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Senhor da Silva Comes to Washington

When you can’t stamp out progressive social change, the next step is to try to desperately derail it or otherwise water it down. That’s exactly the kind of strategy pursued by the likes of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who concluded a South American tour a year ago designed to ostracize the bad countries, namely Venezuela, Bolivia, and increasingly Argentina, and to cultivate ties with the good countries such as Brazil and Chile. Having woken up to the fact that its free trade and neo-liberal agenda for the region lay in tatters, and that wielding a Big Stick to defang its enemies could not work politically, the Bush White House pursued stealthy diplomacy. Rice’s strategy was to divide and rule, to contain radical social change and to steer it within acceptable boundaries. Because South America was headed on a new trajectory which was more independent of Washington, Rice hoped that the "responsible" left as exemplified by Brazil’s Lula and Chile’s Bachelet would steer the region away from the likes of Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivian President Morales.

One year later with a fresh Democratic administration in Washington, what is the U.S. attitude towards different left leaning regimes in South America? That is the question posed by a recent article in Time magazine, provocatively headlined "Brazil’s Lula: A Bridge to Latin American Left?" The article implies that Bush did not dutifully look out for U.S. interests in South America, and this created "a problem" because it allowed for the expansion of the anti-U.S. left throughout the region.

Thankfully for Time magazine, it now looks as if Brazil will act as a broker between the United States and Venezuela, paving the way for a possible diplomatic rapprochement. In his first meeting with a Latin leader, Obama sat down with Brazilian President Lula da Silva in Washington on Saturday. During the encounter, Lula told his U.S. counterpart that America should do its utmost to improve ties with Venezuela and Bolivia and to build a relationship based on trust and not interference.

Publicly, Lula and Chávez have been political allies for the past several years. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that the Brazilian leader has adopted a more conservative approach towards politics and economics than his Venezuelan counterpart. Both Venezuela and Brazil are energy giants and see themselves as natural political leaders in the wider region. Behind the façade therefore, there may be a slight geopolitical rivalry between the two South American nations. Lula surely does not want a return to the Big Stick of the Bush years, but he would probably like to supplant Venezuela as a regional power so that Brazil can assume its natural place in the South America sun.

Lula may get his wish. The economic picture has shifted dramatically recently and Brazil stands to benefit most in the new geopolitical equation. A year ago the U.S. was not in the midst of a frightening economic mess and Venezuela was getting a much better financial yield on its oil exports. Despite Chávez’s recent victory in his country’s constitutional referendum — which allowed the Venezuelan leader to run indefinitely for reelection — Venezuela is no position to assume a greater regional role right now. Formerly, Chávez was wont to throw around development aid to Bolivia and other nations with reckless abandon, but within the new economic milieu he will be severely constrained in his wider ambitions because of the lower price of oil.

A year ago, Brazil was certainly an important diplomatic player but it has now emerged as perhaps the dominant strategic force in the region. Though Brazil has suffered as a result of the world economic slowdown, the country is still in a better position than many other nations. Indeed, as noted by a recent report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "while most of the developed world is undergoing a financial crisis, Brazil still retains some positive strength, with the country still recording significant economic and social achievements at home. For this and other reasons arising from the Brazil’s impressive statistics, Lula is emerging as the de facto spokesman for Latin America."

Brazil, the report goes on, is "far better off than the European and American economies. Its banks are solvent, credit, though increasingly viscous, is still flowing from BNDES, Brazil’s national development bank, to favored companies such as Petrobras [the Brazilian state oil firm] and consumers remain more confident than their North American counterparts. The absence of these negative factors that are primarily propelling the crisis abroad is helping to shield Brazil from the worst of the downturn." Interestingly, the report concludes, Brazil may be the only one of 34 major economies to avoid recession in 2009.

With its newfound clout, what does Brazil seek on the international stage? Lula has long coveted a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and may want to become a world energy powerhouse. Indeed, Brazil might seek to supplant Venezuela as the main South American oil supplier to the United States. "Such observations that Obama would welcome Lula as an alternative energy supplier," notes the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "seem to run counter to Lula’s putative pledge to Hugo Chávez, in which he promised to act as an advocate for Venezuela during his meeting with Obama. Is Lula positioning himself as Latin America’s Otto Von Bismarck?"

Within this new "Bismarckian" game of chess Lula may wish to appear as Venezuela’s paternalistic protector while simultaneously looking out for wider Brazilian interests. If Lula could ever bring off a meeting or summit with Chávez and Obama, it would constitute a huge political coup and Brazil’s diplomatic prestige would be enormously enhanced.
There is some indication that Obama might be somewhat amenable to Lula’s entreaties.
Back during the U.S. presidential campaign, Obama was vague about what U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela ought to be. Reluctant to tackle this hot potato, Obama issued rather contradictory statements about his attitude towards the Andean nation. Now that he has been swept into office, what is Obama’s policy? Judging from the contradictory statements put out by the State Department, the administration is conflicted.

At first, the State Department praised Venezuela’s recent constitutional referendum as free and fair. But then, diplomats reversed course. According to the Wall Street Journal, the positive remarks "set off a furor among Venezuelan opposition activists and some commentators because the description of Venezuela’s referendum seemed markedly different from the tone set by the Bush administration, which repeatedly voiced worry that Mr. Chávez was undermining Venezuela’s democracy."

As the right laid into Obama, the State Department quickly backpedaled. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, "U.S. officials are scrambling to assert that the Obama administration hasn’t softened U.S. policy toward Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez recently won a controversial referendum allowing him to run for office as many times as he wants." The reports suggest that there may be disagreement within the State Department about how to handle Chavez; different factions may not see eye to eye. Like the Carter administration, which had somewhat contradictory policies at different times towards left wing movements in Latin America, Obama has not quite figured out what course he wants to chart.

This lack of coherence in official U.S. policy towards Venezuela suggests that Lula might be able to at least nudge the U.S. in another direction. Given Brazil’s new economic and political clout, and the U.S.’s reduced position world-wide, Lula is in an ideal position to reform regional politics in a dramatic way. Within the new diplomatic triangle between Venezuela, Brazil and the United States, Lula wants his country to be paramount. In the new arrangement, the United States will cease its political interference in South American affairs while Venezuela will become a junior partner to Brazil. If Lula can achieve these ends, he will indeed emerge as a very important figure on the world stage.

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El Salvador: Latin American Right Down But Not Out

In light of the Salvadoran right's fear-mongering campaign in advance of the Central American nation's Sunday presidential election, which has sought to portray leftist candidate Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) as a kind of dangerous foreign agent of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, perhaps it's instructive to consider the political history of the past four years.

 

Bolivia, Presidential Election of 2005: Chávez and "Terrorists"


During the country's presidential election, Evo Morales of the Movement Towards Socialism or MAS campaigned on a progressive platform stressing resource nationalism. His opponent, conservative Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga of the PODEMOS or We Can party (no relationship to Barack Obama) claimed that Morales had ties to drug smugglers, terrorism, Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Quiroga, who pledged to pursue free trade policies, went down to ignominious defeat and got trounced by Morales, 54% to 28%.


Peru and Presidential Election of June, 2006: "Flagrant and Persistent" Meddling


After meeting with Chávez and Morales, the leftist Ollanta Humala, a former officer in the Peruvian army, declared himself part of "a Latin America with new leaders, in which the perception is that the neo-liberal economic model is exhausted." Adopting a nationalist platform, Humala pledged to nationalize Peru's hydrocarbons industry and said he strongly opposed the free trade agreement that his country had signed with Washington.


When Chávez injected himself into the presidential contest by saying that Humala was the voice of the downtrodden and conservative Lourdes Flores was "the candidate of Peru's oligarchy," the Peruvian government briefly withdrew its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. During a runoff vote Flores was eliminated, thus leaving Humala and Peru's former President Alan García of the APRA Party or American Popular Revolutionary Alliance to face off against one another.


García finished second in that vote trailing Humala. During his first presidency García had espoused some progressive positions but now he referred to Chávez and Morales as spoiled children and "historical losers" when they criticized Peru's free-trade agreement with the United States. Chávez shot back that García, whose previous presidency was marred by hyperinflation, food shortages and guerrilla violence, was a "thief" and a "crook."

 

"I hope that Ollanta Humala becomes president of Peru," Chávez declared. "To Ollanta Humala, go comrade! Long live Ollanta Humala! Long live Peru!" the Venezuelan leader added. Chávez's comments prompted Peru to recall its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. The Venezuelan leader, Peruvian authorities charged, was persistently and flagrantly intervening in their country's internal affairs.

 

García, who had languished behind Humala by more than ten points in opinion polls, exploited the diplomatic spat by accusing Chávez of political interference. When the APRA man painted Humala as a puppet of Chávez and Morales, Humala was unable to launch an articulate counteroffensive. When the votes were finally counted, García edged out Humala, 53% to 47%. The vote, García remarked, was a blow to Chávez. "Today, the majority of the country has delivered a message in favor of national independence, of national sovereignty," García said. "They have defeated the efforts by Mr Hugo Chávez to integrate us into his militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America. Today, Peru has said no," García added proudly. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was also pleased with the result, proclaiming that "the best response is that of the Peruvian people (who) decided to vote for President Garcia and not for [Hugo] Chávez's candidate."


Mexico and Presidential Election of July, 2006: López Obrador Is a "Danger"

 

Even though Chávez was not a candidate in the Mexican election which followed one month after Peru's contest, he was certainly a political specter. The election pitted leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD or Party of the Democratic Revolution against two conservative candidates, Roberto Madrazo of the PRI or Institutional Revolutionary Party and Felipe Calderón of the PAN or National Action Party. In early polling López Obrador, a populist mayor of Mexico City who had instituted socialist-style handout programs and who had spoken of his desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, had a clear lead over both candidates.


Trailing in public opinion surveys, Madrazo sought to take down his leftist challenger by linking him to Chávez. "There are clear similarities between Chávez and López Obrador," Madrazo said. "I see authoritarianism in them both." The PRI candidate added that López Obrador and Chávez did not respect the rule of law and that foreign investors would avoid Mexico if the PRD candidate ever came to power. Madrazo declared, "I foresee the capital flight that happened in Venezuela with Chávez's government that I don't want to happen here." Going even further, Madrazo accused López Obrador of being in contact with Chávez aides and charged that the Venezuelan leader was trying to influence the election.


Pro-business candidate Calderón joined in the pummeling. In his TV ads, he linked Obrador to Hugo Chávez and claimed that the PRD candidate was "a danger to Mexico." "Hugo Chávez is not running for president of Mexico," remarked the Washington Post. "But some days it's been hard to tell. The Venezuelan president's face has been all over Mexican television at critical stages in this country's bitter mudfest of a presidential race." A little known political activist group put Chávez on TV, surrounded by machine guns and soldiers, and accompanied by an ominous voice-over which intoned: "In Mexico, you don't have to die to define your future -- you only have to vote!"

 

The Federal Electoral Commission ruled that Calderón's ads TV ads violated its rules and ordered him to withdraw them but only after the scare-mongering message had set in and Calderón had shot up in the polls. Encouraged by the successful result of Calderón's dirty campaign, the candidate's aides claimed that the Venezuelan Bolivarian circles -- small community groups supported by the Chávez government – were secretly working on behalf of López Obrador.


The leftist candidate of the PRD was known for his combative political style. Bizarrely however, López Obrador barely responded to the fear mongering campaign against him. Weeks passed until he finally disavowed a relationship with Chávez. Cowed by the right wing attacks, one presidential aide finally remarked "It's absurd. Andrés Manuel López Obrador doesn't know Chávez, nor have they ever spoken."

 

The election itself was plagued with irregularities. When Calderón claimed victory, López Obrador cried fraud and called for street protests. The Electoral Tribunal ultimately ruled that Calderon had won the election by a very narrow margin and rejected Obrador's allegations.

 

Ecuador Presidential Election of October, 2006: "Colonel Correa"


The next setback for Chávez came in Ecuador, where the Venezuelan leader's would-be protégé, Rafael Correa, came in second against Álvaro Noboa in the first round of the country's presidential election. Correa, a leftist economics professor who criticized U.S.-style free trade, denied that Chávez had funded his campaign and the Venezuelan leader, chastened by his defeats in Mexico and Peru, was uncharacteristically quiet about the Ecuador election. However, it was no secret that the two had a personal rapport. Correa in fact visited Chávez's home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chávez's parents.


As the presidential campaign heated up, Noboa, a banana magnate, sought to label Correa as a Chávez puppet. In an allusion to Chávez's former military background, Noboa called his adversary "Colonel Correa." Correa, the Noboa campaign charged, was being financed by Venezuela. In a bombastic tirade Noboa even declared, "the Chávez-Correa duo has played dirty in an effort to conquer Ecuador and submit it to slavery."


If he were elected, Noboa promised, he would break relations with Caracas. Correa denied that his campaign was financed by Chávez and in a biting aside declared that his friendship with the Venezuelan leader was as legitimate as President Bush's friendship with the bin Laden family. "They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo," Correa explained. "The only thing left is for them to say that Bin Laden was financing me."


Chávez, perhaps fearing that any statement on his part might tilt the election in favor of Noboa, initially remained silent as regards the Ecuadoran election. But at last the effusive Chávez could no longer constrain himself and broke his silence. The Venezuelan leader accused Noboa of baiting him in an effort to gain the "applause" of the United States. Chávez furthermore expressed doubts about the veracity of the voting result in the first presidential runoff, in which Correa came in second.

 

In his own inflammatory broadside, Chávez accused Noboa of being "an exploiter of child labor" on his banana plantations and a "fundamentalist of the extreme right." In Ecuador, Chávez said, "there are also strange things going on. A gentleman who is the richest man in Ecuador; the king of bananas, who exploits his workers, who exploits children and puts them to work, who doesn't pay them loans, suddenly appears in first place in the first [electoral] round." The Noboa campaign, in an escalating war of words, shot back that the Venezuelan Ambassador should be expelled from Ecuador due to Chávez's meddling.


In the end however, Noba's fulminations came to nothing: the Banana King came in second to Correa, losing 43% to 56% for Correa.

 

Nicaragua Presidential Election of November, 2006: Chávez's "Lieutenant" in Central America


In 2005, when Nicaraguan Sandinista leader traveled to Venezuela for a meeting with Chávez, the friendship between the two began to bear fruit. During the meeting at Miraflores, the presidential palace, Ortega remarked that Latin American unity was necessary to confront globalization. Ortega later alarmed Washington by remarking that if he won the election he would make sure that Nicaragua would join ALBA, Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas. Chávez's trading plan, which is designed to sideline traditional corporate interests and Bush's Free Trade Agreement of The Americas (FTAA), is based on barter agreements between Latin American countries. Ortega later added that he opposed U.S.-backed trade deals such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. "Central America's trading future lies not with the U.S. but with Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina," he said.

Such statements put Ortega at odds with the likes of U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick. "CAFTA is the opportunity of a lifetime," Zoellick remarked in an address given at the Heritage Foundation. "If we retreat into isolationism, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez and others like them, leftist autocrats will advance."


As per Peru, the Nicaraguan right sought to link its Sandinista opposition to Chávez in an effort to instill fear in voters. Presidential candidate Jose Rizo remarked that Chávez and Ortega were "a threat to regional and hemispheric stability," and claimed that the Venezuelan leader was financing Ortega's campaign [both Venezuela and Ortega denied the accusation]. "Ortega will become Chávez's lieutenant in Central America and the Caribbean in the same way that he represented the extinct and failed Soviet Bloc," Rizo added.


In the end however, Rizo's red-baiting was unsuccessful: the veteran Sandinista leader edged out his opponent by 10 points to win the election.

 

El Salvador: Chávez and His "Totalitarian" Projects


To listen to the Salvadoran right in advance of Sunday's presidential election, you'd think Mauricio Funes was leading El Salvador on the march towards Stalinist dictatorship. While campaigning near the Honduran border recently, his opponent Rodrigo Ávila claimed that the Funes campaign was being funded by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. "There's a saying that 'Whoever pays the mariachi decides what song is going to be played,'" Ávila remarked. "And that's going to happen with them," he added. "No matter what they say, what they do, their campaign is being financed by Venezuela."


Funes himself denies having any political links with the Chávez government and has said that Venezuela will not meddle in Salvadoran internal affairs if he wins the presidential election. Furthermore, the FMLN leader has distanced himself from some of the more enthusiastic pro-Chávez members of his party. Despite Funes's disavowals however, ARENA has continued to press on with its hysterical red baiting even though the rightist party has no proof that Funes has received financial support from Chávez.


Both Funes and Chávez, said outgoing President Antonio Saca, were trying to spread "totalitarian projects" and wanted to "stick their noses" in anti-democratic practices. It was "no secret" Saca added hyperbolically, that the FMLN received "its ideological nourishment from Havana" and its economic nourishment "from some other place." In yet another ridiculous and over the top aside, Saca declared "I am sure that there's some kind of working group in Venezuela which seeks to take over El Salvador."

 

Latin American Right: Running On Empty


From Bolivia to Peru to Mexico to Ecuador to Nicaragua and now El Salvador, a clear pattern has emerged. The Latin American right knows that while it was in power, inequality and poverty increased and people hardly benefited economically from the extraction of natural resources. This put rightist politicians in a bind, since campaigning on U.S. - style economic policies and free trade was never going to be popular amongst electorates throughout the wider region.

 

In this sense, the Latin American right is in a similar dilemma to the Republicans in 2008. Like discredited John McCain, who represented the past and did not have any progressive economic ideas, today's conservatives in Latin America are running on empty and hence their desperate moves to insert Chávez into the political equation. Sometimes, as in Peru and Mexico, the right's strategy has succeeded whereas in other countries the tactic has failed. Arguably, Chávez's inflammatory rhetoric may have backfired in certain cases and wound up hurting progressive candidates.

 

Ironically, despite the right's claims, Chávez is hardly promoting revolution. Like other Latin American populists, Chávez has pushed economic redistribution but only up to a certain point. What's more, Venezuela is probably not in the position right now to advance an ambitious geopolitical agenda due to the fall in world oil prices. That hasn't stopped the right however from going negative and to claim that left candidates are intimately associated with Venezuela. For Latin American conservatives, it's probably the only card they have left.

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Salvadoran Right Lashes Out at Chavez

Facing a serious electoral debacle in advance of Sunday’s presidential election, and recognizing that it cannot win the election based on practical ideas, the right-wing ARENA (or Nationalist Republican Alliance) party has launched an ugly campaign to link leftist FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) candidate Mauricio Funes with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

There are many similarities between ARENA’s position and the Republican Party prior to the November, 2008 election. Like the GOP, ARENA has now been entrenched in power for a long time. To many Salvadorans, ARENA seems like a colossal dinosaur mired in the past. Founded by right wing death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, held to be one of the instigators of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, ARENA is still fervently anti-Communist. ARENA, whose colors are red, white and blue, models itself on the U.S. Republican party but is even more explicitly nationalist. The hymn of the party touts El Salvador as the tomb where “the Reds will die.”

While such heated rhetoric may have appealed to some in the midst of the country’s bloody civil war between the right and left in the 1980s, ARENA now looks increasingly bereft. Salvadorans want practical solutions to the country’s intractable social problems and are hardly in the mood for more of the same anachronistic Cold War rhetoric.

Even if ARENA were to run a novel and innovative campaign however, the party would still face a huge uphill battle. ARENA has been in power now for twenty years. During this time the small Central American nation has descended into violent lawlessness with robbery and homicide rates flying off the charts. ARENA candidate Rodrigo Ávila, the country’s former head of national police, has pledged to combat violent crime. Only Funes however has said he would purge elements of the police force linked to organized crime.

Adding to Ávila’s worries, ARENA has mismanaged the economy. In recent years, the party has eagerly followed Washington’s dictates by privatizing social services and public utilities. The outgoing administration of Antonio Saca signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, but the deal has not led to social harmony. The country is still plagued by extreme inequality while 37 per cent of Salvadorans live in poverty and can’t pay high food prices. This fuels the crime wave which has proven so worrying to poor Salvadorans.

Funes is hardly what one might call a fire breathing leftist. A former media commentator, he seeks to remake the FMLN into a pragmatic political party. At rallies, he doesn’t sing the party’s anthem or wear its traditional red colors, preferring to campaign in a crisp white guayabera shirt. It’s a symbolic move designed to contrast himself with many in the party who still wear fatigues and brandish pictures of Che Guevara and Soviet flags at campaign rallies.

Meanwhile he has bent over backwards to placate the U.S. and has met with State Department officials as well as members of Congress, reassuring them that he is no radical. In addition, Funes has declared that El Salvador should not scrap use of the dollar by returning to its previous currency, the colón. Funes says that “dollarization” and the adoption of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2006 have had negative effects such as inflation and unfavorable competition for small-scale farmers but that it is too late to scrap these policies.

To listen to the Salvadoran right you’d think Funes was leading El Salvador on the march towards Stalinist dictatorship. While campaigning near the Honduran border recently, Ávila claimed that the Funes campaign was being funded by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. “There’s a saying that ‘Whoever pays the mariachi decides what song is going to be played,’” Ávila remarked. “And that’s going to happen with them,” he added. “No matter what they say, what they do, their campaign is being financed by Venezuela.”

Funes himself denies having any political links with the Chávez government and has said that Venezuela will not meddle in Salvadoran internal affairs if he wins the presidential election. Furthermore, the FMLN leader has distanced himself from some of the more enthusiastic pro-Chávez members of his party. Despite Funes’s disavowals however, ARENA has continued to press on with its hysterical red baiting even though the rightist party has no proof that Funes has received financial support from Chávez.

Both Funes and Chávez, said outgoing President Antonio Saca, were trying to spread “totalitarian projects” and wanted to “stick their noses” in anti-democratic practices. It was “no secret” Saca added hyperbolically, that the FMLN received “its ideological nourishment from Havana” and its economic nourishment “from some other place.” In yet another ridiculous and over the top aside, Saca declared “I am sure that there’s some kind of working group in Venezuela which seeks to take over El Salvador.”

As evidence of the supposed Chávez-FMLN conspiracy, ARENA points to Chávez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA). The plan, initiated by Chávez several years ago, seeks to counteract corporately driven free trade schemes backed by Washington and to promote barter trade and solidarity amongst left wing Latin American countries. Chávez himself has been a rather bombastic critic of CAFTA, remarking that ARENA was “making deals with the devil, the devil himself.”

As a party, the FMLN has historically opposed CAFTA and U.S.-backed free trade while approving of Chávez’s barter schemes. El Salvador does not produce oil, and in 2006 FMLN mayors set up a joint venture energy company with Venezuela called ENEPASA. The initiative is designed to provide less expensive fuel to El Salvador’s drivers. The oil is sold by gas stations bearing a special non-corporate, “white flag” emblem.

When FMLN mayors signed the agreement in Caracas, Chávez suggested that money the Salvadoran municipalities saved on energy could be used to subsidize public transport and food prices. Under the terms of the agreement, cities pay 60 per cent of their fuel bill within 90 days. The rest may be paid in barter for agricultural and other locally made products or in cash over a 25-year period.

While it’s certainly true that Venezuela has increased its diplomatic and political visibility in El Salvador over the last few years, ARENA’s claims about Chávez’s insidious designs are uproarious. Since the inception of the ENEPASA deal, Venezuela has only sent modest amounts of diesel to El Salvador. Moreover, it’s not clear whether Venezuela can continue to sell discounted oil to the FMLN. In years past, Chávez has been able to increase his geopolitical standing throughout the region by providing cheap oil to poor and impoverished nations. But now, with world oil prices falling, Venezuela may be forced to curtail its ALBA program.

As an issue, Venezuela is a red herring in Sunday’s Salvadoran election. But that hasn’t stopped ARENA from launching a full frontal assault on Funes for having alleged political ties to another foreign power. It’s a sign of political desperation from a party bereft of any coherent ideas about how to solve El Salvador’s enduring social and economic problems.

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Benicio del Torre as Che

A couple of days ago I finally got round to seeing Steven Soderberg's new film Che, about the life of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara. Set almost entirely in Cuba during the revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista, the film chronicles Che's rise to prominence during the guerrilla warfare in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Unlike Soderbergh's slick "Ocean" films starring such celebrities as George Clooney, this movie is rather mannered and stripped down stylistically. Soderbergh clearly wanted to give the audience a sense of what it takes to be a successful revolutionary, and the kinds of physical and emotional sacrifices this entails. We get lots of scenes of grueling jungle marches and bloody skirmishes with government troops.

It makes for a rather brutal and unrelenting two and a half hours. A lay audience which is unfamiliar with this particular chapter of history might be turned off by the pacing and docu-drama feel of this movie. It's certainly a far cry from Motorcycle Diaries, an earlier film about Che Guevara which had an easier and more commercial feel about it. Unlike Motorcycle Diaries, which had a folkloric Latin American soundtrack, this movie does not have much music.

Benicio del Toro, who plays Che, depicts the Argentine revolutionary as a rather psychologically aloof and impenetrable character. From my own readings that rendering may be somewhat accurate, but it may not make the movie any more accessible to a general audience. On another note, I found Soderbergh's editing to be jarring: the director frequently cuts from color scenes of the Sierra Maestra mountains to black and white scenes of Che Guevara giving a speech to the United Nations after the conclusion of the Cuban Revolution.

Despite the problems, I still found Che riveting. To his credit, Soderbergh gives the audience a sense of Che's own political evolution in the field. Towards the beginning, Che is unsure of himself as a military commander and defers to other Cuban rebel leaders who consider him a foreign interloper in their land. Over time however Fidel gives Che more authority. The Argentine gains confidence and becomes more and more ruthless towards his subordinates. In one scene he oversees the execution of a disobedient guerrilla fighter who has raped a local campesina woman. Del Toro plays the scene cold and methodical.

The climactic final half hour of the movie chronicles Che's military descent from the Sierra Maestra mountains and into the lowland plains. There is an extraordinary scene in which Che's troops derail a train full of Batista's troops. In the city of Santa Clara, Che confronts a local police commander. In a dispassionate tone of voice, our protagonist tells his opponent that he must surrender or the rebels will launch a costly and bloody assault.

Soderbergh's Che may not be blockbuster Hollywood fare, but the director's depiction of this iconic political figure has a sense of historical accuracy about it. That is my impression at least after reading My Life With Che (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) a memoir written by Hilda Gadea, the Argentine revolutionary's first wife. Here's what I had to say about the book when Palgrave asked me to write a blurb:

"Gadea's life story is not as well known as her husband's, but in many ways it was even more extraordinary than that of the famous revolutionary. A political refugee from Peru, she was exiled not once but twice -- first to Guatemala and later to Mexico. Frequently harassed and jailed by the police for her political beliefs, Gadea’s stoic resolve in the face of great odds was remarkable. My Life With Che is a revealing, compelling insider look at the life of Che Guevara, at the corrupt and compliant right wing authorities who did Washington's bidding in South America, and at a daring group of Latin American revolutionaries who dedicated their lives to the furtherance of a higher cause."

If Gadea's depiction of Che is to be believed, the Argentine revolutionary was stoical. My Life With Che is set in Guatemala and Mexico during the mid-1950s and discusses Che's interactions with Fidel and the other Cuban revolutionaries as they plotted the overthrow of the Batista regime. Che, who is determined not to commit the same mistakes of the Guatemalan left which failed to head off a U.S.-backed coup in 1954, emerges as a somewhat ruthless character who will sacrifice anything for his ideals.

In Soderbergh's movie, there is one scene in which Fidel and Che quietly talk on the balcony of a Mexico City apartment building. Fidel turns to Che and asks, "are you coming to Cuba?" Guevara responds, "Yes, as long as you give me permission to launch revolution throughout Latin America if we win in Cuba." Non-plussed, Fidel tells his new comrade that he is a little touched in the head.

I don't know if Soderbergh's scene is made up or embellished, but in light of later history and the depiction of Che in Hilda Gadea's memoir, the conversation doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility.

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Obama: The Audacity of Vagueness

Back during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama was pretty vague about what U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela ought to be. Reluctant to tackle this hot potato, Obama issued rather contradictory statements about his attitude towards the Andean nation. For a subtle analysis of this issue, see my report in the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (scroll down to "The Audacity of Vagueness: Barack Obama and Latin America."

Now that he has been swept into office, what is Obama's policy now? Judging from the contradictory statements put out by the State Department, the administration is conflicted. At first, the State Department praised Venezuela's recent constitutional referendum as free and fair.

But then, diplomats reversed course. According to the Wall Street Journal, the positive remarks "set off a furor among Venezuelan opposition activists and some commentators because the description of Venezuela's referendum seemed markedly different from the tone set by the Bush administration, which repeatedly voiced worry that Mr. Chávez was undermining Venezuela's democracy."

As the right laid into Obama, the State Department quickly backpedaled: "U.S. officials are scrambling to assert that the Obama administration hasn't softened U.S. policy toward Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez recently won a controversial referendum allowing him to run for office as many times as he wants."

The reports suggest that there may be disagreement within the State Department about how to handle Chavez; different factions may not see eye to eye. The incident is reminescent of the Carter administration, which had contradictory policies towards left wing movements in Latin America some thirty years ago.

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Enough with the Chavez Hero Worship

In an effort to appease Beijing, so-called leftist leaders in South America are backing the Chinese "Communist" Party's crackdown in Tibet, or remaining neutral. Chinese troops have brutally silenced protests calling for independence in Tibet and have reportedly killed scores of people. Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama has condemned the repression and requested an international investigation. Communist China has occupied Tibet, a Buddhist region previously ruled by monks, since a military invasion in 1950.

 

Latin leaders' failure to challenge the Chinese over the Tibet question is a sorry spectacle. It's a slap in the face of socially progressive forces in South America as well as those on the US left which have been generally supportive of the Pink Tide sweeping across the region.

 

Chile's Bachelet Makes a Mockery of Human Rights


Let's first consider the case of Chile.

 

To be realistic, Chilean President Michele Bachelet's pro-China policy is not very surprising. Chile worships free trade and will do everything it can to further export-led growth. Bachelet signed a free trade deal with China in late 2006 in an effort to boost sales of copper, fruit, and fish oil to Asia's second-biggest economy. Since then, Bachelet has traveled to the Asian nation in an effort to enhance ties. The Chilean president boasted of figures showing a $1.4 billion increase in trade between the two nations last year.

 

"When Chile considers how to continue its development, Chile thinks big," Bachelet remarked. "And to think big means to think China."

 

When asked by the press about the Chinese crackdown in Tibet, Bachelet was tight-lipped lest she offend her trade partners. "Chile has taken a clear stance on the issue through our Chancellery [Ministry of Foreign Relations]," she remarked. "The Chinese government knows of this position, and it understands it and respects it."

 

Bachelet, whose regime boasts of its adherence to human rights and overcoming the brutal military legacy of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, has fallen under heavy criticism for its "neutral" position on human rights abuses documented in Tibet and China in the build-up to the June Olympic Games in Beijing. To her discredit, Bachelet has ignored calls by Amnesty International to take a tougher stance in denouncing such violations.

 

Bachelet's caving on human rights is all the more puzzling in light of her own personal story. Bachelet's own family suffered considerable violence during the 17-year regime of former dictator Pinochet. Bachelet's father, former Air Force Gen. Alberto Bachelet, died from a torture-induced heart attack and Michele and her mother were forced into exile.

 

Chileans are starting to see through Bachelet's hollow rhetoric on human rights. During a recent pro-Tibet demonstration in front of Santiago's presidential building, Amnesty International coordinator Pablo Galaz remarked, "Chile maintains a very weak and hypocritical position today" regarding human rights in China. One onlooker remarked, "It's embarrassing... At the bottom of if it's about how much does Tibet weigh in copper? That's how I'd sum up the government's attitude." Copper one of Chile's main exports to the Asian market.

 

Within the government too, some voices of dissent have questioned official policy. Jaime Navarro, a socialist and head of the Senate's Human Rights Commission, insisted that the international community take action "to avoid a new genocide in Tibet, especially considering that China is a permanent member of the United Nations' Security Council. We ought to raise our voices against this repression against the Tibetan people. First there are human rights and—much later—our economic and commercial interests."

 

Unconvincingly however, Chilean officials have justified Bachelet's position by claiming that business and human rights are two distinct areas and should be treated as such when making political decisions. The government used the same argument previously when Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley presented the free trade agreement with China to Congress.

 

Now hoping to outfox Foxley, Chile's lower-house Chamber of Deputies recently approved a resolution calling upon the Minister to "condemn the violence and repression in Tibet and request that the Government of China open direct conversations with the Dalai Lama to find a peaceful solution" to the conflict. The resolution passed 35-8, with one abstention.

 

In a further slap in the face of progressive forces, however, the Bachelet government opposed the resolution. In seeking to blunt calls from the Chamber of Deputies, Bachelet has resorted to some rather remarkable moral acrobatics and jujitsu. To take up the cause of the Tibetan people, argued presidential spokesman José Antonio Viera Gallo, could invite similar criticisms of Chile. Remarking upon an outstanding conflict with indigenous peoples in Chile's south, he declared: "I don't know if we would like it if a foreign parliament opined on situations like that of the Mapuche."

 

The Mapuche have long suffered abuses at the hands of the government and accuse the security forces of killing indigenous activists and occupying Indian lands. In an ironic twist on the Tibet imbroglio, the pro-indigenous Web site MapuchExpress remarked, "The government of Bachelet and Viera Gallo know that they have their own Mapuche Tibet."

On China, Chávez is Little Better Than Chile


Unfortunately, Venezuela's President Chávez has little credibility when it comes to human rights since he, like Chile, has embraced Beijing. Venezuela has a lot of economic interests at stake when it comes to China. Chávez has signed a number of agreements with the Asian nation to deepen technological and energy cooperation.

 

In particular, Venezuela seeks to increase the supply of oil to China. Venezuela's strategy is to diversify its markets so as not to depend so much on supplying oil to the United States, its political adversary. Chávez's ultimate goal is to create a more "multi-polar" world in which the United States cannot act unilaterally.

 

Chávez's efforts to counteract U.S. imperial designs are understandable, but China is hardly a model country to lead a multi-polar world. Currently, China's human rights abuses are staggering. For example, the authorities have detained hundreds of thousands of people, including political activists, for "reeducation" programs, or (more to the point) forced labor camps.

 

Given Chávez's championing of labor protections in Venezuela, his support for China is particularly jarring. According to Human Rights Watch, Chinese workers are forbidden to form independent trade unions. Because Chinese workers have few realistic forms of redress against their employers, they have been forced to take to the streets and to the courts in an effort to press claims about forced and uncompensated overtime, employer violations of minimum wage rules, unpaid pensions and wages, and dangerous and unhealthy working environments.

 

"Workers who seek redress through strike action are often subject to attacks by plainclothes thugs who appear to operate at the behest of employers," writes Human Rights Watch in a recent report. In one recent incident, a group of 200 thugs armed with spades, axes, and steel pipes attacked a group of workers in Guangdong who were protesting over not having been paid for four months; they beat one worker to death.

 

Chávez's World Travels: From Saddam to Ahmadinejad


It's not the first time that the Venezuelan leader has exercised a certain lack of moral clarity in his foreign relations. As long as countries pass the crucial litmus test of opposing the US, Chávez will eagerly court their support. The Venezuelan president, for example, went to Iraq in August of 2000 to meet with Saddam Hussein. He was the first head of state to meet with the Iraqi leader since the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

 

"We are very happy to be in Baghdad, to smell the scent of history and to walk on the bank of the Tigris River," Chávez told reporters. "I extend my deep gratitude to him [Saddam] for the warm welcome he gave us."

 

At the time, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said that Chávez's visit was a slap in the face for the United States. The official Iraqi press hailed the trip and praised Chávez's courage in defying Washington. "We salute him for his principled moral stand and his insistence on going ahead with this trip despite the silly American criticism," a newspaper, Al Thawra, said.

 

In his quest to rattle the US, Chávez has courted some other rather unsavory leaders. The Venezuelan leader for example has solidified ties with Iran and calls fundamentalist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "one of the greatest anti-imperialist fighters." Chávez added, unbelievably, that Ahmadinejad was "one of the great fighters for true peace."

 

And Onward to Belarus...


As if that was not questionable enough, Chávez has also carried out an alliance with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in order to counter "hegemonic" capitalism. Human rights campaigners say that opposition voices are harassed and stifled and independent media has been all but eliminated in Belarus. Opposition activists are closely monitored by the secret police—still called the KGB.

 

"An authoritarian style of rule is characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it," Lukashenko has remarked. "You need to control the country, and the main thing is not to ruin people's lives." The Belarus president has furthermore warned that anyone joining an opposition protest would be treated as a "terrorist", adding: "We will wring their necks, as one might a duck."

 

Many former Lukashenko allies and government ministers have either fled abroad or joined the opposition. Others, such as former Deputy Prime Minister Viktar Hanchar and former Minister of Internal Affairs Yuryy Zakharanka have disappeared altogether.

 

All of this was seemingly of no concern to Chávez, since Belarus is a fierce critic of the US. In a visit to Minsk, Chávez said, bizarrely, that Belarus was "a model social state like the one we are beginning to create." "Here, I've got a new friend and together we'll form a team, a go-ahead team," Chávez said.

 

Tibet: The Last Straw


If Chávez fans had any doubts about where the firebrand politician stood on the question of international human rights, the Venezuelan leader has surely cleared up the confusion by defending China's nasty crackdown in Tibet. Ridiculing attempts to protest the Olympic Games, Chávez said that Venezuela was strongly behind Beijing and Tibet was an integral part of China.

 

True to form, Chávez remarked, "The United States is behind all that is happening as it wants to derail the Beijing Olympics." The Venezuelan leader added that the protests against the Olympic Torch were an example of the US "empire" "going against China" and trying to divide the Asian powerhouse. "America is the main force behind whatever is happening in Tibet," Chávez said, "and its motive is to create problems in the Olympic games."

 

One wonders whether the Venezuelan government will soon engage in the same kind of moral jujitsu practiced by the likes of Bachelet. Chávez could claim, like Chile, that economic relations should have no bearing on human rights. If that fails to convince supporters, the Chávez government might claim, in an echo of Chile's PR strategy, that Yanomami Indians of the Venezuelan Amazon have historically faced discrimination in society and that therefore, it would be inappropriate for Venezuela to take the moral high ground and criticize China for its sorry human rights record.

 

It's the last straw.

 

It's time for the incessant hero worship of Hugo Chávez, so common amongst the international left, to end. Venezuelans' right to self determination ought to be defended, and US imperial machinations against Venezuela soundly denounced. The Bolivarian Revolution, which has advanced the cause of the poor and disenfranchised, should be fortified and protected. International admirers of the Bolivarian Revolution, however, should also strongly condemn recent remarks by Chávez, who has lost any semblance of a moral compass.

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Chavez and the anti-Semitism debate

South American populism has always had a rather unsavory connection to anti-Semitism. For example, the case of Brazilian President Getulio Vargas, whose government tolerated anti-Semitic acts during the 1930s. At the time Brazilian nativism, which included anti-Semitism as one of its major components, was common amongst intellectuals and the elite press. Vargas tolerated an ugly rightist movement called Integralism that was reminiscent of European fascism. The Integralists, led by an intellectual named Plinio Salgado, advocated anti-Semitic positions and republished Nazi propaganda. With a membership of 1 million, the Integralists were an ominous force on the Brazilian political stage. Known for their Green Shirts, the Integralists staged rowdy street rallies and saw Jews, Masons, and Communists as dangers to society.

 

Though Vargas later banned Green Shirt rallies, the populist leader and his followers seemed to share some of the Integralists' positions. Vargas himself had an anti-Semitic confidant, General Newton Cavalcanti, who in turn was one of the chief military allies of the Integralists and Salgado. In the late 1930s, Vargas' own Minister of Justice Francisco Campos, a sympathizer with the Italian fascist cause, led discussions about the need for a new comprehensive anti-Jewish policy. Under the influence of Campos and others, it wasn't long before the regime adopted restrictive immigration quotas and Jews were denied entry visas into the country.

 

At its best, South American populism can advance the interests of poor and disenfranchised groups by pushing through popular programs and mobilizing the masses. There's always been a somewhat questionable nationalistic underside to populism however. Populist leaders may seek to cast themselves as the cultural epitome of the nation while railing against ill-defined internal or external threats. Populists, as I explain in my recent book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), whip up their own popularity and mythology by emphasizing a personal crusade. Master orators, populists employ fiery, emotional rhetoric to establish a psychological connection with the people. Hardly content to work within conventional political channels, they conduct militant street rallies and mass mobilization of civil society to achieve their long-term objectives.

 

Because they are ideologically inchoate, populist movements may rely on nationalism to keep their heterogeneous and multi-class coalitions together. In this sense, anti-Semitism can be considered convenient as a kind of unifying glue. While Vargas employed anti-Semitism for political benefit, he was hardly the only populist leader to cultivate such a strategy. Juan Perón, a populist from Argentina, was apparently innocent of anti-Semitism though he tolerated anti-Semites in his entourage and condoned anti-Semitic violence carried out by nationalists whose political support he found essential. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a more recent populist, has not been immune from charges of anti-Semitism. It's a subject that the left is not very eager to address, though the issue has now become impossible to ignore.

Even before he came to power, Chávez maintained a bizarre connection to an anti-Semitic political figure named Norberto Ceresole. An Argentine sociologist and political scientist, Ceresole identified with Peronism and denied the Holocaust. In 1994, Ceresole came to Venezuela and became one of Chávez's mentors. At the time, Chávez had just been recently pardoned by President Rafael Caldera for a botched 1992 military coup. In 1995, Ceresole was exiled from Venezuela by Caldera for the Argentine's alleged ties with Islamic terrorists. Ceresole returned three years later after Chavez's victory in the presidential election. He then authored a book entitled, Caudillo, Ejército, Pueblo (Leader, Army, People) about the Chavez revolution. The introductory chapter was titled, "The Jewish question and the State of Israel" and it blamed Israel and the world Jewish community for his exile. In his book, Ceresole claimed that Jews used the "myth" of the Holocaust to control the world. It was up to Latin America, Ceresole argued, to fight against "the Jewish financial mafia." Though Chávez distanced himself from Ceresole after he became president, his association with the Argentine anti-Semite is a big, black mark on the Venezuelan leader's political record.

 

To get a sense of the Jewish community in Venezuela, I visited a Sephardic synagogue in Caracas in 2006. It was rather difficult to gain admittance to the building: I had to submit a photocopy of my passport to a security guard and convince the staff that I was indeed Jewish. The ceremony itself was rather traditional with the sexes clearly segregated: during the chanting, women sat on the balcony while men and boys remained on the first floor. Afterwards, I approached one man and explained that I was a foreigner in Venezuela and was interested in getting some perspective on the Jewish community. "When would you like to discuss the subject?" he asked. "Why not now?" I answered. "That's impossible," he said, turning abruptly and exiting the building.

 

I was a little put off by the man's attitude, though his siege-like mentality was somewhat understandable in light of the circumstances. Two years earlier, the police had raided a Jewish club in Caracas that also included a school. The authorities claimed they were looking for weapons and explosives, but none were ever unearthed. The police showed up at the Jewish school at 6:30 in the morning, surprising 1,500 students in the building. The raid coincided with a high profile Chávez visit to Iran, a key Venezuelan geopolitical ally. The following year, Chávez delivered a Christmas speech in which he remarked that "the descendants of those who crucified Christ" owned the riches of the world. "The world offers riches to all. However, minorities such as the descendants of those who crucified Christ" have become "the owners of the riches of the world," the Venezuelan president said. The president's defenders said Chávez was referring to the capitalist descendants of Christ-killers, and not the Jews.

 

Returning to New York after my Caracas sojourn, I saw Chávez speak at Cooper Union University in Manhattan. The Venezuelan president was in town to deliver his by now infamous broadside at the United Nations, labeling George Bush "the devil." Some people in the audience wore red, Chávez's official color. Interestingly, I also noticed a group of Hassidic Jews dressed in formal attire. In a rather bizarre twist, Chavez at one point turned to the Jews and proclaimed that he had some Jewish friends and that Jews were treated well in Venezuela. The remark struck me as rather paternalistic at best and a little condescending at worst. It was the kind of thing one might expect to hear from Southern whites intent upon proving their supposed tolerance towards blacks, i.e., "I have a lot of black friends."

 

Right about this time, my first book entitled Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. was released. Because of Chávez's incendiary remarks at the UN, I got a flurry of calls from the media. One right-wing radio host railed against me for defending the Bolivarian Revolution even as its leader was associating with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "a Jew hater." I responded that I was no friend to Iran's political leadership but that it was understandable in a geopolitical sense why Venezuela, a key energy supplier, would seek to cultivate ties to another oil producing nation. My interviewer however, keen to take advantage of this ammunition, kept on bringing the conversation back to Iran. I mentioned many of Chávez's positive social programs in Venezuela but felt increasingly uncomfortable with my assigned role in the discussion.

 

The right has constantly harked on Chávez's friendship with Iran, while the left shrinks from mentioning the growing diplomatic alliance. That's because Iran has criticized Israel and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. It's a moral failure however: Ahmadinejad is a religious fundamentalist and stands against women's rights as well as organized labor. He has little in common with the secular left with its Enlightenment traditions and openness to religious minorities. Like Ceresole, Chávez's former mentor, Ahmadinejad has described the Holocaust as "a myth." Chávez, unbelievably, calls the Iranian leader "one of the great fighters for true peace."

 

Chávez's provocative behavior continued as the Venezuelan leader blasted Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon. While the Venezuelan leader should be commended for his criticism, he used unusually strong rhetoric, accusing the Israelis of behaving like "Nazis." Then, when Israel launched its offensive in Gaza two years later, Chávez once again leapt to the defense of the Arabs. It's a perfectly understandable response, but Chávez's rhetoric went completely over the top when he likened the Israeli occupation to "the Holocaust." Not content to leave it there, Chávez then turned on Venezuela's Jews, remarking "Let's hope that the Venezuelan Jewish community will declare itself against this barbarity. Don't Jews repudiate the Holocaust?"

 

Chávez made his remarks on state-run television, which has become increasingly hostile to the Jewish community. Like Brazilian media at the height of the Vargas era, Venezuela's TV and Web sites have fanned the flames of anti-Semitic sentiment in recent years. The host of one program entitled The Razor has publicly questioned the loyalty of leading Jewish figures. Aporrea, a pro-government Web site, published a supposed "Plan of Action" which called for "confiscation of properties of those Jews who support the Zionist atrocities of the Nazi-State of Israel and [the] donation [of] this property to the Palestinian victims of today's Holocaust." Shortly afterwards, two dozen heavily armed special police from the Venezuelan Interior Ministry searched a Jewish community center in Caracas, ostensibly searching for weapons or evidence of "subversive activity." Once again, the raid resulted in no arrests or seizure of property. The Venezuelan Jewish community denounced the raid as unjustified and aimed at inflaming anti-Semitism.

 

Chavez has insisted that he is tolerant of all religions and cultures. Like Vargas and Perón however, some of his supporters are openly anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish graffiti has increased in Caracas, lending some credence to Jewish leaders' complaints that Chávez's broadsides have created a poisonous atmosphere. Things only got worse when up to 15 people recently attacked a Caracas Sephardic synagogue, possibly the same one I visited in 2006. The assailants damaged Torah scrolls and threw them on the floor. They also painted slurs such as "Death to the Jews" on the walls of the synagogue. Even worse, a guard was held at gunpoint and found the next day on the floor of the building. To this day, the circumstances and motivations of the attackers have not been satisfactorily clarified or explained.

 

To his credit, Chávez denounced the incident. However, his moves to mollify the Jewish community come too late. Already, Venezuelan Jews are leaving the country in droves; the population has decreased from 16,000 in 1998 when Chávez was first elected to 12,000 today. Moreover, Chávez and his allies have refused to own up to their own irresponsible rhetoric and aggressive posture towards the country's Jews. Far from it: pro-government media has claimed that the attack on the Caracas synagogue was a frame up by the CIA and Mossad. While in theory that's a possibility (during the U.S.-funded Contra War against Nicaragua during the 1980s, President Reagan spread the ugly rumor that the Sandinistas were anti-Semitic in an effort to boost public support for his Central America policy), it seems more probable, in light of recent history, that the attack was launched by Chávez hotheads.

The mainstream media has predictably leapt on the Synagogue attack as yet one more instance of Chávez's drive towards authoritarian rule. The left meanwhile has been completely absent from the debate, hoping the whole issue will simply go away. That's unfortunate. All too often, the left accuses the right of attempting to whitewash the various misdeeds and crimes of regimes that do the bidding of U.S. foreign policy abroad. It would appear however that the left is doing the exact same thing right now in terms of Venezuela, opening itself up to the charge of hypocrisy.

 

In his attempt to unify Venezuela in a political and cultural sense, Chávez has opened the door to ugly anti-Semitism. In this sense, he is falling in the unfortunate footsteps of previous populist leaders such as Vargas and Perón. For the left, the lesson should be clear: while there's nothing wrong with applauding the many positive social accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, this shouldn't come at the cost of sacrificing one's own critical and analytical faculties or covering up misdeeds when they need to be aired.

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