How the US Lost Latin America to Hugo Chavez

Lawrence Davidson


Background: Open Market “Freedom” vs. Democracy

In recent times there has been a general shift to the left in Latin American politics.  The traditional center-right parties that had controlled politics in most of the South and Central America were not really democratic ones.  They were patronage parties deeply rooted in a culture of corruption and often in league with military despots. Often, the elections that were held turned out to be rigged,  and the poor bribed for their votes or shut out from the polls.  While in power, these parties relegated most wealth to a relatively small elite and left the poor to live out their lives in shanty towns and rural degradation.  When, finally, popular pressures resulted in relatively honest elections, as they have in many countries over the last twenty years, the result was a political expression of popular revulsion that swept many traditional parties into political oblivion.  In exchange, ever more of the population in South America have followed the dictates of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and voted in favor of those who offered programs to meet their primary requirements for food, clothing, shelter and security.

For the United States there is much irony in this trend.  Despite the fact that the administration of George W. Bush claims to be the world’s champion of democracy,  the practice of honest elections has meant that a many Latin Americans have turned their backs on the U.S.  Why is this so?  As it turns out, Washington has never been interested in democracy unless it provided the “freedom” of the “open market.”  As we will see,  American politicians have persistently confused these two often conflicting ideas– popular democracy and economic laissez faire.  However, there has been no confusion on the part of a majority of Latin America’s poor.  Their experience tells them that they need protection against the ravages of  “open market” capitalism.  Given the chance, they have used democracy to elect governments that will give them just that.        

The political consequences have not pleased Washington.  Remarking on the possibility of the election in Bolivia of a populist president (actually realized the December 2005 victory of Evo Morales) promising to nationalize the country’s resources and use them for the improvement of the downtrodden, Charles Shapiro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs declared  “it would not be welcome news in Washington....”  In typical fashion Shapiro exhibited no interest in why Latin American voters, exercising their democratic rights, would use them to reject all that United States and its regional class allies stand for.  

If we could instruct Mr. Shapiro and his superiors on the reasons things are working out as they are, here is what we would tell them:

1. An American foreign policy that prioritizes economic penetration can only alienate the poor.  Those exploited by such a policy do not care that Washington now calls this pursuit neo-liberalism.   In fact, neoliberalism is but an updating of the 19th century’s classical economic practice of unregulated, and mostly untaxed capitalism.  Under this practice, both in the 19th century and today, the more wealth that is generated the poorer the bulk of the population is likely to become.  That is because the wealth is appropriated by a relatively small elite that always demands minimum government expenditures (except in the case of the military) and therefore minimum government taxation.  Thus, this elite and its state representatives object to government investment in social services just because it would raise their taxes.  Countries operating this way inevitably find their social infrastructure (education, health care, and the like) going to hell while, simultaneously, the “rich get richer.”  It is variations on this the sort of system, ready made to maximize corporate profits,  that American influence has, in practice, sought to create for its own economic benefit in Latin America.  Maintaining the ability to exploit such “free markets” by keeping in power cooperative local elites was and is much more an American policy goal than securing democracy, to say nothing of economic justice.

2. We have used what can be called “argument ad nauseam” to label as communists, radicals, rogues, and other dangerous enemies of “freedom” those who seek to shape their economies to some other end than the profit of U.S. concerns and their allies.  And, to prevent them from obtaining or maintaining power we have aligned ourselves with all manner of military and civilian conspirators and dictators who have, almost unanimously, practiced terror, torture, and repression against their own people.  In this process the U.S. has overthrown the democratically elected leaders in Guatemala and Chile,  and helped replace them with brutal dictators, as well as rendered support for other dictatorships in Argentina and Uruguay.  It has aided right wing insurgents and death squads in Nicaragua and El Salvador.  From 1900 to the present there have been 49 U.S. military interventions in South and Central America, and the Carribean, to assure the imposition or maintenance of friendly, if brutal and undemocratic, regimes.

3. The United States government and the special interests that input into policy formation for Latin America have a depressingly persistent inability to learn from past mistakes and therefore have so alienated all but the upper classes of Western Hemisphere that, come honest elections, we must inevitably be hoisted by our own petard (in this case our recent propaganda about spreading democracy).

It is doubtful if Mr. Shapiro would admit to any of these points. More likely he would reply that Latin American corruption, brutality and class selfishness can all be chalked up to some sort of regional cultural and political “dysfunction”– a factor of backwardness and a lack of civic responsibility.   This, of course, is nonsense.  While all societies are subject to governmental and economic corruption, it is the United States that has encouraged the “neo-liberal” form of this ailment in Latin America.

In the past, American policy was easy to implement.  South and Central America,  as well as the Caribbean,  were poor areas and the local elites usually quite bribable. On the occasions when that approach failed you simply sent in the Marines and the Halls of Montezuma crumpled.  However, today things are more complicated and we are no longer dealing with only banana republics and corrupt leaders.  Our own politicians’ inability to understand the nature of changing circumstances means that it is they who are dysfunctional and addicted to self-destructive policies.  In truth we are now likely to find ourselves dealing with politically aware citizens, whose leaders are men and women of integrity, and who are determined to seriously pursue alternative development models.  As important, some of these countries now have control of important resources that make independent action easier.  Present day Venezuela is a case in point. 


The Case of Venezuela

Venezuela is a country of over 25 million people.  Its population is ethnically mixed: 65% mestizo, 20% white, 10% black, and 2% indigenous Indian.  Having won its independence from Spain in 1821 it has since passed through a history of autocratic rule, civil war and military coups.  Only in recent times has democracy taken tenuous hold.  One of the most egregious of its recent authoritarian governments was that of Marcos Perez Jimenez who ruled the country from 1948 to 1958.  Russ Olson, an American diplomat who served in Venezuela at this time, has described Jimenez as “a pompous general” who turned himself into “a brutal military dictator.”  He was kept in power by a US trained and supplied  “National Security Police” who were best known for shooting down peacefully protesting school children. This was a record that did not prevent U.S. government officials from applauding the chief of the Security Police, Pedro Estrada and  encouraging him to “keep up the good work.”   Jimenez and Estrada were nothing if not brutal, but, as Secretary of State Cordell Hull once said of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.”  Indeed, the Pentagon even awarded Marcos Perez Jimenez the United States Legion of Merit.

Why was Jimenez and his minions (all of whom were enemies of democratic politics)  favorites of the United States?  The reason was repeatedly explained to the Venezuelan people by the U.S. ambassador of the day.  This was Dempster MacIntosh who held his office because of his links to the Republican National Committee.  MacIntosh would go around Venezuela delivering speeches, readily translated into Spanish (a language he did not know) reminding the citizens of that country “how lucky they were to be living in an economic democracy.”   As Olson explains, “what he really meant was that United States Steel (MacIntosh was a steel magnate) had access to 17 million tons of iron ore annually and the oil three million barrels of oil a day.”   In other words, Jimenez smoothed the way for US economic penetration and in Washington this was equated with ‘freedom.” That is why the United States supported “the son of a bitch.”  He was not the first, and he would not be the last.  

A good number of the Venezuelan people, most of whom were then making less than $2 a day,  failed to appreciate Ambassador MacIntosh’s message.  This became clear enough when in 1958, only months after Jimenez had finally been replaced, Vice President Richard Nixon arrived in Caracas for a state visit.  So violent were the protests that Nixon and his wife barely escaped the country without injury.  Most Americans at this time were convinced that such a reaction, which found the Nixons literally spat upon whenever they dared appear in public, was the consequence of a pervasive communist propaganda campaign that twisted the minds of the Venezuelans.  Even well educated Americans could not imagine any other reason.  For instance, Lewis Hanke, a Latin American scholar at Columbia University, was at a loss as to why “people would stoop so low as to spit on the Vice President of the United States.”  He addressed this question to the then President of Costa Rica, Jose Figueres, who replied, “Its simple. You can’t spit on a foreign policy.”  

Unfortunately, it was only simple if you examined the impact of American foreign policy from outside the U.S., as did many millions of Latin Americans.   Inside the U.S., however,  a distorted  informational environment had convinced even such men as Hanke that American foreign policy almost always consisted of programs to spread abroad the nation’s allegedly benign ideals--like democracy, development and modernity.  Periodic slaps in the face, such as the outbreak of anger in 1958 Caracas were always blamed on communists, radicals, or “outside agitators.”  Such excuses have helped prevent any politically significant domestic questioning of our policies.  Therefore, American foreign policy toward Latin America, as well as most other parts of the world (one can especially think of the Middle East), has not qualitatively changed.

As a consequence, the basic dislike of the United States by many citizens of a country like Venezuela has not gone away.  Until recently poverty has continued to prevail unchecked in the country,  while the neoliberal economic policies championed by the U.S. government and its allied multinational corporations, skewed the distribution of resources to the benefit of  a small upper and middle class.   Under the circumstances, another slap in the face for the United States was almost inevitable.


Enter Hugo Chavez

The man who has delivered that slap is Hugo Chavez.  Chavez is the second son of poor primary school teachers.  He entered the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences at the age of 17 and it was then that he began to develop his  “left-nationalist ideology.”  This ideology is sometimes referred to as Bolivarianism, and it is named after Simon Bolivar who was a Venezuelan and the man who led much of Latin America in its independence struggle against Spain.  Bolivar is Hugo Chavez’s hero and in his honor he has changed the name of the country to The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.  For today’s Venezuelans,  Bolivarianism entails the following:

1. Maintain Venezuela’s political and economic sovereignty.

2. Encourage grassroots political participation and a sense of patriotic service.

3. Promote economic self-sufficiency

4. Maintain an equitable distribution of the country’s oil wealth.

5. Eliminate corruption

6. Do away with the political monopoly of the traditional, and US backed, bourgeois parties.

By the time Hugo Chavez graduated and began his military career, he was deeply imbued with these principles.  He was also a vocal critic of the political, social and economic status quo–a state of affairs which he identified with U.S. influence and intervention.   In 1992 he participated (some would claim he initiated) a failed coup against a business oriented government that had responded to falling oil prices (and thus government revenues) with an austerity program that made the lives of the Venezuelan poor all the harder.  Although he spent two years in prison as a result, the failed coup made Chavez very popular, in a  Robin Hood fashion.  Indeed, he was so popular that in the 1993 presidential elections, all candidates promised to pardon him if elected.  After his release Chavez gave up conspiratorial activities for open politics and  founded his own party, the Fifth Republic Movement.  He then began to campaign for the next presidential election.

As Richard Gott’s biography of Hugo Chavez tells us, he made “no secret of his aim to be president of the poor.”  Thus, Chavez’s Bolivarian platform aimed at capturing the support of Venezuela’s vast lower class population by promising to attack the problems of poverty and eliminate the political and economic corruption of those who had “ransacked” the country.  It was a popular message and, in 1998, the forty four year old Chavez won the presidency with 56.2% of the vote.  The election was certified fair by the Atlanta based Carter Center.  Since 1998 Chavez has gone on to win nine different electoral contests and,  in every one of them,  the now enfranchised poor have voted for him in overwhelming numbers.

This record has given him the confidence to undertake a social and economic revolution.  The country’s oil wealth no longer goes predominantly into the pockets of foreign oil companies and Venezuela’s upper class but rather is now, in good part,  used to fund programs for the poor in such areas as health, education, food and housing subsidies, employment programs, and the like.  A series of government subsidized ‘missions” aims to eliminate illiteracy, greatly increase the numbers finishing high school, teach useful trades to those without skills,  revive tourism and traditional crafts.  Assets (such as landed estates and abandoned factories) that are deemed “unproductive” are subject to seizure and redistribution to poor peasants and workers.  Simultaneously, there has been a tightening up of tax collection on corporations and upper class individuals,  many of whom never paid taxes in the past.  The result is a mixed economy  (Chavez’s motto is “as much state as necessary and as much market as possible”) but one apparently moving in a socialist direction.  Certainly there is an on-going redistribution of income and resources as part of a long term effort at economic and social development – an effort that has realized a 5% reduction in household poverty between 1999 and 2005.

Chavez is able to undertake this ambitious transformation of Venezuelan society largely because his country is rich in resources.  Venezuela’s primary source of wealth comes from oil (it also has the greatest gas reserves in the western hemisphere) which represents 80% of export income and 50% of government earnings.  It is interesting to note that 60% of it is sold to the United States, or as Chavez calls it, “the Empire.”   Back in 1976, well before Chavez attained power, Venezuela had nationalized its oil industry.  But the neoliberal nature of its economy prevented any equitable distribution of resources and resulted in a classic case of a simultaneous increase of national wealth and rates of poverty.  In the 1980s and 1990s world oil prices were relatively low and that meant austere government budgets and a building national debt for Venezuela. At that point the number of Venezuelans living in abject poverty was around 68% of the population. Those living truly well off and modern lives were no more than 6%.  The resulting social unrest among the lower classes helped bring Hugo Chavez to power. He has been fortunate because for most of his tenure oil prices have held high, initially helped along by Chavez’s own policy of lowering production so as to drive up the price.  There is, however, an underlying fear that, as one Venezuelan poll taker put it, “if oil prices drop again, the whole revolution becomes a mirage.”

Chavez understands that his revolution is caught between the populace’s rising expectations and a precarious dependence on oil revenue, and that this makes his social revolution inherently insecure. Therefore, has inaugurated the “Oil Sowing Plan: using oil wealth so Venezuela can become an agricultural country, a tourist destination, an industrialized economy.”  He also is working hard to diversify his customer base for oil, gas, coal  and other exports and has initiated “joint exploration deals with Argentina, Brazil, China, India and others.” To do so, however, he must rigorously defend Venezuela’s “economic sovereignty” against such American proposals as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).  This is just the sort of program that promotes America’s economic interests to the detriment of local industry.  Chavez has observed that, under the FTAA,  competition between US and Venezuela businesses would be like “a fight between a 12-year-old boy and Cassius Clay.”  His opposition to “free trade” has contributed to the failure of the FTAA and subsequent downturn in U.S.-Venezuelan relations.

As noted, the way Chavez has chosen to use his country’s wealth has meant a reversal of the traditional economic winners and losers.  If you will, those accustomed to being first now find themselves, if not quite last, then with a declining profit margin.  From their point of view Chavez is “ruining the country.”  Either he is a threat to democracy and aiming to be president for life, and/or he and his supporters are systematically mismanaging the nation’s wealth.  Some of the now alienated upper class, and a number of those in the middle class who are financially dependent on them, decided around the year 2001 that Chavez had to go and that it was now their turn to plan a coup.  This coup attempt occurred in April of 2002 and was led by the head of the country’s largest Chamber of Commerce,  businessman Pedro Caromona Estanga, in alliance with right wing elements of the armed forces and police.  Chavez was kidnaped and held at an army base.  Almost all the privately owned media outlets in Venezuela abetted the coup by charging that Chavez had been mismanaging the country and falsely reporting that he had now resigned.  The major TV stations also purposely edited their film to make it appear that Chavez supporters were attacking unarmed opposition supporters.  This too turned out to be a lie.  Later, when back in power, Chavez would bring forth a law making the media responsible for the veracity of its reporting (a law similar to one on the books in Europe’s Common Market countries).  Washington’s response was to accuse him of censorship and interfering with the free press.  Last but not least, from all available evidence, the coup attempt was encouraged and financed by the American government.  This evidence was unearthed by Eva Golinger,  a supporter of Chavez living in the U.S.,  using the Freedom of Information Act.  As a result Chavez told a reporter in New York in September 2005 that there “was no doubt whatsoever” that Washington “planned and participated” in the 2002 coup and continues to “want me dead.”   Certainly, it is something more than coincidence that the participants in the coup (some of whom are now under indictment for treason) were mainly funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. AID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) working out of the US embassy in Caracas.  Each of these agencies would later claim that they were simply trying to “promote democracy.”  Chavez, on the other hand, has vowed that he will not allow “the U.S. to finance the destabilization of our country” in the future.

The coup ultimately failed.  Indeed it lasted only 47 hours, but that was long enough for the American Ambassador to be seen at breakfast congratulating Carmona on his achievement.  Carmona gave the Ambassador a hug, ate his breakfast, and proceeded to disband the legislature and suspend the constitution, allegedly  in the name of restoring democracy.  It is at that point that Chavez’s supporters rallied and the coup collapsed.  Today, Carmona, who fled to Miami,  is popularly referred to as “Pedro the brief.”  It is to be noted that the coup did not result in a Chavez instigated revengeful bloodbath.  What it did lead to was the reform of the  judiciary, legislature, military, and electoral apparatus making these institutions less likely to become corrupted by political partisanship and more likely to follow the rule of law.  Perversely,  these are some of the actions which the Bush administration says prove Chavez is too authoritarian to be tolerated.

It was at this point that American government spokesmen revived the technique of “argument ad nauseam” and began repeatedly labeling Hugo Chavez as a “demagogue awash in oil money who is undermining democracy and seeking to destabilize the region.”  This mantra continues to be heard to the present day.     

The claims that Hugo Chavez rules as a dictator have, as of now, little basis in reality.  Much of the country’s political structure is decentralized.  A good amount of both political and economic power is broadly spread among citizens’ councils, workers’ cooperatives and other grass roots organizations.  Almost everywhere, and in every phase of civic life, citizens are encouraged by the Chavez government to join together and use local initiative to come up with projects that will both meet their immediate needs and benefit the greater community.  If these projects prove at all practicable the national government proceeds to fund them.  Local communities are also encouraged to critique government bureaucracies and offer suggestions for improvement.  As one local organizer put it, “I have a thousand criticisms of the Chavez government.  However, the difference between this government and what came before is that under Chavez the government pays attention to our complaints.”

In short, what Chavez is doing is encouraging a form of participatory democracy that has let loose the idealism and hope of almost every progressive activist in the country.  There motto often heard from these activists is “ideals plus oil wealth plus time equals a new Venezuela.”  It is to be admitted that the results can be spotty as some projects and solutions work out better than others.  What this approach has not produced, however, is a dictatorship centered in the office of the president. None of this gives US spokesmen any pause.  Be it a function of ignorance or mendacity, they blithely continue to label Chavez an evil and authoritarian fellow. 

Chavez now is president under a new constitution that allows him to hold office for two consecutive six year terms.  Pro-Chavez parties have full control of the legislature, though not all of the country’s provincial governorships.  The opposition did manage to force a recall election in August of 2004 (again largely financed by the United States through the NED), but Hugo Chavez won that with 58% of a vote certified fair and free by international observers. As of the end of 2005 his approval ratings among Venezuelans stood at 70%, and that was according to polls taken by his opposition. 


Chavez and the United States–A War of Words

The fact that the U.S. has such a long and violent history of meddling in Latin America, and that its hand, or at least its pocketbook, can be seen behind both the coup attempt and recall movement against his government, has the Venezuelan  president understandably convinced that Washington is a real threat.  He seems to believe that his country is in imminent danger of US aggression including a possible invasion.  He has expelled all active duty American military personnel and some American based missionary groups from Venezuela. Chavez has also established a militia of approximately 20,000 under his personal control.  Eventually, he aims to build this militia up to 2 million people in arms,  mostly purchased from Russia.  Some analysts dismiss President Chavez’s fears and suggest that “the only conventional army likely to threaten Chavez is Venezuela’s own.”  But others point to the fact that a military rebellion would be an indirect aggression by the United States.  Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, puts it this way, “There is no prospect of the U.S. invading Venezuela, but there is every prospect of it ceaselessly looking for factions within the Venezuelan military and hoping to induce...elements to rise up.”  Given past experience, Chavez feels that a growing militia provides him with a “safety net.”  And,  if nothing else, it is a useful way of putting some Venezuela’s unemployed (which now stands at about 12% of the labor force) to work. 

Is this fear of the U.S. warranted on Chavez’s part?  With the U.S. tied down in Iraq it might well be exaggerated.  However, in the long run, there is good reason to assume that the Bush administration will move “preemptively” to bring Chavez down if it can.  Washington’s war of words has recently expanded as it seeks to convince not only Americans, but the people of Latin America as well, that Hugo Chavez is some sort of  bete noire.  Once more the effort is to portray him as a dangerous opponent of democracy, not only in Venezuela but elsewhere in the hemisphere. 

In 2005 Portor Goss, a former Director of the CIA, told the U.S. Senate Select Committee On Intelligence that Venezuela had become a “potential area for instability” and a “flashpoint.”  He alleged that Chavez was “consolidating his power by using technically legal tactics to target his opponents....”  The use of the term “technically legal” indicates that the Bush administration, once more caught by its own propaganda about supporting democracy, is struggling to find a way to get at Chavez despite his elected status.  Since Chavez’s electoral record makes it impossible to accuse him of coming to power in an undemocratic fashion,  Washington now insists that he is a “democratically elected ruler who rules undemocratically.”  Thus Gross’s successor at the CIA, John Negroponte, declared that Chavez’s “technically legal” position as president of Venezuela can only lead to the “suffocation of democracy.”   In addition, he charges that Chavez is “spending hundreds of millions, if not more, for his very extravagant foreign policy” which is aimed at “meddling in the internal affairs of his neighbors....”   Venezuela’s Justice Minister,  Jesse Chacon,  noted that Mr. Negroponte has such a sordid and bloody personal record of immoral “meddling” in Central America that his criticism of Chavez is not only misleading but is an act of pure hypocrisy.  One of the Bush administration’s Latin American “experts,” Otto Reich,  has pointed out Chavez’s growing alliance with Castro’s Cuba and labeled it the “axis of subversion.”  Chavez has retorted that it is the “Axis of Good.”   The CIA has backed up the charge of “axis of subversion” by appointing a special “mission manager” who will now “integrate collection and analysis on Cuba and Venezuela across the intelligence community.”  Chavez sees this move as preparatory to a program of U.S. subversion prior to Venezuela’s next presidential election in December 2006.

The U.S. media has fallen into line with Washington’s anti-Chavez message .  As the media monitor Justin Delacour has pointed out, both print and TV establishment media “have consistently reflected the Bush government on Chavez.  Often, the simply quote their sources as unnamed government officials.”  As an exception that proves the rule, one of the very few progressive American journalists, Mark Weisbrot,  has pointed out, “although there are any number of scholars and academics–both Venezuelan and international–who could offer coherent arguments on the other side, their arguments almost never appear....For every report that cited [source], there were more than 17 stories in which one or more...anti-Chavez [sources] were cited.”  The ever predictable FOX News has done its part to maintain this imbalance by running a three part “documentary” entitled “The Iron Fist of Hugo Chavez” in which it portrays him as a “brutal dictator” who is “threatening U.S. interests.”   Most American private sector political and economic analysts also are outspoken in their dislike for Venezuela’s president.  Michael Shifter of the Washington based Inter-American Dialogue, the most quoted anti-Chavez analyst,  has noted that “Venezuela under Chavez potentially poses a challenge to U.S. policy objectives, leadership and core values in this hemisphere.”  The principle “core value” is, apparently,  “free trade” as expressed by the FTAA. One should keep in mind that in Washington, freedom means capitalist style economic freedom first and foremost.

Finally, there is the occasional yet well reported belligerency of influential private American citizens who call for Mr. Chavez’s assassination.  The best known case is that of Pat Robertson who, in August of 2005, declared on his “700 Club” TV program that Chavez was turning Venezuela into “a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.” (Pastor Robertson appears oblivious to the contradictory nature of communism and Islamic Fundamentalism.) Therefore, the U.S. government ought to kill him.  Robertson is not alone here, similar suggestions have been made publically by retired CIA agents and, in a regular fashion, on Florida radio stations run by a the Cuban exile community.  Government officials in the State and Defense departments have dismissed this sort of talk as hot air and avowed that their departments “do not get involved in such acts.”  Nonetheless, there is at least one witness who has implicated the CIA in the November 2004 car bomb assassination of Danilo Anderson, the Venezuelan state prosecutor who had been investigating those allegedly involved in the 2002 coup against the Chavez government.

It is no wonder then that Chavez  feels insecure.  However,  he is not one to be cowed.  President Chavez has his own way with fighting words.  If the Bush administration can call his policies “destabilizing,” Chavez can call American policies “colonialist” and “imperialist.”  These latter characterizations have more resonance in Latin America than the former.  If the Bush administration can accuse him of “training terrorists,” Chavez can retort that “the current U.S. government is a “terrorist administration” and, using facts from Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere, offer more evidence to prove his point than his foes can do against him.  He also says the Bush administration is a “threat to humanity” (referring here to global warming), and operates in a way that is “war-like” and is “dangerously eroding the possibility of the world.” That led Hugo Chavez to characterize George W. Bush as “the devil” from the speakers podium of the UN General Assembly on September 20, 2006.  Earlier, in September 2005, Chavez suggested to a Washington Post reporter he would “very much like to debate issues” with President [Beelzebub] Bush but, he continued, “with this administration it is impossible to talk because they want to impose things on you.”

Whether Bush wants a debate or not, Chavez is moving ahead to open a new and wider front in the war of words.  This will be done via Telesur, a satellite information system described as the “voice of the Americas, by the Americas.”  While this is a joint venture of Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, and Uruguay, it is Chavez’s government which owns 51% of the operation.  Chavez claims it will help to “integrate the region” while offering  a point of view opposed to that of the United States.


Chavez and the Rest of Latin America

Despite President Chavez’s anxiety over U.S. intentions, the United States is not the sole focus of his foreign policy.  Indeed, Venezuela is an actor on the world stage.  Chavez sees the world as a multipolar one and , as Richard Gott observes, he is set upon the “formation of a Latin American pole.”  The way he has chosen to achieve this goal is to promote regional integration, an objective which harkens back to the long range aim of his hero and model, Simon Bolivar.  He also characterizes this end in left-wing terms, as “a move toward socialism” that would allow Latin American “countries to relate to each other on the basis of cooperation, solidarity and complementarity.”  To this end integration is multifaceted.  Chavez is pushing for economic integration in terms of shared markets and expertise and he has made Venezuela a full member of Mercosur, which is Latin America’s common market organization.  Integration has political overtones in that one of his goals is a regional alliance that would allow participants to face challenges collectively and strive for consensus when faced with problems that cross borders.  There is a military component in that Chavez wants the Latin nations to be able to coordinate and cooperate for self defense.  And finally there is a cultural component aimed at building regional pride and awareness of historical connections. 

Venezuela is also promoting economic integration by using its oil resources.  Chavez has already proposed the formation of a regional oil company, to be called Petroamerica, that would partner the state oil companies of Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil.  He has also pledged Venezuela to a $1.5 billion investment in Bolivian energy development. Chavez’s goal here is to eventually see oil and other energy revenues used to develop and expand other parts of a country’s economy so that it can develop with minimum dependence on foreign loans and the resulting indebtedness.

When it comes to world oil policy, Chavez has allied himself with Iran, warning that any U.S. attack on Iran would certainly send the price of crude oil over $100 a barrel.  Venezuela is helping Iran with its plans to establishment an “Iranian Oil Bourse” that will allow trading for oil in Euros rather than the U.S. dollar.  If successful, this could mean a decrease in investment in dollars to the detriment of the U.S. economy.  Chavez has also joined Iran in actively urging OPEC to cut production so as to maintain higher prices, and thus revenues.  Simultaneously,  he has established programs to reduce the impact of high oil prices on poorer Caribbean nations.

Chavez has used this program to help the poor meet increasing energy costs to bait the lion in its own den, so to speak.  In November 2005 Chavez offered subsidized heating oil to the people of the United States and,  as a consequence,  officials of the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois and Pennsylvania signed agreements with Venezuela’s wholly owned American subsidiary, Citgo, to provide hundreds of  millions of dollars in heating oil at a 40% discount to low income families.  The program is to be expanded over the winter of 2006-2007 eventually assisting 1.2million poor people in 17 U.S. states.

Finally, Hugo Chavez has now gained a world wide reputation as a leader striving to realize an alternative model of sustainable development free of the restrictions that come with aid from such U.S. allied institutions as the International Monetary Fund or World Bank (Chavez wants to replace the IMF with an IHF, an International Humanitarian Fund.”)  To break free from such institutions is, he believes,  the only way to establish and maintain one’s economic sovereignty.  Chavez aims to achieve economic sovereignty not only for Venezuela but for much of Latin America as well.  To this end, Venezuela has loaned Argentina $2.4 billion so that country could get out from under the control of the IMF.  Caracas has also invested in $300 million worth of Ecuadorian bonds so as to give that country financial breathing space without having to go to the World Bank.  At the same time, Venezuela withdrew $20 billion of its own investments from the U.S. Federal Reserve.  In other words, when it comes to the Americas, Venezuela is acting as an alternative banker to the United States and its allied institutions.  The enormous influence that the U.S. has traditionally held over the economies of Latin America due to its control of sources of credit is therefore being eroded.  Venezuela’s position as a competitive lender seems secure for the foreseeable future.  In April of 2006 it was determined that Venezuela, and not Saudi Arabia, has the world’s greatest estimated heavy crude oil reserves.  When this news broke in New York’s Banking district one noted banking executive was heard to remark, “Surely by now George Bush must realize that God is not on his side.” 

If we are to keep a scorecard in the battle of words and strategies between Chavez and the Bush administration, we would have to say that, in the arena of Latin America, Chavez is winning.  One of the aims of the U.S. government, according to Secretary of State Rice, is to “isolate” Venezuela from the rest of the region using an “inoculation strategy.”  Whatever this might precisely mean, it does not seem to be working.  Condeleeza Rice has gone around  South America claiming that Mr. Chavez is “an undemocratic and  negative force” but most do not believe her.   Indeed, travel through such major Venezuelan cities as Caracas and Maricaibo and one can find plenty of evidence that democratically expressed criticism of the government is a frequent affair in Venezuela.  If anything the persistent American harping on the dangers of Hugo Chavez are backfiring.  For instance, in the Spring of 2005, for the first time in 60 years, the U.S. supported candidate for President of the Organization of American States failed to be elected.  The winning candidate was one backed by Venezuela.  Certainly, the United States will continue to bring pressure to bear, but it would seem that Chavez’s defiance has emboldened many countries in the region to stand their ground against American arm twisting.  The result is that it is the United States, and not Venezuela, that seems to be more and more isolated.  


Conclusion: What Really Threatens Venezuelan Democracy?

Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” is not the cause of Latin America’s movement to the left.  That was caused by the greed, corruption and incompetence, the class arrogance and uncaring of South American civilian and military elites and their multinational corporate allies.   Various American administrations, so ideologically driven that they have mixed up the “freedom” of the market with real political liberty and economic justice, put their money on those corrupt elites, self-centered corporate boards and military despots.  For a considerable time Washington won this  game.  Now the U.S. is losing.

In its frustration the Bush administration has spent a lot of time painting Hugo Chavez as authoritarian and a threat to democracy.  This is done despite Chavez’s winning electoral record, his on-going overwhelming popularity, and the participatory nature of Venezuela’s evolving political culture.  South of the border,  many politically aware people see these U.S. complaints as all too common lies and displays of hypocrisy.  Nonetheless, in the long run, Washington’s behavior may constitute something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Government’s usually do not get more liberal the more threatened they feel. 

In the long run, the realistic question for Venezuelans may not be, ‘do you want democracy or do you want authoritarian government?’  With the United States more than willing to support subversion leading to right wing dictatorship to sustain its economic interests, it may only be an authoritarian government of the left (perhaps with a pseudo-democratic face) that can ultimately withstand Washington’s covert machinations. If that is the case, the real question becomes ‘do you want an authoritarian government of the right or the left?’ Assuming the Chavez government survives by becoming more authoritarian,  just how far it goes in that direction will also, in good part, depend on how much the United States meddles in Venezuelan affairs.

There are many who expect that meddling to be deep and persistent.  They expect that, whatever the present circumstances, ultimately this is a fight Venezuela cannot win. Obviously, there are just as many throughout Latin America who are not so sure, and feel the fight, no matter how difficult, is worth it. Certainly this includes Hugo Chavez who has concluded that conflict with the U.S. is unavoidable.  “Whoever tries to push a transformation project forward in Latin America inevitably will collide with the U.S. empire.”  And, Venezuela’s president is determined to push his transformation.  Most of the Venezuelan people, reflecting what all sides describe as a “new self-confidence” are, to date, with him.  If Chavez stays alive, and the price of oil stays high, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela may prove the cynics wrong  and attain a political staying power underpinned by a steady increase in the economic well being of its citizens.  It may in fact become a truly successful socialist society.  Then what will the gringos do?


Lawrence Davidson is a frequent contributor to Logos and is Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West Chester, PA. He is author of two recent books: Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003) and America's Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001). He also has written over twenty published articles on US perceptions of and policies toward the Middle East.