He has won two elections, and he has made a start on relieving poverty. So now the US wants to get rid of Venezuela's president
Almost 30 years after the violent destruction of the reformist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, a repeat performance is being planned in Venezuela. Little of this has been reported in Britain. Indeed, little is known of the achievements of the government of Hugo Chavez, who won presidential elections in 1998 and again in 2000 by the largest majority in 40 years.
Following the principles of a movement called BolIvarism, named after the South American independence hero Simon BolIvar, Chavez has implemented reforms that have begun to shift the great wealth of Venezuela, principally from its oil, towards the 80 per cent of his people who live in poverty. In 49 laws adopted by the Venezuelan Congress last November, Chavez began serious land reform, and guaranteed indigenous and women's rights and free healthcare and education up to university level.
Chavez faces enemies that Allende would recognise. The "oligarchies", which held power since the 1950s during the corrupt bipartisan reign of the Social Christians and Democratic Action, have declared war on the reforming president, backed by the Catholic Church and a trade union hierarchy and the media, both controlled by the right. What has enraged them is a modest agrarian reform that allows the state to expropriate and redistribute idle land; and a law that limits the exploitation of oil reserves, reinforcing a constitutional ban on the privatisation of the state oil company.
Allied with Chavez's domestic enemies is the Bush administration. Defying Washington, Chavez has sold oil to Cuba and refused overflying rights to American military aircraft supplying "Plan Colombia", the US campaign in support of the murderous regime in neighbouring Colombia. Worse, although he condemned the attacks of 11 September, he questioned the right of the United States to "fight terrorism with terrorism".
For this, he is unforgiven. On 5-7 November, the State Department, Pentagon and National Security Agency held a two-day meeting to discuss "the problem of Venezuela". The State Department has since accused the Chavez government of "supporting terrorism" in Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. In fact, Venezuela opposes American-funded terrorism in those three countries.
The US says it will "put Venezuela in diplomatic isolation"; Colin Powell has warned Chavez to correct "his understanding of what a democracy is all about". Familiar events are unfolding. The International Monetary Fund has indicated it supports a "transitional government" for Venezuela. The Caracas daily El Nacional says the IMF is willing to bankroll those who remove Chavez from office. James Petras, a professor at New York State University, who was in Chile in the early 1970s and has studied the subversion of the Allende government, says that "the IMF and financial institutions are fabricating a familiar crisis. The tactics used are very similar to those used in Chile. Civilians are used to create a feeling of chaos, and a false picture of Chavez as a dictator is established, then the military is incited to make a coup for the sake of the country."
A former paratrooper, Chavez apparently still has the army behind him (as Allende did, until the CIA murdered his loyal military chief, opening the way to Pinochet). However, several senior officers have denounced Chavez as a "tyrant" and have called for his resignation. It is difficult to assess this; in its rumour-mongering, the hostile Caracas press plays a role reminiscent of Chile's right-wing press, with poisonous stories questioning Chavez's sanity.
The most worrying threat comes from a reactionary trade union hierarchy, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), led by Carlos Ortega, a hack of the anti-Chavez Democratic Action Party. The CTV maintains a black list of "disloyal" and "disruptive" members, which it supplies to employers. According to Dick Nichols, writing from Caracas, Chavez's most serious mistake has been his failure to move against the union old guard, following a national referendum in which a majority gave him a mandate to reform the CTV.
The crime of Hugo Chavez is that he has set out to keep his electoral promises, redistributing the wealth of his country and subordinating the principle of private property to that of the common good. Having underestimated the power of his enemies, his current counter-offensive is imaginative but also hints of desperation.
He has set up what are called "BolIvarian circles", of which 8,000 are being established in communities and workplaces across the country. Based on the revolutionary heritage of Simon BolIvar's triumph in the war against Spain, their job is to "raise the consciousness of citizens and develop all forms of participatory organisations in the community, releasing projects in health, education, culture, sport, public services, housing and the preservation of the environment, natural resources and our historical heritage". Allied to this is a popular command "unifying and strengthening the forces in support of President Chavez".
These are fighting words that echo through the continent's history of epic struggles. They say that yet another South American country, in offering its people an alternative to poverty and foreign domination, the "threat of a good example", is entering a period of great uncertainty and fear. The achievements in Venezuela are a clear response to those who say that radical dreams and change are no longer possible. Chavez should be supported by all democrats. Chile must not happen again.