Saturday 25 October 2014

The bird who delivered a basket case

Is a Hugo Chavez-style 'new and radical society' on the way here?

Published 31/08/2014 | 02:30

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, after a 14 year rule.

Next month, a memorial to Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President and despot who died last year, will be unveiled in Minsk in Hugo Chavez Park, no doubt by Belarus's dictator President Lukashenko, who keeps his country in miserable poverty. Along with the hereditary dictator President Raul Castro of Cuba and the lunatic Islamist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -then President of Iran - Lukashenko led the mourners in March last year when Chavez breathed his last.

I wondered at the time why our own President Higgins wasn't present, bearing in mind his affection for Latin American revolutionaries and his fulsome tribute on hearing of Chavez's death. He was "very sorry", he said. Chavez had "achieved a great deal during his term in office," he said, "particularly in the area of social development and poverty reduction," and his "thoughts and best wishes" were with the Venezuelans "as they come to terms with this sad news".

Perhaps the Taoiseach told him that now he was President he couldn't keep such dodgy company. After all, Venezuela was a basket case, with a fragile economy, rampant corruption, little press freedom, a cowed opposition, a timid legal system and one of the highest murder rates in the world.

None of that worried Gerry Adams, either. "He dedicated himself to building a new and radical society in Venezuela," he said. "His progressive social and economic changes took millions out of poverty. He extended free health care and education for all citizens and his re-election last year with a huge majority was testimony to his vision." It was also testimony to his ruthlessness in bribing voters whatever the consequences for the country.

And where is Venezuela now? Well, the cult of Chavez is still much in evidence, with vast images of him dangling from office blocks. Indeed, his successor, Nicolas Maduro, claims the lost leader occasionally visits him in the guise of a little bird.

It should be bringing food parcels, for Venezuelans are in bad trouble. The economy is shrinking, incomes can't keep up with 60pc inflation and the poverty rate has shot up. Chavez was obsessed with state planning, and a combination of an overvalued currency, price controls and subsidised products in state-owned stores have created huge opportunities for fraudsters. It's estimated that 40pc of subsidised food and around 100,000 barrels a day of oil are smuggled into Columbia and there are massive shortages of food, medical supplies and such basic goods as toilet paper and coffins.

Maduro's latest plan is to introduce a compulsory "biometric card" to control individuals' food purchases by using a finger scanner, but no one knows if or when this will happen.

Oh, yes, and China, which has bought up much of Africa, has now loaned Venezuela $1.3bn (€1bn), and Maduro seems unbothered by Chinese companies' record of wreaking environmental havoc on the countries which have allowed it to exploit natural resources.

I bring all this up because Sinn Fein hope to be in government north and south in 1916, and I sometimes fear our irresponsibility and sentimentality might allow that to happen. As David Quinn once brilliantly wrote, Ireland behaves like "a giant left-wing NGO . . . Basically, once you are deemed a revolutionary, a socialist, a champion of the people, we will forgive you anything." To my knowledge, no interviewer asked President Higgins or Gerry Adams why they were mourning an economically illiterate despot.

The British government is determined to simplify and save on the bloated welfare system, get people off benefits and back to work and channel money toward those who need it most. Sinn Fein won't co-operate because of the electoral consequences in the south if it implements welfare cuts in the North, while the SDLP is following suit for electoral reasons at home.

The North already gets more money from the British treasury than any other part of the United Kingdom, but nationalists appear to be under the impression that if they refuse to implement these reforms, Westminster will say, "Oh, fair enough, lads. Here's some more."

The Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, is getting cross. "The outcome of welfare reform being blocked by the nationalist parties is that Northern Ireland is going to be spending money on a more expensive welfare system, leaving less to spend on other very important priorities like the NHS and the police . . . Northern Ireland can run its own welfare system if it wants to, but it needs to find the money itself to fund it."

Sinn Fein's refusal to face reality and govern in the interests of all may bring down Stormont.

In government in the south it might wreck the country. It would be little consolation that - like Chavez - they meant well.

Sunday Independent

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