Despite massive U.S. funding for opposition parties in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez and his allies have decisively won ten elections in the past eight years. Yet somehow the White House and much of the U.S. press continue to get away with painting him as anti-democratic. While criticizing some of the Bush administration’s most absurd claims, the Bangor Daily News unfortunately reinforced many of the myths about Venezuela and Chavez in its May 26 editorial, “Responding to Chavez.”
The Bangor Daily News writes that:
“President Chavez's taunts of President Bush – ‘the world's biggest terrorist,’ ‘Satan,’among others - would seem merely silly if they weren't backed up with anti-Democratic reforms in Venezuela and significant arms purchases by Mr. Chavez in Russia and Spain. (The Bush administration has likened Mr. Chavez to Hitler and called him ‘the most dangerous man in the region.’) ”The arms may only reflect Mr. Chavez's often-stated fear that the United States soon will attack his nation. There's no evidence for this, but it does provide a cover for his purchase, according to news reports, of attack and transport helicopters, patrol boats, military transport airplanes and 100,000 assault rifles.”
While I don’t think that any nation should be buying high-tech weaponry with money that could be better spent on schools and hospitals, its important to note that Chavez does have substantial reason to fear an attack from the U.S. or from the U.S.-backed Colombian military. In 2002 the U.S. funded and helped to orchestrate a briefly successful coup against Chavez. In subsequent years the ironically named National Endowment for Democracy has spent millions of dollars trying to undermine the Venezuelan government. Right wing terrorists from Colombia have made numerous incursions into Venezuela. U.S. Special Forces are stationed just across the border, providing training to a unit of the Colombian Army that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have linked to those terrorists. Recent reports have also suggested that Colombia’s intelligence agency, the DAS, has been involved in assassination attempts against high-ranking Venezuelan officials.
All of this suggests that Venezuela has plenty of reasons to worry about its national security. But the government of Hugo Chavez hasn’t resorted to wiretapping its citizens’ phones, detaining people without trial, or racially profiling gringos boarding airplanes (even though they know the U.S. is sheltering the at least one of the men suspected of bombing Cubana Air Flight 455 in Caracas in 1976.) Instead, Venzuela has focused on building political and economic alliances with other countries and popular movements in the region in an effort to make it possible for Latin America to chart its own course without undue influence from the United States.
Venezuela’s arms purchases are small in compassion to the massive amounts of military aid flowing from the U.S. to the brutal and corrupt Colombian military.
Chavez has not created resentment against the United States in the region – our own government has achieved that through decades of economic policies that have widened the gap between rich and poor. Rather, he has made common cause with people demanding self determination: Bolivians tired of a hypocritical drug war that demonizes poor coca farmers while leaving the people who process and export cocaine untouched, Haitians trying to reclaim democracy in the wake of a coup, Argentinians whose economy has been devastated by decades of disastrous IMF and World Bank policies, indigenous people trying to reclaim control of their land and its resources.
Yes, Latin America needs all the real development aid it needs, and an increase in U.S. funding for real anti-poverty and sustainable agriculture programs would help to redress some of our country’s wrongs. But the message of Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution is that any permanent solutions to Latin America’s problems need to come from Latin Americans themselves, making their own political and economic choices.
Venezuela taught the world an important lesson in democracy in 2002 when tens of thousands of its poorest people poured into the streets in a massive campaign of nonviolent resistance that reversed the U.S.-backed coup and put Hugo Chavez back in power. Following their example, other poor people in Bolivia and Ecuador rose up and drove out corrupt Presidents who were selling off their countries’ oil and gas reserves.
Hugo Chavez is the face we in the U.S. connect with the populist movements sweeping Latin America. But these movements aren’t about Hugo Chavez, they are about people taking control of their own destiny. That’s real democracy.