It is surprising that the media - left media included - has been relatively silent regarding Venezuela’s upcoming presidential recall referendum. Little has been reported about the importance of a Chavez win both domestically and internationally.
What exactly is at stake in Venezuela’s presidential recall referendum this Sunday?
A “yes” vote on the recall to remove Chavez from the presidency would be devastating for Cuba. The new regime would likely halt the shipment of subsidized oil, presently being exchanged for Cuban doctors, sports officials and educators. An opposition victory would also have broader geopolitical consequences throughout the Caribbean. Venezuela provides Caribbean countries with oil on good terms and as a result these states are increasingly sympathetic to the present Venezuelan regime. (i.e. they are decreasingly submissive in the face of US pressure, especially in the Organization of American States (OAS)). The Caribbean community (Caricom) recently made the decision to refuse to recognize the regime in Haiti. Right-wing commentators, nervous about newfound Caribbean independence, have been citing this decision as example of Venezuela’s influence on the region. (In fact, Caricom’s action, stem mainly from the fear that accepting such blatant disregard for the democratic process may increase the likelihood similar events in their own countries.) If the opposition wins the recall referendum we can expect any counterweight influence Venezuela exerts on the Caribbean nations to cease.
Victory for the opposition would also have the effect of halting fiery denunciations of US imperialism characteristic of the Chavez regime. Opposition forces would be more likely to send Venezuelan troops to Iraq, Haiti or whichever country is next on Washington’s list
Odds are the opposition would harm the various “mission” programs the government has set up. There are ten different kinds of “missions” including food, micro credit and literacy programs. These have been a huge boost in basic services to the poor majority. They have also genuinely empowered the poor, laying the ground for future social gains.
As evidence of the “missions” popularity, even the opposition has been forced to embrace them, publicly at the very least. The opposition’s new position is that efficient missions should be kept. In reality it is almost certain that the new regime would abolish the Barrio Adentro (Health mission) mainly because the clinics are staffed by 17,000 Cuban doctors who work in under-serviced slums and poor rural communities.
Venezuela is endowed with a wealth of oil, however, the United Nations Human Development Index ranks it as only the 68th best country in the world in which to live. Decades of pumping black gold have only succeeded in enriching a minority. According to UN figures, the richest 10 per cent of the Venezuelan population has 62.9 times the yearly income of the poorest 10 per cent. (The comparable ratio for the USA is 15.9 and Japan ranks as the most equal country at 4.5)
Latin America remains the most unequal region on the globe. All eyes are turned towards Venezuela in the hope that something can be done about the extreme poverty and inequality. The ratios of income/consumption for richest 10 per cent of population compared to the poorest 10 per cent are as follows:
On the international front a large step backwards will be taken on the path towards Latin American integration if the opposition prevails. Chavez has been a vocal opponent of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, preferring to focus efforts on strengthening ties within South America. Washington, on the other hand, has for 200 years actively opposed Latin American integration, preferring to interact with smaller, weaker states.
The process of integration has been advancing on many different fronts. Venezuela recently gained partner status in Mercosur, the common market between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. A few weeks ago Chavez announced plans to buy eight new oil tankers from long-slumping shipyards near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Venezuela and Argentina have begun the creation of a common Energy company named Petrosur. Brazil’s state-owned oil company, Petrobas, plans to be associated with this emerging Pan South American oil enterprise.
Venezuela and Colombia plan to build a gas pipeline that will ship natural gas between the two countries. Chavez is trying to bring together the Caribbean countries in the creation of PetroCaribe, which would receive Venezuelan oil under preferential terms. Chavez states that it is necessary for Venezuela to "support our brothers in the Caribbean where small countries are having great energy difficulties and they are exploited. By whom?” he asks, “the transnational oil companies," he replies.
A public TV station broadcasting throughout South American is in the works and the Venezuelan government has discussed the idea of a South American Development bank.
The aforementioned steps towards Latin American integration may be curbed if the opposition wins the recall referendum. Additionally Venezuelan support for various social movements across the continent will come to an end.
And what if Chavez wins the recall election? Will the U.S. intervene to further destabilize Venezuela? The Bush administration has certainly done a lot to get rid of Chavez. That he’s alive for the recall referendum is a sign of the Bolivarian process’ resilience. Just this Tuesday Spain’s El Mundo newspaper reported on a Central Intelligence Agency meeting held in Chile to prepare a contingency plan in the event that Chavez wins the recall.
Still, the current International and domestic situation make it very difficult for Bush to get rid of Chavez until after the US election at the very least. Chavez’ supporters, including much of the military, would not take kindly to his ouster (read: assassination). Removing Chavez would undoubtedly cut Venezuela’s oil production, driving oil prices even higher. Bush’s buddies in the oil industry wouldn’t complain, but many within the larger business class certainly would make some noise.
Oil prices have already affected the profits of many companies. Additionally, as the US election approaches, these high gas prices are nothing but trouble for Bush. In a society totally dependent upon cars for transportation, increased gas costs hurt much of the working class, in turn costing Bush votes.
Winning the recall referendum would give the opposition the presidency for just over two years. The Chavistas would still control the Congress. If the “missions” are truly popular and the poor continue to organize, it will be difficult for the opposition to dismantle them. In fact a serious attack by the opposition on these missions would increase the likelihood of a victory for Chavez two years down the road.
Of critical importance it is also necessary to consider the position of the army, who would, in the short-term at least, most likely remain loyal to Chavez. Drastic purges of their ranks or heavy repression against protesters trying to save the “missions” for instance could spur a left-wing military coup. Likewise the opposition’s ability to retake control over the state oil company, Pdvsa, is not assured. The newly formed blue-collar oil workers union has already announced plans to strike if the recall is successful.
After Sunday hopefully we will be asking how can the initial Bolivarian successes be expanded not how will the opposition destroy the accomplishments.
Yves Engler lives in Montreal and is author of Playing Left Wing from Hockey to Politics: The Making of a Student Activist. He has traveled extensively in Venezuela. Yves can be reached at: email@example.com.
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