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Hugo Chávez’s Trip to New York: A Political Blunder?

Here in New York, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been causing a sensation. With a recent speech at the United Nations during which he called George Bush "the devil," Chavez turned up his rhetorical bombast on the White House. "I can still smell sulfur in the room," Chavez added, referring to Bush's earlier address at the United Nations. Yesterday, while touring Harlem, Chavez went even further, calling Bush a "sick man" and an alcoholic.

 

It's not the first time that Chavez has relied on such mud slinging.

 

Personally, I preferred Chavez's prior characterization of Bush as "Mr. Danger," a more droll term than the devil.

 

But beyond the mere rhetoric, what does Chavez hope to achieve through this verbal assault? By bashing the White House, Chavez surely shores up his domestic constituency, the Venezuelan poor. And he may enhance his stature world wide as a combative, hemispheric leader.

 

However, the long term impact of Chavez's remarks upon the domestic U.S. political scene is unclear. While many on the liberal left in New York will not disagree with Chavez's opposition to Bush (U.S. interference in Venezuelan affairs, documented in meticulous detail in my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S., has been a longstanding concern of political activists here), the rest of the country is another matter.

They're watching the likes of CNN, which yesterday spent much of the afternoon deriding Chavez. On one segment, anchor Wolf Blitzer interviewed Republican William Bennett and Democrat Donna Brazzille about Chavez's visit. Both lambasted Chavez for his imprudence. From there it was on to pundit Jack Cafferty who suggested that we immediately deport Chavez back to Venezuela.

 

With the media getting whipped up into a frenzy over Chavez's effrontery, what is worrying is that the Venezuelan president might actually have a political impact on the upcoming Congressional elections in November and tip the scale towards the Republicans. While the GOP looks vulnerable, Bush has recently been surging in the polls by stoking the public's fear of terrorism. He's also been doing a fair amount of saber rattling towards Iran, a nation that Chavez has warmly embraced.

 

Will Chavez play into Bush and Republican hands? The Democrats have been momentarily cast off balance by Chavez's visit. Even liberal Congressman Charlie Rangel of Harlem criticized Chavez for his rhetorical excesses. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi went even farther, calling Chavez "a thug." The Democrats, it seems, fear that close identification with Chavez could cost them politically.

 

In a very cutthroat sense, they might be right.

 

During the recent presidential election in Peru, the more nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala embraced Chavez. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan leader made no secret of his antipathy towards Humala's challenger, Alan Garcia.

 

Chavez taunted Garcia in much the same way that he is doing now with Bush.

 

The tactic backfired: Garcia exploited the issue, charging that Chavez was blatantly interfering in Peru's domestic politics. Garcia went on to beat Humala in the general election and Chavez was discredited.

 

Does Chavez know what he is doing? The Venezuelan leader likes the limelight, but his actions may have unforseen consequences.

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Time For Progressives to Get It Straight on Venezuela: Part II

Articles touting Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's political successes and social programs are a dime a dozen on left wing Web sites these days.  When I was researching my own book, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (recently released by St. Martin's Press), I read a lot of these accounts and began to develop an exceedingly idealistic idea of what was happening in Venezuela.  Having just returned from an extended six week trip to the country, however, I feel that the political and social landscape is a lot murkier and more ambiguous than many have suggested.

 

As an admittedly "left wing tourist," I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a delegation organized by Witness For Peace, a Washington, D.C. based group which has been working for more than twenty years to halt U.S. interventionism in Latin America.  As a member or our delegation, I had the rare privilege to interview figures from across the political spectrum.  After the delegation left, I stayed and conducted more interviews on my own. 

 

Feeding the Poor: Chavez Scores Some Gains

 

In our meeting with Marino Alvarado, the cautious Provea human rights advocate praised government programs to bring food to the Venezuelan poor.  After meeting with him in downtown Caracas, our delegation went across town to a so-called "Endogenous Center of Development" housing workers' cooperatives and a government sponsored market or Mercal.  The space had formerly been a pumping station belonging to the state oil company, PdVSA, and was located within the working class district of Catia.

 

Within the market, local residents could buy discounted items including cooking oil, beans, ice cream and shampoo. Jeff Cohen, a media critic and member of our delegation, bought some pasta in the store. Our young guide said that shoppers could save up to 50% on discounted high quality items. Nevertheless, the Chavez opposition claimed that the market served only "dogs." 

 

At another Mercal in the countryside, a package of sugar only cost 750 bolivares, half the price that consumers would pay in a normal supermarket; chicken too was half as expensive.  Discounted pasta had a message on the back of the package: "When the people are in need, its revolutionary government responds!" 

 

Rafael Uzcategui, the media coordinator at Provea, remarked that Chavez's popular markets were "well done."  Rafael argued however that more thought should be put into the planning of popular markets.  Most of the products there were imported, he told me, while the government wrote catchy propagandistic slogans on the packaging.  In the long term, Rafael said, Venezuela would have to develop greater food self sufficiency to feed the neediest.

 

The government had also put a great deal of effort into promoting soup kitchens.  I had the opportunity to observe one of the kitchens, located within a Mennonite church which worked closely with Witness For Peace.  Working class Protestants comprise a chief base of support for the Chavez regime, and the government provided raw food to the church. 

 

The church was run by Pedro, a wiry and hardworking black man, and his wife America.  Their family, including children and a Siberian Husky puppy, lived in the church.  Upstairs, women prepared the food that had been donated by the government in large vats and pots.  On one day, the church staff provided lunch to the poor waiting outside in the street.  The meal consisted of juice, rice, patacones (fried and mashed plantains), and sausage.

 

Workers' Cooperatives: Advancements and Criticisms

 

One example of the government's determination to eradicate poverty is the Women's Bank.  Housed along pollution clogged Urdaneta Avenue in downtown Caracas, the bank has extended credit to working class women so that they might form small businesses. 

 

To get a better sense of how the Women's Bank had affected working class women, our delegation traveled to Charallave, a town outside of Caracas.  After a rather hair raising ride through the mountains, we arrived at a house which housed a women's baking cooperative and Mercal. 

 

After completing a quick baking course, the women had applied for credit from the Women's Bank and set up their thriving bakery.  Spread out on the tables were pastries that looked much more tempting than the usual fare served up in most Caracas bakeries. 

 

According to Ercilia Seijas, one of the workers, the cooperative started initially with 27 women.  This number subsequently went down however to 14.  This was so, she explained, because the women's husbands fiercely resisted their spouses growing economic independence. 

 

The women worked in two shifts: the morning crew arrived at 6 A.M. and finished at mid-day.  The others worked from noon until 6 P.M.

 

"Our lives have improved," Seijas remarked.  "We were taking care of the house before the subsidized market and cooperative.  Now we can make money."     

 

We also visited cooperatives at the "Endogenous Center of Development." Within the complex in Catia, workers had set up a textile and shoe manufacturing cooperative.  The textile facility had two male workers but otherwise was staffed solely by women. 

 

In Venezuela, explained a young woman guide, poverty affected women hardest.  It was they, she added, who had to shoulder the responsibility of raising children when men abandoned the family. 

 

On the other hand, our guide remarked, the women had undergone a profound psychological shift working in the cooperative.  Before, they had always been ordered around, but now they had all become part owners in the cooperative and took great pride in the Che Guevara T-shirts produced at the plant. 

 

Later, Jeff Cohen and I walked outside into the street, where we were greeted by huge murals depicting Simon Bolivar.  Jeff remarked that the cooperative model of development at Catia bore striking similarities to the classic anarchist vision emphasizing democratic and decentralized workers' control.

 

To get a more critical perspective on the cooperative issue, I asked my old acquaintance Rafael Uzcategui what he thought.  In the conference room back at Provea, we discussed Chavez's many social programs. 

 

Five years previously when I'd met him Rafael was a student at the Central University of Caracas, writing his thesis about the anti-globalization movement and the significance of the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. 

 

He'd been a frequent contributor to El Libertario, an anarchist newspaper published in Caracas.  He'd now cut his hair but still wore his trademark high top canvas sneakers.  Rafael said that his work now took up much of his time but he still managed to write for the paper.

I'd read numerous columns appearing in El Libertario over the years, and sometimes grew frustrated with the newspaper's seemingly relentless criticism of the Chavez government. What, if anything would satisfy the writers? 

 

"Isn't Catia an anarchist idea?" I prodded.

 

Rafael said that in theory the cooperatives were a good idea, but in practice the government would hire cooperatives to sweep the street or carry out other work without extending adequate labor protections.  He added that in some cooperatives, but not all, there was no right to social security.  What's more, the authorities had been derelict by extending credit to groups of workers who would then take advantage of government largesse and set up fictitious or ghost cooperatives.

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Time For Progressives to Get It Straight on Venezuela: Part I

Articles touting Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's political successes and social programs are a dime a dozen on left wing Web sites these days.  When I was researching my own book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (recently released by St. Martin's Press), I read a lot of these accounts and began to develop an exceedingly idealistic idea of what was happening in Venezuela.  Having just returned from an extended six week trip to the country, however, I feel that the political and social landscape is a lot murkier and more ambiguous than many have suggested.

 

As an admittedly "left wing tourist," I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a delegation organized by Witness For Peace, a Washington, D.C. based group which has been working for more than twenty years to halt U.S. interventionism in Latin America.  As a member or our delegation, I had the rare privilege to interview figures from across the political spectrum.  After the delegation left, I stayed and conducted more interviews on my own. 

 

Education: Some Significant Successes

 

Without a doubt the Chavez regime has scored important victories which have improved the lot of the Venezuelan poor, which make up 70% of the population.  Not even members of the middle class opposition that I spoke with deny the government's numerous accomplishments. 

Mariño Alvarado, the coordinator of Provea, an important Caracas-based human rights organization, explained to our delegation that in education the government had achieved some successes.  A lawyer by profession, Mariño had been working with Provea for ten years.  Hardly a tool of the right wing opposition, Provea provides rigorous and objective human rights analysis, as well as important information about social, cultural and economic conditions in Venezuela.

 

A solemn man with indigenous features, Mariño spoke to us in a deliberate, serious tone.  At the Provea headquarters located in downtown Caracas, he remarked that the authorities had been able to increase the number of school age children studying at all educational levels.  What's more, he added, "the government has carried out a very successful literacy campaign, and built an impressive number of schools." 

 

After my delegation left for the States, I stayed in Caracas and caught up with Rafael Uzcategui, who had just recently started working with Provea as the organization's media coordinator.  Five years earlier I'd met Rafael in Caracas.  At that time he had been a student at the Central University and I was pursuing field work on my doctoral dissertation dealing with the oil industry. 

 

To be fair, Rafael said, Chavez was not the first Venezuelan president to deliver massive state support for education.  "In previous periods when the price of oil was high," he explained, "various governments were able to enact social policies as there was money floating around."  Even Acción Democrática, a corrupt party derided by Chavez, had funded the massification of education through oil revenue prior to Chavez's election in 1998.

 

Nevertheless, one cannot deny the government's successes.  Piling into a blue van, our delegation paid a visit to one of the government's many "Bolivarian" schools near to the town of Charallave.  An immaculately clean, pleasant, and orderly facility, the school had a computer room and a newly constructed basketball court outside.  Outside a girl swung happily from a swing. 

 

Unfortunately, school was not in session and we did not observe class.  I do not doubt for a moment however that most any parent would have been proud to have his or her children in that school, surely superior to many dilapidated schools within inner cities of the United States.

 

Health Care: Successes and Shortcomings

 

For Marino, one of the other hallmark accomplishments of the Chavez government has been health care.  Across Venezuela, the government has set up so-called Barrio Adentro clinics administering primary care to marginalized sectors of society.  Cuban doctors, whose presence in Venezuela has stoked political controversy, staff the Barrio Adentro clinics. 

One day we had the opportunity, purely by chance, to speak with one of the Cuban doctors.  During a visit to a poor slum in the Caracas area one of the members of our delegation, a young college student, fell into conversation on the street with a strapping man in his forties with a moustache.  He explained that he was a doctor working in the local Barrio Adentro clinic.

 

Inside his clinic, there was a photo of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, as well as a picture of Simon Bolivar, an independence leader who fought against Spain. The doctor, who seemed leery of talking with us on the record, said that the community had accepted him and that he frequently played baseball with local residents.  He had seemingly adapted to life in Venezuela, though the serious drug addiction problem in the country had startled him. 

Inside the makeshift facility, the doctor had a cabinet stocked with basic medicines.  The doctor admitted that Cuba had a much better health system than Venezuela.  He said that though he was pleased to oblige and provide his services in Venezuela, the Cuban presence was a mere band aid.

 

During a visit to the working class district of Catia, we had the opportunity to observe another, more specialized clinic.  Within the clinic we observed separate departments specializing in gynecology, pathology, dentistry and pediatrics.  According to our guide, doctors attended 400 people daily in the clinic, principally from Catia.  If patients had more serious ailments, they were referred in turn to local hospitals.

 

It's undeniable that the Barrio Adentro clinics and the new facility at Catia have made a difference for poor Venezuelans who historically had negligible access to health care.  However, according to Mariño, though programs like Barrio Adentro have been a signal success the full health care system is still very deficient and has not improved substantially under Chavez.

 

"Cuban doctors can treat certain problems," remarked my old acquaintance Rafael.  "But what happens if someone has to go to the hospital, get an operation, and the hospital doesn't work?"

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