Dig that red VW Beetle showing up this past Sunday morning at a Caracas barrio. Behind the wheel is none other than Hugo Chavez, president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (as it has been officially designated since 1999), global South working-class hero and scourge of the Washington Consensus, on his way to one more red-Ferrari-style landslide electoral victory.
The historical metaphor came with a Bob Dylan blowing-in-the-wind swing: while Chavez – who is seducing the global South with his attempt to prove another world system is possible – was having his mandate renewed by an overwhelming majority of voters in a free, fair, transparent election, in Santiago the aging former US-backed Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet – the ultimate, sinister Latin American dictator from central casting – was suffering a heart attack.
In the absence of credible, untainted opposition, Chavez was actually, once again, running against George W Bush. “Against the devil [George W Bush], against the Empire, vote for Hugo Chavez,” proclaimed red flags scattered all over Caracas. While Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner, the top two powers in Mercosur alongside Venezuela, celebrated Chavez’ victory, no tears were shed for for Pinochet (Evita Peron was much cooler).
As for Bush’s twin daughters – who were having a ball in Buenos Aires, even with Barbara’s wallet and mobile phone pocketed by a dangerous “terrorist” whose quick hand managed to floor all the defense systems of the most sophisticated Secret Service on the planet – they didn’t stay for the celebration: they left Argentina last Thursday.
As they were unable to dissolve the Venezuelan people and elect a new, more pliable president, the discredited opposition – a motley collection of racist, corrupt oligarchs and plutocrats – was meekly forced to shelve the threat of launching a plan B, a “Great Avalanche against Fraud” scheduled for this Tuesday to protest against alleged electoral shenanigans.
This was despite a heavily built-up public relations campaign accusing Chavistas of being “Nazis” and empty promises of unleashing a Ukraine-style Orange Revolution to counter the so-called “fraud”. Once again Chavez won fair and square, under the eyes of hundreds of international monitors. The non-dissolved Venezuelan people preempted a foretold coup d’etat.
Behind all the smoke-and-mirrors “debate” around the variable “stay the course” scenarios, the only strategic factor that really matters for the Bush-Cheney system in Iraq is control of oil resources, which in theory would allow Washington to knock out the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
According to the original Bush-Cheney system plan, it would be crucial to increase Iraq’s oil production, make sure that a barrel of oil does not cost more than US\$30, and prevent any moves (by Russia and/or Iran, for instance) from the petrodollar toward the petro-euro. To allow Iraq to produce 3.5 million barrels of oil a day (nowadays it can be pumping as low as 1.8 million, if that), the US would have to invest at least \$5 billion before the end of Bush’s term – and count on no sabotage by the Sunni Arab resistance.
OPEC, for its part, wants a barrel of oil at \$60 minimum. In the forefront of this policy we find none other than Hugo Chavez. This “minimum price” and the contours of a redistribution of production will be decided in an extraordinary OPEC meeting in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, on December 14. Chavez – and not the Bush-Cheney system – will definitely get what he, and other OPEC member states, want.
Chavez of Arabia
King-of-polemicists Chavez is set to remain the most popular political leader in the global South for years. It’s not hard to see why. In Venezuela, as in Colombia, Ecuador or Paraguay, most of the population is mestizo – a mix of Spanish colonizers and indigenous people. The key issue in these countries is race mixed with class (as in struggle). The overwhelming majority of mestizos, not by accident, happen to be poor. Chavez is Venezuela incarnated because he is an absolute mestizo – Indian, Spanish and black. He had to be popular: he’s one of “them” – the ones who had been excluded for centuries.
On top of it, Chavez is spectacularly popular from Mexico to India and especially in Gaza, Ramallah, south Beirut – not to mention Baghdad and Tehran. His portrait is now brandished all over alongside that of iconic Che Guevara. A torrent of editorials in the Arab press have nailed it: the dispossessed masses have clearly identified how cowardly, corrupt Arab rulers a la Hosni Mubarak, Saudi King Abdullah or the emir of Kuwait have not dared to do what a non-Arab, non-Muslim Latin American has done: to confront head-on the Empire’s way of regulating the world.
What could Chavez teach, for instance, Hamas and Hezbollah? A lot: first of all, that it is possible for a clear alternative to emerge respecting the rules of parliamentary democracy. Chavez has not emerged protected by a religious movement; he is a democratically elected (and re-elected) president and a committed anti-imperialist socialist. He reaches way beyond national or communal division. He insists on continental unity (in the Middle East, that would translate into pan-Arabism). And his socio-economic policies are absolutely egalitarian, with an emphasis on redistribution of wealth.
As far as the Middle East is concerned, it also helps that Chavez dedicates a lot of thinking to the Iraq war, totally supports the Iraqi resistance and defines himself as a Nasserist (while in Beirut and south Lebanon he has become as popular as Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah). He appeals to Sunnis and Shi’ites alike – in fact echoing large swaths of public opinion all over Latin America who do not regard the Middle East in sectarian terms and clearly support the Palestinian struggle, the Iraqi resistance, the Lebanese Shi’ites, the Arab nation as a whole, and also Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program.
The Bolivar swing
Assorted neo-cons and the Washington establishment cannot but be horrified by the steady progression of a Bolivarian movement bent on uniting South America against imperialist practices and the Washington Consensus. They now look south of the Rio Grande and see a solidified ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana para las Americas, or Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) alliance – Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia – not to mention the return of Daniel “Sandinista” Ortega in Nicaragua and the ascension of Rafael Correa in Ecuador, plus a solidified Mercosur where Brazil-Argentina-Venezuela are deeply committed to an indigenous trade mechanism that has nothing to do with the US-promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) or bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs).
Chavez enjoys ample to total support from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile, Nicaragua, Cuba and now Ecuador. Correa’s recent electoral victory in Ecuador rang the same themes: against corrupt elites; against US-imposed FTAs; in favor of “socialism for the 21st century” (a key Chavez theme); and crucially a desire for Ecuador – the fifth-largest oil producer in Latin America, and major exporter of crude to the US – to get back into OPEC, which the Andean country had quit in 1992. This would mean, of course, more support for Chavez within OPEC.
The only US military (air) base in South America happens to be in Manta, Ecuador. It’s part of Plan Colombia and is supposed to be active in the “war on drugs” (Plan Colombia is actually more worried about Chavismo than drugs). The lease expires in 2009. Correa – a sharp, US-educated economist – said, “We won’t close the base in 2009, but the United States would have to allow us to have an Ecuadorian base in Miami in return.”
It’s the water, stupid
Meanwhile, Lula’s strategic advisers have recommended Brazil to propose in 2007 a South American version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – as a dissuasive shield against, what else, US designs especially on water. No wonder: South America holds the largest fresh-water reserves on the planet, a lot of oil, and an extremely rich biodiversity. Chavez had already proposed a similar plan last July, but only including the five Mercosur member countries. South America’s NATO would inevitably be on a collision course with the US national-security doctrine.
To help implement its agenda, the US still relies on the School of the Americas – an assassins’ den that since 1946 has trained more than 61,000 Latin American soldiers in everything from counterinsurgency to, yes, torture techniques. Everyone in South America remembers the infamous Operation Condor, which was in essence a Pinochet-controlled assassination machine of intellectuals and leftists.
In 2001 the Pentagon decided to re-christen the assassins’ den as a Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but this is the same old counterinsurgency university. Brazil and Venezuela, years ago, and later Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, stopped sending “students”, but scores of tiny Central American states still do.
As much as all over Latin America people have not forgotten the rape-and-pillage US strategy of supporting the Pinochets of the world, the Arab nation as a whole won’t forget what interests lie behind Bush’s Greater Middle East.
It’s easy to see why a Sunni Arab Iraqi or a Lebanese Shi’ite is seduced by Chavez of Arabia. It’s a question of true sovereignty and self-determination – and of course it has to do with oil. Venezuela has become a tremendous “threat” to US strategic interests in essence because Chavez nationalized oil giant PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela SA).
The logic of getting a better deal for the key national resource and as a direct consequence improving the quality of living of the most deprived sectors of the population by investing in health and education is simply anathema to the Washington Consensus: a few years ago this was a “communist” thing, now it’s branded by cowed corporate media as “populism”, a “destabilizing influence” or, even worse, “totalitarianism”.
For an alleged communist hell on Earth, Venezuela is quite well behaved. Economic fundamentals and the right to private property remain intact. Chavez knows he needs taxes to finance social projects. In 2005, Venezuelan gross domestic product grew a whopping 9.4% – and the same may happen in 2006. Bilateral trade with the US was \$40 billion in 2005 and growing. The – white, plutocratic, “I love Miami” – elite represents less than 5% of the population. They don’t have many reasons to complain. So it’s back to racism: after all, Chavez is a mestizo.
Wealth redistribution is working. The minimum wage rose no less than 327% under Chavez, and is now about \$250 a month (Brazil’s, for instance, when readjusted in 2007, will be less than \$180). When Chavez came to power in 1999, 55.4% of Venezuelans were considered poor; now they are 39.7%. More people are working in the formal economy than in the informal. And in human-development terms, according to the United Nations Development Program, Venezuela is climbing the charts and is now in 72nd place.
One of the key – and very complex – objectives of the Bolivarian Revolution is to organize an alternative production model. Chavez started by solidifying some state enterprises in strategic areas – in oil, electricity, telecom, transportation, food distribution. At the same time he has been turbocharging so-called “basic enterprises”, cooperatives and the so-called “social production enterprises”. The Bolivarian Revolution is all about the building up of a more egalitarian society.
We gotta take him out
Late last month, respected Venezuelan-American lawyer Eva Golinger published a remarkable book – Bush vs Chavez: La guerra de Washington contra Venezuela, ie “Washington’s War Against Venezuela” (Monte Avila Editores, Caracas) – detailing the extent of the “strategic threat” posed to the US by the Bolivarian Revolution. For the moment the book has not yet been translated into English.
Golinger tells how the US is financing no fewer than 132 Venezuelan opposition groups; how the US is exercising “diplomatic terrorism” – via threat of sanctions – for non-cooperation in the “war on drugs”, for instance, which is not true; and for non-cooperation in the “war on terror”, which has led to Venezuela being forbidden to buy weapons made in the US or incorporating any US-made parts.
Surrealistically, Venezuela has been lumped with other “terrorist” nations (according to Washington thinking) even though it was never officially depicted as a state sponsoring terrorism. According to Golinger, “They did that because they wouldn’t be able to get away with classifying Venezuela as a terrorist nation within the world community – just yet.”
Harassment is non-stop. The current Republican-dominated US Congress has issued a report charging that Chavez smuggles Islamic terrorists from the Middle East to Margarita Island, trains them in Spanish, gives them a new ID and sends them to Mexico, where they cross the border and enter the US presumably to concoct a new version of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
And most of all there’s the extensive military front. Evidence of US Central Intelligence Agency involvement in the April 2002 coup against Chavez can be found on the Internet. Nowadays, Golinger details what the US military base in Curacao is up to: the relentless pressure on the Curacao government for a strategic refinery leased to Venezuela to be sold to the US, the possibility of a US missile attack on Venezuela staged from Curacao, the secret US base being built in Colombia near the Venezuelan border for conducting espionage, the nefarious underground activities of a heady mix of Colombian paramilitaries and US Special Forces, attempts to push FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) into Venezuela so the mix can wreak havoc inside the country, and a detailed analysis of Plan Balboa, which is in fact the Pentagon invasion-of-Venezuela plan.
According to Golinger, “More than having an invasion, they’re going to try and assassinate Chavez. And that’s where the paramilitaries come in, because that’s what their mission is. A paramilitary leader I spoke to told me that. They’re already here. There are more than 3,000 in the region of Caracas alone.”
No wonder Washington is so furious. South America is now the only region in the world where progressive ideas shine – and have a chance to multiply. The United States, the European Union and East Asia are narcotized by neo-liberalism – and immersed in an intellectual void. Russia offers Gazprom plus truculence. The Middle East is being devastated by the Bush-Cheney system. Afghanistan is a black void sucking Pakistan once again. And the “international community” still does not give a damn about Africa.
South America is bristling with hope – with ideas of unity in diversity, a collective “Enough!” to foreign exploitation, a belief that another world system is possible. Plutocracies are weary. The Pentagon may be proceeding “full speed ahead” with plans of militarization and all-out intervention in South America. But Chavez of Arabia won’t go quietly – and sooner rather than later other kindred spirits are inevitably bound to rise all over the global South.