Venezuela today, under its democratically elected President, Hugo Chavez Frias, is imbued with the spirit of Bolivarianism and his Bolivarian Revolution. It's based on the vision of Simon Bolivar, the Caracas-born 17th and 18th century general who defeated the Spanish, liberated half of South America and believed in the redistributive policies that characterize the Chavez government. It also hopes to overcome what Bolivar perceptively characterized as the imperial curse "to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty."
Chavez and his Movement for the Fifth Republic Party (MVR) have created the beginnings of a mass social and political revolution based on participatory democracy and social justice. In a nation in which 80% of the people are poor by any measure, Chavez is a populist hero with mass public support outside the minority middle and upper classes and business interests. He openly proclaims his desire and intent to transform Venezuela into a nation based on democratic socialism as an alternative to its capitalist past. In fact, however, his policies are more gradualist and closer to the European style social democracy than a textbook type socialist state. Since he took office, the private sector is a larger percent of the total economy than before his election although Venezuela's oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) and backbone of the economy, is state owned. Nonetheless, instead of previous governments' policy of recycling the nation's petrodollars to the U.S., Chavez is using them to grow the Venezuelan economy and fund his social programs. It's little wonder he engenders the great displeasure of the Bush administration intent on stopping him. It's already tried to do it three times and failed.
Chavez was first
elected in December 1998 with 56% of the vote and began his presidency in
February 1999. From the start, he began working to implement his vision by
fulfilling one of his campaign promises to hold a nationwide referendum.
This was done to let the people decide whether to convene a new National
Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution that reflected Chavez's
political ideology. It passed overwhelmingly and was followed 3 months
later by elections to the Assembly to which members of Chavez's MVR and
selected allied parties formed the Polo Patriotico or Patriotic Axis. It
won 95% of the seats enabling Chavez and his allies to draft the new 1999
constitution that changed the country's official name from Venezuela to
the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and set the nation on its new and
Chavez gained traction to begin implementing his policies in the elections held in July 2000 for the new constitutionally mandated and less powerful unicameral National Assembly in which the Chavez coalition won a two-thirds majority. Chavez himself ran for a new six-year term (instead of the four-year term under the former constitution) and was reelected with 60% of the vote. This victory gave Chavez and his government a mandate to move ahead with his plan to transform the nation in the ways explained below.
THE BOLIVARIAN CIRCLES: THE HEART OF PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY
Democracy literally means government by the people. It's the rule by and for common people to insure the rights of the majority. In Venezuela, Bolivarian Circles reflect that spirit through direct volunteer public participation in the democratic process. Articles 166 and 192 of the new constitution establish citizen assemblies as a constitutional right to let people to fight for their rights. They allow ordinary people the right to participate in governing along with their elected officials. Founded as a result of a presidential call for them, these Circles in 2003 had over two million members. Many Circle activities are currently taken up by the various Misiones (Missions) that now comprise the heart of the government's social programs. The Circles though play an important part in administering Mision programs in the communities and neighborhoods. They're autonomous and function independently of political parties with government support but no direct government funding. Their purpose is to defend the Bolivarian Revolution and its constitution primarily on a local level. They also encourage and support people with common interests to organize through cooperatives, associations, committees, neighborhood groups and other formations to be partners with their elected officials in the political process and help form the policies that directly affect their lives and well-being.
Bolivarian Circles have included community and labor leaders working cooperatively with the usual disenfranchised people on local issues of providing health care, education, feeding the hungry, helping small business and much more. In addition, President Chavez implemented Plan Bolivar 2000 to allow the President authority to mobilize the Venezuelan Armed Forces to be used in poor areas of the country to provide health care, food, construction equipment, school tutoring and other services to those most in need.
The Chavez government is also promoting the spirit of cooperation further by encouraging privately owned companies to allow employees more direct say in and control over company operations in return for the government providing added working capital. Under the Chavez plan, companies agreeing would include workers on their boards and share profits with employee cooperatives. So far, almost 200 mostly small companies in need of financial help have voluntarily agreed to adopt this co-management plan, and the government hopes to attract many more.
SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT MISSIONS UNDER CHAVEZ
The Bolivarian Revolution has significantly improved the lives and welfare of the Venezuelan poor, the great majority of the population and Chavez's base of support. They include a broad array of vital and innovative social programs called Misiones that include health care, education, food, housing, land reform, job training, micro-credit and more. The Chavez government has used its considerable oil profits and increased tax revenue to fund these programs. In 2004 state oil profits were $25 billion because of high oil prices and are likely much higher in 2005 as prices continued to rise and remain high. Many oil analysts, in fact, see continued high demand for a shrinking supply of world oil likely to keep prices for this commodity high and eventually going much higher. If so, Chavez will get the revenue he needs to continue and expand what he calls a "new socialist revolution." Some of its elements -- the important missions -- include the following:
* Mision Bario Adentro (Mission Inside the Neighborhood)
This is a series of initiatives deployed in 3 distinct stages to provide free, comprehensive and high-quality community health and dental care in hospitals and clinics (aided by 20,000 Cuban doctors). More than 500 centers providing medical care have been built, all of them well equipped for the job. This mission also provides preventative medical help and advice to the millions of poor people in the shantytowns and barrios. It also links health to the economy, good nutrition, food security, culture, sports, education, and the environment and stresses the importance of the participation of local organizations and doctors living and working in the same communities.
* Mision Mercal
This program provides access to high quality produce, grains, dairy products and meat at affordable prices. It also provides the poor with better access to nutritious, safe, organic locally and nationally grown foods as well as attempting to increase Venezuela's food sovereignty.
* Mision Robinson I
This mission uses volunteers to teach the poor to read and write. In 2004, it had raised the literacy rate to an impressive 99% of the population having so far enrolled nearly 1.4 million people, nearly 1.3 of whom have successfully completed the program. In the Americas, only Venezuela and Cuba have virtually eliminated illiteracy. In the U.S., the Department of Education estimates that over 20% of the population is functionally illiterate.
* Mision Robinson II
This mission was a continuation of Mision Robinson I and seeks to consolidate the literacy rates achieved as well as provide primary education in other areas. It has enrolled 1.2 million people and graduated a large majority of them with an elementary school education.
* Mision Ribas
This program at
nearly 29 thousand education centers around the country provides a high
school education to Venezuelans of all ages enabling them to receive a
high school equivalency degree. Enrollment has reached nearly 1.5
This mission provides access to higher education to all Venezuelans with a high school or equivalency degree. It has enrolled nearly 275,000 people in various university level programs, and since 1999 has established 5 new universities. Unlike in the pre-Chavez era, education now is completely free through the university level and has been a boon to school enrollment.
* Misiones Guaicaipuro and Habitat
The purpose of Mision Guaicaipuro is to restore communal land titles and human rights to the country's poor and indigenous peoples as well as defend their rights against resource and financial speculation by dominant business interests. It's run by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and has become the nation's largest organized social movement. This program has led to the establishment of over 5,000 land committees representing 5 millions Venezuelans (20% of the population).
Urban Land Committees (CTUs) and the law allowing their creation stipulate that Venezuelans who live in homes they built on occupied land (the case for nearly all the poor) may petition the government for title to the land. This policy affects up to 60% of the population, and, for the first time ever, has given the poor in the barrios the legal right of ownership of the land they live on. Through mid-2005, 84,000 titles have been issued to 126,000 families benefiting about 630,000 people. However, this is just a modest beginning affecting about 6% of the barrio population.
program, the Chavez government believes it's repaying a social debt to the
poor barrio inhabitants, who in the past 50 years have built more homes
(on occupied land) than the government. Granting them titles to this land
is the government's way of recognizing and legalizing their
contribution to Venezuelan society. This right is written into the new
constitution (Article 82), and the program relieves the government of much
of its responsibility to build public housing for the poor to help relieve
a severe housing crisis.
* Mision Vuelvan Caras (Turn Around) This is a cooperative program between the people and the government and is intended to transform the country socially and economically. It's involved in training workers to give them needed skills for future employment. Its main objective is a nation more focused on social needs and achieving a higher standard of living for all Venezuelans.
THE VENEZUELAN ECONOMY UNDER CHAVEZ
It's not hard to understand why Hugo Chavez currently has the highest approval rating of any president in the Americas -- 77% based on the latest polling numbers. His government's social programs explained above are providing vital services for the millions of poor that they never had before. And to make those programs possible the economy is performing very well.
In the 28 years before Chavez was elected, Venezuelan per capita income fell 35%, the worst decline in the region and one of the worst in the world. Since the Chavez government took office in 1999, the decline has been halted and per capita income has been flat through early 2004. It likely has risen since then as a result of the significant economic growth since late 2003. Venezuela's National Institute of Statistics (INE) reported that in 2004 the economy grew by 17%. It then expanded by 7.5% and 11.1% respectively in the first two quarters of 2005 and about 10% in the third quarter. This was a major turnaround from the period preceding it that included the crippling oil strike of 2002-03 and the destabilizing effects of the short-lived coup deposing President Chavez for two days in April 2002. During this period of growth, unemployment dropped from 14.5% in September 2004 to 11.1% one year later. Poverty levels also fell, and these data don't include the enormous benefits to the poor from Chavez's social policies that have significantly improved their lives and welfare.
Chavez's ability to fund his Missions has been greatly aided by the sharp rise in oil prices since 2002. Venezuela is one of the world's leading oil producers and exporters and has the largest hydrocarbon (oil and gas) reserves in the Western Hemisphere and the largest known reserves in the world outside of the Middle East. Since conditions stabilized following the aborted coup, the economy grew by 17% in 2004 and over 9% (quarter over quarter) in the first nine months of 2005. This was the fastest growth in the hemisphere.
The government has also managed to increase the taxes it collects, even during the difficult oil strike causing a deep recession in 2003. It's done it by requiring both foreign and domestically owned companies to pay the taxes they owe. Venezuela's Oil Ministry is currently seeking additional tax payments it believes the nation is entitled to receive and will ask the National Assembly later this year to raise the income tax rate from 30% to 50% on four foreign owned heavy oil projects in the Orinoco river basin. These projects account for a fifth of Venezuela's total oil production. In 2004, the government renegotiated service agreements that three of the four foreign owned oil companies had with state owned PDVSA. Only ExxonMobil so far has declined to go along. Under new joint venture terms, foreign oil companies are limited to a minority 49% stake, reserving majority ownership for PDVSA. These new agreements became effective on January 1.
In another move just announced that won't please the U.S., the Venezuelan Central bank approved using the euro to diversify away from the U.S. dollar. This move will allow the monetary authorities to make payments and purchases in euros as freely as with dollars and help the country reduce its dependence on the U.S., one of President Chavez's goals.
The revenues from high oil prices and taxes collected have helped the government run a budget surplus while maintaining a high level of social spending. Currency controls imposed in 2003 have also stemmed capital flight, and now by approving the use of the euro, Chavez is taking one more step toward asserting the independence and sovereignty Venezuela seeks and deserves. As a result of these efforts, the nation's public and foreign debt are moderate, and over $30 billion of reserves have been accumulated, and are likely rising, that can be used as a buffer if oil prices fall.
ALBA: THE CHAVEZ ALTERNATIVE TO THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION (WTO) AND U.S. CRAFTED TRADE AGREEMENTS
Hugo Chavez is pursuing his own alternative plan to U.S. led neoliberalism that promotes economic policies benefiting corporate interests but at the expense of ordinary people, especially in developing nations. He calls it ALBA -- the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Its aim is bold and innovative and in direct contradiction to the so-called "free market, free trade" agenda followed by the dominant developed nations (the Global North) especially the Triad nations -- the U.S., European Union and Japan.
ALBA's goal is to achieve a process of comprehensive integration among Latin American nations with the aim of developing "the social state" to benefit ordinary people, not the privileged elite. At its heart, it's based on the principles of complementarity (not competition), solidarity (not domination), cooperation (not exploitation) and respect for each nation's sovereignty free from the control of other nations and large corporations. Venezuela has recently joined with Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay in the Mercosur trading alliance that should strengthen ALBA further and increase the overall benefits of regional trade for the five participating nations and others being encouraged to join with them like Bolivia.
The trade agreements
already adopted, like NAFTA, and those proposed like the FTAA and the
Triad nation proposals and framework agreement at the just concluded
so-called "Doha round" sixth WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong only
do the opposite. They serve the interests of giant transnational
corporations in the Global North. The Hong Kong "agreement" left most
major issues unresolved, and no important concessions were made to the
developing nations. This is just the latest betrayal of promises made to
the Global South and will be devastating to those nations bullied to
accept it. Negotiations will now be continued at WTO Headquarters in
Geneva in secret, but little further progress is expected. Twelve years of
NAFTA have left carnage in Mexico, and WTO mandated current trade
practices (especially in agriculture and services covered under GATS) and
IMF and World Bank instituted structural adjustment have caused growing
poverty and human misery throughout the developing, overexploited world.
To help eliminate or at least reduce this extreme inequity and improve the
lives of ordinary people throughout Latin America, President Chavez has
proposed his revolutionary ALBA alternative.
For ALBA to succeed it will have to overcome major obstacles. The Bush administration will not sit idly by and just watch a continental restructuring take place that will harm U.S. corporate interests. For the U.S. and its corporate allies, Hugo Chavez poses a significant threat to their welfare. They will certainly try to overcome it by any means necessary as they have done many times in the past successfully, but so far, three unsuccessful attempts to unseat Chavez.
Despite clear U.S. intent and a Venezuela -- U.S. power mismatch, don't write a Chavez obituary just yet. His Bolivarian spirit is spreading and may become too much to counter even for the colossus from el norte. One view of things comes from Yale Senior Research Scholar Immanuel Wallerstein in his February 2004 Nation Magazine article. In it Wallerstein expressed his belief that "neoliberal globalization has had its day; it is now dead." Despite the inconclusive results from Hong Kong that hadn't yet taken place, Wallerstein believes the old system of all "take" and no "give" by the Global North is over. "It was more or less buried at Cancun in September, 2003,” he wrote. For the South to open its markets to the North, it will now demand the North reciprocate. A key goal of Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution is to assure that happens.
It should be noted
that Venezuela was chosen as the site for the sixth World Social Forum as
well as the second Social Forum of the Americas to be held in Caracas the
week of January 24-29, 2006. These two events, which organizers hope to
repeat annually, draw many thousands of attendees and many noted
progressives and activists. As they grow in popularity, as the World
Social Forum has been doing, they may also serve to help the Chavez
government consolidate and expand his Bolivarian Revolution and encourage
other developing nations in Latin America and elsewhere to begin their
Destabilizing and overthrowing foreign leaders and governments it opposes is nothing new for the U.S. Ever since the National Security Act of 1947 established the Central Intelligence Agency (and National Security Council -- NSC) replacing the disbanded wartime OSS intelligence agency, the CIA has engaged in activities far beyond information collection and analysis. It's been involved many times in covert efforts supportive of U.S. foreign policy to include regime change in nations whose leaders were not subservient to U.S. interests. Beginning in 1953, CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt and cousin of Franklin, successfully engineered a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq of Iran after he nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company following a dispute about revenue sharing. The CIA then helped carry out another successful coup ousting President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 because of his modest land reform program the giant United Fruit Company in the country opposed. Since then to the present, this agency has had a long and tainted record of helping to destabilize and topple those governments the U.S. wishes to replace. Much of that has occurred in Latin America, most often by coup or assassination often disguised as an "accident" (like an "unfortunate" plane crash).
Investigative journalist and author Eva Golinger has uncovered top-secret CIA documents, obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, of U.S. involvement in the April 2002 two-day aborted coup temporarily ousting President Chavez. It involved CIA complicity and an intricate financing scheme beginning in 2001 involving the quasi-governmental agency National Endowment for Democracy (NED), funded entirely by the Congress, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). These agencies, in turn, provided funding to Chavez opposition groups (USAID through its Office of Transition Initiatives -- OTI) which, in turn, were involved in staging the mass and violent street protests leading up to and on the day of the coup. NED and USAID also funded other destabilizing activities such as the crippling oil strike in late 2002 and 2003 and the August, 2004 recall referendum that failed to unseat the President.
The documents Golinger obtained clearly showed the U.S. State Department, National Security Agency and White House had full knowledge of these activities and must have approved of them.
As it did in Haiti in February 2004 after the U.S. led coup ousted President Aristide, the U.S. falsely claimed in April 2002 that Chavez had resigned when, in fact, he'd been arrested by complicit high-level officers in the Venezuelan military. After his arrest and removal from the Palacio De Miraflores (the Presidential Palace), Pedro Carmona, head of Venezuela's confederation of business and industry (Fedecamaras), declared himself president, immediately dismissed the National Assembly and other democratic institutions and began to annul the Chavez Bolivarian reforms. All of this enraged Chavez supporters who rallied en masse, got the support of others in the Venezuelan military and forced the reinstatement of President Chavez two days later.
Since his return to office, President Chavez has clearly been on the U.S. target list as evidenced by U.S. involvement in the 2002-03 oil strike and failed 2004 recall referendum. Although unsuccessful in three attempts, U.S. intervention in the past has shown itself to be innovative and able to adopt new tactics after failed destabilization attempts. Because controlling Venezuela with its vast hydrocarbon reserves is so important to the U.S., it seems only a matter of time before the next attempt is made to depose Hugo Chavez. A fourth intervention most likely would occur either when Chavez runs for reelection in 2006 or possibly before he completes his current term.
Hugo Chavez himself
believes there's a U.S. plot to assassinate him. He may be right. There's
also some credible evidence of a 2004 coup attempt by neighboring
Columbian forces who were arrested in May of that year at a ranch in
Buruta just outside of Caracas. Those arrested said they were sent there
to prepare an attack against a Venezuelan National Guard base to steal
weapons and fully arm a 3,000 force militia.
Prior to both the April 2002 coup attempt and failed recall referendum and during the oil strike, the U.S. intensified its anti-Chavez rhetoric to condition the U.S. public to accept his forced removal as a positive change had it happened. That same demonizing rhetoric can be expected again in advance of the next U.S. attempt to oust Chavez and, in fact, it's already begun. In early 2005, CIA chief Porter Goss testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on "Global Intelligence Challenges in 2005: Meeting Long-Term Challenges with a Long-Term Strategy." In his testimony he referred to Venezuela as a "potential area for instability" and a "flashpoint." He also claimed Hugo Chavez was "consolidating his power by using technically legal tactics to target his opponents and was meddling in the region." Other administration officials claimed Chavez is "a negative force to the region" and a "new breed of authoritarianism." And without a touch of irony, they have also called the Venezuelan government an "authoritarian democracy", a "threat to democracy" and an "elected dictatorship" (clearly oxymorons -- Orwell would be pleased). And there's more from Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick about Chavez: "You win the election, but you do away with the rule of law, you pack the courts and (Chavez) is carrying out anti-democratic activities" like a dictator. The complicit U.S. corporate media, always in lockstep as a willing and shameless co-conspirator, has echoed these anti-Chavez sentiments portraying Chavez as a regional menace and threat to U.S. interests and security. If this type rhetoric continues and intensifies in the new year, it may be a clear sign something is brewing.
The U.S. also has established military bases in Peru, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and has 500 troops with planes, weapons and equipment in Paraguay in advance of a new base planned for that country capable of handling large aircraft and accommodating 16,000 troops. It also has forces and radar stations in other Latin American countries including 800 troops in Columbia with the Bush administration's stated intent in 2004 to raise the number to 1400. And, of course, there's the controversial base at Guantánamo, Cuba used, in part, as a convenient offshore prison for "enemy combatants."
This enhanced military strength in South America may indeed be in advance of a planned assault to remove Hugo Chavez. It may also be aimed at newly elected Bolivian President Evo Morales (an Aymara Indian and first ever indigenous president in Bolivia) and his Movement Toward Socialism party (MAS) who has expressed his intent to nationalize (but not confiscate) his country's large gas reserves and other resources (especially water) to keep more of the country's revenues at home to develop the economy and provide more services for its people. Morales won impressively with 54% of the vote (nearly double the 28.5% of his leading right wing opponent) and with a voter turnout of 84.5%. It's likely that Morales actually received far more than a 54% majority because of a long history of voter manipulation and fraud in Bolivia and elsewhere in the region. The fact that he won so impressively only showed his support among the people was so strong, not even stealing some of it could stop him. And his popularity affected the legislative outcome as well as Morales' MAS won a majority 64 seats in the 130-seat Chamber of Deputies. Morales will be inaugurated on January 22 and begin serving a 5 year term.
An early ominous sign against him is reflected in a Wall Street Journal editorial claiming Morales' election "is more bad news for liberty in Latin America." It went on to say the cocaleros (Quechua indigenous campesino coca farmers) he headed was a "radicalized political force... against all things American" and "the Morales economic platform doesn't promise a future to Bolivians, only revenge." In his first post-election diplomatic trip abroad, Morales chose to visit Fidel Castro to discuss relations between Bolivia and Cuba. Morales also plans to meet with Hugo Chavez and leaders of seven other countries that invited him to visit at their expense (including China and France) as he begins a world tour in early January. The Bush administration will surely use at least the Castro and Chavez meetings in any future hostile Morales rhetoric to help justify any action against him they may have in mind.
Morales has only just been elected, so how he will, in fact, govern is uncertain. However, in early interviews he said his first move as President will be to overturn Supreme Decree 21060, the 1985 measure making Bolivia the first Latin American country to adopt "free market" and privatization policies by decree. Morales said he will work with the new Chamber to pass a new law governing economic policy.
He also plans to impose new taxes on the rich. Should his plan as it's implemented attempt to model his government after Venezuela's and succeed in doing it, he no doubt would then become another U.S. target for removal.
Whether the U.S. will proceed with the plans Professor Petras says it's made is unknown, but it may become clearer in 2006. Under the best of circumstances, however, achieving them won't be easy despite the overwhelming U.S. military advantage. The mass public support Hugo Chavez enjoys would create chaos and probably rebellion in the country should a new U.S. approved leader take office and try to reverse his policies. Furthermore, the Bush administration may be restrained from acting against
Chavez for at least the reasons below:
* The U.S. is already bogged down in Iraq in endless conflict.
* It's ratcheting up the rhetoric against Iran and Syria possibly in advance of an assault against either or both countries.
* The great cost of
the Iraq war, along with large growing and unsustainable budget and
current account deficits, may preclude congressional and public support
for added adventures.
In light of all this
and the clear sound of an administration unraveling, even George Bush and
those closest to him may think long and hard before undertaking new
ventures, the outcomes of which are most uncertain. Stay tuned.
Other Articles by Stephen Lendman