Venezuela's Chavez Has US in a Tizzy
On Tuesday November 22, the New York Times published an article titled: "Q&A: U.S.-Venezuelan Relations."The following piece asks the same questions but the answers are different.
WHY IS WASHINGTON SO CONCERNED ABOUT VENEZUELA?
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was in the limelight at the Summit of the Americas on November 4-5 after taking the lead role in burying the US-backed "Free Trade Area of the Americas." The scheme would have given US corporations a free hand at Latin American markets while farm and export subsidies and other bureaucratic regulations would continue to give US agriculture and manufacturing an advantage against imports from the South.
Speaking to the "counter summit", also held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Chavez drew heavy applause from the tens of thousands gathered to find alternatives to fighting poverty and injustice. The Venezuelan leader put forth the "Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas" as the way to promote regional development based on social and economic investment and solidarity between sister nations. Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations told the NYT that Chavez was able to "step into a political vacuum the US has left by virtue of having such a myopic agenda for the hemisphere."
WHO IS HUGO CHAVEZ?
Chavez, a former army colonel, made his first attempt at reversing Venezuela's long history of corrupt rule in a failed 1992 coup against the government of Carlos Andres Perez. Released in an amnesty two years later, Chavez, already a national hero, swept to victory with 56.2 percent of the votes in the 1998 presidential elections on a platform of social and economic reforms. The following year his supporters drafted a new constitution to make possible a left turn, which was overwhelmingly approved by the voters. When the new constitution took force, Chavez had to once again stand election and in June 2000 he received 59.7 percent of the votes for a six year term.
In 2001, Chavez introduced new laws including land reform and changes in the fraud laden oil industry. Five months later a US-backed civilian-military coup removed him from office on April 11, 2002. When the new leaders graced by the White House held their first press conference they abolished the constitution, closed the legislature, and in one fell swoop reversed all the popular social and economic programs Chavez had instituted. While the Venezuelan media, virtually all private and pro-Washington, rejoiced, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans began to spontaneously assemble and converge on the city centers to demand Chavez' return. Two days later the junta fled Caracas under the thunder of massive demonstrations and, with a sizeable portion of the military supporting the democratically elected president, Chavez made his triumphant return from the island where he was held kidnapped.
Having failed to defeat him in both elections and through violence, the US and the local opposition turned to economic sabotage as the next step, paralyzing the nation's oil industry at the end of 2002.
While the nearly 2-month management strike cost the country billions, it too failed to bring down the popular government.
In 2003, the US decided to once again try the electoral route hoping the economic difficulties caused by the strike and supply shortages had softened up voters to finally oust Chavez. Millions poured into the opposition campaign via US-AID and NED. But the recall referendum in August, 2004 proved even more disastrous for Washington, with Chavez winning once again with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Under the 2000 Constitution a president can seek reelection for one additional period and Chavez is now expected by friends and foes alike to win easily in 2006.
When Chavez came to power he inherited a country wracked by corruption and poverty and excellent relations with the White House. With Washington's complacency and deals that favored US corporate interests, the two main parties AD and COPEI had squandered the country's vast oil wealth over decades and left a huge gap between rich and poor. The reforms instituted by the Chavez government have been designed to fight poverty by increasing employment and offering free educational opportunities and health care to those who never had them.
With the increase in world oil prices, Venezuela has seen its GDP grow in double digit figures and to the chagrin of the White House, the government has reinvested the money in developing other previously ignored economic sectors, including agriculture, while greatly increasing social spending. While the NYT article talks about increasing poverty with pro-Bush administration think tank statistics, anyone visiting Venezuela without an axe to grind can see support for Chavez in fact continues to increase.
HOW STRAINED ARE US-VENEZUELAN RELATIONS?
Bush administration experts note that US-Venezuelan relations prior to Chavez taking office were smooth sailing. However since Chavez came to power he challenged the status quo that favored US corporate interests. When Washington balked he claimed intermission in the country's internal affairs. After the Bush administration's involvement in the coup and oil industry sabotage became clearer, Chavez upped the ante by calling the US president "Mr. Danger" and revealing efforts by the US to assassinate him as a last ditch strategy. The fact that Chavez has increased trade as well as educational and health exchanges with Cuba is another thorn in Washington's side as it tries to tighten its nearly half century blockade on the Caribbean island.
WHAT CHALLENGES DOES VENEZUELA POSE?
To many observers in the US, Chavez programs of social and economic reform don't really pose a threat to US interests. But Bush administration officials continue to see him as a destabilizing force in the Americas and frown at his offering economic assistance with preferential oil agreements to several Latin American and Caribbean governments reeling from Washington's "free market" recipes. Another sore spot for the US State Department is "Telesur" a Caracas-based satellite TV channel, owned by Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Cuba, which puts a progressive Latin American focus on regional and world news that counters the CNN in Spanish and Univision coverage slanted heavily to a world centered around the United States.
As Washington shows its intolerance of a popular reformer and steps up its threats, Venezuela has begun to diversify its economic relations, traditionally very dependent on the US. After the coup showed to what lengths the US special services are willing to go to topple the Chavez government, Venezuela has also moved to shore up its country's defense readiness.
Chavez can do nothing right according to the Venezuelan opposition or the Bush administration that directs its actions. If he wins elections and then tries to govern, he's un-democratic. If he tries to implement the policies put forth in his electoral program he's a tyrant. He's even blamed for the masses not allowing the US-backed coup to succeed.
When legislative elections take place in early December it's once again a no win situation for Chavez in the eyes of the White House. If the parties that support his program win, they are undemocratic, if they lose, democracy rides again. In the last local elections held in October 2004, Chavez allies won in 20 of Venezuela's 23 states, plus the capital, Caracas.
HOW DANGEROUS ARE CHAVEZ THREATS?
While the verbal rift picks up steam, many US experts point to the long term business relationship between the two countries. They note that PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company, owns the Houston-based CITGO, one of the world's leading oil refiners, and that major US corporations like Exxon, Texaco, Chevron and Conoco Philips want to continue doing business with the South American country. Over 10 percent of US oil imports come from Venezuela, and while Chavez seeks to diversify his markets, the US remains his leading trade partner.
Other think tank analysts warn against demonizing Chavez and forcing a growing conflict. With the US bogged down in Iraq, threatening Iran and Syria, and stepping up its blockade against Cuba, many observers view the administration with its hands full. Why further alienate Venezuela at a time like this, they ask.