By Burgon, Colin
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 136, No. 4854
Last week's cover story by Alice O'Keeffe, claiming Hugo Chavez had polarised Venezuela, was a distorted snapshot, devoid of present or historical context. The inference that prior to Chavez, Venezuela was a largely stable generally united society is risible. Venezuela is a nation in flux and one of great importance to the UK. On this premise, O'Keeffe's imbalance must be challenged.
She presented a country in "cold civil war" mode, one that is led by a "power-crazed" Chavez could easily turn "hot". Labelling Chavez as such implies a denial of democratic expression by the Venezuelan population.
In fact, Chavez has won three elections--all free, fair and overseen by international observers--doubling his vote between the first election in 1998 and his last one in December 2006. There is a "Chavista" majority in the National Assembly because the opposition boycotted the 2005 congressional elections following strategic advice from Washington; so the result was a foregone conclusion.
The writer then highlighted the increase in the number of Venezuelans fleeing the country for the US and the serious levels of violent crime across Venezuela. On the former point, O'Keeffe makes no reference to the fact that this state of affairs is being encouraged by the US through forthcoming changes to immigration law that will allow Venezuelans privileged entry into the country over people from conflict-prone states such as Haiti, Somalia and Iraq.
On the latter point, Venezuela clearly has a problem with crime, but it is not new. In the past 15 years it has been a serious, structural issue that has escalated and owes much to the illicit flow of weapons and drugs from neighbouring Colombia--a nation that receives US and UK military aid, despite an appalling human rights record.
O'Keeffe depicts Chavez as polarising any on the "third side". But the Bush administration has been fully complicit in the elimination of any neutral voices, financing the main opposition parties and, via its National Endowment for Democracy, openly and secretly funding civil society, so undermining organisations that should be respected as neutral actors.
When predominantly private university students demonstrate over RCTV, no mention whatsoever is made of pro-government rallies from public-sector students. There are also strong indications that the anti-government student rebellion is being externally orchestrated. When students were offered the opportunity to speak in the National Assembly by the Venezuelan government, an event televised nationally, they left behind their notes; it transpired they had been provided by a well-known PR agency.
It is this Manichean description of a nation polarised and propelled by a demagogue into possible civil war--rather than one finally and democratically challenging social injustice--that underpins O'Keeffe's assessment. This view becomes transparent if one considers the pre-Chavez social climate, where examples of social turmoil that very nearly did bring civil war are evident.
In 1989, President Andres Perez implemented free-market reforms under instruction from the IMF. This included the privatisation of state companies and carte blanche to multinationals to sew up Venezuelan resources. …