Hugo Chávez's "21st Century socialism" has been a disaster for Venezuela, an oil-producing country that ought to be rich -- but is instead poor. Bloody anti-government protests have roiled the South American nation for more than two months, provoked by food shortages, economic chaos, and out-of-control crime. But Chávez, the late firebrand president, can't be blamed for everything; and nor can his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader. They have gotten plenty of help from a diverse group of useful idiots and propagandists. Who are the top ten? Yesterday, FrontPage listed the top five. Here are the rest.
Mark Weisbrot, a left-wing American economist, is a steadfast defender of Venezuela's leftist regime. He is often quoted as an expert source on Venezuela and regularly writes newspaper columns in support of Venezuela's leftist regime. He has a PhD in Economics from the University of Michigan and is co-director of the lefty Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. This gives him an aura of credibility to journalists in the mainstream media who, when writing about Venezuela, want to get both sides of the story -- including the leftist pro-Venezuela version that Weisbrot provides. And so they go to Weisbrot, an able propagandist.
After Chávez's death, Weisbrot published a column in Al Jazeera English that lauded the despot for standing up to the United States and improving the lives of millions of poor Venezuelans -- no matter that Venezuela was then sliding toward basket-case status. Weisbrot also has defended Chávez's hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro -- despite worsening food shortages, out-of-control crime, and economic chaos. And in typical leftist fashion, Weisbrot has turned a blind eye to Maduro's brutal crack-down against massive anti-government protesters that have been widely condemned by human rights groups. A pal of Oliver Stone, Weisbrot co-write the filmmaker's pro-Chávez documentary "South of the Border."
Leftist propagandists and useful idiots have always been well-represented in the academic world. Weisbrot is one of them.
'Red' Ken Livingstone
Hugo Chávez made many friends in Europe, and one of his biggest propagandist was Ken Livingstone -- a British Labor Party politician and former mayor of London. He's known informally as "Red Ken"
In 2006, Chávez arrived in London on one of his many globetrotting trips in his presidential Airbus 319. He got a big welcome from "Red Ken" who gave Chávez a rock-star's welcome at a rally where Chávez called President George W. Bush a "genocidal assassin." And at private functions, the Venezuelan strongman and former coup leader (who'd once called himself a “Maoist” and praised Cuba’s “sea of happiness”) hobnobbed with like-minded parliamentarians and celebrities. The later included virulent anti-American playwright and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter and activist Bianca Jagger, former wife of Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.
“He was a friend and a comrade," said Livingston after Chávez's death. "He was focused on what he could do for the people of Venezuela and of course also what he could do for poor people in New York or London. He saw himself as part of an international movement to change the way things are.”
As London's mayor, Livingstone, now 68 years old, enjoyed Venezuela's oil largesse, having signed an oil deal that used discounted Venezuelan oil for London's buses and trains, thereby allowing half-price bus and train fares for those on income support. In exchange, Livingston sent experts from his government to work in Venezuela to provide advice on recycling, waste management, traffic and on reducing carbon emissions. Venezuela had a similar arrangement with Cuba. The program, considered an embarrassment by conservatives, was discontinued when Livingstone departed the mayor's office.
"Red Ken" and his ideological soul-mates easily overlook Venezuela's poverty and rights abuses -- so bedazzled are they by the leftist regime's anti-Americanism.
Rafael Caldera, a twice-elected Venezuelan president, unwittingly turned himself into a useful idiot by paving the way for Hugo Chávez to succeed him as president. Like other politicians of his generation, Caldera hungered for power well into his 70s -- even if it meant holding back younger talent in the Christian Democratic Party that he founded. Longing for a second presidential term as he neared 80 years old, Caldera left the Christian Democrats and made deals with old leftist enemies to form the Convergence Party, which opposed the unpopular neoliberal reforms undertaken by the previous elected president, Carlos Andrés Pérez. Those reforms provoked price riots and a bloody and aborted coup by then-Army Lt. Colonel-paratrooper Hugo Chávez.
Venezuelans and the military overwhelmingly rejected Chávez's aborted coup on February 4, 1992 -- yet in a seminal speech to Congress, then-Senator Caldera legitimized the coup (and Chávez) by contending there were justifiable reasons for it -- a statement aimed in part at the unpopular President Pérez of the rival Democratic Action party, a Caldera nemesis. Caldera also defended the massive rioting that swept Venezuela when Perez's reforms sparked dramatic price hikes for gasoline and public transportation. Perez, a former populist, saw the economic reforms as the only way to pull Venezuela out of its growing economic dysfunction. After winning the presidency, Caldera pardoned Chávez in a politically popular move -- thus paving the way for him to run for office. Ironically, Caldera also turned away from Venezuela's old petrodollar-fueled populist polices; a miserable economy forced him to undertake unpopular free-market reforms. Those unpopular polices would provide Chávez with political fodder during his presidential campaign, when he claimed to be seeking a "third way" between "savage neoliberalism" and socialism.
Caldera, a former sociology and law professor, must have realized his useful idiot status when Chávez was sworn-in as president. As a stony faced Caldera looked on, Chávez went off script and called the constitution "moribund" when taking his oath -- an early indication of where he would take Venezuela.
John Maisto, the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela during Hugo Chávez's first term, is famous for having coined a phrase that to many observers encapsulated the Clinton administration’s wishful thinking regarding Chávez. "Watch what he does, not what he says," advised Maisto, a career diplomat, even as Chávez was already on the record for making over-the-top statements, including that Venezuela would be "traveling toward the same sea as the Cuban people." Maisto, to be sure, may have been upbeat in his public statements to avoid antagonizing the thin-skinned Chávez, fearing that taking a tougher line would push him into Cuba's camp. But as it turned out, Chávez did exactly what he said he'd do as he quickly made anti-American alliances with governments in Latin American, the Middle East, and China. At home, he concentrated his power in a rewritten constitution. Eventually. Miastro's mantra -- "Watch what Chavez does, not what he says" -- became a symbol of Washington's naivety and inaction toward an increasingly powerful Hugo Chávez.
"Maisto was always soft on Chávez, like he was soft on Daniel Ortega during his stint as Ambassador to Nicaragua in the 1990s, before he was sent to Venezuela," wrote former Heritage Foundation analyst John Sweeney in an essay, "Playing the Washington Blame Game." He described Maisto as "a career diplomat strongly associated with the Democratic Party and Liberation Theology ideas."
Venezuela had once been a pro-American country, aside from an occasional flag burning outside the U.S. Embassy. But Chávez's regular anti-American rants, which started early into his first term, eventually had an effect on public opinion. "From a pre-Chávez level of over 65% approval (for the U.S.), today the positive image of the U.S. has fallen to a historic low of 31% in Venezuela," according to a confidential diplomatic cable dated March 26, 2008, that was signed by then-Ambassador Patrick Duddy and titled: "Embassy Strategic Communications - Countering Chávez' (sic) Anti-Americanism."
Accordingly, the U.S. Embassy finally decided it must respond with a major public relations campaign in Venezuela to counter the growing anti-Americanism. The so-called "Maistro Doctrine" was dead, having extended even into the Bush years.
Some useful idiots are more culpable than others, of course. Maisto thought his softball approach would win Chávez over, rather than driving him into Cuba's orbit. But it may have instead conveyed weakness to a man who easily made friends with fellow strongmen in the Middle East and left-learning authoritarians in Latin America. Ultimately, the now-75-year-old Maisto may have been a victim of his own naivety, having made the mistake (common among leftists) of projecting his own good intentions and decency on an evil man.
Miquilena a 94-year-old former former Chávez mentor and top official, was a prominent leftist in Venezuela with roots starting in the communist party in his early years. Like many desiring a change for the better in Venezuela, he rallied around Chávez after his aborted coup on February 4, 1992, as an Army Lt. Colonel-paratrooper. But like many who supported Chávez, Miquilena was an unwitting useful idiot and, to his credit, he would publicly admit his mistake.
Widely considered the man who molded Chávez into a presidential candidate, Miquilena left Chávez's administration, disillusioned, a few years into his first term. “As far as I see it, he is a left-winger. Obviously. But he has gotten into bed with the failed left,” he said.
Regarding Cuba's increasing influence in Venezuela, Miquilena also observed: "Venezuela today is a country that is practically occupied by the henchmen of two international criminals, Cuba's Castro brothers. They have introduced in Venezuela a true army of occupation. The Cubans run the maritime ports, airports, communications, the most essential issues in Venezuela. We are in the hands of a foreign country.
Miquilena, of course, is hardly the first unwitting useful idiot of a leftist despot. He will not be the last.
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