Dems fear Trump re-election if ex-Starbucks CEO Schultz runs
By GENE JOHNSON and STEVE PEOPLES
Monday, January 28
SEATTLE (AP) — The most powerful super PAC in Democratic politics is promising to make former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz “a target” if he launches an independent presidential bid.
Democrats across the political spectrum lashed out at the billionaire businessman on Monday after he teased the prospect of an independent 2020 bid, a move Democrats fear would split their vote and all but ensure President Donald Trump’s re-election.
“If Schultz entered the race as an independent, we would consider him a target… We would do everything we can to ensure that his candidacy is unsuccessful,” said Patrick McHugh, executive director of Priorities USA. The super PAC spent nearly $200 million in the 2016 presidential contest, much of it to support Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is that I don’t think Americans are looking for another selfish billionaire to enter the race.”
Democrats conceded that they had few tools to dissuade Schultz from launching an independent campaign — as he told “60 Minutes” he was considering — though many were skeptical that he would actually follow through. No presidential candidate in the modern era has run a successful independent campaign.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered Schultz a direct message based on his own experience.
“The data was very clear and very consistent. Given the strong pull of partisanship and the realities of the electoral college system, there is no way an independent can win. That is truer today than ever before,” Bloomberg, who is considering a Democratic 2020 bid, said in a statement.
He continued: “In 2020, the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the president. That’s a risk I refused to run in 2016 and we can’t afford to run it now.”
Tina Podlodowski, the Democratic chairwoman in Washington state, where Schultz has lived for decades, also blasted the potential of an independent campaign.
“Howard, if you want to run for President, run as a Democrat,” she said in a statement. “If you want to rely on your money to get elected instead of talking with voters, run as a Republican. But a billionaire buying his way out of the entire primary process does not strengthen democracy; it only makes it more likely that our democracy will be further strained under another four years of President Donald Trump.”
Trump himself weighed in on Monday, tweeting that Schultz “doesn’t have the ‘guts’ to run for President!”
Schultz indirectly addressed the uproar in a video posted on social media Monday.
“At this time in America when there’s so much evidence that our political system is broken — that both parties at the extreme are not representing the silent majority of the American people — isn’t there a better way?” Schultz said, noting that he’d be traveling the country in the coming weeks and months meeting with voters.
“And what better expression of our democracy than to give the American people a choice that they deserve.”
The 65-year-old Seattle billionaire launched a tour Monday to promote his latest book, “From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America.” He has stops this week in New York; Tempe, Arizona; Seattle; and San Francisco — but no dates listed for the early voting states of Iowa or New Hampshire.
He’s been mentioned as a potential candidate many times before, and he’s done little to quell speculation about his presidential ambitions since saying when he retired from Starbucks last June that his future could include “public service.”
On paper, Schultz offers a number of qualities that might appeal to voters. He grew up in public housing in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and became the first person in his family to graduate from college.
He took over Starbucks when it sold only coffee beans, not cups — it had 11 stores and fewer than 100 employees at the time — and grew it into a global behemoth that now has close to 30,000 stores in 78 countries. Along the way, he adopted an ethos of corporate responsibility, making Starbucks one of the earliest U.S. companies to offer stock options and health insurance even to part-time employees, and more recently partnering with Arizona State University to cover tuition for workers who want to earn their bachelor’s degree online.
He’s waded into contentious social issues. In 2013, Starbucks asked customers not to bring guns into stores following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and in 2015, Schultz drew anger and ridicule after he urged baristas to write “Race Together” on cups to spark conversations amid tension over police shootings of black men. Last year, after two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a business meeting, Starbucks closed 8,000 U.S. stores early so employees could take anti-bias training.
He’s been a longtime Democratic donor, contributing to the campaigns of former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, among others. He has also criticized Trump, telling employees that the president was creating “chaos” and hurting business; calling Trump’s tax cuts for corporations unnecessary and reckless; and vowing to hire 10,000 refugees after Trump issued an executive order banning travel from seven mostly Muslim nations.
But some of his views might clash with a Democratic Party gearing up to unseat Trump. While some potential nominees, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris, have endorsed single-payer health care, heavily taxing the rich or free tuition at public colleges, Schultz has criticized such proposals as unrealistic and instead emphasized expanding the economy and curbing entitlements to get the national debt under control.
“It concerns me that so many voices within the Democratic Party are going so far to the left,” Schultz told CNBC last June. “I ask myself, ‘How are we going to pay for all these things?’ in terms of things like single-payer or people espousing the fact that the government is going to give everyone a job. I don’t think that’s realistic.”
The Democratic National Committee declined to address Schultz directly. Spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa offered this response: “We are focused on defeating Donald Trump, and anyone who shares that goal should vote for the Democrat nominee in 2020.”
Peoples reported from New York.
Trump warns Europeans not to try to evade Iran sanctions
By DEB RIECHMANN and MATTHEW LEE
Monday, January 28
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is closely eyeing efforts in Europe to set up an alternative money payment channel to ease doing business with Iran and avoid running afoul of sanctions the U.S. has levied on the Islamic republic.
The White House is putting the Europeans on notice, saying that if they try to do an end-run around U.S. sanctions on Iran, they will be subject to stiff fines and penalties. Unfazed, the European Union is marching forward with the plan, which, if implemented, could further strain trans-Atlantic relations.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Monday that the EU was on the verge of setting up the alternative channel to send money to Iran that would side-step U.S. sanctions on Tehran. He said Germany had been working on it in recent months with Britain, France and other EU partners.
“This has always been our goal and we will implement it,” Maas said.
The EU has struggled to keep alive the Iran nuclear deal since President Donald Trump pulled out of it last year. The bloc has already introduced measures to stop European companies from complying with the U.S. sanctions without authorization from Brussels.
Getting out ahead of a possible announcement, a senior administration official told The Associated Press on Friday that the U.S. will fully enforce its sanctions and hold individuals and entities accountable for undermining them. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue.
“The choice is whether to do business with Iran or the United States,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told the AP. “I hope our European allies choose wisely.”
The U.S. joined China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain in signing a pact with Iran in 2015 that offered to lift economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran’s pledge to rein in its nuclear weapons program.
President Donald Trump called it a “horrible, one-sided deal.” He pulled out of the pact last year and restored punishing U.S. sanctions on Iran. Tehran, which denies wanting nuclear weapons, continues to abide by the agreement, and the remaining five nations in the pact are trying to keep it intact.
Restoring the sanctions regime is part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” on the Iranians to force them to radically alter their policies on developing ballistic missiles, supporting regional militant groups and violating human rights.
The U.S. has many concerns about the alternative payment system, according to an outside Trump administration adviser. The adviser spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the key U.S. worries.
Long-term, the U.S. worries that the alternative money payment system could become successful enough to compete with the international bank transfer system known as SWIFT. The fear is that it could eventually supplant SWIFT as the leading global vehicle for financial institutions to send and receive information about banking transactions.
Secondly, the U.S. is concerned that other countries might try to route transactions through the European system just to circumvent U.S. sanctions, the adviser said. Thirdly, while the Europeans have signaled that the alternative money transfer system would be used only for humanitarian transactions, the U.S. is suspicious that it could be used for non-humanitarian transactions to evade U.S. sanctions, the adviser said.
“We should oppose efforts to create foreign financial channels that Iran could use to circumvent America’s maximum pressure campaign against it, especially when humanitarian exceptions are already in U.S. sanctions laws,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told the AP.
As the administration prepares for the potential fallout from the possible European move, it is pressing ahead with its sanctions campaign against Iran and preparing to co-host with Poland next month a conference that will focus on combatting Iranian threats.
On Thursday, Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iran-backed militias in Syria and on Qeshm Fars Air, an Iranian civilian airline it accuses of ferrying weapons and personnel to Syria to support President Bashar Assad’s government. The sanctions block any assets those targeted might have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them.
At the same time, the State Department told Congress earlier this month that it would waive some Iranian sanctions to allow U.S. companies to sell spare parts to Iranian airlines, which need them to operate aging, American-built Boeing jets.
The waivers raised questions on Capitol Hill because some lawmakers are weighing legislation to specifically target Iran’s civilian aviation sector. And Iran hawks outside the administration have expressed concern too.
Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said Iran’s aviation sector is being used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military that has ties to militant networks, which Iran uses to expand its influence in the region and abroad.
“What effective controls does the administration have in place to ensure that the aircraft receiving these licensed services are not facilitating Iran’s support for these destructive activities?” he asked.
Presidential standoff may worsen Venezuelans’ misery
By JOSHUA GOODMAN and SCOTT SMITH
Monday, January 28
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The U.S. recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president is being touted by the Trump administration as the only way to restore the country’s democracy. But as Elizabeth Pineda was stocking up on staples Sunday at a sidewalk market near a Caracas slum, she was bracing for things to get a lot worse, not better.
A retired secretary, Pineda survives on a monthly pension of just 18,000 bolivars, or about $6. She supplements her income working as an astrologer, and although the stars have been telling her Venezuelans are on the road to ridding themselves of socialist President Nicolas Maduro, she doesn’t expect him to go quickly or quietly.
“The government is going to strangle us even more with their bad decisions and shamelessness,” Pineda said while sharing a bowl of beef soup with two friends, none of whom can afford the $1.50 meal on their own.
Economists agree that the longer the standoff between the U.S.-backed Guaido and Maduro drags on, the more regular Venezuelans are likely to suffer.
Maduro, who so far appears to have the backing of the decisive military, has dug in, accusing the U.S. of orchestrating a coup by encouraging Guaido to declare himself interim president and then leading a chorus of nations that immediately recognized his rule.
The high-risk and seldom-used strategy of recognizing an alternative government that doesn’t already have de facto power is tantamount to blocking Maduro’s access to Venezuela’s all-important oil revenue, with enormous legal and financial entanglements.
Directives sent Friday to the U.S. Federal Reserve will make it very hard for Maduro to access Venezuela’s overseas assets and earnings, including those from Houston-based Citgo, a subsidiary of state-owned oil giant PDVSA and the major source of revenue for the bankrupt government. Also at risk is $1.2 billion in gold reserves — 15 percent of Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves — stored in the vaults of the Bank of England.
If the Trump administration’s confrontational approach is adopted by the European Union, some of whose members have threatened to recognize Guaido if Maduro doesn’t announce new elections in eight days, it could bring oil production to a standstill, heaping more hardships on the 29 million Venezuelans already struggling with hyperinflation, widespread food shortages and anemic economic activity.
“If Maduro stays in power, Venezuela could suffer a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist of New York-based Torino Capital.
Rodriguez said the outlook is similar to what happened to Libya in 2011, after the Obama administration froze the government’s assets in retaliation for Moammar Gadhafi’s crackdown on protesters during the Arab Spring. In response, oil output in the North African country dropped more than 70 percent.
But unlike that asset freeze and the one imposed on Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which were done in concert with the international community, Maduro still has important backers, most notably China and Russia, which would serve as a likely veto of any international sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.
If he’s not getting paid, Maduro will surely divert the roughly 500,000 barrels per day of oil currently being sold to Gulf Coast refineries in the U.S. to more friendly markets, like creditors Russia or China, as well as India, Malaysia and Thailand.
But processing international financial transactions is very hard without going through the U.S. or European banks. Transport costs would also jump because Venezuela’s ports aren’t well-equipped to load supertankers for transporting oil to such distant markets, said Russ Dallen, managing partner of Caracas Capital, a brokerage.
That means the country, which depends almost entirely on oil exports for hard currency, will be able to purchase even less food and other imports, exacerbating a severe recession that is already deeper than the U.S. economic contraction during the Great Depression.
Then there’s the $65 billion in Venezuela’s and state oil company PDVSA’s outstanding bonds, almost none of which are being paid and whose prices rallied 25 percent on news of Guaido’s challenge to Maduro’s authority.
If the U.S. were to hand control of Citgo to people selected by Guaido, as is expected, Maduro would almost certainly stop paying back loans to Russia’s Rosneft, which in turn would execute a lien giving it 49.9 percent control of the Texas oil company.
“Maduro was already facing an incredibly complex situation,” Dallen said. “But the loss of fast cash from Citgo and the U.S. market will further crush the country’s decimated oil production and cash flows, meaning more starvation and more people fleeing the country.”
To be sure, oil production — the lifeblood of the economy — has been collapsing for years. The OPEC nation currently pumps just a third of the 3.5 million barrels a day it did when the late Hugo Chavez took power in 1999, despite sitting atop the world’s largest reserves.
Rodriguez, who tried to persuade the government to moderate its policies as part of a failed Vatican-sponsored mediation between Maduro and the opposition in 2016, said that if the showdown between Guaido and Maduro continues the economy would contract around 30 percent in 2019. He forecasts inflation will reach around 23 million percent from the 1.6 million it was in 2018.
Should the opposition prevail, there will be numerous benefits from an improved investment outlook — although perhaps not immediately.
Orlando Ochoa, a Caracas-based economist, said the U.S. will have to play a major role marshalling the support of international financial institutions, lifting sanctions and providing a debt shield to protect Venezuela from creditor lawsuits while the country gets back on its financial feet.
Such concepts of high finance make little sense to Pineda, who nonetheless said she is willing to eke out a meager existence if that is what it takes to get rid of Maduro.
“We’re ready to eat bread and water if we have to,” she said. “Getting out of this will be our reward.”
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman
Trump’s Crusade in Latin America
by Mel Gurtov
What we are witnessing in Venezuela is a Latin America policy that draws from the Cold War and the era of US interventions, when regard for democracy and international law mattered little and anticommunism was the dominant motif. With John Bolton and Mike Pompeo leading the way, the targeting of Venezuela, along with Cuba and Nicaragua, has become an ideological struggle.
“A sordid cradle of communism,” Bolton calls those countries. Very much in the spirit of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” Bolton contends that “we are also confronted once again with the destructive forces of oppression, socialism and totalitarianism. Under this administration, we will no longer appease dictators and despots near our shores in this hemisphere. We will not reward firing squads, torturers, and murderers … The troika of tyranny in this hemisphere—Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua—has finally met its match.”
Nicolás Maduro’s government is first on Trump’s hit list.
For several months in 2017 the administration reportedly held discussions with dissident members of the Venezuelan military and security forces about supporting a coup or even an invasion (Julian Borger in The Guardian, July 5, 2018). In this instance Trump’s advisers consulted US diplomats, and they apparently urged the military not to act against Maduro.
The Venezuelan coup plotters hoped to get communications equipment. They were eventually rebuffed—not, apparently, because of the military’s known human rights abuses or involvement in drug trafficking, but simply because the plotters seemed unlikely to succeed (Ernest Londoño and Nicholas Casey in New York Times, September 8, 2018). But in fall 2018, with Pompeo at the helm, the state department announced that it would “use the full weight of American economic and diplomatic power to help create the conditions for the restoration of democracy for the Venezuelan people.”
What the US aims to “create” is regime change. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on January 22, Vice President Pence called Maduro “illegitimate,” then secretly (according to the Journal on January 25) offered support to Juan Guaidó, the leader of the national assembly, to take over as interim president. Trump followed by recognizing Guaidó and saying that “all options are on the table.”
Thus, regime change was coordinated with the Venezuelan opposition rather than having been a purely local affair. But this latest version of the “maximum pressure” doctrine applied to North Korea and Iran is entirely misplaced. The Maduro regime is surely undemocratic and corrupt, a one-man show that few Latin American governments recognize since his staged reelection at the end of 2018. But the main problem there is a human security crisis marked by a dramatic decline in health and healthcare, runaway inflation, and an historic exodus of the population.
US reliance on sanctions, as a Congressional Research Service report in November 2018 emphasized, might well exacerbate the crisis, which is why “many Venezuelan civil society groups oppose sanctions that could worsen humanitarian conditions.” Venezuela was actually reaching out for international assistance in response to US sanctions when Trump’s far-right advisers ratcheted up the pressure.
The US is not leading a humanitarian intervention in Venezuela. Regime change has nothing to do with alleviating human rights conditions or promoting democracy, as support of repressive far-right governments in Brazil and Guatemala shows. It matters not that the Organization of American States, the European Union, and several Latin American countries want to see Maduro out—nor that Russia, China, and Mexico are among those that support Maduro. What matters is that interventionism in Latin America is being restored, complete with the appointment of Elliott Abrams, the convicted Reagan adviser in the Iran-Contra affair, to head up the Venezuela effort.
As a member of Mexico’s ruling party said: “Nothing will contribute more to the questioning of the legitimacy and credibility of Juan Guaidó than the support he is receiving from the United States. We are in Latin America and this should be understood by the White House.” If regime change succeeds in Venezuela it may well be applied to Nicaragua and Cuba, the other two targets. Trump has already undermined the gains from Obama’s normalization of ties with Havana.
Washington evidently has given no thought to what unilateral interference means for America’s reputation, international law, US criticisms of Russian and Chinese aggression, and the possibility of fomenting civil war in Venezuela. But there are alternatives to outside intervention. One is that Maduro accepts an amnesty offer from Guaidó and leaves the country, or (as the EU demands) agrees to hold new elections under international supervision. The Venezuelan military would probably be relieved not to have to defend him; it is already divided over loyalty to Maduro.
A second alternative is the UN’s Responsibility to Protect Resolution (R2P), passed by the General Assembly in 2005. That instrument, which requires Security Council approval to invoke, is intended to apply to states in which large numbers of people are under threat and their government is unwilling and unable to provide for its citizens—in other words, large-scale crimes against humanity. But R2P could be used to protect Venezuelans from the outrages of their failing state, though a Russian or Chinese veto makes that unlikely. If Maduro insists on staying on, the UN—not the US alone—could either attempt to broker a deal between him and Guaidó or put the squeeze on the regime economically and politically under provisions of R2P.
Both these alternatives aim at conflict prevention and minimization of human suffering. Use of force must be avoided and the crisis must not become an echo of Reagan-era Cold War competition.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.