Mongabay journalist Glenn Scherer relays the latest from Venezuela, including their reporters penetrating deep into the lawless Amazon. Our second trip this hour is guided by the prominent Harvard historian Serhii Plokhii. He grew up with the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, and lived through the following collapse. Dr. Plokhii says the old Cold War manuals are working again for the Russian disinformation campaign, against the Ukraine and the United States.
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GLENN SCHERER – VENEZUELA IN COLLAPSE
When the economy collapses, would we still feed the rare animals in the zoo, or eat them? That is just one of the real-time choices happening in the South American country of Venezuela. As thousands flee the country, and millions are hungry. The American government just issued still more sanctions following the troubled election of President Nicolas Maduro. From the capital Caracas to the Amazonian jungle, everything is in motion, everything is on the table.
Our guest Glenn Scherer is a contributing editor for the big environmental news site Mongabay. Venezuela and Brazil are part of his beat. Glenn has written for Scientific American, Salon, and many newspapers. He co-founded Blue Ridge Press reaching tens of millions of people.
Editor and author Glenn Scherer
Why did the Venezuelan food system collapse, and are there lessons we all can learn to avoid if our own economies stumble? Historically, before people starve, they ravage and kill anything they can find in nature. That is why zoo animals are being eaten, along with wildlife from the capital Caracas as far south as the Venezuelan portion of the Amazon.
Mongabay co-sponsored the Dutch reporter Bram Ebus to go to the Amazon in the south of Venezuela to report. He found a vast area of lawlessness. Some of the armed guerrillas allied with FARC, the disbanded rebel group in Columbia, went into that vacuum to operate illegal gold mines, timber grabs, and roadblocks. Other armed men, likely including some members of the Venezuelan armed forces do the same. Traveling there is dangerous, with a new roadblock to pass every half hour, armed by who-knows-who. The reporter was “arrested” and detained for 24 hours, unsure about what his fate would be. All this is what happens on the far edges of collapse.
Erik Hofner of Mongabay, who led me to this story, warns that “a key Amazon Forest biological research station has been overrun by farmers who are cutting trees to make room for crops, putting in jeopardy an important climate study and core habitat for an endangered monkey.” Read about that in this article: Crisis in Venezuela: Caparo Experimental Station invaded by 200 farmers.
The gold mining in the Amazon is all-out desperate. Barrels and barrels of toxic chemicals and mercury are flushed into the streams and rivers as part of the process. Thousands of aboriginal people went to the mining zone, and many found themselves as virtual slaves of the armed mine operators. But it’s not all bad news for the aboriginal people, Scherer tells us. In some areas, aboriginal villages are rallying, becoming more self-sufficient again. See this article by Bram Ebus.
Glenn told me:
“Refugees are flowing over the Venezuelan border into Brazil, putting pressure on its services, and the Brazilian army has been called in. This being the Brazilian Amazon, government public services are stretched pretty thin there already, so refugee crisis is making for more chaos and is destabilizing. A similar refugee problem is happening on the Venezuelan – Colombian border, where refugees are flowing out of Venezuela, while former FARC rebels are flowing into Venezuela to take advantage of chaos there in the Orinoco Mining Arc.”
The BBC estimates that about 5,000 people a day are leaving Venezuela. Business and all kinds of services tend to collapse as people leave, or don’t show up for work where they won’t be paid. Inflation is expect to reach 13,000 percent during 2018. It’s heading into territory once experienced in Weimar Germany, when you needed a wheel barrow full of “money” to buy a loaf of bread. Nobody knows what today’s price will be.
We discuss why the United States government is putting still more economic sanctions on the already starving people of Venezuela. Glenn also suggests that the turmoil in Venezuela is not an isolated event. We can find similar break downs in the Central Congo and other parts of the world. There is a process to collapse.
There is another resource called “infoAmazonia” with great graphics and videos to follow up.
You could start with Glenn’s article “Venezuela: can a failing state protect its environment and its people?”. Other articles on Mongabay by Glenn Scherer are here.
SERHII PLOKHII – THE CHERNOBYL CATASTROPHE AND IT’S DISCONTENTS
On April 26, 1986 a young Professor was returning to teach at his university in the Ukraine, when there was a terrible accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. But the Soviet government hid it, while millions of people were exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity. Some argue the Chernobyl reactor accident, and the government cover-up, helped the downfall of the Soviet Union, and the independence of Ukraine. Did it also derail expansion of the nuclear industry, and turn Russia toward climate-killing fossil fuels?
We need to know, and Professor Serhii Plokhii has written the definitive book. It is simply called “Chernobyl, The History Of A Nuclear Catastrophe”. This is the most recent of 12 books by Plokhii about the Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and the Cold War. Serhii Plokhii is now an American and an esteemed professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University.
In a talk published by Book TV, Serhii Plokhii says that contrary to the Western meme of the fall of the Soviet Union as the triumph of Democracy – many people in Moscow saw it rather as the result of a conspiracy by the West, perhaps by the CIA, or some elite out of Harvard.
This resonates today, as Americans and Europeans face concerted efforts by Russia to break faith in government, to stir up divisions using targeted social media, and to install leaders who do not believe in governing or regulations. Some billionaires are willing to go along, hoping covert corporate rule can consolidate it’s hold on government.
We talk about the cause of the great reactor accident in 1986. The immediate cause was the action of a nuclear operator. But that operator was never told of the weakness in that Soviet reactor design. Generic secrecy in the Soviet State (which happens in all nuclear states) did not relay the information that another reactor near St Petersburg (then Leningrad) had a similar atomic accident. Scientists had even written a paper about the flaw, which could be avoided, but of course that was never published, and never communicated to other operators of the same type of nuclear plant!
Plokhii (which can also be anglicized to “Plokhy”) quotes Gorbachev, who said “The Personnel are responsible for the fact that the accident took place, but the scope of the accident is due to the physics of the reactor.” No doubt Gorbachev was speaking about the particular design of the RMMK Soviet reactors.
Personally but I think it’s true of uranium-powered reactors in general. Right now in America, there are about 23 General Electric Mark I reactors running. They all have the same flawed design demonstrated at four blown reactors in Fukushima Japan. American regulators and operators know the design is inherently unsafe, and yet still keep running them. An important deputy administrator in Soviet nuclear operations, named Valerii Legasov said:
“It is safe to say that nuclear power is considerably less harmful to human health than coal power“. We still hear that argument today, but now in the context of climate change. Of course, Legasov also said “Specialists are of course well aware that it is impossible to produce an actual nuclear explosion at a nuclear power station, and only an improbable concatenation of circumstances could bring about the semblance of such an explosion, which would be no more destructive than an artillery shell.”
In any case, the Soviet reactor designers did not think a containment structure was necessary. Chernobyl had no containment – another reason why radiation was blown as far as northern Sweden and France.
The government of Ukraine and Russia today differ widely in their views and uses of the historical fact of Chernobyl. A few things we know for sure: while the Three Mile Island melt-down in Pennsylvania seemed a one-time freak accident (where no one was killed directly) – the Chernobyl accident helped kill off the future of nuclear power in most Western countries (except France). No American civilian reactor could be funded (and only a couple have been completed since then) after Chernobyl. World wide, a 2016 article in the Guardian adds it up: “in the 32 years before Chernobyl, 409 reactors were opened, but only 194 have been connected in the three decades since”. The country with the most new nuclear plants under construction is China.
The Chernobyl reactor exploded just 83 miles, or 134 kilometers from Kyiv, the largest city and capital of Ukraine. I have seen documentaries about that, there is much less about the hidden story of radiation and costs to the neighboring country of Belarus. The reaction of the two countries tells the story, Plokhii. In the Ukraine, people with radiation exposure received compensation which lasts even today. Medical services were provided. However Belarus next door was hit with far more radiation per person. Their system would be overwhelmed with Chernobyl victims, so instead the government decided to play down the radiation, and pay out much less. There was a whole different tone – but thyroid cancer in Belarus was diagnosed in 12,000 people, most of them children.
Apparently American intelligence agencies did not know about the Chernobyl accident before the Swedes warned the world. Nuclear reactor operators at Forsmark, Sweden detected excess radiation that was not coming from their plant. It took weeks before the Soviet government admitted the accident took place. Even people in Kyiv were confused about it – but Plokhii as a university lecturer was in the loop and knew much more quickly.
This new book draws on two powerful drives: first, Plokhii was there. He lived through it and so this in partly his own story. But the book is real history at it’s best, told with a mixture of facts in stories that kept me reading. The second driver is the relatively recent release by the Ukraine of the archives from secret Soviet files, including from the KGB. Finally, we know more about what happened on the inside, at the Kremlin.
It turns out the Kremlin used old Stalinist techniques of disinformation to manage the public relations of the Chernobyl accident. At first Western media claimed there were thousands of deaths in the reactor accident. When that proved overblown, the Soviet media machine pounced to say nothing much happened at Chernobyl. They manipulated what assets they had in the West to sow doubt, and some of those manufactured controversies still persist in our conversations about Chernobyl. The propaganda we find in this book seems right up to date with the 2016 Russian attack on American minds, to elect Donald Trump. It all sounds too familiar.
We briefly touch on Professor’s Plokhii other work. Whenever I try to understand the complicated relationship of Ukraine and Russia today, I go back to the book “The Harvest of Sorrow” by Robert Conquest. Even today, I suspect whether people believe the great killer starvation in the Ukraine in 1932 and ’33 was ordered by Stalin, or an accidental famine – that belief could determine how millions of Ukrainians think and feel about Russia. Dr. Plokhii says we have not escaped that history. He thinks the majority of people in the Ukraine see that famine, dubbed “the Holodomor” as a purposeful ethnic cleansing by Stalin and the Soviets. The genocide was not aimed only at Ukrainians, but all people in that region. Even more Kazakhs died than Ukrainians.
When millions die we often name it. Most people in the West know “the holocaust” but very few know the word “Holodomor“. Let me pass on an ironic statement in Wikipedia, discussing denial of Holodomor:
“The denial of the man-made famine was a highly successful and well orchestrated disinformation campaign by the Soviet government. According to Robert Conquest, it was the first major instance of Soviet authorities adopting the Big Lie propaganda technique to sway world opinion“.
Today, half of all electricity generated in the Ukraine is from 15 nuclear reactors in the country. I ask Professor Plokhii, given Chernobyl, do most people in the Ukraine accept nuclear power as a safe option?
Let me quote one paragraph from the press release for the new book:
“Serhii has published 12 previous books on the history of Eastern Europe and on the Cold War. In The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, he challenged the interpretation of the collapse of the Soviet Union as an American Cold War victory, arguing, instead, that Ukraine and Russia were the two republics responsible for the end of the USSR. This new work, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, is a continuation of that work in that he argues for the rightful place of the Chernobyl accident among the causes for the fall of the USSR.”
This book is not dry. It is a lively combination of stories, irony and pathos. Look for “Chernobyl, The History Of A Nuclear Catastrophe”.
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