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Sensemaker: Caribbean Clingon

Sensemaker: Caribbean Clingon

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UK parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said Brexit’s main effects so far for British firms were increased costs, delays and paperwork.
  • UCLA announced payments of $243 million to 203 women found to have been abused by a former gynaecologist on its staff.
  • John Armitage, a hedge fund manager who has given more than £3 million to the Conservatives, called on Boris Johnson to resign.
  • Petra Vlhová won gold in the women’s slalom in Beijing after her arch-rival Mikaela Shiffrin crashed on both runs.

Caribbean Clingon

Remember Maduro? Three years ago he was on his way out – the dinosaur Marxist president of Venezuela with a collapsed economy and a dynamic democratic challenger backed by 60 countries and the CIA. The challenger is now history and Maduro is still there. He’s all but unassailable in a Venezuelan capital where oil prices are high, hyperinflation is slowing and allies bring guns and money.

How so?

It started like Ukraine. In 2014 Venezuela and Ukraine both faced mass anti-government protests and both were being run by strong men propped up by Russia. Like Ukraine, Venezuela gives Russia a chance to strut on the world stage – and where better than a short hop from Miami? But while the Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev eight years ago, Maduro has seen off democrats and mercenaries alike.

Guaidó. After disputed elections in 2018, opposition leader Juan Guaidó claimed to be the legitimate president. The US and most of Europe backed him, but Maduro would not budge. 

Rambo. Two years ago, 60 Venezuelan ex-soldiers and two US mercenaries staged a sorry attempt at a coup. Venezuelan forces intercepted two Colombian fishing boats carrying the putschists before they even landed. The plot’s American organiser called it a “daring amphibious raid”. Maduro said they were “playing Rambo”. 

But his survival is still improbable. Since he took office in 2013 the economy has shrunk by three quarters. Inflation is down from over 1,000 per cent to under 50 but the country with the world’s biggest oil reserves has roughly the same cash reserves as Latvia. Six million Venezuelans have emigrated. A third of those left behind don’t have enough food and Maduro’s approval rating is around 16 per cent.

His power rests on four pillars:

  • The military. Venezuela’s armed forces are loyal to Maduro, mainly because of government kickbacks. The money used to come from oil but when prices fell the military could still cash in because in 2016 Maduro gave it control over another lucrative business: food. The army is in charge of the food supply and runs a profitable black market operation selling goods to desperate civilians at inflated prices. Military leaders have also stood by Maduro out of fear of jail or worse in the event of a reckoning under a future leader for years of crackdowns and extrajudicial killings in which they are complicit. 
  • Allies. Russia, Turkey and Iran have all helped Maduro’s regime stay afloat despite US sanctions and low oil prices. 
    • Iran is a key partner in Venezuela’s oil industry. It gives Venezuela the ingredients it needs to make it’s heavy crude saleable and to refine its own crude so it can be used in cars, while Venezuela sends some of that heavy oil to Iran to be sold in Asia. 
    • Russia has lent Venezuela over $10 billion for oil development projects and military spending. When Maduro was short of money in 2019, Russian cargo planes allegedly helped fly 20 tonnes of Venezuelan gold to Dubai to be exchanged for cash.
    • Turkey also has interests in Venezuelan gold. In 2018 it imported 23 tonnes to be refined and sent back to Caracas, although the suspicion is that it’s sold in the UAE and the proceeds support Maduro’s regime. 
  • Drugs and mining: Maduro uses illegal mining and the drugs trade to help prop up his government. His security services work alongside criminal gangs to smuggle cocaine and illegally mined minerals out of the country, and the government and criminals share the profits. 
  • Dependency: Poor Venezuelans rely on handouts from the regime. Millions receive subsidized food boxes on a bi-monthly basis. Many are malnourished – but the promise of food is enough to keep the poorest loyal. 

Oil exports recovered last year after collapsing in 2020. Maduro’s decision to adopt the dollar has helped to control inflation for the time being, although the Americas Quarterly warns that “if Venezuela’s economy has stabilized, it has done so at the bottom of a deep depression”. 

Voters still decided to reward Maduro. His candidates won 19 of 23 state governorships in regional elections last month, which observers didn’t even say were rigged. Which points to an under-appreciated reason for Maduro’s endurance – Maduro. “People underestimate him,” says Christopher Sabatini of Chatham House. “Almost every story about him calls him a former bus driver, which he is, but he’s a very savvy politician. He runs a criminal state, and he runs it well.”

Next in our occasional series on stubborn survivor regimes: Turkey.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperit

Arm unsold
The darling of Silicon Fen will not be bought by the giant of Silicon Valley after all. Arm Ltd, which designs chips used by Apple, Samsung and about 500 other tech companies, was to be sold by its biggest investor, Softbank, to Nvidia in a cash and stock deal initially valued at $40 billion – which then rose in value to $75 billion along with Nvidia’s share price. Softbank would have been happy because its record as a tech investor has not been stellar, but regulators (and Nvidia’s rivals) in the US objected to the deal on competition grounds. The UK government was – and remains – anxious about Arm’s fate because it considers the Cambridge-based company a strategic asset. The question now is where it will be listed when it goes public. Global Britain Inc. would like the answer to be London. “People close to Softbank” tell the FT the bank plans to resist nationalist pressure and opt for New York. Ouch.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Narrator in chief 
The original Top Gun (1986) was made in full cooperation with the Pentagon, to the extent that Kelly McGillis played a contractor rather than an officer in uniform so that her affair with Tom Cruise’s Maverick wouldn’t violate rules on intra-service relationships. It was an effective recruitment tool for the final act of the cold war. The remake, Top Gun: Maverick (due in May) has been made in full cooperation with the People’s Republic of China, to the extent that even before previews were shown to Chinese distributors a badge mentioning Taiwan had been removed from Maverick’s jacket. So much has changed in Hollywood’s relationship with China in the intervening years that Eric Schwartzel in his new book Red Carpet: Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy (excerpted in the Atlantic) suggests China could “displace Hollywood as chief narrator of the 21st century”. Not to mention the 20th. Where’s that feature film on Tiananmen Square?

New things technology, science, engineering

Bitcoin seized and fusion forward
Bitcoins worth £2.65 billion have been seized by US officials, confounding anyone who thought cryptocurrency was beyond the reach of law enforcement and skewering the reputation of a rapper known as Razzlekhan. The rapper (real name Heather Morgan) and her partner, Ilya Lichtenstein, are accused of trying to launder nearly 120,000 bitcoins stolen by a hacker in 2016, when they were worth £52 million. The 5,000 per cent appreciation is almost as stupendous as the complexity of blockchain, which didn’t deter US agents who traced the crypto through the dark web to Lichtenstein’s virtual wallet, whose contents they were able to seize.

Separately, the BBC is reporting a breakthrough in nuclear fusion research at the JET lab in Oxford. A team there has doubled the energy output of its best previous effort. All steps forward towards controlled fusion are welcome but this is not the breakthrough that will really count, when energy out exceeds energy in. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Hong Kong Covid
A 73-year-old man who died yesterday in Hong Kong after testing positive for Covid could be the city’s first Covid fatality since last September. Despite the test result authorities were not ready to confirm Covid as the cause of death because other possible causes hadn’t been ruled out. Hong Kong (population 7.4 million) has recorded a total of 214 Covid deaths since the start of the pandemic. Committed to a zero-Covid strategy because of vaccine hesitancy among older Hong Kongers, it recorded a total of two new infections in December but has since seen rates rise because of Omicron, to 1,161 new cases today. UK daily case numbers peaked at 221,222 on 4 Jan. Britain’s cumulative Covid death toll is around 159,000.

covid by numbers

1 billion – Covid vaccines donated worldwide to date, 1 in 3 of which are assumed to be in storage or to have been wasted.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Warm wasabi
“In order to protect Japanese food culture…it is important to protect wasabi.” So says Hiroyuki Mochizuki, president of a 147-year-old company that processes wasabi in Shizuoka, Japan. Rising temperatures and post-war policies to plant cypress and cedar trees have left the spicy green root, a perfect garnish to sushi and soba noodles when grated, struggling to survive. Speaking to farmers whose families have grown wasabi since the 19th century, the NYT reports on changes in climate upsetting the delicate balance of fresh spring water and mild temperatures needed to grow the root. In Shizuoka, a centre of wasabi farming for over 400 years, Japan’s agriculture ministry reports a 55 per cent drop in production over the last decade. For foodies, the commonly used substitute of green-dyed horseradish won’t come close to making up for it.  

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to giles.whittell@tortoisemedia.com.

Ella Hill

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis. 

Photographs Getty Images

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