by Gwynne Dyer, www.trinidadexpress.com
It's all part of the long-running propaganda war between Washington and Caracas, of course, but President Hugo Chavez scored a major hit on Thursday when he announced that a Venezuelan ship was nearing the US with 300,000 barrels of gasoline to help the stricken Gulf coast, where most oil-refining capacity was crippled by Hurricane Katrina.
No doubt ordinary Venezuelans, and probably Chavez himself, feel genuine sympathy for the stricken survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Who could not? But they also give Chavez the chance to send a message to his own voters and the citizens of other Caribbean and Central American countries. It is that the wicked capitalists who run the US government don't even care about America's own poor people, especially if they are black, and that the only hope is for mutual help and solidarity among the poor themselves.
Latterly, the surging oil price has given Chavez the means to transfer this message to the international stage. It has been called "petromedical'' diplomacy, and its foundation is a close collaboration between Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. There are profound differences of generation and political style between Chavez's populist "Bolivarian'' democracy and Castro's Communist dictatorship, but their hostility to US domination of the region and their commitment to the poor are the same, and they each bring one major asset to the table.
Cuba's is its remarkable and entirely free health-care system, which has one of the highest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world.
Venezuela's is oil. The two countries had already done a swap in which Venezuela supplies Cuba with cut-price oil in return for the long-term loan of about 20,000 Cuban health workers (including 14,000 doctors) whose free clinics have been transforming health care in rural areas and in the desperate, stinking barrios that surround Venezuela's major cities, but soaring oil prices over the past year opened up new possibilities.
On June 29, Venezuela and 13 Caribbean countries signed the Petrocaribe accord under which they will pay only 60 per cent of the market price of Venezuelan oil, with the rest converted into a low-interest 25-year loan, whenever the oil price exceeds US$50 a barrel. Other countries in Latin America will soon be signing similar agreements. And the message is always about the solidarity of the poor against the powerful, both domestically and internationally.
All this has attracted the anger of the current US administration, which accuses Chavez of seeking to "destabilise'' the region and is generally believed to have backed a failed coup attempt against Chavez in 2002. So when television evangelist Pat Robertson, a former presidential hopeful and a friend of President Bush, called for Chavez's assassination on his Christian Broadcasting Network last month, Chavez responded not with invective but with a politically adroit show of concern for those Americans who live in conditions not entirely dissimilar to the Latin American poor.
He offered to sell Venezuelan heating oil directly at 40 per cent below market price to seven or eight million poor Americans. "A large number of them die of cold in the winter,'' he explained. He also offered free eye surgery to Americans without health care coverage, although the surgery would almost certainly be done by Cuban doctors. (Castro has committed to providing six million free cataract operations for poor people from neighbouring countries over the next ten years.) It was intended to embarrass the United States, and it did.
The current play over aid for the Katrina victims is an extension of the same strategy. The hurricane's aftermath vividly demonstrated the Third-World living conditions and social isolation of many of America's black poor to a global audience, and the Bush administration could not decently block Venezuelan aid for those people when it was accepting help from so many other countries. Game, set and match to Chavez.
Well, game and set, anyway. The match will continue for the indefinite future, unless Washington manages to overthrow Chavez one of these days. But he is certainly a competent player of the game.
- Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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