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El Niño in Venezuela: Hugo Chávez’s “Katrina” Moment?

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Hugo Chavez is an Inappropriate Environmental Messenger

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Ecuador's Rafael Correa: Copenhagen Climate Hero or Environmental Foe?

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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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Enough with the Chavez Hero Worship

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Chavez and the anti-Semitism debate

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Populism and its long term consequences

In late 2007, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez narrowly lost a vote on a constitutional referendum which would have allowed the President to run again in future elections. Hardly discouraged, he pressed forward. On Sunday, people will vote on a similar referendum and in the event that Chávez wins, he could stand for reelection in 2012.

That’s an outcome which the opposition seeks to avoid at all costs. What Chávez really wants, the opposition claims, is to become a fledgling tyrant and to institutionalize his own personal power. Originally elected in 1998, Chávez is now serving his third term in office. While pushing his referendum, the Venezuelan President has said that he needs more time in office in order to secure vital socialist reforms.

For Chávez, holding the referendum is a big gamble. If he should lose on Sunday, the opposition will be able to claim its second straight victory. Already, the right is feeling more emboldened following its decent showing in local elections last year. As a result, victory on Sunday might lead the opposition to call for a presidential recall in 2010.

Currently polls show Chávez with a slight lead, but if the President simply ekes out a victory this could reinvigorate the opposition which had been swamped by Chávez in previous elections. Perhaps, if the President had done more to groom and promote a political successor, the Chávez forces would be in a more politically advantageous situation right now. By tirelessly campaigning for his own right to reelection, Chávez has given ammunition to the opposition and, arguably, imperiled the future of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution which has done much to bring social and economic benefits to Venezuela’s neediest.

The dilemma over the constitutional referendum underscores a larger problem. At long last, Chávez forces are running up against the structural limitations which characterize populist regimes. A charismatic leader, Chávez has established a tight bond with millions of Venezuela’s poor. Indeed, one might argue that the fervor that many feel for Chávez verges on the religious. Given this high level of adulation, finding a political successor to Chávez is a challenging task.

Possible heirs might include Julian Isaías Rodríguez, a former vice-president and Attorney General; Diosdado Cabello, a former army Lieutenant Colonel, Vice President, Minister of Interior and Justice and Governor of the provincial state of Miranda; José Vicente Rangel, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense, or Jorge Rodríguez, who worked as a director of the National Electoral Junta as well as the nation’s Vice President.

There are a number of other promising and intriguing figures associated with the Chávez regime which I profiled in my new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), including the young Andrés Izarra, who headed up Telesur, a satellite news station partially funded by Venezuela, and Nora Castañeda, who was appointed by Chávez to head the Women’s Development Bank in Caracas. Izarra and Castañeda however don’t have much of a political base and are even greater long-shots than Isaías Rodríguez, Jorge Rodríguez, Cabello or Rangel.

The fact that Chávez forces have not come up with alternative leaders is not very surprising in light of recent history. Chávez-style populism, which in certain respects resembles earlier Latin American populist variants, is characterized by an enormous focus on the individual leader and his dominant power—similar to the paternalistic hacendado on the traditional hacienda. In the populist model there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on unquestioned decision making power and seemingly “god-like” qualities that permit leaders to interpret the needs of the people and to chart the future trajectory of the state in order to satisfy those needs.

Populists whip up their own popularity and mythology by emphasizing a personal crusade. They rail against ill-defined “oligarchies,” entrenched political parties, local elites, the church or media establishment. Indeed, populists may seek to set up their own rival media in order to create a sense of public accessibility. Master orators, populists employ fiery, emotional rhetoric to establish a psychological connection with the people. They may seek to build up an image of themselves as the cultural epitome of the nation, while meanwhile channeling nationalism against various and sundry political threats. Hardly content to work within conventional political channels, they conduct militant street rallies and mass mobilization of civil society to achieve their long-term objectives.

While populist regimes in Latin America haven’t been particularly revolutionary, some have achieved a significant degree of economic redistribution. They may even succeed in empowering disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups for a time. The problem however is that populism is difficult to sustain in the long-term. Ideologically inchoate, populist movements rely on their leaders to provide vital political glue. Populism is socially heterogeneous and may succeed in bringing together a multi-class coalition, but only temporarily.

In the absence of a charismatic leader, populist movements may fall apart or languish. Will popular forces be able to advance in Venezuela if their leader falters? If Chávez does not win on Sunday or achieves only a modest victory, this question will be sorely put to the test.

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Hugo Chávez: Environmental Hypocrite or Ecological Savior?

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The Rise of Rafael Correa Ecuador and the Contradictions of Chavismo

It now looks as if Rafael Correa, a leftist candidate in Ecuador, has handily won his country’s presidential election. As of Monday morning, with about 21 percent of the ballot counted, Correa had 65 percent compared to 35 percent for Alvaro Noboa, according to Ecuador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal. If Correa wins, he will preside over Ecuador for a four year term.

It’s yet another feather in the cap for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had long cultivated the aspiring leader’s support. What’s more, it’s a stinging blow against the Bush administration which now must confront a much more unenviable political milieu in the region. Ecuador now joins other left leaning regimes such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Chile, all of which are sympathetic to Chavez.

Bush cannot dismiss the Correa victory as inconsequential: Ecuador is currently the second largest South American exporter of crude to the U.S. The small Andean country hosts the only U.S. military base in South America, where 400 troops are currently stationed. Correa opposes an extension of the U.S. lease at the air base in Manta, which serves as a staging ground for drug surveillance flights. The U.S. lease expires in 2009.

"If they want," Correa has said ironically, "we won’t close the base in 2009, but the United States would have to allow us to have an Ecuadoran base in Miami in return."

It’s no secret that Chavez and Correa had a personal rapport. During a short stint in 2005 as finance minister under the regime of Alfredo Palacio, Correa brokered a $300 million loan from Chavez. As a result of his diplomacy, Correa was forced out of the government. Allegedly, Correa pursued the loan deal behind Palacio’s back. He later visited Chavez’s home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chavez’s parents.

"It is necessary to overcome all the fallacies of neoliberalism," Correa has declared. Borrowing one of Chavez’s favorite slogans, Correa says he also supports so-called "socialism for the twenty first century."

Correa: "Whipping" Ecuador’s Politicians, and the U.S., into Shape

Unlike Chavez, Correa does not come from a military background but grew up in a middle class family; the young politician also dresses impeccably. He got his doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois and is a follower of left wing economist and Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz.

To his credit, Correa spent a year volunteering in a highland town called Zumbahua and speaks Quichua, an indigenous language. Natives from Zumbahua remember Correa as a man who walked two or three hours to remote villages in a poncho and broken shoes to give classes.

Correa pursued an amusing campaign. During rallies, he would bounce on stage to his campaign anthem, set to the tune of Twisted Sister’s "We’re Not Going to Take It." As the music blared, Correa would break out a brown leather belt, which he would flex along to the music.

For Correa, the belt became the chief slogan of his campaign: "Dale Correa." In Spanish, the phrase means "Give Them the Belt." Correa promised to use that belt to whip Ecuador’s politicians into shape.

Correa campaigned on pledges to prioritize social spending over repaying debt. He has even stated that the Andean country might want to default. He also declared that he would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil producers doing business in the country. Correa says he wants to increase funds for the poor and opposes a free trade deal with the U.S.

"We are not against the international economy," Correa has stated, "but we will not negotiate a treaty under unequal terms with the United States."

Correa, too, has nothing but contempt for George Bush.

When he was recently asked about Chavez’s "devil" diatribe against the U.S. president at the United Nations, Correa remarked amusingly, "Calling Bush the devil offends the devil. Bush is a tremendously dimwitted President who has done great damage to the world" [after he was defeated by Noboa in the first round of voting Correa toned down his rhetoric, stating that his comments about Bush were "imprudent" and that Ecuador would like to continue its strong tries to the United States]

Noboa Plays the Chavez Card

In an effort to scare voters, Alvaro Noboa, a banana magnate in Ecuador, sought to label Correa as a Chavez puppet. Noboa, in an allusion to Chavez’s military background, labeled his adversary "Colonel Correa."

Correa, the Noboa campaign charged, was being financed by Venezuela. In a bombastic tirade, Noboa even declared, "the Chavez-Correa duo has played dirty in an effort to conquer Ecuador and submit it to slavery." If he were elected, Noboa promised, he would break relations with Caracas.

Correa denied that his campaign was financed by Chavez and in a biting aside declared that his friendship with the Venezuelan leader was as legitimate as President Bush’s friendship with the bin Laden family.

"They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo," Correa explained. "The only thing left is for them to say that Bin Laden was financing me."

Chavez, perhaps fearing that any statement on his part might tilt the election in favor of Noboa, initially remained silent as regards the Ecuadoran election. But at last the effusive Chavez could no longer constrain himself and broke his silence.

The Venezuelan leader accused Noboa of baiting him in an effort to gain the "applause" of the United States. Chavez furthermore expressed doubts about the veracity of the voting result in the first presidential run off in October, in which Correa came in second. In his own inflammatory broadside, Chavez accused Noboa of being "an exploiter of child labor" on his banana plantations and a "fundamentalist of the extreme right."

In Ecuador, Chavez said, "there are also strange things going on. A gentleman who is the richest man in Ecuador; the king of bananas, who exploits his workers, who exploits children and puts them to work, who doesn’t pay them loans, suddenly appears in first place in the first [electoral] round."

The Noboa campaign, in an escalating war of words, shot back that the Venezuelan Ambassador should be expelled from Ecuador due to Chavez’s meddling.

Ecuadoran Indigenous Peoples and Chavez

Judging from the early electoral returns, Ecuadoran voters, many of whom are indigenous, disregarded Noboa’s fire and brimstone rhetoric. Indians, who account for 40% of Ecuador’s population of 13 million, are a potent political force in the country. Correa has capitalized on indigenous support. He represents Alianza País, a coalition that garnered the support of indigenous and social movements which brought down the government of Lucio Gutierrez in April 2005.

What does the Correa win mean for Chavez’s wider hemispheric ambitions?

As I explain in my book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (recently released by St. Martin’s Press), Chavez has long sought to cultivate ties to Ecuador’s indigenous peoples. Ecuadoran Indians have long feared that their traditional lands were being exploited to serve a rapacious United States intent on corporate expansion. U.S. missionaries have fueled the resentment. According to indigenous activists, the missionaries hastened the penetration of U.S. corporations. A key example, according to Huaorani Indians, was the petroleum industry which worked with the missionaries to open up traditional lands.

Chavez has done much to cultivate the support of indigenous peoples. He plays up his own indigenous roots, for example. He also expelled the Protestant New Tribes Mission from Venezuela, which he said was collaborating with the CIA.

"We don’t want the New Tribes here," Chavez declared. "Enough colonialism! 500 years is enough!"

In opposing the missionaries, Chavez has echoed the agenda of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples, who called for the expulsion of North American missionaries from their country. CONAIE, Ecuador’s indigenous federation, in fact endorses many of Chavez’s positions such as an end to U.S. militarization in the region and an end to neo liberal economic policies. CONAIE, like Rafael Correa, wants Ecuador to terminate the U.S. lease at the Manta military base. CONAIE, as well as the movement’s political wing Patchakutik, has backed Chavez. CONAIE in fact has condemned the "fascist" opposition in Venezuela and derided U.S. interventionism.

Chavez has not only cultivated political ties with hemispheric leaders but also with social movements from below. In an innovative move, Chavez has sponsored something called the Bolivarian Congress of Peoples in Caracas. CONAIE officials attended the Congress, as did Humberto Cholango, president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador. Cholango remarked at the time, "no one can stop this [Bolivarian] Revolution in Venezuela, we will keep on defeating the Creole oligarchies and the Yankeesthe time has come for South America to rise up to defeat the empireLong live the triumph of the Venezuelan people."

Cholango is an important link in the future Chavez-Correa alliance. His Kichwa Confederation has backed Correa. In a communiqué, the Confederation wrote, "We will not let Noboa, who owns 120 companies and made his fortune by exploiting children in his companies, take control of the country to deliver water, deserts, oil, mines, forests and biodiversity to big private transnational corporations."

Ecuadoran Oriente: Area of Conflict

Chavez has exchanged oil for political influence throughout the region in such countries as Nicaragua, as I explained in my earlier Counterpunch column [see "A New Kind of Oil Diplomacy: In Nicaragua, a Chavez Wave?, November 7, 2006]. In Ecuador, Chavez may opt for a similar strategy but here the Venezuelan leader has to watch out for pitfalls that could reveal serious contradictions within his movement.

With a Correa administration in place, Chavez will be in an advantageous position to advance his plans for hemispheric energy integration. Ecuador’s state oil company Petroecuador has been involved in longstanding negotiations with Venezuela to refine its crude. Ecuador is also interested in acquiring Venezuelan diesel and gasoline to cover its own internal demand. Ecuador’s growing energy ties with Venezuela have been applauded by important figures such as Luis Macas, long associated with the CONAIE.

The dilemma for Ecuador is that, while oil represents about a quarter of the country’s GDP, many disadvantaged communities have been unhappy with development. The north eastern section of Ecuador, the "Oriente," has long been the scene of serious social unrest. I know something about the social and environmental conflicts in the area, having written a couple of articles about the Huorani Indians for the Ecuadoran magazine 15 Dias and the Quito daily Hoy.

In 1992, having just completed a reporting internship at WBAI radio in New York, I headed to Quito. At that time, North American as well as Ecuadoran environmental groups were concerned about Maxus Corporation, a Texas-based energy company. The influential company had the support of the government, the press, and North American Protestant missionaries. The Huaorani had just traveled to Quito, where they had carried out a protest in front of Maxus headquarters.

The Indians demanded that Maxus halt its construction of a highway in block 16, which fell in their traditional homeland. I flew out to the Amazon and interviewed the Indians who were living in deplorable health and sanitary conditions. In my articles, I dissected Maxus’ unconvincing propaganda and warned about imminent environmental problems.

Venezuelan Involvement in the Ecuadoran Oil Industry?

I left Ecuador in late 1993, and not surprisingly the unrest continued. In 2002, the government declared a state of emergency following protests in Sucumbios and Orellana provinces. Protesters hit the streets, demanding greater investment in their communities. Indigenous peoples in the area had long felt that they had not adequately shared in the benefits of oil development. The military used teargas to break up protests which blocked oil wells.

In August 2005 the disturbances continued, with an oil strike hitting Orellana and Sucumbios. At that time, Chavez came to the aid of Ecuadoran president Alfredo Palacios by agreeing to send Venezuelan crude to the Andean nation. At the time, Chavez expressed sympathy with Ecuador "because we [Venezuela] have already passed through this type of thing with the oil sabotage [the oil lock out in 2002-3 encouraged by the Venezuelan opposition]."

Early this year, Petroecuador was forced to suspend exports when protesters, unhappy about longstanding environmental damage, demanded the departure of U.S. oil company Oxy and took over a pumping station vital to the functioning of a pipeline. Protesters, led by local politicians from the Amazon province of Napo, demanded that the government pay them funds for infrastructure projects in local communities.

In March, the government put three provinces under military control when workers initiated a strike for unpaid wages and improved working conditions. At one point, the government declared a state of emergency in Napo, when protesters demanded that the oil companies invest more of their profits in the area.

Guadalupe Llori, the prefect of Orellana, remarked "If we are treated like animals we are going to react like animals. We could join the workers and demand the government respect our rights." Petroecuador technicians and troops finally took control of oil facilities and cleared strikers from vital sites.

In May, Petroecuador took over oil wells belonging to Oxy’s block 15 oil concession; the Ecuadoran state wants the Venezuelan state company PdVSA to refine 75% of the 100,000 barrels per day within the old concession. According to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, Ecuador is considering Venezuela as a possible partner in the fields formerly operated by Oxy.

Chavismo and Its Hemispheric Contradictions

If PdVSA had a presence in block 15, this would lead to a potential problem for Chavez. Having proclaimed its support for social and environmental justice, as well as indigenous rights, Venezuela would now be operating in an area long marked by social unrest and discrimination of indigenous peoples.

In the short term, Chavez may take some pride in the fact that Bush received another black eye in South America; what’s more Venezuela can now count on Correa’s support as well as the indigenous movement. But in the long term, Chavez could run the risk of alienating many of his supporters if Venezuela is perceived to be an accomplice in misguided development schemes.

In the coming years, will Chavez maintain his political support amongst disadvantaged peoples throughout the hemisphere, or will his popularity be tarnished by oil diplomacy? Up to now, Chavez has certainly used oil as an effective geopolitical instrument, but it may prove his Achilles Heel if he is not careful.

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Hugo Chávez’s Achilles Heel: The Environment

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