Failed coup

Juan Guaido Venezuela

Juan Guaido may remain interim president of Venezuela for a while

Looks like plans for a Venezuelan Spring are falling apart. According to Bloomberg, opposition leader Juan Guaido amassed a mini-army of 200 exiled soldiers to storm the Venezuelan border from Colombia… and was stopped by the Colombian government:

Late last month, as U.S. officials joined Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido near a bridge in Colombia to send desperately needed aid to the masses and challenge the rule of Nicolas Maduro, some 200 exiled soldiers were checking their weapons and planning to clear the way for the convoy.

Led by retired General Cliver Alcala, who has been living in Colombia, they were going to drive back the Venezuelan national guardsmen blocking the aid on the other side. The plan was stopped by the Colombian government, which learned of it late and feared violent clashes at a highly public event it promised would be peaceful.

Almost no provisions got in that day and hopes that military commanders would abandon Maduro have so far been dashed. Even though Guaido is back in Caracas, recognized by 50 nations as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, the impromptu taking up of arms shows that the push to remove Maduro — hailed by the U.S. as inevitable — is growing increasingly chaotic and risky.

Bloomberg appears to suggest that Guaido is taking order from the US:

There have been other concerns. Guaido was planning to make a tour of European capitals this week to build international support, but the Americans told him he needed to return to Venezuela or he’d lose whatever momentum remained.

He’ll also need to be in Venezuela to serve as Maduro bait:

The Latin American diplomat, who has been in contact with Washington, said the U.S. strategy seems to be to continue to provoke instability in Venezuela in hopes that Maduro will make a move that could warrant more aggressive U.S. action. Bolton and Abrams have said that arresting Guaido would prompt a severe response.

Dunno, given its track record on regime change, maybe the US should sit this one out. Just a suggestion.

Rail of fail

Nearly 420 million people are reported to have used China’s high-speed rail system during the annual Spring Festival holiday that has just wrapped up. Late last year, China opened the Vibrant Express, Hong Kong’s first bullet train, which zips passengers from the Special Administrative Region to Guangzhou in 48 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the US:

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday he’s abandoning a plan to build a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a project with an estimated cost that has ballooned to $77 billion.

“Let’s be real,” Newsom said in his first State of the State address. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

The idea long championed by Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, is years behind schedule. The latest estimate for completion is 2033.

Newsom, though, said he wants to finish construction that’s already underway on a segment of the high-speed train through California’s Central Valley, arguing it will revitalize the economically depressed region. He’s also replacing Brown’s head of the state board that oversees the project and pledged more accountability for contractors that run over on costs.

One can’t really blame the new governor for this, as the promise of an LA-to-SF bullet train, which California voters approved in 2008, has always been a huge scam:

When California voters approved construction of a bullet train in 2008, they had a legal promise that passengers would be able to speed from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes.

But over the next decade, the state rail authority made a series of political and financial compromises that slowed speeds on long stretches of the track.

The authority says it can still meet its trip time commitments, though not by much.

Computer simulations conducted earlier this year by the authority, obtained by The Times under a public records act request, show the bullet train is three minutes and 10 seconds inside the legal mandate.

Such a tight margin of error has some disputing whether the rail network will regularly hit that two-hour-40 minute time, in part because the assumptions that went into those simulations are highly optimistic and unproven. The premise hinges on trains operating at higher speeds than virtually all the systems in Asia and Europe; human train operators consistently performing with the precision of a computer model; favorable deals on the use of tracks that the state doesn’t even own; and amicable decisions by federal safety regulators.

And let’s not even get started on the New York City subway.

Actually, let’s.

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.

People don’t like fuel tax hikes

At this point, I think that’s a safe conclusion to draw from events in France and, now, Zimbabwe:

Violent protests erupted in Zimbabwe’s two largest cities after the government announced a massive fuel hike.

Police fired tear gas in order to contain the protests in the capital Harare and Bulawayo Monday, while protesters threw rocks, burned tires and blocked streets.

There were media reports of riot police using live ammunition to disperse the crowds.

At least 13 people were injured by gunfire, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights said.

The clashes came on the first day of a three-day strike called by unions in response to an intensifying economic crisis.

On Saturday, President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a 150 percent rise in fuel prices.

More Zimbabwe news (from last November):

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Friday laid the foundation stone for huge new parliament to be built with Chinese funds outside the capital Harare.

The imposing circular complex will be built over 32 months by the Shanghai Construction group at Mount Hampden, 18 kilometres (11 miles) north-west of Harare, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation reported.

Officials say the current colonial-era parliamentary building in the city centre is too small to accommodate lawmakers.

Mnangagwa said at the ceremony that China had provided a “grant, not a loan, to build a new parliament”, without giving a figure.

“Other facilities like banks, hotels will be built around this place,” Mnangagwa said adding that a “modern, smart city” was planned.

Mnangagwa took over from long-time ruler Robert Mugabe who was ousted by the military in November 2017.

He has vowed to revive Zimbabwe’s economy that has been in ruins for nearly two decades.

China has funded and provided loans for many infrastructure projects across Africa in recent years, ranging from roads and power plants to sports stadiums and government institutions.

Critics say China’s increasing sway over the continent undermines democracy and sovereignty.

The average person in the world owes $86,000

Debt bomb

Does anyone seriously think that this is sustainable? And if it’s not sustainable, then how can it end without causing a massive global economic implosion the likes of which humanity has never seen?

Global debt hit a record $184 trillion last year, equivalent to more than $86,000 per person — more than double the average per-capita income.

Borrowing is led by the U.S., China, and Japan, the three biggest economies, the International Monetary Fund said Thursday, highlighting potential risks to global expansion given that their share of debt exceeds that of output. Overall, the amount of worldwide public and private debt is equal to about 225 percent of gross domestic product.

Total debt is up 60% since the global financial crisis a decade ago. In the meantime, the US government has something like $80 trillion in total liabilities, if you include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid obligations. That doesn’t even count state and local government debt. In 2014, a team of economists estimated the nation’s total “fiscal gap” (defined as “the difference between our government’s fiscal obligations and the present value of all future projected tax and other receipts”) at $210 trillion. The numbers are so large as to be silly.

The social safety net is going to fly apart like a cheap hammock. A lot of people are blithely indifferent about this, which I find puzzling. But I don’t know, I’m not an economist – maybe this is all… fine? Maybe the problem will work itself out somehow, so we can just keep spending astronomically more money than we have, year after year, forever?

Somebody, please explain this to me. Slowly, and using small words so I can understand.

The plot thickens!

Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou

The internet is abuzz with more news and speculation related to the stunning arrest of Huawei CFO Wanzhou Meng:

• I previously noted that “This is about as dumb as the US trying to arrest Julian Assange, but with far nastier geopolitical implications.” For what it’s worth, here’s Wikileaks weighing in:

@wikileaks

Editorial comment: The U.S. extradition of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou from Canada, for actions performed in China, is the same extra-territorial invasion through lawfare, that the U.S. government is applying to the UK, by extraditing Assange from the UK, for publishing in the UK.

4:26 PM – 6 Dec 2018

• Comrade Balding, an academic formerly based in Shenzhen, has some very interesting thoughts, among them:

@BaldingsWorld

There’s more coming on Huawei. I just don’t know when it’s going public

8:58 AM – 6 Dec 2018

===

Fact: timing of Huawei arrest is a great big political F+*#?!U

Fact: everyone in China knew she broke the US laws. Obama admin knew Huawei broke the law. Trump admin knew Huawei broke the law.

It’s only political if you think she should get away with it

8:48 AM – 6 Dec 2018

===

FWIW, I’ve know for a few months that there is more coming down the road with Huawei. Have confirmation from multiple unrelated people

2:08 AM – 6 Dec 2018

• The Alibaba-owned South China Morning Post ran this piece Thursday on how Meng told Huawei employees “in an internal talk on compliance that there are scenarios where the company can weigh the costs and accept the risks of not adhering to the rules.” Is China planning to throw Meng under the bus?

• Reuters correspondent “SJ” writes:

@SijiaJ

What happened on December 1? Xi & Trump met, Huawei founders’ daughter got arrested, Danhua Capital founder committed suicide

10:11 PM – 5 Dec 2018

• Wait, who committed suicide? From SCMP reporter Zheping Huang:

@pingroma

Prominent Stanford physics professor and blockchain venture capitalist Zhang Shoucheng died at age 55 on Dec 1 in the US after fighting depression, according to a family statement. Story TK

“Danhua lists 113 U.S. companies in its portfolio, and most of those companies fall within emerging sectors and technologies (such as biotechnology and AI) that the Chinese government has identified as strategic priorities,” the USTR name-checked Zhang’s VC in its Nov. 20 report

10:48 PM – 5 Dec 2018

Odd timing on that. “The family of Stanford professor Zhang Shoucheng, a world-renowned physicist and venture capitalist, denied speculation on Chinese social media that his death was connected to tensions in US-China relations or the arrest of Huawei’s CFO in Canada on Saturday.” (SCMP)

• An intriguing piece of gossip:

@maggiexiao

Replying to @BaldingsWorld

Rumor says Meng entered Canada with a Canadian passport. China recently strengthened its no-dual citizenships policy . So that means she voluntarily gave up her Chinese citizenship. If true, does China still have the rights to claim her back?

6:24 PM – 5 Dec 2018

• David Goldman comments:

First, never before has the United States attempted the extraterritorial rendition of a foreign citizen – Meng is a Chinese national – in connection with sanctions violations. It has imposed travel and banking restrictions, but seeking an arrest warrant for this is entirely without precedent. […]

The question is: Who ordered the arrest, and why?

It is possible that President Trump knew about it and sanctioned the arrest, to be sure. But it is unlikely that the president would escalate the conflict with China with the arrest of a senior executive of China’s flagship high-tech manufacturer on the same day that he sought to de-escalate the trade war.

If Trump did not initiate the arrest, who did? There are two alternative possibilities.

The first is that the order came from administration officials who believe that the United States must provoke a confrontation with Beijing now, before China becomes too powerful to intimidate. Some parts of the permanent bureaucracy and the intelligence community believe that China’s economy is fragile and that an economic war would produce an economic crisis and political instability, perhaps even toppling Xi Jinping.

That view may seem fanciful, but it is argued seriously, for example by some former senior officials of the Trump administration.

The second possibility is that Trump’s enemies in the permanent bureaucracy simply want to prevent the president from negotiating a deal with China that would enhance his image and remove risks to economic growth.

Goldman notes that the only American politician to comment publicly on the matter has been Senator Marco Rubio, who earlier this year tried to torpedo Trump’s agreement with Xi regarding ZTE. He “celebrated the arrest” in an email to Axios. Hmm.

• Huawei is in deep trouble and not only in the US. From Reuters: “Japan plans to ban government purchases of equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and ZTE Corp to beef up its defenses against intelligence leaks and cyber attacks, sources told Reuters.”

• …And: “Australia and New Zealand have already blocked Huawei from building 5G networks.”

• …And: “Britain’s BT Group said on Wednesday it was removing Huawei’s equipment from the core of its existing 3G and 4G mobile operations and would not use the company in central parts of the next network.”

• I’ll close with Professor Balding again – somewhat off-topic, but it caught my eye:

I think what most people who haven’t spent a lot of time in China don’t get is how abnormal the business, economic, financial, and negotiation climate is. People see the shiny tall glass office buildings and the Ritz and they make the assumption they get it. That’s wrong 1/n

The stories that get out in public are wild. The stories that never make it into the public are at least 10x crazier. The IP theft and theft stories you hear about in public are low hanging fruit where someone falls out of favor in Beijing. I know first hand accounts of 2/n

Flat out 10 ten digit USD thefts. Companies who have valid contracts telling a foreign partner they’re ignoring a contract and they will have them abducted or jailed if they even think about trying to enforce a contract with again 10 digit USD values. You DC/NYC debutantes 3/n

simply do not understand what you are dealing with.The rules are different. You think fentanyl doesn’t get various levels of state protection? Get real. You think this IP theft and gangsterism isn’t quasi official policy? Get real. You need to be realistic about your counterparty

6:14 AM – 6 Dec 2018

French insurrection

Bane Dark Night Rises speech

Open-source warfare is winning in France, as the Yellow Vests force the beleaguered President Macron to back down on his planned fuel tax hike. Here’s an interesting Marxist analysis of the current ructions, complete with some good-old-fashioned hatred of the rich and unironic usages of the term “lumpen”:

The Gilets Jaunes (yellow vest) protests in France are at a turning point. In the face of building radicalism, which now threatens the very survival of his government, Macron has changed his defiant tone and promised to “suspend” the fuel tax hike that provoked the movement. This retreat came after street battles over the weekend between thousands of protesters and the police that have left over 200 injured in Paris alone and resulted in at least one fatality.

The organised working class has begun to enter the struggle (although the labour union leaders have dragged their feet), as have students, who are occupying their institutions in solidarity and raising their own demands. But despite Macron’s attempt to defuse the situation, the explosion of anger and frustration at years of austerity and inequality has acquired a logic of its own, and it will not be easy to put the genie back in the bottle.

The events of Saturday and Sunday marked the third straight weekend of unrest in the French capital. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Paris – while the exact figures are unclear, it is certain that over 100,000 took part in demonstrations across the country. This is fewer than came out last weekend (200,000 according to the official figures, which is a major underestimation), but the mood was far more radical, and it was clear that the demands of the movement have moved well beyond the question of the fuel tax. Amongst certain layers of the movement there is an insurrectionary and revolutionary mood. The 5,000 who marched down the Champs Élysées at midday on Saturday were shouting and carrying the slogans “Power to the People!” and “Macron resign!” Many bore the latter slogan on their vests.

Boy, that escalated quickly.

As Idir Ghanes, a 42-year-old, unemployed computer technician from Paris, stated: “We have low salaries and pay too much tax and the combination is creating more and more poverty… On the other side, there are government ministers and the president with their fabulous salaries.” Other protestors, like Marie Lemoine, 62 (a school teacher from Provins) pointed out the pro-capitalist and hypocritical nature of Macron’s policy: “We are being targeted instead of the airlines, the shipping lines, those companies who pollute more but pay no tax… Macron is our Louis XVI, and we know what happened to him.”

Note: Louis XVI was beheaded.

Jeanne d’Hauteserre, the mayor of the 8th city district of Paris, near the Arc de Triomphe, told BFM TV, “We are in a state of insurrection, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Several regional representatives of the central government spoke anonymously to Le Monde of an “explosive and almost insurrectional” or “pre-revolutionary” situation. They also noted that it was a section of the population rising against taxes that sparked the revolution of 1789. One representative concluded: “What is expressed the most is the hatred of the President of the Republic.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marxist.com views this is a class conflict.

While it is true that there were lumpen and far-right elements in the demonstrations over the weekend, these were marginal. From the beginning, the yellow vests movement has penetrated into very deep layers of society, with Front National voters and middle-class elements taking part alongside the working class and trade unionists. But as the movement has begun to radicalise and the working class imprint on it increase, a lot of the rubbish on the right is being thrown out and the class contradictions within it have become clearer. For example, another viral video shows Yvan Benedetti, former president of the ultranationalist group L’Œuvre française (himself dressed in a high-visibility jacket), being attacked and driven off by anti-fascists within the yellow vests.

Video:

Subsequently, over the past week, over 300 high schools have been occupied and blockaded around the country, including in the southern city of Toulouse and in Créteil in the Paris area.

Wow.

And it looks like the party may be just getting started. Marxist.com is calling for “a 24-hour general strike, as a starting point for a series of renewable strikes, with the objective of bringing down the government.”

No matter happens to this particular movement, it is clear that a new chapter has opened in the class struggle in France, where as Frederick Engels put it, the class struggle is always fought to the end.

And:

For the yellow vests, these announcements are very far from having answered their demands. They wanted the tax to be scrapped altogether, and a mere suspension does not seem to have appeased their anger. […]

And the yellow vests are maintaining their call for renewed demonstrations, this coming weekend in the French capital.

Cauchy said: “We must not fear demonstrations on Saturday in Paris, because they will take place.”

Paris

Man, these Paris protests are getting out of hand:

What’s that? Oh, sorry. Those are actually photos from 1968.

Mass socialist movements grew not only in the United States but also in most European countries. The most spectacular manifestation of this were the May 1968 protests in France, in which students linked up with wildcat strikes of up to ten million workers, and for a few days the movement seemed capable of overthrowing the government.

Got my dates mixed up there. Almost exactly 50 years later, Paris is again convulsed by riots:

‘Yellow Jacket’ protests in France leave gas stations running dry; Paris riots worst since 1968

Saturday’s unrest was the worst in central Paris since a student uprising five decades ago.

“Yellow Jacket” protesters blocking access to 11 fuel depots belonging to one of the world’s biggest oil companies have left gas stations running dry in France.

At least 75 of the company’s 2,200 gas stations were out of fuel, a spokesman for energy giant Total said Monday.

For more than two weeks, protesters angry over gas taxes and the high cost of living have been blocking roads across France, impeding access to fuel depots, shopping malls and some airports.

Riot police were overrun on Saturday as protesters brought chaos to Paris’ fanciest neighborhoods, torching dozens of cars, looting boutiques and smashing up luxury private homes and cafes in the worst disturbances the capital has seen since 1968.

More than 100 people were injured in the French capital and 412 arrested over the weekend.

The “Yellow Jacket” revolt erupted on Nov. 17 and poses a formidable challenge to President Emmanuel Macron as he tries to counter a plunge in popularity over his economic reforms, which are seen as favoring the wealthy.

What do the protesters want?

The movement began online as an impromptu rebellion against higher fuel prices but has morphed into a broader outpouring of anger over the squeeze that living costs are putting on middle-class household budgets.

Their core demand is a freeze on further planned tax increases on gas and diesel — the next is due in January — and measures to help bolster spending power.

A lot of the anger is focused on the technocratic, internationalist Macron, who is perceived as an elitist.

But many have also called for Macron to quit.

Public support for the “Yellow Jackets” remains high, with seven-in-10 people backing their protest, according to a Harris Interactive opinion poll conducted after Saturday’s unrest.

The revolt is an example of “open source warfare,” as John Robb puts it. There are no leaders, no barriers to participation, and everyone is united by a plausible common goal. The lack of leadership is a key advantage:

The French government has faced difficulties dealing with the protesters as the movement has no real leadership and has not aligned itself with any political organisation. […]

On Friday, the government tried – mostly in vain – to talk to representatives of the movement.

Eight were invited to meet Prime Minister Edouard Philippe but only two turned up, and one walked out after being told he could not invite TV cameras in to broadcast the encounter live to the nation.

Paris is so romantic this time of year…

Paris protest Burger King

Tried and found wanting

General James Mattis growing stronger meme

The steady decline of the US military is getting mainstream attention with the publication of a scary new report by a panel of national security experts:

The United States has lost its military edge to a dangerous degree and could potentially lose a war against China or Russia, according to a report released Wednesday by a bipartisan commission that Congress created to evaluate the Trump administration’s defense strategy.

The National Defense Strategy Commission, comprised of former top Republican and Democratic officials selected by Congress, evaluated the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which ordered a vast reshaping of the U.S. military to compete with Beijing and Moscow in an era of renewed great-power competition.

While endorsing the strategy’s aims, the commission warned that Washington isn’t moving fast enough or investing sufficiently to put the vision into practice, risking a further erosion of American military dominance that could become a national security emergency.

At the same time, according to the commission, China and Russia are seeking dominance in their regions and the ability to project military power globally, as their authoritarian governments pursue defense buildups aimed squarely at the United States.

Full report here.

The Heritage Foundation came to similar conclusions in a report released last year.

This is really bad, the product of decades of neglect. I don’t think it’s too late for Trump and Mattis to turn things around. But time is running out.

I sense a trend

Your amusing chart of the day:

Ruh-oh (Source)

Let’s focus on the positive though:

Disney’s purchase of “Star Wars” production company Lucasfilm is proving to be one of the smartest acquisitions ever made in corporate America.

The deal, worth $4.05 billion in cash and stock, was announced Oct. 30, 2012 and marked the start of a new era in the Star Wars franchise. Disney would make back that investment and more in just a few short years. The four Star Wars feature films Disney has produced have grossed more than $4.8 billion at the box office, according to comScore.

“This was one of the smartest acquisitions in history,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, told CNBC.

Less intelligent, perhaps, was the decision to let Rian Johnson write and direct The Last Jedi. Before TLJ was released, Lucasfilm announced it was bringing back JJ Abrams to handle the final installment of the trilogy – replacing the young and not very experienced Colin Trevorrow. I don’t think this will do much good, though. As I have suggested before, TLJ destroyed the legacy of Star Wars with the totality and finality of a nuclear ICBM wiping out a village. The series will never, ever recover. It’s done.

With Abrams, it’s clear Lucasfilm will do anything to make sure the giant machine that is Star Wars stays firmly on track. –The Independent, 9/11/2017