The gravest threat of a good example


There’s a revolution unfolding in Venezuela that is transforming a nation and potentially a continent and capturing the imaginations of young activists worldwide.

Since his election in 1998, President Hugo Chavez has embarked on a series of reforms known as The Bolivarian Revolution (named after Venezuelan-born South American Liberator Simon Bolivar). These reforms aim to redistribute oil revenue in an attempt to eliminate the poverty that grips 80 per cent of the population. Venezuela is the world’s fourth largest oil producing nation and supplies 15 per cent of US markets.

Chavez at the World Social Forum

Chavez at the World Social Forum

Chavez’s reforms spread to free healthcare, free education, land being redistributed to landless peasants, worker-run and -operated factories, social programs encouraging the participation of women in the work force and in political decision making, environmentally conscious policies and perhaps the world’s most transparent democracy.

Chavez has been re-elected nine times since 1998 and, as he follows through with his promised reforms, his popularity has soared to its current level of 73 per cent approval in May 2005.

Chavez speaks openly of his hate of the United States and its oppressive policies, which have debilitated South American economies for decades. He has gone so far as to call for an ‘anti-globalisation network’ by forming what is known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) as a counter position to the free trade agreement of the Americas (FTAA) as pushed by the US. Cuba signed the ALBA in January 2005 and in so doing has initiated a series of policies aimed at rational use of each country’s resources to the benefit of the other.

This is not a ‘rape and pillage’ trade agreement as are currently signed by the majority of third world nations. This is an agreement based on a mutual sharing of resources and skills. In exchange for 10 000 doctors sent to work in Venezuela, Cuba receives discount oil. By agreeing to buy $500 000 worth of food and goods from Venezuela, Cuba has created 100 000 new jobs. In exchange, Venezuela is setting up a Cuban-run oil refinery off the Cuban coast. A mutually beneficial trade agreement? Some sort of concern for trade ramifications with another country? It sounds almost ethical.

This is all very dangerous ground to walk on. Chavez’s pro-humanist mandate has put him at odds with US oil corporations and the US government.

In an article for the Canadian-based Seven Oaks magazine on 8 March, Derrick O’Keefe wrote:

There is no doubt that the United States government understands the significance of the current direction of the process in Venezuela. An oil rich country with a radical, anti-imperialist government which has received repeated, indisputable democratic mandates and now advocates for socialism: the government in Caracas poses the gravest threat of a good example since the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

Chavez’s socialist model is based on democratic socialism, poles apart from the model used in the Soviet Union. In his 2004 World Social Forum speech, Chavez stated: ‘We must reclaim socialism but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans, not machines or the state, ahead of everything.’

Chavez’s ideas have such power because they have implications across a whole continent. This is where the strength of the movement lies. The poor majority across South America is hearing about the changes taking place in Venezuela and pressuring their governments for similar change. An example of this is the recent forced resignation of Bolivian President Carlos Mesa as tens of thousands of Bolivians demanded the continent’s second biggest gas reserve be nationalised.

Chavez has introduced a form of socialism that has the ability to stand up to international capitalist scrutiny because it is based on the same principle that capitalism holds so dear: democracy and a democratic, transparent electoral process.

Imagine the Bolivarian Revolution forming a South American Federation with Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba. Such a federation would have the ability to form self-sufficient trade links, increase industry, improve agriculture to feed its people rather than cash crops for export, and use energy resources to alleviate poverty.

Imagine the effect such a collective response would have on the poor majority in third world countries. Imagine people in Africa and Asia seeing Venezuela’s example and saying, ‘Access to health care, food, accommodation, the ability to feed myself and my family, education: they’re my rights too.’

Now imagine the working poor of the US having the same realisations, and you can see why the US government is so petrified of what’s happening in Venezuela.

When you compare a leader like Chavez to John Howard, it is no surprise that Venezuela has captured the imaginations of so many young Australian activists. Howard’s inward-looking, self-absorbed, commodified Australia lacks appeal. The privatisation of public assets and the government’s transparent attempt to shift accountability away from itself doesn’t show leadership or inspire; it makes me and many other young Australians cringe.

Chavez has taken on the responsibility of lifting his country out of poverty. Howard, on the other hand, skirts around the sidelines, trying to keep his feet dry, more intent on avoiding criticism than confronting the issues.
Chavez’s reforms are changing the lives of the Venezuelan people, and most importantly, not doing so at the expense of other countries and their people. Over the next ten years 40,000 Venezuelan doctors will have been trained in Cuba in exchange for cheap oil prices. That is a real fair trade agreement. Maybe Howard will suggest something similar with East Timor? Yeah right.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.