Bancada BBB) in the Congress. This caucus consists of evangelicals, rich landlords, cattle and meat industry representativesas well as ex-police and armed forces members.The move sparked outcry from indigenous leaders, who said it threatened their reserves, Previously, demarcation of reserves was controlled by the indigenous agency Funai, which has been moved from the justice ministry to a new ministry of women, family and human rights controlled by an evangelical pastor. The new health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has called for spending cuts on healthcare for indigenous people.
Bolsonaro, in his inaugural speech, has vowed to liberate Brazil from socialism and political correctness. His anti-affirmative action and racist views are a set back for the large poor and marginalised black population of over 80 million out of the total of 210 million. Under the pro-poor socialistpolicies of President Lula,nearly forty million were pulled out from below poverty line into middle class. Bolsonaro is against giving hand outs and says it make them lazy. 

Bolsonaro has dismantled the Labor Ministry and distributed its functions three other ministries of justice and public security, economy and citizenship. Brazil, which has one of the highest disparities in wealth distribution in the world, is likely to increase the gap between the rich and poor under the neoliberalistic Finance Minister Paulo Guedes and his Chicago Boys who are at the helm of economic and financial policies.

Bolsonaro has been given a clear mandate by the Brazilians who desperately sought a change from the hubris and corruption of the politicians of Workers Party as well as all the other establishment parties.  The economy, which was in recession in the last two years, is already recovering and the business sector is bullish. God has blessed Brazil with plenty of natural and mineral resources, conducive climate, fertile land and beautiful beaches. The country has a large population of which a good proportion is young and vibrant. The happy -go- lucky and football -and -beach loving Brazilians are now looking upwards to the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro  and are preparing for the Rule of God and the Gun..

An edited version of the article was published by the magazine The Week on 10 January

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Roma - the Mexican film

Roma, the latest film of the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (it can be seen in India in Netflix) has earned rave reviews and is an Oscar contender. It stands out as an unusual film defying the common genres. It is the story of Cleo, the live-in maid from the Mexican indigenous community Mixtec serving a wealthy white family. She toils from early morning till late nightpreparing food, cleaning floors,washing dishes and ironing clothes. She looks after the four kids in the house with motherly affection. She talks very little, contains her emotions and works silently. She does not rebel nor does she protest when the world is unfair to her. The shy and naïve Cleo has no big expectations or ambitions or even dreams. She accepts the life of domestic help as fixed for her in the social hierarchy. During her day off, she goes out with her boyfriend. But he runs away when she becomes pregnant. She loses the child but takes it in stoically and fatalistically. She never wavers from her devotion and loyalty to the family, which treats her with kindness.

Sofia, the lady of the house in which Cleo works, also undergoes suffering caused by her unfaithful husband who runs away with a lover. She confesses to Cleo, “ No matter what they tell you, we the women, are always alone”. 

The story is set in the upscale neighbourhood of Colonia Roma in Mexico city and the Mexico of seventies which had witnessed student protests with fatal consequences.

The film is a plain but intense portrayal of everyday life of the maid. It is like a documentary without big drama, suspense or mystery. No digression with sub plots. No narco trafficking gangster violence. No Latin American magical realism. No Argentine psychological complexity. But the film packs powerful emotions and poignant moments in subtle and discreet ways. It has elaborate and vivid details of physical work of the maid and the mental turmoil in the family.

The film is a masterpiece of Alfonso Cuaron who has based the story on his own childhood memories. He says it is very personal to him and at the same time it is about the family, the city, the country and about humanity. 

Roma is a tribute to the maid Libo Rodriguezwho used to work in Cuaron’s house like Cleo in the film. He has, in fact, dedicated the film to her. He searched for almost a year for the right person to act as Cleo and found YalitzaAparacio, a twenty four year old primary school teacher who lived in a one room flat with her family in rural Mexico. She had no professional acting experience. But she has fit the character perfectly and has left a lasting impression with her spontaneous acting and natural demeanour. Her mother is still working as a domestic workerHer father left home when she was in her teens and her two youngest siblings were still toddlers, leaving her mother to bring up four children.
The movie is in black and white. The actors are non-professionals. The dialogues are in Spanish except when the two maids talk in their indigenous Mixtec language.  

Cuaron is the first Mexican and Latin American to win Oscar award for the best director in 2013 for the Hollywood film “Gravity”. His other Mexican film “ Y tu mama tambien” was a hit commercially and a cultural shocker. He has done a Harry Potter film too.

After Cuaron, two other Mexican film directors Alejandro González Iñárritu ( won twice in 2014 and 2015) and Guillermo del Toro (2017) have won Oscar awards. These “three amigos” have raised the profile of Mexican film industry which is in resurgence these days.

The success of Roma has now made Aparicio famous. She appeared in the cover of the Vogue magazine (December edition) wearinga Gucci dress,next to the title “In tiu’n ntav’i” – “A star is born” – in the indigenous Mixtec language. 

In a video released by Vogue, Aparicio said: “Certain stereotypes are being broken: that only people with a certain profile can be actresses or be on the cover of magazines.Other faces of Mexico are now being recognized. It is something that makes me happy and proud of my roots.”
This is the first time that an indigenous woman has become the heroine of a Mexican hit film and appeared in the cover page of a fashion magazine. Naturally there is jubilation and celebration in the Mexican indigenous community and especially among their women. Although indigenous Mexicanscomprise twenty percentof the population,theyare marginalized from public life and politics, and many live in poverty.This is true of most of the forty million indigenous people in Latin America spread out from Mexico to Chile. For the first time, an indigenous leader Evo Morales was elected as President in Bolivia in 2006. Inspired by his example, Rigoberta Mengchu stood in the presidential elections of Guatemala but did not make it. 
Cuaron’s bold art movie celebrating the indigenous community has found its match in the revolutionary spirit of the new Leftist Mexican president Lopez Obrador who has got the film screened for the public for free in Los Pinos, the presidential palace on 13 december. He got the culture ministry to supply popcorn and soft drinks to the audience. Obrador has refused to move into the luxurious presidential mansion and has converted it into a museum for public to visit. He continues to live in his own modest residence. He has put the presidential plane on sale and travels by economy class in commercial flights. Hehas promised to give priority to emancipation of indigenous people, as part of his grand plan for the transformation of the country. He gained national exposure as an advocate for the rights of indigenous people when in 1996 he appeared on national TV drenched in blood following confrontations with the police for blocking oil wells to defend the rights of local indigenous people impacted by pollution.On 16 December, President Obrador attended an indigenous ceremony seeking the blessing of Mother Earth for the Maya tourist train project.

Roma, the film about the native Indian maid, ends with a message from the real Indiawith the words “Shantih shantih shantih”.