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?

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.”

Movie review: “Hunter Killer”

3/4 stars  ★★★☆

Hunter Killer movie

Hunter Killer is a highly entertaining military thriller starring a US nuclear-powered attack submarine, with Gerard Butler in a supporting role as its clenched-jawed, maverick commander. Featuring much underwater badassery, as well as black ops on land and scenes of Gary Oldman yelling, the movie shows you what could happen when a lethal, 7,000-ton tube deep in the Arctic Ocean is tasked with averting WWIII.

The B-movie plot is way over the top, and involves a coup d’état against the Russian president by a rogue general who for some reason wants to trigger a war with the US. Commander Joe Glass of the fictional USS Arkansas takes radical action to prevent such a stupid conflagration – helped by a cheesy team of Navy SEALS who parachute onto the Kola Peninsula and literally rescue the deposed Russian head of state.

The dialogue is entirely forgettable, there is no character development, and the plot has more holes than a leaky deep-diving craft. The movie is also comically earnest; I detected one attempt at a joke, which fell flat. Having said that, the fast-moving action and sheer awesomeness of the advanced military hardware on display kept me fully engaged. The cinematography and production design are excellent and you really get to experience life on board a submarine.

The movie has a quaint 1980s vibe to it, like a Jane Fonda workout video. Filmed in the summer of 2016, Hunter Killer feels like it was lifted out of the Cold War years, hearkening back to a simpler time when superpower conflict was still a thing. From a propaganda standpoint, the movie is excellent PR for the US Navy, and I am not being snide when I say that it’s hard to imagine a stronger argument for wanting to stuff yourself into a deadly submersible cylinder and blow sh*t up.

It’s also a feel-good story, in which brave Americans and Russians work together to take down the bad guys and restore peace on earth. I was curious to know what Russian audiences would think of it, but it appears Russia’s Ministry of Culture has not yet approved the film for cinemas. However, I did find this rather negative review on a Russian news site. Sample courtesy of Google Translate:

But everyone has forgotten about the “Red Sparrow” with Jennifer Lawrence in the role of a Soviet spy, as another American director shot an even more outspoken “cranberry”. Before the premiere of the film “The Hunter-Killer” remnants of a few days, and Western film critics are already wondering how this can be removed altogether.

Good president and bad minister

“The killer hunter” is a nonstandard “cranberry,” at least the director at least tried to make the film not look like that. That is why he portrayed the Russian president Zakharin as a mild liberal of the Gorbachev era. A scapegoat made insidious Minister of Defense Durov, who just personifies the canonical Soviet “villain.” “Occurs when he was, but without a hard reactionary official“ cranberries ”would be incomplete. […]

The film is punctuated with scenes of battles using modern military technology. There are missile defense systems, submarines and tankers. This is a tribute to the creators of “Fast and the Furious” technically savvy viewers.

Cranberries? Apparently, the terms refers to Western stereotypes of Russia. According to a blogger:

The term ‘klyukvification‘* mentioned in the headline is formed from the word ‘klyukva’ [2] (i.e. cranberry in Russian) + ‘fication‘ (as in mystification). As I wrote in my post:

This word is often used in Russia in a non-literal meaning to describe foreign (negative) stereotypes concerning Russia and Russians or some specific Russian cultural products (films, books, music videos, etc.) which are ‘klyukved’ on purpose by their creators in order to be appreciated by the Western media and public.

And here is a pictorial example of what he calls “high-concentration klyukva”:

Klyukva

Western stereotypes of Russia

My feeling is that the Russians in Hunter Killer are more stock action-movie characters than stereotypical Russians. And there are no bears or matryoshka dolls to be seen.

PS – This is hilarious:

Saw it at a whim while passing a cinema and had a few hours to kill.

Was it directed by Michael Bay? Or the Fast and Furious guys? Why were all the Russians speaking English? Why was the camera spinning around Admiral Dude and Gary Oldman while they were having a normal conversation? Why was Captain Gerald Butler so bizarrely dramatic in a speech immediately upon getting on board? Also, did he actually do anything in the movie besides listen to various Russian dudes?

Also also, at the start, he was in Scotland hunting, then in Scotland at a US Navy Base, then his XO asked if he had a good trip from Portsmouth, which is in England? Am I getting that all right?

But yeah, it was dumb… but fine. 3 stars.

PPS – What’s with all the British actors playing Americans these days? The Scottish Gerard Butler as a US Navy submarine commander, English Gary Oldman as a US Navy admiral, English Toby Stephens as a US Navy SEAL commander… they do a great job with accents, so I can’t complain. It’s just interesting.