Tens of thousands of Haitians spontaneously poured into the streets of Port-au-Prince on the morning of Mar. 12, 2007. President Hugo Chavez had just arrived in Haiti all but unannounced, and a multitude, shrieking and singing with glee, joined him in jogging alongside the motorcade of Haiti’s then President René Préval on its way to the National Palace (later destroyed in the 2010 earthquake).There, Chavez announced that Venezuela would help Haiti by building power stations, expanding electricity networks, improving airports, supplying garbage trucks, and supporting widely-deployed Cuban medical teams. But the centerpiece of the gifts Chavez brought Haiti was 14,000 barrels of oil a day, a Godsend in a country that has been plagued by blackouts and power shortages for decades.
The oil was part of a PetroCaribe deal which Venezuela had signed with Haiti a year before. Haiti had only to pay 60% for the oil it received, while the remaining 40% could be paid over the course of 25 years at 1% interest. Under similar PetroCaribe deals, Venezuela now provides more than 250,000 barrels a day at sharply discounted prices to 17 Central American and Caribbean countries, including Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.
The cost of the program is estimated at some $5 billion annually. But the benefits to, and gratitude from, PetroCaribe recipients are huge, particularly during the on-going global economic crisis. In short, Caracas is underwriting the stability and energy security of most economies in the Caribbean and Central America, at the same time challenging, for the first time in over a century, U.S. hegemony in its own “backyard.”
Washington’s alarm over and hostility to PetroCaribe is layed bare in secret diplomatic cables obtained by the media organization WikiLeaks. Then U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson rebuked Préval for “giving Chavez a platform to spout anti-American slogans” during his 2007 visit, said one cable cited in an article which debuted in June 2011 a WikiLeaks-based series produced by Haïti Liberté and The Nation.
Reviewing all 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic cables which were later released, one realizes that Sanderson wasn’t the only U.S. diplomat wringing her hands about PetroCaribe. “It is remarkable that in this current contest we are being outspent by two impoverished countries: Cuba and Venezuela,” noted U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay Frank Baxter in a 2007 cable released by Wikileaks. “We offer a small Fulbright program; they offer a thousand medical scholarships. We offer a half dozen brief IV programs to ‘future leaders’; they offer thousands of eye operations to poor people. We offer complex free trade agreements someday; they offer oil at favorable rates today. Perhaps we should not be surprised that Chavez is winning friends and influencing people at our expense.”
We can now expect the Washington’s “contest” with Venezuela to escalate dramatically as it attempts to take advantage of the Bolivarian regime’s vulnerability during the transition of power. Already Vice President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chavez asked Venezuelans to make his successor, has sounded the alarm. “We have no doubt that commander Chavez was attacked with this illness,” Maduro said on Mar. 5, repeating a suspicion voiced by Chavez himself that Washington was somehow responsible for the fatal cancer he contracted. “The old enemies of our fatherland looked for a way to harm his health.”
Maduro also announced on national television on Mar. 5 “that a U.S. Embassy attache was being expelled for meeting with military officers and planning to destabilize the country,” the AP reported. A U.S. Air Force attaché was also expelled.
In short, just as the imperative to secure oil has driven the U.S. to multiple wars, coups, and intrigues in the Mideast over the past 60 years, it is now driving the U.S. toward a major new confrontation in Latin America. With Chavez’s death, Washington sees a long awaited opportunity to roll back the Bolivarian Revolution and programs like PetroCaribe. In recent years, Chavez has led Venezuela to nationalize dozens of foreign-owned undertakings, including oil projects run by Exxon Mobil, Texaco Chevron, and other large North American corporations. The future of the hydrocarbon resources in Venezuela’s Maracaibo Basin and Orinoco Belt, recently declared to be the world’s largest, will soon reveal itself to be the central economic and political issue, and hottest flashpoint, in the hemisphere.
In the case of Haiti, Hugo Chavez often said that PetroCaribe and other aid was given “to repay the historic debt that Venezuela owes the Haitian people.” Haiti was the first nation of Latin America, gaining its independence in 1804. In the 19th century’s first example of international solidarity, Haitian revolutionary leaders like Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Alexandre Pétion provided Francisco de Miranda and Simon Bolivar, South America’s “Great Liberator,” with guns, ships, and printing presses to carry out the anti-colonial struggle on the continent.
And this was the dream that inspired Hugo Chavez: a modern Bolivarian revolution sweeping South America, spreading independence from Washington and growing “21st century socialism.” PetroCaribe was Chavez’s flagship in that “contest,” as Ambassador Baxter called it.
Ironically, it was former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide who first foiled U.S. election engineering in Latin America in December 1990, but his electoral victory was cut short by a September 1991 coup. Hugo Chavez was the next Latin American leader to successfully carry out a political revolution at the polls in 1998. His people defeated the U.S.-backed coup that tried to unseat him in April 2002. Due to his strategic acumen, his popular support, and the goodwill created with PetroCaribe, Chavez’s prestige grew in Venezuela and around the world during his 14 years in power up until his death today, which will bring a huge tide of mourning across Latin America.
The eulogies will be many, but former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who personally knew and worked with Chavez, made a prescient observation in January that stands out: “In my opinion, history will judge the contributions of Hugo Chavez to Latin American as greater than those of Bolivar.”
Related articles and stories:
* Democracy Now broadcast (47 minutes), March 6, 2013: Hugo Chávez dead: Transformed Venezuela & survived U.S.-backed coup, now leaves uncertainty behind
* On the Legacy of Hugo Chávez, by Greg Grandin, The Nation, March 5, 2013, reprinted on Venezuela Analysis
* Hugo Chavez, undefeated, by Derrick O’Keefe, Rabble.ca, March 5, 2013
* Exposing Five Key Media Myths about Chavez’s Health and Swearing-in, by Ewan Robertson and Tamara Pearson, Venezuelanalysis.com, January 8th 2013
* The achievements of Hugo Chavez, by Carles Muntaner, Joan Benach, Maria Paez Victor, Counterpunch, Dec. 14, 2012
* Comparison of rates of poverty between Venezuela and Brazil (World Bank analysis)
Four letters to the Globe and Mail editor, published on March 7, 2013
Not a dictator
1. Your front-page article on the death of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez (Death Of A Revolutionary – March 6), calls him “a polarizing dictator.” He was certainly polarizing, as is our own Prime Minister, but Mr. Chavez was never a dictator. Mr. Chavez was elected several times over the past three decades, each time by a significant majority of the popular vote, which is more than we can say for Mr. Harper.
In 2002, Mr. Chavez’s opponents, including the right-wing media, organized a coup against him that was overturned by the massive mobilization of the poor people of Caracas. In 2004, the opposition organized a recall vote, a mechanism created by Mr. Chavez. It failed. In the 2006 election, he won with 63 per cent of the popular vote; in 2012, with 55 per cent of the popular vote.
You may disagree with Mr. Chavez’s 21st-century socialism policies, but please do not describe him as a dictator.
– Judy Rebick, Toronto
2. According to your editorial (Chavez’s Gifts Failed To Serve Democracy – March 6), Venezuela’s economy “is too reliant on oil revenues.” Sorry, which country was that again?
– John Edmond, Ottawa
3. Hugo Chavez inherited a country with arguably the largest division in Latin America between rich and poor. He leaves it with virtually zero illiteracy and greatly reduced infant mortality. Hundreds of clinics have been built and access to health care is now guaranteed. Poverty has been reduced from 55 per cent (1995) to 26 per cent (2010); extreme poverty has been cut from 23 per cent to 9 per cent; unemployment from 14 per cent to 8 per cent.
Mr. Chavez has provided a sense of pride and dignity for Latin America. No longer does U.S. hegemony control the region. While he leaves a country facing considerable challenges (most noticeably violence and corruption), your analysis would be strengthened by a more rounded picture.
– John M. Kirk, professor of Latin American studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax
4. In Venezuela, the profits from oil have been directed toward the poor, whereas in Alberta, they have benefited the rich and prosperous (Two Chavezes, One Legacy – March 6). If you have to be profligate, I prefer Hugo Chavez’s model. And I think that, in retrospect, the world will honour him more than Don Getty or Ralph Klein or Ed Stelmach.
– David Nash, Edmonton
The Chavez legacy: Poor are better off
By Jorge Heine, Toronto Star, op-ed page, March 7, 2013
At the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in 2009, Hugo Chavez greeted Barack Obama and handed him a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s book The Open Veins of Latin America. The U.S. media never forgave Obama for shaking Chavez’s hand, smiling at him and accepting the present. This was an unforgivable sin — to meet and greet one of the Latin American heads of state the U.S. president had gone to, well, meet and greet at that summit. JORGE SILVA/REUTERS Supporters of Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chavez, react to the news of his death in Caracas on Tuesday.
As it happens, the version of Galeano’s book Chavez gave Obama was in Spanish, a language Obama does not speak. Few incidents reflect as well who Chavez was — getting some of the big things right but the crucial details wrong.
A dark-skinned man of humble origins, born in Sabaneta in the Venezuelan prairies, brought up by his grandmother in a house with a dirt floor, Chavez became president of Venezuela in1999 at the age of 44.
At the time of his death from cancer on Tuesday, he was the longestserving president in Latin America. And not long after taking office, he became the best known of Latin American leaders. He won four presidential elections in a row, going from 3.6 million votes in 1998 to 8.1 million in 2012. According to the latest polls, his political movement enjoys the support of 68 per cent of Venezuelans. His successor, VicePresident Nicolas Maduro, goes into the upcoming presidential election as the front-runner. How did Chavez manage to have such a remarkable impact on his country (whose very name he changed and to which he gave a new constitution, among other things) and on the region?
The standard response of his detractors, of which he had many, was that he lucked out because of Venezuela’s petrodollars. This would have funded his chequebook diplomacy and generous handouts at home.
A key criticism of the “mess” he supposedly left the Venezuelan economy in is the fact that oil production fell from 3.5 million barrels per day in 1999 to 2.5 million today. The hard line he took with many oil companies and the tough deals he struck with them have also been criticized, as has the nationalization of many private businesses.
Yet this displays a misunderstanding of the economics of oil in the country with the largest oil reserves in the world. When Chavez came into office, oil was at $9 a barrel and the country was in dire straits. Some 50 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line. The standard of living was the equivalent of what it had been in 1963.
One of the first things Chavez did was to liaise with his fellow members of the OPEC cartel. In 2000, the second-ever OPEC summit was held in Caracas (the first had been held in Algeria way back in 1975) and the cartel got its act together — to control production, firm up prices and maximize income for producers.
Events like 9-11 and the Iraq war helped to push up the price as well. But it was Chavez’s understanding of the oil market and how to make the most of it that allowed him to enjoy the prices that he did — up to $150 a barrel in the last decade.
It also explains his strong ties with Middle East leaders, from Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi to Iran’s Ahmed Ahmadinejad, for which he received so much flak in the west. His restructuring of PDVSA, the state oil company, provided him with the resources needed for his social programs. It has also allowed Venezuela to deliver oil at subsidized prices to fellow members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a regional entity launched by Chavez.
Yes, inflation and shortages are a problem in today’s Venezuela, and nobody would hold up the country’s economic management as a model for anybody else. But oil economies are unlike any other. Poverty has been cut in half (to 27 per cent), illiteracy has been severely reduced, health indicators are much better than they were14 years ago, and the country’s democracy, though tattered at the edges, is very much in place. The vast majority of Venezuelans today are better off than they were in 1999.
Jorge Heine is CIGI Professor of Global Governance at the Balsilie School of INternational Affairs, Wilfred Laurier University. HIs Oxford Handbook of Modern Democracy, co-edited with Andrew F. Cooper and Ramesh Thakur, is published by Oxford University Press.