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What the Oil Spill in Venezuela Tells Us About Its Politics – The New York Times

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AMHERST, Mass. — It has been a tough summer for Venezuela. The already ailing country, in the throes of a severe lockdown, is also experiencing a major environmental disaster. In July, a state-owned refinery began to spill oil into the Morrocoy National Park, one of the country’s most biodiverse areas. Venezuela also experienced a new political crisis. The government essentially voided several opposition parties by taking control of their executive boards.

These catastrophes are two sides of the same coin. Rising authoritarianism in Venezuela has led to oil mismanagement, which in turn has led to environmental degradation. And oil mismanagement is now turning the regime even more autocratic, which in turn is leading to opposition debasement.

Pundits often debate whether rising oil fortunes contribute to the rise of authoritarianism. Large oil windfalls, the argument goes, allow states to offer consumption booms to the public in lieu of political rights and to fund repressive forces. But the Venezuelan case seems to be showing that declining oil fortunes can be both a cause and a consequence of hardening authoritarianism.

Venezuela used to be one of the most competitive oil producers in the world. But its oil industry has been run into the ground over the last two decades, first under President Hugo Chávez and now under his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Measured in terms of proven reserves, Venezuela may have more oil than Saudi Arabia. But in terms of output, Venezuela’s oil industry has collapsed. The country’s production of oil is at a 77-year low.

The lesson is clear. Political accountability, human rights and environmental sustainability constitute a modern-day trifecta. Lose the former, and the rest disappears as well.

Mr. Chávez eroded the checks and balances inside and outside the state oil company and turned it into his own A.T.M. Party loyalists replaced oil engineers. Investment protocols were discontinued. Safety standards were ignored. All that mattered was for the oil company to channel dollars to fund the ruling party’s elections.

Not surprisingly, production declined between 2003 and 2014. Oddly, the decline took place at a time when the price of oil price was booming. No freely trading oil nation experienced this strange outcome. While many blame U.S. sanctions under President Trump, the evidence that the collapse was homemade and pre-Trump is overwhelming.

Venezuela’s oil collapse has taken a huge environmental toll. Corruption, underinvestments and weak controls led to the state-owned oil company’s economic collapse. They are also responsible for an increase in company accidents and oil spills. According to a report, the country experienced 46,820 toxic spills from 2010 to 2018, totaling 856,000 barrels of spilled oil. From July to August of this year, an estimated 26,000 barrels of oil may have affected more than 210 miles of shoreline. The July spill is the second major spill in a year. And a few days ago, reports surfaced that a huge oil tanker stationed in Venezuelan waters, the FSO Nabarima, was on the verge of sinking because of a lack of proper maintenance. If it sinks, the resulting oil spill could be five times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.

The collapse of oil prices from mid-2014 to early 2016 also deepened Venezuela’s economic crisis, overwhelming the administration of Mr. Maduro. Because production was already so low in 2015, Venezuela’s economy sank more than those of other petrostates. The country’s economy has continued to contract every year since then, leading to a humanitarian and refugee crisis comparable to that experienced by war-torn Syria.

This oil crisis is also producing a hardening of authoritarianism. Under normal circumstances, an economic crisis such as Venezuela’s would have produced one of two political outcomes: a change in policy or a change in government. In Venezuela, it is producing more repression.

For ruling parties, policy changes make sense when the ruling party is interested in staying electorally competitive. But since the mid-2000s, Venezuela’s ruling party has given up on fair elections. It is only interested in staying in office.

So instead of policy corrections, Mr. Maduro has relied on unregulated gold mining (whose toll on the environment and human security is also dismal), crackdowns on citizens’ protests and electoral tricks to disarm the opposition. This culminated in this summer’s nationalization of the opposition parties.

The Constitution of Venezuela mandates that Mr. Maduro schedule a legislative election this year. The government knows it cannot win such an election competing freely, so it has opted to change the electoral rules. The government has expanded the number of seats in the National Assembly from 167 to 277 with the aim of diluting the power of the strongest opposition parties now in control. It has also refused to make electoral authorities impartial and replaced the leadership of opposition parties with people willing to go along with the government. Mr. Maduro has pardoned more than 100 political prisoners, which is a nice concession, but has kept the electoral irregularities in place. These irregularities have split the opposition into two camps, with one sector hoping to compete electorally and another calling for abstention.

The United States is claiming, rightly, that the election is rigged. It may even be encouraging the opposition to abstain rather than unite electorally. The problem is that abstention is exactly what the Venezuelan government wants. The United States may be unintentionally helping the government weaken the once electorally mighty opposition.

The United States has also played a role in the oil spill. While the spill is the result of industry decay in Venezuela, its continuation is connected to the U.S. oil embargo. Venezuela is now precluded from using refineries in the United States to process its oil into gasoline. This is one reason the government has not shut down the damaged refinery: It is the only one in the country that produces gasoline. So the leak has continued, with oil now entering rivers and lakes.

It’s easy to blame factors such as poor vision by the opposition and inconsistent responses by the United States for Venezuela’s turn to incompetent and mean authoritarianism. Those factors are present, but they are not the main drivers. Venezuela’s descent into authoritarianism has the same source as July’s oil spill: Venezuela is a petrostate that has lost interest in accountability.

Javier Corrales, (@jcorrales2011) a professor of political science at Amherst College, is the author, most recently, of “Fixing Democracy: Why Constitutional Change Often Fails to Enhance Democracy in Latin America.”

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

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Curley: Conservative millennials wary about talking politics – Boston Herald

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Since I started working in the political world, I’ve been asked one question over and over, “What do your friends think about your political leanings?”

The truth is that for the most part I don’t usually discuss politics with my close friends. We talk about “Real Housewives of New York” and wedding planning and celebrity breakups and work stress and podcast recommendations and eyebrow pencils and diets and desserts.

Maintaining my few close friendships trumps (no pun intended) my temptation to talk about Biden’s mental decline or #FillingTheSeat.

But I do understand why the question comes up time and again. Like most movie stars, professional athletes and famous musicians — millennials do tend to lean left. Need proof? Check out social media.

Instagram has changed drastically over the last few years. Formerly used as an app to post pictures of puppies and iced coffee, the “gram” is now heavily focused on politics.

Some people’s posts are more subtle than others. While one of my followers implores people to vote “like their life depends on it,” another just cuts to the chase and posts,  “A vote for Trump is a vote for racism.”

Needless to say, when I come across someone who dares share an opinion that is pro-Trump on a public platform, I remember it.

So I decided to reach out to a few of these rare vocally conservative Millennials.

The first person I talked to was … let’s call her “Yvonne.”

Yvonne is a 27-year-old woman from Boston who posts on Twitter about everything from Joe Biden’s teleprompter disasters to the dangers of socialism.

Maybe she could shed some light on the lack of conservative voices on social media, I thought, so I typed in her username on Twitter to message her — but nothing came up. I found her on Instagram and reached out that way.

“Did you delete your Twitter account??” I asked.

She replied, “Yeah. I’m scared to get into trouble or that people will hate me.”

Great.

This column was supposed to be about fearless young republicans — and my first example had retreated.

But I was still intrigued.

What did she mean by “getting into trouble”? Was she scared about work?

She immediately responded, “Work, losing friends, guys thinking I’m crazy, etc.”

Yvonne informed me that she would most likely reactivate her account, but that she was taking a break. Her hiatus was brief — she is back (and better than ever) on Twitter.

Next, I reached out to a college acquaintance who occasionally posts his dislike for far-left Democratic policies. We will call him “Danny,” and he currently lives in San Francisco where he works in finance.

He did not mince words, writing, “I will be the first to tell you — Donald Trump certainly has his flaws. By no means am I a staunch ’Trump guy’. But as a conservative, I can’t stand the thought of the Democrats running this country — especially after living through what they have done to a beautiful city like San Francisco.”

Later, I asked the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s constituent if he ever feared any repercussions for sharing his views.

“Yes definitely; I’ve toned it down a little bit for that reason. I think ultimately corporate culture will get so toxic that overly ‘progressive’ companies will experience a brain drain.”

So their answers were similar — two conservative people, confident in their viewpoints, but cautious of the “tolerant” powers that be.

The expression goes that the loudest voice in the room isn’t always the right one. Well, I can assure you that the loudest voices on social media are most certainly the left ones. But that doesn’t mean the opposing voices aren’t speaking up — they just have to be a bit more careful than their friends.

Yvonne told me she received several private replies to her latest post of a Trumptilla boat parade. They were all positive.

Danny acknowledged, “The more I post, the more I have both subtle and overt ‘thumbs-up’ from people whom I’ve never discussed politics with.”

Maybe there is a silent majority — and maybe there are even a few silent Millennials.

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Who is Andrew Wilkinson? 'An unusual person to be in politics' says former BC Liberal colleague – CTV News Vancouver

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VANCOUVER —
Former cabinet colleague Bill Bennett warns anyone verbally sparring with B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson to be prepared.

“It’s easy to fall into a trap when you’re arguing with Andrew,” Bennett said in an interview. “Without knowing it you end up in a dead-end canyon, wondering how the heck you’re going to get out of it. He’s a very logical person and he won’t say anything more than he has to say.”

The B.C. election is Wilkinson’s first as party leader, and part of his challenge is that his predecessor was Christy Clark, whose magnetic personality was a draw, Bennett said.

“He’s an unusual person to be in politics and he’s probably an unusual person to be running for premier of the province,” said Bennett, who co-chaired Wilkinson’s leadership campaign after Clark resigned in 2017 following the Liberals’ defeat after 16 years in power.

But Bennett said there’s substance to Wilkinson, 63, who attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and worked as a doctor in three small B.C. communities for about three years in the 1980s before becoming a lawyer.

“He’s not charismatic. He’s not Christy, he’s not Ralph Klein,” Bennett said, referring to a former premier of Alberta.

“He’s not colourful, but he’s very smart. And he’s got a good heart. He cares about people, I can tell you that.”

Bennett, who represented the riding of Kootenay East for 16 years and left politics in 2017, said Wilkinson got into politics “for the right reasons,” not for a “popularity contest.”

Where flair sometimes fails him, fairness and a solid argument are among Wilkinson’s best qualities, Bennett said, adding the avid birder who grew up hunting with his father has learned to “measure his words.”

That’s after some of Wilkinson’s words have fallen flat.

In one instance this year he apologized for his choice of words after characterizing an NDP throne speech proposal to give five paid work days to people leaving domestic violence as pay for people in a “tough marriage” during a radio interview.

In a tweet shortly afterwards, Wilkinson said he used the “wrong choice of words and I got it wrong. Victims of domestic violence need their voices heard and our unwavering support, and I want everyone to know they have that with me.”

Wilkinson, who represents the riding of Vancouver-Quilchena on the city’s west side, was criticized by the housing minister as being “out of touch” for saying in a budget speech last year that being a renter can be “a wacky time of life, but it can be really enjoyable.”

He later clarified his remarks, saying on Twitter that as a renter for 15 years and working a low-paying job he knows what “it feels like to worry about making ends meet each month. I know what it feels like to dream of a better situation, more choice and freedom in life.”

He said in an interview that his main interest in becoming leader was to improve the lives of people through policies that spur the economy, including the creation of more daycare spaces and services for those who are addicted to illicit substances in a province where over 5,800 people have fatally overdosed since a public health emergency was declared in 2016.

“We’ve said for two years now that we need to have a pathway to get people off drugs,” Wilkinson said. “As someone who trained in medicine, I have some ideas about that and I’ll be rolling them out in the next week or so.”

Wilkinson, who was born in Brisbane, Australia, said he had “very humble beginnings” in Kamloops, B.C., where his family immigrated in 1962 after his father accepted a job with the federal Agriculture Department as a scientist working on cattle parasites.

“I grew up delivering newspapers as a kid and pumping gas in high school. And I paid my entire way through university with my own funds so I’ve worked hard to get where I did and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a successful life. And I hope to bring those set of skills to this job.”

Wilkinson was elected in 2013 and became technology minister and then minister of advanced education two years later before serving for a short time as attorney general prior to the 2017 election.

He cycles or runs daily and kayaks in the summer while cross-country and downhill skiing in the winter. He has been married since 1993 to Barbara Grantham and the couple has three grown children in their 20s.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2020.

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Large-Scale Political Unrest Is Unlikely, But Not Impossible – The Atlantic

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Protesters during the Bulldozer Revolution in Belgrade in 2000.Braca Nadezdic / Newsmakers / Getty

When a reporter recently asked Donald Trump if he would accept a peaceful transition of power, the president wouldn’t commit. “We’ll see what happens,” he said. In an apparent reference to mail-in ballots, he went on, “We’ll want to have—get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very—we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” His comments seemed to confirm the worst fears of Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans who have warned for months that he might act illegally to hold on to power.

For Trumpian commentators, Democrats and the president’s other critics are only raising these concerns because they want to orchestrate a coup of their own. In a recent essay, “The Coming Coup?,” the former Trump-administration official Michael Anton warns his readers that Democrats are laying the groundwork for the “unlawful and illegitimate removal of President Trump from office.” Their tactic, he says, is to condition the public into thinking that Trump will try to steal the election so that if he wins, they can cry foul. They will then, Anton predicts, organize “a ‘color revolution,’ the exact same playbook the American deep state runs in other countries whose leadership they don’t like and is currently running in Belarus. Oust a leader—even an elected one—through agitation and call it ‘democracy.’” Anton advises Trump to prepare now to determine who will be loyal in the days after the election so that he can prevail.

Anton’s warning of a color revolution has gone viral on the Trumpian right. But his analysis rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. I’ve been looking at the history of color revolutions to see if conditions are actually ripe for one in the U.S.

The term color revolution was coined in the early aughts to describe four political revolutions in post-Communist Europe and Central Asia, in which repressive regimes tried to hold on to power after losing an election: in Serbia (the Bulldozer Revolution, named after a protester who used a bulldozer to storm the Parliament building), Georgia (the Rose Revolution, for the flowers that protesters held during demonstrations), Ukraine (Orange, the color identified with the opposition party), and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip, the national flower). Each case involved an election in which the regime committed fraud and was found out by a combination of impartial external election observers, exit polls, and a sophisticated voting-tabulation system. After the announcement of the fraudulent results, students led enormous popular protests, demanding either new elections or a ratification of the results.

The color revolutions deeply unnerved autocrats, particularly in Russia and China, who believed the West had orchestrated them. The uprisings came from within the countries, although Western nongovernmental organizations played a supporting role over time, particularly by shedding light on nondemocratic practices and helping the students organize. Alexander Cooley, the director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, who has studied color revolutions, told me that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the U.S. government was relatively detached and ambiguous about the protests in some of these cases. In Georgia, for example, it initially did not rush to back Mikheil Saakashvili over the incumbent, Eduard Shevardnadze; while in Kyrgyzstan, it worried about the implications for an American military base there.  

By 2005, Moscow and Beijing were actively redefining the term, shifting from indigenous protests against fraudulent elections to exclusively mean externally imposed regime change. Over the next 10 years, color revolution was used to describe many mass protests against autocratic regimes: the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005, the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, the Arab Spring in 2010–12, the Snow Revolution in Russia in 2011–12, and more Orange protests in Ukraine in 2013–14. The Snow Revolution, pushing against Vladimir Putin’s rotation back into the presidency, exacerbated his paranoia about color revolutions.

Protesters try to break into Parliament during the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. (Yoray Liberman / Getty)

While the protesters—students, NGOs, political opposition—learned tactics from one another, so too did the autocrats. Over the years, the leaders developed countermeasures. They denied visas to student leaders from abroad, set up their own pro-regime election monitors, banned NGOs that were advocating for democracy, and rigged elections by using intermediate measures, such as disqualifying candidates before election day.

The United States is not an autocracy, but Trump has embraced this paranoia. As Cooley noted, fears of unrest are borrowed from the Russian hymnbook: “Fear of the street protests, never spontaneous, never motivated by a sense of injustice, activists always paid, always a nefarious agenda—it is straight from the Kremlin’s talking points.” Accusing an opponent of what he is accusing you of—in this case, stealing the election—is a tactic Putin routinely uses to muddy the waters.  

Other than this paranoia, are the conditions in place for an actual color revolution in the United States? In every respect except one extreme scenario—which, astonishingly, Trump has cultivated—the answer is no.  

The 2016 election showed that foreign interference, even rising to the level of collusion with a foreign power, will not prevent the winner from being inaugurated, nor will it topple a president during his term. It may undermine the president’s legitimacy and the country’s confidence in the democratic process, but it won’t spark a color revolution. The 2000 contest proved that disputed elections can be resolved through the courts. Even if tensions are much greater now, it is extremely unlikely that the majority of Joe Biden’s voters will try to overturn a Supreme Court decision through direct action, even if Trump’s nominee to the court is in place. If Biden refuses to concede, which he has shown no signs of doing even though some Democrats have talked about it, his decision will not prevent Trump from being re-inaugurated if he is declared the winner. If the president refuses to leave the White House despite having lost, the legal and political system will take its course and power will transfer to Biden, albeit after an atrocious transition.

The original color revolutions occurred when the perception of clear and massive electoral fraud was widespread and protesters were angry about having democratic rights taken away. The demonstrations were directed at illegitimate regimes with a history of rigged elections, endemic corruption, and repression of political opponents. Trump is the most antidemocratic president in America’s history, but his administration so far does not meet the standard of the regimes affected by color revolutions. The U.S. still has an electoral process and a legal system.

However, one extreme scenario could push the United States toward a color revolution. If Trump actually tries to prevent large numbers of mail-in ballots from being counted by confiscating them, he could irreparably damage the electoral process and prevent the courts from being able to fairly adjudicate it. After all, what are the courts to do if the confiscated ballots have been destroyed or compromised (for instance, if the boxes were opened)? In this scenario, Trump would declare victory on Election Night if he is ahead in votes cast that day, and he would order Attorney General Bill Barr or Chad Wolf, the man Trump claims runs the Department of Homeland Security, to physically stop the count the next day. The president would then pressure Republican state legislatures to ratify his preferred result. This scenario is similar to what my Atlantic colleague Barton Gellman chillingly outlines in his new cover story.  

Daniel Nexon, a political scientist at Georgetown University, told me that in the post-Communist unrest, independent election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe played a crucial role in demonstrating fraud. External monitors have a more limited role in U.S. elections—they are present but in small numbers and few people pay attention to them. Trump, however, doesn’t control the polling stations. Shenanigans in particular districts could go under the radar for a while, but mass fraud—such as the federal confiscation of mail-in ballots—would likely occur in public view. Many Americans, perhaps millions of them, would feel that they had to take to the streets.

Protesters would want the U.S. to count every vote, as demonstrators did in earlier color revolutions, but that simply may not be possible if the ballots are confiscated and compromised. Nexon said that in most of the post-Communist cases, some mechanism existed for a revote, but U.S. law has no allowance for that. Therefore, if the worst case happens and Trump actively interferes in the count, the protests would likely focus on state legislatures and governors asked to ratify results before the count was complete, and on the Supreme Court, which may be asked to adjudicate.

Dodging a color revolution or large-scale political unrest is simple—Trump should not illegally interfere with the election count. If he gives such an order, his officials should not follow it. If they do, Republican members of Congress should oppose it and the courts should quickly intervene to stop him.

To prevent Anton’s theory from gaining further traction among Republicans, Democrats must be careful not to play into the Trumpist narrative that they are looking to delegitimize the president. They must stop suggesting that he can win only by cheating. As for citizens, we can vote early, preferably in person.

The U.S. election should be beyond reproach, but the political reality is making that unlikely. However, a Rubicon is in place that separates instability after the election from a color revolution. Ultimately, Trump and Trump alone will make the decision whether or not to cross it.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Thomas Wright is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power.

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