On February 27th 1989, the Venezuelan army, under orders from President Carlos Andrés Pérez, put down a mass uprising against the imposition of IMF led “austerity measures”; a protest which became known as the Caracazo (“the big one in Caracas”). According to official government reports “only” 276 people were killed in their attempts to “restore order”, however estimates for the actual number of casualties range between 500 to more than 3000.
Just a few years on, in 1993, and having narrowly survived two failed coups attempts, Carlos Andrés Pérez (otherwise known simply as CAP) was suddenly forced out of office when the Supreme Court found him guilty of embezzlement. With the impeachment of CAP, the next directly elected President was Rafael Antonio Caldera Rodríguez, and it was Rafael Caldera who, during his second term in office, had pardoned the leader of the original coup against CAP, a then little known military officer by the name of Lt. Colonel Hugo Chavez Frías.
Back in the 1990s news stories from Venezuela rarely if ever made our headlines, and unless you happen to be Venezuelan, there is a good chance you have never heard of either Carlos Andrés Pérez or Rafael Caldera. But this is not the case for the man who succeeded Caldera following the 1998 elections. For whatever else might be said of the late Hugo Chavez, there is no dispute that his political leadership during the last fourteen years – Chavez having been voted into office on four separate occasions in free elections – has put Venezuela altogether more firmly on the political map. So when Chavez died on Tuesday, it was an event that reverberated across the world. The debate over what his lasting legacy will be, and what happens next for Venezuela, buzzing in newsrooms and all over the internet.
Hugo Chavez was a social reformer, outspoken and with unashamedly revolutionary intent; his frequently stated ambition being nothing less than to inspire the downtrodden and oppressed of Latin America and beyond with his own brand of Bolivarian “participatory socialism”. To those ends, Chavez had immediately set about nationalising the Venezuelan oil industry, and then redirecting the huge profits to fund social projects both at home and abroad. Poverty levels in Venezuela were soon halved, and extreme poverty reduced by more than two thirds. Chavez also opened up education for the poorest in society and brought in a system of universal free healthcare.
That his programme of reforms has gradually improved the standard of living for the vast majority of Venezuelans is now acknowledged even by his fiercest critics, and so during last year’s election campaign, which he again won comfortably, the main opposition parties did not even challenge his social programme – their criticisms being reserved for his failures in other ways. That his policies have not allowed the Venezuelan economy to flourish as it should have (which seems odd given that Venezuela has actually maintained growth even throughout these troubled economic times), that inflation levels are unacceptably high (which is perhaps true although inflation is only a little higher now than during the period immediately prior to his presidency), and that Venezuela is suffering from a breakdown in law and order. This last charge is perhaps the most warranted, with Chavez unquestionably paying too little attention to the vital issue of ensuring law and order, but even here his supporters will fairly claim that the escalation in violent crime is to some extent a direct consequence of drug trafficking from neighbouring Colombia.
Incidentally, you can find a useful breakdown of all the statistics here.
Of course, the most serious charge levelled against Chavez is that his government has systematically turned a blind-eye or actually encouraged the violation of the human rights of his opponents. Human rights abuses that mostly seem to have come in the form of threats and intimidation, but which also include use of blacklists, other forms of exclusion, and in a few cases, even false imprisonment. This is obviously not acceptable. That said, it is sadly the truth that nearly every government on earth can also be charged with comparable abuses and more often than not with tactics that are very much more brutal again.
In Venezuela, unlike in America and the fifty and more states (including the UK) that have helped them out with “extraordinary rendition”1, torture and kidnapping are not sanctioned. In Venezuela, there is no equivalent to Guantánamo or the many “black sites” where inmates are indefinitely detained without charge. And if you still imagine that America, to return once more to the self-proclaimed home of freedom, has no political prisoners of its own then you evidently fail to take into account what has recently happened to John Kiriakou and Bradley Manning. In reminding readers of all this, it is not my intention to make excuses for Chavez and his government, but simply to put the charges against him into a more honest context.
Overall, it is surely fair to say that Chavez not only fundamentally altered the course of his home nation, with a dramatic shift away from the imposed neo-liberalism of his predecessors and the new emphasis placed on social justice, but alongside the popular success of those policies, he also more directly helped to establish other socialistic leaders across the whole of Latin America. In other words, it was Chavez above all others who spearheaded the Latin American Spring (not that it is ever called this of course) – the beginnings of a social and economic revolution that has been sweeping an entire continent for more than a decade, bringing with it a desperately needed power shift away from the oligarchs and the interests of their neo-imperialist associates. An upheaval, which being against the interests of the ruling establishment in the West (their own puppets having been vanquished), and by virtue of remaining fundamentally peaceful, has been consistently overlooked and misrepresented.
In short then, Chavez steadily won the political debate in South America, and not only in the barrios of Caracas, but also more widely, and this is the reason why millions to have taken to the streets to mourn his loss. A devout Catholic, Chavez was not a saint and he certainly was not infallible, but neither was he a tyrant or a dictator. He was a shrewd politician and more rarely and importantly, an uncommonly reliable one – a politician who actually abided by his own manifesto promises. A national leader who encouraged the previously disenfranchised to become actively involved in the democratic process of change and someone who engendered real hope in a people trying to transform their own future for the better.
Also last Tuesday, a trial began in Argentina that is set to reveal new details about how six Latin American countries coordinated with each other in the 1970s and 1980s to eliminate political dissidents. The campaign known as Operation Condor had involved military dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. It was launched by the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, but evidence shows how both the CIA and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were complicit from its outset. The objective of Operation Condor has a familiar ring: it was to track down, kidnap and kill people they labelled as subversives and terrorists — leftist activists, union leaders, students, priests, journalists, guerrilla fighters and their families.
On Thursday [March 7th] Democracy Now! spoke with John Dinges, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and the author of “The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents”, who explained the significance of the latest hearings:
Well, there have been several trials, and this goes back to when Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998. That unleashed an avalanche of evidence that went across Europe and led to trials in many places—Rome, Paris, Argentina, Chile—but all of them much smaller than this one. This one has 25 people accused. Unfortunately—or fortunately, who knows?—many of the people who were involved in this have already died, they’re getting old, of the top leaders. But this is 25 Argentinians and one Uruguayan, all of whom were in military positions, all of whom were involved directly with the actions of Operation Condor.
This is historic in the sense that we’re going to hear from 500 witnesses. And really, in the Latin American legal system, it’s unusual. It’s really only coming to the fore now that you hear witnesses, as opposed to just seeing them give their testimony to judges in a closed room, and then later on people like me might go and read those testimonies, but really it doesn’t become public. This is all public. And apparently, a lot of it is being videotaped. So this is—this is the first time that the general public is going to hear the details of this horrible, horrible list of atrocities that killed so many people.
The United States, in this period, the 1970s, was a major sponsor of the military dictatorships that had overthrown some democracies, some faltering civilian governments, [and] whatever it was, the result [of the overthrow] was governments, like Videla, like Pinochet, like Banzer in Bolivia, who were killing their citizens with impunity. The United States knew about the mass killing. We had this kind of schizophrenic, Machiavellian attitude toward it. We really don’t want these communists to be taking over governments, and we fear that democracy is leading to communist governments. Indeed, a leftist government led by Salvador Allende installed a democratically elected, civilian and revolutionary government in Chile, and that’s why—and Pinochet overthrew that government. The United States was deathly fearful that this would spread in Latin America, and so supported the coming of dictatorships.
Click here to read the full transcript or to watch the interview on the Democracy Now! website.
In April 2002, Chavez had himself narrowly survived an American-backed coup, and a 2003 documentary entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Spanish: La revolución no será transmitida) provides a fascinating insight and behind the scenes account of the attempted overthrow. Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain, who had been given direct access to Chavez with the intention only of making a fly-on-the-wall biography, suddenly finding themselves trapped in the midst of quite extraordinary political turmoil. Three days which changed the course of Venezuelan history:
Chávez: Inside the Coup (as the documentary is also known) first aired on RTÉ1 on 18th February 2003, as an installment of the Irish channel’s True Lives documentary series. It was later broadcast on BBC2 on 16th October 2003, as part of the channel’s Storyville documentary strand, and repeated on BBC4 on 18th November 2003.
The October broadcast by the BBC had caused considerable furore, the corporation receiving 4,000 e-mails demanding that Storyville‘s commissioning editor, Nick Fraser, should be sacked. And these attacks could hardly have come at a worse time. Already under the spotlight of the Hutton Inquiry, which had been set up ostensibly to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly, although as it turned out Lord Hutton was actually more intent on censuring the BBC. Blaming the messenger for accurately leaking the truth about the “sexed up” intelligence dossiers used justify the invasion of Iraq, rather than the government and security services who had conspired to fabricate those lies. For the BBC to re-screen Bartley and Ó Briain’s film just a month later must therefore have taken considerable courage.
Meanwhile, the claims made by those critical of the film were taken up by Ofcom, who eventually ruled in September 2006 that it had not upheld the complaints. A subsequent appeal in November was also dismissed by Ofcom, validating the BBC’s original decision to air the documentary.
In an article from March 5th for Vice Magazine and also posted up on his own website, Greg Palast asks:
Despite Bush’s providing intelligence, funds and even a note of congratulations to the crew who kidnapped Chavez (we’ll get there), Hugo remained in office, reelected and wildly popular.
But why the Bush regime’s hate, hate, HATE of the President of Venezuela?
The answer, of course, is the obvious one:
Reverend Pat [Robertson] wasn’t coy about the answer: It’s the oil.
“This is a dangerous enemy to our South controlling a huge pool of oil.”
A really BIG pool of oil. Indeed, according to Guy Caruso, former chief of oil intelligence for the CIA, Venezuela hold a recoverable reserve of 1.36 trillion barrels, that is, a whole lot more than Saudi Arabia.
If we didn’t kill Chavez, we’d have to do an “Iraq” on his nation. So the Reverend suggests,
“We don’t need another $200 billion war… It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.”
A short (about 25 mins) made for BBC television film based on Palast’s own encounters with Chavez, his kidnappers and his would-be assassins is also available as a FREE download.
1 “A groundbreaking document published by the Open Society Foundation, on Tuesday shows that 54 countries, a quarter of the world’s nations, cooperated with the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme.” Taken from an article entitled “Extraordinary Rendition: Israel, Russia and France ‘Surprisingly’ Not on List” written by Jessica Elgot, published by Huffington Post (UK) on February 5, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/02/05/extraordinary-rendition_n_2622079.html
A full list of all 54 countries is published beneath the same article.