Hugo Chavez died on 5 March 2013, and two events took place recently in London to mark the first anniversary of his passing. Canning House organised a half-day conference aimed at assessing the Chavez legacy, while the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (VSC) set itself the task of celebrating the Bolivarian Revolution that Chavez led and that his elected successor, Nicolás Maduro, seeks to continue.
Headquartered in London’s exclusive Belgravia, Canning House exists to “foster mutual understanding and engagement between the UK and the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian world”. Membership is open to all, but at its heart it has always been a conservative organisation, run by men and women in smart attire, well-intentioned but of anodyne views, and perhaps a little over fond of rubbing shoulders with senior executives of big companies, ministers of state and people with seats in the Upper House. A patrician stiffness pervades Canning House, a lingering vestige of empire discernible in the crusty tones with which the old guard greet each other at gatherings and peer over the shoulders of anyone they don’t recognize. If they speak Spanish or Portuguese, most do so in a resolutely British accent with no concession to native rhythms or inflections.
Nevertheless, Canning House continues to be a useful locus of engagment with the Latin-American world, not least because it manages to secure excellent speakers from all the countries as well as from the UK for its lectures and round tables, and is generally careful to maintain political neutrality in its choice of contributors and subject matter. Such was the case with the Conference on Hugo Chavez.
Demotix/Jesus Gil. All rights reserved.
Venezuela’s charismatic leader was and remains controversial, and to reflect this, Canning House invited a roster of participants from all sides of the political spectrum. Notable among the “Chavistas” was London’s former mayor, Ken Livingstsone, who tried to develop a long-term relationship between Caracas and London (subsequently terminated by Boris Johnson) and, more convincing because she is clearly more knowledgeable, Alicia Castro, Argentina’s current ambassador to the UK and former ambassador to Venezuela.
These two could be described as representing the progressive left. In the political centre were several speakers who did their best to be informative rather than polemical. Representing the far right were two Venezuelan die-hard anti-Chavistas: an economist called Pedro Palma, who appeared to enjoy telling the audience that his country is on the brink of financial ruin, and Diego Arria, a politician who, by his stiff mannerisms, elegant diction, and impeccable attire, manifested his membership of the economic and social elite. Latin Americans and those who know the continent will be familiar with the type.
The presence on the same stage of ideological adversaries who, in deference to the setting, were obliged to maintain a semblance of politeness towads each other, made the event both fascinating and informative; though given the strength of opposing views, I doubt whether anyone was persuaded to change the opinion they held on entering the hall.
It is difficult, maybe impossible, for anyone with knowledge of Latin America not to find themselves on one side or other of the Chavez debate. I found Palma’s and Arria’s assertions unconvincing and their opinions too extreme to merit serious consideration. Many of those who attended, however, clearly thought the opposite - among them a coterie of young Venezuelans, in London perhaps to study or at leisure, who made their views known with rounds of applause and the occasional hiss; privileged youngsters, like those in Caracas and other cities who have made a splash by setting up road blocks, burning tyres and throwing Molotov cocktails.
What of the VSC conference? Here there was no question of neutrality. One of the organisation’s aims is to “defend the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution”. Unsurprisingly, no one was invited to speak on behalf of the opposition. The day-long affair included plenary sessions and workshops dealing both with the internal politics of Venezuela and with the influence of the Chavez revolution on Latin America and further afield.
Ambassador Castro was the only speaker to appear at both events. Her address resembled the one she gave for Canning House, though in form it was more relaxed and overtly chavista. She ended with the traditional clenched fist salute symbolic in Latin America of solidarity with the people. Alicia Castro is a stalwart defender of Latin-American independence, and of the kind of progressive governments that currently hold power not just in Venezuela and, of course, in her own country, but in Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and maybe even Cuba, that favorite bogey of successive US administrations and of the western right-wing media.
Other speakers included Dr Francsico Dominguez, general secretary of the VSC, Mark Weisbrot from the US-based Centre for Economic and Political Research (CEPR), Seamus Milne of The Guardian, Neil Findlay a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament, representatives of several Latin-American embassies, notable academics, journalists, and leaders of pressure groups. Moving accounts were given of the continent-wide struggle for emancipation of the poor and of native peoples; and there were pleas for an end to US interference in the internal affairs of the region.
In the shadow of the US
This last theme loomed large. Throughout the day, the immense spectre of the United States cast a shadow over all the discussions. Since the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, there have been over 170 US interventions in Latin America from an attack by US marines on Puerto Rico in 1824 to the US-backed overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Among the most salient interventions are the 1847 annexation of half of Mexico, the prising of Panama from Colombia in 1903 in preparation for US occupation of the Canal Zone, the shelling of the Mexican port of Veracruz in 1914, the overthrow of the Haitian government in 1915 and occupation of the country until 1925, the conversion of Cuba into a US protectorate under the so-called Platt Amendment in 1901, occupation of the Dominican Republic and installation of a puppet regime in 1916, incessant interference in Nicaragua from the mid 1920s onwards which included in 1937 installation of one of Latin-America’s vilest dictorships under Anastasio Somoza, forced concession of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and support for the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista which lasted from 1934 until the Revolution ousted him in 1959.
More recent occurrences include the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala (1954), of President Joao Goulart of Brazil (1964), of President Arturo Umberto Illia of Argentina (1966), of President Salvador Allende of Chile (1973), of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and again in 2004, and two celebrated failures: the invasion of Cuba in 1961, and the coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002.
As Francisco Dominguez pointed out in his address, in recent years direct military intervention by the US in Latin America has fallen out of favour as a method of control. Washington now prefers to finance US-friendly opposition groups and to institute sanctions against regimes it doesn’t like. Venezuela is currently a target of both tactics.
Two quite different views of the world are struggling for primacy in post-Chavez Venezuela. In the anti-Chavista camp are those who believe privilege and inequality to be products of nature or decrees of God. They are happy with neoliberalism, with minimal state interference in the market, with US hemispheric hegemony, which they see as a bulwark against the evils of socialism, and with a concept of personal freedom that allows them to do more or less whatever they wish. They believe in democracy provided it doesn’t undermine their interests.
Chavistas by contrast think a more equal, kinder world is possible, one in which human solidarity, the sharing of resources, and an end to extremes of poverty and inequality can and should constitute the moral basis of political and social policy. For the poor and the lower middle classes, marginalised for centuries in a deeply unequal society, Chavez represented a beacon of hope not that the proletariat and peasantry would take over the state in some utopian version of Marxism-Leninism, but that the Bolivarian Revolution would launch a social transformation sufficient to ensure that every family in Venezuela would have the means to lead a dignified life. Simple and revolutionary; too much so for the opposition which, after failing to overthrow Chavez in 2002, is trying again with his successor.
Nicolas Maduro won the hotly contested 2013 presidential election by a tiny margin of 1.5%., a result that unleashed a torrent of accusations of fraud from the United States as well as from the Venezuelan opposition. No such complaint came from the US when Felipe Calderón won the Mexican election in 2006 by an even smaller margin (0.58%) and in circumstances strongly suggesting that the real winner had been the left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Nor have we heard much about the Venezuelan municipal elections that took place in December 2013 in which Maduro’s Party, the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), received a substantially increased share of the vote. Judgements in the US about whether a Latin-American election is valid depend entirely on the political position of the candidates. We should be in no doubt about this. US administrations - whether Democrat or Republican - have never shown themselves willing to accept governments in Latin America that the State Department considers to be overly left wing or inimical to US interests. Chavez was elected and re-elected with large majorities. In the US he was nevertheless commonly referred to as a dictator.
A program of opposition protests against President Maduro began as soon as he took office. Its stated objective is “La Salida” (the exit): the ejection of Maduro from power not by means of the ballot box but via streets protests, attacks on government offices, economic sabotage, disruption of daily life, and attempts to marshal international support for regime change. ”Our aim”, affirms Leopoldo López, former mayor of Chacao, the wealthiest municipality of Caracas “is to get rid of the government”.
Another protest leader, Roberto Alonso, explains that, ”…the sole aim of the guarimba (street protests, barricades etc.), apart from paralysing the country, is to create chaos…so as to oblige the Castro-communist regime of Venezuela to implement the Plan Ávila,” a contingency plan to use the army to maintain public order employed in 1989 by President Carlos Andrés Pérez with disastrous consequences. This would inevitably lead to the end of the Maduro government.
Molotov cocktails thrown during clashes between anti-government demonstrators and the National Police. Demotix/Carlos Becerra. All rights reserved.
These efforts at disruption - enthusiastically adopted by student dissidents - are portrayed by western media and opposition supporters as a peaceful campaign to restore democracy in the teeth of a repressive dictatorship. Such was the account given to the Canning House audience by Diego Arria who numbers amongst his many achievements that of having graduated from the Augusta Military Academy at Fort Defiance, Virginia. In a self-serving biography (La Hora de la Verdad - the Hour of Truth), Arria describes Chavez as “the costliest sick man in human history”. Venezuela, he tells us, “is under Cuban occupation and the Venezuelan government and army have handed over national sovereignty to the communists.”
María Corina Machado, recently ejected from the Venezuelan Congress for accepting a role as a Panamanian official so as to be able to speak against her own government at a meeting of the Organisation of American States, is another right-winger given red-carpet treatment in Washington for her heroic efforts to return democracy to Venezuela. She was one of the elite figures who signed the Carmona Decree of 2002 affirming the overthrow of Hugo Chavez and the installation of a replacement government.
According to Machado, the student protests which have received so much publicity are peaceful and the violence that has resulted in several deaths are entirely the responsibility of the government. This too is the version offered by Enrique Krauze, the influential Mexican rent-a-reactionary, who in a New York Times piece of February 27, describes how the country’s youth are fighting for democracy against the brutal repression of an oil-rich state.
In the same newspaper on the previous day, Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, told readers that “…the majority of those protesting are Venezuela’s poor..”, a claim contradicted by all the available evidence, including the eye-witness reports given at the VSC conference by Mark Weisbrot, Seamus Milne and Neil Findlay. Halvorssen, despite his name, is Venezuelan and a cousin of Leopoldo López. We are in the territory of the super-rich Venezuelan aristocracy.
According to Weisbrot, who has walked the streets, the protests are not coming from the poor who have largely benefited from the Bolivarian Revolution, but from the rich; the barricades are not in underprivileged neighbourhoods, but in the exclusive ones where small groups “engage in nightly battles with security forces, throwing rocks and firebombs and running from tear gas.”
Nevertheless, true to form, US Secretary of State John Kerry has taken up the cudgels on behalf of the downtrodden elite, criticising the Venezuelan government for inhibiting the right of cities to protest peacefully and accusing Maduro of unleashing a campaign of terror against his own people. Not to be outdone, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has just passed a bill proposing sanctions against the Venezuelan authorities and support for the opposition.
Doubtless all this is music to the ears of the right, Corina Machado foremost among them, who have trooped off to Washington to persuade US public opinion and Congress to “support” the opposition in her country “for the sake of democracy”. Latin America’s whole history demonstrates the danger of such overtures. Yet one of the region’s many ironies is that ever since gaining independence from Spain, it has produced a steady supply of fifth columnists ready to trade that independence in exchange for a US-backed regime that will defend their interests.
Venezuela's face to the world
Apart from the litany of tired accusations about the repressive nature of the current government, three complaints about Venezuela have gained traction internationally: endemic violence, corruption in public life, and media repression.
Criminal violence is a problem confronting several Latin-American countries though in each it takes slightly different forms. Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Brazil and Venezuela all suffer from high levels of homicide - much of it perpetrated by organised gangs. There is no avoiding the crime figures, which are a terrible stain on the region, nor the fact that governments of every stripe have consistently failed to find a solution. This is not an ideological issue but one of long-term social and economic failure arising above all from the marginalisation of large sectors of the population that have no stake in the status quo. For many, it is easier to make a living from theft, smuggling, kidnapping and murder than from conventional employment.
Accusations that Venezuela no longer has a free press are greedily seized upon by conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. A storm of protest erupted, for example, at the sale of the anti-government TV station Globovision, which in 2003 had publicly called for the overthrow of President Chavez. One can imagine what would have happened if CNN or Fox News had advocated a coup against Obama. However, Globovision with less than 5% of the national audience is a tiny player. About 90% of media consumption is supplied by the private sector, which is one reason why no one has to search or go under cover to see or hear criticism of the government.
What about official corruption? Undeniably it exists, much of it arising out of price controls and market subsidies. Venezuela’s gasoline (petrol) prices are the cheapest on the planet, the result of a subsidy so extravagant that, according to a study by two Venezuelan scholars at Harvard University, its value exceeds that of all social programs combined. Cheap gasoline means, amongst other things, that large amounts of fuel are smuggled into Brazil and Colombia across borders patrolled by the Venezuelan military but apparently highly porous, giving rise to the suspicion that much of the illegal trade takes place under the auspices of the army.
Likewise, many basic products imported into Venezuela for sale at regulated prices are smuggled into Colombia at a profit. Accordng to a brilliant article by Angel Ricardo Martinez in Foreign Policy, up to 40 percent of all Venezuelan imports find their way to Colombia, destabilising the latter’s internal markets, and creating critical shortages in Venezuela.
Although the gasoline subsidy and the associated smuggling operations are highly damaging, not even Chavez seems to have been strong enough to confront the army about its role in these lucrative activities. The late president did not, however, create the problem. As Martinez points out, “…the gas subsidy has been in place for several decades, with its current price fixed since 1996, three years before Chavez came to power.”
If drugs are the curse of Colombia and Mexico, oil is Venezuela’s curse; and it will be a very courageous government that tries to deal with the gasoline subsidy without an accommodation with the armed forces and strong support from neighbouring countries.
Venezuela’s problems are multiple, difficult to describe in terms that do justice to their complexity, and even more difficult to resolve. Independently of the long-term issues, however, the present juncture is critical not only for Venezuela’s immediate future but for that of Latin America as a whole. A US-backed triumph for the inhabitants of Altamira, for Leopoldo López, Diego Arria, Corina Machado and their followers, for the rich kids protesting in the streets, will plunge the country back into a subservient relationship with the United States, encouraging the latter to reassert the Monroe Doctrine and convincing the US and European public that, after all, Latin-Americans are incapable of building lasting democracies based on the rule of law.
If the democratically elected government of Venezuela is not safe, then neither are the progressive governments of other nations in the region. US eyes will be especially focused thereafter on Bolivia, on Ecuador, and even on the governments of larger nations that fail to toe the line. This is not a scenario that anyone should find palatable.