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Venezuelan Elections Offer Hope of Real Reform


Mark Weisbrot

The

electoral victory of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sunday, greeted with

celebration by the country’s poor majority, may have implications beyond

Venezuela’s borders.

Chavez’

"revolution from above" is in many ways a logical response to the last

20 years of Latin American attempts at social change. In countries such as El

Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, activists organized grassroots movements of

peasants, laborers, and religious "base communities." They were

slaughtered mercilessly by death squads and allied militaries that had nearly

unlimited support from Washington.

So

it is not surprising that Chavez would begin with an effort to consolidate

power. But his popularity among the citizenry runs deep.

This

can be seen by their continued loyalty in the face of adversity. The Venezuelan

economy shrank by 7.2% last year– a severe contraction by any standard– yet

the voters have stood by him in a referendum, a Constituent Assembly, the

ratification of a new Constitution, and now the approval of a new six-year term.

For comparison, just look what happened to George Bush, Sr. when he had the

misfortune to run for re- election on the heels of a relatively mild recession

here, or Jimmy Carter in the recession of 1980.

So

why are so many Venezuelans so willing to give Chavez a fresh mandate to cure

the country’s ills? Probably because they believe that he is honest and trying

to do what is best for them. He has cleaned up corruption in the judiciary and

tackled prison reform, and created new constitutional rights for the country’s

indigenous people. He has begun to mobilize the armed forces to help with the

provision of social services. His overall economic program is less clear, but at

least he is talking about alternatives to the policies that have caused a steady

decline in per capita income over the last two decades.

For

now, Chavez reminds us, the Venezuelan revolution has been carried out

"without a single drop of blood." Recently an Army captain formed a

"patriotic junta" dedicated to removing the President, and admitted to

Newsweek that his group had discussed killing the president as an option. In the

United States this would carry a serious, possibly lifelong prison term– but

Captain Garcia Morales was merely dismissed.

Such

efforts to avoid violent confrontation and repression have won Chavez no friends

in the US foreign policy establishment. They seem to have more sympathy with the

government of Colombia, where peasants, labor leaders, and even human rights

workers are routinely murdered with impunity.

In

some ways we are witnessing a replay of Central America in the 1980s, with

Colombia as El Salvador, and America pouring in billions of dollars to escalate

a war against an insurgency it can never defeat. Venezuela is playing the role

of Nicaragua– a popular, left-of-center, nationalist government struggling to

survive and fulfill its promises to the poor.

The

dominoes are bigger this time around, and Washington knows it. Its "savage

neoliberalism," –as Chavez describes trickle-down economics– has failed

not only the poor, but also the average household in Latin America for two

decades now. Since 1980, income per person has hardly grown at all in the entire

continent.

In

most countries, political change has been held in check by despair and cynicism.

So if the Chavez government can provide hope with an alternative that improves

people’s lives, there’s no telling what might happen.

The

United States has a long and sordid history of destabilizing democratically

elected governments that it doesn’t like in Latin America and the Caribbean. The

Clinton Administration has been relatively quiet about Chavez so far, apparently

hoping that capital flight and internal opposition from the wealthy and a

hostile news media will suffice to bring an end to his experiment. And indeed,

over the last year, investors have taken an amount equal to about nine percent

of the country’s income out of the country.

Nonetheless

we may soon see more pro-active strategies from Washington to undermine

Venezuela’s new deal. In the 1980s, our government spent billions to ruin

Nicaragua’s economy, through war and embargo. It never recovered: ten years

after the ouster of the Sandinistas, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in

the hemisphere.

The

Venezuelans have six times as many people and the largest oil reserves outside

the Middle East, so they have at least a fighting chance. Perhaps it is time for

the millions of Americans who tried to stop our government from destroying

Nicaragua to begin thinking about how to make sure that history does not repeat

itself.

Mark

Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in

Washington, DC.

 

 

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