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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Chavez: "The threat of an alternative way"

John Pilger writes about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, "the most popular head of state in the western hemisphere, probably in the world." Rather than follow the Texas/Persian Gulf model of using oil wealth to build huge palaces and buy billions of dollars worth of weapons to protect them, he has been spending the money on health care, education and food for the millions of poor in Venezuela. Illiteracy has been practically eliminated.

You will read bad things about Chavez in Bush house organs like the Washington Post and Miami Herald; obviously he's not perfect, and he has used his power at times to increase his power. And, poor observer that I may be, I will vouch for much of what Pilger says based on my ten days in Venezuela two years ago. From what I saw, Chavez is enormously popular--and most of the 70-80% of the population that supports him does so fervently. In the streets of Caracas, people would grab my shoulder and recite the achievements to me: the constitution, the clinics, the schools, the participatory democracy. The clinics and schools and libraries are real; I saw them in action in Caracas and elsewhere. Political freedom exists in a big way--the opposition-controlled media attacks the government with a fervor we can only dream about here, and both Chavistas and their opponents regularly take to the streets in huge rallies. (You can read my report on my Venezuela trip here.) And the rise in oil prices over the past two years has enabled Chavez to turn many of the dreams into reality.

Pilger concludes:
Chavez is, of course, a threat, especially to the United States. Like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who based their revolution on the English co-operative moment, and the moderate Allende in Chile, he offers the threat of an alternative way of developing a decent society: in other words, the threat of a good example in a continent where the majority of humanity has long suffered a Washington-designed peonage. In the US media in the 1980s, the "threat" of tiny Nicaragua was seriously debated until it was crushed. Venezuela is clearly being "softened up" for something similar. A US army publication, Doctrine for Asymmetric War against Venezuela, describes Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution as the "largest threat since the Soviet Union and Communism". When I said to Chavez that the US historically had had its way in Latin America, he replied: "Yes, and my assassination would come as no surprise. But the empire is in trouble, and the people of Venezuela will resist an attack. We ask only for the support of all true democrats."
And on a practical level, whether Chavez is a true champion of the poor or a proto-dictator, he has already served the working poor in the United States well. Not only has he provided low-cost heating oil and gasoline to impoverished areas here--he has effectively blocked the "Free Trade Area of the Americas" (FTAA), NAFTA on steroids, which would have resulted in millions of additional people trying to come to the US because their ability to survive at home would be destroyed. The neo-liberal agenda desperately needs to be opposed, and Chavez is doing it more effectively than anyone in the world (and certainly in the US).

(Technical note: Chavez's name has an accent on the a: "OOgo CHA-vez." But when I put the accented "a" in my text, it looks like a square in IE and a question mark in a diamond in Firefox. Like this: . So I'm just going to leave the accent out.)