There is a long and detailed report in the London Times today about the scale of gangland and police violence in Brazil’s Sao Paulo. If ever there was an account ramming home the distance between the image of Brazil as a fun-loving, sun-soaked nation and a country of enormous social and economic problems, this surely is it.
Brazil is one of those country’s that I would love to visit some day (I am a bit of a nut about Brazilian music). But stuff like this does not exactly get me rushing to get on the aircraft.
Interesting article here on what might be in store for Cuba as and when Fidel Castro finally dies. My hope, probably naive, is that that country finally gets a break and enjoys the fruits of free enterprise. One thing that makes me annoyed is whenever I hear of affluent Western travellers go on about how they dream of going to Cuba before it “gets spoiled by U.S.-led development”. Yes, I am sure all those crumbling houses in Hanava, all those ancient 1950s cars and cute old guys with no teeth look so, you know, authentic in contrast to the frightfully ghastly prosperity of Miami or for that matter, Hong Kong.
Like a good friend of mine, I am only going to Cuba when or if it becomes a shameless hotbet of capitalist vigour and not one minute before.
What the hell is one supposed to make of this?
The point at which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez decided that London should serve as a model for services and governance in Caracas was not immediately apparent. He came in May, visited City Hall amid much controversy and fanfare, and was soon gone.
But the result of his visit is likely to be an extraordinary deal struck with London Mayor Ken Livingstone that would see Caracas benefit from the capital’s expertise in policing, tourism, transport, housing and waste disposal.
London, meanwhile, would gain the most obvious asset the Venezuelans have to give: cheap oil. Possibly more than a million barrels of the stuff.
South American diesel would be supplied by Venezuela – the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter – as fuel for some of the capital’s 8,000 buses, particularly those services most utilized by the poor.
This is gesture politics at its most contemptible. It is particularly bad given that the poor of London are, by any meaningful yardstick, considerably better off than their counterparts in the South American nation. The idea that Venezuela, a nation led by a thug who’s democratic credentials could be best described as flaky, is some sort of benefactor to the oppressed masses of London, is an utter joke. It is also particularly ironic that as part of this “deal”, London will “help” Venezuela’s tourist industry. No doubt Venezuelans cannot wait to discover the joys of the British welcoming service ethic.
We tend to dismiss the antics of Ken Livingstone as political theatre. If he wants to stand on platforms with Irish Republican murderers, we giggle. If he provides platforms for gay-hating Islamic preachers, we are all supposed to roll our eyes in amusement. Good ol’ Ken, what a laugh.
Incidentally, I wonder what the British government thinks about this?
By ‘our side’ I mean the people fighting the Marxist FARC in Colombia – particularly President Uribe. I not expect mainstream politicians to be libertarians (although it would be nice), but I do expect them to have some common sense.
President Uribe is highly intelligent man who has had considerable success in fighting the communists in Colombia. However, his latest idea (as reported in this week’s Economist print edition) shows a lack of common sense (a state of affairs all too common in politicians – including highly intelligent ones).
President Uribe wishes to cut the top rate of income tax – good for him. However, the President wishes to ‘balance’ this by extending sales tax to cover various basic foods. Have no fear, the poor would be able to claim back the money they pay in tax.
So a new tax will be introduced (a tax on food), and this will be ‘balanced’ by a new welfare benefit (for make no mistake, this is what this payment will be). A complicated bureaucratic mess. Sadly it is often the most intelligent of politicians who think up ideas like this.
If someone wants to cut the top rate of income tax (from 38% to 32% or whatever) then they should do so. But if they fear a ‘loss of revenue’ (and cutting the top rate of income tax always ‘costs’ less in revenue than many people predict) they should cut government spending (which they should do anyway).
They should not introduce a new tax, certainly not a tax that will be presented (by the communists, but not just by them) as a tax on the basic needs of the poor – trapping the poor into going ‘cap in hand’ for a new benefit (if they can deal with all the paper work).
There is still no official word that statist Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has passed away, so any obituaries will have to remain on ice. It is not our habit at Samizdata.net to concede a thing to dictators, but one has to credit Castro for his tenacity in clinging on to power, especially after the collapse of his Soviet patron in 1991.
One must never forget though that the Cuban people have had to pay the price for Castro’s tenacity.
What to do about Castro has been a policy question that has vexed every US President since John F. Kennedy. Until the end of the Cold War, the US certainly could not ignore a violently pro-Soviet state on its doorstep, but after 1991, a policy of benign neglect might have worked to undo Castro. However, one of the features of US policy has been its vulnerability to poltics, in this case, the political wishes of the large Cuban exile population in the politically sensitive state of Florida. (For example, President Clinton felt he had to sign the Helms-Burton Act which regulates the US embargo against Cuba, in an attempt to secure the state for the 1996 Presidential elections.)
Peggy Noonan has more on the political impact of Castro on America. I like her policy prescription as well.
As in: Allow Americans to go to Cuba. Allow U.S. private money into Cuba. Let hotels, homes, restaurants, stores be developed, bought, opened, reopened. Use Fidel’s death to reintroduce Cubans on the ground to Americans, American ways, American money and American freedom. Remind them of what they wanted, what they thought they were getting when the bearded one came down from the Sierra Maestre. Use his death/illness/collapse/disappearing act as an excuse to turn the past 40 years of policy on its head. Declare him over. Create new ties. Ignore the dictator, make partnerships with the people.
Yes give more money to Radio Marti and all Western government efforts to communicate with the people of Cuba. But also allow American media companies in. Make a jumble, shake it up, allow the conditions that can help create economic vibrancy and let that reinspire democratic thinking. The Cuban government, hit on all fronts by dynamism for the first time in half a century, will not be able to control it all.
That is how to undo Fidel, and Fidelism. That’s how to give him, on the chance he’s alive, a last and lingering headache. That’s how to puncture his mystique. Let his people profit as he dies.
If he is actually ill, why not arrange it so that the last sounds he hears on earth are a great racket from the streets? What, he will ask the nurse, is that? “Oh,” she can explain, “they are rebuilding Havana. It’s the Hilton Corp. Except for the drills. That’s Steve Wynn. The jackhammer is Ave Maria University, building an extension campus.”
Imagine him hearing this. It would, finally, be the exploding cigar. That’s the way to make his beard fall off.
Now that would be poetic justice.
The President of Chile has “given in” to student and school pupil ‘strikes’ and protests. Of course the story is really a little more complicated than that as Madam President (Michelle Bachelet) was really as the same side as the people making noise waving placards on the streets. Otherwise the “strikes” would not have been much of a threat. It would have been a matter of “oh you do not want all this taxpayers money spent on you – fine, we will close the establishments you are not bothering to go to”.
The moderate left has been in power since 1990 and have increased education (however this spending is calculated), but that is not enough for the protesters. They complain that state schools are not as good as private schools and this has an effect on their chances of getting into a good college and getting a good job.
So what do they want done?
Do they want self management of the schools? This method does not really work in making state financed institutions act as if they were not state financed (cats do not bark) – but it is a standard suggestion (going back to the “market socialists” in Austria in the 1920’s), and it might have positive impact at the margin.
Errrr no. State schools in Chile already have some self management – the protesters wanted national government control (and President Bachelet has agreed).
Perhaps the protesters wanted to introduce examinations into state schools (some people argue that selective state schools are a way of helping upward social mobility).
Again no. The protesters want all entry examinations for state schools banned – how that is supposed to help make state schools as good as private schools is something that is not explained.
The real story is that after sixteen years of rule by the moderate left less moderate leftist forces are taking over. And President Bachelet is tilting a bit that way. My guess is that most of these school pupils and college students are most likely nice people. Not only nice as individuals, but capable of voluntary interaction in civil society. If there were less taxes and more voluntary (whether religious or secular) schools they might do better.
However, politics ruins everything. No doubt even in most of the private schools and colleges people are taught that representative government is what people should look to – not each other. As long as government is democrat it can be “a force for good” (unlike the old military dictator – no doubt the young are not taught anything good about him).
But democracy does not alter the laws of political economy. Government may (or may not) be a lesser evil – a way of countering other force (whether by bandits or by invaders), but it can not be a force for good – giving people nice things better than they could provide for themselves and for each other. This belief in government (as long as it is democrat government) as a provider of nice things is the central myth of our age. To win an election (we are told) one must pander to this belief. If this is true and remains true, civilization will fall. Hopefully, it will change.
How else? You might ask. But this abstract in McKinsey Quarterly caught my attention with its astounding wrong-headedness:
How Brazil can Grow –
The most important obstacle is Brazil’s huge informal economy which, distorts competition by putting efficient, law-abiding companies at a disadvantage. Macroeconomic instabilityreflected in the high cost of capitalis the second-most-important hurdle, followed by regulations (such as rigid labor laws) that limit productivity.
Could it possibly be that it’s the top-heavy regulatory state and shocking tax rates on officially recognised activities that are keep the poor poor, small companies small, and the poltically unconnected outside the system hoping not to be noticed? It couldn’t be state favouritism and that same capricious regulatory apparatus that keep the risks high and capital proportionately expensive? It would also be interesting to know in what sense ‘efficient’ and ‘law-abiding’ go hand in hand in such circumstances. It is implied that unlawful, invisible, enterprises are inefficient ones (in whatever sense that is). How do they know?
The UK’s Channel 4 news channel tends, in my experience, to cover the news with a fairly obvious leftist slant, so it was quite a surprise this evening to watch the programme’s longish report about what is going on in Venezuela, focussing on the activities of President Chavez and his increasingly dictatorial leanings.
I have a very rough-and-ready theory, which holds that countries blessed with vast natural resources are, in some senses, cursed. Venezuela is one of the world’s top oil producers and at a time when crude is trading at the present high levels, it means that a demagogue like Chavez can buy favours with selected groups for quite a while. A country not so blessed — such as Hong Kong say — has to live on its free market wits. In some cases an oil-rich place — such as Dubai, which I mentioned a while ago — is led by folk with the wit to develop its economy with a mind on what will happen when the black gold runs out.
This blog does not seem to like Chavez very much. As and when his government falls, it will not be a pleasant process.
Interesting how these things get around. The word of these amazing photos of Mexico City got to me from him, who got it from him, who got it from him, who apparently found them here, which is where, for me, the trail went cold.
The picture Patrick Crozier chose to reproduce is particularly extraordinary. Talk about ‘fake but real’. Something to do with how the guy photoshops the pictures to make things clearer, I am guessing. I often do the same with shots I take from airplanes.
Architecturally, I think this is particularly bizarre. There are times, may the God Who Does Not Exist forgive me, when I yearn for a violent revolution in sleepy little Britain, just so that the planning permission (i.e. non-permission for almost anything remotely interesting except when the government wants it) system collapses, and people could build, in Britain’s still overwhelmingly green and pleasant land, whatever crazy thing they liked. Just as a for instance, why are there not more castles built nowadays, with cylindrical and pointy towers?
Mind you, extraordinary things are still being built in Britain, by the sort of people who are still allowed to do such things.
Despite the urging of much of Brazil’s ruling classes to support the measure, the world’s first national referendum which put the proposition to ban the sale of firearms was smashed decisively by a 2:1 margin.
The people who are baffled why so many common people in a murder wracked country like Brazil would oppose such a measure need to realise that it is precisely because the country has such problems with violent crime that people need the means to protect themselves.
As I have said on other occasions – the right to keep and bear arms: it’s not just for American anymore.
Maybe more Brazillians in London should be armed as well…
A new film is to be made about Che Guevara, the man whose image adorns the T-shirts of many a young student “radical” or someone trying to appear hip (even if they haven’t much clue about his real life). This story, drawn from a report at the Venice Film Festival, suggests that the man will be portrayed warts an’ all, making use of declassified CIA files. Good. It is something of a pet issue here at Samizdata that while the monsters of Fascism are rightly excoriated in film and print and unthinkable of a youngster to wear a picture of Adolf Hitler on his shirt, it is considered okay to do the same with the portrait of a mass murderer like Lenin or Chairman Mao. Of course in some cases the results of this mindset are unintentionally amusing.
Maybe the message is getting through. Totalitarian socialists are not hip, and not clever.
I love this headline:
Castro Lauds Cuban Municipal Elections
I bet he does.
Under Cuba’s one-party system, city and provincial leaders, as well as representatives of the National Assembly, are elected by citizens on a local level. Anyone can be nominated to these posts, including non-members of the island’s ruling communist party – the only one recognized in Cuba’s constitution.
So, in theory, anyone can stand for election, and if they win they can then take part in choosing anyone as President.
Well, not quite.
Cuba consistently defends its system as democratic, but critics of Castro’s government argue that tight state control, a heavy police presence and neighborhood-watch groups that report on their neighbors prevent any real political freedom on the island.
It is easy to sneer, and I hereby sneer, at elections like this. But what also strikes me is that fraudulent though this system obviously is at the moment, it might eventually mutate into something genuine. To put it another way, window dressing can end up taking over the shop.
What if Castro dies – Castro will, I predict, eventually die – and there is no longer any widespread agreement about who it is proper to vote for, and who those voted for should themselves vote for when they choose Castro’s successor?
At least Castro now feels sufficiently pressured by the challenge of true democracy to feel the need to arrange his own fraudulent version of it. And the experience of participating in this charade is quite likely to make at least some of those taking part in it wonder how it might feel to vote in a real election.