Venezuela heats up

Things are getting dicey – will it end in the use of force, as some fear?

Venezuela’s Supreme Court has barred opposition leader Juan Guaido from leaving the country as international pressure mounts against the government led by President Nicolas Maduro.

The move comes hours after chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab asked the government-stacked high court to restrict Guaido’s movements and freeze any assets.

Saab said a criminal probe into Guaido’s anti-government activities has been launched but did not announce any specific charges against him.

Both Saab and the Supreme Court are aligned with the embattled Maduro.

But Maduro is weakening:

More than a week into a standoff with the opposition, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Wednesday that he is willing to negotiate.

Violent street demonstrations erupted last week after opposition leader Juan Guaido during a major opposition rally in Caracas declared that he had assumed presidential powers under the constitution and planned to hold fresh elections to end Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

On Tuesday, Guaido urged Venezuelans to step outside their homes and workplaces for two hours on Wednesday in the first mass mobilization since last week’s big protests.

Maduro, who previously rejected calls for negotiations, said in an in an interview with Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that he was open to talks with the opposition.

May have something to do with this:

A British minister on Monday suggested that the Bank of England should decline to release £1 billion of gold to Venezuela’s dictator after the opposition leader wrote to Theresa May.

Juan Guaido, who last week declared himself the country’s legitimate ruler and was recognised as such by the US, has written to Mark Carney, the Bank’s governor, to ask him not to hand over the gold to Nicolas Maduro. He also sent the letter to Theresa May, the Prime Minister.

[…]

Mr Maduro has been attempting to repatriate the gold from the vaults since last year. The bullion in London makes up 15 per cent of Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves.

And Bolton brings the mayhem:

The Pentagon has refused to rule out military intervention on Venezuela’s border, a day after John Bolton, the US national security adviser, was photographed carrying a notepad that read: “5,000 troops to Colombia”.

Patrick Shanahan, the acting defence secretary, was asked repeatedly whether Mr Bolton’s notes indicated a deployment.

“I’m not commenting on it,” he said. “I haven’t discussed that with Secretary Bolton.”

Mr Bolton on Monday would not rule out the use of US troops in Venezuela.

Meantime, Defense Blog reports:

Residents of Eastern Venezuela have posted footages of heavy artillery systems, main battle tanks and military equipment moving towards the Colombian border.

Twitter account Already Happened‏ also has release video showing military convoy, included recently ordered Russin-made 2S19 MSTA-S heavy artillery systems, at the route to the Colombian border.

President Maduro fears a foreign military intervention in Venezuela and is ramping up its armored forces along the Colombia border.

A source in Caracas said that Maduro feared that U.S. troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan and Syria, they could be well-suited for redeployment in a Colombia-based conflict with Venezuela.

But the Colombian Defense Ministry reported that the Colombian government is not going to provide the United States will military bases so that the latter could launch a possible military invasion in Venezuela.

Is an invasion in the works?

Narrative rupture

TV test pattern

This brief meditation on the nature of the modern mass media, written in 2015 by a professor at The New School for Social Research, is deep and cryptic enough to be worth reading more than once:

The weird global media event:

It will be made of half-facts and one-and-a-half facts. And made quickly, as the desire for a media story quickly outstrips the reliable data. Certain corrections will later have to be made — silently.

It is only global in appearing to speak of a world; somewhere indifference reigns. But it does produce an image of the global for each of the interpretive spaces it touches. Images rendered incomparable by the different ideological narratives that rule in those domains.

That it is an event demands a suspension of open-ended thought. The event invokes the master-scripts of ideology, which the event will be made to fit. That which at first exceeds everyday little stories is recaptured by grand narrative.

[…]

Some background on the concept:

On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, here is a small piece of my first book, Virtual Geography (Indiana 1994) on it as a weird global media event. The proposition of that book was that one might understand the functioning of global media in those moments when its sustaining narratives broke down in the wake of events that initially at least did not conform to those narratives.

Such moments are weird global media events: weird because unexpected and inexplicable, global in that the media vector crosses borders and invokes a transnational geomedia space, media in that the space within which things happen is shaped by the form of the media vector, and events in that they are interruptions of a singular, non-recurring kind of time.

[…]

Who would have thunk

I admit, it never would have occurred to me that this housing development in Turkey was not destined for success:

Burj Al Babas Turkey

From Curbed:

Nestled into the beautiful rolling hills of central Turkey, there’s a housing development of apocalyptic proportions. Rows of identical faux chateaux sit empty at the Burj Al Babas complex after its developer, Sarot Group, recently filed for bankruptcy.

When construction started in 2014, the Burj Al Babas was supposed to be a luxury residential retreat for wealthy investors from the Middle East. The $200 million complex called for 732 identical homes in the style of the French chateaux, each with an ornate facade, Juliet balconies, and a round turret fit for a princess. The interiors could be customized to the buyer’s desires.

The cookie-cutter mini-castles were going for anywhere from $370,000 and $530,000, and according to Bloomberg, plenty of people were already buying them. Just not enough, apparently. By the time the developer filed for bankruptcy, they had completed 587 homes and were $27 million in debt.

At first glance, I assumed it was in China.

Venezuela backs down on US diplomat expulsion

Looks like US pressure is working:

Nicolas Maduro’s government backtracked Saturday from its order for U.S. Embassy personnel to leave Venezuela, moving to defuse tensions with Washington just hours after international diplomats traded heated rhetoric at a special U.N. Security Council meeting on the South American country’s crisis.

[…]

His order gave U.S. diplomats three days to leave the country, but the Trump administration said it wouldn’t obey, arguing that Maduro is no longer Venezuela’s legitimate president. That set the stage for a potential showdown at the hilltop U.S. Embassy compound Saturday night, when the deadline was to expire.

But as the sun set on Venezuela’s capital, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Maduro’s government was suspending the expulsion to provide a 30-day window for negotiating with the Trump administration on setting up a “U.S. interests office” in Venezuela and a similar Venezuelan office in the United States. The U.S. and Cuba had a similar arrangement for decades before the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with the communist-run island..

(See also)

Fuling

Originally posted on Nov 11, 2013

Fuling China market

This summer I traveled to Fuling, a district of the vast Chongqing Municipality in central China. It was disappointingly easy to get there: flight from Shanghai, then van ride from the Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport to Fuling. A former colleague and her boyfriend greeted me at the bus stop where the van left me, and that was it.

Getting to Fuling was a little tougher for the noted American journalist Peter Hessler, who taught there for the Peace Corps from 1996 to ’98 and wrote a lyrical memoir about his experience, called River Town. For him, the journey involved a seven-hour ferry ride down the Yangtze River from Chongqing, at the time administered as a separate city. As you might imagine, people in Fuling didn’t leave much.

Fuling Chongqing China map

Fuling is now a district of Chonqing

Not long after Hessler finished his Peace Corps service and left Fuling, a new highway was built, reducing the journey to an hour-and-a-half transit over smooth asphalt. Fuling now has an abundance of highways and train lines linking the once isolated town to the outside world.

Many other things have changed too. The absolute poverty that Hessler witnessed in the ’90s is receding fast. The students he taught at Fuling Teachers College were the children of peasants and they wrote essays describing the indignities and hardships of rural life. But the middle-class students I met in Fuling seemed to belong to a different world, both materially and psychologically. Whereas most of Hessler’s students went on to become rural schoolteachers after graduation, many of the students I met were aiming for comfortable civil service jobs. One guy, whose English was excellent, enthusiastically questioned me about the U.S. (he seemed to know more about American pop culture than I did). Another student complained about having lost her iPhone on a bus.

Fuling China senior citizens

With a group of students at Yangtze Normal University – the new name for Fuling Teachers College – I strolled around the university’s new campus and headed downtown to explore. We toured the Underwater Museum of Baiheliang (White Crane Ridge), which bills itself as the first subaqueous museum in the world. Visitors descend a 300-foot escalator to a viewing gallery 130 feet below the surface of the Yangtze River. Through three-inch-thick portholes, we peered at the White Crane Ridge, a long strip of sandstone celebrated for its ancient fish carvings and calligraphic inscriptions.

Fuling China Yangtze River

The White Crane Ridge used to surface during the winter season, but it’s now permanently submerged under the waters of the Yangtze, thanks to the Three Gorges Dam, the colossal barrier a few hundred miles downstream that has tamed the world’s third-longest river. Now the ridge and its inscriptions can be seen only through murky water, like a sunken shipwreck.

Fuling China Apple store

My Fuling friends and I ambled around the town, where we played a street ring toss game, checked out the wares on display at a bustling outdoor market, and ate lunch and ice cream at KFC. The poor and sleepy river town of Hessler’s teaching years now has a clean and modern town center, an upscale department store, and cars crowding the streets – visible signs of an exploding GDP. Fuling does not yet possess that important benchmark of development, a Starbucks (Shanghai has well over a hundred), but it will – I’m fairly sure of that.

Fuling China bookseller

Unsurprisingly, foreigners are still a rarity here, and I received my share of dumbstruck looks and excited greetings on the street. The manager of the guest house near the university where I stayed burst out laughing the instant he saw me. “Foreigner!” he shouted with delight, pointing at the comical figure that had just walked in. (As it turned out, he and his family were extremely hospitable and, on the day of the traditional Dragon Boat Festival, they cooked lunch for me – one of the most delicious meals I have ever had in China.)

The students took me to their university’s old campus, which has the feel of a ghost town. It’s apparently up for sale and is mostly deserted, though we saw a handful of students playing basketball and using the library. Thick vegetation grows everywhere and some of the rundown buildings have windows missing or are choked with weeds. It occurred to me that the campus would be an apt setting for a post-apocalyptic movie.

Fuling China night riverside

But across the street from the main gate, new buildings are rising under red construction cranes. On the opposite side of the campus, huge concrete walls are materializing on the banks of the Wu River (a tributary of the Yangtze), along which a new road will soon appear. I took it all in, carefully, because I know things will be different whenever I come back.

Russia doubles down in Venezuela

The overthrow of Maduro may not go *quite* as smoothly as the US State Department is probably hoping it will:

Private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela in the past few days to beef up security for President Nicolas Maduro in the face of U.S.-backed opposition protests, according to two people close to them.

A third source close to the Russian contractors also told Reuters there was a contingent of them in Venezuela, but could not say when they arrived or what their role was.

Russia, which has backed Maduro’s socialist government to the tune of billions of dollars, this week promised to stand by him after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president with Washington’s endorsement.

[…]

Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary group of Cossacks with ties to Russian military contractors, said he had heard the number of Russian contractors in Venezuela may be about 400.

But the other sources spoke of small groups.

The contractors are believed to be linked with Russian paramilitary organization the Wagner Group, which has also sent forces to Ukraine and Syria. It would, of course, be suboptimal for the US to end up in a shooting match with Russian mercenaries in Venezuela. If that happened, it would not be the US’s first rodeo with Russian clandestine forces. Last February, the US killed 200-300 pro-government forces in Syria, many of which were believed to be Russian mercenaries linked to Wagner Group.

The strategic landscape and stakes are a bit different for Russia now, since Venezuela is on the other side of the Atlantic rather than in Russia’s backyard.

This is my concern

Venezuela military Maduro

Unfortunately for the US, Maduro still seems to have these guys in his corner

A sociologist writing in the Guardian shares my concerns about the situation taking shape in Venezuela, and the US involvement therein:

By declaring himself Venezuela’s president on Wednesday, Juan Guaidó has brought Venezuela to the edge of catastrophe. The hitherto unknown opposition leader’s actions, which appear to be closely coordinated with if not directed by the US, have set in motion a perilous chain of events.

The US recognized Guaidó as president minutes after his declaration. A number of Latin American nations, most with conservative governments backed by the US, have also done so. The growing list includes Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. Canada and the Organization of American States have also recognized Guaidó. The European Union has reportedly considered such a step, but for now has instead issued a call for new elections.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has responded to these actions by breaking relations with the US and ordering US diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours. Guaidó, in turn, told US and other diplomats to stay, a message also put forward by Republican US senator Marco Rubio, a leading opponent of Maduro. The Trump administration is ignoring Maduro’s order, which a senior official called “meaningless.” Another senior Trump official has declared, “All options are on the table,” reiterating a message Trump himself has put forward since 2017.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. But a US invasion feels like a real possibility.

This course of action must be firmly rejected. This is not because Maduro deserves anyone’s support or sympathy. It is because of the untold suffering and damage US military intervention would bring to Venezuela and the region, and the vanishingly small likelihood such action could bring the change Venezuela needs.

Senator Rubio’s twitter is remarkably and disturbingly gleeful about the unfolding situation.

@marcorubio

This is a big deal.

But even bigger things are yet to come.

@PattyLaya

Exclusive: The Bank of England has denied Maduro’s request to bring back $1.2 billion from its vaults, following requests from U.S. officials Pompeo and Bolton https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-25/u-k-said-to-deny-maduro-s-bid-to-pull-1-2-billion-of-gold …

12:48 PM – 25 Jan 2019

I wonder what those “bigger things” might be!

The problem, of course, is that Maduro is the guy who actually has the power in Venezuela, whether the US recognizes him or not. Thus we have this:

A standoff is developing at the U.S. Embassy in the Venezuelan capital after a top Socialist Party official threatened to shut off electricity to the complex amid a growing power dispute in the oil-rich nation.

[…]

“They say they don’t recognize Nicolas,” Cabello [a close Maduro ally] said late Wednesday on state television. “OK. Maybe the electricity will go out in that neighborhood, or the gas won’t arrive. If there are no diplomatic relations, no problems.”

The deadline Maduro gave for the U.S. to remove its staff would expire in the afternoon on Saturday, Jan. 26. A refusal to evacuate would test Maduro’s reaction and whether he’d be willing to use force to try to expel them from the country which could in turn trigger a strong reaction from the U.S. including tougher sanctions. The U.S. has been preparing possible oil sanctions, and Trump said on Wednesday that he wouldn’t even rule out military options.

[…]

Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, one of the key brokers to resolve the power struggle, publicly backed Maduro Thursday while welcoming dialogue with other governments to find solutions.

Here’s more about the secret maneuvering that led to the Juan Guaido’s self-appointment as leader of the South American nation of 32 million:

The coalition of Latin American governments that joined the U.S. in quickly recognizing Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president came together over weeks of secret diplomacy that included whispered messages to activists under constant surveillance and a high-risk foreign trip by the opposition leader challenging President Nicolas Maduro for power, those involved in the talks said.

In mid-December, Guaido quietly traveled to Washington, Colombia and Brazil to brief officials on the opposition’s strategy of mass demonstrations to coincide with Maduro’s expected swearing-in for a second term on Jan. 10 in the face of widespread international condemnation, according to exiled former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, an ally.

To leave Venezuela, he sneaked across the lawless border with Colombia, so as not to raise suspicions among immigration officials who sometimes harass opposition figures at the airport and bar them from traveling abroad, said a different anti-government leader, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss security arrangements.

Another question: Who is this Juan Guaidó guy, anyway? Reuters provides some background. Amusingly, he was not one of the 10 “leading opposition figures” profiled by Americas Quarterly magazine last year.

The Monroe Doctrine in action

Breaking Bad territory

The US is reasserting the Monroe Doctrine in Venezuela, and some countries are not happy about this:

Russia and China pushed back against the U.S. recognition of Venezuela’s opposition leader as president and warned against further inflaming the political crisis in the Latin American country, which relies on billions of dollars in investments from the two countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support to President Nicolás Maduro in a telephone call in which he said he favored peaceful dialogue to resolve the crisis, the Kremlin said Thursday.

[…]

China, another major investor in Venezuela, said it was highly concerned about the situation in Venezuela and warned against military intervention.

[…]

Beijing has extended some $55 billion in energy-related loans alone to Venezuela, according to calculations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Unable to come up with hard currency to service these loans, Caracas has been paying in discounted barrels of oil—but struggled even to do that after prices collapsed in 2014. China agreed to extend an additional $5 billion credit line to Venezuela in September, 2018.

Russia has invested a total of over $4.1 billion in Venezuela. In addition to the two countries’ trade and joint investment in oil and gas projects, they are also cooperating on the military front: Russia provides Kalashnikov rifles, helicopters, anti-aircraft missile systems, and jet fighters to Caracas, and is building a Kalashnikov production plant in Venezuela that is expected to open this year. The WSJ article might have added that Russia sent a pair of nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Venezuela last month.

The US is being condemned in some quarters for, in effect, appointing a president for Venezuela. The reality is that the world tends to operate more along the lines of a collection of drug cartels than the principles of international law, and the US is not going to allow its two main geopolitical rivals to meddle in its neighborhood indefinitely. Like Walter White in that great scene in Breaking Bad, the US is telling Russia and China to stay out of its territory.

Refresher on the Monroe Doctrine:

In his December 2, 1823, address to Congress, President James Monroe articulated United States’ policy on the new political order developing in the rest of the Americas and the role of Europe in the Western Hemisphere.
President James Monroe

The statement, known as the Monroe Doctrine, was little noted by the Great Powers of Europe, but eventually became a longstanding tenet of U.S. foreign policy. Monroe and his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams drew upon a foundation of American diplomatic ideals such as disentanglement from European affairs and defense of neutral rights as expressed in Washington’s Farewell Address and Madison’s stated rationale for waging the War of 1812. The three main concepts of the doctrine—separate spheres of influence for the Americas and Europe, non-colonization, and non-intervention—were designed to signify a clear break between the New World and the autocratic realm of Europe. Monroe’s administration forewarned the imperial European powers against interfering in the affairs of the newly independent Latin American states or potential United States territories. While Americans generally objected to European colonies in the New World, they also desired to increase United States influence and trading ties throughout the region to their south. European mercantilism posed the greatest obstacle to economic expansion. In particular, Americans feared that Spain and France might reassert colonialism over the Latin American peoples who had just overthrown European rule. Signs that Russia was expanding its presence southward from Alaska toward the Oregon Territory were also disconcerting.

[…]

As Monroe stated: “The American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Monroe outlined two separate spheres of influence: the Americas and Europe. The independent lands of the Western Hemisphere would be solely the United States’ domain. In exchange, the United States pledged to avoid involvement in the political affairs of Europe, such as the ongoing Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, and not to interfere in the existing European colonies already in the Americas.

TLDR: “This is ARE hemisphere.”

Venezuela crisis

Read this blog to see the future. Back in November, I noted a media report that Colombian president Ivan Duque had agreed to support Brazil or the US if they decided to invade Venezuela to overthrow the country’s socialist government. (Columbia and Brazil denied the report.)

Well, two months later (Jan 2) we learned that the US was laying the groundwork for some sort of intervention in coordination with Brazil and Colombia:

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is pledging to support allies in South America as they respond to the crisis in Venezuela.

In remarks Wednesday in Brazil, Pompeo said he and Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo discussed their “deep desire to return democracy” to Venezuela.

Later in Colombia, Pompeo said he discussed with President Ivan Duque how their nations might collaborate to help people in Venezuela while also responding to the flood of migrants fleeing that country’s economic collapse, though he provided few details on what was discussed.

And then on Wednesday, this happened:

Amid widespread protests on the streets of Venezuela, the newly elected chief of the country’s National Assembly declared himself “interim president” on Wednesday, prompting an immediate endorsement from US President Donald Trump.

“Today, I am officially recognizing the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela,” Trump said in a statement from the White House.

“In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly invoked the country’s constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant. The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” the statement continued.

President Nicolas Maduro rejected this action, which he described as a US-backed coup, and gave US diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave the country. The US responded by saying it stands with Guaido and “will take appropriate actions to hold accountable anyone who endangers the safety and security of our mission and its personnel.” Quoth Senator Marco Rubio:

President @jguaido has asked us to remain. The United States should NOT comply with this illegitimate order from Maduro.

It should be made clear that we are prepared to take all actions necessary to guarantee the safety of our diplomats in #Venezuela.

I sense another Grenada coming.

Ok, so I can’t claim to have predicted all this in my November blog post. But I did make this comment, which I continue to stand by:

Caution is needed here. The American public does not want another foreign war, and a major intervention in South America is guaranteed to be a multi-faceted disaster.