Venezuela’s Got Talent

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On May 29 Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez declared a marathon edition of his weekly TV talk show, “Alo Presidente” (“Hello President”), to celebrate its 10th anniversary. No doubt he was not only inspired by but was also carrying the torch for his idol, Fidel Castro, who holds the record for longest speech before the UN. Castro’s absolute talkathon record is a 12-hour harangue with one intermission. But I digress.

Chavez planned on speaking for four days and started out strong with attacks on “right-wing oligarchs,” anecdotes, songs, and light banter. But then he went where no despot dares to go – he opened himself up to competition by challenging several intellectuals, visiting Caracas for an opposition- hosted conference, to a debate.

Mario Vargas Llosa, one-time Peruvian presidential candidate, winner of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize – the Spanish language’s most prestigious literary accolade – and champion of liberty, accepted – on the condition that the debate would be one-on-one.

Chavez declined. Well, sort of. Declaring that he, Chavez, was “in the major leagues and you’re in the double-A,” el Presidente signed off, promising to return the next day. He never reappeared; forcing state TV to fill the time with reruns and old, stale interviews.

Still, he didn’t skip a beat and might actually have got- ten something right. The Economist reported that “Chavez praised ‘Comrade Obama’ for nationalizing General Motors and expressed worries that he and Cuba’s Fidel Castro could end up to the right of the president of the United States.”

Tough call.

On June 11, both houses of Congress approved separate bills authorizing the FDA to control the nicotine content of tobacco products, with the ultimate objective of eliminating nicotine from such products. A reconciliated bill is expected to be signed by the president very soon. Commentators on NPR had the mendacity to comment that our freedom to choose would not be impaired: smokers could still pick whatever brand they chose.

On the same day, the Chavez government banned the sale of Coke Zero, ostensibly because of health hazards. No details were provided. Additionally, my extended family in Caracas reports that brand choice in supermarkets has been reduced to one – one soap, one rice, one noodle, one tomato sauce, one diaper … you get the picture. Consumer choices have been reduced politically instead of by popularity. Only producers willing to toe Chavez’ line are allowed to proffer their products. Is Venezuela the next California- where trends are set?

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