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Having survived a U.S.-supported coup d'état in 2002 which briefly removed him from power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has sought to encourage solidarity amongst impoverished nations in an effort to counter Washington's hegemonic and imperial designs throughout Latin America and around the world. That impulse is certainly understandable, but Chávez has now gone so far overboard that he has lost all moral standing and any shred of credibility. Just in case you missed it here is Chávez's latest gem for the ages: "I don't know, maybe he [the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin] was a great nationalist, a patriot."
While Chávez has certainly made some obtuse statements over the years, this remark was so offensive, so insensitive, so utterly devoid of any moral compass that it ought to give severe pause to Chávez's international supporters. If Chávez were so inclined, he might have taken a moment to conduct a cursory google search before holding forth on the subject of well known African dignitaries. Perhaps the Venezuelan might have come up with the following obituary from London's Guardian newspaper, dated 2003: "Idi Amin," ran the piece, "was one of the most brutal military dictators to wield power in post-independence Africa."
After militarily seizing power in 1971, the Ugandan made himself president, dissolved parliament and suspended elections. Under Amin, the secret police exercised absolute power over life and death while the courts and press were subjected to the president's whims. Even more disturbingly, Chávez's "patriot" killed hundreds of thousands of his real and perceived political opponents. To this day the true death toll is not known with estimates ranging widely between 80,000 and 300,000. Amnesty International, compiling figures with the help of Ugandan exiles, put the number even higher at 500,000.
It's odd that Chávez would cast Amin as a nationalist since other contemporary leaders held the exact opposite view. Indeed, Tanzania's former president Julius Nyerere once remarked that Amin actually damaged the cause of African nationalism. Perhaps, what Chávez meant was that Amin was a black nationalist to the detriment of other ethnic groups: in 1972 the Ugandan expelled 35,000 Asians from his country in the course of three months.
It's difficult to see what was going through Chávez's head when he made his recent speech: not only were his comments morally repugnant but also politically self defeating. In Uganda, officials said they were offended by the Venezuelan. President Yoweri Museveni's secretary Tamale Mirundi declared that Amin's soldiers had murdered both his parents right in front of him. "The way he [Amin] killed Ugandans in big numbers cannot qualify him to be a nationalist," Murundi added.
The withering criticism hasn't deterred Chávez from pursuing diplomatic alliances with tin pot African dictators such as Muamar Gaddafi. But the Venezuelan has embraced more loathsome despots. Take for example the case of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who Chávez calls a "brother." The African leader, Chávez says, has been wrongly branded a "bad guy" in the eyes of the world. Chávez once presented Mugabe with a replica of a sword wielded by Latin American independence leader Simon Bolívar. In another vintage Chávez gem, the Venezuelan leader told Mugabe that he was "a true freedom fighter [who] continues, alongside his people, to confront the pretensions of new imperialists."
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 and refused to leave office after disputed elections. He has presided over a humanitarian crisis which has pushed thousands to the point of starvation and left many dead of cholera. Zimbabwe once had one of the best health care systems in sub-Saharan Africa, but under Mugabe hospitals had to be shuttered because staff could not afford to buy necessary medicine or equipment. Instead of castigating Mugabe, Chávez came to the African leader's defense: the health emergency in Zimbabwe, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry stated, should not be used by other nations to "politically destabilize" the government in Harare.
In 2000, Mugabe began an oftentimes violent campaign to take over white-owned farms in Zimbabwe and hand them to blacks. Ultimately most of the land wound up in the hands of Mugabe's cronies and agricultural production plummeted, thereby wrecking the economy. Predictably, Chávez came to Mugabe's defense. "I pay tribute to Mugabe," the Venezuelan said, adding "the president of Zimbabwe is made out to be a villain - because he takes land from those who don't need it to give it to those who need it to live."
As if it could get no worse, Chávez has also embraced Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, a leader who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in Darfur. The ICC has charged Bashir with five counts: murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape. The court has declared that Bashir is criminally responsible for atrocities in Darfur as he was the head of state and commander of the Sudanese armed forces during a five-year counter-insurgency campaign waged against armed groups.
According to the Guardian, few independent observers doubt Bashir's culpability for the humanitarian disaster in Darfur which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives since 2003. After a mainly non-Arab uprising broke out in Darfur, Bashir's government armed, trained and financed bands of Arab nomads to ransack villages in the region, murdering, raping and pillaging as they went along. The Sudanese army provided air and ground support. Human rights groups have hailed the ICC's decision to pursue Bashir. The Sudanese leader meanwhile counters that the ICC arrest warrant is a western plot to arrest his country's economic development. The ICC, he says, should "eat" its warrant.
Coming to the aid of an ally, Chávez has done his utmost to rehabilitate Bashir. "The recent indictment against the Sudanese president Bashir is one of these ridiculous cases. It's a farce," he said during an Arab summit in Doha. Going even further, Chávez spoke personally with Bashir and invited the Sudanese leader to visit Venezuela. "I spoke with al-Bashir and asked him about the risks he is facing when he visits a foreign country," Chávez said. "I invited him to visit Caracas, and I told him, 'I hope you do not have any problem there.'"
Chávez added that the ICC decision was based on racism and was "a legal eyesore and a political abuse, not only for Sudan but for the people of the third world." Unlike Chávez, other Latin American leaders have refused to demonstrate any solidarity with Bashir. During an official session at Doha, Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kircher walked out so as to avoid being photographed with the Sudanese leader.
Chávez's African exploits are but the latest chapter in the Venezuelan's long embrace of autocratic despots. It's a long and tangled history, and I've written extensively about it before. Chávez has thrown his political and diplomatic support behind the likes of Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example. The Venezuelan leader has even warmed up to the likes of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. In Belarus, opposition activists are closely monitored by the secret police--still called the KGB. Anyone joining an opposition protest, Lukashenko has said, should be treated as a "terrorist," adding: "We will wring their necks, as one might a duck." During a visit to Minsk, Chávez remarked bizarrely that Belarus was "a model social state."
But by far the lowest moment came during the Chinese crack down in Tibet. Once again Chávez was on the wrong side. Defending China's repression, he argued that Tibet was part of China. Chávez moreover ridiculed attempts to protest China during the Olympics and in another flight of fantasy claimed that "The United States is behind all that is happening as it wants to derail the Beijing Olympics."
Everything that I've reported on here is on the public record, yet troll through the left blogosphere and you'd be hard pressed to find any mention of Chávez's moral lapses. Indeed, it would appear as if Chávez can do no wrong in the eyes of his international supporters.
Speak to leftist Latin American experts and they'll privately concede that Chávez is out of line. However, these same experts are very selective about what they will or will not sign or publish. Left academics will be the first to rush to Venezuela's defense when Caracas is attacked by the likes of Human Rights Watch for example. I haven't seen any mention however of Idi Amin or Omar Al-Bashir. Where are the heavy hitters on the left? The silence is becoming more and more apparent.
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.
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.
In late 2007, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez narrowly lost a vote on a constitutional referendum which would have allowed the President to run again in future elections. Hardly discouraged, he pressed forward. On Sunday, people will vote on a similar referendum and in the event that Chávez wins, he could stand for reelection in 2012.
That’s an outcome which the opposition seeks to avoid at all costs. What Chávez really wants, the opposition claims, is to become a fledgling tyrant and to institutionalize his own personal power. Originally elected in 1998, Chávez is now serving his third term in office. While pushing his referendum, the Venezuelan President has said that he needs more time in office in order to secure vital socialist reforms.
For Chávez, holding the referendum is a big gamble. If he should lose on Sunday, the opposition will be able to claim its second straight victory. Already, the right is feeling more emboldened following its decent showing in local elections last year. As a result, victory on Sunday might lead the opposition to call for a presidential recall in 2010.
Currently polls show Chávez with a slight lead, but if the President simply ekes out a victory this could reinvigorate the opposition which had been swamped by Chávez in previous elections. Perhaps, if the President had done more to groom and promote a political successor, the Chávez forces would be in a more politically advantageous situation right now. By tirelessly campaigning for his own right to reelection, Chávez has given ammunition to the opposition and, arguably, imperiled the future of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution which has done much to bring social and economic benefits to Venezuela’s neediest.
The dilemma over the constitutional referendum underscores a larger problem. At long last, Chávez forces are running up against the structural limitations which characterize populist regimes. A charismatic leader, Chávez has established a tight bond with millions of Venezuela’s poor. Indeed, one might argue that the fervor that many feel for Chávez verges on the religious. Given this high level of adulation, finding a political successor to Chávez is a challenging task.
Possible heirs might include Julian Isaías Rodríguez, a former vice-president and Attorney General; Diosdado Cabello, a former army Lieutenant Colonel, Vice President, Minister of Interior and Justice and Governor of the provincial state of Miranda; José Vicente Rangel, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense, or Jorge Rodríguez, who worked as a director of the National Electoral Junta as well as the nation’s Vice President.
There are a number of other promising and intriguing figures associated with the Chávez regime which I profiled in my new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), including the young Andrés Izarra, who headed up Telesur, a satellite news station partially funded by Venezuela, and Nora Castañeda, who was appointed by Chávez to head the Women’s Development Bank in Caracas. Izarra and Castañeda however don’t have much of a political base and are even greater long-shots than Isaías Rodríguez, Jorge Rodríguez, Cabello or Rangel.
The fact that Chávez forces have not come up with alternative leaders is not very surprising in light of recent history. Chávez-style populism, which in certain respects resembles earlier Latin American populist variants, is characterized by an enormous focus on the individual leader and his dominant power—similar to the paternalistic hacendado on the traditional hacienda. In the populist model there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on unquestioned decision making power and seemingly “god-like” qualities that permit leaders to interpret the needs of the people and to chart the future trajectory of the state in order to satisfy those needs.
Populists whip up their own popularity and mythology by emphasizing a personal crusade. They rail against ill-defined “oligarchies,” entrenched political parties, local elites, the church or media establishment. Indeed, populists may seek to set up their own rival media in order to create a sense of public accessibility. Master orators, populists employ fiery, emotional rhetoric to establish a psychological connection with the people. They may seek to build up an image of themselves as the cultural epitome of the nation, while meanwhile channeling nationalism against various and sundry political threats. 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.
While populist regimes in Latin America haven’t been particularly revolutionary, some have achieved a significant degree of economic redistribution. They may even succeed in empowering disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups for a time. The problem however is that populism is difficult to sustain in the long-term. Ideologically inchoate, populist movements rely on their leaders to provide vital political glue. Populism is socially heterogeneous and may succeed in bringing together a multi-class coalition, but only temporarily.
In the absence of a charismatic leader, populist movements may fall apart or languish. Will popular forces be able to advance in Venezuela if their leader falters? If Chávez does not win on Sunday or achieves only a modest victory, this question will be sorely put to the test.
During a recent trip to Venezuela, I found myself in my Caracas hotel room watching President Hugo Chavez give a speech on TV. I had come to the country as a guest of the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation (known by its Spanish acronym IVIC), which was helping to organize an environmental conference about Lake Maracaibo.
I had long been interested in ecological concerns: my dissertation focused on the environmental history of the Venezuelan oil industry. In my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martins' Press, 2006), I touched on the role of American oil companies in the Lake Maracaibo area.
As usual, Chavez was thundering against the United States, in this case striking an environmental theme. North Americans, he charged, had pursued an "egotistical" model of development. Chavez denounced the consumerist lifestyle in the United States, predicated on having more than one car per family.
On other occasions, Chavez has argued that powerful nations are responsible for causing global warming. What is more, he has publicly regretted pollution resulting from traditional sources of energy. He has called on developed nations to look more favorably on alternative energy such as gas, hydro and solar power. To its credit, Venezuela has ratified the Kyoto Protocol reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Venezuela emits only 0.48% of the world's greenhouse gases. According to government officials, the country is in fourth place in Latin America regarding greenhouse emissions after Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Nevertheless, Venezuela exports 1 million barrels of oil per day to its northern neighbor and thus contributes to global warming.
For Venezuelan environmentalists, the country's dependence on oil exports is worrying. In an effort to learn more about energy policy in Venezuela, I caught up with Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia in Maracaibo and the former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists. We met in Maracaibo, where I was attending the environmental conference dealing with Lake Maracaibo.
"In the next fifty years we should be going through a process of transition, to substitute oil for another source of energy," he remarked. "I think from a scientific and technical standpoint we are not doing sufficiently enough to look for oil alternatives," he added.
There are encouraging signs, however, that the government is taking some action. For a country whose economy is almost wholly dependent on oil production, Venezuela has taken some positive steps.
Brazil: An Ethanol Giant
Since 2002, Venezuela and Brazil have fostered an alliance through the promotion of joint energy projects. For example, the Venezuelan state-run oil giant PDVSA has joined with Brazil's Petrobras to construct the Abreu de Lima refinery, located in dirt poor Pernambuco state. The refinery will process crude oil resulting from joint exploration projects in Venezuela.
The energy alliance has in turn bolstered political ties. During the 2002-3 oil lock out, in which the opposition sought to topple the Chavez regime, Brazilian President Lula also shipped oil to Venezuela.
Now, Brazil is helping to spur alternative energy in Venezuela by shipping ethanol to its neighbor. In South America, ethanol is an alcohol fuel made from sugar cane. According to a recent study from the University of Minnesota, ethanol produces 12 percent less greenhouse gasses linked to global warming than gasoline.
For three decades Brazil has used fuel alcohol on a large scale, but it's only more recently that the country has been able to reap the full reward from its ethanol production. Because of the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for the reduction of pollutant emissions, there are now great opportunities for sale of ethanol.
With its eye on this great potential, Brazil has dived straight into the foreign alcohol market. Authorities have announced that Brazil will invest heavily in transport infrastructure over the coming years. Almost all Brazilian cars have flex-fuel engines running on both gasoline and ethanol, and the country has reduced its gasoline consumption by nearly half over the last four years.
For Paulo Roberto Costa, Supply director at Petrobras (the Brazilian state oil company), ethanol shipments to Venezuela should "strengthen [Petrobras'] position as an energy company [and] generate great gains to the environment." Costa added that Petrobras stood to benefit, as the company would "enter new markets and sectors, sponsor the growth of Brazil and collaborate to the integration of the countries of South America."
Venezuela Seeks Ethanol Self Sufficiency
Though Venezuela has imported ethanol from Brazil, the Chavez government has also taken action to produce the fuel on its own so the country can become self sufficient. Venezuela has in fact taken the step of eliminating its consumption of lead-based gasoline. The country seeks to produce ethanol for domestic consumption and to add 10% of the fuel to all gasoline.
According to Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, "The elimination of lead from gasoline ... will bring great health and environmental benefits." PdVSA has set up an ethanol producing subsidiary, Alcoholes de Venezuela.
Venezuela will commence construction of 15 sugar cane mills in 2007 and hopes to complete 21 distilleries by 2012. Chavez has pledged to invest $900 million to plant sugarcane and construct processing plants over the next several years. Such a plan is certainly ambitious: Venezuela will have to plant 740,000 acres of sugar cane if it wants to meet its target.
Venezuela and Cuba: Solidifying Ties through Ethanol
Chavez has sought strong ties to Cuba in recent years, and Venezuela is now solidifying an innovative energy alliance with the island nation. For years, Venezuela has exported oil to Cuba in exchange for Cuban doctors who have serviced the poor and disadvantaged through Chavez's Barrio Adentro program.
Now, Chavez has gone further by seeking Cuban assistance for his nascent ethanol program. For Cuba, it is a novel opportunity to take advantage of its dormant sugar industry. Though the country was at one time the largest sugar exporter in the world, the island's sugar industry fell on hard times in recent years when falling prices obliged the country to close almost half its mills. Now, however, Cuba says it will modernize its old distilleries as well as build new ones which would be geared principally towards the production of ethanol fuel.
Venezuela stands to gain from Cuban expertise in the ethanol sector. The island nation shall provide Venezuela with parts from its dismantled mills for use in ethanol production. "Cuba is advising us in the process [of ethanol production] and training personnel," remarked Maria Antonieta Chacon, president of the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation.
Ethanol: Solving Chavez's Political Imperative
For Chavez, ethanol not only serves an environmental purpose but also relieves political pressure on the government. In Venezuela, rural to urban migration is a thorny social problem. Caracas, a polluted, crime-infested city, has seen explosive civil unrest in the past and needs to stem the flow of new rural migrants.
Chavez's ethanol plans could help to ameliorate some of this migration by encouraging a nascent industry in the countryside. According to PdVSA, ethanol and sugar cane fermentation "cuts dependence on oil and promotes other economic activities." Under the program, sugar cane will be harvested in 12 states throughout the country and will lead to the creation of 500,000 jobs.
PdVSA has announced that it could build several ethanol plants in the central state of Yaracuy, which is one of the top sugarcane producing areas in the country. Nelson Rojas, General Secretary of the state, remarked that the state's plans to create twenty plants in his state would be a boon to the local economy. According to Rojas, each plant would create more than 12,000 jobs.
Chavez at the United Nations
In his 2005 address to the United Nations, Hugo Chavez derided what he called "a socioeconomic model that has a galloping destructive capacity." The Venezuelan president expressed concern about "an unstoppable increase of energy" and added that "more carbon dioxide will inevitably be increased, thus warming our planet even more."
It's rather ironic that Chavez, as the leader of one of the world's leading oil producing nations, would emphasize global warming at the United Nations. Nevertheless, recent moves by the government suggest that Chavez is willing to undertake some modest changes in energy policy.
While it's certainly environmentally vital for Venezuela to move off lead based gasoline and adopt alternative technologies, Chavez also has public relations considerations. The Venezuelan President wants to paint himself as an underdog on the world stage, struggling against U.S. imperialism and the voracious consumerist appetites of North Americans. By moving towards ethanol, Chavez may deflect criticism that he is hypocritical. In adopting alternative fuels, he also gains politically by shoring up ties to Cuba and Brazil, two key allies in the region.
It now looks as if Rafael Correa, a leftist candidate in Ecuador, has handily won his country’s presidential election. As of Monday morning, with about 21 percent of the ballot counted, Correa had 65 percent compared to 35 percent for Alvaro Noboa, according to Ecuador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal. If Correa wins, he will preside over Ecuador for a four year term.
It’s yet another feather in the cap for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had long cultivated the aspiring leader’s support. What’s more, it’s a stinging blow against the Bush administration which now must confront a much more unenviable political milieu in the region. Ecuador now joins other left leaning regimes such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Chile, all of which are sympathetic to Chavez.
Bush cannot dismiss the Correa victory as inconsequential: Ecuador is currently the second largest South American exporter of crude to the U.S. The small Andean country hosts the only U.S. military base in South America, where 400 troops are currently stationed. Correa opposes an extension of the U.S. lease at the air base in Manta, which serves as a staging ground for drug surveillance flights. The U.S. lease expires in 2009.
"If they want," Correa has said ironically, "we won’t close the base in 2009, but the United States would have to allow us to have an Ecuadoran base in Miami in return."
It’s no secret that Chavez and Correa had a personal rapport. During a short stint in 2005 as finance minister under the regime of Alfredo Palacio, Correa brokered a $300 million loan from Chavez. As a result of his diplomacy, Correa was forced out of the government. Allegedly, Correa pursued the loan deal behind Palacio’s back. He later visited Chavez’s home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chavez’s parents.
"It is necessary to overcome all the fallacies of neoliberalism," Correa has declared. Borrowing one of Chavez’s favorite slogans, Correa says he also supports so-called "socialism for the twenty first century."
Correa: "Whipping" Ecuador’s Politicians, and the U.S., into Shape
Unlike Chavez, Correa does not come from a military background but grew up in a middle class family; the young politician also dresses impeccably. He got his doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois and is a follower of left wing economist and Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz.
To his credit, Correa spent a year volunteering in a highland town called Zumbahua and speaks Quichua, an indigenous language. Natives from Zumbahua remember Correa as a man who walked two or three hours to remote villages in a poncho and broken shoes to give classes.
Correa pursued an amusing campaign. During rallies, he would bounce on stage to his campaign anthem, set to the tune of Twisted Sister’s "We’re Not Going to Take It." As the music blared, Correa would break out a brown leather belt, which he would flex along to the music.
For Correa, the belt became the chief slogan of his campaign: "Dale Correa." In Spanish, the phrase means "Give Them the Belt." Correa promised to use that belt to whip Ecuador’s politicians into shape.
Correa campaigned on pledges to prioritize social spending over repaying debt. He has even stated that the Andean country might want to default. He also declared that he would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil producers doing business in the country. Correa says he wants to increase funds for the poor and opposes a free trade deal with the U.S.
"We are not against the international economy," Correa has stated, "but we will not negotiate a treaty under unequal terms with the United States."
Correa, too, has nothing but contempt for George Bush.
When he was recently asked about Chavez’s "devil" diatribe against the U.S. president at the United Nations, Correa remarked amusingly, "Calling Bush the devil offends the devil. Bush is a tremendously dimwitted President who has done great damage to the world" [after he was defeated by Noboa in the first round of voting Correa toned down his rhetoric, stating that his comments about Bush were "imprudent" and that Ecuador would like to continue its strong tries to the United States]
Noboa Plays the Chavez Card
In an effort to scare voters, Alvaro Noboa, a banana magnate in Ecuador, sought to label Correa as a Chavez puppet. Noboa, in an allusion to Chavez’s military background, labeled his adversary "Colonel Correa."
Correa, the Noboa campaign charged, was being financed by Venezuela. In a bombastic tirade, Noboa even declared, "the Chavez-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 Chavez 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."
Chavez, 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 Chavez 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. Chavez furthermore expressed doubts about the veracity of the voting result in the first presidential run off in October, in which Correa came in second. In his own inflammatory broadside, Chavez accused Noboa of being "an exploiter of child labor" on his banana plantations and a "fundamentalist of the extreme right."
In Ecuador, Chavez 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 Chavez’s meddling.
Ecuadoran Indigenous Peoples and Chavez
Judging from the early electoral returns, Ecuadoran voters, many of whom are indigenous, disregarded Noboa’s fire and brimstone rhetoric. Indians, who account for 40% of Ecuador’s population of 13 million, are a potent political force in the country. Correa has capitalized on indigenous support. He represents Alianza País, a coalition that garnered the support of indigenous and social movements which brought down the government of Lucio Gutierrez in April 2005.
What does the Correa win mean for Chavez’s wider hemispheric ambitions?
As I explain in my book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (recently released by St. Martin’s Press), Chavez has long sought to cultivate ties to Ecuador’s indigenous peoples. Ecuadoran Indians have long feared that their traditional lands were being exploited to serve a rapacious United States intent on corporate expansion. U.S. missionaries have fueled the resentment. According to indigenous activists, the missionaries hastened the penetration of U.S. corporations. A key example, according to Huaorani Indians, was the petroleum industry which worked with the missionaries to open up traditional lands.
Chavez has done much to cultivate the support of indigenous peoples. He plays up his own indigenous roots, for example. He also expelled the Protestant New Tribes Mission from Venezuela, which he said was collaborating with the CIA.
"We don’t want the New Tribes here," Chavez declared. "Enough colonialism! 500 years is enough!"
In opposing the missionaries, Chavez has echoed the agenda of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples, who called for the expulsion of North American missionaries from their country. CONAIE, Ecuador’s indigenous federation, in fact endorses many of Chavez’s positions such as an end to U.S. militarization in the region and an end to neo liberal economic policies. CONAIE, like Rafael Correa, wants Ecuador to terminate the U.S. lease at the Manta military base. CONAIE, as well as the movement’s political wing Patchakutik, has backed Chavez. CONAIE in fact has condemned the "fascist" opposition in Venezuela and derided U.S. interventionism.
Chavez has not only cultivated political ties with hemispheric leaders but also with social movements from below. In an innovative move, Chavez has sponsored something called the Bolivarian Congress of Peoples in Caracas. CONAIE officials attended the Congress, as did Humberto Cholango, president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador. Cholango remarked at the time, "no one can stop this [Bolivarian] Revolution in Venezuela, we will keep on defeating the Creole oligarchies and the Yankeesthe time has come for South America to rise up to defeat the empireLong live the triumph of the Venezuelan people."
Cholango is an important link in the future Chavez-Correa alliance. His Kichwa Confederation has backed Correa. In a communiqué, the Confederation wrote, "We will not let Noboa, who owns 120 companies and made his fortune by exploiting children in his companies, take control of the country to deliver water, deserts, oil, mines, forests and biodiversity to big private transnational corporations."
Ecuadoran Oriente: Area of Conflict
Chavez has exchanged oil for political influence throughout the region in such countries as Nicaragua, as I explained in my earlier Counterpunch column [see "A New Kind of Oil Diplomacy: In Nicaragua, a Chavez Wave?, November 7, 2006]. In Ecuador, Chavez may opt for a similar strategy but here the Venezuelan leader has to watch out for pitfalls that could reveal serious contradictions within his movement.
With a Correa administration in place, Chavez will be in an advantageous position to advance his plans for hemispheric energy integration. Ecuador’s state oil company Petroecuador has been involved in longstanding negotiations with Venezuela to refine its crude. Ecuador is also interested in acquiring Venezuelan diesel and gasoline to cover its own internal demand. Ecuador’s growing energy ties with Venezuela have been applauded by important figures such as Luis Macas, long associated with the CONAIE.
The dilemma for Ecuador is that, while oil represents about a quarter of the country’s GDP, many disadvantaged communities have been unhappy with development. The north eastern section of Ecuador, the "Oriente," has long been the scene of serious social unrest. I know something about the social and environmental conflicts in the area, having written a couple of articles about the Huorani Indians for the Ecuadoran magazine 15 Dias and the Quito daily Hoy.
In 1992, having just completed a reporting internship at WBAI radio in New York, I headed to Quito. At that time, North American as well as Ecuadoran environmental groups were concerned about Maxus Corporation, a Texas-based energy company. The influential company had the support of the government, the press, and North American Protestant missionaries. The Huaorani had just traveled to Quito, where they had carried out a protest in front of Maxus headquarters.
The Indians demanded that Maxus halt its construction of a highway in block 16, which fell in their traditional homeland. I flew out to the Amazon and interviewed the Indians who were living in deplorable health and sanitary conditions. In my articles, I dissected Maxus’ unconvincing propaganda and warned about imminent environmental problems.
Venezuelan Involvement in the Ecuadoran Oil Industry?
I left Ecuador in late 1993, and not surprisingly the unrest continued. In 2002, the government declared a state of emergency following protests in Sucumbios and Orellana provinces. Protesters hit the streets, demanding greater investment in their communities. Indigenous peoples in the area had long felt that they had not adequately shared in the benefits of oil development. The military used teargas to break up protests which blocked oil wells.
In August 2005 the disturbances continued, with an oil strike hitting Orellana and Sucumbios. At that time, Chavez came to the aid of Ecuadoran president Alfredo Palacios by agreeing to send Venezuelan crude to the Andean nation. At the time, Chavez expressed sympathy with Ecuador "because we [Venezuela] have already passed through this type of thing with the oil sabotage [the oil lock out in 2002-3 encouraged by the Venezuelan opposition]."
Early this year, Petroecuador was forced to suspend exports when protesters, unhappy about longstanding environmental damage, demanded the departure of U.S. oil company Oxy and took over a pumping station vital to the functioning of a pipeline. Protesters, led by local politicians from the Amazon province of Napo, demanded that the government pay them funds for infrastructure projects in local communities.
In March, the government put three provinces under military control when workers initiated a strike for unpaid wages and improved working conditions. At one point, the government declared a state of emergency in Napo, when protesters demanded that the oil companies invest more of their profits in the area.
Guadalupe Llori, the prefect of Orellana, remarked "If we are treated like animals we are going to react like animals. We could join the workers and demand the government respect our rights." Petroecuador technicians and troops finally took control of oil facilities and cleared strikers from vital sites.
In May, Petroecuador took over oil wells belonging to Oxy’s block 15 oil concession; the Ecuadoran state wants the Venezuelan state company PdVSA to refine 75% of the 100,000 barrels per day within the old concession. According to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, Ecuador is considering Venezuela as a possible partner in the fields formerly operated by Oxy.
Chavismo and Its Hemispheric Contradictions
If PdVSA had a presence in block 15, this would lead to a potential problem for Chavez. Having proclaimed its support for social and environmental justice, as well as indigenous rights, Venezuela would now be operating in an area long marked by social unrest and discrimination of indigenous peoples.
In the short term, Chavez may take some pride in the fact that Bush received another black eye in South America; what’s more Venezuela can now count on Correa’s support as well as the indigenous movement. But in the long term, Chavez could run the risk of alienating many of his supporters if Venezuela is perceived to be an accomplice in misguided development schemes.
In the coming years, will Chavez maintain his political support amongst disadvantaged peoples throughout the hemisphere, or will his popularity be tarnished by oil diplomacy? Up to now, Chavez has certainly used oil as an effective geopolitical instrument, but it may prove his Achilles Heel if he is not careful.
In Maracaibo, Kozloff interviewed Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia and former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists. During the insightful hour long interview, Hinestroza illuminated many of the contradictions within the Chavez government's environmental policy.
An interview with Jorge Hinestroza, environmentalist and professor of sociology at the University of Zulia
Recently Nikolas Kozloff, author of the recently released Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (St. Martin's Press), attended a conference dealing with environmental problems in Lake Maracaibo.
Located within the western provincial state of Zulia, Lake Maracaibo has long been a center of the petroleum industry. Historically, the lake has been plagued by oil spills and pollution.
Most recently, the lake has witnessed a profound catastrophe with the arrival of duckweed, a freshwater weed which has spread out across the surface of the water. Experts say that duckweed contributes to Lake Maracaibo's pollution. Significantly, the weed could seriously change the habitat of various species of fish as it exhausts their oxygen supply and cuts off light from the depths of the lake.
In Maracaibo, Kozloff interviewed Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia and former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists. During the insightful hour long interview, Hinestroza illuminated many of the contradictions within the Chavez government's environmental policy.
ICLAM and Lake Maracaibo
Nicolas Kozloff: Jorge, I have just been attending an environmental conference here in Maracaibo sponsored by the ICLAM (Institute For The Conservation of Lake Maracaibo, a government agency). However, I see that some environmentalists in Zulia have been critical of the conference. Why?
Jorge Hinestroza: We could cite the case of Elio Rios, a doctor and veteran environmentalist. Recently he sent out an e mail which accused ICLAM of excluding poor communities from the conference. Rios is the Vice President of Azul (Environmentalists of Zulia). Their group has been around for a long time, and probably has a couple of dozen active members. Azul has made a name for itself by resisting coal exploitation in the Sierra of Perija [a mountainous area near the Colombian border].
Azul has undergone a very interesting evolution from the point of view of environmental politics. Rios is himself a fervent follower and supporter of Hugo Chavez. As a matter of fact, he participates in meetings of the Bolivarian Circles [pro-Chavez groups organized at the local level which carry out community projects with government assistance]. However, he has been one of the most vocal critics of the regime when it comes to the environment.
When Elio says in the e mail that the ICLAM conference is elitist he's telling the truth. The ICLAM conference was comprised solely of experts. It is all rather ironic because supposedly in Venezuela we are living in an era which has opened the doors of science to the community. But as this event makes clear, there is no link between the people and science.
Environmentalism in The Chavez Era
NK: How have local environmentalists fared during the Chavez era?
JH: As a result of the "Bolivarian Revolution," popular struggles have been frozen. The expectation for change amongst the people has risen, and there is a great hope that the regime will resolve social problems. Environmental concerns have practically been abandoned by popular struggles here.
NK: Could you comment specifically about communities within Lake Maracaibo and local environmental struggles?
JH: The Chavez regime has sought to provide the immediate necessities of life for the people. That is to say, the government offers large quantities of food and services, which in one way or another satisfies the most critical necessities of the people. Government programs have dampened social tensions. In various communities that I have visited, local struggles which confronted the great forces of transnational capital have been derailed.
We might cite for example the case of the Olivitos Marsh, where a transnational company [Produsal, S.A., a company whose capital has been provided through Cargill and the state-run Pequiven or Petrochemical of Venezuela], produced salt [necessary for producing petrochemical products]. Produsal's arrival in Olivitos resulted in habitat fragmentation in the area. The company also displaced fishing communities that were linked to the natural ecosystem.
In response, local communities mobilized against the petrochemical transnational. Local residents also struggled against the Ministry of Environment which for many years supported the company. The Ministry handed out all the permits and supported big business, notwithstanding that it's a ministry pledged to protecting the environment.
But with Chavez's political triumph, local communities practically halted their struggle. The majority of the local fishermen were Chavistas. They hoped that they would reclaim the waters that they had had traditionally used for fishing. There was a lot of commotion when Chavez proclaimed the new Constitution which had important provisions favoring fishermen's rights. However, local leadership later abandoned the struggle.
PDVSA and the Case of Lagunillas
NK: During the environmental conference, I participated in ICLAM visits to various companies around Lake Maracaibo. During our visits, the managers presented a very clean corporate environmental image. To what extent have they have really changed their environmental policies for the better?
JH: As a result of industrial sabotage during the oil lockout of 2002-3, the government has spoken of the need for local communities to find out more about security and environmental risks within the oil industry. Unfortunately, the government's promise to make the oil industry more transparent has not been met. When we environmentalists complain about oil slicks for example, we get the same executives and environmental employees from PDVSA [Petroleos de Venezuela, the state run Venezuelan oil company] with the same rhetoric and discourse from the previous era before Chavez.
Another example of PDVSA indifference has to do with the actual sinking of coastal lands as a result of oil drilling around the town of Lagunillas [located along the east bank of Lake Maracaibo]. While I am sure there are new PDVSA executives with good intentions, basically environmental management is the same and the ideological orientation continues to be opaque.
NK: That's interesting, I recently went on a tour of PDVSA installations in Lagunillas, but I didn't know anything about a relocation program. What's it all about?
JH: There are more than 60,000 people living along the east bank of Lake Maracaibo who are at risk from a serious disaster. In the event of a large tremor, the Lagunillas protection wall could break and expose the people to dangerous flooding. A relocation plan was developed more than 15 years ago. The plan involved preparation of the community for an eventual disaster and evacuation contingencies. As a matter of fact the authorities developed an alarm system and they had organized predetermined evacuation routes and secure relocation sites.
Up to now, however, the authorities have only relocated between 10,000 and 15,000 people. It seems to me that the relocation could have been carried out better in both quantitative and qualitative terms. The point is that a technocratic vision still predominates when it comes to dealing with communities. There should be more attention paid to social and environmental concerns, so that the relocation is carried out with a human face and not just in accordance with economic criteria.
Moreover, through my discussions with local inhabitants I understand that the disaster contingency plans and alarm system was abandoned three years ago. I have spoken with some PDVSA staff and they seem surprisingly uninformed about this serious matter. A little while ago I spoke to a woman engineer from PDVSA. When I brought up the issue of the Lagunillas protection wall and security risks she said no, that wall is not a risk, this wall is completely safe. This attitude indicates to me that something is gravely wrong.
I believe that greater popular participation could minimize the risk of an eventual disaster. If the Chavez government really takes its rhetoric seriously and promotes popular participation, this is the moment for greater dialogue on safety issues.
NK: Through ICLAM, I was able to tour the PDVSA installations at Lagunillas and the control room which monitors seismic activity. Outside of actually relocating people, is there anything else that PDVSA could do to protect the population?
JH: From a technical standpoint there's not much you can do. We as environmentalists however pose the question of whether all this oil exploration along the east coast of Lake Maracaibo, which has affected 60,000 people and put communities at risk, has been worthwhile in a human sense. We ask if the costs have been lesser or greater than the benefits.
Mining and The Sierra of Perija
NK: What has been the situation within the Sierra of Perija and coal mining?
JH: President Chavez once offered to halt coal production in light of the environmental disaster that would result. Venezuelan coal production certainly pales beside domestic oil production in economic terms. What is the advantage that coal mining brings for the Venezuelan economy and the Venezuelan people?
Coal mining, from the outset, has caused considerable environmental destruction. Not just that, but it's also affected the miners. Workers have fallen sick with lung disease as a result of their work in the mines. These workers have spent practically their entire lives in the mines and they are going to die young.
I have also observed that around the mines, the rivers and forests have been destroyed. Mining doesn't benefit the people nor the indigenous communities in the vicinity which have lost their agricultural way of life as a result of harmful ecological destruction.
While it is true that the money from coal extraction has been used by Chavez for positive social works, the problem has to do with cost and benefit. I wonder whether it is legitimate to destroy nature to favor a majority which is socially marginalized. One must consider the plight of the next generation, the sons and daughters of the people who may benefit today. What will they do when they find that the natural resource base has been destroyed?
NK: During my time at the ICLAM conference, I heard someone from the local development agency CORPOZULIA give a talk about ambitious new port facilities in the state of Zulia. Could you comment about it and explain how it ties into the question of mining?
JH: Currently we confront another environmental threat in the form of a newly proposed project, Bolivar Port. Corpozulia and Bolivar Port are both linked to coal exploitation. As a matter of fact, Corpozulia actually owns mining concessions. This port which has been proposed for the mouth of Lake Maracaibo and the Gulf of Venezuela would prove catastrophic for mangrove vegetation in the area. Suspiciously, we environmentalists have observed that many figures from the pre-Chavez era are pushing this project. Investors and officials who are in favor of the port project sit on the government commission. That is to say the same people who are interested in exploiting coal, which contributed to the displacement of Indians in the Sierra of Perija and the pollution of the soil and rivers, now proclaim that they are brothers of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Lake Maracaibo and Duckweed
NK: What is the cause of the proliferating duckweed vegetation which has become a major environmental hazard in Lake Maracaibo?
JH: I believe that duckweed is not a chronic problem, because it abruptly emerged in 2003 and this points to sudden causes. Sudden in the sense of an enormous deposit of nutrients in the lake, and a new economic component. I believe that the new source of nutrients is the shrimp companies which proliferated in Lake Maracaibo starting in 2000. Half the shrimp companies that exist in Venezuela operate in Lake Maracaibo. Shrimp farming is sufficiently prolific to give rise to excess nutrients and the duckweed phenomenon. I believe that ICLAM has sufficient data to prove this to be the case but doesn't pursue the matter for economic and political reasons.
NK: How has the Chavez government handled the duckweed problem?
JH: I think the official policy in relation to duckweed has been far from desirable. We are dealing with a government that has revolutionary pretensions, but the Ministry of Environment adopts classic political posturing from the Fourth Republic [prior to Chavez's election] period. In other words, only the experts know about this problem, while the communities are passive observers, assigned to pick up duckweed which provides employment for the community.
The Chavez government says that environmental damage is inevitable and results from progress. The government has even claimed that duckweed is beneficial, that it is good news for us. Chavez, in 2003, said that the duckweed was benign. The government said that duckweed would be very good for the population because it was going to serve as food for animals, and that it was almost a gift.
Fishermen, who number about 10,000-12,000 in Zulia, have been most affected by the duckweed phenomena. Every year, every time that we go into the rainy season, duckweed invades the beaches. Duckweed affects people living on the banks of the lake. It is always the poorest fishermen who are most adversely affected, not the investors in the fish industry.
Paradox of the Petro State
NK: Chavez constantly denounces the U.S. for wasteful consumerism and has warned of the green house effect. But the irony is that Venezuela continues to be a major world oil producer. Do you think Venezuela should be moving away from oil, in sync with the growing rhetoric?
JH: I don't believe the peak oil theory is a fantasy; I think that by 2050 we will have exhausted oil as a viable energy resource and we will have to rely on new sources of energy. What will happen to Venezuela, if we are not prepared to live from anything else besides oil? In the next fifty years we should be going through a process of transition, to substitute oil for another source of energy. I think from a scientific and technical standpoint we are not doing sufficiently enough to look for oil alternatives. But the U.S. and its European partners are heading towards the substitution of oil. And I believe the new energy paradigm will be hydrogen.
In Venezuela we have developed a technological innovation. It's a new way to take advantage of oil, in the sense of producing energy with less resulting pollution. Venezuela could be a great producer of orimulsion, a product resulting from the mixture of water and heavy oil. Orimulsion is less polluting than coal. I don't understand why we produce coal, which is destroying the Sierra of Perija and the indigenous communities there, when we could develop orimulsion production plants. We could develop orimulsion, which could compete with coal on the world market. I am saddened that within the Chavez government officials have not chosen to sufficiently take advantage of orimulsion.
Jorge Hinestroza is professor of sociology at the University of Zulia.