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Chavez and Bush on a collision course

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Of one thing you can be sure with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: You won’t be bored listening to him. Chavez’s recent criticism of George W. Bush at the United Nations is only the latest in a war of words with the U.S. president. Chavez has accused the Bush administration of trying to assassinate him, a charge U.S. officials have denied. For the Bush administration, Chavez represents indeed the biggest threat in the region, although not necessarily for the reasons U.S. officials state.

Who is Chavez, and what explains the current antagonism between him and the Bush administration?

Chavez is essentially a product of the failure of Venezuelan traditional parties to bring progress with economic justice to Venezuelans. He is as disliked by the elites in Venezuela as by members of the Bush administration — many of whom have been special targets of Chavez’s scorn.

The feeling is mutual. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has accused Chavez of meddling in the affairs of Venezuela’s neighboring countries. Chavez, by contrast, has accused the United States of trying to topple him and has charged that U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials stationed in Venezuela have been conducting espionage and ordered them out of the country. In addition, to increase the Bush administration’s displeasure, he hired 16,000 Cuban doctors to provide free medical attention to the poor. The Bush administration has been a severe critic of Chavez’s close ties to Fidel Castro.

Since elected, Chavez has embarked on a Latin American crusade that has won him popular support in several countries. Many, however, also resent his interference, which may have been responsible for the candidates he voiced support for in Ecuador and Mexico to lose in their countries’ presidential elections.

But Chavez is not to be deterred. He has carried out important economic cooperation agreements with countries in Latin America such as Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Through the PetroCaribe program, he has offered Venezuelan oil in very favorable conditions to Caribbean nations. He has also signed economic and energy deals with France, India and China and Iran, among other countries.

Chavez has taken advantage of his country’s enormous oil reserves to improve the economic status of Venezuela’s poor. Seventy-five percent of Venezuelans are poor, and 45 percent live in extreme poverty. Although many dislike his vociferous and authoritarian style, Chavez has done more for the poor and dispossessed in his country than any Venezuelan president in recent memory.

His government is pursuing an ambitious agrarian reform program. In addition, he is carrying out an educational program for people in the shantytowns of Venezuela aimed at including the disenfranchised and ignored into the country’s political process. Through the creation of the Women’s Bank, the government is trying to improve women’s economic situation.

Chavez has used oil revenues to finance infrastructure development, conduct literacy programs and create scores of small-scale workers’ cooperatives in agriculture and other sectors. In 2004 Venezuela’s state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PdVSA) spent more than $3.7 billion in housing for the poor, free medical clinics, schools and literacy programs. More than 1.2 million adults have learned how to read since Chavez came into office, and the country now has one of highest literacy rates (93.4 percent) in the hemisphere.

Although Chavez is in general not accused of corruption himself, he has not been exempt from charges of economically favoring his allies. Critics of his government contend that his reforms are unsustainable, and that he is squandering valuable state resources. He has also been accused of increasingly concentrating power in his own hands, since he has now complete control of all state institutions.

Why do Venezuela’s elites hate him so? Maybe it is because he has sharply curtailed their benefits. Through his “Zero Evasion Tax Plan,” he has forced large corporations and landowners to pay taxes to an extent that they haven’t done in the past. Elites, mainly white, may also hate him because, in this racially divided country, he is a darker color than they.

Chavez’s bold political initiatives have clearly put him on a collision course with the U.S., a course in which he has the overwhelming support of the Latin American masses. Unless the relationship between both countries is more carefully managed, both are to lose from this confrontation.