Venezuela, Ally of the Social Movements

Deborah James is the Fair Trade Director at Global Exchange and has recently become a close observer of the changes happening in Venezuela. I interviewed her during her latest visit to Venezuela, just after the conference on Indigenous and Campesino Solidarity and Resistance ended, at which she gave a talk on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

What is Global Exchange?

Global Exchange is an international human rights organization that is based in San Francisco. For many years it has organized a campaign against the World Trade Organization (WTO), to educate people in the United States, and to derail the WTO, with, as we say, our friends in the “our world is not for sale” movement, which is the global WTO NGO network. Also, in the past few years we have worked to stop the expansion of the failed fundamentalist trade agreement NAFTA, to 34 countries in the western hemisphere, through the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would bring, obviously, more poverty, more job-loss, more wage depression, and more environmental destruction to our western hemisphere.

What do you think was the significance of the Conference on Indigenous and Campesino Resistance that just ended here?

I think for the people who participated from Venezuela, it was very important, from what I heard, to actually share their perspective of what they are going through here with other people who have either gone through similar processes or are going through similar processes now. Also, to see some of the extraordinary leadership such as the Conaie in Ecuador or Via Campesina in Honduras, to see the struggles that these others are going through with absolutely no government support, not only that, but with massive government repression, massive corporate opposition – for them to see reflected the support that indigenous and campesinos are getting here, in comparison. I think it was very illuminating for a lot of the people here.

Folks here very much wanted to express that the land reform program is not moving fast enough, people want their land and they are often suffering terrible repression from the land owners and the high number of deaths that campesinos have suffered in trying to carry out the land reform program. And then to have an interchange with many campesinos getting up in a row, saying “we have the best government, we have the best constitution in the world, but our institutions are not living up to the same level. We need to demand that these institutions are in accordance with the constitution and accelerate the land redistribution process.” Then the compañera from Chile got up and said, “I totally understand your frustration. It’s wonderful to see such an empowered group of people actually take the time to say what their needs are because they know that there will be a response. But I just want to reflect from the perspective of someone from Chile, where we had a land reform program thirty years ago and hundreds and hundreds of our comrades died trying to carry out the land reform. Then our democratically elected president was overthrown and not only did the land reform stop, but we had a reversal of the land reform program. We now are still at the same place, thirty years later. So keep making your demands, but understand that from the perspective of someone from Chile what is happening here is an incredible beacon or model for what should be happening in other countries.” For some of the other indigenous and campesino leaders to see the incredible amount of support that the indigenous and campesinos here have – they can’t believe it.

What has been your connection to Venezuela?

I first started coming to Venezuela in May. I sort of ran into the president in the lobby of the hotel at the World Social Forum [in Porto Alegre, Brazil in February 2003]. That’s how we first met. I had seen the president of Venezuela speak in Johannesburg, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, last September, in 2002. He had spoken about a “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas” there and he had also talked about an International Humanitarian Fund. They were very interesting plans I thought. He was the only head of state at the World Summit on Sustainable Development that came and addressed the civil society groups. I was very impressed by that-that he would come down to our space and contact us and share his thoughts and answer questions about what was happening in Venezuela.

Venezuela was on the radar for me, but I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention to what was happening in Venezuela before that. Though, obviously, I knew that this terrible coup had happened the previous April. So, we met at the World Social Forum and he invited Global Exchange to come to Venezuela because we were organizing to stop the war against Iraq. We met him and said we said we were Women for Peace and we were organizing to prevent the war against Iraq. And he said, “we would love to have more women for peace in Venezuela. You should see the war that is being waged against my administration and against the revolutionary process we are trying to develop-the oligarchy and the media are organizing this terrible media war against the revolutionary process.” And so I came in May for the first time, right after a WTO conference in Mexico City and have been, since the very first moment that I got off the plane, more than impressed, kind of overwhelmed with what’s been happening here and with the people that I’ve met.

What do you think of Venezuela’s role in the struggle for global justice?

From the very beginning, I met with the trade ministry and they gave me a copy of their proposal. One of the most important things that they had been pointing out at that time is that the proposed FTAA is not just a trade agreement, but would create a free trade zone in the entire hemisphere and that you can’t create a free trade zone like that with the massive amount of inequality that exists, both between the countries and within the countries.

One of their main proposals was a fund for production and development that is very similar to what they had in Europe, when they integrated the economy in Europe-that is, that there is a massive transfer of wealth from the richer countries to the poorer ones, for them to be able to bring up their standard of living, so that when they unified and joined together there wouldn’t be a massive disequilibrium between the countries that would cause problems. This is one of the main proposals that Venezuela has in the FTAA negotiations, that if we are going to integrate, we should do it based on equality and some sense of equity and not with the massive inequality that exists right now, between most of the countries in Latin America and certainly between most of Latin America and the United States.

One of the other proposals they talk about is the issue of transparency and democratic participation-that people in the hemisphere, the 800 million people that are going to be “integrated” into this free trade area are completely unaware of its existence. If it is something that affects all of our lives, then people should have a chance to participate in its development. There needs to be a reconciliation of that fact with the pressure that exists right now to accelerate the negotiations, to terminate it by the end of 2004, which is an absurd timeline at this point, considering the number of brackets, of non-negotiated text so far, that still needs to be negotiated, volumes and volumes of it. I’ve heard that there are 6,000 brackets on the text, which means 6,000 phrases or sentences or paragraphs of text that has not been negotiated yet.

When it comes to changes that countries want to make, there is complete disagreement. What this really shows is that the proposed FTAA is not in the best interests of the people of the continent. It’s not that they are not negotiating well because people are not willing to compromise or whatever, but it’s because the treaty really is not in their interests. So, when countries like Brazil or Venezuela actually negotiate as though they were sovereign states, not as if they were patsies of the United States, you come up with a very different negotiating agenda. Because if you’re willing to give the United States whatever it wants, in exchange for some scraps from the table, some quotas or some side benefit that maybe benefits the elite of that country, but is not in the best interests of the people, you’re more willing to go along with their agenda.

How do the different countries of Latin America compare, in terms of their positions in negotiating the FTAA?

Venezuela really sticks out. It has put itself forward as the country that is defending its interests the most. The interesting thing too is that this did not happen when the FTAA started. You know, it was launched in 1994 and there was no Lula in Brazil at that time, there was no Chavez and many of the other countries that are now trying to escape from the claws of the U.S. and really be allies to their own people-they had not been elected at that time. Venezuela has shown a lot of political leadership in standing up for the interests of its people.

Also, it is the only country that has in its constitution that if it were to give up some of its sovereignty to a supra-state body, which certainly the FTAA involves; giving a lot of sovereignty over a lot of issues to the FTAA secretariat, instead of the people, that it has to be done through a popular plebiscite, through a referendum because the sovereignty is held by the people and not by the government. So the government does not have the right to give up the people’s sovereignty. So they would have to, if the FTAA was about to be approved by the countries, it would have to be approved by the people and not just by the government. Which is really extraordinary – no other country has that.

Venezuela put itself forward as the number one ally of the social movements. When you consider the fact that stopping the FTAA is collectively the number one priority of the social movements of the western hemisphere, Venezuela has really put itself out there as the number one ally to stopping the FTAA. It’s a really important alliance that has come about.

Certainly, Brazil is the most well-known ally and the most important in terms of its size. And the fact that it has a lot to negotiate with the U.S. Venezuela and the U.S. don’t have near as much trade and, as everybody knows, most of their trade is in petroleum, so it’s not quite as key of a negotiating stumbling block as Brazil is. Brazil’s main interest in the FTAA is getting the U.S. to stop some of its protectionism in agriculture. Brazil wants market access to export its agricultural products, particularly soy, orange juice, and beef. And soy, orange juice, and beef are three products that are produced in very key states in the U.S., in terms of the electoral college, in terms of the presidential elections. It is very clear to everybody working on the FTAA that there is no way that the U.S. government is going to anger certain constituents in the Midwest and in swing states, and certainly not in Florida, which is the number one orange juice producer in the U.S. There is no way, and one can see that in some of the comments that George Bush made a few days ago about Cuba, that always US presidents for the past 40 years have pandered to the extreme right wing in Miami and the extreme rightwing constituency in Miami. They’re not going to do anything to upset the citrus growers, which is the number industry after tourism in Florida, during an election year. It’s going to be very difficult for Brazil, the number one country and number one economy to get their number one priority.

Brazil has said that if the U.S. is not going to negotiate agriculture in the FTAA, then Brazil is not going to negotiate services, investment, or government procurement, and those are key issues on the U.S. agenda for Latin America. There is a list in the FTAA of 160 services that are proposed to be privatized. It starts off with the most key ones to everyday people’s survival, like health care and education. It then goes on with a great long list that include transportation and telecommunication, energy, and water, and the postal service, and not just TV, but also radio, the airwaves. It includes things like sanitary services and sewers and elder care and childcare, any service, anything you can’t drop on your foot. It’s everything under the sun – 160 of them.

With investment it’s a very key issue because the proposed agreement on investment is modeled on NAFTA and it’s the reason why NAFTA is considered the most extremist fundamentalist trade agreement in the history of the world, because it includes this extraordinarily absurd agreement on investment, which gives rights to foreign investors that citizens and companies from that country don’t have. What it basically says is that if you are an investor, you have the right to make money in a foreign country, even if local law gets in the way, you can actually sue, going over the judicial system of the sovereign country, in a private and secret trade court with three trade lawyer people as your judge and jury. The proceedings are completely secret.

The important win in Cancun was, the developing countries getting together, saying, “no, you rich countries cannot expand the WTO by including investment and government procurement,” which right now are not in the WTO. “We reject the expansion of the WTO because you are not being fair on agriculture, denying not only access for our products,” which is important for mid-level developing countries like Brazil, “but most importantly you keep subsidizing products, keeping prices artificially low and then dumping your excess agriculture in our countries, putting our farmers out of business and destroying the livelihood of millions of rural people around the world. And to not be dumping genetically modified food, which we don’t like either.”

That’s exactly the same dynamic that’s happening in the FTAA. They are saying, you need to reform agriculture first and we’re not going to let you put these other things like investment into the FTAA. The U.S. has up until now been saying “but I can’t negotiate agriculture in the FTAA because I have to compete with Europe and Japan and they are subsidizing so we have to negotiate that in the WTO.” And we saw in Cancun what happened with that.

So we see Venezuela as ally number one. We see Brazil as the most important strategic ally. Brazil has not been, as we know, as strong in opposing the FTAA was we would have liked. There are many great things that the Lula government has done, but still the social movements have put forward some critiques of the performance of the Lula government. We also have an ally in Ecuador, against the FTAA. Again, there’s some issues there with Conaie and other social movements that have not been pleased with Gutierrez. But certainly, in terms of his posture towards the FTAA he is more on the side of Chavez and Lula than of Bush. We also have Kirchner in Argentina. I think people had lower expectations with him, but he’s done better than we had expected and I think he will be an ally and not a patsy to the U.S.

The Caricom nations had a conference in July in El Salvador, there was a negotiating meeting and they expressed a very good posture because of the fact that there is so much tension in the FTAA, it is becoming very obvious to countries that they are not going to get the negotiated agreement by the end of next year, they are looking towards alternatives of what they can do. So they put forward a proposal that said, “there are two things we can do: we can extend the talks or we can reduce the scope of the talks and try to get a reduced agreement, the FTAA-light that Brazil has proposed.” And their proposal is to do both, which is the opposite of the proposal of the U.S. I think the Caricom countries, because their economies are so weak and because they depend so much on the U.S. for their trade, they tend to get caught in doing whatever the U.S. wants them to do. But from what we understand of their FTAA position, they oftentimes try to step out and do something more independent and oftentimes get ignored and walked over.

We understand that in March, in El Salvador, we might, hopefully, be able to count on a new ally there and also in Uruguay. So, if you add up all these nations, Caricom, which represents 14 nations, you get to 19 or 20 countries, which is more than half of the 34 for the proposed FTAA.

On the other side, you have a number of countries lining up to be the first lap-dog to the U.S. You have the countries that just left the G-21, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. We had information that there were a number of countries that were not very strong in maintaining their alliance with the other third world countries. The U.S. exerts a tremendous amount of pressure on these countries. It’s impossible for us to have a grasp of the amount of pressure. When you actually see what the delegations have to go through and the pressure they receive. Bush, during the WTO was on the phone with all of the different countries, calling their presidents, saying, “if you don’t change your policies and don’t stop allying with the third world countries and ally with us, you’re going to lose GSP privileges [Generalized System of Preferences], lose quotas, lose any aid we had promised you, military aid.”

I mean, how can a country like Colombia, the third largest recipient of US military aid stand up to that kind of pressure? There’s no way. They are too tied in economically with the U.S. For the majority of these countries, they trade somewhat with each other, but a lot of them trade a majority of their products with the U.S. Economically it makes them very dependent and it’s very difficult for them to stand up to that kind of pressure.

There was, unfortunately, at a FTAA meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, a group of 13 countries that put forth a proposal that we know is a US proposal, that these countries introduced as a proxies, to accelerate the talks and to keep all of the negotiating points in the talks and to not let any of them to slip out, such as investment or services. It included Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia, all of the countries that just left the G-21, I believe. So the U.S. was then in the position to say, “Oh look, here’s a big group of countries – we’re in agreement with them. Not like Brazil that’s all isolated, or Venezuela and Argentina, that are isolated.” – Which is just the opposite of what’s really happening. Unfortunately there still is a big division in Latin America, with governments that don’t really represent their people, as we can see with the tremendous amount of opposition that’s happening right now in Bolivia.

So it sounds like the FTAA is pretty much doomed as long as Lula and Chavez remain in power.

I think it’s going to be very, very difficult for the U.S. to push through the FTAA with Lula and Chavez in power. We are very confident that if we keep up the strength of the social movements and those governments are able to remain in office, then we will win because of the fact that there is too much opposition to it. The word has gotten out and these agreements only work when they are negotiated in secret by governments that are unaccountable to their people. When you have the amount of social mobilization and education that’s happened, with the plebiscite in Brazil, ten million people voted, 98% against the FTAA, it’s impossible to hoodwink 800 million people into agreeing to something that’s not in their interests.

When we look at the opposition, there are four groups we are talking about. We have the people of Latin America, we have the governments of Latin America, we have the people of the United States and Canada, and we have the governments of the United States and Canada. So obviously, the people of Latin America are the biggest group there and they are the ones who are going to suffer the most, from the results of the FTAA. They need to make sure their governments are held accountable, that their governments actually act like representatives of their people and not like representatives of the U.S. They are able to hold their governments accountable if they have democracy in their countries and then they will negotiate in their interests. And then we’ll see that the United States will not go along with the trade agenda and they will call them “won’t do” countries and say that they are blocking the negotiations and being radical all the kinds of things the U.S. usually says.

Then we have the people of the U.S. and of Canada and it’s pretty clear that the proposed FTAA is also not in their interests. It erodes our democracy, it puts us in the position of being economic imperialists, something that most people are not interested in being in, and it has the potential of eroding our essential services through privatization. There’s a whole host of reasons why it’s bad for people in the United States. We then need to assure that people in the U.S. are allying themselves with the people of Latin America. And that way we can isolate the elites, the government, the corporations, really, who are running this whole program of the U.S. and Canada. Then we can push them aside because the U.S. is on a mission right now, to break off as many of those governments of Latin America from their own people and put them in their own pocket. They do this through a number of strategies, such as “bilaterals.” Mexico, for example, will always be on the side of the U.S. They have a free trade agreement. Chile signed a free trade agreement this Spring. So they have two countries in their pocket. There are other countries that are interested in bilaterals. Obviously, they are going to have Colombia in their pocket, as long as they give them $1.3 billion in military aid. Our strategy is to break that alliance between the governments to help the Latin American people make sure that their governments are accountable. The most important thing for us, in the U.S., is to organize our own people in support, to be in solidarity with the people of Latin America.

What do you think are the prospects for building solidarity between the U.S. people and the Venezuelan people?

It seems clear to me that based on what happened in the coup attempt last year, that the U.S. government has an interest in not having a democratically elected president in Venezuela. They are more in favor of having a business-military coup and they are willing to go to great lengths to make that happen. As I said before, our best strategy is to make alliances with the people of Latin America and make sure we’re on their side and not allying with our own elites. Our U.S. government is trying to make sure that other governments act in the interests of U.S. elites and U.S. economic interests. So when our government is supporting these threats to democracy, as in Venezuela, specifically because the Venezuelan government is representing the interests of its own people, then it is incredibly incumbent on us, as U.S. citizens, to defend the process here in Venezuela.

It is clear that because Chavez has an agenda against the FTAA, that this is one of reasons that the U.S. government wants to get rid of Chavez. They know, just as we know, that together with Lula and Chavez and Kirchner and other allies, it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible for them to reach their goal of having an FTAA by the end of next year. From their point of view Chavez and Lula are tremendous obstacles. They are doing all they can to support the reversal of the democratic process, which has been over and over again affirmed here in Venezuela.

I think it is incredibly important for us to understand strategically, in the U.S., where our allies are. It’s not necessary for us to get directly involved with the government of Venezuela. But we as U.S. citizens need to assure, first of all, that our government is not interfering in Venezuelan domestic affairs and reversing the democratic process there and helping install a military-business coup government, as they did last year. Secondly, for us to support the social movements in Latin America and, specifically here, in defending the democratic process, so that they are able to keep the government that they desire and that they have overwhelmingly elected through that democratic process. I think there is a tremendous role for people in the U.S. to understand that it is in our interest to help keep our allies in government in Latin America. First, for democracy and second because it is incredibly important to derail the FTAA. But also because our government is involved in attacking the sovereignty of these countries, precisely because of the economic interests involved.

Do you think that kind of solidarity is happening? Have you been able to establish contacts with organizations here?

I certainly do, but it has not happened as much as I might have thought. When I first came here in May, my experience has been so incredible in terms of the amount of access we have with people. The real joy Venezuelans have expressed in meeting with US Americans that are interested in collaborating, in supporting them, in seeing what is going on here in the country and understanding it for ourselves and being in solidarity with them – I think that especially through the anti-corporate globalization movement there is a lot of potential. Chavez himself does not identify himself as a nationalist or a socialist. I think he’s primarily characterized as being anti-corporate globalization; so he’s much more into regionalism and supporting not just the economy of Venezuela, but integrating with Latin America and the whole Bolivarian Project and he’s interested in maintaining the private sector.

There’s a lot of potential for solidarity here. Every U.S. American who has come to Venezuela recently that I’ve met was incredibly glad that they did and has been very dedicated to following up and doing whatever they can to find out how they can support democracy and the social movements when they get back to the U.S. One of the main ways we can do that is by combating the incredible bias that exists in the mainstream media against Venezuela. It’s horrifying really, the amount of lies that journalists will repeat. Even journalists that we’ve worked with that have worked with at Global Exchange on a number of different issues that have pretty reasonable perspective on things. But when they write about Venezuela they get all out of whack and start writing crazy stuff, and it is strange for me to read it. “This is not the same country I’ve been going to – where have you been? Oh, you’re writing from outside of the country, byline Bogota, talking about what’s happening in Venezuela. No wonder you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Having people come here and then going back and writing and publishing about their experience is very important. I’ve found people here to be tremendously excited about collaborating and working together – especially in my area, on the issue of corporate globalization and expressing our opposition to the WTO and FTAA. We helped facilitate to bring a group of 24 people from about 12 different social movement organizations to the protests against the WTO in Cancun – and we had an event about Venezuela there and the perspective of the social movements. The vice-minister of trade participated in the event. A lot of people were very impressed with the government’s position. People were saying, “Here’s the vice-minister of trade and he sounds like one of us!” And it’s because that’s where he comes from, he really is a social movement person. He’s very dedicated to the same political project that we are. So yes, there is a lot of potential, but I don’t think it’s happened enough so far. Considering that this process here happened almost five years ago.

There are people at Global Exchange who have paid more attention to it over the years than I have and have expressed interest in organizing delegations a while ago, but it didn’t seem to have the right opening. Now that we’ve started there’s a tremendous amount of opportunities. We are bringing a delegation in November, the 22nd to 30th, right after the FTAA mobilization in Miami. People are really excited.

I would like to put in a plug for people who think they might be interested in what’s happening here, to find a group, be it Global Exchange or another organization, to come down and see what’s happening. It really is so different from what we see in the media. It’s such an alive and dynamic process. It’s the most radical process that’s happening anywhere in Latin America right now.

I was talking to my co-workers who are into stopping the occupation of Iraq. It’s a very depressing time to live in the United States. We’ve lost 2.3 million jobs since Bush came to office, we’ve got an incredible erosion of civil rights, we have an incredible increase in racism, and this security apparatus that’s disgusting and disheartening. To me it’s a very depressing time in the U.S. Yet, when I come here, it’s the opposite – it’s alive, it’s exciting-there’s hope.

People are excited here. They know they are part of a process of participating, where poor people bust out their constitution, left and right, in conversation, quote form it all the time and insist on reclaiming their rights and in asserting the problems they are having in their community and in insisting on solutions. This sense of participation and of inclusion that poor people have is something that we’re not used to seeing in Latin America and not in the United States either. I think it’s given me a lot of energy and inspiration. It certainly inspired me to go back to the U.S. and work against the FTAA and have a lot more energy for the work that we’re doing against corporate control of our economy in the U.S.

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