“We Don’t Want Venezuela to Become a Totalitarian Communist State”

“We don’t want Venezuela to become a totalitarian communist state,” declared Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa yesterday in Caracas at the opening of a major conference organized by the market-liberal think tank, CEDICE. I’m in Venezuela this week with my Cato colleagues Juan Carlos Hidalgo and Gabriela Calderon to participate in the event and to run a seminar for 60 students and young leaders from Venezuela, which took place earlier this week.

Vargas Llosa’s concern is not about some remote possibility. Nor is it the opinion of an isolated intellectual detached from reality. His comments received sustained applause from the over-flow crowd of the 600 people in attendance and he has been mobbed by the press since he arrived here yesterday. Venezuela is not yet a full fledged dictatorship, evidenced by the fact that we are meeting here with leading liberal intellectuals from the region. But the environment of intolerance, arbitrary rule, and state vilification of anybody who disagrees with Hugo Chavez’s march toward socialism has worsened at an alarming rate in recent months.

Already, Chavez has centralized economic and political control to a degree unmatched anywhere in the hemisphere outside of Cuba. He controls the legislature, the supreme court, the military, the central bank, the national electoral council, much of the media, the state oil monopoly and thus virtually all government spending, and exerts tremendous influence over the private sector through regulatory measures, most especially capital controls.

Freedom of speech is coming under renewed attack. Wednesday was the two-year anniversary of the government’s decision to shut down the independent RCTV (by refusing to renew its license)—until then the country’s largest television station. It was the closing of RCTV that sparked mass protests led by the Venezuelan student movement that culminated in the defeat in December 2007 of Chavez’s proposed constitutional referendum that would have turned the country into a socialist state. Since then, the opposition has won major victories in leading cities and states and Chavez has had to deal with the steep drop in the price of oil, the source of his astronomical spending. Chavez´s response has included the marginalization of elected opposition politicians by depriving them of most of their funding and appointing parallel officials to carry out local government functions with full funding; the imposition by law of many of the measures rejected in the constitutional referendum; a rash of further nationalizations and land confiscations; and threats to close Globovision TV, the only remaining independent television station in the country.

The extent and technological sophistication of state propaganda here is impressive and chilling. Numerous state television stations operate 24 hours a day, relying on a diversity of formats (talk shows, music videos, interviews, “news” programs, congressional “debates,” etc.), praising the Chavez regime, and attacking the private sector. The programming is not just pro-government. It is explicitly Marxist through and through. There is endless talk about the effort to create a “new socialist man.” Those of us who have come to defend basic freedom in Venezuela have been individually and institutionally labeled on state television as imperialists and agents of the CIA. Currently and ironically, there is a government campaign against the “hegemony” of the private press and “media terrorism”—otherwise known in civilized countries as freedom of the press. The state intellectuals are discussing the lack of social responsibility of the private press and one channel carries congressional debates on the subject. The other day the government raided the house of the president of Globovision and accused him of violating the law in business dealings unrelated to the television station. This is being used as further proof of the existence of a vast “mafia” led by the “oligarchy.” Last night Mario Silva, the Goebbels of Venezuela, openly called on his television show for the closing of Globovision on the grounds that the station has misled and insulted the Venezuelan people for far too long and that enough is enough. I could go on but you get the picture. And this is only TV. The government finances marches, concerts and rallies, and pro-Chavez party propaganda on billboards, government buildings, public squares, etc. throughout the city and the country.

As was posted earlier, we co-sponsored a three-day Cato seminar on classical liberal thought for 60 Venezuelan students earlier this week with CEDICE that the national guard, an education ministry official and state TV interrupted in an effort to shut the event down. Their reasons for doing so were ludicrous—they accused us of setting up a university without permission. When we explained that it was a seminar that only uses the name university in the title, they then said we were engaging in false advertising and thus were still breaking the law. Fortunately, we had immediately called Globovision who immediately began reporting the incident as it occurred. I think Globovision’s role played no small part in pressuring government officials to leave. The government tried to intimidate us and provoke us into reacting aggressively, which we did not do. (Ironically, my Argentinean colleague, Professor Martin Krause, was giving a lecture at our seminar on the importance of civil society at the time of the government’s harassment.) For weeks, state media had been reporting that we were setting up a camp to train young Venezuelans in subversive tactics to overthrow the Chavez regime. This has then been discussed at length on state television by commentators, intellectuals, etc. Later I watched on Mario Silva’s program how they covered the incident showing footage that supposedly showed how we were openly flouting Venezuelan law in a number of ways. Later the same day, the authorities detained Peruvian intellectual Alvaro Vargas Llosa for three hours upon his arrival at the airport as he was headed to the Cato-CEDICE seminar, finally letting him go and informing him that he could not discuss political issues. Here again Globovision played a key role. It began reporting the events at airport as they happened, which were in turn immediately reported throughout the Latin American press.

This is an increasingly polarized and tense society. But it is also true that Chavez must rely extensively on force and deception to promote his socialist project. His personal popularity has sunk under 50 percent in recent weeks (support for his policies are even lower) and he is becoming more radical. The CEDICE conference has been filled with especially inspiring and moving speeches, particularly from the Venezuelans. Some of them–like RCTV president Marcel Granier or Oscar Garcia Mendoza, president of a leading bank that has never done business with government—are heroes of freedom, putting their own fortunes and personal liberty at risk in openly challenging the regime. They have the admiration of all freedom lovers here. They deserve all the support they can get in a battle that is only going to get tougher.

Democratic Deficit Hawks?

In a hagiographic profile of Obama budget director Peter Orszag, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker writes of the “pressure” he might get from congressional deficit hawks:

The respective heads of the House and Senate Budget Committees, John Spratt, Jr., of South Carolina, and Kent Conrad, of North Dakota, have spent years trying to control the deficit…

Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has made eradicating the federal budget deficit his life’s work.

Now, you’d think that if the ranking Democrats on the congressional budget committees had made deficit reduction their life’s work, the budget wouldn’t have, you know, skyrocketed over the past decade and more. So let’s go to the tape.

The National Taxpayers Union has given Spratt an F for his votes on federal spending every year for more than a decade. (He had a couple of D’s earlier in his career.) In the past two years, he voted with the taxpayers 5 and 6 percent of the time. He voted for spending bills more often than the average member of the House, and more often than the average Democrat. Some deficit hawk!

Conrad has an almost identical record — almost all F’s, with ratings of 5 and 6 in the past two years.

By another measurement, in the 109th Congress (the most recent for which these calculations are available), Spratt voted for $184 billion in additional spending and voted to cut — drum roll, please — $4.8 billion in spending. Conrad voted to cut $8 billion, but he also voted to hike spending by $362 billion. In what world are these guys “trying to control the deficit”?

NTU does have one analysis that makes Conrad and Spratt look a little better: the bills they have sponsored or cosponsored. Spratt introduced 32 bills that would increase spending and 2 that would cut spending. While that may not sound very thrifty, it compares favorably to, say, Hilda Solis’s 110 bills to increase spending or Barney Frank’s 112. And the total new spending in Spratt’s bills — $7 billion — is positively Randian. Conrad’s record is similar — 36 bills to increase spending by $8 billion, which compares very favorably to, for instance, Hillary Clinton and Thad Cochran.

Apparently Conrad and Spratt don’t introduce too many spending bills, but they vote for all the ones that get to the floor. Not exactly a strategy that holds the budget down. The search for a fiscally conservative Democrat continues.

The Health Care Battle Begins

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has begun circulating drafts of his proposed health care reform legislation. Initial reports, including an op-ed in the Boston Globe by Kennedy himself, suggest that the bill will contain every one of the bad ideas that I outlined in my recent Policy Analysis on what to expect from Obamacare.

Among other things, the Kennedy bill will call for:

  • An employer mandate;
  • An individual mandate;
  • A so-called “Public Option,” a Medicare-like plan that will compete with private insurance;
  • The use of comparative-effectiveness/cost-effectiveness research to restrain costs;
  • Subsidies for families earning as much as 500% of the poverty level ($110,250 for a family of four).
  • Insurance regulation, including guaranteed issue and community rating. (He would also establish a Massachusetts-style Connector); and
  • Government-directed health IT.

There’s no indication yet of how much the plan would cost or how Sen. Kennedy plans to pay for it.

The bill will be formally presented to Senator Kennedy’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) sometime next week. Hearings could be held around June 10, and committee “mark up” could begin on June 17.

Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is expected to introduce his health care bill shortly before the Finance committee begins its scheduled mark up on June 10.

Meanwhile President Obama’s campaign apparatus is planning rallies and demonstrations around the country to build support for health care reform.

The battle over the future of health care in this country has begun.

It Is a Checkpoint, After All

The Philadelphia Inquirer asks why the TSA didn’t catch Bonnie Sweeten absconding to Orlando at the airport after faking her own and her daughter’s abduction.

The TSA and FBI are right: it’s not airport security’s job to look for people like Bonnie Sweeten. But they will quickly agree to make it part of their mission when newspapers and Members of Congress start to say they should. This is how a nominal airline security program transmogrifies into a general law enforcement checkpoint, and the noose tightens on your right to travel.

Cheney’s Worldview

Former vice president Richard Cheney gave his big address on national security (pdf) over at AEI last week.   He covered a lot of ground, but this passage, I think, tells us quite a bit about Cheney’s worldview:

If fine speech-making, appeals to reason, or pleas for compassion had the power to move [al-Qaeda], the terrorists would long ago have abandoned the field.  And when they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don’t stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along.  Instead the terrorists see just what they were hoping for — our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted.  In short, they see weakness and opportunity.

So we shouldn’t let the terrorists see us get “caught up in arguments” about  the wisdom of our foreign policy, about whether our country should go to war, about our country’s treaty obligations, about the parameters of government power under our Constitution?  What is this former vice president thinking?

Does it matter if Charles Manson appreciates the fact that he got a trial instead of a summary execution?  No.  It does not matter what’s in that twisted head of his.  Same thing with bin Laden.  The American military should make every effort to avoid civilian casualties  even if bin Laden targets civilians.  Similarly,  it does not matter if bin Laden scoffs at the Geneva Convention as a sign of  ”weakness.”  The former VP does not get it.  It is about us, not the terrorists.

An obsession with the mentality of the enemy (what they see; what they hope for, etc.) can distort  our military and counterterrorism strategy (pdf) as well.  Cheney wants to find out what bin Laden’s objective is and then thwart it.  I certainly agree that  gathering intelligence about the enemy is useful, but Cheney seems so obsessed that he wants to thwart al-Qaeda’s objectives — even if some pose no threat to the USA, and even if some of al-Qaeda’s  objectives are pure folly.  

If the CIA told Cheney that it intercepted a message and learned that bin Laden wanted some of his men to climb Mount Everest as a propaganda ploy to somehow show the world that they can lord over the globe, one gets the feeling that  Cheney wouldn’t shrug at the report.  Since that is what bin Laden hopes to achieve, the enemy objective must be thwarted!  Quick, dispatch American GIs to the top of Everest and establish a post.  Stay on the lookout for al-Qaeda and stop them no matter what!  That’ll show bin Laden who has the real power!  Farfetched, yes, but what about the costly nation-building exercise (pdf) in Iraq?  How long is that going to last?  Mr. Cheney did not want to address that part of the Bush-Cheney record for some reason.

In another passage, Cheney bristles at the notion that his “unpleasant” interrogation practices have been a recruitment tool for the enemy.  Cheney claims this theory ignores the fact that 9/11 happened before the torture memos were ever drafted and approved.  He observes that the terrorists have never “lacked for grievances against the United States.”  They’re evil, Cheney says, now let’s talk about something else.  The gist of Cheney’s argument — that no post 9/11 policy can ever be counterproductive — makes no sense.

Cheney’s controversial legacy will be debated for a long time.  And he’s smart enough to know that he may have very few defenders down the road, so he is wasting no time at all in making his own case.  The problem is that his case is weak and plenty of people can see it. 

For related Cato work, go here and here.

Cato Scholar Brings Administration to Heel

Last week, I complained loudly that the “Speeches” section of the Whitehouse.gov Web site had only four speeches on it, the most recent coming at the end of February.

And, voila, today the site is transformed. A new “speeches and remarks” page at that location has a 28-page list of official utterances from President Obama since he took office.

Does it matter a lot that people can now more easily find what President Obama has said? It kinda does. Americans will go a little more often right to the source rather than relying on media interpretations of what the president is saying. In the aggregate, we’ll have a better informed, slightly more skeptical, and more empowered populace.

Kudos to the folks at the White House for making the change. In retrospect, it appears that some arcane difference between “speeches” and “remarks” kept many important things the president says off the “Speeches” page. For my part, a 6,500-hundred word oration on national security delivered from behind a lectern is a speech, but the White House calls such a thing “remarks.”

California, Here We Come

Next week the Cato Institute will hold seminars in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The program is the same both places.

Leda Cosmides, one of the world’s leading evolutionary psychologists, will kick things off at 11 a.m. with a talk on our intuitive ideas about fairness and justice. Then Cato’s Michael Tanner will warn about the horrors of Obamacare and Dan Mitchell will tell us that it doesn’t matter because the country’s going to be bankrupt anyway.  Former California congressman and Senate candidate, and potential governor, Tom Campbell will wrap things up after lunch with a  discussion of the state’s fiscal predicament.

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