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Hugo Chavez and Moral Lapses of the Left

Having survived a U.S.-supported coup d'état in 2002 which briefly removed him from power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has sought to encourage solidarity amongst impoverished nations in an effort to counter Washington's hegemonic and imperial designs throughout Latin America and around the world. That impulse is certainly understandable, but Chávez has now gone so far overboard that he has lost all moral standing and any shred of credibility. Just in case you missed it here is Chávez's latest gem for the ages: "I don't know, maybe he [the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin] was a great nationalist, a patriot."

While Chávez has certainly made some obtuse statements over the years, this remark was so offensive, so insensitive, so utterly devoid of any moral compass that it ought to give severe pause to Chávez's international supporters. If Chávez were so inclined, he might have taken a moment to conduct a cursory google search before holding forth on the subject of well known African dignitaries. Perhaps the Venezuelan might have come up with the following obituary from London's Guardian newspaper, dated 2003: "Idi Amin," ran the piece, "was one of the most brutal military dictators to wield power in post-independence Africa."

After militarily seizing power in 1971, the Ugandan made himself president, dissolved parliament and suspended elections. Under Amin, the secret police exercised absolute power over life and death while the courts and press were subjected to the president's whims. Even more disturbingly, Chávez's "patriot" killed hundreds of thousands of his real and perceived political opponents. To this day the true death toll is not known with estimates ranging widely between 80,000 and 300,000. Amnesty International, compiling figures with the help of Ugandan exiles, put the number even higher at 500,000.

It's odd that Chávez would cast Amin as a nationalist since other contemporary leaders held the exact opposite view. Indeed, Tanzania's former president Julius Nyerere once remarked that Amin actually damaged the cause of African nationalism. Perhaps, what Chávez meant was that Amin was a black nationalist to the detriment of other ethnic groups: in 1972 the Ugandan expelled 35,000 Asians from his country in the course of three months.

It's difficult to see what was going through Chávez's head when he made his recent speech: not only were his comments morally repugnant but also politically self defeating. In Uganda, officials said they were offended by the Venezuelan. President Yoweri Museveni's secretary Tamale Mirundi declared that Amin's soldiers had murdered both his parents right in front of him. "The way he [Amin] killed Ugandans in big numbers cannot qualify him to be a nationalist," Murundi added.

The withering criticism hasn't deterred Chávez from pursuing diplomatic alliances with tin pot African dictators such as Muamar Gaddafi. But the Venezuelan has embraced more loathsome despots. Take for example the case of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who Chávez calls a "brother." The African leader, Chávez says, has been wrongly branded a "bad guy" in the eyes of the world. Chávez once presented Mugabe with a replica of a sword wielded by Latin American independence leader Simon Bolívar. In another vintage Chávez gem, the Venezuelan leader told Mugabe that he was "a true freedom fighter [who] continues, alongside his people, to confront the pretensions of new imperialists."

Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 and refused to leave office after disputed elections. He has presided over a humanitarian crisis which has pushed thousands to the point of starvation and left many dead of cholera. Zimbabwe once had one of the best health care systems in sub-Saharan Africa, but under Mugabe hospitals had to be shuttered because staff could not afford to buy necessary medicine or equipment. Instead of castigating Mugabe, Chávez came to the African leader's defense: the health emergency in Zimbabwe, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry stated, should not be used by other nations to "politically destabilize" the government in Harare.

In 2000, Mugabe began an oftentimes violent campaign to take over white-owned farms in Zimbabwe and hand them to blacks. Ultimately most of the land wound up in the hands of Mugabe's cronies and agricultural production plummeted, thereby wrecking the economy. Predictably, Chávez came to Mugabe's defense. "I pay tribute to Mugabe," the Venezuelan said, adding "the president of Zimbabwe is made out to be a villain - because he takes land from those who don't need it to give it to those who need it to live."

As if it could get no worse, Chávez has also embraced Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, a leader who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in Darfur. The ICC has charged Bashir with five counts: murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape. The court has declared that Bashir is criminally responsible for atrocities in Darfur as he was the head of state and commander of the Sudanese armed forces during a five-year counter-insurgency campaign waged against armed groups.

According to the Guardian, few independent observers doubt Bashir's culpability for the humanitarian disaster in Darfur which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives since 2003. After a mainly non-Arab uprising broke out in Darfur, Bashir's government armed, trained and financed bands of Arab nomads to ransack villages in the region, murdering, raping and pillaging as they went along. The Sudanese army provided air and ground support. Human rights groups have hailed the ICC's decision to pursue Bashir. The Sudanese leader meanwhile counters that the ICC arrest warrant is a western plot to arrest his country's economic development. The ICC, he says, should "eat" its warrant.

Coming to the aid of an ally, Chávez has done his utmost to rehabilitate Bashir. "The recent indictment against the Sudanese president Bashir is one of these ridiculous cases. It's a farce," he said during an Arab summit in Doha. Going even further, Chávez spoke personally with Bashir and invited the Sudanese leader to visit Venezuela. "I spoke with al-Bashir and asked him about the risks he is facing when he visits a foreign country," Chávez said. "I invited him to visit Caracas, and I told him, 'I hope you do not have any problem there.'"

Chávez added that the ICC decision was based on racism and was "a legal eyesore and a political abuse, not only for Sudan but for the people of the third world." Unlike Chávez, other Latin American leaders have refused to demonstrate any solidarity with Bashir. During an official session at Doha, Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kircher walked out so as to avoid being photographed with the Sudanese leader.

Chávez's African exploits are but the latest chapter in the Venezuelan's long embrace of autocratic despots. It's a long and tangled history, and I've written extensively about it before. Chávez has thrown his political and diplomatic support behind the likes of Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example. The Venezuelan leader has even warmed up to the likes of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. In Belarus, opposition activists are closely monitored by the secret police--still called the KGB. Anyone joining an opposition protest, Lukashenko has said, should be treated as a "terrorist," adding: "We will wring their necks, as one might a duck." During a visit to Minsk, Chávez remarked bizarrely that Belarus was "a model social state."

But by far the lowest moment came during the Chinese crack down in Tibet. Once again Chávez was on the wrong side. Defending China's repression, he argued that Tibet was part of China. Chávez moreover ridiculed attempts to protest China during the Olympics and in another flight of fantasy claimed that "The United States is behind all that is happening as it wants to derail the Beijing Olympics."

Everything that I've reported on here is on the public record, yet troll through the left blogosphere and you'd be hard pressed to find any mention of Chávez's moral lapses. Indeed, it would appear as if Chávez can do no wrong in the eyes of his international supporters.

Speak to leftist Latin American experts and they'll privately concede that Chávez is out of line. However, these same experts are very selective about what they will or will not sign or publish. Left academics will be the first to rush to Venezuela's defense when Caracas is attacked by the likes of Human Rights Watch for example. I haven't seen any mention however of Idi Amin or Omar Al-Bashir. Where are the heavy hitters on the left? The silence is becoming more and more apparent.

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Blackout in Brazil: Hydropower and Climate Change

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare: being caught in an underground subway in the midst of a power outage. Yet, that is exactly what happened recently when Brazilian commuters in the city of São Paulo were trapped inside trains and literally had to be pulled out of subway cars. In addition to sparking problems in public transport, the blackout or apagão led to hospital emergencies and the shutting down of several airports. In all the power outage darkened approximately half of the South American nation, affecting sixty million people.

In recent years Brazil has become an economic powerhouse yet the blackout exposed vulnerabilities in the country’s infrastructure. In the wake of the power outage, government officials intent on sustaining high economic growth have tried to figure out what might have gone wrong with the country’s electrical grid. Initial reports blamed the power outage on the massive Itaipu hydroelectric dam though a spokesperson for the facility said there had been no problem at the plant.

Itaipu, the official stated, was solely responsible for power generation and the failure occurred in the transmission line. Perhaps, the Energy and Mines Minister declared, a chance atmospheric event like a storm could have disconnected Itaipu. While the authorities conduct further investigations into the matter, some are concerned about the scope of the apagão and have demanded a more detailed explanation.

In addition to power outages there are other, more profound problems associated with hydropower, problems that now concern us all. Indeed, hydroelectric plants lead to emissions of methane which are formed when vegetation decomposes at the bottom of reservoirs devoid of oxygen. The methane is either released slowly as it bubbles up in the reservoir or rapidly when water passes through turbines.

One Brazilian dam, Balbina, flooded about 920 square miles of rainforest when it was completed and during the first three years of its existence the actual reservoir emitted 23 million tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane. Dr. Philip Fearnside, a scientist who I interviewed for my upcoming book No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010), has calculated that during this time Balbina’s greenhouse gas output was four times that of a coal-fired plant producing the same amount of power.

The news is particularly troubling as methane is twenty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon. Environmentalists say that methane gas produced by forests inundated by hydroelectric projects accounts for one-fifth of Brazil’s greenhouse gas contribution to global warming.

How concerned should we be about dams and their effect on Earth’s climate? According to researchers, the world’s reservoirs release 20 percent of the total methane from all known sources connected to human activity, including livestock, fossil fuels, and landfills. Experts say that same methane released by dams, meanwhile, accounts for 4 percent of total global warming while reservoirs contribute approximately 4 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human activity.

The issue of hydro power has been climbing up the political agenda of the world’s leading scientists: in 2006 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included emissions from artificially flooded regions in its greenhouse gas inventory. That hasn’t stopped Brazilian policymakers however from proceeding full throttle with their plans for Amazonian dams and currently the country relies on hydropower for more than 80% of its electricity. In particular, the government has pushed a controversial dam project called Belo Monte. Scientists have raised the alarm bell about the complex, which will cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to the decomposition of organic matter within the stagnant water of the reservoir.

President Lula has said that developing hydro power in the Amazon is essential if the country wants to sustain more than 5 percent growth. The mere fact, however, that Brazil is afflicted by chronic energy problems does not mean that Lula must sacrifice the rainforest to hydro power and thereby intensify climate pressures. Indeed, critics charge that Lula’s dam building is merely designed to satisfy big business which gobbles up energy so as to export tropical commodities.

With all of the social drawbacks associated with hydro power, not to mention the implications for climate change, why won’t authorities consider meeting Brazil’s future energy needs through alternative means? Environmentalists argue that the Lula government should upgrade existing energy systems and push through rapid development of wind, solar, and biomass technologies. If Lula adopted such clean technologies Brazil could meet its electricity needs through 2020 and actually save $15 billion in the process.

Sounds like a proposal worth exploring, but predictably the electrical sector has wasted no time in attacking environmentalists for being utopian and naive. To retrofit older dams and cut transmission losses is simply wishful thinking, the powerful lobbying group has charged. One expert reports that hydroelectric projects die hard in Brazil. “It’s like a Dracula movie,” he says. “Every 20 years or so, it surges up out of the coffin. You have to drive the stake back through the thing and make it go away again.”

Where is all the money coming from for these hydroelectric initiatives you ask? One chief culprit is the Brazilian National Development Bank, the financial arm of the Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade. Because of the incestuous relationship between the government and hydropower, it’s politically difficult to challenge these boondoggle projects.

But just in case you thought methane-producing dams were a strictly Brazilian affair, consider that the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is also expected to contribute financially to hydro electric projects despite heavy lobbying from environmental and human rights groups that have been urging the bank to steer clear of such initiatives.

Moving away from hydropower and solving our climate conundrum will require political leadership in Brazil but also significant international cooperation. As we move forward in crucial climate change negotiations, the Global North needs to do much more to invest in truly green technology such as wind, solar, and waves. Instead of sponsoring hydropower, large financial institutions as well as affluent countries should provide clean energy transfers to such nations as Brazil.

Failure to act now could exact a heavy environmental toll and condemn Brazil to a vicious energy-climate trap. Consider the case of an earlier, 2001 apagão: in that year, a blackout crippled the country and authorities were forced to decree emergency measures, including a ban on power-hungry floodlights. A special government task force (nicknamed the “Blackout Ministry”) called for the switching off of lighting on streets, beaches, and squares. In the midst of the energy crisis some Rio business leaders feared a crime wave and called for the army to be deployed in the event of power cuts.

Meanwhile, panic-stricken citizens stocked up on candles, generators, and flashlights. When the rationing went into effect, cutbacks obliged schools and businesses to close and disrupted transportation, trade, and leisure. As street lighting in most major cities was cut 35 percent, police night shifts were increased and even Brazilians’ prized night games of soccer were prohibited.

The connection between hydro power and climate change is becoming all too painfully clear. Consider: the immediate cause of the 2001 energy crisis and blackout was a severe drought–the worst in more than sixty years. When the dry spell hit, water levels at hydroelectric plants fell to less than one-third of capacity.

In the long run hydro power may be caught in a vicious cycle of its own making: as large boondoggle projects such as Belo Monte proliferate, they may emit harmful greenhouse gases and thus contribute to climate change and increasing drought. But if global warming dries up parts of the Amazon, Belo Monte and other dams like it could wind up being white elephants as there won’t be much water left to harness.

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Climate Change: What Would Lord Russell Do?

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