Venezuela: from failure to collapse

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It took some breathtaking acts of illegality and repression that at the end paid off handsomely. Mr. Maduro was just sworn in for a second term as Venezuela’s president. What’s next for this once richest country in Latin America?

In my mind there’s no doubt that Venezuela will sink from its current status of failed state to a collapsed state. See, if your economic, political and social policies are bad, you get an epic humanitarian meltdown. What’s needed is a strategy led by Venezuelans, sustained by a serious multilateral platform for fostering a political change when Mr. Maduro’s government collapses.

The odds that the UN Security Council accepts an intervention in Venezuela, I think, is zero considering the Chinese economic interests, Russian and Iranian (on a smaller scale) geopolitical ambitions. Hoping for diplomatic ‘negotiations’ with these countries to limit their support for Maduro is not easy as their presence there is connected with other global hotbeds (Kossovo, Syria, South China Sea). 

Also, suggesting military intervention only empowers hardliners and lead others to join Chavismo to ‘defend the motherland.’ Whilst I support targeted economic sanctions on the abetters of a patronage network that maintains the status quo in Venezuela, I don’t think indiscriminate sanctions as proposed by the right-wing Lima Group (a group that doesn’t recognize Mr. Maduro’s regime) are effective. It would only amplify the suffering and tide of refugees.

Fact is that we can’t count on Mr. Maduro to stop Venezuela’s crisis. As we’ve seen in parts of Africa, extreme socioeconomic collapse and the absence of rule of law tend to render the opposition toothless and send the common man to fend for himself in order to survive. This system has become Maduro’s most effective tool of repression and corruption. Venezuela’s economic and political crisis would have to worsen to such a degree that it threatens the power base of hard-liners and the military. I don’t see that happening soon.

People need an alternative to start believing change is possible in Venezuela when the collapse happens otherwise the unknown will only extends Mr. Maduro’s stay in power. The time may have come for a Venezuelan government in exile (GiE) and a provisional parliament shifting the centre of gravity of opposition decision-making beyond the borders of Venezuela. A GiE is a very rare move in international politics and results from widespread belief in the illegitimacy of the ruler(s), war or humanitarian crisis. The effectiveness of a GiE depends primarily on the amount of support it can receive, from foreign governments and its own population. It’s important that the Venezuelan GiE, from the onset presents itself as offering a democratic alternative for all Venezuelans. To be effective, it must be able to win over Chavistas who are (becoming) disenchanted with Chavismo. It’s no easy task, but the wounds of my neighbor country are too severe to respond quickly to standard procedures.

Photo: Pro democracy rally in Port Imperial, West New York. IPhone, 16 July, 2017.

Willemstad, Curaçao

Population crisis is on our doorsteps

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Last year a Minister forcefully downplayed the news that the Curaçao population was diminishing at an alarming rate. Now it turns out that the decline in 2018 was the largest we’ve seen in the past 15 years. Further analysis shows that the birth and mortality rates have remained unchanged meaning that the decline can only be ascribed to an exodus.

There’re other salient details. We have 92 men for every 100 women in Curaçao whilst according to the U.N. the global rate is 102 men for 100 women. A large group of women therefore can’t form lasting relationships, causing serious problems for our social fabric. Cases of single women leaving for this reason are more common than we realize. Women’s fertility rate here is 2.06 which is slightly below the replacement rate of 2.1 to maintain current population levels. In 1975 our population was 150,258, today it’s around 158,300, a growth of 5.3%. During this period Aruba’s population grew with 72%. 

What’s needed is not dismissing these facts, but to recognize the need for comprehensive demographic policy. An increase in population and replacing our aging workforce are indispensable for economic growth, social stability and competitiveness. In 2009 I made the case for such a policy and a population of 300,000. This idea never really took off because of our aversion to long term planning and predisposition to immediately bog down in details instead of first looking at the big picture. We must revisit this issue however.

While we have a rather diversified economy, we can’t be ‘all over the place’ pretending to be competitive in all sectors. We need to agree what kind of country we want to be and which economic sectors we’re going to pursue. Then, we determine what kind of people, workforce and skills are needed.

We have to make it more attractive for people to have children by reducing the opportunity costs of getting married and raising kids. More flexibility in the workforce allowing couples to split the maternity and paternity leave between themselves may be an innovative incentive. Flexi-work making it possible for more employees to work whenever and wherever they can, even at home is a game changer. Also needed is a balanced immigration policy to attract our diaspora and foreign workers according to local needs. Future immigration policy must be tightly coupled with infrastructure development, urban planning, a proactive management of migrant integration and social cohesion. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but realize that economic growth is not possible with a shrinking population. Yet, population policy is not just economic policy, but it affects social policy as well as politics.

Finally, the exodus -mainly caused by our dismal economic performance- needs our immediate attention. We still chase after ad hoc ideas and dubious investors instead of concentrating on a policy mix that cuts bureaucracy, stimulate export, productivity and competitiveness. The lesson should be that what we put off as ‘too distant in the future’ will sooner than later turn up on our doorsteps.

Willemstad, Curaçao

Photo: Elderly man in a park in Yerevan, Armenia. Iphone, July 2018.

We all look up at the same moon (no matter who or where we are)

93734FFE-E4FB-4CFC-8287-0B757130AACEFinding your own way is what makes traveling so exciting. Ölgi, Mongolia.

I’ve visited a total of 98 countries so far, including 14 in 2018. I count myself lucky especially considering that one of the most common regrets at old age is not having taken that one trip. My advice is to not put off traveling until retirement only to find out that when you are finally ready to go, your health is not.

3CB7C065-AFAF-4C7E-84F6-C344139F36A5Little girl striking a pose during a windy and cold day in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

63CAE399-089A-45E4-A6B2-B620D8AF0C3FKazakh man and son are checking on me to see if I was lost, while walking litteraly in the middle of nowhere. Kazakhs in this region are (semi-)nomads who raom the mountains and valleys. They are known for their friendliness and hospitality.

F6839E79-DCE6-4F75-BC13-5E5B6F822F44Humans are the only beings that cook their food. Eating is also an excellent time to share different perspectives and ideas as demostrated here in Areni, not far the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

18F58A45-EE0F-4D71-81EA-57D896BA8BE0 Many people (including me)  are fascinated with Soviet art like this one in the central park in Tirana, Albania.

98A48CC8-EEE4-4794-9158-852564962DFDEurope’s shame. Gypsies have been discriminated against in Europe for more than a thousand years. Unfortunately for Gypsies, Europe has shed light on discrimination in all corners of the world with the exception of this one in its own backyard. In Romania gypsies are systematically neglected and among the poorest. Gypsy girl selling flower in a restaurant late at night in Brasov.

Travel, compared to other things you spend your money on, is so much more rewarding. It gives you a sense of compassion, putting yourself in the shoes of “strangers,” and better understand the perspective of the very person we belittle or attempt to change. In other words, create a global consciousness among populations that the cultural differences that make us unique are greatly overshadowed by what we have in common with each other. Never forget that when we look up we all see the same moon.

9A222F77-CE62-49F6-B857-F18A610EC4FCMan reading in a park in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia. 

C9260EE6-DA29-4F61-87CB-24D8FF0F6C97Only in Mongolia you’ll find a festival dedicated to the Golden Eagle, a fierce hunter. After a movie was made about this event (The Eagle Huntress), outside interest for this festival has grown. This picture shows 5 participants in this two-day event that crowned the most successful eagle hunter of 2018.

6FC78B55-1BDB-4C9D-9224-C82252BBDDADIstanbul, the largest city in Turkey, may as well be called the “cat city”. Stray cats roam everywhere and yes, they are revered. It is as if they own the city.

As for me, I look forward to more assignments and travels in 2019 in my quest to fill my bucket with mind-expanding experiences. Keep you posted.

(All picures were taken with my Iphone).

Willemstad, Curaçao

Grateful

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A year ago I started with this blog in order to make sense of local and world events as they interact with each other and directly or indirectly impact the quality of our lives. Sure, social media allows us today to express opinions like never before, but I’m more interested in making a persuasive case for a focused point. My writings are not directed towards sudden results. Nor do I expect my ideas and arguments to be readily accepted.  As 2018 draws to a close, I’m reminded how grateful I am for the thousands of visitors from more than 130 countries all over the globe who have viewed, liked or commented on my articles. Thank you very much. Happy holidays and a meaningful new year filled with compassion. See you in 2019. 

The new Cold War in the Caribbean

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Writing about the two Russian nuclear-capable bombers that landed two weeks ago in Venezuela, I cautioned that we should expect more such moves as Russia and China seek to enhance their presence in the Caribbean Basin. We didn’t have to wait long. Russia just announced that Venezuela will allow Moscow to establish a military base on the island of La Orchila, just 311 km east of Curaçao. 

 

The need for us to form a judgement to determine how best to relate to Russia and China in our region as they clearly seek to rebalance the historic dominance of Europe and the US is obvious. Yet so far we, especially our politicians, have remained conspicuously silent.

There are some crucial points we have to take into consideration.

China and Russia are cooperating on many fronts to weaken the Western grip on the global order. But they’re also competitors and will continue to collaborate -also in our region- until it’s no longer in either’s interest to do so.

Without a doubt a new Cold War is brewing in the Caribbean between the US on one side and China and Russia on the other. Because of this, some countries, especially Venezuela and Nicaragua, have gained a degree of geopolitical significance which they eagerly use to diffuse their domestic crises. Also, authoritarianism in Cuba, Suriname, Dominica and others are being emboldened by China and Russia.

Both Beijing and Moscow have their eyes on several regional small (island)states which they expect will align with them in the United Nations, further boosting their global influence.

The US has been cutting assistance to the region and taking a hard line on immigration making the US unpopular. Leaders like the Prime Minister of Dominica praised President Putin saying that Russian leadership has “provided a great balance in the world on international issues”.

Talks here and in The Hague about constitutional changes whilst we do not even have a referendum law may push us towards becoming a vassal state. We should also be aware of the practices Russia employs elsewhere to influence democracies via cyberwar and the presence of operatives. Some areas in Curaçao, especially politics as we saw recently, are especially vulnerable to outside influence.

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We need to have a frank conversation how best to relate to Russia and China in our region. I’m not saying we should dismiss them. We need to focus on our connections on the long run regarding these newcomers as well as our traditional partners. These important considerations need to be discussed here and should not be relegated totally to The Hague.

Willemstad, Curaçao

Never heard of Chuuk? You will in 2019

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On 5 March, 2019 an independence referendum is held on Chuuk, a sparsely populated and far-off paradise-like state in the Pacific. Chuuk belongs to the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Why should we pay attention to a referendum somewhere you probably never heard of? It’s because its outcome has potentially disproportionate global geo-strategic importance.

The FSM, an independent republic associated to the US, consists of the states Chuuk, Yap, Pohnpei and Kosrae comprising 607 islands with a land area of 702 km2. It lies 2,900 km north of eastern Australia. The US is responsible for FSM’s defense and has a strategic military presence there. It also provides economic and technical aid.

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Chuuk, a quarter the size of Curaçao, wants independence from the FSM just like Kosovo (which broke away from Serbia). Whilst 107 of 193 UN members recognize Kosovo, many oppose it claiming that ‘established international law.’ was violated. The opposers, notably powerhouses such as Russia, India and China, don’t dare recognize Kosovo because of problems they have with separatist movements at home. Chuuk’s referendum is spearheaded by those saying that Chuuk receives less resources from the national government than it contributes. Coincidently the same argument Curaçao used to abandon the Netherlands Antilles. The US, staunch ally of Kosovo, opposes Chuuk’s independence because such action is, unlike Kosovo, ‘against international law.’

Countries facing the real possibility of parts of their territories declaring independence: Spain (Catalonia), Russia (Chechnya), Indonesia (Aceh), China (Tibet), India (Kashmir) and others will be closely watching this referendum. Further, we have to consider China’s ambitions in Chuuk and the region. China supports an independent Chuuk and has been presenting itself as a much more attractive model for the people of Chuuk than the US. Washington has reason to fear that China might be willing to provide Chuuk with cash, loans and investments as long as it’s willing to terminate the US military hold on the island clearing the way for more Chinese influence in Chuuk, the FSM and region. 

About 45,000 eligible voters will decide Chuuk’s future in less than 3 months. Chuuk’s independence could set off a chain reaction of events that could undermine the US military position in the South Pacific to the benefit of China and Russia. It could also influence the many separatist movements around the globe seeking greater autonomy or self-determination.

Willemstad, Curaçao

Putin’s bombers in Venezuela: a clear message to the US

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The two Russian nuclear-capable bombers that recently landed in Venezuela created  an uproar in Washington and raised concerns in Curaçao considering our proximity to this South American country. While I think these planes will soon return to Russia, we need to realize that the presence of Russia and China in this region will continue to grow mainly to undermine US influence and as payback for US interference in Russia’s and China’s backyards. Presence of those bombers was no coincidence. 

The US ambitions in Southeast Asia, increased presence in the energy-rich South China Sea, support for Taiwan and Tibet among others, irritate China. Just yesterday the US Congress passed an act to restrict travel to the US of Chinese authorities responsible for limiting foreign travel to Tibet. China’s main interest in our region is to seek natural resources for its economic growth. The number of nations that have swapped recognition from Taiwan to China reflects China’s increased influence in the region. The Dominican Republic just dropped Taiwan and embraced China after getting investments worth US$ 3.1 billion. China has also been investing in ‘soft power’ promoting Mandarin, cultural exchanges and Confucius Institutes. And totally surprising, it wants to build a space station in Argentina.

Russia’s interest in the region is mainly strategic. Vladimir Putin has been trying to come back from the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Warshaw Pact (a Soviet military alliance) by re-engaging old friends like Cuba, Grenada, Nicaragua and even Jamaica. Moscow has also sought to deepen ties with allies that share the resentment of US global leadership, such as Venezuela and Bolivia. While Russia doesn’t have deep pockets like China (Russia ranks 11th in overall GDP) it has leveraged other instruments such as arms sale, military cooperation and cyberwar to expand its presence.

I’ve spoken with people from different walks of life in Serbia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro and other places and they all coincide that Putin’s Russia will never be able to forget the NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in the 1990s (see my picture of poster in downtown Belgrade), the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, disappearing importance of the Russian language in the ex-Soviet Republics and the rush of ex-allies to join NATO. Putin’s visit to Serbia in January 2019 should give more details as to Moscow’s strategy to deal with what it considers EU’s and US meddling in its backyard.

So while the Russian bombers will soon return home, Putin’s power projection in an attempt to erode US leadership will not dissipate soon. In addition, we should not underestimate the fact that China is both an ally and a competitor to Russia’s agenda in the region. So Russia’s show of power was not only meant for Washington but for Beijing as well. This means that it will not be the last time that we’ll witness such geoplolitical spats in our region.

Willemstad, Curaçao