Hugo El loco

Wikileaks reveals the astounding and unexpected information that liberal democracies do not like Hugo Chávez! Alvaro Uribe, the former Colombian President, compared him to Hitler, whilst Jean-David Lévitte, a diplomatic adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, said the Venezuelan president was “mad”.

The expert was right. You have to be completely mad to cosy up to Ahmadinejad’s Iran or the dictatorship of the Castro brothers in Cuba. But don’t be fooled into thinking that it is his madness which exasperates the West. By nationalising the Venezuelan oil industry and promising to see to it that all layers of the population benefit from it, Chávez is threatening the New World Order and laying down a challenge to all those who argue that since the fall of the Berlin Wall we have been living in the best of all possible worlds.

To the International Monetary Fund and to the World Bank who hold him to blame for a disastrous record as measured by the main economic indicators (inflation, public spending, and so on…), Chávez replies: “here we privilege the social realm rather than some disembodied economy” (Libération, 2 July 1999). It is true that his record is certainly different, the poverty rate which had been going up year on year has decreased since his arrival with 73% fewer in extreme poverty, child mortality has dropped by one third, and 1.7 million inhabitants have overcome illiteracy.

“Aló Presidente!”

POPULISM: Aló Presidente is the TV programme in which Chávez explains his political programme to millions of Venezuelans every Sunday. The president promises them a better future, blames American imperialism for all ills, whilst holding forth for hours on end about his personal life, gastronomy, or football. Aló Presidente is one of the main reasons why Chávez is thought of as the archetypal populist leader. It is true that he enjoys listening to his own voice, but reducing the changes afoot in Venezuela to this one man show is simplistic given the thousands of people from working-class districts who are now actively involved in the political life of their country.

SOCIALISM: There have been two great experiments in Latin American socialism in the twentieth century, that of Fidel Castro and that of Salvador Allende in Chile. In comparison to these models the Chávez government wants to put forward a new approach based more on participation in local development. This vision is at the heart of the concept of “twenty-first-century socialism”. But this is difficult to pin down given the absence of any fully worked out body of doctrine. Chávez’s socialism, as he himself admits, still needs to be created. In 1867 Mikhail Bakunin wrote: “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, and socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”.

DEMOCRACY: Since his failed coup in 1992 – for which he did two years in prison – the former Army officer has followed the rules of universal suffrage. Since first being elected Hugo Chávez has won 12 out of 13 elections, three presidential ones (1998, 2000, 2006), four referendums, and five elections (parliamentary and local elections, and for a constitutional assembly).

Revolution -

In the second part of the twentieth century Latin America was home to various revolutionary hopes. Hugo Chávez was born in 1954, five years before the Cuban revolution. He was twelve when Che led the guerrilla in Bolivia and twenty-five when the Sandinistas were in power in Nicaragua. Chávez lays claim to the legacy of his predecessors with however one major difference – he preaches a “peaceful and democratic revolution”.

In America no revolution can be possible without land reform, and Chávez is well aware of this. He had the right to food included in the Venezuelan Constitution and argues in favour of better distribution of landed property. Since he arrived in power the Venezuelan State has taken control of about 3 million hectares or one tenth of the farmland in the country. There is no question of evicting the owners but of the redistributing their vacant land in exchange for compensation. According to the authorities, 80% of the land still belongs to 5% of landowners.

The “Bolivarian revolution” is a new phase in the history of Venezuela. Prior to 1999 oil money flowed to the dominant classes. Over the past decade it has been used to finance tangible social programmes that have substantially improved the quality of life of the poor. Jean Ziegler, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, considers that nowadays Venezuela (together with Brazil and Bolivia) is in the vanguard when it comes to concrete measures to combat hunger.

- in America:

In 2002, when Chávez was toppled by a coup, the government of Georges W. Bush was one of the few to recognise the new regime, perhaps a bit too quickly. The attempted putsch failed within 48 hours and Chávez returned to power, more popular and more anti-American than ever. In response to the plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) launched by the United States – inspired by neoliberal ideas and reserving the lion’s share for the US –– Chávez launched the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) placing member countries on an equal footing and going beyond purely trade measures.

Chávez is one of the acknowledged flagbearers for the international movement against neoliberal globalisation. In 2006 100,000 supporters of alter-globalisation met in Caracas for the World Social Forum. However, in his fight against American imperialism Chávez brings himself into line with authoritarian regimes far removed from his humanist demands. “Chávez buys arms in Moscow, backs the nuclear programme of Iran, and parties with Gaddafi in Libya (Lecomte, Radio-canada, 11 January 2010).

Chávez likes playing with fire, as his best enemy does too. A recent report by the National Endowment for Democracy reveals that USAID (American foreign aid) financed the Venezuelan opposition to the tune of $40 million in 2010, and this interference no doubt has more to do with petrodollars and power than with the interests of the Venezuelan people.

Guayana Esequiba

In July 2010 the President of Guyana and his Venezuelan counterpart signed several cooperation agreements between the two countries. This meeting might seem unimportant, until you remember that Venezuela lays claim to sovereignty over Guayana Esequiba, a vast territory of 159,000 square kilometres making up two thirds of Guyana.

The Spanish colonies of New Granada would appear to have stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Essequibo river, which flows through present-day Guyana. On gaining independence the limits of the new Republic of Venezuela were not clearly defined. Following on from the mid-nineteenth-century gold rush it became necessary to set up arbitration. In 1889 an international committee used the maps of the Prussian explorer Schomburgk to fix the current border on the Cuyuni river, thus attributing Guayana Esequiba to the British colony. But this was not the end of the story. Venezuela questioned this decision in the early 1960s when the issue of Guyana’s independence first arose. The UN intervened without managing to broker an agreement between the two parties. Since then this region appears on certain Venezuelan maps as Zona en Reclamación.

What is the situation now in the twenty-first century? According to the Fox News blog (20/01/08), “Chávez wants Guyana” and is manoeuvring to lay his hands on the mineral resources of Guayana Esequiba by deliberately impeding the economic development of the area. But the Venezuelan opposition newspaper El Universal (12/02/07) accuses Chávez of “El fin unilateral de la reclamación” and of having adopted the position of the Guyana ambassador: Venezuelan claims are ancient history clearly attributable to a request from the United States immediately prior to the independence of Guyana so as to stabilise the Prime Minister felt to be too Marxist.

What is the situation now in the twenty-first century? It is hard to say and apparently Chávez is not the only one to master the art of disinformation and media propaganda.

Bolivar El Libertador

Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) was born in Caracas and fought for the independence of the Spanish colonies in South America. He won the independence of Venezuela in 1821 but failed to bring about his dream of unifying America in one single nation.

Since this period many South American politicians from both left and right have presented themselves as his successors, and Hugo Chávez is no exception. The clandestine faction he set up in the Army in the 1980s was called the Bolivarian Revolution Movement, and the Republic of Venezuela was renamed the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 1999. Chávez makes free use of quotations from the Libertador, especially in his geopolitical vision for Latin America. The Venezuelan president has great faith in “Great Men”.

In July 2010 he had the remains of his intellectual guru exhumed to test the theory that he had been poisoned. He wrote on his Twitter account: “it was an extraordinary time we’ve had this evening. We have seen the remains of the great Bolivar. (…) I admit I cried. (…) I said to them: this glorious skeleton must be that of Bolivar as you can sense his presence.”