Caroline Stauffer: Venezuela Votes on Chávez for Life

As voters head to the polls in Venezuela this weekend, the larger-than-life persona of Hugo Chávez looms heavy over the proceedings—now, and potentially, for years to come. Venezuelans will vote on a referendum to abolish term limits, which would clear the way for Chávez to run for president indefinitely.

A close vote, leaning either in favor or against the referendum, would inconclusively answer the question of whether elected officials in the executive and legislative branches of government can seek reelection. Yet this is the likely outcome of the February 15 referendum, in which a simple majority of the population could further erode the tradition of single term limits in the country. Under Chávez, who was first elected president in 1998, Venezuela adopted the 1999 constitution that increased presidential term limits to two elected periods of six years.

A January poll by the Venezuelan firm Datanalysis found that 51 percent of the population supports amending the constitution to allow officials to seek reelection. The firm has compiled four polls since President Hugo Chávez announced the referendum last December. Two polls indicated a vote in favor of amending article 230 of the Venezuelan Constitution and two predicted an oppositional triumph in a “no” vote. During a panel discussion at the Council of the Americas in New York on Tuesday evening, Luis Vicente León, the director of Datanalysis, said the inconsistencies were unprecedented.

A similar referendum was narrowly voted down on December 3, 2007, and Chávez admitted defeat. But almost overnight, Caracas was covered with billboards threatening another referendum with the phrase “por ahora” (for now).  The battle had been lost, but not the war. Chávez says the re-vote is necessary now, just 14 months later, to allow him to stay in power and consolidate his socialist-inspired Bolivarian revolution, which will take at least 10 more years in his estimation.

Jane C. Loeffler: Building Hope Abroad

In his inaugural address, President Obama called on Americans to “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” With these refreshing words he has joined a conversation launched in the late 1990s by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—but largely ignored ever since—on how our public buildings can better balance security with the openness that is the hallmark of our democracy.

This is important for government buildings at home but all the more important abroad where our embassies present our face to the world. Bastion-like buildings that advertise only fear adversely affect America’s image abroad. Such structures convey none of the optimism that can be associated with forward-looking and accessible architecture.

Of course it is fair to ask whether the president was thinking about these sorts of buildings when he made his statement? Evidence suggests that he was. On the campaign trail in Iowa, for instance, he specifically condemned the new fortress-like U.S. embassy in Baghdad for the negative image it conveys. “First of all, it sends out a signal as if you are going to be a permanent occupier,” he said. “Secondly, it starts looking like a permanent base.” 

Indeed, it is wise to question how an unfettered security mandate can actually undermine the diplomatic mission that such buildings are meant to support.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now heads the effort to strengthen America’s foreign representation and protect personnel serving abroad. This is a daunting challenge in a world where we have many enemies. But she is tackling this task head-on, already calling for “smart power” as the basis for foreign policy. As our embassies are the most visible symbols of U.S. presence in capitals worldwide, this seems to presage embassies that are not just “smart”—in the sense of buildings equipped with integrated technology—but truly intelligent buildings that express America’s commitment and goodwill through excellence in design.

To accomplish her agenda, Mrs. Clinton will have to convince Congress of the need to define security in new and broader terms—terms that enhance America’s long-term diplomatic objectives as well as immediate safety considerations.

Jonathan Power: The Pope Should Retire

A range of people—from cardinals to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel—have told Pope Benedict XVI, or communicated to the press, their profound unhappiness at his lifting the excommunication of an ultra-traditionalist British bishop, Richard Williamson, who has questioned the extent of the Holocaust and denied the existence of gas chambers in Nazi death camps. The notorious interview on Swedish radio was only broadcast last month, but a Google search of the bishop reveals that he has long held these views.

In June 2006, during a visit to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, the pope seemed to pass over the culpability of ordinary Germans in the atrocities of the Holocaust. Only four months later, at a major speech in Regensberg, he seemed to tar the whole of Islam with the violence of one long-forgotten aggressive Muslim leader.

Can he be allowed to make another big mistake, alienating millions? Pope Benedict XVI lives in the twenty-first century, but the values of the Church are begining to look totally anachronistic—more like that of the last German pope, Victor II, who took office in 1055. Benedict lives in more sensitive times.

The Regensburg “Islam” speech showed oddly inconsistent thinking, at least compared to the way Anglo-Saxon scholars are trained. One point did not feed logically to the next. It is difficult, reading the whole text, to discern exactly the principal theme of the speech. Yet his use of a quote from the fourteenth century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, on the violent nature of Islam and the pope’s concluding remarks, it seems quite clear that the speech was aimed at the issue of Muslim/Christian relations. 
These relations have a fraught and complicated history.

James Kraska & Brian Wilson: Fighting Pirates — The Pen and the Sword, Part II

In our article, “Fighting Pirates: The Pen and the Sword,” which appeared in the winter “Dear Mr. President” issue of World Policy Journal, we asserted that greater collaboration, increased prosecutorial capacity, and the creation of a network among concerned states were the most promising approaches to address the spike in piracy off the Somali coast. In the past two months, all three have occurred, and there has been an accompanying sharp drop in the number of successful attacks. While ships are still vulnerable, the political environment has improved.

In December 2008, the United Nations Security Council adopted two resolutions, numbers 1846 and 1851, to encourage prosecutions, support enhanced partnering, and authorize land-based military operations. In quick order, a “Contact Group” was established to address maritime piracy, meeting for the first time in January 2009 with representatives from 24 nations.

To increase accountability and the rule of law, Kenya has signed a bilateral accord with the United Kingdom to prosecute suspected pirates, and Kenya and the United States could sign a similar deal by the end of January, 2009. Two coalition military commands, the European Union’s Operation Atalanta and U.S. Fifth Fleet’s Combined Task Force 151, were launched to expand capacity and focus anti-piracy efforts. Moreover, Japan, Spain, and South Korea are poised to deploy naval forces to the region.

This collective action is having a positive effect: in January 2009, only 2 of 16 attacks by Somali pirates resulted in a successful boarding. In 2008, about a third (or 42 of the 111 attacks) were successful, with 815 mariners taken hostage. The threat of attack so concerned the shipping community that some companies altered their routes; others avoided the area completely.

As a result, the Suez Canal experienced a $35 million drop in revenues for 2008 and tuna catches in the Indian Ocean, a $6 billion industry, fell by 30 percent. One other factor has played in favor of fewer attacks—it is monsoon season in the Indian Ocean. High seas are restricting the pirates to the shores, reducing the number roving throughout the Arabian Sea.

Collaboration is ongoing and it is working. The European Commission hosted a piracy seminar in Brussels in January 2009 which included representatives from the maritime sector, governments, and military officials. Even more partnerships are in development: a piracy and drug trafficking conference, hosted by Yemen in collaboration with the United Kingdom, is slated for February.

The legal component of repression has been turned in the right direction over the past two months. Holding pirates accountable has been a tremendous challenge in anti-piracy operations. Many states either don’t have laws on their books enabling prosecutions or don’t desire to assert jurisdiction, convene a trial, and detain pirates. Thus, even though piracy is a universal crime allowing any state to prosecute, as a practical matter, piracy trials infrequently occur.

Several times in 2008, after hijackings were thwarted by warships, pirates were simply released, losing only their weapons.

Charlotte Pudlowski: Sarkozy, Pop Culture’s New Icon

While Barack Obama may be the talk of the town, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is well on his way to becoming a new icon of American pop culture. Down in the polls in France, at least he entertains America.

If proof is needed, consider the wildly popular American TV show Gossip Girl. In a recent episode, Nicolas Sarkozy’s amorousness merits a mention. “Apparently Sarkozy would be a bad kisser,” says the heroine, Serena, confiding to her boyfriend. And she knows something about it: the French president is allegedly her mother’s former lover.

In fact, Sarkozy has almost become a plot line. It is the second time this love affair has been evoked. A few episodes ago, a character recalled, “Don’t forget that weekend with Sarkozy, when he made us go to EuroDisney!” Bursts of laughter followed. What kind of a president would actually go to EuroDisney? Nicolas Sarkozy, in fact, who took Carla Bruni there in 2007.

“Gossip Girl is the kind of series that wants to be very current and topical—characters talk about hot topics,” says Sheila Marikar, an ABC News entertainment reporter. “He is one of the few international leaders who would be mentioned in such a trendy show.”

David Andelman, a former CBS News correspondent in Paris and current editor of World Policy Journal, underlines: “The fact that the French president is mentioned like that in Gossip Girl is a gesture that he is becoming a part of the pop culture in America. When I watched the episode with my wife, we were amazed. We replayed the scene a couple of times. Sarkozy is a rock-star president.”

The problem with rock and roll, of course, is that it’s sometimes hard to understand the lyrics. So too of Sarkozy: a lot of people still don’t know who he actually is, and his politics appear quite confusing in the United States.

Michael Deibert: Echoes of Obama on Australia Day

There we were, at a community meeting of indigenous Australians in the remote Northern Territory town of Borroloola, where dispersed communities of this frontier province come together only a scant few miles away from the Gulf of Carpentaria as it empties out into the Arafura Sea. Representatives of the region’s four main linguistic groups—the Gurdanji, Yanyuwa, Garawa, and Mara—were all here, discussing with a government minister and with one another the impact of a local mine that had, without consultation with the region’s traditional owners, expanded its operations from underground to open-cut. In the process, the company had destroyed sacred sites belonging to the clans and, so they feared, wreaked environmental havoc on the region’s fragile ecosystem.

In addition to the discussion of local issues, talk turned to the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States. The assemblage approved, and, as one indigenous person told me in simply, “he’s one of us.”

Such has been the change of being an American abroad over the last few months, replacing the smirking frat boy of years past with a figure whom, as one Norwegian friend told me, “radiates dignity in a really intense way.” There is a new face of the U.S. global brand abroad, as I witnessed in my reporting travels over the last year, which took me to five continents and countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Spain, Japan, and now Australia.

Australia, my base for the next few months and which today commemorates the arrival of Europeans on the continent, has grappled with its own issues of racial division and violence since the first British settlers arrived in 1788, with the country’s Aboriginal population bearing the brunt of massacre and mistreatment since that time. In recent years, newer arrivals to the country from places like India, Lebanon, and Vietnam have also had to confront a hard kernel of xenophobia here which can be rather shocking to visitors expecting tropical bliss as depicted in tourist brochures.

Nina L. Khrushcheva: The Best Enemy There Is

The fact that Russia is supposedly bad doesn’t make America better, or better off now at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency-mistrusted by the world, with two wars on its hands and an economy in ruin. In this environment is Russia a threat to the United States? Unlikely, but branding it as dictatorial revives the old fears and diverts attention from the immense problems America faces today.

Barack Obama’s presidency promises to usher his country into a new era of post-unilateral decisions, international diplomacy, and coherent foreign policymaking. This new era should also, perhaps, end the senseless public animosity towards Russia that has continued since 1991 when the Soviet Union lost the Cold War and, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. Becoming the world’s only superpower proved very damaging to the United States. Over-confidence, to no one’s surprise, bred hubris.

Bill Clinton’s administration tirelessly reminded the former Soviets that they, the losers, should unwaveringly follow the lead of all-powerful America. Boris Yeltsin’s privatization and marketization programs were not speedy enough, at least as judged in a Washington anxious to spend as little as possible helping Russia. Any thoughts of a Marshall Plan to ease Russia’s path were dismissed in Gingrich/Clinton Washington as welfare for communists.

In 2000, as a by-product of the all-or-nothing capitalization demanded of Russia by its American advisors, the country returned full circle—the KGB with President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin at the helm gained the ruling hand. Putin’s promise to restore Russian self-respect did indeed involve policies familiar from the communist era: jailing “dishonest” oligarchs, clamping down on an “irresponsible” press, and “deceptive” non-governmental organizations, pressuring neighboring countries by increasing prices or limiting Russian oil and gas, as well as flexing a bit of military muscle in Georgia (although Georgia’s own irresponsible leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, deserves equal blame for the August 2008 war), or sending training ships to Cuba and Venezuela to show the world that Russian military power was back.

Jonathan Power: Lead the World by Following?

Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, was harping on an old theme at her Senate confirmation hearing last week. She said her top international principle was to ”strengthen America’s position of global leadership.” This reminds one of her Clinton administration predecessor, Madeleine Albright, who famously said that ”America is the indispensable nation” and that we “stand tall and hence see further than any other nation.”

This swagger suggests that other nations are somehow dispensable, and that American indispensability is the source of all wisdom. ( So what about Iraq, global warming, Palestine/Israel, the International Criminal Court, and financial probity?)

In the United States, ”one reads about the world’s desire for American leadership,” a high British diplomat once told me. ”Everywhere else, one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism.” (And this was said before George W. Bush came to power!) Today, even the instinctively pro-Washington British Conservative Party has sought to step back from American hubris, which is clearly not a vote winner on this side of the pond.

Peter Wilson: Dark Days in Caracas

Peter WilsonVenezuelan President Hugo Chávez is pulling out all the stops to persuade voters next month to approve his plan to rewrite the constitution to allow for his unlimited re-election in 2012 when his current term expires.

In doing so, Chávez is almost certainly setting up a confrontation with new U.S. President Barack Obama, and souring any possibility of bettering ties between Washington and its fourth-largest oil supplier.

Chávez, who took office in 1999 after winning by a landslide, is seeking voter approval just 13 months after voters rejected a similar measure in December 2007. Chávez claims the measure is needed to guarantee the success of the country´s socialist revolution, which he is leading. Opponents portray the amendment as a naked power grab, especially as irregularities mount.

After being rebuffed in 2007, Chávez isn’t taking any chances this time, and has been saturating the airwaves with almost daily national cadenas or addresses, which must be carried live by all stations.