Hurricane Hugo and Typhoon Mahmoud


There are some cities where the Venezuelan Head of State, Hugo Chávez can travel and be greeted warmly. Havana is one, Buenos Aires another. But in Santiago, Chávez makes Chilean President Michelle Bachelet rather nervous often with good reason, given her country’s close ties to Washington.

And his performance at last week’s 17th Ibero-American Summit, held in Santiago, was classic Chávez – passionate, over the top and slightly embarrassing.

Singing one of his favourite Mexican ballads No soy monedita de oro, pa’ caerles bien a todos, (‘I am not a little gold coin who can please everyone’) as he arrived at dawn in Santiago, he told reporters he was ‘very happy to be in the land of Allende’.

Chávez commended the accords achieved at the Summit, and promoted his country’s regional projects such as the Bank of the South, PetroSur and the Latin American trade agreement known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA).

Argentina’s outgoing President Néstor Kirchner criticised certain Spanish firms’ unfair contracts with his country; while Nicaragua’s Head of State, Daniel Ortega, condemned the Spanish electrical company Unión Fenosa for its poor labour standards. Tensions were also evident when Bolivian President Evo Morales made calls for the abandonment of neo-liberal policies, to which the Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero responded that the management of certain sectors of the economy did not necessarily prove any ideological positions.

For Morales — whose country, in the last decade, has been ravaged by market fundamentalism to the extent where even collecting rain water was illegal since it too was privatised — Zapatero’s comments must have been distasteful. And was the Spaniard just scoring debating points with his comment about the origins of the Enlightenment and that ‘even Carlos Marx was European’?

But then it was Chávez’s turn to join in the denunciations.

Gerardo Díaz Ferrán, the President of Spain’s main business lobby CEOE, had earlier expressed concern over Venezuela’s judicial system. Chávez accused him and the old political Right in Spain of supporting the April 2002 coup in Venezuela, and then made the same charge against ex-Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar calling him a ‘fascist’ and guilty of ‘selling Washington’s discourse’.

Chávez, of course, has every right to denounce Aznar’s past actions and recent comments. After all, the Ambassadors of Madrid and Washington were the only ones who recognised the legitimacy of business leader, Pedro Carmona, who illegally declared himself the Head of State during a 36 hour coup d’état in 2002, while close to 100 civilians – overwhelmingly Chavistas – were killed.

But the Venezuelan could have formally asked incumbent Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero to launch an investigation into the past actions of Aznar. Instead, Chávez plunged into what looked like a rabid tirade against an old (and absent) rival.

When Zapatero responded that, whatever Aznar’s past or recent actions, he had been the democratically elected Prime Minister of Spain and deserved some level of respect, Chávez’s constant interruptions fed the media stereotype of him as a bully. And when Spain’s King Juan Carlos bluntly told Chávez to ‘shut up’, the Venezuelan looked anything but sharp.

In recent months, Hugo Chávez has looked similarly ham-fisted in his relationship with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with one crucial exception: it has nothing to do with heat of the moment remarks.

As Nasrin Alavi has pointed out, as far back as 2003 Ahmadinejad shared a similar political discourse to Chávez, claiming that:

he would bring ‘oil money to people’s tables’ and ‘cut off the hands of the mafias’ that controlled the industry. With promises of food and housing subsidies, he tapped into Iran’s vein of popular anger against corruption and cronyism, appealing to thousands of jobless youth and underpaid workers.

But other than having a common international foe in Washington and a penchant for flamboyant political rhetoric, Chávez and Ahmadinejad have little in common. Alavi writes:

Since his election, labour disputes and protests have been on the rise, with both unemployment and inflation surging. Iran has seen massive protests by teachers’ unions outside the Iranian Parliament. As recently as March, security forces arrested at least 1000 striking teachers after demonstrations in favour of raising their wages drew up to 10,000 protesters, many of whom waved banners denouncing Ahmadinejad. Many prominent union leaders, whom the President championed not so long ago, were among the detained.

Last year, according to Amnesty International’s 2007 Report, thousands of people were arrested in Iran following demonstrations. The report states:

Human rights defenders, including journalists, students and lawyers, were among those detained arbitrarily without access to family or legal representation. Torture, especially during periods of pre-trial detention, remained commonplace. At least 177 people were executed, at least four of whom were under 18 at the time of the alleged offence, including one who was under 18 at the time of execution. Two people were reportedly stoned to death. Sentences of flogging, amputation and eye-gouging continued to be passed. The true numbers of those executed or subjected to corporal punishment were probably considerably higher than those reported.

Although it might be natural for Venezuela, as a member of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries , to have political and trade relations with another OPEC country like Iran, awarding Ahmadinejad the Collar of the Order of the Liberator, Venezuela’s highest honour for visiting dignitaries as Chávez did in September last year, is not only embarrassing, it is shameful.

Last year, groups on the Iranian Left like the Iranian Revolutionary Socialists League (IRSL) criticised the Chávez-Ahmadinejad relationship as one that would ‘boost the [Iranian] regime and weaken the mass movements in Iran particularly the struggles of workers for their basic trade union rights’.

Even if Chávez feels Iran needs strong diplomatic support to stave off a possible US attack, the collateral damage from such moves is extensive not least for those on the Left who would prefer to support Chávez more.

And on December 2 international attention will again shift to Caracas as Chávez takes to a referendum 69 proposed changes to the Venezuelan Constitution. The changes, according to Sujatha Fernandez, include:

an increase in the presidential term from six to seven years and a removal of the two-term limit, a shortening of the work week to 36 hours, the suppression of the right to information during national emergencies, the elimination of the autonomy of the central bank, increased funding for communal councils, the creation of new forms of collective property, the requirement of gender parity in positions of public office, and the recognition of Afro-Venezuelan groups, in addition to Indigenous groups included in the previous reforms.

It’s never straightforward with Chávez. Increased funding and power for Venezuela’s community councils will certainly result in greater citizen empowerment and yet, paradoxically, other Constitutional changes will centralise more powers in Chávez’s hands.

In much of the mainstream media, the move to unrestricted presidential terms will be presented as confirming Chávez’s slide towards a dictatorship, even if unrestricted terms in the highest office exist in countries like France and Australia.

For Venezuela’s hard-core supporters in the international Left however, the singing President can do no wrong. The words ‘contradictions’ and ‘inconsistencies’ are not a part of their vocabulary.

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