By Mark Almond, a history lecturer at Oriel College, Oxford (THE GUARDIAN, 25/07/07):
Venezuela’s socialist president, Hugo Chávez, certainly knows how to rile his critics in Washington. “Oil is going straight to $100,” he declared in Nicaragua last week. “No one can stop it.” Launching a project there to refine subsidised Venezuelan oil was a good way of tweaking the US’s tail in its backyard. Chávez’s host was Washington’s bete noire in the 1980s, the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Ortega was re-elected last year, in part because he could plausibly promise Nicaraguans a bonanza of Venezuelan economic aid after 17 years of futile IMF-imposed austerity “reforms”.
On the back of high oil prices, Chávez has been able to do almost everything Washington would prefer not done in the western hemisphere. He has bailed out Castro’s Cuba, and inspired a generation of new radical leaders like Bolivia’s Evo Morales to pursue policies that challenge the dead hand of the Washington consensus on economic and social policy. And he is threatening to do more.
Then last Sunday, Chávez scored an own goal. Irritated by yet another foreign conservative politician visiting Caracas to denounce him as a dictator, he asked during a radio phone-in: “How long are we going to allow a person – from any country in the world – to come to our own house to say there’s a dictatorship here, that the president is a tyrant, and nobody does anything about it?”
Understandably, he balked at being taught democracy by the head of Mexico’s ruling PAN party, accused of fraud in its own presidential elections last year. Few nations take kindly to lessons from abroad. Probably any head of state would get a bounce for saying, “No foreigner … can come here and attack us. Whoever comes, we must remove him from the country.” Yet Chávez may be playing into his enemies’ hands.
Washington’s meddling in Venezuela has not paid dividends so far. Five years ago, it backed a coup against Chávez only to see a tidal wave of the poor sweep him back into office. The US-backed opposition has tried poll boycotts, fraud allegations and mass demonstrations without effect. The anti-Chávez front did turn out huge crowds, but it made the classic mistake of street oppositions. Don’t confuse a crowd, however large, with the electorate.
Chávez rides a wave of popularity because he is the first Latin American leader to mix anti-gringo populism with making life better for ordinary people. But booming oil prices are a mixed blessing, even when the money isn’t diverted to offshore bank accounts. Certainly Chávez has redirected a great proportion of revenue into projects that help the majority. This infuriates the opposition, which feels housing, doctors and education are wasted on the poor with darker skins. Yet high oil revenues are helping to push up inflation, and even government plans to lop three zeroes off the bolivar won’t cure that trend.
Venezuela has a great chance to break out of oil dependency and create a better society for the bulk of its people. But its infrastructure needs developing so that more people can get better access to economic opportunities. Oil wealth can fund that. But economic diversification should be the goal.
Latin America has suffered under the Washington consensus. It imposed a totalitarian version of the “free market”, brooking no dissent. Chávez has challenged that model. Worse still for Washington, he has survived and prospered. But now he faces the temptations of success. The risk is that popularity will lead him astray. Latin American history is littered with popular leaders turned sour. It is little comfort that the really unpopular, brutal and corrupt ones were more often lionised in North America.
Venezuela doesn’t need a one-party system. Pluralism wasn’t helped by the US-backed opposition boycotting the polls last time. Naturally, Chávez wants an organisation to promote his policies, but melding all of his allies into one party could backfire. The challenge for Venezuela is to evolve a political class that can disagree without delegitimising the other side. All consensus politics is stifling. So far the opposition has shown itself intolerant and untrustworthy. Bad losers don’t make good democrats, nor do they keep democratically elected leaders on their mettle.
The evident hypocrisy of so many Chávez critics, from abroad as well as at home, shouldn’t blind us to the flaws in the model he is proposing. Washington wants to demonise Chávez. He would be foolish to play up the bogeyman role, because that may be just what Uncle Sam wants.