Failing The Toothpaste Test

If you haven’t paid much attention to the disaster that is slowly unfolding in Venezuela, here’s an indicator:  the economic disruption and hyperinflation is so bad that people can’t even afford to use toothpaste to brush their teeth at night, because a single tube of toothpaste costs half a week’s wages.

empty-toothpaste-tubeIt’s a classic example of the failure of a government-controlled economy.  Venezuela has a socialist government, but it’s a bastardized version that has a lot of Latin American “strong man” elements thrown in, too.  Dating from the days of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s government has so interfered with normal economic functioning that the country can’t even take advantage of having the largest proven oil reserves in the world.  Chavez expropriated industries, used oil revenues to pay for many social welfare benefits, and discouraged private enterprise.  After years of such mismanagement, Venezuela faces chronic shortages of food, medicine, and electricity, skyrocketing crime, and mounting social disorder — to say nothing of hyperinflation, now running at about 700 percent annually, that cuts into the buying power of workers’ wages and makes even a single tube of toothpaste a luxury item to be used sparingly.

The Washington Post story about the toothpaste tells the tale of Venezuela’s downward spiral from the standpoint of the working people of the country, and it is a sad tale, indeed.  The average worker’s income is about $33 a month — which is less than a quarter of the average wage in Haiti, which is one of the most impoverished countries in the western hemisphere.  People have to stand in line for hours to buy staples like pasta, rice, and flour, and the products they purchase are of poor quality — such as broken-grain rice that normally would be used as chicken feed.  Since 2014, the portion of people living in poverty has increased from 48 percent to 82 percent.  People are down to eating two poor meals a day, and many are starving.

The government’s only response is to dictate increases in the minimum wage, which was just raised for this third this year, this time by 20 percent, to 250,000 “strong bolivars.”  (When you have to name your currency “strong,” it tells you something about how the value of that currency is perceived, doesn’t it?)  Of course, the constant increases do nothing to address, and instead only promote, the hyperinflation that is ravaging the country.

We should all think about Venezuela the next time some politician starts talking about how well off we all would be if the government just took a firmer hand in managing the economy.

Hugo’s Last Words

Some people have been making fun of the deathbed words of Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela.  According to a general who was present, Chavez said:  “I don’t want to die.  Please don’t let me die.”

The general believes Chavez said those words because he loved Venezuela, but some people are contrasting Chavez’s swaggering, strongman image with the last words and suggesting that Chavez really wasn’t so courageous after all.

I’m no fan of Chavez — who I thought was just another bullying, egotistical Latin American control freak who glorified himself at the expense of his people — but such comments seem awfully mean-spirited to me.  I doubt that Chavez was thinking of Venezuela when he expressed a desire to live; instead, like so many of us, he was simply afraid of what lay ahead.  Maybe he was worried about being judged for what he has done, maybe he was fearful of being consigned to hell, maybe he was terrified of the yawning void — or maybe he just enjoyed his time on Earth and wanted to make it last as long as possible.

How many people face impending death with courage and serenity?  I’d guess not many, and I doubt that I’ll be among the few when my time inevitably comes.  Hugo Chavez should be judged by what he did, not by what he said when death lay dead ahead.

Why Must Angela Merkel Always Be Kissed?

Why is it that, whenever you see a photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a meeting with other world leaders, she’s always being kissed on the cheek or even on the lips?

It’s interesting that, even as they talk about gender equality, our world leaders still cling to old-fashioned, sex-specific forms of greetings.  Angela Merkel leads an economic powerhouse that props up countries like Greece and is supposed to figure out a way to bring fiscal sanity to the Eurozone, yet every time she goes to a summit meeting she’s got to put up with getting smacked on the cheek by every head of state in attendance, like she’s their favorite granddaughter.

Merkel’s got to be a tough individual to steel herself to the constant kissing, and she must not be a germaphobe.  Nevertheless, I’ll bet she dreads going to the really big gatherings, like the start of the UN General Assembly, and coming away with chapped cheeks from all of the slobbery pecks she gets.  For every suave kisser on the world stage there have got to be some third-world potentates whose smooching technique closely resembles a dog lick.  Imagine how she feels when she sees Hugo Chavez advancing, with that glint in his eye and his lips pursed for a big smackeroo.

I think it’s high time that the women leaders of the world get a firm handshake, like everybody else.  Let’s give their lips and cheeks a break.

“Reports Of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated”

Somewhere, Mark Twain — who coined the classic phrase appearing above, upon learning that his death had been mistakenly reported — must be smiling.

Today Hugo Chavez, the thuggish Venezuelan dictator who is undergoing ongoing treatment for cancer, had to call a state-run TV station to try to dispel rumors that he was already dead.  Chavez said that he is in Cuba getting radiation treatment for a pelvic tumor and contended that the rumors were part of a psychological war against him.

I’m sure it’s not easy being a loud-mouthed dictator under any circumstances, and it’s probably even harder to be a successful autocrat when you have to interrupt the normal propaganda programming on national TV to deny rumors of your own death.  It’s undoubtedly tough to rule by bullying and intimidation when those you are trying to bully and intimidate think you might already be toes up.

The Power Of Words, And The Power Of Guns

This morning’s BBC features this headline “Libya:  US urges tough United Nations resolution.” One can only imagine the rueful reaction to that headline in Benghazi, where rebels wait while the forces of Muammar Gaddafi close in, or in Tripoli, where Gaddafi and his bloodthirsty supporters must be laughing at an international community that has done little to prevent him from crushing the rebellion.  Given what has happened over the past few weeks, this headline on a Reuters story may be more apt:  “Leaders dither as Gaddafi hails final showdown.”

The reality is that urging “tough” United Nations resolutions doesn’t mean much in the face of guns and mercenaries.  And saying that a foreign leader should leave doesn’t mean much, either.  The days when pronouncements of American presidents left people quaking in their boots are long since over.  If there is no resolve to take actions, words ring hollow — but even meaningless words and lack of action nevertheless can have negative consequences.

If, as now appears likely, Gaddafi survives the rebellion and executes or imprisons all of those who defied him, what message has been sent?  If you live under an authoritarian regime and are considering a rebellion, the message is loud and clear — you might get a pat on the head from the ever-debating members of the U.N., but don’t expect much more than that.  If you are Hugo Chavez, or Robert Mugabe, or the leadership of Iran, you realize that there isn’t much stomach for confrontation, and perhaps you decide to conduct your affairs even more recklessly.  And if you are Israel, or some other pro-Western government in a volatile region, you begin to calculate your chances of survival if American words aren’t backed up with deeds and you adjust your policies accordingly.

I’m not saying that America should intervene militarily in every foreign policy crisis or act as the world’s policeman.  I am saying, however, America should zealously guard whatever is left of its credibility and not issue pronouncements unless it is willing to back them up.

 

No Mo

The unrest in the Middle East has spread to Libya, where Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year reign may be ending — or not.  People apparently are protesting, and the government may have hired mercenaries and sent planes to mow down the demonstrators.  It’s hard to say, because there are no reporters in Libya, and a lot of the “reporting” seems to be sifting through “tweets” and “re-tweets” and dealing with unconfirmed rumor.

We can fairly conclude that something is happening, because Gaddafi’s kid gave a bizarre, finger-wagging, fight-to-the-last-bullet speech.  You wouldn’t expect that kind of diatribe unless circumstances were dire — although trying to assess the conduct of the Gaddafis by applying the standards of normal, rational behavior is probably doomed to failure.  From the speech, it sounds like Gaddafi Junior is a chip off the old block in the weirdness department.

At any given time, Muammar Gaddafi would easily rank in the top 5 in a “strangest leaders of the world” contest.  Right now, his chief rivals in that competition probably would be Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Robert Mugabe, and Hugo Chavez.  Gaddafi is a pretty strong candidate for top honors, however.  He is known for his rambling speeches, his incomprehensible political philosophy, and for wearing sunglasses, colorful outfits, and curious hats.  If he was somebody you knew in college, you would conclude that he is a complete stoner.  Instead, he has been the leader of Libya, and in control of its oil riches, for more than 40 years.

The world would be a better place if the oppressed people of Libya sent Mo packing — and his kid, too.

Maybe Now, Everyone Will Recognize Hugo Chavez Is A Jerk

When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez followed then-President Bush to the podium at the United Nations several years ago and said he still smelled the scent of sulfur, some American politicians and pundits who were opposed to Bush laughed, shook their heads, and said Chavez’s comments just reflected how the Bush Administration’s policies had reduced the esteem for America in the world.  Today, Chavez, who is attending the climate change conference in Copenhagen, used the same “scent of sulphur” line about — President Obama.

Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Maybe now everyone in our country — Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative — will understand that Hugo Chavez is not some keen and witty observer of the international scene, but instead is just an anti-American jerk, an anti-democratic “populist” who has run his country’s economy into the ground and engages in tiresome America-bashing in an attempt to raise his international profile and prop up his sagging approval ratings at home.  Maybe now all Americans will come to realize that Chavez, who apparently received a standing ovation from delegates attending the Copenhagen conference, is just a slightly more outspoken example of the anti-capitalist, reflexively anti-western governments that make up significant portions of international bodies like the United Nations.  The next time someone expresses concern because the United States is following its own path, rather than hewing to the “international consensus,” remind them that the “international consensus” is largely made up of governments headed by former “rebel leaders,” dictators, “strong men,” thugs, scoundrels, “presidents for life,” and other representatives of repressive regimes.  Why in the world should we care what Chavez, Robert Mugabe, and Muammar Gaddafi and their ilk say about our country and its policies?

If Hugo Chavez’s comment about President Obama causes even a few Americans to wake up to the reality of what a rogues gallery many international organizations have become, we should thank him — and then never pay attention to him again.