[Below is a response by Chesa Boudin, author of The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions-100 Answers, and myself to an article posted on The Guardian's Comment Is Free website entitled 'Rosales is coming up roses' by Charles
Tannock and Fernando Gerbasi. An edited version of this article was submitted to Comment is Free but was not published. --Ed]
Venezuela Through the Fog
By Chesa Boudin and Pablo Navarrete - Red Pepper Venezuela Blog
December 01, 2006
The comment posted Tuesday on CiF ‘Rosales is coming up roses’ by Charles Tannock and Fernando Gerbasi on Venezuela’s upcoming election is not just one sided but it is purposefully misleading. News and opinion pieces like this one not only make it nearly impossible for those who have never been to Venezuela to get a sense of what is really happening here, but they also distract from the real political issues and legitimate criticisms of the Chavez administration. There is plenty of room for criticisms, to be sure, but propagandistic articles like this one beg to be rebutted. Specifically, we take issue with the following points Tannock and Gerbasi make in their post:
Paragraph 1 reads:
Venezuela's democratic opposition has finally united behind a single candidate, Manuel Rosales, to challenge the incumbent populist maverick Hugo Chávez in the presidential election scheduled for 3 December. A Rosales presidency would represent an entirely different sort of government for Venezuela, one that would seek to undo the demagogic legacy of Chávez and his " Bolivarian Revolution."
Calling Venezuela’s opposition democratic is slightly ironic given that the same sectors that support Rosales, and Rosales himself, were involved in a short lived 2002 coup in which dozens of people were killed. Rosales openly supported the new junta and was filmed embracing the coup president, Pedro Carmona, shortly before Carmona issued decrees that dissolved the Supreme Court and the National Assembly, changed the name of the country and empowered himself to fire any elected official. When asked why he backed Carmona, Rosales responded, "One makes mistakes in life, but what is definitely important is when one makes a decision like that, in the midst of confusion, that it be made in good faith." While Rosales would certainly attempt to undo the legacy of the Chavez government, this post totally ignores the social programs knows as “misiones” which have been the hallmark of the Chavez government’s social policy and widespread popularity – programs which Rosales promises he will increase funding for.
Paragraph 2 reads:
Since his election in 1998, Chávez has made confrontation and incitement to violence his primary political tools. He has engaged in blatant checkbook diplomacy by giving away, with little to show for it, Venezuela's oil resources to countries like Cuba. Venezuela's oil reserves are vast, but they should not be squandered on foreign adventures disguised as economic integration. Chávez seeks to buy regional influence, but mostly he props up ideological cronies like Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, and some as far afield as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Belarus's Aleksander Lukashenko.
While there has been plenty of incitement and confrontation in Venezuela, this is hardly a phenomenon that has started with Chavez’s government: from 1989 to 1992 there was an average of 4 protests per day, many of them violent. So to blame Chavez for the opposition’s repeated attempts to destabilise the country (including the 2002 coup and the 2003 oil strike/sabatoge) is highly misleading. While it may be true that Chavez has benefited from certain kinds of confrontation, he has also been extremely lenient with the opposition. To take just one example: following the failure of the coup and Chavez’s return to power, the coup president Pedro Carmona was never jailed; instead he was held under house arrest and later escaped to Colombia, where it is believed he still is to this day. Can you imagine this happening in Britain?
Chavez has certainly invested heavily in foreign policy, although saying
that he has “little to show for it” or that he is “squandering” oil wealth is
inaccurate. Whatever one thinks of Chavez’s political goals in the
international arena, it is obvious to any rational observer that he has been
extremely successful in his efforts. First of all, the Chavez government has
been instrumental in reviving OPEC, which has contributed significantly to
driving up global oil prices, thereby dramatically increasing his government’s
revenue. Second, the Chavez government has played a key role, together with regional
allies, in blocking the
US’ trade initiative for the region known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Third his relationship with Cuba has been extremely beneficial for Venezuela with over 20,000 Cuban doctors providing free healthcare to Venezuela’s poorest citizens, and providing technical and counterintelligence advice to the government. There are countless more examples we could give.
Paragraph 3 reads:
For many years, Venezuelahad excellent relations with its neighbours, without having to buy their friendship. But Chávez unjustifiably vilified many of them including neighbouring Colombia, which is one reason why his push to gain for Venezuela the Latin American seat on the United Nations security council was recently blocked.
Chavez’s government has excellent relations with almost every Latin American government. In the recent vote to choose the Latin American seat on the United Nations security council, Venezuela had the support of the vast majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries, which is usually the way the Latin American/Caribbean seat is decided. This time, however, the US government orchestrated an aggressive campaign against Venezuela and mobilised opposition to Venezuela in Europe and Asia while it promoted Guatemala (a country with a horrific human-rights record) as its preferred candidate.
Paragraph 4 reads:
A Rosales presidency will end Venezuela's isolation by a cabal of radicals and encourage domestic and foreign direct investment in the country. Indeed, the next government will need, above all, to kick-start the economy in a sustainable way to create a positive climate of job creation, which is the only lasting remedy for the poverty Chávez has sought to exploit.
While Rosales will certainly work closely with the private sector and attract foreign investment, it is up for debate whether or not that is an effective way to end poverty in Venezuela. No one who is to be taken seriously doubts Chavez’s commitment to the poor. And if one looks at the statistics, the changes are evident. According to Venezuela's most recent census, the number of households living in poverty has dropped from 49 percent in 1998, the year before Chávez took office, to 33.9 percent in early 2006. Households living in extreme poverty dropped from 17.1 percent to 10.6 percent during the same period. The poorest quintile of the population has seen its consumption power more than double. In June this year the World Bank said that Venezuela had achieved “substantial improvements in the fight against poverty” and that their statistical evidence showed that between 1995 and 2005 “the number of homes under the poverty line has decreased.” If you contrast this with the fact that between 1970 and 1998 (the year before Chavez came to power) per capita income in Venezuela fell by a staggering 35 percent (the worst decline in the region and one of the worst in the world) it becomes quite easy to understand why Chavez has won 10 electoral contests during his nearly eight years in power. It is worth noting too that all these electoral processes have been verified as free and fair by international observers, including the Organisation of American States (OAS), the European Union and the US-based Carter Centre.
5) Under Rosales, Venezuela's relations with its biggest trading partner, the United States, would also be re-established in a climate of mutual respect. President Chávez has opposed free trade agreements and has proposed a mutant trade association he calls Alba, (American Bolivarian Alternative). A Rosales presidency would return Venezuela to normal trading relations, which means enthusiastic participation in the Andean Pact, the Group of 3, and Mercosur. Rosales will establish a joint public and private sector commission to negotiate all future bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, including proposed pacts with the EU and US.
The US continues to be Venezuela’s largest trading partner by far: the US depends on Venezuela for approximately 12 percent of its daily oil imports, and Venezuela sells roughly 70 percent of its daily oil exports to the US market, although this figure has fallen steadily since Chávez was elected. The US consumes 50 percent of all Venezuelan exports, while 35 percent of Venezuelan imports come from US ports, making Venezuela the US’s third most important trading partner in Latin America after Mexico and Brazil. Any lack of mutual respect is not just due to Chavez’s undiplomatic rhetoric, but also the product of open US hostility towards the Chavez government: the US supported the 2002 coup and continues to provide millions of dollars in funding for domestic opposition groups. Therefore, to pretend it is a one-way street is highly misleading.
It should also be noted that Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur has occurred under the Chavez government and is widely considered a foreign policy triumph.
6) But it is within Venezuela itself that a Rosales government would make its most profound changes. Instead of spending money on armaments, as Chávez has done, Rosales plans to redistribute 20% of Venezuela's national oil revenue directly to citizens in the lowest income groups. People who previously depended on various government handouts, which were often allocated on the basis of political favouritism, would be empowered to decide directly for themselves how they spend the resources provided to them by the state.
The Chavez government has invested more heavily in social programs than any
previous government in Venezuela’s
democratic era. Rosales’ “mi negra” debit card plan is the only real item on
his campaign platform and it has never been clearly defined. All Venezuelans have
been encouraged to sign up in advance and get their card, regardless of their
income bracket. They have then been told that as soon as they get Rosales
elected they will be able to start using the card. If this does not amount to
government handouts, and buying votes we’re not sure what does. Regarding Venezuela’s
arms purchases, Venezuela continues to spend considerably less on arms than many of its neighbors. It is
particularly striking that the authors do not mention that the single largest
recipient of US military assistance in Latin America is Venezuela’s
whose government has one of the worst human rights records in the continent.
While in an ideal world Venezuela would use the money it spends on arms for social investment, the very real
threat of US or US-financed military intervention in
Venezuela makes these arms purchases necessary.
7) After more than a century of oil production in Venezuela, which possesses the world's fifth largest reserves (and the largest gas reserves in Latin America), the state is rich, but the people remain tragically poor. The new government would be strongly committed to ending this unacceptable state of affairs.
While the first part of the sentence is true, the second part has absolutely
no basis in reality. Perhaps the authors deliberately “forget” that poverty in
the oil-rich state of
Venezuela was endemic during the previous governments, all of which were supported by the US and the multilateral financial institutions they dominate. The authors also make no mention of any of the Chavez government’s numerous anti-poverty policies, the statistics that show declines in poverty rates under Chavez’s government or the dramatic increase in income for Venezuela’s poorest citizens (we have briefly touched on these last two points in a comment above).
8) Instead of arming "citizen militias" with AK-47 rifles for the "war" with the US that Chávez's paranoid fantasies envision, a Rosales government would give the people scholarships to study. It would aim to spread throughout the country the successful model developed in Zulia whereby students from poor backgrounds are admitted to local private universities as a result of schemes drawn up with the regional government. Forty-four thousand students are currently part of the Jesus Enrique Lossada programme, which would be implemented throughout Venezuela.
Education has been one of the priorities under the Chavez government: more than 50 percent of the country is now enrolled in some form of education. While few Venezuelans have heard of the Jesus Enrique Lossada programme, more than 3 million have enrolled in the government’s free educational missions. The government has made room for 350,000 new University students alone, and the number is rapidly growing. For the first time in Venezuelan history people across the country, from the barrios of Caracas to the steamy plains of Barinas have access to a free university level education. The Chávez government has also made huge advances in eradicating illiteracy.
9) Private property would remain the foundation for ensuring a prosperous economy, ruling out the current practice of land seizure by the state without compensation. Experience elsewhere demonstrates that government-imposed "revolutionary co-management" of enterprises will not solve Venezuela's economic problems.
The Venezuelan constitution guarantees the right to private property and there has been no confiscation without reparation: all forced sales are dealt with according to the law, as they are in the US or the UK when the state claims eminent domain.
10) Indeed, Rosales rejects outright the calls to establish a new "socialist" world order that Chávez recently issued on a trip to London. The new government would reaffirm the fundamental right to private property, and would set about issuing legal title to ownership in the form of deeds to rural and urban dwellers. The state would hand over permanent ownership of land to those who are entitled to it by virtue of living and working on it.
While Chavez does call for a new socialism of the 21st century, he also defends the right to private property, which is clearly and explicitly defined in the Venezuelan constitution (Article 115). The Chavez government also has an active programme to issue land titles to rural and urban slum dwellers. This programme has been criticised by the same groups that support Rosales.
11) The biggest challenge facing any Rosales presidency in Venezuela would be to end the climate of insecurity that prevails throughout the land. Poverty and unemployment contribute to rampant criminality. Today, thuggery begins in the office of the presidency. If Venezuela is to reform, change must start at the top.
While we have touched briefly on the gains made under the Chavez government regarding poverty alleviation, unemployment under Chavez’s presidency has fallen by more than half: it is now around 8%. However, it is true that poverty and crime are major issues for millions of Venezuelans. But it is also true that the international community would do better by respecting the outcome of Venezuela’s democratic process and then working together, constructively and critically with the Chavez government to alleviate poverty and reduce crime. The statement “Today, thuggery begins in the office of the presidency” has no factual basis. In fact, virtually all of the cases of political violence in Venezuela are attributable to the opposition and the business interests that support them. Examples of this are the assassination of the State Prosecutor Danilo Anderson who was investigating those responsible for the 2002 coup (for which Patricia Poleo, daughter of one of the leaders of the opposition, Rafael Poleo, was indicted before she fled to Miami), and the more than one hundred and sixty campesinos who have been killed by paramilitary groups financed by private landowners.
In conclusion, it is perhaps no surprise that the authors (one a rightwing politician, the other a member of Venezuela’s discredited political class) should present such a distorted view of Venezuela’s reality. It is surprising, however, that a liberal newspaper such as the Guardian should give them a platform to do it.