14 December 2004

Inside Venezuela I: The Chavez phenomenon and the U.S.

14 December 2004
The Hindu

Inside Venezuela-I

The Chavez phenomenon and the U.S.

By Siddharth Varadarajan

Hugo Chavez

CARACAS: Shortly after he appeared on national television in October 2001 holding aloft bloody photographs of children killed by the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, President Hugo Chavez Frias of Venezuela received a visit from Donna Hrinak, then Washington's Ambassador to the oil-rich South American country.

Recalling his meeting with the U.S. envoy at an international conference here last week, Mr. Chavez said his televised message had simply been that one could not fight terrorism with terrorism. "But the Ambassador came to me and demanded, `You must rectify your position.' I replied: `You are talking to the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. You are dismissed. When you learn what the job of an Ambassador is, you may come back'."

"As for our position," he thundered before an audience of artists and intellectuals from around the world, "we did not rectify it. We ratified it. We condemn 9/11 and the Madrid train bombing, but also the bombing of cities like Fallujah and the assassination of children." The "anti-terrorism" of the U.S.-led `war on terror,' he said in reply to a question, "is simply terrorism. Justice is the only road to peace."

At a time when most countries are vying with each other for a place under Pax Americana, the Venezuela of Mr. Chavez is an aberration, a rude and insistent interruption in the otherwise triumphant march towards the End of History. From the war on terror to free market economics, privatisation, cutbacks on social expenditure and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, Mr. Chavez opposes the Washington orthodoxy on just about everything. He has embraced the Cuba of Fidel Castro, supplying the socialist island petrol in exchange for doctors, which the urban and rural poor in Venezuela never had access to despite their country's vast oil wealth. "When Aznar (the former Spanish Prime Minister) told me not to be friendly with Castro," herecalled: "I said you have forgotten you are not Ferdinand VII."

But if Mr. Chavez and his supporters — he handily won a recall referendum earlier this year with a plurality of 60 per cent — speak out against the new imperialism of Washington, the Bush administration too considers the Venezuelan leader an implacable foe. The U.S. resents his efforts to get Latin America to unite and is afraid his subversive social and political experiments might prove contagious in a region that has been impoverished by more than two decades of neo-liberal economic policies. "In order to defend humanity," Mr. Chavez declared last week, "we have to go on the offensive. And now is the time to say that another world is possible."

More than anything else, of course, the U.S. does not like the fact that an independent-minded leader such as Mr. Chavez is sitting astride one of the largest oil reservoirs in the world. Indeed, at 2.6 million barrels a day, Venezuela is currently OPEC's (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) third largest producer of crude, behind only Saudi Arabia and Iran. And the U.S. is its biggest customer.

In 2002, the U.S. supported a short-lived military coup against Mr. Chavez, a former paratrooper who was elected President in 2000. The putsch was defeated by a combination of people's power — with thousands of poor Venezuelans taking to the streets to defend their leader — and infighting within the traditional elites of the country. Central Intelligence Agency documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Washington knew of the coup plot well before it was carried out. And once the coup failed, the U.S. used the bipartisan Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy to funnel money to the recall referendum campaign against Mr. Chavez.

Even his bitterest critics concede that Mr. Chavez's `Bolivarian revolution' — which combines elements of Marxism and Christianity with the military populism so unique to the region — makes him virtually unbeatable politically without intervention from outside. "That's assuming, of course, that the money he's pouring into unproductive social programmes doesn't bankrupt the `revolution' first," a businessman told The Hindu .

For Mr. Chavez, however, it is these social programmes — in education, health and food support — which provide the main line of defence against U.S. intervention.

At the graduation ceremony for Mission Robinson, the country's new adult literacy programme on which several million dollars are being spent, he handed out certificates and chatted animatedly with dozens of graduates for several minutes each.

Many of the men and women were in their 60s and 70s and had just learnt how to read and write.

"Some people say, hey Chavez, why are we spending so much on adult literacy and not on physical infrastructure," he said later. "My answer is that before buildings and highways, we have to build a sovereign people who can live with dignity."

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