By: Kabir Joshi-Vijayan and Matthew Skogstad-Stubbs
Kabir Joshi-Vijayan and Matthew Skogstad-Stubbs: A friend, returning from Caracas, described a bus attempting to scale a mountain, gradually making its way up the slope, frequently stalling or stopping as the engine sputtered, but eventually reaching the summit. It reminded him of the Venezuelan revolutionary process. Why don’t we begin today by describing both the process and the impact that the Bolivarian revolution of today has had. Could you lay out how the Venezuelan society, and the daily life of its people, has changed since Chavez’s inauguration in 1999.
Noam Chomsky: There have been some changes. I don’t think they’re dramatic. This is probably the first time in Venezuelan history that there’s a government that’s making more than gestures towards using its huge resources to help the poorer parts of the population. This is mostly towards health, education, cooperatives and so on. Just how great the impact is it’s pretty hard to say. But certainly we know the popular reaction to them, which is after all the most important question. What’s important is not what we think about it, but what Venezuelans think about it. And that’s pretty well known. There are pretty good polling agencies in Latin America, the main one is Latinobarometro, which is in Chile. Very respected organization. There are similar polls in the United States in less detail. They monitor attitudes throughout Latin America on all sorts of crucial issues. The most recent one in Chile, in December, found - as earlier ones have - support for democracy and support for the government have been rising very sharply in Venezuela since 1998. Venezuela is now essentially tied with Uruguay at the top in support for the government and support for democracy. It’s well ahead of the other Latin American countries in support for the economic policies of the government and also well ahead in the belief that the policies help the poor, meaning the huge majority, instead of elites. And there are similar judgments on other issues, and as I say it has been rising rather sharply... Despite the obstacles there has been a degree of progress that has been considered by the population as very meaningful, and that’s the best measure.
With the announcement of the creation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV, and the acceleration in their attempted appropriation of various services and companies, can you predict the maturing of this revolution?
It’s not easy to say. There are conflicting tendencies, and the question for Venezuela is which one will prevail. There are democratizing tendencies, devolution of power, popular assemblies, communities taking control of their own budgets, workplace cooperatives and so on. All of that is building towards democracy. There are also authoritarian tendencies: centralization, charismatic figure, and so on. These policies in themselves you can’t really judge in which direction they’ll go. For a country to control its own resources is certainly perfectly reasonable.
Take, say Chile, which is considered the poster-boy of democratic capitalism, the advocate of the free-market, and so on and so forth. That’s the standard party line. More or less suppressed in this story is that Chile’s major export is copper - that’s its main source of income - and the world’s largest copper producer, CODELCO, is in Chile, and it happens to be nationalized. It was nationalized by Allende, and it’s still nationalized. There are also private producers. CODELCO, the government producer, provides probably ten times as much revenue to the state as the private ones, which send the revenue abroad. And that funds what there is of Chilean social programs, and so on. And many other countries control their own resources. It’s taken for granted. So if Venezuela takes greater control of its own resources, that could be a very positive development. On the other hand, it might not be. So for example, when Saudi Arabia nationalized its oil in the 1970s, that did mean that they were controlling their own oil instead of foreign corporations - mainly ARAMCO - which is to the good. On the other hand it’s in the hands of a pretty harsh tyranny. Washington’s major and most valued ally in the region, which is a pretty brutal tyranny and the most extreme Islamist fundamentalist state in the world. So the story depends on how the resources are used.
Mercosur, the common market of the southern cone, is a group that boasts the largest economies of South America. It is founded on free-market style arrangements, like NAFTA, and does not seem to be leaning towards any alternative to the prevailing neoliberal doctrine. Could you comment on the organization?
Mercosur for the moment is more of a hope than an actuality. It has plans, and has made some steps. The latest Mercosur meeting was actually in Brazil, this past December, and it did lay plans along with the meeting of Latin American leaders in Cochabamba. They’re sort of making plans for a European Union type federation. This is extremely important, historically the Latin American countries have been very much separated from one another, oriented towards the imperial power that happened to be dominant, most recently the United States. Separated from one another there was no integration in Latin America, and moves towards integration are very significant, and they’re just beginning really in a serious way. Mercosur is part of it, Cochabamba meetings are another step, and there are other steps. Integration is a powerful step towards maintaining sovereignty and independence. When countries are separated from one another they can kind of be picked off, either by force or by economic strangulation. If they integrate and cooperate, they’re much more free from external control, meaning U.S. control in the last half-century - but it goes back much farther than that.
So that’s an important step, but there are barriers. One barrier is that there is also a desperate need in Latin America for internal integration. Each of the countries has a very sharp divide between a small wealthy Europeanized, mostly white, elite, and a huge mass of deeply impoverished people, usually indian, black and mestizos. The race correlation isn’t perfect, but it’s a correlation. Latin America has some of the worst inequality in the world, and those problems are also beginning to be overcome. There’s a long way to go, but there are steps towards them. In Venezuela, in Bolivia, to some extent in Brazil, in Argentina, and not much elsewhere for the moment. Maybe Ecuador, with the new government. But both the internal integration and the external integration among the countries, these are quite important steps, and it’s really the first time since the Spanish colonization 500 years ago, so that’s of some significance.
Let’s return to some of the criticisms of authoritarianism that have followed term extensions and the recent so-called enabling law.
Well those laws were passed by the parliament. The parliament happens to be almost completely dominated by Chavez, but the reason for that is that the opposition refuses to take part. Probably under U.S. pressure. I don’t like those laws myself. How they turn out depends on popular pressures. They could be steps towards authoritarianism. They could be steps towards implementing constructive programs. It’s not for us to say, it’s for the Venezuelan people to say, and we know their opinion very well.
Oil wealth in Venezuela has given the country the opportunity to extend aid to poor communities in the West, including New York and London, and it has allowed it to buy up the debt of Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador. Could you speak to the uses that Venezuela has put its oil wealth.
Let’s begin with its aid to the West, which is a little ironic. But there’s a little bit of background to that. It began with a program right here in Boston, where I am. What happened is that a group of Senators approached the 8 major energy corporations and asked if they could provide short-term assistance to poor people in the United States, to get through the harsh winter, when they were unable to pay their oil bills because of the high oil prices. They got one response, from Citgo, the Venezuelan owned company, and that one company did indeed provide temporary low-cost oil in Boston, then the Bronx in New York and elsewhere, to survive the harsh winter. That’s the Western aid. So there’s more to it than just Chavez giving aid.
As for the rest, yes Chavez did buy up a quarter, or a third of the debt of Argentina. That was an effort to help Argentina rid themselves of the IMF, as the President of Argentina put it. The IMF, which is sort of an off-shoot of the US Treasury Department, has had a shattering effect in Latin America. Its programs have been followed more rigorously in Latin America than any other part of the world outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, and they’ve been a disaster. So take say Bolivia. They’ve been following IMF policies for 25 years, and at the end per-capita income is lower than it was in the beginning. Argentina was the poster-child of the IMF. It was marvelous, it was doing all the things right, they were urging everyone else to follow the same policies, same for the World Bank and the US Treasury Department. Well what happened is it led to a total economic catastrophe. Argentina did manage to get out of the catastrophe by radically violating IMF rules, and they determined to rid themselves of the IMF, as Kirchner put it, and Venezuela helped them. Brazil was doing the same thing in its own way and now Bolivia is doing it with Venezuelan help. The IMF is in fact in trouble because it’s financing came largely from debt collection and if the countries refuse to accept it’s borrowing because the policies are too harmful, well it’s not clear what they’re going to do.
There was also Petrocaribe. A program to provide oil on favorable terms, with delayed payment, to many of the Caribbean countries as well to some others. Another program was called Operation Miracle. It uses Venezuelan funding to send Cuban doctors - Cuban doctors are very highly trained, they have a very advanced medical system, comparable to the first-world systems - to places like Jamaica, and other countries of the region. It began by finding people who are blind, have completely lost vision, but could be surgically treated to recover vision, and they are identified by Cuban doctors, brought back to Cuba, and treated with their high-class medical facilities, and returned to their countries able to see. That leaves an impression.
There was some effort apparently by the United States and Mexico to do something similar, but it never got anywhere. In fact, the impact of Chavez’s programs can be seen very clearly by George Bush’s last trip. The press talked about his new shift of programs towards Latin America, but what actually happened if you look, is that Bush was picking up some of Chavez’s rhetoric. That’s the wonderful new programs. Picking up some of the rhetoric of Chavez, but not implementing it. Or barely implementing it.
The interview was conducted March 16th.