We are used to viewing current events through the lens of the North American media. But how must current events look through the perspective of Hugo Chavez, born in Latin America in the same year the CIA conducted its first Latin American coup, overthrowing the democratically elected president of Guatemala? How must he interpret America’s current activities in his continent through the lens of his cultural background?
Chavez was first elected president of Venezuela in 1998. His popularity has steadily soared, and by 2006 he was reelected with an overwhelming 63% majority. Chavez promised that his “government is here to protect the people, not the bourgeoisie or the rich”. With that promise, he nationalized the electricity, telecommunications and steel industries and ensured that the profits from Venezuela’s resources go to essential services for Venezuela’s people.
Most importantly, the president of this hugely oil rich nation nationalized the oil and natural gas industries that had mostly been controlled by American corporations. The last Latin American president to nationalize his country’s oil industry was Ecuador’s Jamie Roldós. Taking over from a long line of U.S. backed dictators, Roldós was a nationalist who believed that his country’s national resources should benefit his country’s people. In early 1981, he introduced a policy that ensured that, in the future, profits from Ecuador’s oil resources would benefit the largest percentage of the population of Ecuador. In May of 1981, President Roldós died in a plane crash.
Two months later, President Omar Torrijo of Panama would die when his flight went down. Torrijo had also been a nationalist, struggling to regain sovereignty over his country’s greatest national resource: the Panama Canal. Torrijo also objected to the School of the Americas, the notorious U.S. academy located on his country’s soil that trained so many dictators and death squads. Later, testimonies to U.S. senate inquiries would reveal that the Reagan administration was behind what turned out to be a CIA assassination.
This history is Chavez’ history. This history is the lens through which Chavez views current events and through which he interprets America’s reactions to his actions and America’s activities in his back yard. Chavez is the continuation of the line of Roldós and Torrijo: lines that ended in their fiery deaths.
Chavez took the money from his land’s oil and pumped it into free education and free health and dental care, and subsidized food for the hungry and housing for the homeless. Poverty was cut in half and unemployment plummeted from 20% in 2003 to 8.4% by the end of 2006.
But despite these incredible achievements for the people of his country, John Negroponte declared Chavez “threatening to democracies in the region” and a who’s who of celebrities in the Obama administration have called him a dictator. Dictator? Elected and reelected in elections verified as free and fair, Chavez has held well over a dozen national elections and referenda since taking office. He has obeyed the voice of Venezuelans in each these national surveys: even in the one time he lost, by the slimmest of margins, in the referendum of December 2007. Venezuela ranks second in all Latin America in satisfaction with its democracy and first in its support of its elected government. Venezuelan democracy is participatory and grass roots: entirely different from the U.S. backed dictatorships initiated by Woodrow Wilson and ended by Chavez.
Undemocratic, dangerous and dictatorial. And now the latest American accusation against Chavez: saber rattler. In recent months, the United States has acquired seven new military, naval and air bases in Columbia. Columbia shares about 1,281 miles of border with Chavez’ Venezuela. The Independent reports that a May 2009 U.S. air force proposal identifies one of the Columbian air bases as important in an area of “our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from . . . anti-US governments”. How should Chavez understand that? Who should Chavez translate “anti-US governments” to be? The base, the air force report goes on to say, could conduct “full-spectrum operations throughout South America”. How, through the lens of his history and background, should Chavez interpret American forces lined up along his border with the ability to conduct full-spectrum operations against anti-US governments?
The media says Chavez has warned that these U.S. actions in his backyard could lead to war with Columbia. The dictator is a saber rattler.
Fidel Castro calls the U.S. charge that Chavez is threatening war against Columbia “slanderous”. “I know Chavez well,” Castro recently said, “and no one could be more reluctant than him to allow a showdown between the Venezuelan and Columbian people that leads to bloodshed”. Chavez’ says that the “war arsenal included in the agreement . . . turns the Columbian territory into an enormous Yankee military enclave”. His insistence that “Never again will Venezuela be anybody’s colony” is a continuation of what Castro calls Chavez’ rebellion “against the repression and genocide unleashed by the neoliberal governments that surrendered the country’s huge natural resources to the United States”.
From Chavez’ historical perspective, an American “military enclave” on his border is worrisome. Far from being a dictator, Chavez is democratic: democratic and a nationalist. And, as Roldós and Torrijo found out, America does not like democratic nationalists. Why? Because it is a deadly combination. Democratically elected leaders need to do what their people want them to do if they are truly democratic and if they hope to be re-elected. And, given the true power to choose, their people will always choose to keep the wealth of their nation’s resources in the hands of their nation. And if the democratic leader is also a nationalist, then he or she will be willing to do just that and nationalize those resources. Resources that America sees as being in her backyard and that America covets. So democratic nationalists have to go.
Recently, it seems, Honduras’ democratically elected leader, Manuel Zelaya, had to go. Zelaya was elected in 2005. But he refused to privatize Honduras’ telecommunications industry. The plotters of the coup against him include Robert Carmona-Borjas who runs the International Republican Institute, an organization with ties to Senator McCain and the Republican Party. The organization has telecommunications ties and is funded by AT&T. AT&T is McCain’s second largest donour. Carmona-Borjas associate Otto Reich is a McCain advisor and former AT&T lobbyist.
All of this must be terrifying for Chavez. Carmona-Borjas is a Venezuelan now living in the U.S., and the coup plotters include important members of the U.S. backed coup that took Chavez out. According to the State Department, the U.S. funded leaders and organizations that briefly pulled off that coup in 2002. When the Venezuelan coup leaders visited Washington prior to the coup, it was the same International Republican Institute that paid the bill. And the current ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Liorens, was the principal national security advisor to Bush on Venezuela at the time of the 2002 coup. This historical lens is a very different one than the North American media has viewed events on Chavez’ borders.
That the Americans did not oppose the Honduran coup as strongly as it could have would surely also be noted by Chavez. Zelaya had moved well to the left since he was elected and had economically allied himself with Chavez. The majority of U.S. aid was never fully suspended, the States never withdrew its ambassadors, never officially called it a military coup and stubbornly recognized the elections carried out in Honduras under the coup dictatorship. Obama never met with Zelaya, though he visited the U.S. six times after the coup.
Many of the coup’s leaders were trained at the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Operations, the new name for the same old School of the Americas. General Romeo Vásquez, the leader of the coup, is a graduate of the School of the Americas, as is General Luis Javier Prince Suazo, the head of the air force and another large force in the coup.
Zelaya says that U.S. forces stationed at the Honduran base of Palmerola collaborated with Roberto Michaletti, the coup president. All of this—the people, the motives and the methods—are frighteningly familiar to Chavez.
And Zelaya, as we have seen, was not the first to go. He was not even the first Zelaya to go. No, this is a tale of two Zelayas. In one of the very first overthrows ordered by a U.S. president, President Taft ordered the removal of nationalist Nicaraguan leader José Santos Zelaya a hundred years ago in 1909. Zelaya had insisted that U.S. companies in Nicaragua honour their agreements and tried to make his country less dependant on the U.S. by borrowing from European, and not American, banks. The Americans forced him to resign in December of 1909.
In 1951, Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala picked up the democratic nationalist mantel. Arbenz set out to transform Guatemala from a dependent, semi-colonial country into a genuinely independent one. He took on United Fruit, who owned about 20% of the land in his country and redistributed it. He also regulated major U.S. companies in Guatemala, including United Fruit. In 1954, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to overthrow him.
In Chile, the democratic nationalist mantel was worn by Salvador Allende, who was popularly elected in 1970. He was a committed democrat who was determined to nationalize the American companies that so dominated his country’s economy. Chile is the world’s leading producer of copper, and, in 1971, Allende nationalized the copper mining corporation. He then took control of the Chilean Telephone Company, which was 70% owned by the American telecommunications giant ITT. Though it was turned down, ITT had offered a million dollars to support any U.S. government plan to bring down Allende. ITT had also previously plotted with the CIA and the State Department to prevent Allende from being inaugurated. This telecommunications connection is a familiar prefiguration of AT&T’s lurking presence in Honduras today.
In 1970, Nixon ordered a top secret anti-Allende plan. America starved the Chilean economy, funded opponents of Allende, carried out a propaganda war, and pressured military commanders, many of whom had trained at the School of the Americas throughout the 50’s and 60’s. On September 11, 1973–South America’s 9/11—the coup began. In a barrage of rocket fire, Chile’s democratically elected nationalist president died in the Presidential Palace.
Less discussed is Brazil’s dance with democratic nationalism. This time it was the Kennedy administration that planned the military coup that overthrew what Chomsky calls the “mildly social democratic” Goulart government. In 1964, the military junta seized power in Brazil. Crushing any remaining seed of nationalism, Naomi Klein says the junta tried to “crack Brazil wide open to foreign investment”.
Much better known is the Kennedy administration’s attempts to take out Chavez defender Fidel Castro. Robert Kennedy took on the task of what Arthur Schlesinger describes as bringing “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba. The attempts actually began in the Eisenhower era when his administration actively sought to overthrow Castro in 1959 when he overthrew the Batista dictatorship. Nixon would also joint the Castro orgy. Chomsky attributes the Castro obsession to a fear of independent nationalism.
Next was Manuel Noriega of Panama. In at least one way, Noriega continued where Torrijo left off. He explored the unpopular idea in America of building a new Japanese funded canal. He also insisted that the U.S. honour the Canal Treaty that Carter had negotiated with Torrijo, granting control of the Panama Canal to Panama. Noriega also refused to extend what he called “a training ground for death squads and repressive right-wing militaries” and what the U.S. called the School of the Americas. Noriega would also come to oppose the American war on Nicaragua and embrace a peace plan for Central America that Reagan strongly opposed. The U.S. went after Noriega by attacking civilian populations and eventually capturing him and sentencing him for trafficking narcotics and for other crimes that he committed while on the payroll of the CIA. In Noriega’s words “ . . . the Panamanian invasion was a result of the U.S. rejection of any scenario in which future control of the Panama Canal might be in the hands of an independent, sovereign Panama”.
And, of course, the most recent reminder is Haiti: a reminder to Chavez, that is, not to us, because none of Haiti’s history, none of the reasons why it is so poor or why the earthquake killed and devastated so many ever makes it into the mainstream North American media. When, after decades of U.S. occupation and rule, followed by more decades of American backed dictatorships, of crushing Haitian farmers and opening up the Haitian market to imported rice and sugar, and of several decades of American corporation sweat shops, the Haitians finally got to choose their own democratically elected leader, the Americans, sometimes with the help of Canada and France, took him out: twice! Jean-Bertrand Aristide, cared for the poor and wanted to do something about all this. So, like so many before, he had to go. The first time, the coup leaders were quietly under the pay of the CIA, as was the leader of Haiti’s death squad. The second time, as we economically strangled Haiti, the U.S. was less quiet about it.
Speaking about the U.S. response to the earthquake disaster, Chavez, looking through his historical lens, said, “ . . . Marines [are] armed as if they are going to war. There is no shortage of guns there, my God. Doctors, medicine, fuel, field hospitals, that’s what the United States should send. They are occupying Haiti undercover”.
Chavez is the current inheritor of South America’s mantel of democratic nationalism. His predecessors have all come to the same end at the hands of the Americans. So should Chavez be afraid about the recent U.S. military migration into next door Columbia? From his perspective he should.
Ted Snider has his masters in philosophy and teaches high school English and politics in Toronto.