Analysis: Hugo Chavez Frias and the Sense of History

Campaign News | Tuesday, 3 May 2005

Michael Keefer of ZNet Magazine reports on the recent speech by the Venezuelan leader in Havana

ZNet Magazine May 3

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez Frias delivered a major summary of his government's current international initiatives today at an event which combined a moment of intense Venezuelan-Cuban diplomatic and commercial interactions with the meetings of the Fourth Hemispheric Conference Against the FTAA.

For listeners accustomed to the thin gruel of platitudes, Orwellian inversions and vacuous cheerleading into which North American political rhetoric seems to have declined, a Chavez Frias speech can be a heady experience.

The Venezuelan president shares with his friend and ally Fidel Castro Ruz an oratorical style that moves effortlessly through a wide gamut of effects, from self-deprecating banter to sustained historical analysis, from invective to geopolitical strategizing and impassioned declarations of the political ethics of what he calls the Bolivarian revolution.

Like President Castro, Chavez Frias possesses a stamina that might well make classical rhetoricians from Demosthenes to Cicero green with envy. He spoke, without notes, for more than three hours in Havana's Karl Marx Theatre to an audience of conference participants and students from the medical and other faculties of Havana's institutes of higher education. His subject: the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), which Venezuela and Cuba announced on December 14, 2004 as a principled alternative to the project of a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA, or in Spanish, ALCA) which the United States has been pushing since 2001, first as an all-encompassing agreement modelled on NAFTA and the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) which the U.S. hoped to have approved by January 1, 2005, and subsequently in the form of bilateral and regional agreements into which single nations like Chile or groups of small nations like the Central American states might more easily be bullied.

According to Chavez Frias, one defining moment in his movement from protest to alternative proposal was his first meeting with President Castro in Havana in December 1994. This coincided with the Miami Summit of the Americas, at which U.S. President Bill Clinton famously (and fatuously) declared: "Now we can say that the dream of Simon Bolivar has come true in all the Americas." That declaration, Chavez Frias said to today, "was a slap in the face of history, and a slap in the face for all of us who know our history and the ideals to which Bolivar devoted his life."

A second defining moment for him was the Quebec City FTAA Summit of April 2001. Those among the more than 70,000 demonstrators who endured what Chavez Frias today called "gas warfare" (guerra de gaz) at the "wall of shame" that surrounded the Quebec citadel on that memorable occasion will be gratified to learn that the protests of that weekend made an indelibel impression on one at least of the 31 government leaders sheltered within the fortress.

Chavez Frias recalled from that weekend the bullying behaviour of U.S. diplomats, and of their president--to whom he referred, in a mocking allusion to Gallegos' classic novel {Donna Varvara], as "Mr. Danger." He recalled as well the suave hospitality of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien--and his boast that the infamous wall was "anti-globalizationist-proof (a boast that was refiuted by the protesters who, on arriving at the wall, immediately pulled down a fifty-metre section of it).

In a discourse liberally salted with literary and historical references, Chavez Frias paid homage to two recently deceased writers: to Andre Gunder Frank, whose books include the classic study {Underdevelopment or Revolution}; and to the Uruguayan Ide Augustas, from whom he quoted the acerbic remark that "Globalization is a mask, a high-sounding term behind which crouches an evil intention, the old vice of colonialism." Turning to address the international media, Chavez Frias cited the no less acid remark of Eduardo Galeano that "Never in history have so many been deceived by so few." He then remembered, for the benefit of the U.S. media especially, an earlier moment of Cuban-Venezuelan cooperation for which the United States has every reason to feel enduring gratitude. During the American Revolution, sympathetic Cuban women raised more than one thousand pounds for the cause.

This substantial contribution was delivered to the insurgent thirteen colonies by the Venezuelan captain Francisco de Miranda, who deserted from the Spanish imperial army in Havana and became a valued colleague of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Chavez Frias went on to remember the manner in which the emergent "colossus of the north" repaid this act of generosity by contributing in the 1820s to the defeat of Simon Bolivar's dream of a united Latin America.

But now, he declared, ten years and five months after Bill Clinton's empty appropriation of the name of Bolivar, "Now truly the dream of Bolivar is beginning to move toward fulfilment." Chavez Frias quoted the proposal of Brazil's President Lula, during what he called "a historic visit" to Caracas, that if the nineteenth century was the century of Europe and the twentieth century the century of the United States, the possibility is now emerging of making the twenty-first century the century of Latin America. It is in this context that the ALBA, the dawn, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, is to be understood.

The aim is a process of comprehensive integration aimed at developing "the social state, in the interests not of elites but of the people." The trade regimnes proposed, and imposed, by the United States have empowered corporate elites, and have resulted in a neoliberal looting of countries like Argentina and Mexico (to mention only two of the most prominent victims). They have also resulted in the devastation of agricultural economies and the further immiseration of working people and of indigenous nations.

The ALBA, in contrast, seeks to empower the people at large, and holds out the utopian, revolutionary-democratic hope of eliminating poverty. The goal, Chavez Frias said, is "integration for life--not colonialism, but the happiness of our peoples."

Forty-nine distinct documents of the ALBA have been signed between Cuba and Venezuela, or are in advanced stages of discussion. Initiatives involving other countries are also being developed. An exemplary feature of the ALBA is the fluidity of exchanges of goods and services in a manner that sidesteps international banking systems and corporatist trading interests.

Thus Venezuela, in exchange for exports of oli and building materials to Cuba, is currently benefitting from the work of nearly 20,000 Cuban doctors who have opened medical clinics in barrios and rural communities that had never previously enjoyed medical services, while Cuban-staffed literacy programs "have taught 1.4 million Venezuelans to read and write during the past uyear alone." An ALBA-type agreement is currently being negotiated with Argentina, which already pays for the eight million barrels of Venezuelan oil it imports, not with hard cash or currency reserves that it does not have, but with cattle, which it does.

Other initiatives include the signing of twenty-six cooperation agreements between Venezuela and Brazil, the development of Telesur, a shared media network, the creation of a Banco Venezuelano Social, whose mission will be "to finance development in the interests of solidarity and cooperation," and the founding of Petrosur, an "oil alliance" whose benefits to non-producing countries will include the avoidance of the 30% to 50% of the price to consumer countries that under the existing system goes to oil trading corporations, that is to say to "speculative capitalist intermediaries."

The Bolivarian dream of Hugo Chavez Frias is a large and inclusive one. "Bolivarianismo," he declared today, is also both "socialismo" and "cristianismo." Chavez Frias' Bolivarian-socialist Christianity echoes the liberation theologians' "preferential option for the poor." He quoted the saying of Jesus that "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven"--a saying that has particular resonance in Havana, where since the beginning of the "special period" of acute economic crisis brought on by with the collapse of the Soviet Union, "camel" has been the name given given to the huge tractor-trailer trucks converted into buses for urban transportation.

This Bolivarian doctrine involves clear political choices: "According to the Bible," Chavez Frias reminded his audience, "you can be on good terms either with God or with the devil--but not with both." And its orientation is, very clearly, humanist: "El dios para mi--es el pueblo" ("God, for me, is the people").

The Venezuelan president harbours no illusions as to the kinds of tactics the U.S. empire is likely to deploy in response to a potentially-continent-wide reorganization of social and economic life in the service of human rather than corporatist interests. But neither is he content with the old definition of politics as "the art of the possible." For this slogan, which Chavez Frias says has at times "been no more than an excuse for cowards, or a by-word of traitors and conservatives," he substitutes what we might well term a Bolivarian Alternative: "Politics is the art of making possible tomorrow what seems impossible today."

Venezuela and Cuba Deepen Relations and Support Alternative to FTAA

Havana April 29: During a two-day visit to the Caribbean island, Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez and Cuba's President Fidel Castro celebrated the inauguration of branch offices of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PdVSA and the also state owned Banco Industrial de Venezuela in Havana. Also, they attended an international gathering of political activists designed to promote the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Forty-nine agreements in areas such as commerce, energy, finances, agriculture, communications and technology were signed after which healthcare, education, housing, infrastructure and cultural initiatives were discussed.

In addition to strengthening their economic ties and political alliances the proposals undertaken by the two nations, in particular the opening of a branch office of PdVSA, are an important step to further solidifying Petrocaribe. Petrocaribe is a Venezuelan-initiated joint oil operation designed to offset high oil prices to the Caribbean region by exploiting oil off Cuban shores, refining it in Cuba and selling it from Havana, thus reducing transportation costs.

In order to consolidate this endeavor, PdVSA President Rafael Ramírez announced that PdVSA and Cuban oil company Cupet will build a lubricants plant, a shipping terminal and a storage facility as well as complete the Cienfuegos Soviet-initiated refinery. Petrobrás, the Brazilian oil company, is also expected to participate in the initiative.

Ramírez, who is also the Minister of Energy and Petroleum, notes that these moves are part of Venezuela's strategy to diversify its markets. "We have advanced with Jamaica in terms of having refining capacity and with Trinidad and Tobago in commercialization; we are here in Cuba installing an operations base. We will sign an ensemble of documents, among them a lubricant project and [discuss] the possibility of advancing in joint projects. Additionally, there are diverse areas that are being studied," stated Ramírez on Wednesday night.

According to retired Latin American Amoco executive Jorge Piñón Cervera, "[t]he expansion or retrofitting of the Cienfuegos refinery would be a very good investment?One of the reasons the price of crude is so high is because of the lack of refinery capacity."

Since 2000, Venezuela and Cuba have participated in what is often referred to as an oil for doctors program. Under this agreement Cuba provides Venezuela with 14,000 doctors and has trained Venezuelan teachers and educators in the world-renown Yo sí Puedo methodology that has close to eradicated illiteracy in the oil-rich nation. In turn, Venezuela supplies Cuba with below market priced oil. According to Ramírez, this arrangement will deepen, with the close to doubling of daily oil shipments to the Caribbean island will close to double, from 53,000 bpd to between 80,000 to 90,000 bpd.

"Venezuela is long on capital and can use more talent. Cuba is short on capital and long on talent. This arrangement benefits both governments," notes economist Oscar A. Echevarria.

Chávez's visit to the Caribbean island is likely to yield a slew of negative statements from US spokespersons, who are invariably irritated by the strengthening of the already tight Cuban-Venezuelan alliance. Relations have notably deteriorated between Caracas and Washington recently. Venezuela, referred to as Latin America's "model democracy" before Chávez was elected is now ranked by the CIA as the top "potentially unstable country" in the region.

Washington fears that furthering deepening the political alliance between Cuba and Venezuela will disrupt the flow of oil from Venezuela to the US. Venezuela currently supplies the US with 15 percent of its oil and, as illustrated by US President George W. Bush's recent proposal to drill in the Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), is causing the Bush Administration to take measures to ensure that "Americans [do] not live at the mercy of global trends and the decisions of other nations."

"The FTAA is just pieces"

The 49 agreements signed represent an important step in bilateral integration, both economically and politically, yet according to both Chávez and Castro, Petrocaribe and the plans to develop refining capacity in the Caribbean are more than just another average agreement. With the end goal of lowering shipping costs for the small Caribbean islands, the projects are an integral part of the promoting the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the Venezuelan counter-proposal to the US-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Chávez's visit coincided with a Cuban-hosted international gathering designed to promote the Venezuelan proposed ALBA. Despite the fact that no other Latin American country (other than Cuba and Venezuela) has committed itself to the ALBA, Chávez and Castro feel that the FTAA is no longer competition.

"What's left of the FTAA is just pieces, bilateral agreements," stated Castro during a three-hour speech at the conference. "The FTAA will not become reality with its mercantile criteria and its egotistical interests for managerial profits nor national benefits at the expense of other countries," Castro affirmed.

Another important agreement, the joint initiative between the Banco Industrial de Venezuela (BIV) and the Cuban Ministry of Internal Commerce, is designed to promote national development. With the opening of the BIV office in Havana, bilateral commerce will be facilitated. Additionally, alternative possibilities of financing medium-sized businesses, cooperatives and producers, as well as capturing new markets and instigating new commercial alternatives in the Caribbean will be designed. Projects in the works include the manufacturing of solar panels and the creation of an experimental seed bank, nickel and cobalt mining projects and investments in communication.

Trade relations between the two nations are also expected to deepened. At an expo of Venezuelan businesses, these sold 412 million dollars worth of goods such as clothing, shoes, tires, toys and spots equipment. Cuba will be opening a chain of stores in Caracas selling products in solidarity with the people. Additionally, a branch office of a Cuban bank will be established in the Venezuelan capital.

Venezuela and Cuba forge anti-imperialist alliance

HAVANA April 28 - Venezuela drew closer to Cuba on Thursday by establishing subsidiaries of its state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and a government bank on the island.

Presidents Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, who are seeking to build an alternative to the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas - from which Cuba is excluded - attended the launchings in an upbeat mood.

"We are very pleased. This is a historic day," said Castro, 78, dressed in his customary military uniform.

Said Chavez: "We have been building this brick by brick, like a house."

The left-wing leaders tasted sardines and chocolate at a fair where Venezuelan businesses sold $412 million in products to Cuba with the help of Venezuelan export credits. The goods, including toys, car tires, clothes, shoes, sports equipment and building materials, will enter Cuba tariff-free.

Castro declared the FTAA dead in a three-hour speech in which he said the US proposal for a single free-trade bloc of the Americas was an "anexionist plan" aimed at plundering Latin American resources.

"What's left of the FTAA is just pieces, bilateral agreements," Castro said of the hemispheric free-trade plan, which has met with growing resistance in Latin American societies disillusioned with the promises of free-market capitalism.

In the last five years, Venezuela has become a vital economic lifeline for Cuba's cash-starved government, partly filling the void left by the Soviet Union's collapse with vital supplies of oil on very favorable terms.

Cuba is paying for the estimated $1 billion a year oil bill with medical and educational services. Officials said 30,000 Cuban doctors and medical personnel are working in Venezuela.

The partnership is viewed with suspicion in Washington where Bush administration officials see a conspiracy against U.S. interests in Latin America. Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, is a major source of energy for the United States.

PDVSA will make Havana the headquarters for its Caribbean oil refining and distribution plans. It signed an agreement with the Cuban oil company Cupet to build a lubricants plant in Cuba.

The Venezuelan company is also looking at building a super-tanker shipping terminal and a storage facility with a 600,000 barrels a day capacity at Matanzas, east of Havana, and the completion of a Soviet-built oil refinery in Cienfuegos.

PDVSA will consider off-shore exploration in Cuba's Gulf of Mexico waters, where Spain's Repsol YPF last year discovered a noncommercial deposit of good quality oil.

The two countries further agreed to undertake joint nickel and cobalt mining projects, improve communications and step up air and shipping links.

Venezuela increased oil shipments to Cuba to 80,000-90,000 bpd, Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said on Wednesday.

Since 2000, Venezuela has officially supplied Cuba with 53,000 bpd of crude and refined products, but exports have risen since Chavez's consolidation of power.

The Bush administration's former point-man for Latin America, Otto Reich, accused Chavez on Thursday of using Venezuela's oil wealth to prop up Fidel Castro.

"We have to be careful that our home, the Western Hemisphere, is not undermined through political warfare guided by a couple of self-described revolutionaries who also lead increasingly failed states," Reich said in a speech in Miami.

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