LIMA - Last January, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that he and Venezuelan parliament president Diosdado Cabello were both the target of an assassination plan – without unveiling the conspirators’ identity.
In March, he said the Pentagon and the CIA were hatching a plan to murder opposition leader Henrique Capriles and frame him for it. In April, he said U.S Ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich and Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega were conspiring with Salvadoran hit men to assassinate him.
This month, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was added to the conspiracy theory list. He also said that the spirit of dead President Hugo Chavez had visited him in the form of a little bird. If we add all those stories together, we might suspect that Nicolas Maduro is suffering from paranoia and has lost his sense of reality.
At first glance, Maduro’s ill-tempered reaction to a statement by Peruvian Foreign Minister Rafael Roncagliolo asking Unasur, the Union of South American Nations to call for “tolerance and dialogue” in Venezuela only reinforces this impression. Maduro called the Venezuelan ambassador in Lima for some tough talks and ended up settling the matter with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala himself.
"You may be Peru's foreign minister, Roncagliolo, I know you well, but you cannot give your opinion on Venezuela," Maduro said in a televised speech. "I hope that is not the position of President Ollanta Humala."
Roncaglioli has since resigned "for health reasons."
Peru currently holds the chair of Unasur. After Maduro was elected president in April, Unasur indeed made a Roncagliolo-inspired statement calling for dialogue and the “preservation of a climate of tolerance for the good of the entire Venezuelan people.”
I would suggest however that there is a clear political calculation behind all of Maduro’s actions. Even if the strain of the mess he is in causes him to make mistakes, Maduro is essentially a rational political actor.
Let's take for example his visceral and disproportionate reaction to Roncagliolo’s statement. Like Fidel Castro and Chavez showed, there is nothing less novel during difficult times than to invoke the specter of foreign conspiracies and threats in an effort to try and unite the home front.
This is particular necessary as Maduro’s leadership is being pilloried, even from within his own political movement. In great part, the reason for this is because the double-digit polling lead Maduro enjoyed during the campaign transformed into a 1.5% margin victory against Capriles.
However, the response to the Roncagliolo statement serves a different purpose on the external front. It is there to prevent other countries from agreeing with the Peruvian foreign minister, and avoid the risk of Unasur interfering in the Venezuelan crisis.
In this context, Maduro’s recent tour of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay serves the same purpose. Maduro’s trip coincided with another statement by a Unasur minister. Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro recently said there was no need for another Unasur meeting to discuss the political situation in Venezuela. The meeting had been called… by Peru. “The situation has developed positively, political tensions have eased and social tensions have practically disappeared,” said Almagro.
Neutralizing the neighbors
Maduro’s behavior is aimed at making sure there is no regional intervention in the Venezuelan situation. Every time it seems there could be some meddling from South American neighbors, the Venezuelan government makes a minor concession to neutralize its neighbors’ intrusion.
For instance, after the elections, the partial vote recount that opposition leader Capriles has asked for and threatened to appeal to Unasur if he didn’t get – and that Supreme Court had initially said was “impossible” – was finally approved by the Venezuelan National Election Board (CNE) just hours before the Unasur summit.
Thus, the recount did not look as though it was the product of international pressure, but a governmental initiative instead. As a result, the summit limited itself to declare it took “positive note on the CNE’s decision.”
Similarly, Maduro’s reaction to the Rancogliolo statement led to a “gentlemen’s agreement” to restore legislative work in the Venezuelan parliament. Since the election, the pro-government majority within the parliament had been barring the opposition from participating in parliament and refusing to pay the opposition MP’s salaries.
This is the carrot-and-stick method. The greater the threats or the bigger the stick the Venezuelan government brandishes, the smaller the carrot or peace offering has to be.
A final element that has to be taken into account is the foreign aid Venezuela provides to its allies – there is no shortage of examples. After the Uruguayan foreign minister’s positive statement, some were quick to point out that 40% of the oil Uruguay consumes is imported from Venezuela under very preferential terms.
In itself this is proof enough of the influence that Venezuela has on Uruguay. On the other hand, the same thing could be said about foreign aid doled out by the U.S. government. A 2006 USAID document states: The 1950 Point Four Program focused on two goals: Creating markets for the United States by reducing poverty and increasing production in developing countries; diminishing the threat of communism by helping countries prosper under capitalism.
Clearly, Venezuela is not the only country with a political agenda when granting aid. That being said, the purpose of that help does not usually tend to be something as crass as the buying of consciences. We should remember that until recently, USAID operated in Bolivia, headed by proudly socialist President Evo Morales.
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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