It never ceases to amaze me, in the middle of the massive failure of the war on Iraq, that the Bush administration still has time to mess up our relations with other countries. Yet it seems like that’s exactly what they’re doing with our neighbor Venezuela.
Last month, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld compared Hugo Chávez to Hitler, noting that “He’s a person who was elected legally — just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally — and then consolidated power and now is, of course, working closely with Fidel Castro and Mr. Morales and others.” The assault was timed to push the celebrations marking the 7th anniversary of the Chávez government off the front page of the opposition-controlled media in Venezuela.
In early February, Venezuela expelled the US military attaché in Caracas when he was caught red-handed bribing Venezuelan officers for military secrets. Instead of admitting to the spying, the US “retaliated” by expelling the Venezuelan Ambassador’s chief of staff.
Then on February 16th, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chimed in with her sharpest criticisms yet of Venezuela, remarking at a Congressional hearing that Chávez is a leading a "Latin brand of populism that has taken countries down the drain.” She then urged a “united front” against Chávez, remarking that "the international community has just got to be much more active in supporting and defending the Venezuelan people.”
These comments are not new, but follow a pattern of increasing hostility and verbal aggression towards Venezuela. Rice’s concerns are allegedly based on her argument that Chávez isn’t a democrat, despite having won three elections.
But according to the 2005 survey by Latinobarómetro, an independent polling firm, Venezuelans are more likely than citizens of 18 other Latin American nations polled to describe their government as “totally democratic.” And Venezuelans have the second highest level of satisfaction with the way their own democracy functions. In addition, recent independent polls show President Chávez holding an approval rating of over 70% - a number that our president could only dream of. While there are policies in Venezuela, like in all countries, that people could certainly question or disagree with, the administration’s aggressive behavior towards Venezuela is totally unreasonable and violates that nation’s sovereignty. So why is the Bush administration so antagonistic towards Venezuela’s democratically elected government?
To answer this question, I recommend a report entitled “US Intervention in Venezuela, A Clear and Present Danger,” written recently by Venezuela expert Deborah James of Global Exchange and available on our website at http://www.globalexchange.org/countries/americas/venezuela/USVZrelations.pdf. The report tells a shocking tale of US intervention in Venezuela’s democratic process, examines a series of myths about Venezuela, and offers an explanation of the real concerns underlying the Bush administration’s antagonism towards Venezuela. Fortunately, it also offers US citizens some concrete ways we can get involved.
US Intervention: A Documented Fact, Not Allegations
According to the report, since 2002 the Bush administration has embarked upon a new strategy each year to oust and/or destabilize the democratically elected government of Venezuela. In 2002, the US Administration supported a military coup that briefly ousted the democratic government; in 2003 it used an economic sabotage campaign; in 2004 it supported the political strategy of the referendum; and in 2005 it waged a diplomatic battle.
Many of the US destabilization tactics parallel the maneuvers used against progressive governments such as Chile in 1973, including massive financial and other support to develop an oppositional civil society and shape and unify political party opposition; a media campaign against the government designed to impugn the government and create a sense of instability; and illegal espionage activities.
In 2002, the Bush administration knew that a coup against Chavez was in the offing before it happened, including the fact that dissident military officers would “try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or ongoing strikes at the state-owned oil company PDVSA.” They also knew about the coup in advance because the US government was funding many of the groups that took part in the coup. In fact, grants by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID to opposition groups skyrocketed right before the coup.
To this day, Bush Administration officials routinely deny their involvement in the coup, in spite of official US documents that prove otherwise. But the truth is widely known in Venezuela, and forms the basis for the antagonism that plagues the US-Venezuela relationship. To be fair, Chávez engages in regular verbal tirades again Bush and Rice which overreach presidential diplomacy. But imagine how the US government would treat a foreign government that had financed domestic groups that participated in a coup against the US government…
Instead of abating in the post-coup period, US government collusion with anti-democratic forces continued during the following year. Groups such as NED and USAID actually continued to fund groups that had participated in the coup. This includes some groups that organized an insurrectionary managers’ strike at the end of 2002 and beginning of 2003 that cost the Venezuelan economy about $10 billion, resulting in a severe economic contraction and putting millions of workers and thousands of small businesses out of their jobs. The strikers’ goal was maintaining control over the national oil company so they could keep the wealth to themselves, and getting Chávez out of office. They lost, and Venezuela’s oil wealth now benefits the entire country instead of a traditional elite.
In 2004, I witnessed the referendum in Venezuela, which had been organized by the opposition as a way to get Chávez out of office legally (after so many illegal attempts had failed.) Here the US was active in demanding that the referendum take place, whether or not the legal criteria had been met. The NED even financed the opposition’s political platform! In the end, Chávez won the referendum in a landslide of 59% in a process that was certified as free and fair by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS).
The next year, both Rice and Rumsfeld toured Latin America, urging leaders there to criticize Venezuela in an attempt to isolate Chávez in the region. In her confirmation hearings in January 2005, the Rice named Chávez a “negative force in the region.” Fortunately, many regional leaders have rejected the pressure, including Brazil’s Lula, Uruguay’s Vazquez, Chile’s Lagos and even Colombia’s Uribe.
Though the extensive exposés about US government meddling in the internal affairs of Venezuela have raised a furor within Venezuela, US officials still not only deny involvement, but under the guise of supporting democracy they have actually expanded support for opposition groups, including groups that have refused to accept the results of the democratic referendum of 2004.
Myths and Facts: What is Really Happening in Venezuela
Since all of Venezuela’s elections - in which an overwhelming majority of citizens have voted for Chávez or his governing coalition - have been certified as free and fair by international monitors, US officials have turned to accusing Chávez of “being democratically elected but governing undemocratically.” Yet Venezuelans resoundingly approve of their democracy, and are experimenting with innovative ways to build participatory democracy in addition to the representative form. A detailed analysis of Venezuelan democracy is available in the report. It’s also ironic that this accusation should come from a US administration that has usurped unprecedented presidential power.
Another basic myth is that Chávez has limited freedom of speech and eroded civil rights. Yet whenever I go to Venezuela, I hear the private media spend enormous amounts of time criticizing the President, something I wish our media would do a little more of. Access to community media production – both radio and television – has vastly expanded in recent years. And no serious human rights group has alleged that civil rights have eroded under the Chávez administration, and civil rights compare favorably to past governments and to countries in the region.
Then there’s the accusation that Chávez is mismanaging the economy, nationalizing businesses and turning Venezuela’s economy into a “Castro-style Cuba.” Yet Venezuela is one of the fastest growing countries in the region. Per capita income growth was a whopping 17.9% in 2004, when the economy rebounded from the opposition’s economic sabotage, and continued to grow 9% last year as well. And while it’s true that most of this growth is due to the skyrocketing price of oil, the government is making great efforts to diversify the economy.
One of the most ridiculous assertions common to Ms. Rice is that Chávez is a “negative force in the region.” Venezuela has initiated an impressive array of programs to support Latin American and Caribbean nations, from supplying low-cost fuel to starting a new regional television channel, to buying bonds to help stabilize Argentina’s economy.
Venezuelans find the US government’s completely unsubstantiated assertion that their government supports terror the most absurd, especially coming from a country that not only illegally invaded Iraq, but is also harboring Luis Posada Carriles, a terrorist who escaped from jail in Venezuela after the 1973 bombing of a Cuban plane that killed 76 people. In a maddening double standard, the US has thus far refused to extradite Posada to Venezuela, for alleged fears that he will be “tortured.”
But the administration seems to overstep the bounds of rationality in its attempts to stoke fears that Chávez is about to cut off oil supplies to the US. Venezuela provides about 15% of US oil consumption, and is far more democratic than close US allies like Saudi Arabia by any stretch. It’s true that Chávez has threatened to cut off oil supplies to the United States – but only if the US invades Venezuela, or attempts to assassinate Chávez. Since US officials have repeatedly denied those intentions, what are they so concerned about?
The only change in Venezuelan oil supply to the US in the past three years has been this year’s program to provide 40% discounts on 49 million gallons of heating fuel for poor people in Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and soon Vermont and Connecticut. How bizarre that Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton has launched an investigation into this humanitarian offering, instead of investigating the US multinational oil companies that posted over $100 billion in corporate profits last year due to soaring gasoline prices.
So Really, Why Does Chávez Make them so Crazy?
As “US Intervention in Venezuela” makes clear, the Administration’s concerns about Venezuela are not fundamentally about these issues but relate to a deeper concern about the erosion of support for the neoliberal “free market” system promoted by the US government in Latin America for decades. The Chávez government is currently leading one of the fastest growing economies in the region, bringing down unemployment through the use of a dynamic set of policies that combine the assets of the private sector with, strategic government investment in specific industries, and incentives for cooperatives and small and local businesses.
Most importantly, the Chávez administration is funneling billions of dollars of the country’s oil wealth into social programs for the poor. These programs have succeeded in eradicating illiteracy in Venezuela; vastly increasing school enrollment; providing subsidized food and housing to the poor; and implementing a national system of preventative, community-based health care. Call it the threat of a good example!
In addition, the concerns of the Bush Administration stem from Chávez’s promotion of regional integration, because it interferes with the US attempts to impose the failed model of corporate globalization embedded in projects like the stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas, the top US priority in Latin America for the past decade.
But one of the most interesting hypotheses in the report is the notion that the fundamental antagonism between the US and Venezuela stems from the tension between the imperial designs of the Bush administration and an underlying goal of the entire Venezuelan project: a change in the global balance of power from a “uni-polar” world dominated by US economic and strategic interests, to a “multi-polar” world of real economic and political independence for the global South.
This helps put in perspective Venezuela’s recent decision to support Iran in the International Atomic Energy Association, because Iran is an historic ally of Venezuela in the building of OPEC decades ago (when the countries first came together to ensure that oil producing nations shared in some of the oil wealth along with the oil multinationals.) It also explains the increasing diversification of Venezuela’s foreign relations, deepening its alliances in Latin American and the Caribbean but also reaching out to China, Russia, and Spain.
And it explains why team Bush seem so irrationally focused on antagonizing an economic ally and democratic neighbor: in essence, because of the neocons’ unwavering ideological commitment to a corporate-oriented global economy dominated by US strategic interests. Chávez seeks to challenge that vision, and build a more balanced geopolitical map. And to the chagrin of the Bush administration, his vision has met with tremendous support both within Latin America and globally.
Where Do We Go From Here
The facts outlined in this report point to the need for a rethinking of US-Venezuela relations. They call out for a shift to a policy based on both the US and Venezuela’s shared economic interests, and respect for each country’s sovereignty and democracy.
A good start is learning about what’s really happening in Venezuela. Good resources include www.venezuelanalysis.com and www.venezuelafoia.info. The Venezuela Information Office offers a concise weekly listserve at www.rethinkvenezuela.org. Better yet, go and see for yourself. Check out Global Exchange’s amazing travel opportunities to Venezuela at http://www.globalexchange.org/tours/byCountry.html#100003.
In addition, you can promote more balanced coverage of Venezuela in the US press by writing letters to the editor and urging your local paper to be truly “fair and balanced.”. And if you buy gas, you can support Venezuela’s distributive oil policies by buying from the Venezuela-owned company Citgo. To find a local Citgo station, go to www.citgo.com/CITGOLocator.jsp.
Most important will be our collective efforts to pressure the Bush administration to steer a new course with Venezuela. This is unlikely to happen without concerted pressure from Congress, and congresspeople are only going to go out on a limb if they hear from their constituents. Especially crucial at this time is fighting House Resolution 328, introduced by Florida Republican Connie Mack, intended to condemn the government of Venezuela for all of the myths debunked in the report.
Let’s not let our government commit another grave error of “regime change”. Let’s act now to demand respect for Venezuela’s duly elected government, before it’s too late.
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization and CODEPINK: Women for Peace. She has traveled several times to Venezuela, most recently for the World Social Forum, and is reachable at email@example.com.