U.S. criticism of Hugo Chavez's politics only serves to highlight the weakness of our democracy at home.
It's certainly no surprise. Even over a year ago, journalists were remarking at the "left turn" that so many Latin American countries were making. Of late, however, we only hear about Hugo Chavez and Venezuela. The South American country has taken the place of Cuba as the new whipping boy of alternative political models. But the targeted arguments -- coming mainly from the United States -- that depict Chavez as a tyrannical despot do little more than make the United States look the defensive paranoid for so mischaracterizing Venezuela's politics.
From Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Pat Robertson, absurd public comparisons of President Hugo Chavez to Hitler and calls for assassination, it's clear that U.S. public figures love to vilify Chavez. The defamations have now been firmly established in mainstream politics -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continues to allege that Venezuela poses the greatest threat to Latin America. Why? Rice accuses Chavez of leading a "Latin brand of populism that has taken countries down the drain."
AlterNet spoke to Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, during his recent trip through California to meet with civil society groups and Latino leaders. When asked why he thought Chavez and Venezuela were so vilified, Alvarez stated, "For the first time, people are taking seriously that the major problems in the world are poverty and social exclusion -- not terrorism. These allegations are simply to avoid discussing these true problems; they are an attempt to undermine and divert from true economic development."
Whether or not this is the true motivation behind this administration's reluctance to engage in dialogue is up for debate. One thing, however, is clear: The press has spent far more energy exploring largely unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and corruption targeting Chavez than exploring the reality of his agenda.
After getting the obligatory controversial questions out of the way -- is Chavez planning to run for president in 2013? Are the United States and Venezuela too ideologically different to have meaningful discussions? What do you say to the allegations that Venezuela is becoming a dictatorship akin to Castro's Cuba? -- a common thread emerged in Alvarez's oft-repeated answers. Strung together, it goes something like this:
Chavez is not an accident. His election expresses a new awakening of people and participation. Chavez and Venezuela are not an anomaly in an otherwise "normal" world. We're talking about the entire hemisphere, here. These are societies trying to find alternative ways of dealing with the same problems. It is better that they understand what is happening in Venezuela as part of a broader process.
Alvarez is obviously quite good at responding to questions that start with "How do you respond to the allegations that." He has learned to (sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly) work in details of Chavez's agenda amidst these usual suspect questions. Without asking, I learned that Chavez has extended health care to 10 million Venezuelans, defeated illiteracy in two years, given three million Venezuelans ID cards so that they can access social programs and vote, and worked to rebuild oil refineries and guarantee security of supply and accessible prices.
Members of the media, trying to substantiate the obsessive fixation on Chavez-as-tyrant, have let the wild accusations frame our dialogue about Venezuela. You won't read much about Chavez's focus on the eradication of poverty -- extended even to the United States through the heating oil program that is bringing over 40 million gallons of discounted and free oil to low-income Americans in eight states. Rather, you'll get an earful of the Texas congressman Joe Barton seeking an investigation into the program. You have to read academic publications like Political Affairs Magazine to get to the irony behind the facts:
The only change in Venezuelan oil supply to the U.S. in the past three years has been this year's program to provide 40 percent 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 U.S, multinational oil companies that posted over $100 billion in corporate profits last year due to soaring gasoline prices.
There are components of Chavez's agenda that merit skepticism, but the cheap oil program hardly qualifies. Critics have raised Venezuela's record of human rights violations. And while police violence against protesters has attracted rebukes from human rights organizations like Amnesty International, AI make clear that the weak record of human rights preceded Chavez: "President Chavez's administration introduced several important improvements in the 1999 Constitution to protect civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights." The problem is that many of these measures have yet to implemented.
Perhaps the meatiest and most interesting issue that Ambassador Alvarez touched upon was whether Chavez's agenda to eradicate poverty can be achieved through democratic means. When asked about the difference between Cuba's form of socialism and Venezuela's "new socialism," Alvarez noted,
Our revolution was made in peace, following a democratic path. But, we are looking for social justice. There is no real democracy if there is no social justice. We have to go beyond representative democracy to a participatory social system. If you don't fight poverty, you will have a very weak democracy.
So what if the kind of social justice that Chavez is seeking is at odds with the brand of democracy that currently exists in Venezuela? This is an interesting tension to explore especially in light of Alvarez's emphasis on Chavez's current intent to consolidate the infrastructure that will enable a "cultural transformation" before he leaves office: "From the very beginning," said Alvarez, "we understood that we were there not only to be another government, but that we were elected because we represented the desire and expectations of a whole transformation of society."
That's quite a charge. But, instead of reading about the ins and outs of Chavez's methodology, we consistently get sensationalized non-news. A recent article from The Economist, "Mission Impossible," reads, "Poverty is at last falling under Hugo Chavez, but not nearly as much as it should have "
No one seems to think that poverty is abating. "If only there were 50 Chavezes in the country,"sighs Minerva, a middle-aged woman from the outskirts of Caracas. "But he's all on his own. End poverty? That will take 50 years."
Better to quote Minerva than cite economic stats of a per capita growth rate of 17.9 percent in 2004 and 9 percent last year -- making it one of the fastest-growing countries in the region. Or independent polls that put Venezuelan approval of Chavez at 70 percent (an approval rating that President Bush only saw immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.)
We are led to think that Chavez is bad because his plans to turn the formerly elitist Venezuelan political structure on its head and end poverty just aren't happening fast enough. Similarly, in a recent Foreign Policy article, Javier Corrales writes:
Civil society has not disappeared, as it did in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. There is no systematic, state-sponsored terror … there is certainly no efficiently repressive and meddlesome bureaucracy … In fact, in Venezuela, one can still find an active and vociferous opposition, elections, a feisty press and a vibrant and organized civil society. Venezuela, in other words, appears almost democratic … Undeniably, Chavez has brought innovative social programs to neighborhoods that the private sector and the Venezuelan state had all but abandoned … He also launched one of the most dramatic increases in state spending in the developing world.
Difficult to tell from this excerpt that the thrust of the article is to depict Chavez as a modern tyrant. Corrales gets one thing right -- trashing the United States is an effective way for many Latin American leaders to gain populist support. And the United States is playing right into this political tactic by posing so trashable a target. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has officially announced an "inoculation strategy" that involves trying to isolate Venezuela by organizing other countries against Chavez.
As Rice works the isolation strategy, using the mainstream media as a pulpit for her fulminations, Chavez continues to build alliances with other Latin American governments and political leaders around the world. While both Chavez and Rice have employed fairly vacuous public talking points and rhetoric, the differing strategies make all the difference. As the Bush administration works to slander Chavez and allege that his government consorts with terrorists, Chavez is sending poor Americans oil. It just sets up a scenario in which Ambassador Alvarez can say things like this:
Some people ask why we are helping the U.S. poor. Why not? Are they a different kind of poor people? Those are the kinds of things that people should do. We do it with energy because that's what we have. Other countries should do it with what they have. It's part of our philosophy. We're talking about an alternative model here, and we have to demonstrate what that is.
Ambassador Alvarez continues to meet with civil society groups and the media, confidently asserting that the Venezuelan government is committed to developing real instruments for participatory democracy -- starting at the grassroots.
There's always a place for criticism and cynicism, especially when it comes to politicians who claim to be developing a new political ideology, but the Bush administration's tactic of slandering a democratic and reform-minded government that has an approval rating this president can only envy is a guaranteed losing battle. The more members of the Bush administration chastise Chavez's democracy, the more embarrassing the hypocrisy becomes.
Rice told students at Johns Hopkins that she hoped Chavez will "recognize the importance of democratic values for real, not just claiming that because you're elected you are exercising democratic values. When people are elected, they have a responsibility to follow democratic values, and we have to call it for what we see."
If only our administration could heed its own advice.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an assistant editor at AlterNet.