For lone socialist in Congress, pet issue finds the spotlight


Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and the only self-described socialist in Congress, has long been an outspoken voice in Washington on issues of economic inequality.

But with the vanishing middle class figuring prominently in the campaign for mayor of the country’s largest city, and President Obama last month calling the gap between rich and poor “the defining issue of our time,” Sanders’ pet political cause has moved to the forefront of the national discussion.

“There has been an understanding in the Democratic Party that now is the time to focus on protecting the collapsing middle class and the needs of moderate- to low-income Americans,” Sanders told JTA in an interview. “When the middle class is shrinking and the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well, we do need revenue to come from the wealthiest people in the country.”

Sanders, 72, who has long caucused with the Democrats, is one of 10 Jewish members in the U.S. Senate. The native of Brooklyn, N.Y., is the son of Polish immigrants whose father’s family was wiped out in the Holocaust, according to a 2007 New York Times profile.

After graduating from the University of Chicago, Sanders spent time on an Israeli kibbutz around 1963 — notably before the 1967 Six-Day War, when it was not common for American youngsters to spend time in Israel.

But Sanders is hesitant to draw a connection between his Jewish background and his priorities as a senator. With a series of observations about the Jewish history of rootlessness and oppression, Sanders begins to describe the role of his lower-middle-class upbringing in forging him into the Congress’ only self-described socialist. Then he catches himself.

“This isn’t a profile,” he declared, interrupting himself. “There are very important issues that need to be discussed — the collapse of the middle class, very high unemployment rates, the crisis of climate change, the widening income gap.”

With a bespectacled face framed by a wild mop of white hair and a lingering tendency to bark in Brooklyn intonations even after 45 years in Vermont, Sanders is one of the more identifiably Jewish senators.

“As everyone in this room knows, I am a Jew, an old Jew,” the actor Fred Armisen, portraying Sanders, announced in an unaired “Saturday Night Live” sketch last year to knowing guffaws from the other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Now with income inequality becoming a defining issue in the 2014 midterm elections, Sanders is gaining a different kind of attention. He has become a go-to talking head on the subject on cable news networks, including the conservative Fox News.

“You have the Walton family of Walmart owning more wealth than the bottom 40 percent,” Sanders said. “While at the same time we’ve had a huge growth in the number of millionaires and billionaires.”

Sanders’ focus on issues of income inequality are true to his socialist reputation — one he continues to embrace as fiercely as he did in 1980, when he was the surprise winner of a mayoral election in Burlington, Vt. In 1990, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 2006 won his first Senate election.

Sanders acknowledges a certain stigma attached to the label socialist, but believes Americans would be likelier to embrace the term if they were better informed about the benefits of socialism.

“The ideas do resonate, but there is a stigma regarding the word,” he said. “We went through a McCarthyite period, a Cold War with the Soviet Union. There is a misperception of what democratic socialism is.”

That might be changing. Where Sanders once was prone to excoriate fellow Democrats for their solicitousness of corporate interests or their failure to oppose cuts to entitlement programs, he now is likelier to praise them for embracing the battles he has waged for years.

Sanders notes Bill de Blasio’s successful run for New York mayor on a platform focused in large part on income inequality. Congress, too, has come along, he says. Entitlement reform formerly was a watchword among Republicans, and even among the president and some Democrats.

Now, Sanders says, “Most Democrats understand that Americans don’t want cuts in Social Security and Medicaid and Medicare. The Democratic Party is becoming more vigorous in trying to extend unemployment benefits, in raising the minimum wage. I see that as a step forward in understanding that the American people do not want to see more attacks on the children, the elderly and the poor.”

There has been speculation that Sanders may run for president as a means of keeping Democrats on the true path. He won’t count it out, but insists, again, that his personal ambitions are not the point — income inequality is.

“I don’t wake up every morning thinking about whether I should be president of the United States,” Sanders said. “But those issues have to be discussed. And if nobody else is, I will discuss them.”

Venezuela to probe Chavez cancer ‘poisoning’ accusation


Venezuela will set up a formal inquiry into suspicions that the late President Hugo Chavez's cancer was the result of poisoning by his enemies abroad, the government said.

The accusation has been derided by critics of the government, who view it as a typical Chavez-style conspiracy theory intended to feed fears of “imperialist” threats to Venezuela's socialist system and distract people from daily problems.

Still, acting President Nicolas Maduro vowed to push through a serious investigation into the claim, which was first raised by Chavez himself after he was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.

“We will seek the truth,” Maduro told regional TV network Telesur late on Monday. “We have the intuition that our commander Chavez was poisoned by dark forces that wanted him out of the way.”

Foreign scientists will be invited to join a government commission to probe the accusation, the OPEC nation's acting leader said.

Maduro, 50, is Chavez's handpicked successor and is running as the government's candidate in a snap presidential election on April 14 that was triggered by his boss's death last week.

He is trying to keep voters' attention firmly focused on Chavez to benefit from the outpouring of grief among his millions of supporters. The opposition is centering its campaign on portraying Maduro, a former bus driver, as an incompetent who, they say, is morbidly exploiting Chavez's demise.

'HIS FAITHFUL SON'

“They're attacking him saying he isn't Chavez. Of course Nicolas isn't Chavez. But he is his faithful, responsible, revolutionary son,” senior Socialist Party and campaign official Jorge Rodriguez told reporters.

“All these insults and vilification are going to be turned into votes for us on April 14.”

Running for the opposition's Democratic Unity coalition is a business-friendly state governor, Henrique Capriles, 40, who lost to Chavez in a presidential vote last year.

Tuesday was the last day of official mourning for Chavez, although ceremonies appear set to continue. His embalmed body was to be taken in procession to a military museum on Friday.

Millions have filed past Chavez's coffin to pay homage to a man who was adored by many of the poor for his humble roots and welfare policies, but was also hated by many people for his authoritarian style and bullying of opponents.

Though Maduro has spoken about combating crime and extending development programs in the slums, he has mostly used his frequent appearances on state TV to talk about Chavez.

The 58-year-old president was diagnosed with cancer in his pelvic region in June 2011 and underwent four surgeries before dying of what sources said was metastasis in the lungs.

Maduro said it was too early to specifically point a finger over Chavez's cancer, but noted that the United States had laboratories with experience in producing diseases.

“He had a cancer that broke all norms,” Maduro told Telesur. “Everything seems to indicate that they affected his health using the most advanced techniques … He had that intuition from the beginning.”

Maduro has compared his suspicions over Chavez's death with allegations that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died in 2004 from poisoning by Israeli agents.

The case echoes Chavez's long campaign to convince the world that his idol and Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar died of poisoning by his enemies in Colombia in 1830.

Venezuela's National Assembly was expected to begin debating a proposal by pro-government legislators and Chavez supporters to call a referendum – which could also be held on April 14 – on whether he should be buried at the pantheon in Caracas, a mausoleum built for Bolivar's remains.

OPPOSITION'S UPHILL FIGHT

Though keeping a low profile out of respect for Chavez's supporters, opponents are furious at what they see as the use of his death by government officials to bolster their chances of staying in power.

Launching his candidacy on Monday, Maduro's speech began with a recording of Chavez singing the national anthem. Hearing his booming voice again, many supporters wept.

As well as the wave of sympathy over Chavez, the opposition faces a well-financed state apparatus, institutions packed with government supporters, and problems within its own rank-and-file, still demoralized over October's presidential election defeat and a mauling at gubernatorial polls in December.

Capriles, an energetic lawyer and career politician, has tried to kick-start his campaign with accusations that Maduro and other senior officials lied about the details of Chavez's illness, hiding the gravity of his condition from Venezuelans.

That has brought him a torrent of abuse in return, with the words “Nazi” and “fascist” being used by senior government officials – despite Capriles' Jewish roots.

An opposition official, Henri Falcon, told a news conference Capriles had not registered his candidacy in person on Monday because his team had received “very serious information that an ambush was being prepared for him.”

At stake in the election is not only the future of Chavez's leftist “revolution,” but the continuation of Venezuelan oil subsidies and other aid crucial to the economies of left-wing allies around Latin America, from Cuba to Bolivia.

Venezuela boasts the world's largest oil reserves.

Polls from before Chavez's death gave Maduro a lead over Capriles of more than 10 percentage points.

Though there are hopes for a post-Chavez rapprochement between Venezuela and the United States, a diplomatic spat worsened on Monday when Washington expelled two Venezuelan diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation.

Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga.; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Christopher Wilson

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez dead from cancer


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has died after a two-year battle with cancer, ending the socialist leader's 14-year rule of the South American country, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a televised speech on Tuesday.

The flamboyant 58-year-old leader had undergone four operations in Cuba for a cancer that was first detected in his pelvic region in mid-2011. His last surgery was on December 11 and he had not been seen in public since.

“It's a moment of deep pain,” Maduro, accompanied by senior ministers, said, his voice choking.

Chavez easily won a new six-year term at an election in October and his death will devastate millions of supporters who adored his charismatic style, anti-U.S. rhetoric and oil-financed policies that brought subsidized food and free health clinics to long-neglected slums.

Detractors, however, saw his one-man style, gleeful nationalizations and often harsh treatment of opponents as traits of an egotistical dictator whose misplaced statist economics wasted a historic bonanza of oil revenues.

Chavez's death opens the way for a new election that will test whether his socialist “revolution” can live on without his dominant personality at the helm.

VICE PRESIDENT MADURO FAVORITE TO WIN ELECTION

The vote should be held within 30 days and will likely pit Maduro against Henrique Capriles, the centrist opposition leader and state governor who lost to Chavez in the October election.

One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead.

Maduro is Chavez's preferred successor, enjoys support among many of the working class and could benefit from an inevitable surge of emotion in the coming days.

But the president's death could also trigger in-fighting in a leftist coalition that ranges from hard-left intellectuals to army officers and businessmen.

Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves and some of the most heavily traded bonds, so investors will be highly sensitive to any signs of political instability.

A defeat for Maduro would bring major changes to Venezuela and could also upend its alliances with Latin American countries that have relied on Chavez's oil-funded largesse – most notably with communist-led Cuba, which recovered from financial ruin in the 1990s thanks largely to Chavez's aid.

Chavez was a garrulous figurehead for a global “anti-imperialist” alliance stretching as far as Belarus and Iran, and he will be sorely missed by anti-U.S. agitators.

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French extreme-right leader has strong showing in presidential vote


French Socialist Francois Hollande edged President Nicolas Sarkozy in the initial round of presidential elections, with Marine LePen finishing with the highest total ever for her extreme-right-wing party.

Hollande garnered 28 percent of the vote to 26 percent for Sarkozy, the conservative leader, in Sunday’s polling. Hollande and Sarkozy will face off in the second round of the election on May 6. According to the latest polls, Hollande could defeat Sarkozy by a comfortable margin.

Le Pen, head of the National Front, the country’s largest extreme-right party, won 18.5 percent of the vote, the highest percentage reportedly ever achieved by the movement. Her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, won nearly 17 percent of the voter in 2002 in reaching the second round against Jacques Chirac.

The National Front vote tally is alarming, the French Union of Jewish Students said.

“Today, more than 7.2 million French citizens have voted for an extreme-right candidate, who openly preaches hatred,” the union’s president, Jonathan Hayoun, said in a statement. “They already were 5.4 million in 2002. We are very worried, especially because Marine Le Pen seems to be very popular among young voters.”

The results of the first round were disappointing for far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and centrist Francois Bayrou. Melenchon earned slightly more than 11 percent of the first- round votes, falling short of his expectations, Bayrou, who finished third during the last presidential race, did not reach 9 percent this time.

Approximately 80 percent of the 44.5 million registered voters went to the polls, a high turnout rate but lower than in 2007, when 84 percent of the electorate participated.