Brie: It's What's For Breakfast

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made headlines last week when he told the United States government to “Go to Hell” in a Sunday radio address. My first reaction was to laugh. Then I asked myself why I was laughing.

I might be laughing because someone in the Americas has the outspoken temerity to stand up to Washington’s bullying of the rest of the world, especially smaller, less economically and militarily powerful countries like Venezuela. It is refreshing for someone in the position of Hugo Chavez to stand up to Washington’s arrogance.

Chavez made headlines in September, you may remember, when at his address to the U.N.’s General Assembly he said the UN was basically powerless as an organization to make much of an effect on world politics. Referring to Bush’s speech the day before, Chavez said, ”The devil came here yesterday and it smells of sulfur still today.” I admit that I laughed at that statement, too. My opinion of George Bush isn’t very flattering, and I will admit that on at least one occasion I flippantly referred to him as the anti-christ. Last year, when Chavez was in the U.S. for the annual meeting at the U.N., Chavez declared in a Washington Post interview that the Bush Administration was a terrorist administration. In case you’re wondering, that statement did not make me laugh.

Chavez’s posturing is especially refreshing in light of the fact that he overcame what what was probably a U.S.-backed coup d’etat in April 2002. In fairness, Washington investigated itself and officially denies it had anything to do with that coup. Whether or not the U.S. government backed it, it was clear that Washington would not have been unhappy to see Chavez go. The administration actively supports Chavez’s political rivals, despite the popularity of the Venezuelan leader among his people and in Latin America in general.

Chavez’s ire rose most recently in response to a U.S. State Department statement that the legislative body in Venezuela has allowed Chavez too much power when it gave him the authority to make the extensive socialist reforms, including the nationalization of public utilities and the country’s main telecommunications company. Gasoline is already heavily subsidized by the government of this oil-rich Latin American nation, and sells for around 12¢ per gallon.

But is socialization such a bad idea for these basic necessities? In Venezuela, the same as in the rest of Latin America, there is a huge gap between the rich elite minority and the hoards of the desperately poor. Economically, Latin America has not been the global powerhouse that Europe or North America are. Our neighbors to the south have not yet thrown off the yoke of poverty enforced by centuries of Spanish colonization and dictatorial regimes.

Recently, though, the countries on that continent have started working together for a common political and economic good. The example of the European Union, countries which joined together for economic strength, is one I would not be surprised to see South America emulate in the reasonably near future. Venezuela was instrumental in helping Argentina out of its devastating economic crisis a few years ago when the International Money Fund stood by and did nothing. Venezuela bought much of Argentina’s debt and contributed significantly to stabilizing the country in the face of catastrophe.

Chavez is a significant economic leader in the region. His is the driving force behind ALBA, the “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas” that Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia have joined together to form, and which Nicaragua, once again under the control of Sandinista Daniel Ortega, will soon be joining. ALBA is an alternative to NAFTA-style free trade among Latin American countries, where the countries come together economically but retain their own political sovereignty.

Venezuela is positioning itself as a force to be reckoned with on more than just the economic front, though. Despite a U.S. arms embargo against Venezuela, that country is increasing its defense spending at the rate of more than 12% a year. “According to the US Defense Department, since 2005, Venezuela spent more than China, Pakistan and Iran in procurement of weapons,” El Universal reported. The article quoted Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who said that Chavez’s government “emerged as a major purchaser of weapons and resorted to Russia for high-tech weaponry in order to neutralize the US influence.”

How major is major? Well, since 2005 Venezuela has spent $4.3 billion acquiring weapons. That’s almost $1 billion more than China, which spent $3.4 billion, and Pakistan, which spent $3 billion. Venezuela has spent two and a half times the amount Iran has spent on arms since 2005.

Iran is the country the Bush administration is focused on right now because of its possible intent to acquire nuclear weapons. The Bush administration is doing practically nothing about North Korea, which not only has acquired nuclear weapons but has actually test-fired its Taepo Dong missiles in our general direction. (Make no jokes about the name of those North Korean missiles which have such trouble staying up, ok? I’m trying to be serious here.)

In light of the military might of the United States, Venezuela’s acquisitions may seem inconsequential. Purchases included 24 Russian Su-30 multi-role fighter jets, 50 transport and attack military helicopters, 10 new Russian multi-purpose helicopters, 53 Russian Ak-103 assault rifles (before you laugh at that number, note that there was a deal for 100,000 more). Venezuela also purchased a license to build a factory to produce Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Venezuela has spent hundreds of thousands to refit older helicopters and on maintenance of two submarines (for the first time ever Venezuela is tending to this matter herself) and to improve existing weapons systems. More than half a billion dollars went to streamline and revamp the entire Venezuelan military.

Chavez is politically allied with Castro’s Cuba, and this week went so far as to say ‘When they name me, they name Fidel and when they name Fidel, they name me.’ Any moves the U.S. might make against Cuba in Fidel Castro’s waning days as dictator will be seen by Chavez as an attack on Venezuela.

The Venezuelan people recently re-elected Chavez President. Despite his popular support in free elections, the Bush administration perceives Chavez as a threat to democracy because of the socialist reforms he wants to enact, his political alignment with communist Cuba, and his outspoken opposition to President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” Chavez, in turn, sees Bush as a threat. He has accused the Bush administration of attempting to assassinate him, not just overthrow him.

The official position of our government is that Chavez’s government is eroding democracy and human rights in Venezuela. Our government also claims that Chavez wants to undermine American influence in the region. I am forced to disagree. By supporting a coup d’etat of a leader that had been elected in fair elections, the American government, not Hugo Chavez, is acting as the greatest threat to democracy in Venezuela. Chavez is attempting to make utilities, which we rich Americans consider the basic necessities of life, available to more Venezuelans through socialization. That appears to me to be a betterment of the human condition in Venezuela, not a worsening of it.

And let’s consider this: if George Bush believed that Venezuela had been behind a temporarily successful but ultimately failed coup d’etat of our government, and believed that the Venezuelan government had a hit out on him, don’t you think he’d be doing all he could to undermine Venezuelan influence among our neighbors and allies? And wouldn’t it be reasonable to build our arsenal and strengthen our military in the face of such threats?

The logic of our government’s foreign relations completely escapes me at times.

Oh, and get this. “Venezuela is providing low-income Americans with two million barrels of heating oil at a 40 percent discount price.” The program, which is similar to many Chavez has spearheaded in his own region, underscores the fact that he recognizes a difference between the American people and our leader. I, for one, am greatly relieved by that news.

January 26, 2007 - Posted by | Foreign Relations, Politics

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