Adam Ash

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Who's afraid of the big bad Chavez?

1. Is Hugo Chavez a Threat to Stability? No.
By Mark Weisbrot

I have been asked to comment on the question of “whether President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela poses a threat to regional stability and how his critics, including the Bush administration, should respond.” This is an easy one.

One may agree or disagree with any of President Chavez’s policies or statements, but the idea of him or his government posing a threat to regional stability is ridiculous. In fact, a far more reasonable argument can be made that his government has contributed to stabilizing the region.

It has done so by using its $50 billion dollars of foreign exchange reserves to act as a lender of last resort, and provide other forms of financial aid to countries throughout the region. This is what the International Monetary Fund was alleged to have done in the past but almost never did. It is especially important now that Latin America is going through a major historical transition, where governments of the left now preside over about half of the population of the region.

Latin America is emerging from a long period of failed economic reform policies, known as “neoliberalism” there, which resulted in the worst economic growth performance in more than 100 years. From 1980-2000, regional GDP (gross domestic product) per capita grew by just 9 percent, and another 4 percent for 2000-2005. By comparison, it grew by 82 percent in just the two decades from 1960-1980. As a result of the unprecedented growth failure of the last 25 years, voters have demanded change in a number of countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Uruguay.

Venezuela has loaned more than $3 billion to Argentina, and has loaned or committed hundreds of millions of dollars to Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and other countries. It also provides subsidized credit for oil to the countries of the Caribbean, through its PetroCaribe program, and provided many other forms of aid to neighboring countries. These resources are provided without policy conditions attached - unlike most other multilateral (IMF, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank) and bilateral aid. By providing these resources, Venezuela is helping other countries to bring their policies more in line with what voters have demanded, and greatly reducing the threat of economic crises in the process of doing so.

For example, before the Nicaraguan elections last November, US government officials made many threats to the voters of that country that if they elected Daniel Ortega, they would suffer greatly from cutoffs of loans, aid, and even the remittances that many Nicaraguans depend upon from their relatives in the United States. None of these threats have been carried out. This is partly because Washington knows it would be useless and counterproductive to do so, since Nicaragua would simply replace US-controlled funding sources with more borrowing from Venezuela. The same is true for Bolivia, which has vastly increased its hydrocarbon revenues, and is in a stronger bargaining position knowing that it has an international lender that will not try to interfere with its domestic political agenda. The new progressive president of Ecuador, who faces a number of important political battles to deliver on his promises of governmental reform, pro-poor and pro-development policies, is also strengthened by having Venezuela as a lender. When the Argentine government decided to say goodbye to the IMF in January of 2006 by paying off their remaining $9.9 billion in debt, Venezuela’s loan of $2.5 billion helped that government to avoid pushing its reserves down to dangerously low levels.

In all of these cases and more, Venezuela’s financial support is helping other governments to deliver on their promises to their own voters, thereby contributing not only to stability but to the strengthening of democracy in the region. Washington-sponsored aid, by contrast, has often had the opposite effect - provoking “IMF riots,” and sometimes economic crises (e.g. the 1998-2002 Argentine depression), by trying to impose policies that were deeply unpopular and, as we now know, economically flawed.

No other government in the region accepts the Bush Administration’s charge that Chavez is a threat to regional stability - not even President lvaro Uribe of Colombia, which shares a 1300 mile conflict-ridden border with Venezuela. When Uribe met with members of the US Congress last year, he refused to criticize Ch_z- reportedly even in private. The vast majority of Latin American governments also supported Venezuela’s bid for the UN Security Council last year, even after he called President Bush “the Devil” at the UN, and despite all the pressure that the United States - whose economy is 67 times the size of Venezuela’s - brought to bear on them.

What should the Bush Administration do about the non-threat from Venezuela? It could start by acknowledging that it was wrong to support the April 2002 coup that overthrew Chavez. The US Congress should have a real investigation of this involvement, as it did for the US-sponsored coup against the democratic government of Chile in 1973, which yielded volumes of information . The documents that we have so far on the Venezuelan coup from the State Department and the CIA show that the Bush Administration paid some of the leaders of the coup, had advance knowledge of it, and tried to help it succeed by lying about the events as they transpired. The administration also tacitly supported a devastating oil strike that tried to topple the government in 2002-2003, and funded opposition groups through the 2004 failed recall attempt and beyond. In fact, the US Agency for International Development, which is not supposed to be a clandestine organization, continues to pour millions of dollars into Venezuela, Bolivia, and other countries for activities and recipients that it will not divulge. This, too, needs to be made public.

(Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. This column was published by International Affairs Forum on April 2, 2007.)

2. Cuba and Venezuela, the Odd Couple

CARACAS, Venezuela

ONCE night falls in this city, its vast hillside slums acquire a blue hue. The color is from new fluorescent lighting in the cinderblock hovels, which just a few weeks ago emanated an incandescent yellow. That was before thousands of Cubans fanned out across this oil-rich country to teach Venezuelans a thing or two about conserving energy.

The campaign, to install efficient light bulbs free in millions of households, is the latest product of President Hugo Chávez ’s enduring embrace of Cuba and its revolutionary patriarch, Fidel Castro . But it also reveals how mismatched this oil-glutted country may be as a revolutionary partner for the much poorer society Castro transformed 50 years ago.

Venezuela has oil to spare and sends Cuba almost 100,000 subsidized barrels of it a day. It also plans to send 100,000 poor Venezuelans to Cuba on all-expense-paid vacations.

But what can Cubans do for Hugo Chávez?

Clearly, they can serve as revolutionary models, but not in the heroic way they did back in the 1960s, when Venezuela had the kind of moderate democracy that Cuban guerrillas tried secretly to help overthrow.

These days, with Mr. Chávez a much-valued ally, the Cubans are left to helping in matters of military advice, offering lessons in how to run a socialist-inspired educational curriculum — and conducting projects that promote human interchange, like installing a few million light bulbs and offering medical assistance in Caracas slums.

One problem, though, is that the interchange is sometimes too revealing. A few weeks ago, three Cubans lugging bags of light bulbs showed up at this reporter’s home here, and the more they spoke about their experiences in Venezuela, the more it became apparent how different the two countries were.

A third-year psychology student named Yunia Hernández Suárez, from the central Cuban city of Camaguey, told of venturing into poor urban neighborhoods in Venezuela.

In the coastal city of Puerto La Cruz, she complained, armed thieves robbed her and her colleagues of their cash, watches, light bulbs, everything.

“I cried that day,” she said. “The violence here makes me so afraid.”

Such violent crime is less frequent under the tight grip of the Castro regime. Venezuela, by contrast, has one of the world’s highest rates of firearm deaths, and this remains a taboo subject, rarely spoken about in public by senior officials in Mr. Chávez’s government. (He made an exception during last year’s presidential campaign when he condemned the murder of a Cuban doctor, one of thousands of medical workers sent to Venezuela by Mr. Castro in exchange for oil.)

And violence may not be the biggest challenge the Cubans face. However many poor there are in the slums of Caracas, Venezuela remains a resource-rich country where rich and poor both still draw cultural inspiration more from Miami than Havana.

Energy saving is one of the furthest things from their minds.

Venezuela’s gasoline prices, in fact, are among the world’s lowest, at about 12 cents a gallon, as a result of a subsidy for car owners that is estimated to cost the state $9 billion a year.

It would be hard for Mr. Chávez to chip away at this largesse. Few Venezuelans were shocked last month when a key ally of his, Gov. Luís Acosta Carlez, of Carabobo State, publicly defended the right of Venezuelan “revolutionaries” to own a Hummer, an increasingly popular vehicle in an economy that has been growing 10 percent a year as a result of high international oil prices.

“If we earn money, we can do it,” Mr. Acosta said.

Additional subsidies of natural gas and electricity effectively encourage consumption, allowing Venezuela easily to outpace other major Latin American countries like Brazil and Argentina in per capita energy usage.

Perhaps that explains why it was thousands of Cubans, not Venezuelans, who enlisted to install new bulbs across the country. Or perhaps it was that the bulbs themselves carried a revolutionary cachet. Venezuelan manufacturers, who have been stymied by price and currency controls, did not supply them. Vietnam did.

Vietnam, on the other hand, is no longer the Communist model it once was; in recent years, it has adopted economic policies that welcome foreign investment, in contrast with Mr. Chávez’s growing control over the economy. And such ironies are not lost on some political scientists here who say that if you examine them closely, Mr. Chávez’s policies actually owe little to Mr. Castro.

Instead, they say, his brand of militaristic populism more closely resembles the leftist military government of Gen. Juan Velasco, a career soldier and fiery orator who ruled Peru in the 1970’s.

Mr. Chávez, 52, traveled to Peru as a young soldier and greatly admired General Velasco’s experiment, a top-down government that nationalized cattle haciendas, banks and oil fields. The policies initially won popular support, but ultimately left Peru with high inflation and a scarcity of basic products. A bloodless coup toppled the general in 1975, and he was left an obscure figure, at best, in the annals of populism.

So there are no murals in Caracas depicting General Velasco today. Instead, images of Che Guevara and Mr. Castro are what one sees alongside those of Mr. Chávez on the city’s walls — illuminated, these nights, in the odd blue glare of revolutionary energy-saving lights from Vietnam and the headlamps of gas-guzzlers imported from the United States.

3. What Venezuela’s Revolution Is About
by Bernardo Alvarez / The Providence Journal (Rhode Island)

As Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, I have spent a large part of my tenure attempting to encourage Washington’s policymakers to look beyond the deceptive information they receive about Venezuela.

I have presented the political and social principles of Venezuelans, which have always been voiced by our head of state, Hugo Chávez. The political differences between the Venezuelan government and the U.S. government, as constantly expressed by President Chávez, do not involve the people of the United States. In truth, our nations have longstanding ties in oil, other commerce, culture and of course baseball. The Americas have truly connected our societies in ways that are nearly impossible to break.

The integration of our hemisphere and its people is a fundamental objective of the Bolivarian Revolution, which advocates the inclusion and equality of all men and women through socio-economic redistribution. Simply put, we are calling for the democratization of all people’s fundamental rights to health, education, employment and food, among others, that have been addressed responsibly by the Venezuelan government. This democratization goes beyond Venezuela’s borders and works for the unity of our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

In essence, Venezuela and the rest of Latin America and beyond have the right to determine our own political and economic destiny and to be seen as equal partners in a joint enterprise for the betterment of the region. The people of Latin America increasingly realize that we cannot succeed in the global environment as a collection of neighboring yet fully independent countries; rather, all of us must work toward creating a system of regional integration and cooperation that will better allow our nations to negotiate with other world powers.

Today people throughout the hemisphere are electing leaders who promise to lead their countries down an independent path, one that expands the means for democratic participation while narrowing the large gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in the region. This trend is not a threat to the United States, nor should it be perceived as such. The poor and historically marginalized sectors of our population now matter and have a voice, which we are using to articulate our country’s course toward a real inclusive democracy.

Based on this fervent movement of integration, Venezuela has used its resources to assist other nations to lift their people out of poverty, understanding that we can only accomplish this vital objective if we all combine our strengths. In helping to develop the Latin American market, Venezuela’s energy resources, for instance, are fundamental in reaching a sustainable economic development for the entire region, which, although rich in energy resources, has more than 100 million people surviving on less than $1 a day. This is no different from what we have done in the United States with our low-cost heating-oil program, which has benefited more than 400,000 U.S. households in the past two winters.

Disadvantaged people in Venezuela are no different than those around the world, including the United States. In fact, the eradication of global poverty and social exclusion are core issues for the Venezuelan government. Many have failed to realize that we can no longer look to neo-liberal (“conservative” in U.S. parlance) policies for the solutions to problems that those very same policies created. The government of Venezuela is working to escape the longstanding failures of this flawed economic model by expanding opportunities for democratic participation, promoting policies that further economic growth and social development, and deepening ties with the countries of the region. This is a project that is more than politics; it is a necessity addressed by our Bolivarian Revolution, which we are proud to share with our friends in the United States.

(Bernardo Alvarez is Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States.)


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