9 August 2007 Edition

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International : Venezuela has potential to restore belief in more equal society

Venezeula — an experiment with global implications


Like many people in Ireland, I was introduced to the politics of Venezuela by the documentary The Revolution will not be Televised.  Although it dealt with a far from unusual event- the overthrow of democratically elected a President by a US supported coup – it was a remarkable and powerful film.  The Irish film crew captured the electric atmosphere as a show of popular support for President Chavez convinced sections of the military to end the dictatorship after only two days. 
However the Venezuelan case is about more than the right of people to elect their own government.  The nation is also asserting economic sovereignty and inspiring other Latin American countries to do likewise.  Consequently it may renew hope worldwide that an alternative to the status quo is possible.
The US control has been openly committed to maintaining power over latin America since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.  Domination has been enforced through military and economic means, which until recently have failed in only one country – Cuba. However in 1998 Venezuela democratically signalled its desire for independence by electing Hugo Chavez as President. When in 1989, President Perez turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan to resolve the country’s heavy debt, it imposed a programme of privatisation.  This instantly increased oil, and therefore transport prices, provoking spontaneous rioting in the poor areas of Caracas.  The government responded brutally, massacring thousands of people, many of whom were buried in unmarked graves. 
Two years later, Chavez, an army commander, was imprisoned following a shambolic coup attempt. There was widespread support for Chavez’s actions and the next Presidential election was won by Rafael Caldera who openly sympathised with the coup and who released Chavez in 1994.
When Chavez himself stood in the 1998 Presidential election he won 58% of the vote and took control of a country in political and economic chaos.  Despite expectations in some quarters that Chavez would be forced to adhere to orthodoxy in the face of this challenge, he slowly began to embark on a radical and exciting new direction.   

Latin America, Independence and Integration
A central goal of Chavez is to establish Venezuela’s political and economic sovereignty.  First and foremost it has therefore been necessary to rid the country of the IMF and World Bank. As of this year Venezuela is no longer in debt to these institutions.  In addition, indigenous agriculture has been promoted in preference to subsidised US imports.  Oil production has been cut back in order to increase the price of this valuable natural resource and the economy has diversified to reduce the country’s reliance on oil.  Economic relations have been developed with China to the public fury of the US. 
Even more worryingly for Washington, Chavez is inspiring and assisting other Latin American countries to do the same.  Argentina’s economy was decimated by the IMF but a loan from Venezuela is helping it to recover.  Brazil has paid off its debt ahead of schedule in order to remove itself from IMF control.  Bolivia, which had most closely followed IMF prescriptions – and is therefore the most ruined economy in the region  – has undertaken to accept no more of its ‘aid’.  In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa wanted to use oil revenue for social spending but the World Bank demanded that he use it to repay debt.  He has recently declared his intention to expel the World Bank’s representative from the country.  Most recently the newly elected President of Nicaragua has declared that the country will be free from the IMF within five years.
This development of independence has gone alongside a process of Latin American integration.  A number of mutually beneficial agreements have been reached to rival those geared towards the interests of US companies.  Most notably, ten Latin American countries, consisting of 350 million people, have formed a trade pact under CAN-Mercosur in opposition to the US-inspired FTAA.  Integration is also underway in energy, health and education while ideas such as a regional bank and currency are under consideration. 

Wider Implications
While all this is revolutionary, further fundamental change is underway in Venzuela, the ramifications of which could reverberate around the world, particularly when social policies are compared to those of the richer and more developed countries such as those in Western Europe and the US.
Education and health are provided free of charge. The Government ridicules the idea that the economy must be geared towards the wealthy in order for the poor to gain from the trickle-down effect. Instead policy is explicitly orientated towards the needs of society as a whole, and particularly those in poverty.
Chavez has warned that companies which benefit from exploitation will not be tolerated. This is not to say that the private sector is to be expunged, far from it. Private domestic and foreign investment is welcomed – providing that revenue is generated without harming society and as long as those who make massive profits give something back to the community. In short, Venezuela is developing an alternative economic model to that which is in operation in Europe and the US.
Venezuela is also developing its democratic processes.  Local community councils are being established in an exercise of mass political participation. These councils, which in urban areas constitute just 200-400 families, decide upon local priorities, develop a plan to address these issues, apply for the necessary funding and then implement their projects.  A provision in the new Constitution allows for a referendum on any issue which is requested by 20% of the electorate.
Democracy is being extended to the economic sphere. While governments in Europe and the US yield to the authority of corporations, Chavez insists that their concentration of economic power will be subject to democratic accountability. Workers are being given greater control of their workplaces and co-operatives are encouraged. Meanwhile many Western democracies consist of little more than a choice between two indistinguishable parties every five years. 

However serious problems remain. Although Chavez has won numerous elections (the most recent of which was verified by former US President Jimmy Carter), it seems that by prioritising the needs of the Venezuelan population, Chavez has not met the US criteria for a democracy. The traditional tools of military and economic pressure therefore continue to be utilised.  An unofficial economic embargo is in operation and there have been concerted attempts to sabotage the economy and the democracy. 
Other difficulties lie closer to home. There appears a great reliance on Chavez to unite the range of groups supporting him.  If he was assassinated – a very real possibility – it is feared the government could fall apart. Despite attempts to emphasise the unique and modern nature of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ there appears a fundamentalist strain within the Chavez camp – the type who prefer to quote Marx or Lenin rather than engage with current reality. 
Chavez’s handling of the opposition is open to question. Having failed to win popular support, the opposition now focus on the violent overthrow of the legitimate government.  They control the majority of newspapers and TV channels, openly advocating a dictatorship in the name of democracy.  Large sums of money are finding their way to Colombian paramilitaries for the murder of peasant, community and government leaders.  Yet the opposition are largely untouched by the government’s conciliatory and cautious approach and they have consequently become increasingly emboldened. 
It will take decades to address the mass poverty, crime and corruption in the country and much can change over the years.  It is also a largely experimental process and mistakes will be made along the way.  
The process of change in Venezuela has aroused excitement and admiration around the world.  Hopefully it will also receive objective scrutiny and considered analysis – the issues at stake are too important to be subject to propaganda and meaningless rhetoric.  Having said that, it is difficult to overstate the importance of Venezuela’s role in Latin America.  Furthermore, by breaking so radically with orthodox political and economic thought, Venezuela has the potential to restore people’s belief that a more caring and equal society is possible.  Given the degree of despondency and apathy in much of the world, Venezuela has implications not just for Latin America, but for us all.  

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