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Archive for August, 2017

The Venezuelan implosion

[update below] [2nd update below]

I am not an expert on Venezuela, loin s’en faut. I have written but one post on the country in the life of AWAV, when Hugo Chávez died some 4½ years back. That’s it. I have, however, been reading daily about the dramatic present situation there, as have lots of people who otherwise don’t pay a lot of attention to what happens down that way. My social media news feeds have been full of commentary and links to articles and analyses of the Venezuelan implosion, and with people trying to figure out what’s going on. E.g. the other day a friend—with left-wing political views—said that he was trying to understand what was happening in Venezuela, that his reflex was to sympathize more with the government than the opposition, but that he wasn’t sure, as Nicolás Maduro is not an inherently sympathetic person and that the situation all seems very complicated. So I offered my borderline café de commerce explanation, striving to synthesize some of what I’ve read of late.

As for what I’ve read—and as a service to AWAV readers—here are some of the more interesting pieces. Beginning with academic specialists, which is where I look first, Slate’s Isaac Chotiner had the excellent idea to interview Stanford University emeritus professor Terry Lynn Karl, who is a leading political science specialist of petro-states—and Venezuela in particular—and whose work I have profited from over the years. The interview (August 2nd), “Venezuela is collapsing: could a civil war be next?,” is definitely worth the read.

Political scientists Dorothy Kronick (University of Pennsylvania) and Jennifer McCoy (Georgia State), both Venezuela specialists, have a podcast discussion (August 3rd), “How Venezuela could find a way out of chaos,” on Penn’s Wharton school website and that is worth 25 minutes of one’s time.

If one has 25 more minutes to spare, the podcast discussion (May 11th) with Kronick and Penn law professor William Burke-White, “Has Venezuela’s crisis reached a tipping point?,” may also be profitably listened to.

Francisco Toro, who runs the excellent Caracas Chronicles website, has a must-read op-ed (July 29th) in The Washington Post, “Translating Venezuela’s political crisis into American terms.”

Also see Toro’s piece in the New Republic (August 1st), “The last hope for Venezuela is also a frightening one.” The lede: “As the country descends into dictatorship, who will stop Nicolás Maduro?”

En français, CNRS directrice de recherche Frédérique Langue has a tribune in Le Monde (July 27th), “Les raisons de l’impasse au Venezuela.”

Également en français, see the analysis (May 11th) by Le Monde’s excellent Latin America reporter, Paulo A. Paranagua, “Imposture populiste au Venezuela.”

See as well the analysis (August 2nd) by Tamara Taraciuk Broner—a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch—in The Washington Post, “Venezuela is imploding: these citizens were desperate to escape.” The lede: “A new diaspora is spreading around South America, propelled by hunger and persecution.”

The très gauchiste Mike Gonzalez—formerly a professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow—has an interesting outside-the-box analysis in the cent pour cent gauchiste Jacobin magazine, “Being honest about Venezuela.” The lede: “As Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly antidemocratic government battles violent right-wing forces, ordinary Venezuelans are watching the gains of Chavismo slip away.”

Nice that Jacobin published this piece, as it has largely been defending the Venezuelan pouvoir. On the matter of leftist/tiersmondiste reaction to the Venezuela crisis, the very smart University of Washington political science professor Jamie Mayerfeld—with whom I am in political agreement 99% of the time—let loose on his Facebook page last week:

This will be one of those posts in which I feel like I am shouting into the wind. Among my politically engaged Facebook friends, there is virtually no discussion of President Maduro’s consolidation of dictatorship in Venezuela over the weekend. The larger problem is that a significant portion of the left is lodged in a disinformation bubble carefully tended by TeleSur, Venezuela Analysis, The Nation, Jacobin, CounterPunch, RT en Español, and writers such as Greg Grandin and George Ciccariello-Maher. These sources have gone to great lengths to obscure the truth, namely that Maduro has worked systematically and tirelessly to destroy his country’s democratic institutions. To review: He has thrown political opponents in jail, stacked the supreme court, blocked opposition figures from taking seats in the national assembly, stripped the national assembly of legislative powers, blocked a presidential recall vote, postponed gubernatorial elections, and now in the coup de grace created a rubber-stamp constituent assembly with unlimited lawmaking powers. All this because his regime, responsible for an economic collapse causing widespread hunger and the collapse of health care, is opposed by the overwhelming majority of Venezuelan citizens. The left-wing disinformation machine uses various distortions, omissions, and Marxist dogmas to cover up what is happening. I am particularly upset by political theorist George Ciccariello-Maher’s piece in the Jacobin last Friday – a veritable torrent of lies that brings shame on my field of political science and subfield of political theory.

Tell it like it is, Jamie!

In this general vein, Asa Cusack—managing editor of the LSE Latin America and Caribbean blog—has a salutary opinion piece (August 2nd) in The Guardian, “What the left must learn from Maduro’s failures in Venezuela.” The lede: “I, like other progressives, was so inspired by the Bolivarian revolution that I overlooked Chavismo’s abuses. But willful blindness is no longer an option.”

Also in this vein, journalist James Kirchick, who is definitely not a gauchiste, has a fun op-ed (August 2nd) in the L.A. Times, “Remember all those left-wing pundits who drooled over Venezuela?” Hello, Naomi Klein…

Eric Emptaz has a really fun page one commentary in the current issue of Le Canard Enchaîné, “Caracas de conscience,” dans lequel il se fout de la gueule du PCF et d’autres gauchistes français (pour le lire, ouvrez l’image dans un nouvel onglet et l’agrandir).

And last but not least, don’t miss the must-read column (August 2nd) by Slate.fr’s Eric Le Boucher, “Le Venezuela, la vitrine de l’échec du mélenchonisme.” The lede: “Après les élections, la vérité sur le Venezuela éclate aujourd’hui. Elle est révélatrice…des failles de Jean-Luc Mélenchon.” Aïe!

Voilà, c’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

UPDATE: Jamie Mayerfeld has another commentary on his Facebook page (August 9th) taking to task the reaction of a part of the left to Venezuela

In The Nation, Gabriel Hetland asks how the international left can help Venezuela. Here’s a suggestion: start telling the truth. I had thought the left agreed with the general consensus that free and fair elections are necessary for the peaceful channeling of political conflict. Like several of his left-wing colleagues, Hetland does double back-flips to avoid mentioning that the Maduro government has blocked free and fair elections and that it is this fact more than any other that has motivated the street protests.

Hetland arrogantly writes, “It is far from clear that Venezuela’s popular sectors would fare any better under an opposition-led government.” I say “arrogantly,” because it is not the role of the international left to choose Venezuela’s government; that presumably is a task for the Venezuelan people themselves. Hetland closes the paragraph by saying that the danger represented by the opposition “is why millions continue to support the Maduro government, despite significant misgivings.” He chooses not to mention that popular support for Maduro reaches no higher than 22%. As The Economist writes, Venezuela “is a textbook example of why democracy matters: people with bad governments should be able to throw the bums out.” It’s not clear that the international left agrees with this principle.

I’m glad that in his final paragraph Hetland writes that the solution to the Venezuelan crisis must include “a credible electoral calendar that provides the opposition with a peaceful path to office.” It would have helped if Hetland acknowledged that the government’s assault on the democratic electoral process is the cause of the current crisis.

I give Hetland credit for acknowledging evidence of fraud in the constituent assembly election held on July 30. But he fails to mention that the constituent assembly is itself a strategy for bypassing the will of the Venezuelan people. It was designed to over-represent Maduro supporters, and polls show that 85% of the public opposed it. As it turned out, Maduro supporters were the only candidates voters could choose from. The constituent assembly is empowered to overrule the national assembly, whose members were chosen in a free election, although the opposition was prevented from obtaining a two-thirds super-majority when the supreme court (stacked with Maduro supporters) prevented three opposition legislators from taking their seats. (And then the supreme court proceeded, on clearly partisan grounds, to block several laws passed by the national assembly.)

One leftist who has been issuing mealy-mouthed statements on Venezuela is Jeremy Corbyn. As Lib Dem member Chris Key put it in politics.co.uk (August 8th), “Corbyn is too cowardly to condemn Venezuela’s slide into dictatorship.”

2nd UPDATE: Frédérique Langue of the CNRS has another analysis (August 8th), this in the French HuffPost, “Voici pourquoi on ne peut pas encore parler de guerre civile au Venezuela.” The lede: “Les mésusages du concept de ‘guerre civile’ ne reposent que sur une instrumentalisation idéologique de l’histoire et un discours anti-impérialiste.”

Thomas Posado, a research scholar at the Centre de Recherches Sociologiques et Politiques de Paris – Cultures et sociétés urbaines, at the Université Paris 8, has a piece (August 8th) in Contretemps: Revue de Critique Communiste, “Les classes populaires vénézuéliennes prises au piège.” The lede: “Depuis plus de quatre mois, une crise politique aigüe agite le Venezuela. Celle-ci s’inscrit dans le contexte d’un effondrement économique qui frappe le pays depuis 2014 et dont les classes populaires vénézuéliennes paient un lourd tribut, sans compter les violences qu’elles subissent sous toutes les formes.”

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Saw it last week. The verdict: it is the most overhyped, overrated movie of the year. Period. It’s not that I didn’t like it. On account of the hype and gushing reviews, I was, however, expecting a chef d’œuvre, to be blown away. But I wasn’t. It’s a perfectly acceptable war movie and with some positive facets, but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. I will rank any number of WWII movies— those in which combat scenes are central—above it: e.g. Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Letters from Iwo Jima, Fury, Hacksaw Ridge, Come and See (the greatest WWII movie of all time). I was not on the edge of my seat or personally moved at any point (except maybe by the 17-year-old on the private boat). I didn’t find it a “white-knuckle thriller.” And I didn’t have the feeling that what it’s been praised for—the technical feats (aerial dogfights, etc) or depictions of heroism and cowardice—I hadn’t seen before in other such films.

As one surely knows, the film has been praised to the heavens by critics outre-Atlantique et Manche—and considered by more than one to possibly be the greatest war film ever—not to mention in the Hexagon itself, so I will simply offer a few contradictory comments. First, on the technical side. One reads about the 70 mm hand-held IMAX cameras and is informed by critics that the film should optimally be seen on IMAX. Well, there are only three IMAX theaters in the Paris area, none of which are convenient for me and all showing only films in their dubbed version (and I’ll be damned if I’m going to see a Hollywood movie—indeed any non-French movie—in V.F.). If a particular format is recommended for a movie but which is not accessible to most people, that’s a shortcoming of the movie IMO.

One little thing that bugged me—that I have seen no mention of in any review—is that one sees the sprawl of modern Dunkerque in the background. The buildings and infrastructure are post-WWII (and by a few decades). It’s flagrant. This is a flaw in the film IMO. And while the city looks intact in the film, it was, in fact, heavily bombed by the Germans during the evacuation. Most of the city was indeed destroyed during those two weeks in May-June. But in the movie one sees but several Luftwaffe Stukas dive-bombing British ships but nary a plume of smoke over the city.

The discordant breaches of continuity: this is an interesting feature of the film but I was a little confused by it and did not pick up on this being the film’s structure —The Mole: 1 week/The Sea: 1 day/The Air: 1 hour—nor did the sharp cinephile friend with whom I saw it. And if normally sophisticated, highbrow folks like us didn’t get this—and how was one supposed to know what “The Mole” was? (I only learned in reading reviews afterward)—then I wonder how many in the great unwashed masses did…

And then there’s the depiction—or relative lack of—of the French role. They’re seen fighting in the opening scene—which is good, as they did indeed fight there and to protect the British while they evacuated—but the only French soldier in the movie afterward is a cheese-eating surrender monkey. Christopher Nolan could have profited by studying a little more history before making the film. Nolan’s perspective is decidedly Anglo-centric, giving comfort to, as French air force lieutenant-colonel and military historian Jérôme de Lespinois put it in a Le Monde tribune, the nombriliste attitude outre-Manche that the English are better off when they go it alone.

London-based writer Salil Tripathi seconds this view, asserting that “‘Dunkirk’ reinforces Britain’s self-image, that it was fighting for freedom all alone in World War II.” Oxford history professor Yasmin Khan thirds it, writing in the NYT about “Dunkirk, the war and the amnesia of the Empire” and how “two and a half million Indians [who] fought alongside the British in World War…are left out of accounts like Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Dunkirk’.” In this vein, New Republic film critic Christian Lorentzen informs us that

The Dunkirk episode was trotted out by the Leave campaign in the runup to last year’s EU referendum, and it’s easy to mistake Dunkirk for a piece of pro-Brexit propaganda. Plucky nationalist myths and box office populism have a way of aligning, and Nolan has a track record of flirting with reactionary politics.

For the record, I am not a fan of Nolan’s films, at least those I’ve seen. I wasn’t taken with ‘Memento’ and turned off the DVD of ‘Inception’ after fifteen minutes. I had no interest in seeing his other blockbusters.

The review in the wonderfully-named “War is Boring” blog makes the spot-on observation that the soldiers in the movie are too “squeaky clean with no dirt and no grit… [that t]his is one of the most sanitary war films…ever [made].”

Salon critic Matthew Rozsa writes that ‘Dunkirk’ is “a good film, but a far better history lesson,” that “its ability to place viewers in history is what truly impresses.” I wish to differ. The fact of the matter is, the film provides no historical context whatever. This is no big deal for historically-knowledgeable persons, e.g. AWAV’s readers, but I will promise that 98%—probably 99.5% in fact—of Americans who see the movie know nothing whatever of the historical episode in question. They know zero about the Fall of France—except for mendacious clichés of cheese eaters and surrender monkeys—or when it happened. And the movie won’t enlighten them. (The historical ignorance of Operation Dynamo is widespread in France too, BTW, but at least people here can plug it into a history they do know). And then there’s the rest of the world, where ignorance of France in May-June 1940 is on the order of 99.9%.

But please don’t get me wrong. ‘Dunkirk’ is serviceable war movie that I won’t discourage anyone from seeing. And if people disagree with my assessment, I respect that.

I mentioned Hacksaw Ridge (French title: Tu ne tueras point) as a WWII film that is superior to ‘Dunkirk’ IMHO. I initially overlooked the pic when it opened in Paris last November but noting the stellar Allociné spectateur rating (4.5: excellent), decided to check it out. It was still playing to packed salles seven weeks after its release, and for good reason, as it’s a first-rate film. It’s a great, true story and sure-fire crowd-pleaser, of Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector Desmond Doss (actor Andrew Garfield) who was determined to serve as a medic in combat. And it is one of the most powerful Hollywood movies ever made depicting the horrors of war. The reënactment of the Battle of Okinawa was a directorial feat on Mel Gibson’s part. He may be a reactionary catho intégriste but is one fine film director.

Another WWII movie seen late last year was Robert Zemeckis’ Allied (French title: Alliés). I found it generally engaging and love Marion Cotillard but had mixed feelings about it overall, mainly as the premise of the story was so wildly implausible. I also had issues as to the historical accuracy of two sequences. The first was on the presence of uniformed Nazis in French Morocco, which was under the authority of the Vichy regime (until November 1942). But under the terms of the armistice—which the Germans respected until Operation Torch—the Germans did not enter the unoccupied zone. In the movie, the target of the Brad Pitt-Cotillard operation is the German ambassador (who would have, in fact, been the consul-general, and in Rabat, not Casablanca, but we’ll pass on that detail) and who heads a sizable German presence, and which is armed and carries out police-style operations, e.g. the hot pursuit of Pitt-Cotillard after their operation. From the standpoint of historical accuracy, this struck me as way off base.

The second sequence concerned the German bombing raid on London, which, in the movie, would have been in 1943. But I was quite sure that no such raids happened at that stage of the war (after spring 1941). And, as it happens, my qualm on this was addressed in the first comment here.

These two particular criticisms were not the main reasons as why I had mixed feelings about the movie (e.g. the whole Pitt-Cotillard relationship was ridiculous). Many such films have anachronisms, e.g. Bridge of Spies had a few, though I thought that one was quite good. And the friend with whom I saw ‘Allied’—who is an academic and with highbrow tastes—liked it a lot, particularly how it treated the themes of spying and intelligence gathering. Likewise the chairman of the history department at a flagship US state university, with whom I exchanged views on the film via social media, who also appreciated it for the spying and treason themes. Voilà, I can respect that.

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Sam Shepard, R.I.P.

He was a cinematic reference for me when I was in my 20s (mid ’70s to mid ’80s). Or, I should say, to us: to me and my cinephile friends of the time. And I would occasionally hear about him personally from his younger sister, Roxanne, who was a friend in college (and remains one today).

Patti Smith has a beautiful remembrance in The New Yorker, “My Buddy.” Great photo, too.

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