Venezuela – The Americas’ Other Presidential Story

NOVEMBER 1, 2012 – While most eyes in North America have been on the presidential election in the United States, for people in the South another election last month was actually of more interest. In the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, incumbent president Hugo Chávez was up against a strong challenge, from a – for once – united opposition. Gwynne Dyer (2012) was not alone when he speculated, days before the vote, that this could be “Hugo Chávez’s swan song”. However, when the vote came, it wasn’t really close, Chávez winning a third term as president with 55.08% of the vote, far ahead of the 44.3% obtained by his challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski (CNE 2012). Neither candidate in that other presidential election in the Americas can even dream about this kind of a victory margin.

There was good reason for huge interest “South of the Border” in the results of the election. The Chávez presidency has been at the centre of an assertion of sovereignty in Latin America and the Caribbean, an assertion of sovereignty that has put up a wall against economic, political and military encroachments by the Global North. To take one example from each of the spheres of economics, politics and the military, this wall of resistance has seen:

  1. the 2005 collapse of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), scheduled to be implemented that year, but which is now completely moribund;
  2. the 2009 decision by the Organization of American States (OAS) to end its exclusion of Cuba from the organization (OAS 2012);
  3. the 2009 suspension of Honduras from OAS membership because of a right-wing coup against President José Manuel Zelaya (OAS 2010).

None of these would have been conceivable just a few years previous. The fact of a growing group of states willing to defy the U.S. is a huge change from the 1990s. None of it would have been possible without the accession to office by Chávez in 1999, the first government in some years in the region (except for, of course, the one in Cuba) to openly oppose U.S. hegemony.

The accomplishments of the Chávez presidency are almost always minimized in the Global North press. Dyer is typical, acknowledging that “Chávez’s rule has benefited the poor in many ways” but saying that this is solely because of oil. Chávez, he says, “has enjoyed the advantages of big oil exports and a tenfold increase in the world oil price” so that “almost all the growth in Venezuela’s economy since Chávez took power is due to higher oil prices” (Dyer 2012).

This is quite misleading. Alberta in Canada has oil, and is one of the most developed areas of the world. By contrast, Nigeria in Africa has oil, and is mired in deep, debilitating poverty and underdevelopment. Using a resource like oil for national development, or alleviating poverty, is not an inevitable question, but a political question, and the situation Chávez inherited when he took office in 1999 was politically retrograde.

Since 1976, oil extraction, refining and distribution in Venezuela, has been under the umbrella of a state-owned oil corporation, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA). But PDVSA did not operate in the interests of either the Venezuelan economy or the Venezuelan poor. It was, in effect, a front for Global North oil corporations, which maintained most of their privileges, paying exceedingly low royalties and taxes. In the Orinoco tar sands area, for instance, “the PDVSA capped the royalties to be paid by these projects at 1 percent” (McNew 2008, 153). An elite in PDVSA and the Venezuelan government became wealthy, but the economy remained in bad shape, poverty grew, and the oil wealth flowed out of the country.

Changing this situation proved extraordinarily difficult. In 2006 Chávez would call his plan for the oil industry “Full Sovereignty Over Oil” with the aim of gaining majority control of the 32 joint ventures with foreign companies, raising income taxes to 50% and increasing “royalties payable to the government from as low as 1 percent to 33 percent” (Carreño 2006; Collier 2006; McNew 2008; O’Grady 2005). In 2000, the objectives were much more modest. In November 2001, he passed the Hydrocarbons Law, whose key provision was to introduce royalties on a sliding scale from 20% to 30%.

The source for the details about the Hydrocarbons Law is an otherwise dry as dust publication called “The Oil Daily”. Interestingly, in the same issue of that publication, the authors highlight another aspect of the Chávez reforms that they consider problematic. “Also controversial is new land reform legislation that allows the expropriation of areas deemed unproductive by the government” (The Oil Daily 2011). There is a fascinating consistency to these spokespeople for big business, concerned to protect the interests of Global North corporate profits, and the Global South privileged, landed elite.

It was this modest attempt to push back against the privileges of the oil industry, which provoked the social crises of 2002 and 2003. The corruption in Venezuelan society was not limited to the corporations. The leaders of the main trade union central, the Workers’ Confederation of Venezuela (CTV) – including its most important section, the oil workers of Fedepetro – joined with the main bosses’ organization, Fedecamaras, to oppose Chávez. This perverse united front of privileged managers and corrupt union leaders, bent every effort to roll back the reforms.

The highlights of this struggle are well known. April 2002, there was an attempted coup against Chávez, stopped by massive mobilization of the poorest sections of Caracas, and a split in the armed forces. In the winter of 2002-2003, there was a strike (really a lockout) centred in the oil industry which brought the economy to its knees. This was only ended when the blue-collar workers who supported Chávez, pushed aside the white-collar workers who supported the opposition, and began to restart production. In the end, 18,000 PDVSA employees – half of the PDVSA workforce, but fully “90 percent of PDVSA’s white-collar workforce” were dismissed (Collier 2006; Clough 2008).

It is only after this massive social upheaval lasting almost two years, that Chávez was able to assert the very basic right to increase royalties on oil production in the country. The point is, there is nothing automatic about being able to direct profits from the extractive industries towards national economic development, let alone social assistance for the poor. There were very serious class forces opposed to these steps being taken, and two years of intense class struggle before these very modest reforms could be implemented.

None of this history matters for commentators like Dyer. He berates Chávez for overseeing a rate of economic growth that has been slower than in Brazil or Colombia. Of course economic growth in Venezuela has been slower. First, Brazil is the biggest economy on the South American continent, with a domestic market many times the size of that in Venezuela. Second, Colombia’s growth has been as a virtual client state of the U.S., and the price of its growth has been the displacement of millions from their land, and the death of thousands at the hands of right-wing death squads. Third, while Venezuela was able to assert control over oil by 2003, the oil industry in the country has never fully recovered from the loss of the 18,000 white-collar professionals. It is absolutely understandable why they were fired – their alliance with the bosses’ federation pushed the country to the brink of chaos. But the modern oil industry is extraordinarily complex, and their skill and expertise has yet to be replaced in the oil fields and refineries.

Veteran Latin American Commentator Mike Gonzalez in his analysis of the election, identifies some real problems in contemporary Venezuela. “[W]hoever travels to Venezuela with open eyes cannot fail to notice the conspicuous consumption of the bourgeoisie with its shopping centres, restaurants, the permanently guarded houses and estates, and the fourwheel drives with tinted windows that speed through the streets” (González 2012). He is right. There is a new elite developing around the state apparatus. The privileges of the old elite are still remarkably intact.

But Gonzalez makes his critique less persuasive by offering a confusing assessment of the election results. “Although official spokespeople of the government insist that the vote for Chávez grew, in reality, despite a large campaign backed up by immense resources, the vote he received was much lower than any since 1998” (González 2012).

In fact, the exact opposite is true. This is not the lowest vote total for Chávez since 1998. It is his highest vote total ever. The chart on this page makes this very clear. It shows the total votes counted in the last three presidential elections, the total vote for Chávez, and the total vote for his chief opposition candidate (CNE 2006; CNE 2012; IFES 1998).

There are several remarkable aspects to this chart. First – voter participation has exploded. The total votes cast in 1998 were just under 7 million. This jumped to almost 12 million in 2006 and more than 15 million in 2012. More than twice as many people cast ballots in 2012 compared to 1998.

This can only partly be accounted for by population increase. The other key factor has been the increase in overall participation. In 1998 63.76% of the eligible population cast a ballot. In 2006 that figure jumped to 74.69%. This year it reached the astonishing figure of 80.52%. These levels of voter participation are higher than in Canada, and far higher than in the United States. Perhaps we need editorials in the Globe and Mail and the New York Times, bemoaning the lack of democracy in the Global North, and praising Venezuela for high levels of citizen involvement in elections.

Then look at the vote totals for Chávez. He was first elected, in 1998, with 3.7 million votes. He almost doubled this in 2006, to a total of 7.3 million. This year he received almost 8.2 million votes, an increase of more than 800,000 from the total of 2006.

The 2012 elections did see a narrower margin of victory for Chávez, in the context of a massive voter turnout. Clearly what was going on was a serious mobilization by the right wing to oust Chávez. That his vote increased in the face of this tidal wave of right wing organizing, is impressive.

It was the fact of this right wing surge which shaped political attitudes in Venezuela. The only position to take in the 2012 election, with whatever criticisms, was to support Chávez, something that, as Jeffrey Webber points out, “was recognized by close to the entirety of the Venezuelan left over the last several months, including those sectors especially critical of the limits to the political economic program of the government and the lingering influence of an important conservative bureaucratic layer within the ruling party” (Webber 2012).

Outside of Venezuela, we face a different challenge. Chávez’ great crime in the eyes of the leaders of the United States, Britain and Canada, is that he has presided over a movement which has restricted their ability to drain oil profits out of the country, a movement which has instead diverted those profits towards social programs. As a result, the transnational oil companies, and the Global North governments will be only too ready to support any mobilization of the right-wing against Chávez, and we have to be ready to do our bit to oppose them, if and when they embark upon such a course of action.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This article has been published as “Are the Venezuelan people’s gains ‘solely because of oil’?Links, November 1.


References

Carreño, Rafael Ramírez. 2006. “Full Sovereignty Over Oil.” Sitio Web PDVSA.

Clough, Langdon D. 2008. “Energy Profile of Venezuela.” The Encyclopedia of Earth.

CNE. 2006. “Elección Presidencial – 3 De Diciembre De 2006.” Poder Electoral.

———. 2012. “Divulgación Elección Presidencial – 07 De Octubre De 2012.” Poder Electoral.

Collier, Robert. 2006. “Chavez Drives a Hard Bargain, but Big Oil’s Options Are Limited.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 24.

Dyer, Gwynne. 2012. “Hugo Chavez’s Swan Song in Venezuela?: He Could Lose; He Could Die. But What He Has Built Will Survive Him.” The Spectator, October 2.

González, Mike. 2012. “Venezuela: El Chavismo Contra Un Candidato No Tan Nuevo.” En Lucha, October.

IFES. 1998. “Election Profile for Venezuela – Results.” Election Guide.

McNew, B. Seth. 2008. “Full Sovereignty over Oil: A Discussion of Venezuelan Oil Policy and Possible Consequences of Recent Changes.” Law and Business Review of the Americas 14: 149–158.

O’Grady, Mary Anastasia. 2005. “Americas: Oil Wells Refuse to Obey Chavez Commands.” Wall Street Journal, May 20, sec. A.

OAS. 2010. “Member States.” OAS – Organization of American States: Democracy for Peace, Security, and Development.

———. 2012. “Member States.” OAS – Organization of American States: Democracy for Peace, Security, and Development.

The Oil Daily. 2011. “Venezuelan Strike Poses Big Challenge.” The Oil Daily, December 10.

Webber, Jeffrey R. 2012. “Latest Step in a Long Road: The Venezuelan Elections.” The Bullet, October 12.

UNASUR and the Eurozone Crisis

Significant regional integration efforts, independent from the United States, have been among the most striking developments in Latin America and the Caribbean this century. The most ambitious of these projects is CELAC – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States – founded at a summit in Caracas, Venezuela in December 2011. In conjunction with the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of our America (ALBA) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), there now exist very serious, regionally distinct, alternatives to both the existing Organization of American States (OAS), for decades dominated by the United States, and the now moribund (and also U.S.-dominated) trade agreement, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

The European Union (EU) was for many years a key source of inspiration for regional integration in Latin America and the Caribbean. Understandably then, the current crisis in the EU, particularly in the Eurozone countries, might be expected to give pause to regionalist enthusiasm in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, the fundamental dynamics in the two regional projects are completely different. The EU is trying to build a regional bloc through neoliberal policies. By contrast, the new regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean has emerged as a challenge to neoliberalism. We can anticipate a continuation of efforts to integrate the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean no matter how the Eurozone crisis plays out.

These are the first two paragraphs of an article published, August 30, in e-International Relations.

Ecuador, Venezuela: Danger South of the Border

OCTOBER 26, 2010 – It is not difficult to see that the events of September 30, in the Latin American country of Ecuador, amounted to an attempted right-wing coup d’état.[1] Mass mobilizations in the streets and plazas of Quito (the capital) and other cities – in conjunction with action by sections of the armed forces which stayed loyal to the government – stopped the coup before the day was out. But those few hours highlighted, again, the deep dangers facing those fighting for progressive change in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Remarkably, the first task is to re-assert that in fact a coup attempt took place. In the wake of the failure of the coup, commentator after commentator was trying to minimize what happened. Peruvian “libertarian” Álvaro Vargas Llosa – darling of the World Economic Forum and outspoken critic of Che Guevara and the current governments of Bolivia and Venezuela – insists that it was not a coup just an “ill-advised, violent protest by the police against a law that cut their benefits.”[2]

Let us examine the facts. Rafael Correa is the democratically elected president of the country, re-elected in 2009 winning 51.99 per cent of votes cast, on a turnout of almost 75 per cent (in an electorate of more than 10 million people). His nearest rival – ex-president and oil company friend Lucio Gutierrez – received just 28.24 per cent of the vote.[3]

September 30 – thousands of police rebelled, taking control of several cities, shutting down roads and airports.[4] In the capital city, Quito, they took over their barracks. When President Correa, went to the main barracks to confront the policemen, he was attacked with tear gas and injured. He was allowed to go for treatment in a police hospital, but confined there for 12 hours until rescued – after a “fierce gun battle” (according to Atilio A. Boron)[5] which resulted in the death of two policemen (including the police sergeant protecting Correa), a soldier and a student.[6] Felipe Stuart indicates that there were many other casualties on the day. “Four people were killed in Quito, and five in Guayaquil. Perhaps more telling is that 274 people were wounded by snipers or from crossfire, most of them unarmed.”[7]

During these tense hours, there was a rebellion in sections of the armed forces (members of the Ecuadoran air force took over and shut down Quito’s international airport)[8] and anti-Correa political figures – including the lawyer for defeated presidential candidate Gutierrez – tried to force their way into the buildings of Ecuador National Television.[9]

When the democratically-elected president of a country is attacked, injured and confined against his will: when police take over towns and sections of the air force take over and close the country’s major airport: when pro-business political figures try to storm the national television statement – that is called an attempted coup d’état. If it were to happen in Ottawa, Washington or London, there would be no dispute.

A photograph accompanying an important article by Mark Weisbrot (co-writer of Oliver Stone’s South of the Border) showed masses of people taking to the streets of Quito to defend Correa. In the article, Weisbrot persuasively argued that “to anyone who watched the prolonged, pitched gun-battle on TV last night, when the armed forces finally rescued President Correa from the hospital where he was trapped by the police” this could only be seen as an attempted coup, “an attempt to overthrow the government.”[10]

The reason there is a bizarre attempt to pretend that this coup attempt never happened, is to hope that people won’t ask who might have benefited from such an action. A quick examination of the actions of President Correa sheds considerable light on that.

  • In 2006, working with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Correa moved to increase state control over oil production in the country.[11]
  • In 2008, he announced that Ecuador would not pay several billions of its more than $10 billion foreign debt, calling it “illegitimate.”[12]
  • In 2009, he refused to renew the lease of the U.S. military airbase in Manta, saying that “the only way the US could keep their military base in Ecuador, is if Ecuador were allowed to have one of its own in Florida.”[13]
  • In 2009, he officially brought Ecuador into ALBA – the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas led by Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia.

When a country increases state control, challenges illegitimate foreign debt, pushes the U.S. military out of the country and joins a regional alliance with Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba – it is clear that the forces that would benefit from a coup would be: a) corporate interests inside Ecuador; b) International Financial Institutions; and c) the United States and its allies.

There is another reason why the right-wing, corporate elite and the imperialist countries might have an incentive to minimize what happened September 30. There is now a shamefully long list of recent coup attempts in Latin America and the Caribbean – four of them against members of ALBA.

  • April 2002, President Chávez of Venezuela was briefly taken into exile in a coup d’état which was stopped when one million of his supporters surrounded the presidential palace.
  • February 2004, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forcibly overthrown in a coup backed by the military forces of Canada, the United States and France.
  • September 2008, in the Santa Cruz area of Bolivia, right-wing forces used armed fascist gangs to try and break the hold of President Evo Morales.[14] They were stopped through a combination of mass mobilizations, and the intervention by loyal sections of the armed forces.
  • June 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown by the military.
All but Haiti were members of ALBA – and one of the main acts of the coup regime in Honduras was to withdraw from ALBA.

It is not, therefore, an exaggeration, to say that the coup attempt in Ecuador is the latest in a series of violent attempts to roll back the anti-neoliberal movement, whose main institutional shape is represented by the ALBA countries.

The dangers facing the anti-neoliberal movement, and the region, were also highlighted by the results of National Assembly elections in Venezuela. At one level, they represent a remarkable achievement – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) topping the polls and winning 98 seats out of 165. But within that victory, there were troubling signs.

First while the PSUV won more than five million votes in both the nationwide vote for the Latin American parliament and the state-wide party lists, its right-wing rival, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) also topped five million in both votes, trailing the PSUV by around 200,000.

Second – key states along the border of Colombia (the principle base for the U.S. military in the region) fell to the MUD.

Finally – while 98 seats is a majority, it is short of the two-thirds majority necessary for key constitutional changes. Important advances – such as creating a favourable legislative framework for workers’ control of industry – will be much more difficult.[15]

There is disillusionment in sections of the base of the PSUV. The recession hit Venezuela harder than many other countries in Latin America. The old state bureaucracy is still largely intact (and quite reluctant to support Chávez’ reforms), and the bulk of the media remains in the hands of the right-wing. In addition – while the PSUV has been a remarkable school in politics for millions of people – it has also been a source of career advancement for a few thousand. Nepotism and bureaucratic tendencies have become a drag on many of the reform projects launched by the regime.

In each of the ALBA countries, internal difficulties are immense, and in each there an array of positions which are often difficult for Global North observers properly to understand. In Ecuador, for instance, it wasn’t just darlings of the right-wing like Álvaro Vargas Llosa who denied that the September 30 events were a coup. Unfortunately, Ecuador’s important coalition of social movements, the Federation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) took the same position. “We energetically announce that there never was any attempted coup d’état, much less a kidnapping, but an event that responded to the uncertain political management of the government that causes popular discontent through permanent aggression, discrimination and violations of human rights consecrated in the Constitution.”[16]

CONAIE’s importance in the social movements in Ecuador is not to be doubted. Its mobilization of the Indigenous community has been a key factor in the social advances made in Ecuador this century. And Correa has not always been an easy president to defend. In 2009, CONAIE was involved in a “week of marches and road blockades” in protest against certain of Correa’s policies. At issue were “the autonomy of the indigenous bilingual education system,” the new water law and the new mining law passed in January 2009 which CONAIE has “appealed before the Constitutional Court.”[17] But even with legitimate grievances against Correa, it is clearly a mistake for CONAIE to minimize the dangers represented by the September 30 events.

Global North solidarity activists need to be aware of internal conflicts in the ALBA countries, take them very seriously, and try to sort out our attitude towards them. But from a distance, that is not such an easy task. In very general terms, we can say that the way forward in all the ALBA countries will be found in popular mobilizations at the base. Political tendencies which base themselves on the developing organs of popular control, in the neighbourhoods and workplaces, are the only long-term alternative in all the ALBA countries. It is also very clear that no break from imperialism will be possible which is not deeply rooted in Indigenous sovereignty.

But we need to be absolutely clear, for us in the Global North, these are not the key issues. We won’t be the ones addressing and solving them. That task will of course fall to the workers and campesinos inside the ALBA countries themselves.

Our job is to know the importance of the push-back to imperialism represented by the ALBA countries and the grim seriousness of our states in their determination to reverse this process. Our job is to build solidarity with the ALBA countries against attacks from the United States and Canada. To the extent we can do that, we can modestly increase the space for the struggles against neoliberalism, unfolding in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This task is not easy. In Canada and the U.S., there is a virtual blanket of silence around the enormous movements against imperialism which have broken through in Latin America and the Caribbean. We need education to demonstrate the importance of the struggles in Latin America and the Caribbean. We need to encourage worker-to-worker and student-to-student exchange programs, so that we can see for ourselves the challenges and possibilities in Latin America and the Caribbean. All of this, done properly, will lay the basis for a bigger solidarity movement should there be a sixth coup d’état attempt in the months to come.

This is not an act of charity. It was the poor of Cochabamba in Bolivia who, ten years ago, rose up and defeated the privatization of water in their region – the first big victory against privatization in all the Americas. It was the masses of Latin America and the Caribbean who defeated the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2005. It was the new government of Bolivia which convened the alternative conference on climate justice – again in Cochabamba – after the Global North failed miserably in Copenhagen.

In every sense of the word, their struggle is our struggle.

Upcoming solidarity events in Ontario:

  • Oct. 27, 7pm: Toronto Premiere, South of the Border – a film by Oliver Stone – Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W., Toronto
  • Oct. 31, 2pm: “How Can Bolivia Resist the Empire?” Study Group organized by Toronto Bolivia Solidarity, 489 College St. (Third Floor), Toronto
  • Nov. 6, 9:30 am to 6:00 pm: Conference: “Canada-Bolivia Relations in the Next Decade” with special guest Dr. Hugo Salvatierra Gutiérrez (Santa Cruz, Bolivia), University of Guelph, Guelph
  • Nov. 13, 9:30 am – 5 pm: Teach-In, “From Cochabamba to Cancûn: Building a Movement for Climate Justice,” with Keynote speaker Erika Duenãs, Bolivia Chargé d’Affaires, Washington D.C.

(c) 2010 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article has been published as Ecuador and Venezuela: Danger South of the Border,” Global Research, 3 November; “Ecuador, Venezuela: Danger south of the border,Links, 26 October; “Ecuador, Venezuela: Danger South of the Border,” venezuelanalysis.com, 27 October. Translated into Polish and published as “Ameryka Łacińska – Ich walka jest naszą walką,” Lewica.pl, 12 December.

References

[1] 2 November: This is a revised version of the original, based on comments posted both here and at Links. See Endnotes 7 and 17 below.
[2] Álvaro Vargas Llosa. “Ecuador police protest was no attempted coup.” The Australian. 7 October 2010.
[3] European Union Election Observation Mission. “Ecuador Final Report: Presidential and Parliamentary Elections – 26 April 2009.” 8 June 2009.
[4] Max Fisher. “Fallout of Failed Coup in Ecuador.” The AtlanticWire. 1 October 2010.
[5] Atilio A. Boron. “A Note About the Failed Coup in Ecuador.” Translation: David Brookbank. 3 October 2010.
[6] Alexander Martinez. “Correa declares victory over rebel forces in Ecuador.” AFP, 2 October 2010.
[7] Felipe Stuart. “Comment: Ecuador, Venezuela: Danger south of the border.” Links, 28 October, 2010.
[8] Wayne Madsen. “Obama administration fingerprints on Ecuador coup attempt.” voltairenet.org. 3 October 2010.
[9] Boron 2010.
[10] Mark Weisbrot. “Ecuador: Coup attempt encouraged by Washington.” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal. 1 October, 2010.
[11] “Venezuela to Build New Refinery in Ecuador.” voltairenet.org. 5 June 2006.
[12] “Ecuador defaults on foreign debt.” BBC News. 13 December 2008.
[13] Mankh (Walter E. Harris III). “‘South of the Border’ Documentary Film Review.” Axis of Logic. 6 October 2010.
[14] Federico Fuentes and Stuart Munckton. “Bolivia: Fascist right launches ‘civic coup.’” GreenLeft. 13 September 2008.
[15] Federico Fuentes. “Venezuela: Left wins, but right makes gains.” Green Left. 2 October. Much of this analysis is based on discussions which took place at a seminar in Toronto. Raul Burbano, Nicolas Lopez. “VenezuelaVotes: Eyewitness to a People in Struggle.” Venezuela With You Coalition (CVEC), Barrio Nuevo and Centre for Social Justice. Toronto. 3 October.
[16] Marlon Santi. “The Alleged Coup d’Etat, Democracy, and the Indigenous Organizations.” In Al Giordano. “Statement by Ecuador’s Most Important Social Movements.” The Field. 6 October, 2010.
[17] Jennifer Moore. “Ecuador: CONAIE and Correa Begin Dialogue.” Upside Down World: Covering Activism and Politics in Latin America. 6 October, 2009. In the original version, this read as follows: “And Correa has not always been an easy president to defend. In June, in response to CONAIE protesters, he was quoted as saying: ‘These people are gringos who are coming here with NGOs. Take it somewhere else. These people’s stomachs are full enough.’ (Telesur TV, source: www.telesurtv.net, 25 June 2010. Cited in Raúl Zibechi. “Bolivia and Ecuador: The State against the Indigenous People.” Amazon Watch. 19 July, 2010. Thanks to Martin Huber who pointed out that Zibechi’s quotation is distorted and taken out of context. For those who want to check, the original can be found at Telesur. “Correa insta a sacar de la pobreza a pueblos ancestrales de América Latina.” www.telesurtv.net. 25 June, 2010. The main point of the paragraph remains, however. There have been tense relations between CONAIE and Correa, and CONAIE does have legitimate grievances.

Shed no tears for the SPP

Finally it has been publicly (if quietly) acknowledged that the so-called “Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America” (SPP) is no more. Stuart Trew of the Council of Canadians drew our attention to the obituary, finally posted on the official SPP site.[1] Truth be told, the SPP has been dead for a couple of years. The following obituary was written in October, 2007[2] – and if you ask yourself why this death been kept so secret, you open the door to many insights into the current impasse of neoliberalism.

OCTOBER 13, 2007 – In an extraordinary article, published in The Globe and Mail, long-time Globe columnist John Ibbitson declared that, according to the Trilateral Commission, the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) “is defunct”.[3]

What a remarkable statement. It was just August of this year that thousands demonstrated in Ottawa and Montebello, Quebec, against the SPP summit. The anti-SPP movement rightly identified that the SPP was trying to codify the neoliberal assault on social services, wages and the environment, an assault that has been a hallmark of governments in the west since the 1980s.

Some are seeing the announced death of the SPP as a smokescreen. But we should take the report quite seriously. The Trilateral Commission, founded in 1973 by one of the biggest of the big capitalists – David Rockefeller – along with longtime adviser to U.S. imperialism, Zbigniew Brzezinski[4] – has been an important think tank for world capitalism for more than 30 years.

It is possible that the news out of the Trilateral Commission reflects the other aspect of the SPP – that its announcement, in 2005 was not just an attempt to continue the neoliberal assault, but also an attempt to save face after the collapse of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

2005, the year of the SPP’s birth, was after all the same year the FTAA was supposed to come into effect. The FTAA was designed to be an institutional embodiment of the neoliberalism held so dear by successive U.S. and Canadian administrations – a neoliberal hemisphere under U.S. hegemony.

But the FTAA was made impossible with the rise of mass radical movements throughout the south of our hemisphere. The crucial turning point was the April 2002 attempted coup against the radical nationalist government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

Chávez had been the only head of state at the FTAA summit in Quebec City in 2001, to oppose the project. Eliminating him from the scene would clear the way for the FTAA steamroller. But one million of the poor masses in Caracas made that impossible when they surrounded the presidential palace, forced a split in the armed forces, and forced the coup leaders to back down.

That opened the floodgates to a massive upsurge in radical movements in South America, including the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, and the creation of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA)[5] as an explicitly anti-neoliberal alternative to the FTAA.[6]

The FTAA was the real prize sought after by the U.S. and Canadian governments, and since its demise, they have been unsure of which way to turn in their attempt to pursue their agenda. John Ibbitson says that the reported demise of the SPP “is very bad news.” He is wrong. It is a sign of confusion and disorientation at the very centres of power in the leading capitalist countries of our hemisphere – the U.S. and Canada.

We need to take advantage of this confusion, and build movements in solidarity with the popular forces in the Global South, forces which have begun to carve out an alternative to neoliberalism.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] See Stuart Trew, “The SPP is dead, so where’s the champagne?rabble.ca, August 19, 2009 and “SPP.gov: A North American Partnership
[2] Paul Kellogg, “Is the SPP Dead?” in Paul Kellogg, PolEconJournal 2001-2007 (Toronto: authors’ collection), October 13, 2007
[3] John Ibbitson, “Say goodbye to North America’s special partnership,” The Globe and Mail, October 10, 2007, p. A.21
[4] Holly Sklar, “Trilateralism: Managing Dependence And Democracy – An Overview,” in Holly Sklar, ed., Trilateralism. The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), pp. 1-2
[5] Since renamed “Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas,” see “ALBA changes its name to Alliance,” ACN, Cuban News Agency, June 25, 2009
[6] Paul Kellogg, “Regional Integration in Latin America: Dawn of an Alternative to Neoliberalism?” in New Political Science, Volume 29, Number 2, June 2007, pp. 187-209

Bolivian masses defeat the right

Mass mobilizations of indigenous peasants and workers, in conjunction with actions taken by the government of Evo Morales, have won a decisive victory against a right-wing plot to destabilize the country. The events are as significant for the movement in Latin America as the April 2002 defeat of a right-wing coup attempt against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Frederico Fuentes has provided a gripping account of these events, summarized below.[1]

Morales’ won a decisive victory in an August 10 referendum – gaining 67.4 percent of the vote nationally. Even in the “half moon” area of Bolivia – the eastern departments of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija – where opposition to Morales has been intense, Morales did very well, winning in Pando, tying in Tarija and getting over 40% in Beni and Santa Cruz.

Frustrated at the polls, the right-wing turned to violence. Central to this violence was the role of US ambassador Philip Goldberg (since expelled from the country). He met with anti-Morales forces after their defeat in the referendum. That meeting resulted in “a plan to destabilize the east, stirring up violence to the point where either the military would be forced to react, causing deaths and Morales’ resignation, or creating the justification for some kind of United Nations intervention to ‘restore stability.’”

What happened was nearly catastrophic. Groups of armed thugs took over airports in the “half moon” area. Paramilitaries took the streets, openly saying that would only take orders from the anti-Morales prefectures (governors). Morales ordered troops to the area to restore order, but once in Pando “the top commander of the Armed Forces, Luis Trigo, known to have links with the Santa Cruz oligarchy … ordered troops to remain in their barracks and turned off his phone.”

In effect, Trigo was giving tacit permission to the right-wing and their paramilitaries to proceed with their destabilization campaign. He was in Pando, but he was folding his arms and refusing to act.

The right wing understood the signal very clearly. September 11, an unarmed group of peasants, traveling to a meeting of their union, were attacked by right-wing paramilitaries. The number killed is at least 20 – including women and children – and maybe be much higher. More than 60 are still missing.

But the day before, social movements had held an emergency meeting to respond to the crisis. They accelerated their plans in the wake of the massacre, setting out to encircle Santa Cruz, epicentre of right-wing organizing. Peasants cut off all access to the city.

The massacre had backfired. Ordinary soldiers were repulsed at the bloodshed. They were also inspired by the sight of thousands of peasants mobilized to surround the city. “Soldiers demanded to be allowed to go and defend their indigenous brothers. Under direct order from Morales, new troops were sent to Pando.” These troops confronted the paramilitaries in the airport and moved to restore order in the capital Cobija. This, in combination with the emergency summit of UNASUR (union of South American Nations) which fully backed Morales, left the right-wing isolated and in disarray.

There now exists in Bolivia a new force, “the National Coalition for Change (CONCALCAM), which unites more than 30 peasant, indigenous, worker and social organizations, together with the Bolivian Workers Central.” It is clear that such unity will be necessary in the months ahead. A “coup in slow motion” has been defeated. But mass mobilization and organization are a permanent necessity to counter a right-wing which has shown a clear commitment to using violence to defend its entrenched privileges.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Frederico Fuentes maintains the important blog, Bolivia rising. Quotes in this article are from Frederico Fuentes, “Bolivia: Right-wing push to stop change defeated,” Green Left Weekly, October 25, 2008, www.greenleft.org

Let’s Not Forget Mexico

Letter to the editor printed in Queen’s Alumni Review, Review Plus, Volume 82 Number 2, May 19, 2008 • Thanks to Sara Beck for her informed, well-researched and interesting article, “A Question of Treason.”[1] The stories of Israel Halperin in the 1940s and the Security Certificate Five in the 21st century show clearly the frightening ease with which human rights can be swept away in moments of societal panic.

One small correction I would like to make. Sara calls the events of 9/11 “the most horrific act of violence ever on North American soil.” I have in front of me William H. Prescott’s classic History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru.[2] The first few hundred pages of the book amount to a dry tale of the utmost brutality carried out by the European armies of Cortés against the people of what is today Mexico, culminating with his barbaric assault on the capital.

A long siege reduced much of the population to starvation. As his armies advanced into the city: “Dead bodies lay unburied in the streets and court-yards … As the invaders entered the dwellings, a more appalling spectacle presented itself; – the floors covered with the prostrate forms of the miserable inmates, some in the agonies of death, others festering in their corruption; men, women, and children, inhaling the poisonous atmosphere, and mingled promiscuously together; mothers, with their infants in their arms perishing of hunger before their eyes, while they were unable to afford them the nourishment of nature; men crippled by their wounds, with their bodies frightfully mangled, vainly attempting to crawl away, as the enemy entered. Yet, even in this state, they scorned to ask for mercy, and glared on the invaders with the sullen ferocity of the wounded tiger, that the huntsmen have tracked to his forest cave.”[3]

And when the conquest was complete, the corpses “‘lay so thick,’ says Bernal Diaz, ‘that one could not tread except among the bodies.’ ‘A man could not set his foot down,’ says Cortés, yet more strongly, ‘unless on the corpse of an Indian!’ They were piled one upon another, the living mingled with the dead. … Death was everywhere. The city was a vast charnel-house, in which all was hastening to decay and decomposition. A poisonous steam arose from the mass of putrefaction, under the action of alternate rain and heat, which so tainted the whole atmosphere, that the Spaniards, including the general himself, in their brief visits to the quarter, were made ill by it, and it bred a pestilence that swept off even greater numbers than the famine.”[4]

Enough. The attacks of 9/11 were acts of terrible violence. But they do not qualify as “the most horrific act of violence ever on North American soil.” As someone who teaches history and politics of Latin America and the Caribbean, I feel it is important to qualify that one sentence from an otherwise excellent article. Mexico is part of North America, and we have to know that the Europeanization of North America – in Mexico, in the United States and in Canada – has at its foundation terrible acts of violence against this continent’s original inhabitants.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Sara Beck, “A Question of Treason,” Queen’s Alumni Review, Volume 82 Number 1, February 19, 2008
[2] William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru (New York: Modern Library, 1936)
[3] Prescott, p. 592
[4] Prescott, p. 599

Colombia crisis strengthens Venezuela, isolates U.S.

APRIL 7, 2008 – War preparations that might have involved three or more Latin American nations, came quickly to a halt March 7 at the Rio Group Summit in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. A Venezuelan-brokered deal ended a crisis that began with a Colombian military incursion into Ecuador. The great fear in Venezuela was that such a war would have ended up pitting Venezuela against U.S.-backed Colombia, the proxy war against the U.S. that has been feared for years. Instead, the resolution of the deal has weakened the hand of the U.S., and strengthened the prestige of Venezuela throughout the region.

The crisis began March 1, when Colombia’s air force attacked a training camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a camp based over the border in neighbouring Ecuador. According to the Colombian military, the raid killed 17 FARC guerrillas, including Raúl Reyes, a senior FARC leader. Colombian defence ministry spokespeople called it “the most important strike yet” against the FARC.[1]

There are not many countries in the world that can bomb a neighbour, kill and maim dozens, and then boast about it. The fact that Colombian government spokespersons could so boast, gives an insight into the role Colombia plays on the northern edge of the South American continent. Colombia is a military client state of the world’s biggest imperialist power. The U.S. currently gives Colombia more than $600-million a year in military aid,[2] a rate of arms shipments that has been ongoing for years. From 1999 to 2004, U.S. military aid to Colombia totalled $3.6-billion, an average of just under $600-million a year, and the most of any country in Latin America – in the world trailing only Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan.[3] With good reason, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez referred to Colombia as the “Israel of Latin America.”[4]

And just like in Israel, this aid does not come without strings. In exchange for these billions (more than $3-billion a year in Israel’s case), both Israel and Colombia are expected to act as “proxies” for the U.S. So in 2006, when the U.S. was testing the waters for an expanded war beyond the borders of Iraq, it was its client state, Israel, which (unsuccessfully) opened a second front in Lebanon.

Colombia plays the same role in Latin America. It is no secret that the U.S. would like to see the back of Chávez, but it is also no secret that, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is in no position to carry out his overthrow directly. But, as happened in the 1980s against Nicaragua, a proxy war waged by U.S. allies has always remained a possibility. The most likely proxy has always been Colombia.

So hard in the wake of Colombia’s bombing raid in Ecuador, the war drums were beating throughout North America. Canada’s Globe and Mail did not warn against the attack on Ecuador’s sovereignty. Instead, it talked about “Chavez’s role in terrorism” saying that laptops recovered in the raid showed that Chavez had been a “state sponsor of terrorism.”[5] Chávez denied funding the FARC telling the newspaper El Universal “I would never do it.”[6] The issue of the funding of the FARC is a little wide of the mark in any case. We already know that the U.S. backs Colombia to the hilt, and the terror of the Colombian government’s use of this money is widely documented. As of one year ago, at the time of a state visit by Bush to Colombia, eight congressmen, “all tied to the president” had been “jailed for working with right-wing death squads.”[7]

But the crisis evolved in a direction that caught Bush and his supporters completely by surprise. Ecuador of course cut diplomatic ties with Colombia, but so did Venezuela, joined on March 6 by Daniel Ortega’s newly-elected government in Nicaragua. Ecuador expelled Colombian diplomats, as did Venezuela. Ecuador of course sent troops to the region attacked by Colombia, but again, they did not stand alone – March 2, Venezuela ordered 10 battalions “usually amounting to at least 6,000 troops”[8] to the border with Colombia.

The “Israel of Latin America” suddenly found itself completely isolated, surrounded by neighbours who are increasingly confident to act in defiance of the United States, and unwilling to sit by while a U.S. client-state blatantly violates the sovereignty of a neighbour with a murderous bombing raid.

So it was that, just one week later, a chastised Colombian president Uribe had to agree to a resolution backed by the 20 member Río Group, which “included a rejection of the violation of Ecuadorian territorial sovereignty and an endorsement of the resolution of the Organization of American States (OAS), which had denounced Colombia’s attack.”[9] If this represented a profound humiliation for Uribe, it was even more humiliating for the United States. March 18, the OAS approved the Rio Group resolution by a vote that would have been unanimous except for the United States, which expressed “reservations.”[10] U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said, “we believe they [the Colombians] were acting in a justifiable way.”[11]

Of course Negroponte thought they were justified. As U.S. ambassador to Honduras, he was closely associated with the barbaric violation of Nicaraguan sovereignty in the 1980s, the proxy war carried out by the right-wing “contras”. But twenty years later, the U.S. stands completely alone.

We know from the long and bloody history of imperialist intervention into Latin America, that there are two big dangers facing any government attempting to break imperialism’s grip – coup d’état and invasion. In 2002, one million of the poorest in Caracas took to the streets and prevented a right-wing, U.S. supported coup against Chávez. Now in 2008, a proxy war with Colombia has been averted by solidarity between Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua, backed ultimately by every country in the Americas except the United States.

The reach of the U.S. in Latin America has weakened, and the new movements towards sovereignty and independence, without question led by Venezuela, are gaining strength.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article was published as Colombia crisis strengthens Venezuela, isolates U.S.Axis of Logic, 8 April.

References

[1] Cited in Simon Romero, “Colombian Forces Kill Senior Guerrilla Commander, Official Says,” The New York Times, March 2, 2008, www.nytimes.com
[2] According to Romero, “Colombian Forces Kill Senior Guerrilla Commander”
[3] The Center for Public Integrity, “U.S. Military Aid Before and After 9/11,” www.publicintegrity.org
[4] Associated Press, “Chavez: Colombia has become the Israel of Latin America,” Haaretz.com, Marcy 7, 2008, www.haaretz.com
[5] Editorial, “Chavez’s role in terrorism,” The Globe and Mail, March 7, 2008
[6] Cited in Alexei Barrioneuvo, “U.S. Studies Rebel’s Data for Chávez Link,” The New York Times, April 7, 2008, www.nytimes.com
[7] Juan Forero, “Colombia’s Uribe Faces Crisis on Death Squads,” All Things Considered, NPR (National Public Radio), March 16, 2007, www.npr.com
[8] “Venezuela troops ‘move to border,’” BBC News, March 5, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk
[9] James Suggett, “Venezuela and Ecuador Resolve Differences with Colombia at Regional Summit,” March 8, 2008, Venezuelanalysis.com – The Rio Group “was created in 1986 to be a political forum for Latin American heads of state.”
[10] Kiaraz Janicke, “OAS Rejects Colombia’s Military Incursion into Ecuador,” March 18, 2008, Venezualanalysis.com
[11] DPA, “OAS rejects Colombian military incursion in Ecuador,” Thaindian News, March 18, 2008, www.thaindian.com

Fidel Castro: ‘Our revolution is not red but olive green’

Fidel Castro has announced that he will step down as president after almost 50 years as the president of Cuba. He has outlasted two generations of U.S. presidents, dedicated to his overthrow. In 1959 – the year of the revolution – Castro said: “Our revolution is neither capitalist nor communist! … Capitalism sacrifices the human being, communism with its totalitarian conceptions sacrifices human rights. We agree neither with the one or the other … Our revolution is not red but olive green. It bears the colour of the rebel army from the Sierra Maestra.”[1] No wonder generation after generation of young people, fighting for social change, have identified with both Castro and the revolution he personified.

When you study the history of Cuba, you can understand why the young Castro described his revolution as “neither capitalist nor communist.” Before the 1959 revolution – which overthrew the corrupt U.S. backed Fulgencio Batista – hidden from most histories is the magnificent uprising of 1933.[2] In the context of the catastrophic Great Depression, a massive movement engulfed the country. Richard Gott cites one eyewitness account. “Within less than a month the number of mills under labour control was estimated at thirty-six. Soviets were reported to have been organized at Mabay, Jaronú, Senado, Santa Lucía, and other centrales. At various points mill managers were held prisoners by the workers. Labour guards were formed, armed with clubs, sticks and a few revolvers … Workers fraternized with the soldiers and police.”[3]

Batista emerged into history as the central figure who helped to restore capitalism by leading the counter-revolution. Tragically, the communist organization at the time – the Partido Unión Revolucionaria – eventually did a deal with Batista. Their international organization – the Communist International – could say that “The people who are working for the overthrow of Batista … are no longer acting in the interests of the Cuban people.”[4] This alliance with Batista would last a decade, from 1937 to 1947. Castro’s movement in the 1950s was, then, a movement against a regime which the Communist Party had helped legitimize. The Communist Party was completely discredited, and Castro’s revolution was “not red but olive-green.”

Bitter opposition from the United States has defined Castro’s rule. This has nothing to do with a supposedly “democratic” U.S. against an “authoritarian” Castro. On taking power, to make even small improvements in the lives of Cuba’s poor, Castro had to challenge both landlords and capitalists. The U.S. has never forgiven him.

Cuba like much of Latin America, had an economy disfigured by centuries of imperialism. A handful of very rich landlords controlled the vast majority of land, while thousands of peasants were completely landless. Castro took three steps. First, he restricted most landholdings to 1,000 acres. Second, he divided up 40 per cent of the countryside into small holdings for the poor and landless peasants – giving them on average plots of 67 acres. Third, he stated that in future, land in Cuba would be owned only by Cubans. This infuriated the Americans, because the majority of foreign landowners were from the U.S.[5]

So when 300,000 tons of desperately needed crude oil arrived from Russia (in exchange for Cuban sugar), under pressure from the U.S. government, Shell, Standard Oil and Texaco refused to allow the use of their refineries. Castro expropriated the refineries. The U.S. then attacked the sugar industry – the lifeblood of the country, taking away Cuba’s sugar quota. “They will take away our quota pound by pound, and we will take away their sugar mills one by one.”[6] The sugar mills were nationalized, along with all major American properties on the island. So the U.S. “struck back … with the most powerful economic weapon in its armoury: an embargo on U.S. exports to Cuba.”[7] That embargo has continued to this day, and has made life in Cuba extremely difficult.

But Castro’s Cuba has nonetheless survived – in fact it has more than survived. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Cuban troops fought side by side with liberation fighters in Africa, helping win national liberation struggles against European imperialism. Critically, in 1987 and 1988, Angolan troops supported by Cubans, fought repeated battles in Angola against an invading army from apartheid South Africa. The inability of the South African military to defeat the Angolans and Cubans was a critical factor in the subsequent collapse of the apartheid regime.[8]

But the brutal U.S. embargo had the disastrous impact of driving Cuba into the camp of the Stalinist Soviet Union. An economy dependent on the export of sugar to the United States became an economy dependent on the export of sugar to the Soviet Union and its allies. And working too closely with the Soviet Union sometimes meant taking the wrong sides in international disputes. In the 1970s, Cuba provided military support to the repressive Russian-backed regime of Ethiopia against the people of Eritrea who were fighting for their independence, an action that left a legacy of bitterness in Eritrea.[9]

Most analyses of Cuba accept that its society is now “post-capitalist” in some sense. This is misleading. No country as poor and isolated as Cuba can, on its own, make a transition to socialism. It remains caught in the web of the world economy, forced to “market” itself as a tourist designation with all the social ills which come with carving out such a “niche” in the capitalist economy.[10] Cuba under Castro needs not to be romanticized as a new socialist society, but understood as a country that has mobilized and stood up to imperialism over half a century.

In 1953, while on trial with 100 others for their assault on the Moncada Barracks, the then 26 year old Fidel Castro entered the stage of history. “The guilty continue at liberty and with weapons in their hands – weapons which continually threaten the lives of all citizens. … I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”[11] As Castro prepares to step down as president of Cuba, more than half a century later, there is no question that history has absolved him. The revolution he led remains a beacon for millions in the Global South.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Cited in Peter Binns and Mike Gonzalez, “Cuba, Castro and Socialism,” International Socialism 2:8, Spring 1980, p. 6
[2] See Luis E. Aguilar, Cuba 1933: Prologue to Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972)
[3] Cited in Richard Gott, Cuba: A new history (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 136
[4] Cited in Gott, pp. 143-4
[5] Gott, pp. 170-1
[6] Gott, pp. 183-4
[7] Gott, p. 185
[8] “Cuba & The Liberation of Southern Africa,” Pan-African newswire, November 8, 2005
[9] D. Fogel, Africa in Struggle, (San Francisco: ISM press, 1982), pp. 281-336
[10] See Antonio Carmona Báez, State resistance to globalisation in Cuba (London: Pluto Press, 2004), pp. 1-85
[11] Fidel Castro, “History Will Absolve Me,” Castro Internet Archive

Venezuela: The spectre of Big Oil

FEBRUARY 21, 2008 – “Never again will they rob us – the ExxonMobil bandits. They are imperial, American bandits, white-collared thieves. They turn governments corrupt, they oust governments. They supported the invasion of Iraq.”[1] This was the response from Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to the successful lawsuit by the world’s biggest corporation (ExxonMobil), freezing $12 billion in assets of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA – a serious escalation in Big Oil’s long running dispute with Chávez and the movement he represents.

ExxonMobil isn’t suing PDVSA because it needs the money. The world’s largest publicly traded corporation recorded profits of $40.6-billion (U.S.) in 2007, up three per cent from 2006’s record of $39.6-billion. “If Exxon were a country, its 2007 profit would exceed output of two-thirds of the world’s nations. Its 2007 revenue of $404-billion (U.S.) would place it among the 30 largest countries, ahead of such middle powers as Sweden and Venezuela.”[2]

ExxonMobil claims it is suing PDVSA because of a June 2007 deadline given by Chávez to Exxon and other Big Oil corporations operating in Venezuela, demanding they cede majority control in their heavy-crude upgrading projects in the country. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips filed arbitration requests with the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, and ExxonMobil simultaneously took legal action in courts in the U.S. and Britain, which on February 7 agreed with their claim, and ordered the freeze of PDVSA assets.[3]

But there is much more at stake than a simple legal disagreement. First – many other Big Oil companies have agreed to Chávez’ terms and not gone to court – among them, Chevron Corp., Norway’s Statoil ASA, Britain’s BP PLC and France’s Total SA.[4] Second, Venezuela is not the only country to confront Big Oil and demand that old contracts be renegotiated. Here in Canada, Newfoundland’s Danny Williams demanded and won an ownership share in the multi-billion-dollar Hebron offshore oil deal.[5] Even the Tories in Alberta are forcing Big Oil to pay higher royalties.[6] And in Russia, “both BP PLC and Royal Dutch Shell PLC have ceded control in big, lucrative Siberian projects to Russian gas monopoly OAO Gazprom.”[7]

The truth is, ExxonMobil’s ultimatum has more to do with politics than economics. Russia’s ruler Vladimir Putin holds office because of his ties to the secret service, his crackdown on public debate, and his commitment to pushing Russia back into the world of Big Power politics. That world of corruption and repression is comforting and familiar to the owners of ExxonMobil. Chávez, by contrast, holds office because millions have again and again been willing to put their bodies on the line against multinational corporations and their local allies. That revolutionary movement is terrifying to ExxonMobil.

So – working with courts in the U.S. and Britain (the two biggest western imperialist powers) – ExxonMobil is testing the water, seeing just how strong the revolutionary movement in Venezuela is. This is especially critical, given the setback faced by Chávez in the recent constitutional referendum.

And we shouldn’t doubt the capacity of multinational corporations to use a legal fig leaf to pursue their “right” to pull exorbitant profits out of the Global South. “BP won an arbitration case against Libya in the 1970s … and chased tankers of Libyan crude around the world to seize them as payment.” In 2006 and 2007, “Western companies that purchased debt for unpaid construction work in the Congo have tried to seize tankers of Congolese oil to satisfy arbitration awards.”[8]

The ExxonMobil attacks have been met with defiance in Venezuela. PDVSA denies that any significant assets have been affected by the court action. “PDVSA is operating at 100 percent and is exporting oil all over the world,” said Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez.[9] February 11, Chávez said that if ExxonMobil does succeed in freezing PDVSA assets, he would halt oil exports to the United States.[10] This is a threat the U.S. has to take seriously. As well as being the fourth largest exporter of oil to the U.S., if Venezuela succeeds in certifying an additional 200 billion barrels of oil reserves to the 100 billion already certified, it will officially have the most proved reserves of oil, in the world.[11]

With so much at stake, U.S. imperialism and its corporate allies are not at the moment in a position to launch a sequel to the failed coup of 2002. Venezuela’s movement is too big, and Venezuela’s oil is too important for that to happen – for now. But we know from the bitter history of Big Oil and the Global South that this is not the last confrontation between corporate and popular power in Venezuela.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article was published as Venezuela: The spectre of Big Oil.” Venezuelanalysis.com, 26 February.

References

[1] Cited in Saul Hudson, “Chávez warns he’ll stop oil shipments to U.S.,” The Globe and Mail, Feb. 11, 2008, p. B.3
[2] Shawn McCarthy, “Exxon profit hits $40.6-billion,” The Globe and Mail, Feb. 2, 2008, p. B.7
[3] Peter Wilson, “Big Oil’s Victory in Venezuela,” BusinessWeek, Feb. 7, 2008, www.businessweek.com
[4] Brian Ellsworth, “Exxon, ConocoPhillips won’t bow to Chávez,” The Globe and Mail, June 26, 2007, p. B.12
[5] Colin Campbell, “How to win, in a fight with Big Oil,” Maclean’s, September 10, 2007, p. 62
[6] Guy Chazan, “Oil Sands Are Shifting in Alberta,” Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2008, p. A8
[7] Russell Gold, “Big Oil looks for Plan B after Venezuela,” The Globe and Mail, June 27, 2007, p. B.13
[8] Russell Gold, “Big Oil,” p. B.13
[9] “Venezuela denies PDVSA asset freeze,” www.chinaview.cn, February 9, 2008
[10] Simon Romero, “Chávez threatens to end oil exports to U.S.,” International Herald Tribune, February 11, 2008, www.iht.com
[11] Steven Bodzin, “Exxon Gives Chávez Biggest Fight Over Nationalization,” Bloomberg.com, February 13, 2008

Venezuela – Referendum Defeat Strengthens the Right

In the early morning of Monday December 3 – when President Hugo Chávez conceded the defeat of proposed changes to Venezuela’s constitution – the mood in the capital Caracas depended on whether you were rich or poor. Outside the Miraflores Palace, thousands of red-shirted Chávez supporters “collapsed into stunned silence. Some began to sob.” By contrast, “middle-class areas of Caracas erupted in jubilation. Housewives leaned out of windows banging pots, cavalcades of cars honked horns and couples danced salsa in the streets.”[1] For the first time since the election of Chávez in 1998, the rich in Venezuela had something to celebrate, and the repercussions are still unclear.

The vote itself could not have been closer – 4,504,354 votes against, (50.70%) and 4,379,392, (49.29%) for the proposed changes. Importantly, this result did not represent a sharp increase in the numbers of people opposed to Chávez. The “No” vote was only 100,000 more than the votes against him in the 2006 presidential election. The real story was the decline in those voting with Chávez. The “Yes” vote was 2.8 million fewer than the numbers who voted for Chávez the previous year.[2] In other words, the referendum was defeated – not because of a sharp growth of right-wing forces, but because of a sharp decline of those willing to back the Chávez referendum initiative.

And at one level, it is not a defeat at all. In accepting the decision of the voters, Chávez made it very difficult for his opponents to call him undemocratic. The process itself was remarkable as an exercise in public participation. According to Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Ambassador of Venezuela to the U.S.: “from August 16 to October 7 – some 9,020 public events were held … Over 10 million copies of the reforms were distributed to the public, and one poll found that over 77 percent of the Venezuelan people had read them.”[3] Further, the constitution up for amendment, was already an extremely progressive Chávista document – the product of a 1999 popularly elected Constituent Assembly. According to respected Venezuela commentator Maria Paez Victor:

It guarantees the rights of women as well as children; full rights over land, culture, and language to Aboriginal peoples, includes environmental rights, and enshrines public participation. It also guarantees social human rights such as the right to health care, education, work, and food. And thus, it has given the state a role not just as guardian, but also as a promoter of civic and social rights. It is unique in that it recognizes the right of housewives to social benefits, it specifically uses both female and male nouns and pronouns – thereby asserting the active role of women – and it gives constitutional parity to all international human rights treaties signed by Venezuela.[4]

But Victor and all other serious commentators agree that the vote was a defeat for the revolution, and the reason this defeat has to be taken seriously is not because of electoral considerations (counting the number of votes), but because of the social dynamics the vote has revealed. Specifically, the campaign against the reforms created a context in which the right-wing in Venezuela could unite and effectively mobilize – really, for the first time in a decade. This newly unified opposition included some prominent individuals and organizations, including Chávez ex-wife Marisabel Rodriguez, the social democratic party Podemos, and former defence minister Raul Baduel.[5] The unifying of an anti-Chávez opposition – especially one with the connections to the military represented by Baduel – is an event to be taken very seriously indeed.

The opposition was able to take advantage of the complexity of the referendum. August 15 2007, Chávez presented 33 amendments. The National Assembly then held a three round debate, and proposed an additional 36 amendments for a total of 69. The reforms ranged from decreasing the working week to institutionalizing funding for the new communal councils, to ending limits on the presidency. This complexity was clearly a problem. The merits of individual reforms were easily lost in the sheer magnitude of what voters were being asked to decide on. In this confusion, the right-wing seized on the proposal to end limits to the presidency, seeing in this an attempt by Chávez to stay in office in perpetuity – a silly point, given the fact that in any parliamentary (rather than presidential) democracy, there are often no limits on the term of office for the head of state. A good example would be, well, Canada.

On top of the complexity, there was the question of time. The official campaign lasted from November 2 to December 3 – an amazingly short time given such a complex question. At one level it is incredible not how many people stayed away, but how many people showed up to vote, in spite of these obstacles.

Greg Wilpert insists, however, that the vote reflected deeper problems. He argues that there has been a “souring of the mood” among the poor and workers who are the base of the Chávista movement. Many of Chávez’ supporters believe:

… the government’s public administration had become inefficient and many of the president’s supporters wanted to send him a message. As the human rights group Provea reports, the social programmes, the missions for community health care, literacy training, high school completion, public housing, subsidised food, land reform, and employment through the creation of cooperatives, have all been deteriorating in the past year. While pro-Chávez poor Venezuelans appreciate the increase in social programmes and spending over the past four years, they are disappointed and frustrated at the inefficiency with which these programmes are managed. It did not help that there was a severe milk shortage in October and November, which made it almost impossible to find fresh milk, and hard to find powdered milk.[6]

This is a dangerous situation. Chávez has massively raised expectations, talking about “21st century socialism.” But the reality is, socialism is not on the agenda any time soon in Venezuela. The country is massively poor, handicapped by the terrible legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism, and facing an extremely powerful enemy in the shape of Imperialist North America (including both the United States and Canada). The Chávez project has accomplished many things – but they are at the level of reforms and the assertion of national independence. If these are painted with the gloss of the struggle for socialism, the potential for massive demoralization is very real, as the grim everyday reality of oppression and exploitation grinds on for Venezuela’s impoverished millions.

Having raised expectations too high, Chávez now has put out signs that he may be turning in the other direction, and setting them too low. In a confusing televised address January 6, 2008, Chávez on the one hand said that “we’re going to continue to move forward in creating a socialist fatherland,” but that at the moment would mean a sharp change of pace. “We couldn’t expand the framework, we couldn’t increase the perspective and we couldn’t accelerate the pace” he said. “I’m obligated to put on the brakes.”[7] If the brakes need to be put on, it is of abstract talk about “socialism” in the face of the bitter reality of class society. In terms of pushing for reforms of that society, the gas pedal is required, not the brake pedal.

One week after the referendum defeat, a huge step towards Latin American integration took place with the announcement of the “Banco de Sur” – the new South American development bank. This was a joint initiative of the governments of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay,[8] and is designed to continue the process of freeing Latin America from the underdevelopment clutches of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. This is a fantastic assertion of regional independence, and is in line with Venezuela’s moves to become a full member of the trade alliance, Mercosur.

One of our jobs in the solidarity movements of the Global North is to defend these assertions of independence from imperialism. But in themselves, they are perfectly compatible with capitalism. It is interesting that a senior member of Brazil’s government sees the referendum defeat as being a useful event, something that “for the purposes of inclusion” into Mercosur, the referendum defeat could actually help.[9] From the standpoint of the social movements, this is a terrible logic. A defeat which partially demobilizes the mass movement, and gives confidence to the right wing is not a useful event even if it greases the wheels of a business deal like Mercosur. Too far down the road of mass demoralization and right-wing unification, and increased violence against the revolution cannot at all be discounted. The history of Latin America is littered with examples of attempted revolutions where a demobilized mass movement has been left vulnerable to counter-revolution.

We build solidarity for the Chávista stand against imperialism for what it is – the assertion of sovereignty and independence. But we do that solidarity work no service by “painting it in communist colours” to borrow a phrase from the Russian Marxist Vladimir Lenin. In this, we can take heart in the fact that in all revolutionary processes such as that unfolding in Venezuela, there are thousands who move towards a vision of a future based, not on electoral considerations, but the self-activity and self-organization of the poor and the working class.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Rory Carroll, “Shock and celebrations as voters stall the Chávez revolution,” The Guardian, December 4, 2007, www.guardian.co.uk
[2] Information taken from Alan Woods, “Venezuela: The referendum defeat – What does it mean?”, venezuelanalysis.com, December 4, 2007
[3] Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, “Reforming Venezuela’s Consitution,” venezuelanalysis.com, November 20, 2007
[4] Maria Paez Victor, “Mr. Danger and Socialism for the New Millennium,” ZNet, March 29, 2006, www.zmag.org . To read a copy of the constitution, see www.venezuelanalysis.com/constitution
[5] Gregory Wilpert, “Venezuela’s Revolution Checked,” ZNet, December 24, 2007 www.zmag.org
[6] Gregory Wilpert, “Venezuela’s Revolution Checked”
[7] Matthew Walter, “Venezuela’s Chavez to ‘Put Brakes on His Revolution (Update1)”, Bloomberg.com, January 6, 2008, www.bloomberg.com
[8] Jude Webber, “S America launches Banco del Sur,” Financial Times, December 11, 2007, www.ft.com
[9] “Referendum results to Help Venezuela Enter Mercosur,” eluniversal.com, December 7, 2007