is the smell of a coup in the air these days. It was like this in Iran
just before the 1953 U.S.-backed coup overthrew the Mossedeah
government and installed the Shah. It has the feel of 1963 in South
Vietnam, before the military takeover switched on the light at the end
of the long and terrible Southeast Asian tunnel. It is hauntingly
similar to early September 1973, before the coup in Chile ushered in 20
years of blood and darkness.
last month, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon and the U.S.
State Department held a two-day meeting on U.S. policy toward
Venezuela. Similar such meetings took place in 1953, 1963, and 1973, as
well as before coups in Guatemala, Brazil and Argentina. It should send
a deep chill down the backs of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the
populist coalition that took power in 1998.
catalyst for the Nov. 5-7 interagency get-together was a comment by
Chavez in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist assault on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon. While Chavez sharply condemned the attack, he
questioned the value of bombing Afghanistan, calling it "fighting
terrorism with terrorism." In response, the Bush administration
temporarily withdrew its ambassador and convened the meeting.
outcome was a requirement that Venezuela "unequivocally" condemn
terrorism, including repudiating anything and anyone the Bush
administration defines as "terrorist." Since this includes both Cuba
(with which Venezuela has extensive trade relations) and rebel groups
in neighboring Colombia (to whom Chavez is sympathetic), the demand was
the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet.
spark for the statement might have been Sept. 11, but the dark clouds
gathering over Venezuela have much more to do with enduring matters --
like oil, land and power.
Chavez government is presently trying to change the 60-year-old
agreement with foreign oil companies that charges them as little as 1
percent in royalties and hands out huge tax breaks. There is a lot at
stake here. Venezuela has 77 billion barrels of proven reserves and is
the United States' third-biggest source of oil. It is also a major cash
cow for the likes of Phillips Petroleum and ExxonMobil. If the new law
goes through, U.S. and French oil companies will have to pony up a
bigger slice of their take.
larger slice is desperately needed in Venezuela. Although oil generates
some $30 billion each year, 80 percent of Venezuelans are, according to
government figures, "poor," and half of those are malnourished. Most
rural Venezuelans have no access to land except to work it for someone
else, because 2 percent of the population controls 60 percent of the
staggering gap between a tiny slice of "haves" and the sea of "have
nots" is little talked about in the American media, which tend to focus
on President Chavez's long-winded speeches and unrest among the urban
wealthy and middle class. U.S. newspapers covered the Dec. 10 "strike"
by business leaders and a section of the union movement protesting a
series of economic laws and land reform proposals, but not the fact
that the Chavez government has reduced inflation from 40 percent to 12
percent, generated economic growth of 4 percent, and increased primary
school enrollment by 1 million students.
from Washington, strikes by business leaders, and pot-banging
demonstrations by middle-class housewives are the fare most Americans
get about Venezuela these days. For any balance one has to go to local
journalists John Marshall and Christian Parenti. In a Dec. 10 article
in the Chicago bi-weekly In These Times, the two reporters give "the
other side" that the U.S. media always go on about but rarely present:
The attempts by the Venezuelan government to diversify its economy,
turn over idle land to landless peasants, encourage the growth of
co-ops based on the highly successful Hungarian model, increase health
spending fourfold, and provide drugs for 30 to 40 percent below cost.
the alleviation of poverty is not on Washington's radar screen these
days. Instead, U.S. development loans have been frozen, and the State
Department's specialist on Latin America, Peter Romero, has accused the
Chavez government of supporting terrorism in Colombia, Bolivia and
Ecuador. These days that is almost a declaration of war and certainly a
green light to any anti-Chavez forces considering a military coup.
hostility to Venezuela's efforts to overcome its lack of development
has helped add that country to the South American "arc of instability"
that runs from Caracas in the north to Buenos Aires in the south, and
includes Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. Failed neoliberal
economic policies, coupled with corruption and authoritarianism, have
made the region a powder keg, as recent events in Argentina
demonstrate. And the Bush administration's antidote? Matches,
incendiary statements, and dark armies moving in the night.
contributor Conn Hallinan is a journalism lecturer and provost at the
University of California, Santa Cruz. His column appears every other