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WHAT WE THINK
Venezuela's Hugo Chávez moves up Washington's hit list
Defying the superpower

April 15, 2005 | Page 3

THE U.S. is trying to tighten its grip on Latin America--and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is the biggest obstacle to Washington's agenda.

Venezuela is moving higher up the U.S. hit list now that a new Iraqi puppet government has been installed. To that end, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld toured South America to promote the U.S. military ties to the region--and bash Chávez for purchases of weapons from Spain. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also beating the drums against Venezuela, repeating the tired charges that the government is violating the rights of the opposition.

The anti-Chávez line was put most crudely by Otto Reich, former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and a right-wing Cuban exile, who wrote an article for the conservative National Review with the headline, "Axis of Evil, Western Hemisphere Version"--under a photo of Chávez and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"With the combination of Castro's evil genius, experience in political warfare and economic desperation, and Chavez's unlimited money and recklessness, the peace of this region is in peril," Reich wrote. "The emerging axis of subversion forming between Cuba and Venezuela must be confronted before it can undermine democracy in Colombia, Nicaragua, Bolivia or another vulnerable neighbor."

Driving this latest round of Chávez-bashing is the mass rejection in Latin America of the free-market "Washington consensus," known as neoliberalism. Although center-left governments Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay have maintained a pro-business agenda, the region remains explosive. For example, in both Bolivia and Ecuador, recent mass protests from both the left and right have threatened to topple two pro-U.S. presidents--this in countries that have already seen previous presidents driven from office in mass uprisings.

The fear of Corporate America and the State Department is that such popular resistance to neoliberalism could continue to spread across Latin America. In Guatemala, mass protests rocked the country for days last month following the legislature's approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which will extend the NAFTA free trade agreement southward.

It's in this context that Washington seeks to discredit--and ultimately remove--Chávez. Since the failed 2002 military coup backed by Washington, Chávez has used high oil prices to finance a series of reforms that benefited the impoverished Venezuelan majority. The changes include subsidized medical care; subsidized grocery stores in the shantytowns; access to higher education, traditionally restricted to the upper middle class and the wealthy; land reform; and more. These and other initiatives are to become part of what Chávez calls "socialism for the 21st century"--which, he says, must reject both the Stalinism of the old USSR and European social democracy.

Venezuela also infuriates U.S. officials by calling Washington's foreign policy for what it is: imperialism.

The changes in Venezuela--known as "the revolutionary process"--do have internal tensions. The left in the social movements and the unions are often critical of the pace of change--as well as some of the government's pro-business policies, such as contracts that are seen as too generous to multinational oil companies and the recent currency devaluation that cut the living standards of workers and the poor.

But workers have organized to win concessions--including pay raises in key industries and the creation of full-time jobs for thousands of temporary contract workers in the oil industries.

Such gains for workers and advances by the poor under Chávez are anathema to Washington, which won't tolerate an alternative to their free-market model. Moreover, Chávez is promoting more regional economic coordination in Latin America as an alternative to Washington's Free Trade Area of the Americas, the focus of the Summit of the Americas in Buenos Aires in November. Chávez is also developing other markets for Venezuela's oil--including China--something utterly unthinkable for Washington.

That's why it's crucial for Washington's pressure on Venezuela to be matched by solidarity from our side--a demand that the U.S. cease its intrigue and intervention against a popularly elected government.

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