Heading Off the Upcoming Propaganda About Venezuela
Venezuela is imperfect, and Chavez is imperfect, but compared to most other Latin American countries over the past fifty years, it's on the high end of the scale. Chavez is a sort of "Castro-lite" President who combines realpolitik (his party does seek to use its currently position in government to consolidate its control) with liberal social policies; think Karl Rove working for Jerry Brown and you'll get a sense.
During the Cold War, the U.S. didn't like South American countries that leaned socialist, because it was trying to keep them from falling into the Soviet camp. That was a legitimate concern then, because Cuba was, indeed, a serious danger to the U.S., and no wise politician would want a repeat elsewhere in the hemisphere. Today, however, there's no reason to care one way or the other whether a sovereign nation has liberal or conservative government policies -- I don't see us talking about invading Sweden, for example. Yet President Bush keeps talking down Chavez, calling him a dictator and making vague threats to unseat him in order to "free" the Venezuelan people. Why?
Well, duh. Oil. Venezuela is the largest oil exporter in South America. And Chavez, wisely raising his profile in hopes that any American coup attempts will receive immediate American media attention, has embarrassed Bush by such tricks as providing low-cost fuel oil -- subsidized by the Venezuelan government -- to low-income Americans struggling to keep their homes warm in the Northeastern U.S. (I've written about Chavez' other tactics to make friends and help South American nations free themselves from U.S. influence here.
You just know Bush turns purplish whenever his limo cruises past a Citgo station (which sells Venezuelan, not Middle Eastern, gasoline).
So Bush amps up his claims that Venezuela is a dictatorship whose people need to be liberated. To "catapult that propaganda," here's a contrary view, from someone who's been there: John Hofer, a Peace Corps volunteer with extensive South American experience, writing in the Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard:
No one showed the least hesitation to talk about Chavez. One fellow in the Caracas metro even walked up to me and asked about him. Not waiting for a response, he said, "I hate Chavez."
A bus driver said that ordinary people get more respect now that Chavez is in office. Many offered complex opinions, citing the good and the bad, winners and losers. Many talked about disliking Chavez's tendency to talk too much, a view I share about politicians in general.
A few days later, in a heated interview on one of the private television networks, an opposition figure was visibly agitated about elements of Chavez's elections law. At one point, the interviewer asked, "Are you threatening Chavez?"
The guest responded, "No, I'm putting him on notice." I could only sit in awe, trying to remember the last time an American opposition politician showed such gumption.
If anything, some Venezuelans enjoy too much freedom. Four years after the Chamber of Commerce led a failed violent coup, those responsible have not been tried, indicted or jailed.
In the meantime, the government's prosecutor on the case was assassinated, the only major act of political terrorism in recent Venezuelan history. I can only imagine that Chavez's tolerance shows his commitment to the rule of law and to the judicial process - however slow, inconvenient and dangerous.
Hofer's whole article is worth reading. Venezuela may not be perfect. Chavez's regime may not be a model of pure democracy. (Is ours? Ask Bev Harris.) But Venezuela sure doesn't sound like a dangerous dictatorship to me.
Supplement, 3:50 pm PT: Condy Rice gave an example of what's to come just last month.
Supplement #2, 9:15 pm PT: An EXCELLENT and comprehensive analysis of Venezuela-U.S. relations by Common Dreams.