Sunday, December 2, 2007

Hugo Chavez’s Struggle against U.S. Imperialism in Latin America

By Time for change

The intense animosity between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and George W. Bush is a product of Bush’s grand imperialist ambitions (especially with respect to oil rich regions of the world) set against a long background of U.S. imperialism in Latin America, in the face of Chavez’s determination to steer an independent course for his country. As noted by Nikolas Kozloff in his book, “Hugo Chavez – Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S.”, Chavez “stands to succeed Fidel Castro as the most prominent opponent of U.S. influence in the region.” Kozloff explains his interest in Chavez in the introduction to his book:

While I agree with Chavez’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy, his origins in the army gave me pause. I have a deep and abiding suspicion of authority and men in uniform, and Chavez’s constant harking on military symbolism … struck me as vulgar and crass… made me wonder whether he really had dictatorial intentions.

But then, watching the coup d’etat unfold against Chavez in 2002, I was frankly moved by the outpouring of support from the poor people of Caracas… They surrounded the presidential palace until the coup government was forced to disband. As Chavez quickened the pace of social programs in the wake of the coup, there was no denying that something big was afoot in Venezuela. Intrigued, I started to take a second look at Chavez and wrote a series of reports about Venezuelan political developments… and the time seemed right to write a book that would provide readers with information to make sense of and come to their own conclusions about the Venezuelan leader, independent of the U.S. media establishment which assumes that Chavez is a feared enemy of the United States…

In reversing Venezuela’s traditional oil policy, Chavez became an important enemy of the Bush administration… The Venezuelan leader has also challenged U.S.-led trade initiatives and the drive towards globalization… For corporate America and the advocates of free-market capitalism, Chavez’s emergence has come as something of a wake-up call… Chavez has done much to unite other South American countries against traditional U.S. influence. This book gives the reader a sense of the social ferment spreading across South America and illustrates Chavez’s place in this wider transformation.

These developments are of great interest to me because my worst fear stems from Bush/Cheney imperialist ambitions which threaten to turn our country into a fascist dictatorship and throw us into a World War that could make World War II look mild by comparison. Therefore, anyone who poses a barrier to Bush’s and Cheney’s imperialistic plans – such as Chavez – is of great interest to me.

In order to better understand the dynamics of the relationship between Chavez and the Bush administration it is important to first understand the long and tragic history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America.

A brief history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America

Not counting the war against Mexico (1846-8), U.S. imperialism in Latin America began shortly after the Spanish-American War, which began in 1898 and led to long standing U.S. hegemony over Cuba and Puerto Rico (and the Philippines too). This was followed by interventions in Nicaragua in 1909 and Honduras in 1911. Stephen Kinzer, in “Overthrow – America’s History of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq”, describes how and why the U.S. carried out all these regime changes. His description of the consequences of our imperialism towards Nicaragua is analogous to the consequences of American imperialism towards many other Latin American countries:

In few countries is it possible to trace the development of anti-American sentiment as clearly as in Nicaragua. A century of trouble between the two nations, which led to the death of thousands and great suffering for generations of Nicaraguans, began when the United States deposed President Zelaya in 1909… Zelaya was the greatest statesman Nicaragua ever produced… That terrible miscalculation drew the United States into a century of interventions in Nicaragua. They took a heavy toll in blood and treasure, profoundly damaged America’s image in the world, and helped keep generations of Nicaraguans in misery… and much that is undesirable, including rates of poverty, unemployment, infant mortality, and deaths from curable diseases.

And this is what Kinzer says about U.S. intervention in Honduras:

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Americans deposed a government in Honduras in order to give banana companies freedom to make money there. For decades, these companies imposed governments that crushed every attempt at national development. In the 1980s, when democracy finally seemed ready to emerge in Honduras, the United States prevented it from flowering because it threatened the anti-Sandinista project that was Washington’s obsession…

As described by William Blum in “A Concise History of US Global Interventions, 1945 to the Present”, the United States intervened in eleven different South and Central American countries during the Cold War including Guatemala, Costa Rica, British Guyana, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. The main purpose of these interventions was to facilitate changes to regimes that were friendlier to the United States (and in almost all cases less friendly to the indigenous populations of those countries.) For this purpose, we developed the School of the Americas, which was used to train native personnel in the techniques and ideology of insurgency and counter-insurgency, including torture. School of the Americas training was oriented to support the military and political status quo in each country, which placed the U.S. in opposition to any who seek free speech to discuss problems, alternative means to solve problems, or democratic means to change governments. More specifically, the enemy is identified as the poor, those who assist the poor, such as church workers, educators, and unions, and those who hold certain ideologies such as “socialism” or “liberation theology”.

The nature of U.S. imperialism

Perhaps because the United States had its origins in a revolution against imperial oppression, it has typically gone to great lengths to deny its imperial ambitions, even while acting upon them. Thus, U.S. imperialism has generally been less direct and more subtle than typical 19th and 20th Century European imperialism – though often just as devastating.

John Perkins, in “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”, explains how U.S. imperialism in the latter half of the 20th Century often worked: Economic hit men (EHM) are paid by U.S. corporations to develop economic projections for major development projects in third world countries. Their projections are supposed to predict substantial economic growth and thereby justify huge loans from international lending institutions. The money from the loan then is funneled into U.S. oil, engineering or construction companies to develop their projects. The projects often or usually benefit only the country’s wealthy and powerful elite, who are represented by the very government that arranged the loan. If all works out well for the involved corporations, the country is unable to repay the debt, which forces them to be perpetually indebted and consequently ensures their loyalty to the United States. That enforced loyalty ensures that the country’s government will perform favors for us, such as allowing our corporations access to their natural resources. Thus, the huge debts incurred under the system cause great harm to the vast majority of a country’s population, not only because of increased taxes and severe cuts in health care, education and other social services, but also because the projects themselves usually deplete a country’s resources and pollute its environment.

If the EHMs are unsuccessful in their efforts to convince a government to play ball, then what Perkins calls jackals are sent in to assassinate or overthrow the uncooperative government officials in question, as was done for example in Guatemala in 1954 and in Chile in 1973. If that doesn’t work either, then we send in our military.

Naomi Klein, in “The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, explains that in Latin America much of the U.S. complicity in the overthrow of democratically elected governments had as its main goal the putting into practice of Milton Friedman’s economic theories, developed at the University of Chicago, which served mainly to increase the wealth and power of the wealthy, at the expense of everyone else.

Brazil was already under the control of a U.S.-supported junta, and several of Friedman’s Brazilian students held key positions. Friedman traveled to Brazil in 1973, at the height of the regime’s brutality, and declared the economic experiment “a miracle”. In Uruguay the military had staged a coup in 1973 … The effects on Uruguay’s previously egalitarian society were immediate: real wages dropped by 28%… Next to join the experiment was Argentina in 1976, when a junta seized power from Isabel Peron. That meant that Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil… were now all run by U.S.-backed military governments and were living laboratories of Chicago School economics.

Chavez’s efforts on behalf of the poor

Much of Kozloff’s book describes Chavez’s efforts on behalf of the poor of his country, which seems to be the motivating factor behind his willingness to confront George Bush. The bottom line is that in order to help the poor Chavez must counteract the kinds of economic and social policies described by Perkins and Klein above. For example:

Chavez hosted a meeting of OPEC heads of state in Caracas in September 2000. In a TV broadcast, he declared that the upcoming meeting was not just about oil. The summit, he continued, would discuss global poverty, foreign debts, and unfair terms of trade for poor nations…. He also advocated for greater restraint in crude output in order to keep oil prices high. Industrialized nations were not amused…

More specifically, though private ownership exists in Venezuela under Chavez, it does not exist as unadulterated capitalism, according to the model that Bush/Reagan/Friedman type conservatives worship. Kozloff explains:

Under article 115 of Chavez’s new constitution, private property must serve the public good and general interest. If a company does not live up to this principle, the government may expropriate but with just compensation. Such moves have made Chavez unbelievably popular, with an approval rating of 70 percent. The government’s actions have radicalized workers, who “have begun taking matters in their own hands” by occupying factories and businesses…

And, Chavez has been especially active in support of indigenous communities in Venezuela, which have historically faced great prejudice and poverty:

Chavez distributed 1.65 million acres to indigenous communities… The move forms part of the so-called Mission Guaicaipuro, which will provide land titles to all of Venezuela’s 28 indigenous peoples.

Why the Bush administration wants to get rid of Chavez

Chavez’s concern for the poor of his country, like the concern of liberals for the poor of any country, leads to policies that are anathema to wealthy corporations. First and foremost, Chavez’s policies have encouraged independence of Venezuela from the U.S., a relatively new phenomenon. Kozloff explains:

Chavez’s six and a half years in power have demonstrated that Third World governments can defend national sovereignty from the likes of the United States. Simultaneously, Chavez has promoted a “nationalist, progressive agenda that… confronts capital.

Even worse, as far as Bush and his corporate cronies are concerned, Chavez is working towards an integration of Latin American nations that could eventually be a major obstacle to U.S. corporate imperial ambitions:

“This integration”, he remarked, “must go beyond the economic sphere. There must also be a cultural, social and political integration that one day could lead to the creation of a federation of Latin American and Caribbean nations. This federation”, Chavez added, would help “combat the perverse effects of globalization that only takes into account economic matters and ignores education, culture, health, poverty and misery.” For Chavez, oil and energy integration was merely the first stepping stone that would unite South America against U.S. objectives in the hemisphere.

And then there is the matter of oil. Shortly after coming to power, Chavez fired Luis Guisti, the pro- U.S. head of the Venezuelan national oil company, PdVSA. Interestingly, Giusti later became affiliated with a think tank headed by James Baker III, where he participated in laying the groundwork for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Giusti argued that “Iraq remains a destabilizing influence to … the flow of oil to international markets from the Middle East.”

Chavez also pushed through a statute affirming state control over all petroleum operations. And, he has tried hard to develop a major oil conglomerate in cooperation with the other nations of South America, which would be called “Petroamerica”. The significance of that to the Bush administration is that:

If Petroamerica were to become a reality, the new behemoth would control 11.5% of the world’s oil reserves and could help to raise the material conditions of over 530 million people…. If Petroamerica ever came to fruition, it would threaten the untrammeled access of U.S. oil companies to Latin America’s subsoil riches…

Question for the future of South America

Kozloff sums up Chavez’s efforts to date, and where he seems to be heading:

Though many of Chavez’s antipoverty programs are socialistic, the country does not follow a strictly socialist model. It would be fairer to say that Venezuela has pursued a more nationalist course akin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal….

Chavez now has a much more visible international profile, and he stands to succeed Fidel Castro as the most prominent opponent of U.S. influence in the region. While it cannot be said that the Chavez government is truly revolutionary, the Venezuelan leader has resisted neoliberal proscriptions. What’s more, by setting up parallel structures to the state at the local level, Chavez just may succeed in encouraging so-called “participatory democracy” and greater radicalization at the grassroots.

He ends his book by asking:

Will South America, spurred on by Chavez, set a more independent course for itself and seek to break free of historic U.S. influence? Such a development would surely have huge geopolitical implications and it’s a question I plan to take up in the future.

Posted in full with author's permission.

Originally posted at

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