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Sunday, April 25, 2004

I've suggested before that I'd write more about Venezuela later. Well, later seems to be here, so I'll give it a shot. I've got a lot to say and my time is limited, so I'll warn you in advance that this certainly won't be complete and probably won't be completely coherent. I'll probably add bits and pieces later on, and maybe come back and edit parts of this post as well.

To start with, I'll mention how amazed I am at how little is known about Venezuela here in the U.S. Most of the people I've talked to since returning, none of them stupid, seem to have little or no idea where Venezuela is--even which continent it's on. I was asked if they speak Spanish there. When I mentioned the problems President Chavez is having, someone asked "Isn't he getting pretty old?" Eventually I realized that he thought that Cesar Chavez, former president of the United Farm Workers, was now president of Venezuela. Nobody seems to be aware that Venezuela is a major supplier of oil to the U.S., that the Bush administration despises Chavez, that there was a coup attempt two years ago with U.S. backing, or that there is likely to be a recall referendum in Venezuela soon. While almost all Venezuelans could tell you who the U.S. president is, and who his chief "opposition" is, it seems as though very few Americans know even the first thing about Venezuela (of course, this would be true of almost every country on the planet).

For some basic facts about Venezuela (and other countries), the CIA World Factbook is a good place to start. Here's their introductory background statement:

Venezuela was one of three countries that emerged from the collapse of Gran Colombia in 1830 (the others being Colombia and Ecuador). For most of the first half of the 20th century, Venezuela was ruled by generally benevolent military strongmen, who promoted the oil industry and allowed for some social reforms. Democratically elected governments have held sway since 1959. Current concerns include: an embattled president who is losing his once solid support among Venezuelans, a divided military, drug-related conflicts along the Colombian border, increasing internal drug consumption, overdependence on the petroleum industry with its price fluctuations, and irresponsible mining operations that are endangering the rain forest and indigenous peoples.

From what I learned, the parts about "benevolent" strongmen and the "president losing support" may be a bit biased, but overall it seems a fair assessment. Elsewhere in the Factbook, I learn that Venezuela has a population of 24 million, has a land area twice that of California, of which only about 3% is used for agriculture. And if you don't know, Venezuela is located in the most northern part of South America on the Caribbean, and borders Colombia, Brazil and Guyana. Spanish is the official and dominant language.

Of course, for the U.S., and especially the Bush administration, the key fact about Venezuela is that it has lots of oil. In 2001, the U.S. imported 1.54 million barrels per day from Venezuela, trailing only Canada and Saudi Arabia as foreign oil suppliers. Before 1959, the "benevolent military strongmen" supplied the U.S. with oil at the low prices it demanded, and the democratically-elected governments between 1959 and 1998 didn't change that much. But Hugo Chavez has made Venezuela more of an aggressive member of OPEC, seeking to raise oil prices and share the wealth with the poor majority in the country who were largely excluded previously. This, of course, is the type of action which quickly gets the attention of the cheap labor/cheap oil conservatives in Washington.

So, ever since Chavez was first elected in in 1998, the opposition (composed mainly of the two parties which used to battle each other for power before Chavez came along) has been trying to get him out, with more or less active support from Washington. Opposition-led work slowdowns and stoppages have attempted to cripple the economy and thereby discredit Chavez. In April 2002, a coup was organized which succeeded in deposing Chavez for about one day. Since then, the opposition efforts have returned to work stoppages and more recently have focussed on a recall referendum, which has involved messy arguments over valid signatures on signatures.

Chavez is a fascinating figure, and the focus of adoration by his supporters and hatred by the opposition. He came from a poor family and came to prominence in the military. He himself was part of a failed coup attempt in 1992, for which he served a couple of years in jail. When he got out, he started promoting his populist agenda, telling the poor of Venezuela that they deserved a share of the country's immense wealth and a larger voice in how things were run. He was elected president in 1998 by a huge majority. One of his first acts was to call a constitutional assembly, which wrote a brand new constitution for Venezuela incorporating some of the most progressive elements from constitutions around the world. Chavez supporters, or Chavistas, adore the Bolivarian constitution of 1999, and many carry paperback copies of it with them to rallies and speeches.

But Chavez began to solidify the opposition shortly after the constitution was ratified. He used the new constitution as a reason for holding new elections, which resulted in a new national assembly, the majority of which were Chavistas. He himself was also re-elected to a six-year term in 2000, even though his previous term was far from over. So while the opposition doesn't directly attack the constitution very often (given its immense popularity), they do point out that Chavez used the new constitution to solidify his hold on power. They also point out that he has taken many actions which are unconstitutional under the new constitution. I don't know nearly enough about either the constitution or the actions taken to begin to judge accurately the validity of the charges. My general impression is that he has done many things of questionable constitutionality, probably much more than he admits, and probably much less than he is accused of.

And the constitution itself is the basis for the recall referendum. Unfortunately, the constitution was quite vague on the rules for such recalls, and much of the current debate is about how to run the referendum under these vague guidelines.

So has Chavez been a good president? He has clearly given hope to millions of Venezuelans who felt completely disenfranchised under earlier governments. His education programs have been fairly successful, increasing literacy. I personally witnessed the Mision Robinson (grades 1-6) amd Mision Rivas (grades 7-12) adult education programs. The students seemed thrilled to be finally getting the education they had missed as children. Even the opposition politician who spoke to us granted that these "Misions" had been successful. The health care proposals are much more controversial, although the debate is less on how well they are working than on how they are being implemented. The most controversial aspect is the use of thousands of Cuban doctors to establish clinics in the barrios and other poor areas. The Chavistas say that without the Cuban doctors that millions of Venezuelans would still be without access to health care; the opposition claims that there are Venezuelan doctors being displaced by the Cubans, and that the program shows that Chavez wants to establish Cuban-style communism in Venezuela. The economy under Chavez appears to be struggling mightily, but it is unclear whether this is due more to his policies or to the deliberate attempts by the opposition to sabotage them through strikes and other measures.

I'm going to try to wrap this post up shortly. My brief verdict: Chavez is more good than bad, a necessary force acting for the rights of the poor people in Venezuela. In conjunction with Lula in Brazil, he offers hope to all of Latin America for resisting the crippling free-trade and neoliberal policies being promoted by Washington (both Republicans and Democrats). He is far from perfect: He defintely has a bunch of skeletons in his closet, and at times he seems to needlessly provoke the opposition. But for the people of Latin America, and even the U.S., to successfully resist the pauperization of the masses and total destruction of the environment that the neoliberal/neocon "free-trade" agenda promises, intelligent charismatic leaders will be required. It seems clear that no such leader will result for the U.S. election this November. So dynamic leaders like Chavez, even with flaws, are probably critical to the long-term survival of the planet.

One more thing. While I hope that Chavez survives the recall, I hope that whatever result is achieved there is without U.S. influence. The only help I intend to offer Chavez is to write to Congress (and Bush and Kerry) to tell them to keep their hands off the process, and to ask you, my readers, to do the same. It's their country, not ours, and neither Chavez nor his replacement will be either legitimate or effective if he's seen as the choice of Washington, not Caracas.

More later...