BY SHASHI MALLA
US Government Shutdown
After political pressure from within and outside the government, US President Donald Trump was forced to accept a deal for a temporary end to the painful government shutdown. The closure of administrative activity had affected nearly a third of US government countrywide and lasted the longest in US history. After 35 excruciating days, Trump agreed to an agreement to fund the affected federal agencies for three weeks, but it does not include funding for his controversial US-Mexico wall. He had previously rejected any proposal unless it included US Dollar 5.7 billion to finance his signature campaign pledge. However, the Democrats who now have a majority in the House of Representatives — since the mid-term elections of November 2018 – were adamant in refusing.
Last Friday, the Senate and House unanimously passed the bill to temporarily end the shutdown, after which Trump immediately signed the bill into law. Following the votes in Congress, Trump tweeted that his decision had been “in no way a concession”, but was “taking care of millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the shutdown”. However, for all intents and purposes, he remained uncompromising: “We really have no choice but to build a powerful wall or steel barrier.” Moreover, he warned quite brazenly: “If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress the government will either shutdown on February 15 again” and painted the spectre: “Or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and constitution of the United States to address this emergency.”
In Trump’s threat of possibly resorting to “a very powerful alternative”, he was referring to declaring ‘a state of national emergency’ [although such a state exists only in his own mind and is fully bogus]. This could divert military funding [already earmarked for other projects] towards building the “Trump Wall” on the southern border to Mexico. However, such a proclamation would definitely invite legal challenges and provoke a constitutional crisis.
According to the BBC, there are four reasons why Trump gave in to the mounting pressure to end the impasse:
First, the travel industry was increasingly getting stressed. Staff shortages at airports, as a result of air traffic controllers and screening officers not reporting for duty, was making travel difficult and time-consuming. Moreover, travel business in general was taking a hit.
Second, Washington was reeling. The financial burden on federal employees was mounting and was becoming unbearable. They had already missed one pay cheque and were now on the verge of forfeiting a second – this was just economically unimaginable. Trump and his administration were widely criticized for being unsympathetic to the plight of the federal workers and this was having a negative effect on the president’s approval ratings.
Third, the shutdown was hampering the proper functioning of the economy as a whole. The Federal Reserve and business enterprises could not make proper economic/financial decisions because of the lack of relevant data. The Brookings Institution wrote: “The US economy is flying blind”. Economists were warning that a prolonged stand-off could send the US into recession.
Fourth, there were indications that the situation was spiraling out of control. More and more sectors were starting to feel the impact, not only the economy. It was going from bad to worse and could no longer be ignored.
American pundits – media and otherwise – are generally of the opinion that this time around, Trump has definitely lost the ‘encounter’ with House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who stood resolute in the long-lasting battle of wills. She also had the guts to disinvite him from holding the annual pivotal State of the Union speech in the House for the duration of the shutdown. Opinion polls showed that most Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown. This could have long-term effects, including in the 2020 presidential election. Remarkably, Trump also opted for a solution that had been favored by Pelosi right from the start. It was, therefore, a resounding victory for the Democratic leader of the House – and now unchallenged, also the de facto Democratic leader of the country. Even a conservative commentator said that Trump had been out-maneuvered by the “alpha” House speaker.
However, Trump may have retreated for now, but the fight is far from over, and the shutdown could turn out to be the most remarkable event of Trump’s presidency.
Venezuela Crisis & the Nepali Communists’ Take
The economic and political crisis in this South American country became even more convoluted last week after the dramatic events of 23rd January. On that day, the leader of the National Assembly (parliament), Juan Guaido declared himself ‘Acting President’ and said he would assume the powers of the executive branch henceforth. The move, of course, directly challenged the incumbent President Nicolas Maduro, who had been sworn in to a second six-year term only two weeks previously. He attacked the move as a stratagem by the United States to remove him from office. He said he had no intention of abandoning his constitutional role.
There must have been some sort of coordination, because minutes later President Trump officially recognized Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela. He tweeted: “The citizens of Venezuela have suffered for too long at the hands of the illegitimate Maduro regime.” Maduro himself reacted swiftly by breaking off official relations with the US and giving US diplomats 72 hours to leave the country. Within Venezuela, government opponents welcomed Guaido’s risky move, while officials pledged to defend Maduro from “imperialist threats”.
Guaido has called on all those opposing Maduro and his government to continue protesting “until Venezuela is liberated”. However, he does not possess real power. He has the verbal support of the US and many Latin American countries and some international bodies, but it is hard to see where this will lead.
The National Assembly has also been rendered largely powerless by the Maduro regime with the creation of the National Constituent Assembly in 2017 and packed with government loyalists. Maduro just ignores the National Assembly. The security forces play the key role in propping up the unpopular regime. They have been rewarded with frequent pay rises and the top brass occupy important posts in the government and state industries. Until and unless the military officers – especially the lower ranking – rebel, Maduro will probably not be ousted.
Maduro did inherit much of the economic malaise from his predecessor President Hugo Chavez. His socialist policies which attempted to reduce the huge inequalities in the country did not work at all. This was the case with making basic goods more affordable and introducing foreign currency controls. But Maduro has made it worse. Socialism did not work, because as Margaret Thatcher famously explained, “eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
Democratic socialism teamed with autocracy made Venezuela descend into economic and political chaos: “The transformation Venezuela has undergone is so radical, so complete, and so total that it is hard to believe it took place without a war” (Foreign Affairs). Any sensible observer would agree that “ Latin America’s one-richest country, sitting atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is an economic basket case, a humanitarian disaster, and a dictatorship whose demise cannot come soon enough” (NYT )
Today, the economic crisis in Venezuela is indeed dire. It has been reduced to the status of an impoverished under-developed country ruled by a tinpot dictator only interested in remaining in power, but doing nothing to ameliorate the misery of the people. The country suffers hyperinflation at the unbelievable rate of 1.3 million percent per annum! This translates into a doubling of prices every 19 days on average. The people cannot even afford to buy basic food items and essential medicine! Unfortunately, the government has not yet revealed any ‘magic formula’ to revive the battered economy.
In desperation, three million Venezuelans [and counting] have left the country – to neighboring South American countries (Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina), but also to Spain and the US.
In this terrible situation, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has thought fit – without acquiring firsthand knowledge of ground realities — to condemn US intervention in Venezuela’s internal affairs. The co-chairman of the NCP, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka “Prachanda”) released a statement claiming that the US and its allies intended to “increase violence by dividing the people and challenging democracy, sovereignty and peace” and was attempting an “imperialist coup” – all in the name of socialist/communist solidarity. And this occurred just during the time that the other co-chair, K.P.S. Oli was spending prime time at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters [rooms @ US Dollar 10,000 per night, according to CNN !], Switzerland to promote business and attract investment from the capitalists-globalists! Our modern-day comrades are also not aware that the concept of ‘world order’ not only embraces the external behavior of states but their internal actions as well [vide Richard Haass: A World in Disarray, 2017].
It is difficult to adjudge how far Trump and his administration is willing to go. Currently, we have the spectacle of a president who promised to shun foreign entanglements and put ‘America First’ toying with the idea of actual involvement in a foreign country – ‘all options are on the table’. And in this case, he does have bipartisan support. The next weeks will be decisive in swinging the balance of power. According to The Washington Post, the Venezuela imbroglio could provide Trump “with both a potential foreign policy victory and a desperately needed political win at home.”
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]