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Editor’s Introduction

If you have an interest in the brutality and demagoguery authoritarians use to seize and consolidate power, and in the extremes to which they will go to protect their despotic hold when the citizens they oppress rise up to reject them, you’ll be interested in the essays in this issue by Nadia Diuk and José Cárdenas. They take you to Ukraine and Venezuela, two countries with different histories and possibilities that unfortunately share the fate of having been driven to a dysfunctional state—economically and politically—by a strong-arm, post-communist, populist ideology.

Just returned from Ukraine and still in touch with the revolutionary events that unspool there every day, Nadia reports that the protests in the streets of Kyiv are unlike those of the Orange Revolution of nearly a decade ago in that they are not about politics per se, but are rather an existential movement about the fate and destiny of a people trying to settle once and for all the issue that has defined and divided Ukraine for generations—whether the country’s future will be with Europe’s liberal west or Russia’s authoritarian east.

José Cárdenas paints a portrait of another country divided over its future, although in Venezuela the division is a more familiar one—between the authoritarian socialists of chavismo, kissing cousins of the Castro regime, and the liberal, democratic opposition in favor of personal liberty and policies concerned with the creation of wealth, not merely its distribution. José shows how the socialists’ war on the private sector has immiserated a country whose inflation rate in 2013 was fifty percent. Investment and domestic production are in free fall; the black market thrives; crime is Venezuela’s only growth industry. The Maduro government, still guided by the ghost of Hugo Chávez a year after his death, narrowly escaped embarrassment in a recent round of local elections, and only after resorting to some unusually creative and desperate measures to rally the chavista base. Among other class warfare maneuvers, President Maduro dispatched the National Guard to electronics shops around the country to “liberate” plasma TVs and other products and sell them to the local poor at “deeply discounted” prices. He also announced the creation of the Vice Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness to counter the despair his policies have created and, well, to make people more happy. These desperate initiatives notwithstanding, the end may be in sight. As José observes, “The problem comes when the money runs out, when oil revenues dip, when Venezuela’s creditors start demanding payment, when [Maduro] has double-promised future oil sales in exchange for more high-interest loans, and when there are no more shopkeepers to bully into giving away their inventory for almost nothing.”

 

Essays in this issue by Stephen Blank, Gordon Chang, and Jonathan Miller examine international entanglements of significant consequence, including the maneuvers by various countries to seize advantage and secure access to the Arctic’s resources and expanding trade routes; the new, mutually cynical coziness between Russia and China, which involves Russian oil, Chinese money, and a common desire to thwart American influence; and how rising tensions in the East China Sea between Japan and an assertive China, tensions that have reminded some observers of the way events began to slide out of control in Europe in 1914, have led Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to overhaul the country’s defense and rebuild its military to counter Beijing’s maritime intimidation.

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Joel Brinkley, a regular contributor to these pages, returns from Taiwan, another country in the Far East touched by the Japan-China conflict, where he met with President Ma Ying-jeou and other senior government and business leaders to discuss the president’s efforts to enliven an economy that has been flat for a decade. The challenge, according to Ma, is to “revitalize our economy by moving from manufacturing efficiency to innovation and added value”—meaning transitioning from implementing other countries’ innovations to creating those bearing a uniquely Taiwanese stamp. Easier said than done, according to Brinkley, since such a reboot collides with Asia’s traditions and culture, which have for centuries stressed conformity at the expense of individual expression—to the point, for example, where “in China today, and in Taiwan until recently, left-handed children are forced to become right-handed like everyone else.”

There is more. Another regular contributor to these pages, Michael Totten, offers thoughts on the future of Cuba after having traveled there to consider, among other things, if the US sanctions, in place since the 1960s, still make any sense. The distinguished author Walter Laqueur writes about the origins of the Putin regime’s efforts to find authority for its cruel and coercive governance not in the brutality of Stalin but in the ancien régime destroyed by the Bolsheviks. And Meghan Collins Sullivan of NPR contributes a piece on one of the twisted legacies of communism’s rampage through Europe, left by the “deranged” demand by Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu that “all women bear at least five children in an effort to create a caste of ‘worker bees’ that would labor in the hive of communism.” Ceausescu is gone, but what remains are the orphans of his storm—a generation of unwanted children subjected to botched adoptions, barren institutional lives, and now the pitiful reality of an adulthood without personal connection. 

In addition to these pieces on current international issues, we have a bonus essay by the Vietnamese writer Vo Van Ai that takes us back to Paris in 1978, when the news broke that a ship of some twenty-five hundred starving and dehydrated Vietnamese refugees was stranded off the coast of Malaysia with no country willing to harbor them. They were fleeing the reign of terror that had been launched three years earlier by North Vietnam’s communist regime as it consolidated its power over the South following the ignominious exit of US forces. By that time, a half-million refugees had already perished in the sea attempting to escape the gulag Hanoi had established, which would kill two and a half million between 1975 and 1985. But Vo’s subject is a ray of light, largely ignored by history, that shone through this tragedy. As the refugees were desperately launching themselves into deadly waters, a small group of French intellectuals who had deep roots in the left launched an international campaign to rescue and resettle thousands of these “boat people,” as they became known. They mobilize the French and European antiwar left not only to join this humanitarian effort but also to acknowledge and condemn the atrocities being committed by those whose cause they had championed years before. These brave second thoughts had an impact—not only in terms of lives saved, but also in terms of intellectual decency affirmed.

We hope you find this latest edition—with its panoramic look at issues of things past, present, and future—illuminating. For our part, we would be glad to be illuminated by your reactions.

— James S. Denton

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