15 March 2007 Edition

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International : Chavez and Bush in South American tours

A tale of two Presidents

BY SALLY GALLAGHER


This is a tale of two presidents, a geographically similar journey and wildly differing public receptions. On the one hand, we have a president castigated as a demagogue and a dictator, on the other is the self-styled ‘leader of the free world’ (wherever that is).
And this is where it gets complicated, owing more to Lewis Carroll than Charles Dickens. The supposed dictator has fought and won re-election on three successive occasions; every plan and programme (including a new constitution) that he has submitted to the electorate has been overwhelmingly endorsed. Just last year, his opponents successfully utilised a clause in the new constitution – that he had introduced – and organised a ‘recall referendum’. Had he lost, he was out of office. But instead of being recalled, his presidency was dramatically reaffirmed by almost two thirds of the electorate.
Meanwhile, the supposed leader of the free world has, to put it diplomatically, a difficult history with the ballot box. And his administration has also been caught telling lies repeatedly – so frequently, it appears to display all the symptoms of a serious psychiatric disorder – and has also launched an illegal invasion of another country.
Step forward, Mssrs Chavez and Bush, both of whom ‘toured’ Latin America in recent days. And there’s a strange irony here also, – the Bush administration’s previous major initiative in the region involved funneling aid and comfort to coup plotters who tried to unseat Hugo Chavez, on April 11 2002. Leading US media outlets and the US government – often difficult to distinguish between the two – welcomed the coup, only for it to be reversed in under 24 hours. During that brief interregnum, the coupsters abolished every single democratic institution in Venezuela and said they would rule by decree. The US government continues to fund their activities.
Since then, President Bush has been preoccupied with the Iraq disaster. Belatedly, he discovered that Latin America has now gone further to the left than at any time since 1959. Thus, in advance of his tour, Mr Bush rediscovered the corrosive impact of poverty and unveiled an aid programme. However, even there President Chavez has stolen a march and much of Bush’s thunder, having used Venezuela’s staggering oil wealth to fund huge social programmes across the region. One example speaks volumes: recent floods in Bolivia left thousands homeless and without livelihoods. The US sent $1.5m. Venezuela sent $15m and teams of volunteers. Indeed, the Chavez aid programme appears to know no boundaries - he even supplies cheap oil to poor urban communities New York, Chicago and elsewhere.
Wherever Bush went, he was met with protests, while Chavez spoke at huge public rallies. In Uruguay, some 20 people were arrested after thousands took to the streets to protest Bush’s presence in their country. Bush avoided the crowds by meeting the president at his rural retreat some 125 miles (200km) west of the capital. Chavez, meanwhile, addressed a crowd of over 40,000 people just across the border in Argentina.
Drugs have also been a persistent theme of this visit (something else which the US has declared war on, revealing a clear lack of imagination in policy terms) and the Bush Whitehouse has been using the issue as a stick to beat their opponents in Latin America. Last week, it castigated both Bolivia and Venezuela for their alleged failure to combat traffickers.
Not so, says the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which cites close US allies, Guatemala and Colombia, as having the poorest records in the region.
Thus, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe has point blank refused to extradite right wing paramilitaries wanted on drug offences. And just last month, the Colombian Foreign Minister was forced to resign over links to drug dealing paramilitiaries, while the country’s top police intelligence officer is now in jail for similar reasons. Colombia is one of the largest recipients of US military aid and some Democrats are questioning a White House request for $3.9bn in new aid over the next seven years.
In 2005, the DEA lured Guatemala’s top two drug enforcement officers to the US and arrested them. Interestingly, the key players in the Guatemalan trade have been identified as former top military intelligence officers, trained in the US. And that squawking noise is the sound of chickens coming home to roost.


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