President Hugo Chávez, a Non-MSM Primer

By Vivien Lesnik Weisman (originally published in January) In order to understand the media coverage of the situation in Venezuela one must look at the antecedents. It is instructive to revisit this NYT editorial on the occasion of the short-lived 2002 coup. April 13, 2002 "Hugo Chávez Departs" With yesterday's resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chávez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona. The U.S. quickly recognized the coup leaders as the legitimate government of Venezuela in spite of the fact that their first acts where to dissolve the legislature and judiciary and suspend the Constitution. After all, the perpetrator of the coup was not a charismatic self-proclaimed socialist mestizo but a "respected business leader" who was also, not incidentally, of European extraction and a member of the ruling oligarchy. The constitution in question had recently been created by a Constitutional Assembly which the people had called for with a 92 percent mandate and ratified by popular referendum with 71.8 percent of the vote; not exactly an undemocratic document. Leaving aside the substantial evidence that the coup was U.S.-hatched with ample evidence here and here, what crimes did the democratically elected president of Venezuela commit to deserve such a description and the ire of the U.S.? Well for one, Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, Saudi Arabia has the second, and it is the fourth most important U.S. supplier. Yes, largest reserves in the world. And Venezuela is not far away in the Middle East, but in our hemisphere, in what has traditionally been considered our "sphere of influence" (read: with a government and an oligarchy that puts the interests of the United States and the U.S. corporations before that of their people). Put simply, oil-rich Venezuela under Chávez refused to conform to the Latin American model of the client state. No matter how many times President Chávez is elected and re-elected and given mandates by popular referendums, refusing to bow down to U.S. interests is his capital crime and that crime is never forgiven; Cuba being a case in point. Speaking of capital, what did President Chávez do with all that oil money? Surely he did the traditional thing and divided it up nicely between his friends and cronies and sent the rest to Citibank. Wrong. First, he payed back the Venezuelan debt to the IMF and asked them to get out of town; next, he helped pay down his friend's debt, Argentina. Next, he helped Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador pay down their debt. Thanks to Chávez, the IMF's portfolio is down in the region to less than one percent from 80 percent in 2005. With no IMF and its partner institution, the World Bank, in the region, the sway of policies — such as unfettered markets with limited government spending greatly restricting social programs — is kept to a minimum. In other words, the policies of the Washington Consensus that has been so detrimental to the economies and the people of developing nations in Latin America and so lucrative for the U.S. and transnational corporations is no more. He also set up a regional exchange — Banco del Sur, or Bank of the South — where partner nations can borrow money for social projects and infrastructure development funded by Venezuela and the member countries. And, of course, there is the all-important Mercosur, a kind of Latin American European Union to integrate the markets and work together rather than in isolation like in the past, making it easier to be pressured by external forces, i.e. the U.S. Oh, and the discounted oil to Cuba alleviating the sting of the 50-year-old U.S. embargo really rubs us the wrong way. WTF, this guy is really messing with the world order now. But the most capital of his offenses is his innovative social experiment that goes by the name of the Bolivarian Revolution. God, we hate that R word. You see, this has a transcendence beyond their borders, beyond the region, right smack to our front yard; or should I say Zuccotti Park? A charismatic leader is in many ways the antithesis of the horizontal anarchic structure of the Occupy movement, but still the experiment in collectivization and citizen participation, direct democracy, and worker and neighborhood councils that many in the Occupy movement are working toward and that we find so very difficult to organize in the U.S. is being lived in Venezuela. A rally of hundreds of thousands is easily mobilized, as was in evidence on January 10th as Vice President Nicolás Maduro and officials from around the world, including several presidents of Latin America, turned out. The people wore the presidential sash and chanted "We are all Chávez now" in solidarity with their absent president. This degree of participation and engagement is not unusual in Venezuela, where voting is usually in the 90 percent range. And they don't vote every four years and go home, as is often the case here with our low voter turnout and where many of us feel we are voting for the lesser of two evils. The opposition party, the party of the oligarchy, offers a clear political and economic alternative, but there seems to be no turning back this social revolution. Venezuelan civil society is not only highly politicized, but the people feel that they are participants in the decision-making process and in the affairs that concern their lives. MSM-fueled ignorance of this exciting and innovative social justice-oriented society that is being created in Venezuela as well as other Latin American countries seems purposeful and targeted at keeping us tethered not only to cruel but failed economic models. The lack of accurate information on alternatives to market capitalism — or whatever this unfair, unengaging, unfriendly system is called — keeps us in despair, balkanized and directionless, anesthetized by junk culture and television; spectators rather than participants in our own lives. The Venezuelan example of bringing resources under public control and using the revenue for the betterment of all offers a model that cannot be replicated everywhere. But it is seen as a dangerous model because one of the places it can be replicated in is the United States. We too have vast oil and gas reserves and vast natural resources. We too could have free higher education and health care, not to mention student debt forgiveness. How about a truly democratic form of government where the citizenry decides not just whether to vote for Tweedle Dum or Tweedle Dee, but whether to go to war or live in peace and go to college; whether to have clean air and water and non-GMO pesticide-free foods and sustainable agriculture or Big Agra? Hmmm... I'm liking this. Develop alternative forms of energy and ban fracking forever? Stimulate the economy by building new roads and cool schools, music centers, hospitals, theater, animation and computer clubs, relaxation centers, urban gardens, water parks, beach clubs and fun centers rather than stimulating the economy by making war and selling weapons? How about meaningful work and leisurely time rather than wage slavery? I can hear all the detractors screaming, "Idealist, dreamer!" I'll take that. But really, if ordinary Venezuelans can displace the ruling oligarchy and be the architects of their own destiny, then why can't we too overturn the oligarchical structures of the corporate state? Why are we the only significant oil-producing country that does not own the oil and gas on our land? Nationalization of natural resources such as oil and natural gas is not only just — it's practical. If Venezuela can cut poverty in half and offer higher education gratis and health care for all, imagine what we could do with all that oil in Texas.


This post, originally published by The Huffington Post in January, focused on the astonishing expansion of economic rights, citizen participation and the democratization of Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez; his effects on the region and what we can learn from it. Venezuela is a society in the throes of transformation and factors contributing toward centralization rather than evolving into decentralization are said to be undermining the independence of separate branches of government and the media. Here too there is much disinformation and will be the subject of separate posts. Vivien Lesnik Weisman is a California-based Cuban-American filmmaker. Her 2007 film, Man of Two Havanas, was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. You can follow her at @latinovision.    
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