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Thorn in the side of new world order

By Vincent Browne

Hugo Chávez may have been in Bertie Ahern's mind when he visited George Bush in Washington before St Patrick's Day. Bertie swore obedience to American world hegemony, to its "war on terrorism" and to everything it entailed.

He didn't quite put it like that but that was the message and George Bush acknowledged it as such. The President of Venezuela, the most "yankified" of South American states, had failed to offer appropriate obeisance.

Chávez has characterised the US bombardment of Afghanistan as responding to "terror with terror". He brandished photographs of Afghan children killed by US bombs and called for an end to "the slaughter of the innocents".

The US response to this impertinence was to send its ambassador, Donna Hrinak, to see Chávez. They had what a US official said (according to the Washington Post of February 23rd) "a very difficult meeting". She told the democratically elected president (again according to the Washington Post) "to keep his mouth shut on these important issues".

Washington doesn't like Chávez for other reasons. First he has had the temerity to invite Fidel Castro to Caracas. He also visited Libya, Iran and Iraq, all members, with Venezuela, of OPEC, through which he arranged for a substantial increase in the price of oil (the Americans were especially indignant over his visit to Saddam Hussein).

The US administration has recently expressed worry about Chávez's democratic credentials. He became president in 1998 after he won 58 per cent of the popular vote. In 2000, under a new constitution, he won a higher percentage vote and his party won more than 80 per cent of the seats in a new congress and nobody has questioned the validity of those elections. While protesting its respect for democracy in Venezuela, there are suspicions that the US may have inspired three generals in the Venezuelan army to call for the resignation of Chávez.

VENEZUELA is probably the richest country in South America because of its oil - it is by far the most important source of oil for the US economy, yet it has managed to squander the riches it has brought in the last 40 years.

This came about in large part through inefficiencies of State-run industrial companies and corruption. The legacy has been vast expanses of motorways, ugly high-rise office and apartment complexes, massive wealth for a tiny minority, gigantic shopping malls, the ubiquitous rash of international hotels (the Four Seasons group has opened a new hotel in Caracas even more ostentatious than that in Ballsbridge), and vast shanty towns clinging to the hills in and around Caracas, housing millions of impoverished people.

The economy is in ruins with huge debts to international banks. The IMF and World Bank have insisted on what Chávez has called "savage neo-liberal" policies - public expenditure cutbacks, privatisations and deregulation. These policies were enforced in the 1990s and caused even more misery to the millions of Venezuela's poor (the population is 22 million of whom six million are in Caracas and of whom 80 per cent are poor).

Chávez, formerly an army officer, staged an unsuccessful coup in 1992 and was jailed for three years. He entered politics on his release and won the presidency in 1998, having promised to sweep away the old corrupt political system, a new constitution and a new deal for the impoverished, including land reform, health care and education.

He has had enacted a new constitution, approved by a massive popular mandate. The former two main political parties have been almost extinguished and he has instituted a series of radical redistributative measures, including land-reform and relocation of shanty-town dwellers to rural areas. He has taken control of the state-owned petroleum corporation, Petróleos de Venezuela, he says, in an effort to ensure that oil riches are maximised and are used for the advancement of his social agenda (last week he announced a 20 per cent increase in the public sector minimum wage which is the equivalent to €200 a month).

HE PLACED on the board of this state-owned oil corporation people who reflected his political outlook. Senior managers in the corporation and trade unions rebelled. Some of the managers have been fired for refusing to carry out the policies of the new board. Thousands of the workers have gone on strike and output has slumped.

There have been street protests against him with calls for his resignation and the newspapers have reported his popularity ratings are running about 30 per cent. The privately owned media are virulently and almost unanimously hostile to Chávez.

There is a further problem. The civil war in neighbouring Colombia is threatening to spill over into Venezuela. Colombia says that a FARC camp is based inside the Venezuelan border and that Chávez is supporting the rebel movement. Chávez, whose ideological sympathies would align with FARC, has denied supporting any rebel movement (he has been accused of supporting Peruvian and Bolivian terrorist groups as well) and has arranged for reporters to be flown over the border region to show there are no terrorist camps inside Venezuela. Nevertheless this issue particularly may be the guise under which the Americans intervene, whether covertly or otherwise. Chávez is too irksome a threat to the new world order and perhaps Bertie Ahern was right to keep his mouth shut.

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