Thorn in America's Side

Clive Powell

"You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war”, said Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition of America and a former US presidential candidate.

The right-wing Christian fundamentalist used his TV show to urge the American government to assassinate the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, in order to 'stop his country [Venezuela] from becoming a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism'.

He added: “I don't think any oil shipments will stop.' After all, Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world and controls the largest reserve of petroleum outside the Middle East. It is also a major supplier of oil to the United States.

In Caracas, a pro-Chavez politician, Desire Santos Amaral, retorted: "This man cannot be a true Christian. He's a fascist. This is part of the policies of aggression from the rightwing in the north against our revolution.'

This latest war of words is the most recent in a series of clashes which have involved senior government officials in Caracas and Washington. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated in the last few years most markedly after the failed coup against Chavez in April 2002, which most commentators attributed to a bungled CIA plot and to mounting U.S. Senate opposition to the Venezuelan president's close relations with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. What fuels US concern about a South American leader Bush does not control is Venezuela’s position as one of the US’s most important energy suppliers.

Oil For The Poor

To add to this, the recent Petrocaribe oil initiative, spearheaded by Chavez, to sell cheap petroleum to 13 Caribbean nations, threatens to draw these countries even deeper into the existing row between Caracas and Washington. The deal expands on an arrangement currently in place by which Cuba receives oil on preferential terms, in return for supplying Venezuela with medical training. To date, about 17,000 Cuban doctors have been deployed to Caracas’ sprawling shantytowns. At a time when oil prices have rocketed to an all time high due to instability in the Middle East and hurricane Katrina,

it is widely thought that Chavez is buying regional clout with this deal. As if to add insult to injury, Venezuela has offered low-cost heating oil for poor Americans, many of them of African descent like Chavez himself (Chavez positively acknowledges his mixed African and Amerindian indigenous roots). using Citgo, Venezuela’s oil company in the US. Chavez's government have also donated $5 million to the victims of hurricane Katrina, citing racism as the main factor behind the US government's disgracefully slow response to the devastating effects the hurricane unleashed upon the overwhelmingly poor Black citizens of southern America.

On The Rise

Now, Chavez has all the hallmarks of a leader on a mission. He appears to the world as a revolutionary visionary and at least in diplomatic terms, a modern day Hannibal of Carthage (the great leader who attacked and defeated the army of the Roman empire); the US replacing Rome as the imperial adversary.
However, the story could have been so very different. Ten years ago Chavez’s own coup attempt, when he was still an army colonel, led to him being put in jail for two years. He emerged later to win a landslide general election victory in 1998 after pledging to use oil revenues to spread equality among the majority poor who comprise his core of  his electoral support.

Last year PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned energy company, spent more then US$3.7 billion on funding housing, free medical clinics, schools and literacy programmes. The state also spends around US$300 million a year on subsidising food for 58 per cent of Venezuelan families who live on less than US$200 a month. Chavez was re-elected with 59.5 per cent of the vote in 2000, ironically, the same year that George Bush was “elected” by one vote of the US Supreme Court, who controversially stopped the counting of all-important disputed ballots in Florida, which is governed by Bush's btother Jeb.

On April 11 2002, Chavez was ousted from office by the army and replaced by Pedro Carmona. Two days later Chavez was back in power, after widespread public protests that forced the Organisation of American States to denounce the coup. Carmona is on record as saying that he was visited by the US ambassador, Charles Shapiro, immediately after the coup, but was given 'no instructions'. He denies that there was any talk of a coup. The suspicion of CIA involvement has been sparked by the implication, in a catelogue of anti-Chavez dirty tricks, of figures in the Bush administration such as Otto Reich and Roger Pardo-Maurer.

Reich, the US assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, was involved in the US's covert propaganda operations in Central America in the 1980s and has made the overthrow of Fidel Castro a personal crusade. Pardo-Maurer, was involved in supporting right-wing Contras against the leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the same decade. These are hardly credentials to be overlooked. Larry Birns, the director of the Council of Hemispheric Affairs and a former member of the UN economic commission for Latin America, said: "There isn't a single political person in Latin America who does not believe that the CIA was involved in some form, and in the same way, as it was in Chile”.

In 2004, Chavez won a referendum, monitored by international observers including former US President Jimmy Carter, by polling nearly 60 per cent of the votes. Despite this, US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who in the past has accused Chavez’s government of spreading “false ideologies” and trying to “destablise” the region, in her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate, openly threatened the democratically elected government of Venezuela when she announced that she wanted the OAS (Organisation of American States) to hold accountable "leaders who do not govern democratically, even if they are democratically elected”. Chavez now appears positioned to last the rest of his six-year term, which began in 2000.

Cuba and the OAS

This latest rebuff of the OAS by the US is where the current battleground lies. The OAS, set up by the US in 1948 to combat communism in Latin America, expelled Cuba in 1962 and supported the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. It is widely thought that Chavez’s Petrocaribe oil initiative is a move one step closer to him gaining an advantage over regional and international bodies such as the OAS which would further bolster the support he already enjoys across the Americas.

Chavez has already inferred the need for a Latin American-wide referendum on Cuba’s exclusion ftom the organisation. A move to get Cuba reinstated would further undermine Washington’s declining influence over Latin America and the Caribbean. At 78-years-old, many progressive people wonder how much longer, Castro, the spirit of the Cuban revolution, can survive. With the ascent of Chavez in the region, our prayers, and perhaps fears, have been at least temporarily answered.

* See also The-Latest report, President Chavez Say 'Get Rid Of Blair'' (Politics section)