Should Chavez Be Afraid?
by Ted Snider
We are used to viewing current events
through the lens of the North American media. But how must current
events look through the perspective of Hugo Chavez, born in Latin
America in the same year the CIA conducted its first Latin American
coup, overthrowing the democratically elected president of Guatemala?
How must he interpret America's current activities in his continent
through the lens of his cultural background?
Chavez was first elected president of
Venezuela in 1998. His popularity has steadily soared, and by
2006 he was reelected with an overwhelming 63% majority. Chavez
promised that his "government is here to protect the people,
not the bourgeoisie or the rich". With that promise, he nationalized
the electricity, telecommunications and steel industries and ensured
that the profits from Venezuela's resources go to essential services
for Venezuela's people.
Most importantly, the president of this
hugely oil rich nation nationalized the oil and natural gas industries
that had mostly been controlled by American corporations. The
last Latin American president to nationalize his country's oil
industry was Ecuador's Jamie Roldós. Taking over from a
long line of U.S. backed dictators, Roldós was a nationalist
who believed that his country's national resources should benefit
his country's people. In early 1981, he introduced a policy that
ensured that, in the future, profits from Ecuador's oil resources
would benefit the largest percentage of the population of Ecuador.
In May of 1981, President Roldós died in a plane crash.
Two months later, President Omar Torrijo
of Panama would die when his flight went down. Torrijo had also
been a nationalist, struggling to regain sovereignty over his
country's greatest national resource: the Panama Canal. Torrijo
also objected to the School of the Americas, the notorious U.S.
academy located on his country's soil that trained so many dictators
and death squads. Later, testimonies to U.S. senate inquiries
would reveal that the Reagan administration was behind what turned
out to be a CIA assassination.
This history is Chavez' history. This
history is the lens through which Chavez views current events
and through which he interprets America's reactions to his actions
and America's activities in his back yard. Chavez is the continuation
of the line of Roldós and Torrijo: lines that ended in
their fiery deaths.
Chavez took the money from his land's
oil and pumped it into free education and free health and dental
care, and subsidized food for the hungry and housing for the homeless.
Poverty was cut in half and unemployment plummeted from 20% in
2003 to 8.4% by the end of 2006.
But despite these incredible achievements
for the people of his country, John Negroponte declared Chavez
"threatening to democracies in the region" and a who's
who of celebrities in the Obama administration have called him
a dictator. Dictator? Elected and reelected in elections verified
as free and fair, Chavez has held well over a dozen national elections
and referenda since taking office. He has obeyed the voice of
Venezuelans in each these national surveys: even in the one time
he lost, by the slimmest of margins, in the referendum of December
2007. Venezuela ranks second in all Latin America in satisfaction
with its democracy and first in its support of its elected government.
Venezuelan democracy is participatory and grass roots: entirely
different from the U.S. backed dictatorships initiated by Woodrow
Wilson and ended by Chavez.
Undemocratic, dangerous and dictatorial.
And now the latest American accusation against Chavez: saber rattler.
In recent months, the United States has acquired seven new military,
naval and air bases in Columbia. Columbia shares about 1,281 miles
of border with Chavez' Venezuela. The Independent reports that
a May 2009 U.S. air force proposal identifies one of the Columbian
air bases as important in an area of "our hemisphere where
security and stability is under constant threat from . . . anti-US
governments". How should Chavez understand that? Who should
Chavez translate "anti-US governments" to be? The base,
the air force report goes on to say, could conduct "full-spectrum
operations throughout South America". How, through the lens
of his history and background, should Chavez interpret American
forces lined up along his border with the ability to conduct full-spectrum
operations against anti-US governments?
The media says Chavez has warned that
these U.S. actions in his backyard could lead to war with Columbia.
The dictator is a saber rattler.
Fidel Castro calls the U.S. charge that
Chavez is threatening war against Columbia "slanderous".
"I know Chavez well," Castro recently said, "and
no one could be more reluctant than him to allow a showdown between
the Venezuelan and Columbian people that leads to bloodshed".
Chavez' says that the "war arsenal included in the agreement
. . . turns the Columbian territory into an enormous Yankee military
enclave". His insistence that "Never again will Venezuela
be anybody's colony" is a continuation of what Castro calls
Chavez' rebellion "against the repression and genocide unleashed
by the neoliberal governments that surrendered the country's huge
natural resources to the United States".
From Chavez' historical perspective, an
American "military enclave" on his border is worrisome.
Far from being a dictator, Chavez is democratic: democratic and
a nationalist. And, as Roldós and Torrijo found out, America
does not like democratic nationalists. Why? Because it is a deadly
combination. Democratically elected leaders need to do what their
people want them to do if they are truly democratic and if they
hope to be re-elected. And, given the true power to choose, their
people will always choose to keep the wealth of their nation's
resources in the hands of their nation. And if the democratic
leader is also a nationalist, then he or she will be willing to
do just that and nationalize those resources. Resources that America
sees as being in her backyard and that America covets. So democratic
nationalists have to go.
Recently, it seems, Honduras' democratically
elected leader, Manuel Zelaya, had to go. Zelaya was elected in
2005. But he refused to privatize Honduras' telecommunications
industry. The plotters of the coup against him include Robert
Carmona-Borjas who runs the International Republican Institute,
an organization with ties to Senator McCain and the Republican
Party. The organization has telecommunications ties and is funded
by AT&T. AT&T is McCain's second largest donour. Carmona-Borjas
associate Otto Reich is a McCain advisor and former AT&T lobbyist.
All of this must be terrifying for Chavez.
Carmona-Borjas is a Venezuelan now living in the U.S., and the
coup plotters include important members of the U.S. backed coup
that took Chavez out. According to the State Department, the U.S.
funded leaders and organizations that briefly pulled off that
coup in 2002. When the Venezuelan coup leaders visited Washington
prior to the coup, it was the same International Republican Institute
that paid the bill. And the current ambassador to Honduras, Hugo
Liorens, was the principal national security advisor to Bush on
Venezuela at the time of the 2002 coup. This historical lens is
a very different one than the North American media has viewed
events on Chavez' borders.
That the Americans did not oppose the
Honduran coup as strongly as it could have would surely also be
noted by Chavez. Zelaya had moved well to the left since he was
elected and had economically allied himself with Chavez. The majority
of U.S. aid was never fully suspended, the States never withdrew
its ambassadors, never officially called it a military coup and
stubbornly recognized the elections carried out in Honduras under
the coup dictatorship. Obama never met with Zelaya, though he
visited the U.S. six times after the coup.
Many of the coup's leaders were trained
at the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Operations,
the new name for the same old School of the Americas. General
Romeo Vásquez, the leader of the coup, is a graduate of
the School of the Americas, as is General Luis Javier Prince Suazo,
the head of the air force and another large force in the coup.
Zelaya says that U.S. forces stationed
at the Honduran base of Palmerola collaborated with Roberto Michaletti,
the coup president. All of this-the people, the motives and the
methods-are frighteningly familiar to Chavez.
And Zelaya, as we have seen, was not the
first to go. He was not even the first Zelaya to go. No, this
is a tale of two Zelayas. In one of the very first overthrows
ordered by a U.S. president, President Taft ordered the removal
of nationalist Nicaraguan leader José Santos Zelaya a hundred
years ago in 1909. Zelaya had insisted that U.S. companies in
Nicaragua honour their agreements and tried to make his country
less dependant on the U.S. by borrowing from European, and not
American, banks. The Americans forced him to resign in December
In 1951, Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala picked
up the democratic nationalist mantel. Arbenz set out to transform
Guatemala from a dependent, semi-colonial country into a genuinely
independent one. He took on United Fruit, who owned about 20%
of the land in his country and redistributed it. He also regulated
major U.S. companies in Guatemala, including United Fruit. In
1954, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to overthrow him.
In Chile, the democratic nationalist mantel
was worn by Salvador Allende, who was popularly elected in 1970.
He was a committed democrat who was determined to nationalize
the American companies that so dominated his country's economy.
Chile is the world's leading producer of copper, and, in 1971,
Allende nationalized the copper mining corporation. He then took
control of the Chilean Telephone Company, which was 70% owned
by the American telecommunications giant ITT. Though it was turned
down, ITT had offered a million dollars to support any U.S. government
plan to bring down Allende. ITT had also previously plotted with
the CIA and the State Department to prevent Allende from being
inaugurated. This telecommunications connection is a familiar
prefiguration of AT&T's lurking presence in Honduras today.
In 1970, Nixon ordered a top secret anti-Allende
plan. America starved the Chilean economy, funded opponents of
Allende, carried out a propaganda war, and pressured military
commanders, many of whom had trained at the School of the Americas
throughout the 50's and 60's. On September 11, 1973--South America's
9/11-the coup began. In a barrage of rocket fire, Chile's democratically
elected nationalist president died in the Presidential Palace.
Less discussed is Brazil's dance with
democratic nationalism. This time it was the Kennedy administration
that planned the military coup that overthrew what Chomsky calls
the "mildly social democratic" Goulart government. In
1964, the military junta seized power in Brazil. Crushing any
remaining seed of nationalism, Naomi Klein says the junta tried
to "crack Brazil wide open to foreign investment".
Much better known is the Kennedy administration's
attempts to take out Chavez defender Fidel Castro. Robert Kennedy
took on the task of what Arthur Schlesinger describes as bringing
"the terrors of the earth" to Cuba. The attempts actually
began in the Eisenhower era when his administration actively sought
to overthrow Castro in 1959 when he overthrew the Batista dictatorship.
Nixon would also joint the Castro orgy. Chomsky attributes the
Castro obsession to a fear of independent nationalism.
Next was Manuel Noriega of Panama. In
at least one way, Noriega continued where Torrijo left off. He
explored the unpopular idea in America of building a new Japanese
funded canal. He also insisted that the U.S. honour the Canal
Treaty that Carter had negotiated with Torrijo, granting control
of the Panama Canal to Panama. Noriega also refused to extend
what he called "a training ground for death squads and repressive
right-wing militaries" and what the U.S. called the School
of the Americas. Noriega would also come to oppose the American
war on Nicaragua and embrace a peace plan for Central America
that Reagan strongly opposed. The U.S. went after Noriega by attacking
civilian populations and eventually capturing him and sentencing
him for trafficking narcotics and for other crimes that he committed
while on the payroll of the CIA. In Noriega's words " .
. . the Panamanian invasion was a result of the U.S. rejection
of any scenario in which future control of the Panama Canal might
be in the hands of an independent, sovereign Panama".
And, of course, the most recent reminder
is Haiti: a reminder to Chavez, that is, not to us, because none
of Haiti's history, none of the reasons why it is so poor or why
the earthquake killed and devastated so many ever makes it into
the mainstream North American media. When, after decades of U.S.
occupation and rule, followed by more decades of American backed
dictatorships, of crushing Haitian farmers and opening up the
Haitian market to imported rice and sugar, and of several decades
of American corporation sweat shops, the Haitians finally got
to choose their own democratically elected leader, the Americans,
sometimes with the help of Canada and France, took him out: twice!
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, cared for the poor and wanted to do something
about all this. So, like so many before, he had to go. The first
time, the coup leaders were quietly under the pay of the CIA,
as was the leader of Haiti's death squad. The second time, as
we economically strangled Haiti, the U.S. was less quiet about
Speaking about the U.S. response to the
earthquake disaster, Chavez, looking through his historical lens,
said, " . . . Marines [are] armed as if they are going to
war. There is no shortage of guns there, my God. Doctors, medicine,
fuel, field hospitals, that's what the United States should send.
They are occupying Haiti undercover".
Chavez is the current inheritor of South
America's mantel of democratic nationalism. His predecessors have
all come to the same end at the hands of the Americans. So should
Chavez be afraid about the recent U.S. military migration into
next door Columbia? From his perspective he should.
Ted Snider has his masters in philosophy
and teaches high school English and politics in Toronto.