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Hugo Chavez Saves the American Bald Eagle

As if U.S.-Venezuelan relations could become no more bizarre, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has now donated an island to the state of New Jersey. No, what you are reading is not an article for The Onion or a conceptual skit for Comedy Central. The 392 acre property called Petty Island lies along the Delaware River. For decades it belonged to Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company PdVSA. Tucked between heavily industrial sections of Camden County and the city of Philadelphia, Petty Island is home to a plethora of shorebirds including a nesting pair of bald eagles.

Yes, that’s right: Chávez is now helping to save the national symbol of the United States from environmental degradation. Strange as it may seem, this latest move is merely the latest in a series of surreal twists and turns between the Obama and Chávez administrations. Confounded by the new resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Chávez has treated Obama schizophrenically. At one point the Venezuelan President called Obama “a poor ignoramus.” Laying it on pretty thick, he added that Obama had “the same stench” — the smell of sulfur that Chávez said he smelled on the floor of the United Nations in 2006 after “devil” President Bush addressed diplomats — as his predecessor.

Before he traveled to the Summit of the Americas held in Port of Spain, Trinidad Chávez explained that he was preparing his verbal “artillery.” “What will Mr. Obama come with? I don’t know. We’re going to see.” Chávez, a big baseball aficionado, added “We’ll see what the pitcher throws.” Later reversing his hostile posture, Chávez greeted Obama warmly at the summit. As Chávez provided Obama with a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Michele Bachelet of Chile looked on in disbelief.

An astute politician, Chávez has recognized that the U.S. has now “re-branded” itself and that fiery confrontation with Washington will not work as effectively as it did during the Bush years. For Chávez, donating an island to the state of New Jersey is no “petty” or trivial matter. Indeed, Petty Island is yet the latest chapter in Chávez’s ongoing public relations efforts in the United States. Key to Chávez’s outreach has been oil company Citgo, headquartered in Houston, Texas. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the company set up disaster relief centers in Louisiana and Texas and provided humanitarian to thousands of victims. Volunteers based at Citgo refineries in Lake Charles, Louisiana and Corpus Christi, Texas, provided medical care, food and water to approximately 5,000 people. In Houston meanwhile, Citgo volunteers provided similar assistance to a whopping 40,000 victims. As a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, refineries closed all over the Gulf of Mexico and this in turn led to lower oil production and higher oil prices. Visiting Bronx, New York in 2005, Chávez offered to sell discounted heating oil to poor families in the area. Following through on his pledge, the Venezuelan President had Citgo send 20 million gallons of oil to 181,000 families in eight states, including thousands in New York. Today, Citgo donates 100 million gallons of oil to 224,000 poor families within 23 states.

Four years after his announcement of the Citgo program in the Bronx, Chávez continues to pursue his oil diplomacy in the United States. Choosing to make a splash, the Venezuelan leader announced the Petty Island deal during the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. Today, Citgo does not conduct any commercial operations on the island, merely environmental restoration projects. About half of Petty Island still has old tankers, a refinery, storage facilities and vehicles dating from Citgo’s old days.

Elizabeth Kinsey, a Quaker, acquired the island from Lenni-Lenape Indians in the late 17th century and later transferred the property to William Penn. Petty Island has had a long and colorful history; indeed it’s been home to a slave depot and possibly even pirates. The island takes its name from John Petty who owned it around the time of the American Revolution. During the 19th century schooners were built here and a summer resort flourished before industrial operations took root in the early 1900s.

As I point out in my recent book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), the environment has not always been Chávez’s strong suit. Indeed, the Venezuelan oil producing area of Lake Maracaibo has become an ecological disaster in recent years, overrun by patches of noxious duckweed. By donating Petty Island to New Jersey, Chávez may hope to burnish his environmental credentials.

Compared to other U.S. oil companies which refuse to accept responsibility for contamination, Citgo has stood out as a result of its handling of the Petty Island affair. In 2004, the oil company offered to carry out an environmental cleanup of the island and transform the place into a wildlife refuge. In making his offer, Chávez was actually adopting a more environmentally friendly posture than then New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, who actually blocked Citgo’s offer.

According to the New York Times the Governor, supported by Democrats in South Jersey, wanted to give “the island to developers for a hotel, a conference center, a golf course and 300 homes.” Prospective home buyers would be drawn to Petty Island, which is said to offer impressive views of both Philadelphia and Camden. Reportedly a Raleigh, North Carolina-based development company called Cherokee Investment Partners would have overseen the development but the proposal was shelved once the real estate market softened.

Had McGreevey succeeded with his development agenda this would have constituted an environmental tragedy: Petty Island is in the path of a major flyway for migrating birds and passing songbirds find cover within the island’s woods and wetlands. What’s more, the island is surrounded by 140 acres of ecologically important riparian lands. In addition to the pair of American bald eagles — the only ones of their kind in Camden County — the island also provides habitat for both the great blue heron and endangered black-crowned night-heron.

In 2005, during his first gubernatorial campaign in New Jersey, Jon Corzine jettisoned the environmentally unfriendly policies of his predecessor and pledged to preserve Petty Island. Just this week during Earth Day Corzine accepted Chávez’s donation, remarking “Petty’s Island has become an important home to bald eagles, kestrels, and a wide variety of waterfowl. We are opening a new chapter in the island’s long history by restoring it and giving it back to nature and the people of New Jersey.”

Under an agreement Citgo must remove structures associated with former oil development and complete cleanup of industrial contamination before the island is transferred to the state of New Jersey. Eventually, it is hoped that the island might become suitable for recreational activities such as hiking, fishing, birding, kayaking, and canoeing. As part of its commitment, Citgo will provide $2 million to New Jersey to maintain Petty Island as a nature preserve and $1 million to set up a cultural and educational center. The transfer cannot take place until 2020 at the earliest, three years after a current lease for the island expires.

The Petty Island affair has not been immune from political controversy. At the last minute, Corzine cancelled a ceremony designed to commemorate the environmental deal. One Corzine official said the governor feared that Chávez was planning to issue a video statement complimenting the New Jersey governor which would have proven politically problematic for Democrat Corzine who is facing reelection this year. The official added that the concern was that Republicans might use the Chávez statement to depict Corzine as a “socialist.” “Even the event for getting an island for free turned petty,” lamented Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club, who declared he had received an invitation to the Petty Island ceremony only to learn at the last minute from Corzine staffers that the event had been scrapped.

Judging from the debate at apporea.org, a pro-Chávez Web site, people are similarly conflicted on the issue in Venezuela. While some posters commended Chávez for seeking to extend an olive branch to the United States, others wrote that the Venezuelan leader was wasting his time trying to appease ignorant gringos who displayed scant regard for Latin America.

Whatever his motivations, Chávez deserves credit for the Citgo deal on Petty Island. Though it’s a largely symbolic move, the affair could help to mend tattered relations between the United States and Venezuela. The question however is why the burden should solely be on Chávez to reach out to the United States? After all, Venezuela never allied with political forces determined to unseat the U.S. government while the Bush administration certainly offered support to the Venezuelan opposition which briefly unseated Chávez from power in April, 2002.

So far, Obama has offered platitudes about the need for the United States to respect its Latin American neighbors without offering much in concrete terms. What about calling for a shedding of light on the U.S. role during the April, 2002 coup in Venezuela? The U.S. President has long extolled the virtues of political transparency and the American public surely wants to rekindle its democracy right now. Obama should reciprocate to Chávez’s overtures by cleaning house, in the process demonstrating that there is still accountability in Washington for foreign policy ventures run amok.

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Summit of the Americas and the Political Limits of Populism

The Summit of the Americas, to be held this week in Port of Spain, Trinidad, should in theory offer Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez a great opportunity to enhance his political profile. The war in Iraq, never popular in Latin America, lingers on and Washington is gearing up for a long fight against insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile the financial meltdown on Wall Street threatens to wipe out many of the positive social and economic gains achieved throughout Latin America in recent years as the region is hard hit by recession.

It sounds like fertile ground for the colorful Chávez, who has long criticized U.S. economic and military interests. The Venezuelan leader travels to Trinidad in the context of long-simmering grievances, including:

---Ongoing U.S support for the futile drug war which has resulted in nothing but violence and mayhem in Colombia and Mexico.

----No progress on U.S. immigration reform which angers many Latino residents in the United States as well as their relatives abroad.

---U.S. stalling on climate change which has exacted a heavy toll on Latin America in recent years.

----No substantial change in official U.S. policy towards Cuba with the trade embargo still firmly in place.

Given that the U.S. will not change any of its fundamental policies at Trinidad, could Chávez ignite the conference in opposition to the United States? The Venezuelan leader certainly has a colorful history of such activities. In 2001, when he was not nearly as known on the world stage, the Venezuelan leader attended the Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Surrounded by anti-globalization protesters, George Bush stayed holed up in his hotel. Chávez, who attacked U.S.-style free trade as inadequate, later remarked that the event was an epiphany for him and that protesters were unjustly subjected to “gas warfare” at a police “wall of shame” surrounding the city center. At the summit, the Venezuelan leader was repulsed by the bullying attitude of Bush and his entourage, intent upon ramming through the corporate-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA.

Four years later, Chávez again roiled the waters in Mar del Plata, Argentina during another summit of the Americas. Having by now deflected a U.S.-sponsored coup d’etat, Chávez was now much more confident and well known on the international circuit. Speaking before a crowd of 25,000 at a local stadium, Chávez famously baptized the site as the “graveyard of the FTAA.” The summit ended in fiasco: Bush returned to Washington empty handed without any trade deal.

Today the U.S. free trade agenda is in tatters and Chávez has significantly pushed his own more socially progressive trading arrangements. Indeed, just this week in advance of the Trinidad summit Chávez hosts his own meeting of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA) in the Venezuelan city of Cumaná. Since its inception in 2004, ALBA has enhanced solidarity and reciprocity amongst governments in the region including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Caribbean island nation of Dominica.

The Cumaná summit should be Chávez’s coup de grace: after years of battling the U.S. free trade agenda, the Venezuelan leader seems to be building up something of a regional constituency. Indeed, one might argue that the meltdown on Wall Street vindicates Chávez’s more progressive economic philosophy since the Venezuelan leader has long railed against the excesses of market capitalism and deregulation.

Yet, ALBA is ironically foundering at precisely the moment when it should be ascendant.

With the exception of Venezuela ALBA nations don’t have much economic clout and it’s unclear whether the regional alliance will be embraced by major countries. While a host of small nations such as Antigua, Barbuda, El Salvador and possibly Ecuador and Paraguay may join ALBA in future this probably won’t alter fundamental power dynamics within the region.

What happened?

At this point, Chávez may be running up against the political limits of his own populist model. Like other Latin American populists, the Venezuelan leader has developed a highly emotional and paternalistic relationship towards his followers. In his rhetoric, the Venezuelan leader stresses his own personal crusade against vaguely defined internal and external threats. Through such rhetoric and his skillful mastery over the media, Chávez has been effective in politically mobilizing Venezuelan society and attracting attention from afar.

In the absence of perceived threats however populists run into trouble. While Venezuela still has a vibrant political opposition Chávez handily defeated his enemies in a recent constitutional referendum which will allow him to stand for indefinite reelection. Internationally, Chávez no longer faces the Bush White House and many Latin leaders want nothing more than to be granted a photo-op with President Obama in Trinidad.

Thrown off his game, Chávez has dealt with Obama schizophrenically. A recent article for The Hill about the upcoming Trinidad summit, amusingly titled “Chávez loves Obama, loves him not, loves him,” catalogues the Venezuelan leader’s contradictory statements. Prior to the November presidential election in the U.S., Chávez was upbeat about the prospect of a Democratic victory and remarked that he was looking forward to meeting “on equal and respectful terms” with Obama.

Reaching out to the “black man,” Chávez declared “Tomorrow the U.S. will have an election. The world awaits the arrival of a black president to the United States, we can say this is no small feat. ... We don't ask him to be a revolutionary, nor a socialist, but that he rise to the moment in the world.”

Days before Obama’s inauguration however, Chávez attacked Obama for linking Venezuela to Marxist guerrillas in Colombia. “We need to be firm when we see this news, that Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities or supporting malicious entities like the FARC,” Chávez remarked. “He goes and accuses me of exporting terrorism: The least I can say is that he's a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality,” Chávez added. Later on, the Venezuelan didn’t sound much more optimistic. “I don't have much hope, because behind him [Obama] is an empire. He's the president of an empire.” Laying it on pretty thick, he added that Obama had “the same stench” — the smell of sulfur that Chávez said he smelled on the floor of the United Nations in 2006 after “devil” President Bush addressed diplomats — as his predecessor.

Bizarrely pivoting back however, Chávez later said “There is still time for [Obama] to correct these views, though. We will wait and see, we will know him by his actions. He is really an unknown. No one should say that I threw the first stone at Obama; he threw it at me!” As Obama turned his attention to the economic recession, Chávez said “It’s regrettable, the crisis that the U.S. is living through. I recommend to Obama — they’re criticizing him because they say he’s moving toward socialism — come, Obama, ally with us on the path to socialism, it’s the only road. Imagine a socialist revolution in the U.S. Nothing is impossible.”

In advance of the Trinidad summit, Chávez has confounded the public once more with his contradictory views. At one point he said he would like to “reset” relations with the United States and that Obama had “good intentions.” Then however, Chávez explained that he was preparing his verbal “artillery” in advance of the Trinidad summit. “What will Mr. Obama come with? I don't know. We're going to see. We'll see what the pitcher throws,” Chávez declared. Calling the U.S. embargo against Cuba “absurd and stupid,” Chávez then switched into English and remarked cryptically that the upcoming summit would be “very interesting.”

What’s with all of the indecisive back and forth? As long as Bush was in power Chávez’s populist style politics served the Venezuelan politician well. Thriving on political conflict, Chávez was effective at mobilizing public opinion both domestically and abroad in support of such initiatives as ALBA. But now that the U.S. has “re-branded” itself, Chávez is in a quandary. Because the wider Latin American public may not view the United States as much of a threat anymore, Chávez will have to come up with a second act. Can Chavismo survive in the absence of obvious political threats? Over the past couple of months Chávez has seemed unsure about how to navigate the new political milieu.

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