Chavez, a Bolivarian?

Chavez, a Bolivarian?
Amir Taheri, Arab News —

It was after one of his earlier trips to Iran that I first met Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s flamboyant president. With a few colleagues, we had invited him to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Paris, and the conversation that ensued touched on a range of topics.However, two themes dominated.

 

The first was his “determination” to end poverty in Venezuela. “There is no need for anyone to be poor in a country as rich as ours,” he asserted as he sipped his Chateau Lafitte. “Give me four years, just give me four years!”

 

The second theme was Chavez’s claim that the Catholic Church, prompted by “wealthy oligarchs”, was trying to sabotage his social revolution.

 

Chavez, claimed to be the ideological heir of Simon de Bolivar, the father of Latin American liberation from colonial rule, and recalled his hero’s commitment to “secular government.” Bolivar had said that while the individual was free to have whatever faith he wished, the state should have no religion. As for society, its sole religion should be freedom within the rule of law.

 

In that context, Chavez was particularly critical of the theocratic system established by the late Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. He said he admired the Iranian revolution and had fallen in love with Iran’s natural beauty and cultural richness — “ah, those roses in Isfahan!” — but was uneasy about the mullah’s attempts to impose their version of Islam on all Iranians.

 

Well, Chavez has had eight years, twice as much as he had demanded in that Paris restaurant. And, what eight years!

 

Thanks to rising oil prices, Venezuela has had something like $180 billion net, that is to say after cost deduction, in oil export revenues. That income has been topped by $30 billion worth of government borrowing. That means a total of $210 billion, not taking into account the government’s other revenues from income tax, sales tax and custom duties.

 

And, yet, under Chavez Venezuela’s public debt, both domestic and foreign, has risen from $21 to almost $47 billion. Reports published by the Venezuelan government indicate a steady increase in the number of people below the poverty line. Despite a $5 billion bonanza from the seizure of foreign revenues from the Venezuelan Central Bank, the government last year issued bonds worth $4 billion to cover a looming budget deficit.

 

What happened?

 

What did Chavez do with the unprecedented wealth that came to Venezuela under his stewardship?

 

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that Venezuela has headed the list of Latin American nations as far as flight of capital is concerned. Over the past eight years, something like $70 billion has been transferred by Venezuelans to foreign, mostly American banks. Chavez has also spent billions helping Cuba and distributing free or cut-price oil in several countries, including some areas of the United States. Last week, during a visit to Iran, he extended that generosity to the Islamic republic by promising to supply cut-price gasoline to meet a shortage that has already caused riots throughout the country.

 

It is clear that somewhere along his trajectory, Chavez decided to cast himself in the role of a “fighter against Yankee Imperialism”. Once that decision was made, all other considerations became secondary. The elimination of poverty could wait for another day. As for Bolivar’s philosophy, it could be twisted to suit the new “heroic discourse.”

 

To be sure, Chavez has set up something he calls the Bolivarian Alliance in Latin America. But the regimes he has managed to attract, that is to say Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia, are more of anachronistic Communist setups than Bolivarian constructs. (Last Tuesday, the Islamic republic also joined the Bolivarian alliance, showing, if that were needed, that the exercise was more motivated by anti-Americanism than genuine Bolivarian values.)

 

In his visit to Iran, his sixth in eight years, Chavez put his Bolivarian flag in his pocket. He went on the tomb of Khomeini to pray for a theocrat. Chavez described the Khomeinist system as “political spirituality” and a model for mankind as a whole. He was especially enthusiastic in his praise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.

 

If the Islamic republic’s state-owned media is to be believed, Chavez also endorsed Ahamdinejad’s bid to become leader of the so-called nonaligned movement, and head it into a new global campaign aimed “the destruction of the American Imperialism.”

 

“With you in the lead,” Chavez said, “We shall defeat the United States and its allies wherever they are.”

 

Ahmadinejad in his $5 blouson and Chavez in his cliché red shirt traveled to southern Iran where a giant petrochemical complex has been under construction for years. The couple, walking hand-in-hand and exchanging sentimental phrases, visited Asaluyeh, one of the most deprived areas of the poverty-stricken Deep South of Iran. There, Chavez spoke of “the toiling masses’ right to a better life.”

 

What he did not know was that part of his visit had been cancelled to avoid construction workers who have been on strike since April. He also did not know that the striking workers had not been paid for six months and that several of their leaders had been arrested by the secret police and shipped to unknown destinations. He didn’t know that Asaluyeh workers are frequently beaten up by thugs working for government-owned companies and their French partners. Nor did he know that the majority of Asaluyeh’s 60,000 workers are poverty-stricken individuals who have come from all over Iran to earn a living for families left behind — families they often are not allowed to visit for months on end. A recent Shiraz University study described conditions at Asaluyeh sites as “akin to slave labor camps.” The average six-day working week could run into 70 hours, while most workers, hired on a daily basis, were allowed no paid annual holidays at all. Workers had to live in overcrowded huts provided by the employers who charged up to half of the average wage as rent. Food and other necessities were also available only in company-owned shops, often at prices twice higher than the average in the province.

 

Bolivar insisted on the separation of religion and state. Bolivar was on the side of the poor people. Bolivar wanted Latin America to seek allies among the Western democracies, not the potentates of the Orient.

 

Bolivar wanted Latin America to compete with the United States by enhancing its own freedoms, improving its educational system, achieving economic growth, and developing its culture. Bolivar did not believe that seeking the destruction of he United States was a worthy goal for any sane person let alone a nation. Cheap and banal anti-Americanism, the last refuge of every scoundrel, does not a Bolivarian make. Chavez, a Bolivarian? The workers in Asaluyeh know better!

Copyright: Arab News © 2003 All rights reserved. Site designed by: arabix and powered by Eima IT

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