Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro made news this week by breaking off relations with Panama following Panama’s proposal for the Organization of American States (OAS) to take up the situation in Venezuela. Panama’s move followed weeks of calls from members of the U.S. Congress, pundits and others to use the OAS against the Maduro government for supposed government repression of “peaceful” protesters.
In remarks yesterday, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza criticized what he described as hypocrisy from both those who support and oppose such a move. Insulza stated:
here we see a swapping of roles: Those who just a few years ago brandished the Inter-American Democratic Charter to demand severe sanctions against the de facto government in Honduras are now saying that even mentioning a crisis that has already led to the deaths of a large number of people constitutes interference; while those who denounced (and still denounce) the steps we took when faced with an obvious coup d’état as an attack on a nation’s sovereignty –I’m referring again to Honduras-, now demand that we help them overthrow a government recently chosen in a democratic election.
It appears that Insulza is playing a role that he has played on numerous prior occasions – most recently in April when he refused to recognize the Venezuelan presidential elections, until South American pressure forced him (as well as the U.S. and the right-wing government of Spain) to accept democratic election results. This is unfortunate, but the manipulation of the OAS by Washington and a diminishing number of right-wing allies is the main reason that Latin American countries created the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2011, to have a region-wide organization without the U.S. and Canada.
While it is important for officials such as Insulza to reaffirm the importance of Venezuela’s democratic processes and remind the OAS membership that Venezuela’s government was recently elected (and had its strong public support reaffirmed less than three months ago in local elections), other remarks equate extreme sectors of the Venezuelan opposition and the Venezuelan government, even though the government has won elections and the opposition has not:
Today, it is undeniable that there is a profound political crisis, characterized above all by a split and confrontation between most political and social actors into irreconcilable bands. When the opposition mobilizes, it does so on a massive scale, and poses strong demands; when the Government’s supporters take to the streets, their numbers and the fervor of their demands are also huge.
But for the last few weeks, it isn’t “massive” opposition protests that are occurring, but rather small protests designed to wreak havoc in a few neighborhoods throughout the country. In essence, Insulza and the U.S. administration are suggesting that when extremist groups demand the immediate departure of an elected president, and try to achieve their aim by barricading streets and engaging in violent acts, the government has an obligation to dialogue with them.
This is reminiscent of Insulza’s approach to the coup in Honduras in 2009, when he effectively raised up a repressive regime that destroyed democracy with a military coup to the same legitimacy as the elected government. Insulza’s characterization of the OAS role in responding to the Honduran coup is also misleading. In fact, the OAS did little to try to restore democracy to Honduras, and Insulza apparently did not speak out when the U.S. ultimately blocked a measure that would have required the ousted president Manuel Zelaya to be returned to office before new elections were to be held, even though this was a solution supported by most OAS members.
Insulza’s comments on Chile are also troubling:
Both sides are an indispensable part of a country that needs all its people as it forges its future. Seeking to “win” this battle is a sure path to a decades-long national split between the vanquished and the conquerors. History is replete with examples of when division and confrontation destroyed democracy and ushered in long bouts of dictatorship. That is what happened in my country and thousands died.
Those familiar with the history of Chile know that political polarization was not the main problem, but rather that the right wing was by led by fascists who did not respect democratic government and were willing to institute a violent dictatorship that killed, disappeared, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands of people. (It is also relevant that the U.S. government fueled much of the unrest as well as economic sabotage after then-U.S. president Richard Nixon vowed to “make the economy scream.”) It is of course good to avoid unnecessary political polarization and pursue dialogue as a general principle. But Chile’s infamous military coup and dictatorship were not a result of a conflict between two opposing forces representing equally just claims; it was rich against poor, people who did not respect democratic elections versus those who did, people allied with an aggressive foreign power versus those who believed in national sovereignty.
Insulza also refers to OAS support for “democracy and political stability in Haiti”: “during the Haitian crisis, over a decade ago, we gladly accepted U.N. leadership in that country and still maintain our association with it, in support of democracy and political stability in Haiti.”
This also raises very serious questions about Insulza’s idea of democracy. The U.N. mission was deployed to Haiti following the 2004 U.S.-backed coup d’etat against the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who also had faced a violent opposition (for years) with whom the international community repeatedly urged him to “negotiate;” while at the same time we now know that U.S. funders of the opposition were telling them not to reach any agreement, that Aristide would be overthrown. The U.N. has occupied Haiti almost ever since, while the most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas has been arbitrarily excluded from elections and many of its leaders and members hunted down and killed, and others imprisoned on bogus charges.
As we have described in detail, the OAS has played a key role in overturning elections in Haiti twice: in 2000, when the OAS’ rejection – without justification – of the election of seven senators provided the pretext for a political “crisis” and U.S.-led efforts to undermine the Aristide government; and the OAS’ overturning of the first round of the 2010 presidential elections. (Former OAS insider Ricardo Seitenfus has recently provided more details on this sorry episode.)
Considering this background, and the disproportionate influence wielded by the U.S. at the OAS, it should be of little surprise that Venezuela would seek to have UNASUR take up the Venezuelan political situation, rather than the OAS, which it appears UNASUR might, next week.
In a statement before the OAS, U.S. Ambassador Carmen Lomellin described
what appears to be a pattern of security personnel using excessive force.
We are also concerned with increasingly stringent tactics being employed by the government in an effort to restrict the rights of Venezuelan citizens to peaceful protest.
However, violence in recent days has almost exclusively impacted those opposed to the protests or the barricades, which make getting around certain neighborhoods difficult.
If there is a “pattern” of “excessive force” and “increasingly stringent tactics” by the government, it is unclear what these are, considering that the road blockades continue, even after nine people have been killed either trying to get through, or remove, the barricades, and considering that National Guard officers are getting killed. It is hard to imagine such a situation taking place in the United States, with small groups of protesters blockading streets, not for hours, and not even for days, but for weeks, and those attempting to remove the barricades being attacked and sometimes even shot and killed. The Occupy protests just a few years ago were usually violently repressed, and these were mostly in parks and other green spaces – not blocking off streets in major cities. These were actually peaceful demonstrations. Nor was the police repression of the Occupy protests met with calls for intervention by the OAS, even after Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen was almost killed after being shot in the head with a canister by police in Oakland, CA.
The U.S. statement follows a pattern of official statements since Venezuela’s latest wave of protests began that heaps all blame for violence on the government while characterizing the protests only as peaceful (the nine people who have been killed while trying to pass through or remove barricades, or the pro-government demonstrators killed, are testament to a different reality).
While both Lomellin and Insulza (among many others) have stressed the importance of dialogue between the government and the opposition, little attention is paid to the Venezuelan government’s efforts to engage in such dialogue. Maduro invited opposition leaders to a meeting on February 24; opposition leader Henrique Capriles rejected the offer. Jorge Roig, the head of FEDECAMARAS (the main business federation) and Lorenzo Mendoza, head of major food and beverage company Empresas Polar did attend, however, with Roig saying “We have profound differences with your economic system and your political systems but democracy, thank God, lets us evaluate these differences.”
Insulza’s comments that “it is also essential that the principal party leaders and opposition leaders with the most backing are also parties to the dialogue” could be seen as criticism of Capriles’ refusal so far to speak with Maduro. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot recently noted in Venezuela’s Últimas Noticias, by taking a radical posture and refusing to meet with Maduro despite having shook hands with Maduro just weeks before, Capriles has clearly sided with the more extreme elements of Venezuela’s opposition.
Mérida – Opposition protests continue in Venezuela, while masses of holiday-goers have headed to the beach to escape the unrest.
Over the weekend opposition supporters continued the protests that have mainly taken place in middle and upper class areas of Venezuela’s cities.
However the government has argued that the large numbers of people travelling to the beach and other destinations over the long “carnival” weekend shows that the protesters are a “minority” and that life in most of the country continues as normal.
Protests began last month after hard-line opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is currently under investigation for incitement to violence, called for supporters to take to the streets and force the “exit” of President Nicolas Maduro. Led by pro-opposition students, demonstrators have also mentioned insecurity, high inflation and shortages as reasons for discontent.
While some protests have been peaceful, others have descended into violence and rioting. Further, small groups of radical opposition activists have set up burning street barricades in parts of some of Venezuela’s cities, blocking traffic and creating a range of problems for the normal functioning of civic life.
Protests vs. holidays
The opposition fought to keep the momentum of protests going as the country entered a long weekend on Thursday, which will last until this coming Wednesday. On Sunday, thousands of opposition supporters marched through Caracas to underscore their discontent.
The mayors of several opposition controlled municipalities cancelled local carnival celebrations, rejecting the government’s call for normality.
“There’s no reason to celebrate here,” said Ramón Muchacho, mayor of the wealthy Chacao municipality of eastern Caracas.
Also on Sunday 41 people, including an Italian photographer, were released from detention. They were arrested on Friday during a confrontation between National Guard officers and molotov-cocktail wielding opposition hard-liners in the up-market Altamira area of Caracas.
There were fresh confrontations in Altamira today, with National Guard officers using tear gas to disperse opposition radicals armed with molotov cocktails, the local mayor reported.
Meanwhile the government has said that at least a million people have taken advantage of the long weekend to go on holiday.
“With this mobilisation [of tourists] that there has been this carnival, it’s being demonstrated to the country that the violent ones are a minority…[and] that they’re ever more isolated,” said tourism minister Andres Izarra today.
On the country’s beaches, many Venezuelans expressed their desire to escape from the unrest.
“They [the violent protests and street barricades] are absurd, we all have the right to free transit whatever our political opinions: they’re not doing anything with these barricades,” said Oscar Figuera, a beach-goer with his family, to private Venezuelan news outlet Noticias 24.
“I’m self employed, and I’ve not been able to go out to work and my children haven’t been able to go to school. There are other ways to protest,” Figuera stated.
Meanwhile some opposition supporters stayed on the streets, arguing that they didn’t want the holidays to dampen the protests. “Going on vacation is really like saying that [the government] is right, that everything is calm and everything is fine, when we don’t feel that way,” said Carlos Torres, an engineer, to the BBC in Caracas.
“We want the street to remain active,” said another protester, a student named Eduardo.”If the protests are peaceful then people get tired,” he explained.
Nevertheless President Maduro argued today that the great majority had decided to use the long weekend to celebrate the carnival holiday. “You [the opposition] believed that we were going to let you take away the children’s happiness. The people of Venezuela have triumphed. The people want peace,” he declared.
Also today, right-wing legislator Maria Corina Machado and Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, led a march to the Venezuela office of the Organisation of American States (OAS). Describing the situation in Venezuela as “the assassination of a democracy”, they demanded that the OAS debate events in Venezuela and support the opposition with a “firm reaction”.
“If the OAS turns its back on Venezuela in these hours it won’t just be betraying Venezuela, it will be burying the OAS,” argued Machado, who participated in the short-lived 2002 coup against former president Hugo Chavez.
Antonio Ledezma reiterated his faction of the opposition’s rejection of Maduro’s National Peace Conference initiative, which had its first meeting last Wednesday with business, religious, and some opposition figures.
“Those aren’t meetings of peace, they’re meetings of violence where citizens aren’t respected and there isn’t a clear agenda of what is wanted to be achieved,” he argued.
Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles didn’t attend today’s march. Instead the state governor launched an initiative called the “People’s Defence Command”, which he said seeks “to form a great social movement…to push for change”.
One of the objectives of the initiative is to “leave aside the political agenda of violence” and to campaign on “social problems” that can be used to reach out to the opposition’s non-traditional base of support.
While also rejecting Maduro’s offer of dialogue, Capriles has previously criticised the hard-line opposition’s tactics as containing an “empty agenda” and representing a political “dead end”.
According to press and authorities, 18 have been killed and 260 wounded since violent protests began last month. The latest victim is a National Guard officer, Giovanni Pantoja, who died last Friday. He was reportedly shot by a gunman in an “ambush” while he and his colleagues were trying to clear the remains of a street barricade from a road in Carabobo state.
Venezuela’s Ombudsman, Gabriela Ramírez, reported today that the state’s human rights body has received 42 denouncements of abuses by security forces. She said that the majority of these were for excess use of force at the point of arrest, but “not one for torture”.
President Maduro has called for the formation of a bi-partisan Truth Commission to investigate and attribute responsibility for “all” acts of recent violence, although some opposition figures have rejected this as being weighted in favour of the government. The opposition’s MUD coalition is preparing a report solely focused on alleged abuses by state security forces, to be presented to “international organisations”.
By the early 1980s the more perceptive sectors of the neoliberal ruling classes realized that their policies were polarizing the society and provoking large-scale social discontent.
Neoliberal politicians began to finance and promote a parallel strategy “from below,” the promotion of “grassroots” organization with an”anti-statist” ideology to intervene among potentially conflictory classes, to create a “social cushion.” These organizations were financially dependent on neoliberal sources and were directly involved in competing with socio-political movements for the allegiance of local leaders and activist communities. By the 1990s these organizations, described as “nongovernmental,” numbered in the thousands and were receiving close to four billion dollars world-wide.
Neoliberalism and the NGOs
The confusion concerning the political character of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stems from their earlier history in the 1970s during the days of the dictatorships. In this period they were active in providing humanitarian support to the victims of the military dictatorship and denouncing human rights violations. The NGOs supported “soup kitchens” which allowed victimized families to survive the first wave of shock treatments administered by the neoliberal dictatorships. This period created a favorable image of NGOs even among the left. They were considered part of the “progressive camp.”
Even then, however, the limits of the NGOs were evident. While they attacked the human rights violations of local dictatorships, they rarely denounced the U.S. and European patrons who financed and advised them. Nor was there a serious effort to link the neoliberal economic policies and human rights violations to the new turn in the imperialist system. Obviously the external sources of funding limited the sphere of criticism and human rights action.
As opposition to neoliberalism grew in the early 1980s, the U.S. and European governments and the World Bank increased their funding ofNGOs. There is a direct relation between the growth of social movements challenging the neoliberal model and the effort to subvert them by creating alternative forms of social action through the NGOs. The basic point of convergence between the NGOs and the World Bank was their common opposition to”statism.” On the surface the NGOs criticized the state from a “left” perspective defending civil society, while the right did so in the name of the market. In reality, however, the World Bank, the neoliberal regimes, and western foundations co-opted and encouraged the NGOs to undermine the national welfare state by providing social services to compensate the victims of the multinational corporations (MNCs). In other words, as the neoliberal regimes at the top devastated communities by inundating the country with cheap imports, extracting external debt payment, abolishing labor legislation, and creating a growing mass of low-paid and unemployed workers, the NGOs were funded to provide “self-help” projects, “popular education,” and job training, to temporarily absorb small groups of poor, to co-opt local leaders, and to undermine anti-system struggles.
The NGOs became the “community face” of neoliberalism, intimately related to those at the top and complementing their destructive work with local projects. In effect the neoliberals organized a “pincer” operation or dual strategy. Unfortunately many on the left focused only on “neoliberalism” from above and the outside (International Monetary Fund, World Bank) and not on neoliberalism from below (NGOs, micro-enterprises). A major reason for this oversight was the conversion of many ex-Marxists to the NGO formula and practice. Anti-Statism was the ideological transit ticket from class politics to “community development,” from Marxism to the NGOs.
Typically, NGO ideologues counterpose “state” power to “local” power. State power is, they argue, distant from its citizens, autonomous, and arbitrary, and it tends to develop interests different from and opposed to those of its citizens, while local power is necessarily closer and more responsive to the people. But apart from historical cases where the reverse has also been true, this leaves out the essential relation between state and local power—the simple truth that state power wielded by a dominant, exploiting class will undermine progressive local initiatives, while that same power in the hands of progressive forces can reinforce such initiatives.
The counter position of state and local power has been used to justify the role of NGOs as brokers between local organizations, neoliberal foreign donors (World Bank, Europe, or the United States) and the local free market regimes. But the effect is to strengthen neoliberal regimes by severing the link between local struggles and organizations and national/international political movements. The emphasis on “local activity” serves the neoliberal regimes since it allows its foreign and domestic backers to dominate macro-socio-economic policy and to channel most of the state’s resources toward subsidies for export capitalists and financial institutions.
So while the neoliberals were transferring lucrative state properties to the private rich, the NGOs were not part of the trade union resistance. On the contrary they were active in local private projects, promoting the private enterprise discourse (self-help) in the local communities by focusing on micro-enterprises. The NGOs built ideological bridges between the small scale capitalists and the monopolies benefiting from privatization—all in the name of “anti-statism”and the building of civil societies. While the rich accumulated vast financial empires from the privatization, the NGO middle class professionals got small sums to finance offices, transportation, and small-scale economic activity.
The important political point is that the NGOs depoliticized sectors of the population, undermined their commitment to public employees, and co-opted potential leaders in small projects. NGOs abstain from public schoolteacher struggles, as the neoliberal regimes attack public education and public educators. Rarely if ever do NGOs support the strikes and protests against low wages and budget cuts. Since their educational funding comes from the neoliberal governments, they avoid solidarity with public educators in struggle. In practice, “non-governmental” translates into anti-public-spending activities, freeing the bulk of funds for neoliberals to subsidize export capitalists while small sums trickle from the government to NGOs.
In reality non-governmental organizations are not non-governmental. They receive funds from overseas governments or work as private subcontractors of local governments. Frequently they openly collaborate with governmental agencies at home or overseas. This “subcontracting”undermines professionals with fixed contracts, replacing them with contingent professionals. The NGOs cannot provide the long-term comprehensive programs that the welfare state can furnish. Instead they provide limited services to narrow groups of communities. More importantly, their programs are not accountable to the local people but to overseas donors. In that sense NGOs undermine democracy by taking social programs out of the hands of the local people and their elected officials to create dependence on non-elected, overseas officials and their locally anointed officials.
NGOs shift people’s attention and struggles away from the national budget and toward self-exploitation to secure local social services. This allows the neoliberals to cut social budgets and transfer state funds to subsidize bad debts of private banks, and provide loans to exporters. Self exploitation (self-help) means that, in addition to paying taxes to the state and not getting anything in return, working people have to work extra hours with marginal resources, and expend scarce energies to obtain services that the bourgeoisie continues to receive from the state. More fundamentally, the NGO ideology of “private voluntaristic activity” undermines the sense of the “public”: the idea that the government has an obligation to look after its citizens and provide them with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that the political responsibility of the state is essential for the well-being of citizens. Against this notion of public responsibility, the NGOs foster the neoliberal idea of private responsibility for social problems and the importance of private resources to solve these problems. In effect they impose a double burden on the poor who continue to pay taxes to finance the neoliberal state to serve the rich, but are left with private self-exploitation to take care of their own needs.
NGOs and Socio-political Movements
NGOs emphasize projects, not movements; they “mobilize” people to produce at the margins but not to struggle to control the basic means of production and wealth; they focus on technical financial assistance of projects, not on structural conditions that shape the everyday lives of people. The NGOs co-opt the language of the left: “popular power,” “empowerment,” “gender equality,” “sustainable development,” “bottom-up leadership.” The problem is that this language is linked to a framework of collaboration with donors and government agencies that subordinate practical activity to non-confrontational politics. The local nature of NGO activity means that “empowerment” never goes beyond influencing small areas of social life, with limited resources, and within the conditions permitted by the neoliberal state and macro-economy.
The NGOs and their post-Marxist professional staff directly compete with the socio-political movements for influence among the poor, women, and the racially excluded. Their ideology and practice diverts attention from the sources and solutions of poverty (looking downward and inward instead of upward and outward). To speak of micro-enterprises, instead of the elimination of exploitation by the overseas banks, as the solution, is based on the notion that the problem is one of individual initiative rather than the transference of income overseas. The NGO’s aid affects small sectors of the population, setting up competition between communities for scarce resources, generating insidious distinctions and inter- and intra-community rivalries, thus undermining class solidarity. The same is true among the professionals: each sets up its NGO to solicit overseas funds. They compete by presenting proposals more congenial to the overseas donors, while claiming to speak for their followers.
The net effect is a proliferation of NGOs that fragment poor communities into sectoral and sub-sectoral groupings unable to see the larger social picture that afflicts them and even less able to unite in struggle against the system. Recent experience also demonstrates that foreign donors finance projects during “crises”—political and social challenges to the status quo. Once the movements have ebbed they shift funding to NGO-style “collaboration,” fitting the NGO projects into the neoliberal agenda. Economic development compatible with the “free market” rather than social organization for social change becomes the dominant item on the funding agenda.
The structure and nature of NGOs, with their “apolitical” posture and their focus on self-help, depoliticizes and demobilizes the poor. They reinforce the electoral processes encouraged by the neoliberal parties and mass media. Political education about the nature of imperialism, and the class basis of neoliberalism, the class struggle between exporters and temporary workers, are avoided. Instead the NGOs discuss “the excluded,” the “powerless,” “extreme poverty,” “gender or racial discrimination,” without moving beyond the superficial symptom to the social system that produces these conditions. Incorporating the poor into the neoliberal economy through purely “private voluntary action,” the NGOs create a political world where the appearance of solidarity and social action cloaks a conservative conformity with the international and national structure of power.
It is no coincidence that as NGOs have become dominant in certain regions, independent class political action has declined, and neoliberalism goes uncontested. The bottom line is that the growth of NGOs coincides with increased funding under neoliberalism and the deepening of poverty everywhere. Despite the claims of many local successes, the overall power of neoliberalism stands unchallenged and the NGOs increasingly search for niches in the interstices of power.
The problem of formulating alternatives has been hindered in another way too. Many of the former leaders of guerrilla and social movements, trade union and popular women’s organizations have been co-opted by the NGOs. Some have undoubtedly been attracted by the hope—or the illusion—that this might give them access to levers of power which would allow them to do some good. But in any case, the offer is tempting: higher pay (occasionally in hard currency), prestige and recognition by overseas donors, overseas conferences and networks, office staff, and relative security from repression. In contrast, the socio-political movements offer few material benefits but greater respect and independence and, more importantly, the freedom to challenge the political and economic system. The NGOs and their overseas banking supporters (Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank) publish newsletters featuring success stories of micro-enterprises and other self-help projects—without mentioning the high rates of failure as popular consumption declines, low-priced imports flood the market, and interest rates spiral, as in Mexico today.
Even the “successes” affect only a small fraction of the total poor and succeed only to the degree that others cannot enter the same market. The propaganda value of individual micro-enterprise success, however, is important in fostering the illusion that neoliberalism is a popular phenomenon. The frequent violent mass outbursts that take place in regions of micro-enterprise promotion suggests that the ideology is not hegemonic and the NGOs have not yet displaced independent class movements.
Finally NGOs foster a new type of cultural and economic colonialism and dependency. Projects are designed, or at least approved, based on the “guidelines” and priorities of the imperial centers and their institutions. They are administered and “sold” to communities. Evaluations are done by and for the imperial institutions. Shifts of funding priorities or bad evaluations result in the dumping of groups, communities, farms, and co-operatives. Everything and everybody is increasingly disciplined to comply with the donors and project evaluators’ demands. The new viceroys supervise and ensure conformity with the goals, values, and ideologies of the donor as well as the proper use of funds. Where “successes” occur they are heavily dependent on continued outside support, without which they could collapse.
In many ways the hierarchical structures and the forms of transmission of “aid” and “training” resemble nineteenth-century charity, and the promoters are not very different from Christian missionaries. The NGOs emphasize “self-help” in attacking “paternalism and dependence” on the state. In this competition among NGOs to capture the victims of neoliberals, they receive important subsidies from their counterparts in Europe and the United States. The self-help ideology emphasizes the replacement of public employees by volunteers, and upwardly mobile professionals contracted on a temporary basis. The basic philosophy of the NGO intellectuals is to transform “solidarity” into collaboration and subordination to the macro-economy of neoliberalism, by focusing attention away from state resources of the wealthy classes toward self-exploitation of the poor.
But, while the mass of NGOs are increasingly instruments of neoliberalism, there is a small minority which attempt to develop an alternative strategy that is supportive of anti-imperialist and class politics. None of them receive funds from the World Bank, European, or U.S. governmental agencies. They support efforts to link local power to struggles for state power. They link local projects to national socio-political movements: occupying large landed estates, defending public property and national ownership against multinationals. They provide political solidarity to social movements involved in struggles to expropriate land. They support women’s struggles linked to class perspectives. They recognize the importance of politics in defining local and immediate struggles. They believe that local organizations should fight at the national level and that national leaders must be accountable to local activists.
Let us examine some examples of the role of NGOs and their relation to neoliberalism and imperialism in specific countries:
In 1985 the Bolivian government launched its New Economic Policy (NEP) by decree: freezing wages for four months while inflation raged at a 15,000 percent annual rate. The NEP annulled all price controls and reduced or ended food and fuel subsidies. It also laid the basis for the privatization of most state enterprises and the firing of public-sector employees. Massive cutbacks in health and education programs eliminated most public services. These structural adjustment policies (SAP) were designed and dictated by the World Bank and the IMF and approved by the U.S. and European governments and banks. The number of poverty stricken Bolivians grew geometrically. Prolonged general strikes and violent confrontations followed. In response the World Bank, European, and U.S. governments provided massive aid to fund a “poverty alleviation program.” Most of the money was directed to a Bolivian government agency, the Emergency Social Fund (ESF), which channeled funds to the NGOs to implement its program. The funds were not insignificant: in 1990 foreign aid totaled $738 million.
The number of NGOs in Bolivia grew rapidly in response to international funding: prior to 1980 there were 100 NGOs; by 1992 there were 530 and growing. Almost all the NGOs are directed toward addressing social problems created by the World Bank and the Bolivian government’s free market policies, which the dismantled state institutions no longer can deal with. Of the tens of millions allocated to the NGOs, only 15 to 20 percent reached the poor. The rest was siphoned off to pay administrative costs and professional salaries. The Bolivian NGOs functioned as appendages of the state and served to consolidate its power. The absolute levels of poverty stayed the same and the long-term structural causes—the neoliberal policies—were cushioned by the NGOs. While not solving the poverty problem, the NGO-administered poverty programs strengthened the regime and weakened opposition to the SAP. The NGOs, with their big budgets, exploited vulnerable groups and were able to convince some leaders of the opposition that they could benefit from working with the government. According to one observer, commenting on the NGO role in the “poverty program”: “If this (NGO programs) did not create direct support, it at least reduced potential opposition to the government and its program.”
When the public school teachers of La Paz went on strike to protest $50-a-month wages and crowded classrooms, the NGOs ignored it; when cholera and yellow fever epidemics raged in the countryside, the NGO self-help programs were helpless where a comprehensive public health program would have been successful in preventing them. The NGOs did absorb many of Bolivia’s former leftist intellectuals and turned them into apologists for the neoliberal system. Their seminars about “civil society” and “globalization” obscured the fact that the worst exploiters (the private mine owners, new rich agro-exporters, and high paid consultants) were members of “civil society” and that the SAP was an imperial design to open the country’s mineral resources to unregulated pillage.
In Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship in 1973-1989, the NGOs played an important role denouncing human rights violations, preparing studies critical of the neoliberal model and sustaining soup kitchens and other poverty programs. Their numbers multiplied with the advent of the massive popular struggles between 1982 and 1986 that threatened to overthrow the dictatorship. To the extent that they expressed an ideology, it was oriented toward “democracy” and “development with equity.” Of the close to two hundred NGOs, fewer than five provided a clear critical analysis and exposition of the links between U.S. imperialism and the dictatorship, the ties between World Bank funded free market policies and the 47 percent level of poverty.
In July of 1986 there was a successful general strike—a guerrilla group almost succeeded in killing Pinochet—and the United States sent a representative (Gelbard) to broker an electoral transition between the more conservative sectors of the opposition and Pinochet. An electoral calendar was established, a plebiscite was organized, and the electoral parties re-emerged. An alliance between Christian Democrats and Socialists was forged and eventually won the plebiscite, ending Pinochet’s rule (but not his command of the armed forces and secret police); this alliance subsequently won the presidency.
The social movements which played a vital role in ending the dictatorships were marginalized. The NGOs turned from supporting the movements to collaborating with the government. The Socialist and Christian Democratic NGO professionals became government ministers. From critics of Pinochet’s free market policies they became its celebrants. Former President of CIEPLAN (a major research institute) Alejandro Foxley publicly promised to continue managing the macro-economic indicators in the same fashion as Pinochet’s minister. The NGOs were instructed by their foreign donors to end their support for independent grassroots movements and to collaborate with the new civilian neoliberal regime. Sur Profesionales, one of the best known research NGOs, carried out research on the “propensity for violence” in the shantytowns—information that was useful to the police and the new regime in repressing independent social movements. Two of its chief researchers (specialty: social movements) became government ministers administering economic policies that created the most lopsided income inequalities in recent Chilean history.
The NGOs’ external links and the professional ambitions of its leaders played a major role in undermining the burgeoning popular movement. Most of its leaders became government functionaries who co-opted local leaders, while undermining rank-and-file style community assemblies. Interviews with women active in the shantytown Lo Hermida revealed the shift in the post-electoral period. “The NGOs told us that because democracy has arrived there is no need to continue the (soup-kitchen) programs. You don’t need us.” Increasingly the NGOs conditioned their activities on supporting the “democratic” free market regime. The NGO functionaries continued to use their participatory rhetoric to hustle votes for their parties in the government and to secure government contracts.
One striking impact of the NGOs in Chile was its relationship to the “women’s movement.” What started as a promising activist group in the mid-1980s was gradually taken over by NGOs who published expensive newsletters from well-furnished offices. The “leaders” who lived in fashionable neighborhoods represented a shrinking number of women. During the Latin American Feminist Conference in Chile in 1997, a militant group of rank-and-file Chilean feminist (”the autonomists”) provided a radical critique of the NGO feminists as sellouts to government subsidies.
The most dynamic social movement in Brazil is the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST). With over five thousand organizers and several hundred thousand sympathizers and activists, it has been directly involved in hundreds of land occupations over the past few years. At a conference organized in May 1996, by the MST, at which I spoke, the role of NGOs was one of the subjects of debate. A representative from a Dutch NGO appeared on the scene and insisted on participating. When he was told the meeting was closed, he told them that he had a “proposal” for funding ($300 thousand) community development, and insisted on entering. In no uncertain terms the MST leaders told him that they were not for sale and that anyway, they, the MST, design their own “projects” according to their own needs and don’t need NGO tutors.
Later the women’s caucus of the MST discussed a recent meeting with rural-based feminist NGOs. The MST women pushed for a class struggle perspective, combining direct action (land occupations) and the struggle for agrarian reform with gender equality. The NGO professionals insisted that the MST women break with their organizations and support a minimalist program of strictly feminist reforms. The end result was a tactical agreement opposing domestic violence, registering women as heads of families, and encouraging gender equality. The MST women, mostly daughters of landless peasants, perceived the NGO professionals as divisive careerists, not willing to challenge the political and economic elite that oppressed all peasants. Despite their criticisms of their male comrades, they clearly felt greater affinity with the movement than with the class-collaborationist “feminist” NGOs.
In our discussion, the MST distinguished between NGOs that contribute to the movement (money, resources, etc.) to finance class struggle, and NGOs that are essentially missionary outfits that fragment and isolate peasants, as is the case with many pentecostal and USAID and World Bank sponsored NGO projects.
Throughout Latin America peasant militants have voiced serious criticisms of the role and politics of the vast majority of NGOs, particularly about the patronizing and domineering attitude that they display behind their ingratiating rhetoric of “popular empowerment” and participation. I encountered this directly during a recent visit to El Salvador, where I was giving a seminar for the Alianza Democratica Campesino (the ADC, or Democratic Peasant Alliance) which represents 26 peasant and landless workers’ organizations.
Part of our collaboration involved the joint development of a project to fund a peasant-directed research and training center. Together with the leaders of the ADC we visited a private Canadian agency, CRC SOGEMA, which was subcontracted by CIDA, the Canadian government’s foreign assistance agency. They administered a $25 million (Canadian) aid packet for El Salvador. Before our visit, one of the ADC leaders had held an informal discussion with one of the Salvadoran associates of CRC SOGEMA. He explained the proposal and its importance for stimulating peasant-based participatory research. The CRC SOGEMA representative proceeded to draw a figure of a person on a piece of paper. He pointed to the head. “That,” he said, “is the NGOs: they think, write, and prepare programs.” He then pointed to the hands and feet, “that’s the peasants: they provide data and implement the projects.”
This revealing episode was the background to our formal meeting with the head of CRC SOGEMA. The director told us that the money was already earmarked for a Salvadoran NGO: FUNDE (Fundacion Nacional para el Desarrollo, the National Foundation for Development), a consulting firm of upwardly mobile professionals. She encouraged the peasant leaders to co-operate and to become involved because, she said, it would be “empowering.” In the course of our conversation, it emerged that the Salvadoran associate of CRC SOGEMA who had expressed that outrageous view of the relation between NGOs (the head) and peasants (the hands and feet) was a “link” between FUNDE and SOGEMA. The ADC leaders responded that, while FUNDE was technically competent, their “courses” and research did not meet the needs of the peasants and that they had a very paternalistic attitude toward the peasants. When the Canadian director asked for an example, the ADC leaders related the incident of the “political drawing” and the role to which it relegated peasants.
This was, said the director of SOGEMA, a “very unfortunate incident,” but they were nonetheless committed to working with the FUNDE. If the ADC wished to have an impact they would best attend FUNDE meetings. The ADC leaders pointed out that the project’s design and goals were elaborated by middle class professionals, while peasants were invited to collaborate by providing data and attending their “seminars.” In a fit of annoyance, the director called the meeting to an end. The peasant leaders were furious. “Why were we led to believe that they (the Canadian agency) were interested in peasant participation, democracy, and all the other crap, when they are already plugged into the NGOs, who don’t represent a single peasant? That study will never be read by any peasant, nor will it be at all relevant to our struggle for land. It will be about “modernization” and how to swindle the peasants out of their land and turn them into commercial farms or tourist areas.”
The managers of NGOs have become skilled in designing projects. They transmit the new rhetoric of “identity” and “globalism” into the popular movements. Their activities and texts promote international cooperation, self-help, micro-enterprises, and forge ideological bonds with the neoliberals while forcing people into economic dependency on external donors. After a decade of NGO activity these professionals have “depoliticized” and de-radicalized whole areas of social life: women, neighborhoods, and youth organizations. In Peru and Chile, where the NGO’s have become firmly established, the radical social movements have declined.
Local struggles over immediate issues are the food and substance that nurture emerging movements. NGOs certainly emphasize the “local,” but the crucial question is what direction local actions will take: whether they will raise the larger issues of the social system and link up with other local forces to confront the state and its imperial backers, or whether they will turn inward, while looking to foreign donors and fragmenting into a series of competing supplicants for external subsidies. The ideology of NGOs encourages the latter.
NGO intellectuals frequently write about “co-operation” but without dwelling on the price and conditions for securing the co-operation of neoliberal regimes and overseas funding agencies. In their role as mediators and brokers, hustling funds overseas and matching the funds to projects acceptable to donors and local recipients, the “foundation entrepreneurs” are engaged in a new type of politics similar to the “labor contractors” (enganchadores) of the not too distant past: herding together women to be “trained”; setting up micro-firms subcontracted to larger producers or exporters employing cheap labor. The new politics of the NGOs is essentially the politics of compradores: they produce no national products; instead, they link foreign funders with local labor (self-help micro-enterprises) to facilitate the continuation of the neoliberal regime. The managers of NGOs are fundamentally political actors whose projects and training workshops do not make any significant economic impact in raising workers’ and peasants’ incomes. But their activities do make an impact in diverting people from the class struggle into forms of collaboration with their oppressors.
To justify this approach, NGO ideologies will often invoke “pragmatism” or “realism,” citing the decline of the revolutionary left, the triumph of capitalism in the East, the “crisis of Marxism,” the loss of alternatives, the strength of the United States, the coups and repression by the military. This “possibilism” is used to convince the left to work within the niches of the free market imposed by the World Bank and structural adjustment, and to confine politics to the electoral parameters imposed by the military.
The pessimistic “possibilism” of the NGO ideologues is necessarily one-sided. They focus on neoliberal electoral victories and not on the post-electoral mass protests and general strikes that mobilize large numbers of people in extra-parliamentary activity. They look at the demise of communism in the late eighties and not to the revival of radical social movements in the mid-nineties. They describe the constraints of the military on electoral politicians without looking at the challenges to the military by the Zapatista guerrillas, the urban rebellions in Caracas, the general strikes in Bolivia. In a word, the possibilists overlook the dynamics of struggles that begin at the sectoral or local level within the electoral parameters of the military, and then are propelled upward and beyond those limits by the failures of the possibilists to satisfy the elementary demands and needs of the people.
The pragmatism of the NGOs is matched by the extremism of the neoliberals. The 1990’s has witnessed a radicalization of neoliberal policies, designed to forestall crisis by handing over even more lucrative investment and speculative opportunities to overseas banks and multinationals: petroleum in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela; lower wages and less social security payments; greater tax exemption; and the elimination of all protective labor legislation. Contemporary Latin American class structure is more rigid and the state more directly tied to the ruling classes than ever. The irony is that the neoliberals are creating a polarized class structure much closer to the Marxist paradigm of society than to the NGO vision.
This is why Marxism offers a real alternative to NGOism. And in Latin America, there do exist Marxist intellectuals who write and speak for the social movements in struggle, committed to sharing the same political consequences. They are “organic” intellectuals who are basically part of the movement—the resource people providing analysis and education for class struggle, in contrast to the “post-Marxist” NGO intellectuals, who are embedded in the world of institutions, academic seminars, foreign foundations, international conferences and bureaucratic reports. These Marxist intellectuals recognize the centrality of local struggles, but they also acknowledge that the success of those struggles depends to a large extent on the outcome of the conflict between classes over state power at the national level.
What they offer is not the hierarchical “solidarity” of foreign aid and collaboration with neoliberalism, but class solidarity, and within the class, the solidarity of oppressed groups (women and people of color) against their foreign and domestic exploiters. The major focus is not on the donations that divide classes and pacify small groups for a limited time, but on the common action by members of the same class, sharing their common economic, predicament struggling for collective improvement.
The strength of the critical Marxist intellectuals resides in the fact that their ideas are in tune with changing social realities. The growing polarization of classes and the increasingly violent confrontations are apparent. So while the Marxists are numerically weak in the institutional sense, they are strategically strong as they begin to connect with a new generation of revolutionary militants, from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the MST in Brazil.
As protests have been taking place in Venezuela the last couple of weeks, it is always good to check on the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US Empire’s “stealth” destabilizer. What has the NED been up to in Venezuela?
Before going into details, it is important to note what NED is and is not. First of all, it has NOTHING to do with the democracy we are taught in civics classes, concerning one person-one vote, with everyone affected having a say in the decision, etc. (This is commonly known as “popular” or grassroots democracy.) The NED opposes this kind of democracy.
The NED promotes top-down, elite, constrained (or “polyarchal”) democracy. This is the democracy where the elites get to decide the candidates or questions suitable to go before the people—and always limiting the choices to what the elites are comfortable with. Then, once the elites have made their decision, THEN the people are presented with the “choice” that the elites approve. And then NED prattles on with its nonsense about how it is “promoting democracy around the world.”
This is one of the most cynical uses of democracy there is. It’s notable even in what my friend Dave Lippmann calls “Washington Deceit.”
The other thing to note about NED is that it is NOT independent as it claims, ad nauseum. It was created by the US Congress, signed into US law by President Ronald Reagan (that staunch defender of democracy), and it operates from funds provided annually by the US Government.
However, its Board of Directors is drawn from among the elites in the US Government’s foreign policy making realm. Past Board members have included Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, General Wesley K. Clark, and Paul Wolfowitz. Today’s board can be found at http://www.ned.org/about/board; most notable is Elliot Abrams of Reagan Administration fame.
In reality, NED is part of the US Empire’s tools, and “independent” only in the sense that no elected presidential administration can directly alter its composition or activities, even if it wanted to. It’s initial project director, Professor Allen Weinstein of Georgetown University, admitted in the Washington Post of September 22, 1991, that “a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
In other words, according to Professor William Robinson in his 1996 book, Promoting Polyarchy, NED is a product of US Government foreign policy shift from “earlier strategies to contain social and political mobilization through a focus on control of the state and governmental apparatus” to a process of “democracy promotion,” whereby “the United States and local elites thoroughly penetrate civil society, and from therein, assure control over popular mobilization and mass movements.” What this means, as I note in my 2010 book, AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?, “is that instead of waiting for a client government to be threatened by its people and then responding, US foreign policy shifted to intervening in the civil society of a country ‘of interest’ (as defined by US foreign policy goals) before popular mobilization could become significant, and by supporting certain groups and certain politicians, then channel any potential mobilization in the direction desired by the US Government.”
Obviously, this also means that these “civil society” organizations can be used offensively as well, against any government the US opposes. NED funding, for example, was used in all of the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and, I expect, currently in the Ukraine as well as elsewhere.
How do they operate? They have four “institutes” through which they work: the International Republican Institute (currently headed by US Senator John McCain), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (currently headed by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright), the Center for International Private Enterprise (the international wing of the US Chamber of Commerce), and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), the foreign policy operation of the AFL-CIO, with Richard Trumka the head of its Board of Directors.
As I documented in my book, ACILS had been indirectly involved in the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela by participating in meetings with leaders later involved in the coup beforehand, and then denying afterwards the involvement of the leaders of the right-wing labor organization (CTV) in the coup, leaders of an organization long affiliated with the AFL-CIO. We also know NED overall had been active in Venezuela since 1997.
The NED and its institutes continue to actively fund projects in Venezuela today. From the 2012 NED Annual Report (the latest available), we see they have provided $1,338,331 to organizations and projects in Venezuela that year alone: $120,125 for projects for “accountability”; $470,870 for “civic education”; $96,400 for “democratic ideas and values”; $105,000 for “freedom of information”; $92,265 for “human rights”; $216,063 for “political processes”; $34,962 for “rule of law”; $45,000 for “strengthening political institutions”; and $153,646 for Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).
Additionally, however, as found on the NED “Latin American and Caribbean” regional page, NED has granted $465,000 to ACILS to advance NED objectives of “freedom of association” in the region, with another $380,000 to take place in Venezuela and Colombia. This is in addition to another $645,000 to the International Republican Institute, and $750,000 to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
The irony of these pious claims for “freedom of association,” etc., is that Venezuela has developed public participation to one of the highest levels in the world, and has one of the most free media in the world. Even with massive private TV media involvement in the 2002 coup, the government did not take away their right to broadcast afterward.
In other words, NED and its institutes are not active in Venezuela to help promote democracy, as they claim, but in fact, to act against popular democracy in an effort to restore the rule of the elite, top-down democracy. They want to take popular democracy away from those nasty Chavistas, and show who is boss in the US Empire. This author bets they fail.
Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN, and is author of AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?, and KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994. He can be reached through his web site at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes.
In light of the recent political demonstrations that have swept the country, Venezuela has received considerable attention from both the US State Department and mainstream media. In recent days, President Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and several others have issued numerous statements regarding the protests. In the US major media, The New York Times has published articles nearly every day since the protests began. Extensive reporting can also be found in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post.
It is worth comparing the extent of this coverage to protests of similar importance next door to Venezuela. In August of last year, Colombian farmers launched large-scale demonstrations in opposition to Colombian trade policies that are strongly supported by the U.S. government.
Unlike the protests in Venezuela, the Colombian protests received very little coverage from mainstream media, as CEPR pointed out at the time. The graph below compares the amount of coverage, in total number of articles published, given by four of the United States’ most influential newspapers to the protests and violence in Colombia and Venezuela. The difference ranges from more than two times to 14 times as many articles devoted to the Venezuelan protests as compared with Colombia, despite the fact that the period covered for Colombia is twice as long.
This is especially remarkable if we consider the high levels of repression carried out by the Colombian police and military in response to these protests. The International Office for Human Rights Action in Colombia described the violence as “unprovoked” and “indiscriminate” and attributes all of the violence to state forces.
The incidence of deaths in both Colombia and Venezuela[i], so far, is only slightly higher in Venezuela, with 13 deaths versus 12 deaths in Colombia.[ii] Yet there was very little coverage, and almost no criticism of the Colombian government as compared to the harsh attacks on the Venezuelan government in the U.S. media.
As mentioned earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama made public statements regarding the protests in Venezuela. Both demanded that students arrested in Venezuela be released, without regard as to whether any had been arrested for allegedly committing crimes such as arson and assault. There were no such statements from U.S. officials regarding the hundreds arrested in Colombia.
It is possible that both the huge differences in the amount of media coverage, and the responses to these two sets of protests by both the media and U.S. government officials has to do with the protesters and their aims, and the respective governments. The Colombian farmers were protesting against policies strongly supported by the U.S. government; they were also protesting against a government that the U.S. sees as a strategic ally, home to U.S. military bases and receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid. The Venezuelan protesters are demanding the ouster of a government that the U.S. government has [spent] millions of dollars trying to get rid of, including U.S. support for the 2002 military coup against the government.
[i] The total amount of deaths reflects data from the most recent figures from Venezuela Transparencia, as of Monday, February 24 2014.
[ii] It is important to note that so far only six of the 13 deaths in Venezuela are confirmed to be opposition protesters.
Merida – A 34 year old man, Jimmy Vargas, died on Monday while he was involved in a violent street blockade. Some opposition leaders and media blamed the government, however video footage shows it was an accident. Two other people have died this week as a result of the blockades.
Vargas died at the Camino Real residential area, in San Cristobal, Tachira state. Footage, sent to CNN shows that it was an accident. However, CNN and other news agencies also broadcast repeatedly footage of Vargas’ mother blaming the National Guard and president Nicolas Maduro for the death.
Carmen Gonzalez, the mother, stated, “Maduro and those around him killed [my son], they are the ones who killed him, they killed him, they are the ones who gave the orders for him to be killed, they are killing all of Venezuela… and I’m going to go out and fight for my son, my son died fighting for his country, fighting for the freedom of his country…”
On social networks the story was spread that Vargas had been hit by a rubber bullet in his left eye, and other stories claimed a tear gas canister shot by the National Guard had hit him.
The newspaper El Nacional also blamed the government, headlining “Two deaths this Monday because of attacks by GNB [National Guard] and motorbike riders [government supporters] on protests”. Madurados.com headlined “Another tragedy! In rubber bullet attack by the GNB Jimmy Vargas dies in San Cristobal”.
Similarly, The New York Times included a ¼ page full-color photo of Jimmy Vargas on a stretcher, with the caption, “Carmen Gonzalez, 58, cried over the body of her son, who was killed Monday in clashes with the police.”
However Vargas’ doctor, Luis Diaz, reported that he had suffered severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) after falling from the second floor of a building, the newspaper Ultimas Noticias reported.
Vargas’ sister, Jindry, told NTN24 that her brother fell from the second floor the building after the National Guard fired rubber bullets and tear gas bombs at him, causing him to lose his balance. In the video Jimmy Vargas tried to climb down on to a balcony ledge and he lost his balance on the ledge, out of line of shot of the National Guard.
Further, the opposition mayor of San Cristobal, Daniel Cebellos, told the public that Vargas had been murdered. He tweeted on Monday night, “Since late night…the brutal attack of the GNB continues, more than 10 injuries (3 by bullet) and 1 youth of 34 years murdered”. He continued, “I call on the MUD [opposition coalition] that while they continue to kill our people in the streets there’s no peace for the government. The dialogue they propose is one big lie”.
Despite the evidence, Cebellos further tweeted this morning, “We are accompanying Jimmy Vargas and his family in this moment of grief. We reject the violence and repression.” Cebellos included a photo of Vargas’ funeral procession.
Tachira governor, Vielma Mora accused Cebellos of using a public funeral procession to “inflame” people “against the national government”.
“A citizen who, may he rest in peace, fell from the second floor, he was in guarimba (violent disturbances), it seems he lost his balance… do you know what the mayor of San Cristobal did with a few people? They paraded him through the city… like a war trophy”.
Meanwhile, there has been another death as a result of violent opposition blockades. El Carabobeño reported that a motorbike rider died last night after crashing into a barricade. Eduardo Anzola, 29, in Valencia, died instantly, the paper reported, after he didn’t see the barricade because of the darkness. Two other people have died as a result of crashing into barricades, in Caracas and Merida, and one other motorbike rider was killed when wire at a barricade cut his throat.
On Monday, Alba Ciudad and Panorama report that Antonio Valbuena, 32, died of a shot to the head, in Maracaibo. Valbuena was participating in a demonstration of motorbike riders, who were removing barricades so that their procession could get through. At one point, a witness said that a “man in a balaclava came out and began to shoot… one of the bullets hit Antonio in the head”.
Atlanta, February 26, 2014 – Since the days of President Woodrow Wilson – that is, for roughly 100 years – the USA has been on a self-styled crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Colossal wars, hot and cold, were fought against German kaisers and fuhrers, Russian communists, and Third World nationalists. The American people were told they were “defending democracy.”
Americans slaughtered 3.5 million Vietnamese, and nearly another million Cambodians, to “defend democracy” in Southeast Asia.
They murdered millions of Iraqis through wars and sanctions to “defend democracy” in the Middle East.
According to André Vltchek and Noam Chomsky’s book On Western Terrorism, the US government has murdered between 55 and 60 million people since World War II in wars and interventions all over the world. If we believe the imperial propagandists, this American Holocaust has been one big defense of democracy.
But now, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of World War I, the US has embarked on a new crusade – to make the world UNSAFE for democracy.
In Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand, the US is spending billions of dollars to unconstitutionally eject democratically-elected governments. In Palestine, the US has been trying to overthrow the democratically-elected Hamas government ever since it came to power. In Egypt, the US – under Zionist pressure – recently overthrew the only genuinely democratic government in 5,000 years of recorded history. In Syria, the US insists that the people must not be given the opportunity to re-elect Assad, no matter how many international observers and safeguards ensure honest elections. And in Turkey, the US is undermining the democratically-elected Prime Minister Erdogan in favor of CIA puppet Fethullah Gulen.
Taking the long view, the US is working patiently to destroy democracy in Iran, Russia, and Latin America.
Why does the US government hate democracy?
Because the international bankers who own the US government and run the US empire cannot always buy enough votes to impose their will on every country. So democracy is fine – as long as voters elect the New World Order candidate. But if they vote for a candidate who doesn’t suit the oligarchs, get ready for a coup!
The banksters will overthrow any government that stands up to them – even in the USA. The “termination with extreme prejudice” of the presidency of John F. Kennedy sent a message to all future US presidents.
Mayer Rothschild famously said “Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes its laws.” But that was an exaggeration. The New World Order banksters seek to overthrow democratically-elected governments all over the world precisely because they DO care who makes and enforces the laws.
The NWO banksters are destroying Ukraine as a geostrategic move against Russia, where Putin has reined in the Russian-Zionist oligarchs and put a major roadblock in the path of the banksters’ world government project. Yes, Ukrainian President Yanukovich won a free and fair democratic election. But democracy means nothing to the psychopathic pharaohs of finance and their Neocon hired guns.
The banksters (and the Western governments they control) are also trying to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, who took office after the CIA assassinated Hugo Chavez. President Maduro overcame the banksters’ attempts to defeat him in last year’s elections; he is now the constitutional, democratically-elected President of Venezuela. But that hasn’t stopped the banksters from trying to overthrow him in a pseudo-populist coup.
In Thailand, the banksters and their local kleptocracy are trying to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Shinawatra. Apparently Shinawatra’s attempts to fund education, medical care, and infrastructure, and institute a minimum wage, offended the oligarchs.
In Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand, as in Syria and Egypt before them, the banksters are adding violence to their “color revolution” game plan for destroying democracy. This may seem incongruous, since the NWO intellectual hired gun Gene Sharp, the so-called “Machiavelli of non-violence,” designed the original color revolutions as purportedly peaceful and democratic uprisings.
But Sharp’s so-called color revolutions, beginning with Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004, were never genuine people’s revolutions. They were bankster takeover attempts from the beginning. George Soros would funnel Rothschild money to ambitious, power-hungry apparatchiks, who would inundate their target countries with propaganda and hire rent-a-mobs to dress in a particular color and make a spectacle of themselves in the public square, in hopes of duping naive young people into joining the “revolution” – whose real goal is always to install a NWO puppet leader.
But now the pretense of nonviolence and democracy has evaporated. The New World Order’s smiling Mickey Mouse mask has fallen away, revealing the bloodthirsty grin of satanic banksters bent on establishing an Orwellian one-world dictatorship.
In Syria, the “peaceful uprising” of March 2011 became a pretext for sending in heavily armed thugs and terrorists on a destabilization mission. In Egypt, the bankster-generated “uprising” last summer was a manufactured excuse for a violent coup d’état. In Thailand, Venezuela and Ukraine, the banksters are paying hooligans to stage violent protests, destroy public property, fight police, and incite mayhem – in hopes of violently overthrowing democratically-elected governments.
This is pure fascism.
Fascism is fake populism. Self-styled fascist “revolutionaries” are paid to dress up in colors or uniforms, goose-step around the public square, overthrow democratically-elected governments… and institute a veiled dictatorship of the rich, in which corporate and governmental power merge.
That is what Mussolini did in 1922. It is what Hitler did in 1933. And it is what the neoconservatives, and their bankster sponsors, are doing today… all over the world. The 9/11 Reichstag Fire, which turned the world’s sole superpower decisively toward total fascism, was the gunshot that set off the avalanche.
The end-game: A global fascist dictatorship that would make the Third Reich look like a walk in the park.
There is only one way to defeat these monsters. All great fortunes, beginning with the trillion-dollar treasure hordes of the Rothschilds and their friends, must be confiscated and returned to the public treasury. All of the big banks must be nationalized, and their operations must be made completely transparent. All major financial transactions must be taxed and closely regulated. And all of the biggest corporations, starting with those that own the mainstream media, must be broken into small pieces by anti-trust action.
This revolution – the overthrow of the global oligarchy – is the only revolution that matters.
Indigenous Honduran campesino Justiniano Vásquez was found dead on Feb. 21 in San Francisco de Opalaca municipality in the western department of Intibucá, where the victim’s brother Entimo Vásquez is challenging the results of a Nov. 24 mayoral election. Justiniano Vásquez’s body had deep wounds, and there were signs that his hands had been bound. Community members charged that the killing was carried out by Juan Rodríguez, a supporter of former mayor Socorro Sánchez, who the electoral authorities said defeated Entimo Vásquez in the November vote. Rodríguez had reportedly threatened Entimo Vásaquez in the past. San Francisco de Opalaca residents captured Rodríguez and turned him over to the police. The Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which reported Vásquez’s death, demanded punishment for the perpetrators and called on the authorities “to carry out their work objectively [and] effectively.”
Entimo Vásquez ran for mayor as a candidate of the new center-left Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE) in the November presidential, legislative and local elections; Socorro Sánchez was the candidate of the rightwing National Party (PN). Vásquez formally challenged the results, but the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) backed Sánchez. Community residents, who are mostly members of the Lenca indigenous group, charged that the vote was fraudulent and also accused Sánchez of irregularities during his previous term as mayor. Vásquez’s supporters have occupied the town hall since late January, preventing Sánchez from taking office. (La Tribuna (Tegucigalpa) 2/13/14; COPINH 2/21/14; La Prensa (Nicaragua) 2/22/14 from AFP)
In related news, on Feb. 10 a court in the western department of Santa Bárbara issued a definitive dismissal of weapons possession charges against COPINH general coordinator Berta Cáceres. A group of soldiers arrested Cáceres and another COPINH official on May 24 last year, claiming they had found an illegal firearm in the activists’ car [see Update #1178]. Cáceres was in Santa Bárbara at the time to support protests by indigenous Lenca communities against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam on and near their territory. In an interview with the Uruguay-based Radio Mundo Real on Feb. 13 Cáceres said national and international solidarity had been fundamental for winning dismissal of the charges. (Radio Mundo Real 2/13/14)
On the night of February 22nd, a bizarre incident took place in the Venezuela media-sphere. At around 4:00 pm Venezuela time, a number of the country’s private media outlets posted a release from a protest group identified only as the “student movement.” The rhetoric and tone of the statement matches the positions often expressed by extreme rightwing factions within Venezuela’s opposition over the last 14 years. Venezuela, it alleges, is in the grip of Cuban communists:
Foreign forces have laid a military siege on Venezuela. Their mercenaries attack us in a vile and savage manner. Their goal is to enslave us and be the masters of our existence, dishonoring the flags that we have held up in the street and that we will defend with our lives.
We want our Freedom. To protect it it’s vital to defend the Sovereignty of the Nation, expelling the Cuban communists that are here usurping the government and the Armed Forces.
The release demands that “the usurper [Venezuelan president] Nicolas Maduro and all of his cabinet be deposed” and states that the protests will continue until this and other demands are met. The statement also calls for defensive action against state security:
The regime has declared war on any civilian who doesn’t accept its marxist ideology. Our call is for defense: to not allow the invaders profane your street, your avenue, your property. Prevent their access so that they don’t shoot up your neighborhood, don’t destroy your properties, don’t hurt your loved ones and, above all, so that they know that here there are battle-seasoned Venezuelans, who won’t allow themselves to be enslaved through the use of force.
The rhetoric found in this release is reminiscent of the language used by the promoters of the “guarimba” protests in 2004 which – similarly to many of the protests that have been occurring in Venezuela over the last two weeks – involved protesters blocking major roads and with bonfires and barricades and damaging public property. The explicit goal of the 2004 guarimba protests was to create enormous chaos in city streets thereby forcing the government to either step down or engage in mass repression. Or, in the words of Luis Alonso, the main promoter of the guarimba ten years ago:
THE ONLY objective of “THE GUARIMBA” (…) is to create anarchistic chaos on the national level with the help of all citizens and in the main cities of Venezuela, so as to force the CASTRO-COMMUNIST regime of Venezuela to order “PLAN AVILA [a military contingency plan to enforce public order that was used during the 1989 Caracazo protests and that left thousands dead].”
If mass repression occurred, the guarimberos believed that elements of the military opposed to the “Castro-communist” project would rebel and oust the government.
Needless to say, the terminology and goals of the students’ release probably doesn’t reflect the point of view of most Venezuelan opposition supporters and it certainly doesn’t reinforce the common portrayal of the young protesters as peaceful and reasonable.
But then, as if by magic, the original release of the unnamed “students’ movement” was removed from many sites and in a few cases replaced with a much less polemical text. Here is a link to the early version of an El Nacional article on the student movement release that contains the text of the original statement. Later that evening the editors quietly replaced the original statement with the second one, as you can see in this updated version of the same article. El Nacional, one of the largest newspapers in the country, and other outlets that made the switch, never informed their readers of having done so. Here’s a translation of a few key excerpts from the second release:
[Venezuela's] youth can’t stay silent in the face of the profound pain in all Venezuelans’ hearts resulting from the hate and division that is being sowed. Our consciences remain clear in protesting those who wish to establish violence, ignore the country’s most urgent problems and trample human rights.
The exacerbation of insecurity, the deterioration of the quality of life of Venezuelans, the economic crisis, the repression and criminalization of citizens’ protests cause us to raise our voices. We want reconciliation and respect for democratic principles and the Constitution.
(…) We dream of a Venezuela where inclusion, peace and prosperity are possible.
No more talk of “Cuban communists” that have taken over the government and army or of the need to remove the “usurper” Nicolás Maduro. Instead, we see a series of demands that, while based at times on highly questionable premises, appear to be more reasonable, e.g., “liberty for all of the detained young people, (…) the disarming of violent groups, (…) the end of media censorship [regarding the claim of censorship, I recommend reading Mark Weisbrot’s latest post on the Venezuelan media].”
However, one demand from the re-worked release is similar to the main demand of the original release: the second release calls for “the renovation and re-legitimizing of public powers.” Though this language may seem innocuous at full glance, the basic meaning is clear: those in power are not legitimate and should be removed. In the most charitable interpretation, this can be read as a call for immediate elections, despite the fact that Maduro was elected less than a year ago and that his popular legitimacy was reaffirmed in municipal elections last December in which pro-government parties won the total vote by a ten-point margin.
It is also interesting to note that, unlike most recent youth protest movements like the 2011-2013 Chilean movement, the 2012 Quebec student protests or even the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement, the demands of the Venezuelan students who have taken to the streets focus neither on social justice issues nor on the government’s education policies. It is telling that the University of Chile Student Federation which was instrumental in ending the Pinochet dictatorship and played a key role in the 2011-2013 protests, released a statement which had the following to say about the Venezuelan student movement:
We reject any attempt at destabilization, hoarding of food and of coup-mongering that aims to bypass the sovereign decisions of the people of Venezuela (…) Similarly, we don’t feel represented by the actions of Venezuelan student sectors that have taken the side of the defense of the old order and are opposed to the path that the people have defined.
From the tenth-floor balcony of our hotel in Buenaventura, we sit with community leader Miguel Duarte and watch as the sunset over the Pacific Ocean streaks the sky with peach and mauve before fading to a shroud of lavender-gray and darkness. Below us, teenage girls chase a soccer ball. A few hundred yards away, a patch of the island is covered with tree tops like the heads of broccoli. “Take a photo of that island,” says Duarte, pointing at the tree line. “There are thousands of dead bodies buried on it.”
“We need a commission from the Attorney General’s office to count the bodies,” he continues. “The island is controlled by paramilitaries.”
The violence in Buenaventura is staggering, yet reliable statistics are hard to attain: official documentation is lacking and it’s left to community leaders, like 18-year-old Jesús, to try to compile the data independently. At our meeting, he pulls out his notebook and begins reading off his handwritten list of victims from a recent massacre. He gets to the end of his list, glances up, and says, “Children were cut up and heads were found in barrios Santa Monica and Campo Alegro. Last night Alberto’s cousin was killed in a confrontation. That one made the newspaper.”
According to a report issued in January 2014, the city sees two-to-three murders and three-to-six forced disappearances daily. In November 2013 alone, fighting between different armed groups displaced 2,500 families in Buenaventura.
“We’re convinced of one thing,” says Duarte. “This pressure is so that people leave.”
On the heels of shoot-outs in waterfront neighborhoods, city officials arrive and ask residents if they’re ready to sign documents in which they agree to vacate the zone. On February 5 and 6, local security forces staged an elaborately orchestrated tsunami drill for neighborhoods near the port, with armed men blocking off streets and redirecting traffic into the night. According to Colombian Process of Black Communities (PCN), the exercise was yet another effort to brainwash Buenaventura’s Bajamar residents into believing that it’s not safe to live in the area and that they should be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
Many point out that Buenaventura is dangerous for people who live in neighborhoods slated for commercial development but that, paradoxically, these same areas are safe for tourists. Below our hotel, a seafood fusion-sushi bar does slow business just yards from a neighborhood where armed groups recently did battle.
It’s Friday night in this commerce town, and clubs cater to weekend carousers with pockets full of pesos. Against a backdrop of giraffe-like cranes, half-built high-rises sprouting rebar, and a balmy breeze dispersing salsa beats, Duarte explains that 15 or 20 years ago, people began to talk about megaprojects in the region: port expansion, a cargo terminal, a tourist boardwalk, and an international airport in nearby Cali. Those conversations coincided with the beginning of the market liberalization process, as the port changed from public to private ownership.
Over the past 15 years, as the armed conflict arrived to nearby rural areas, many residents fled their farming communities at the outskirts of Buenaventura and settled in ocean-front neighborhoods near the city center, joining communities of Afro-Colombians who had arrived generations ago. In 2005, the FARC and Colombian military battled in Buenaventura. In 2006, paramilitaries entered the urban zone to protect businesses and terrorize the local population.
The first interurban displacement in Buenaventura—in which people fled from one neighborhood to another within the city—was in 2009. Today, ground zero for violent displacement coincides perfectly with zones marked for port expansion, a coal warehouse, a massive container storage area, and a tourist promenade. The violence, PCN states, is “part of the war strategy to control territory and clean out the zone to bring in projects.”
Residents in vulnerable neighborhoods are not opposed to the city’s economic growth, per se. But many feel that projects should benefit all people in the area, not bring prosperity to few while forcing misery on most.
That’s what Remedios’ husband, Eduardo believed. Their home in Caucana, about 45 minutes from the port, is along the road being widened to facilitate port expansion and accompanying projects in order to make Buenaventura competitive for Free Trade Agreement projects.
The old road is narrow, windy, and unpaved, meaning that it currently takes a truck seven or eight hours to make the trip from Buenaventura to Bugalagrande, a town along the Pan-American Highway. The new road will reduce the journey to about an hour.
Eduardo opposed the road expansion through their community because small children play there, and the project was contaminating their air and bad for people’s health. Remedios said, “He’d been looking to strengthen the community. He didn’t want to leave people in misery.” He’d been advocating for the community’s right to Free Prior and Informed Consent for new projects on their land guaranteed under Law 70, or the “Law of Black Communities.”
One morning Eduardo got a call that warned him he’d be killed if he ran in upcoming community council elections. For months he lived under the dark cloud of death threats, and on February 23, 2013, he was murdered. A year later, despite the efforts of his wife and other community members to seek justice, the government has made no progress in the investigation of his death.
“It has left me desperate, my kids too. They’re struggling at school. They don’t remember their vowels, just sleep, play, fight, scream….My children want to know why their father was murdered. They’re small, thinking bad thoughts, seeking vengeance. I’m asking for help because I don’t want my kids to become bad people.”
While we are in Buenaventura, a death threat is circulated, naming as military targets indigenous groups, campesinos, Marcha Patriotica members, protestors who block roads, and “guerilla-defending” NGOs—the name often used by paramilitaries to refer to NGOs that work on human rights issues.
Back on the tenth-floor balcony, a man whose community is surrounded by illegal armed groups looks out over the port, past the island of dead bodies, to the green lights blinking at the edge of the bay. He says, “If we don’t act quickly in Buenaventura, there will be more deaths.”
Margaret Boehme is a member of the Witness for Peace Colombia team based in Bogotá.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 edition “Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?”
Countries in the “developing world” have, since the end of formal colonialism, seen their ability to act autonomously systematically constrained by a variety of factors. These include, but are not limited to, macroeconomic policy conditions attached to World Bank and IMF loans, poor terms of trade with the Global North, lack of effective agency in international organizations, and the actions of multinational corporations operating in their territory.
Venezuela’s regionally oriented foreign policy during the Chávez era counteracted each of these dynamics, and in doing so opened up autonomous policy space for other states in Latin America and the Caribbean. The concrete achievements of a number of mechanisms, including counter-trading and credit provision within the PetroCaribe framework, and the recent establishment of a virtual regional currency, the SUCRE, all played a part in this process.
The first crucial action undertaken by Hugo Chávez as Venezuelan President in protecting regional economies was to vociferously oppose the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) at the third summit of the Americas, held in Quebec in 2000. The proposal represented the perfect consolidation of U.S. economic power, and was designed, in the words of General Colin Powell, to “guarantee control for North American businesses…over the entire hemisphere.”1 After Chávez voiced concerns, the Mercosur countries followed suit, stopping the FTAA conclusively at the subsequent Mar del Plata summit in 2005. If the FTAA had gone ahead, it would have resulted in the substantial economic subordination of Latin America to U.S. corporate interests. Agricultural sectors in particular would have suffered from an influx of low-cost subsidized U.S. products. In addition, areas of the public sphere that had previously avoided commoditization or privatization would have been fair game for trans-national corporations. Under the FTAA, Amanothep Zambrano, ALBA Executive Secretary, told me last August that states would not have been able to “lead any aspect of economic policy, and therefore their political capacity to solve social problems” would have been heavily constrained.
Their shared opposition to these proposals encouraged Cuba and Venezuela to form an alternative regional integration framework, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) in 2004. This quickly matured from a bilateral socio-centric cooperation agreement to a nascent regional bloc, or alliance, with the addition of Bolivia in 2006. Bolivia’s newly elected president, Evo Morales, brought with him the idea of a “Peoples Trade Treaty” (TCP), which extended the ALBA’s self-identified principles of solidarity, complementarity between economies, and respect for sovereignty, into a 23-point agreement that systematically opposed the tenets of orthodox free trade agreements. The TCP opened the possibility of pursuing economic policies outside of the market fundamentalist approach of the neoliberal era, for example by stating that people’s right to access healthcare should be prioritized above protecting pharmaceuticals’ corporate profitability. In the following three years, membership of the ALBA-TCP grew to nine countries encompassing much of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean.
During this time, the Venezuelan government also constructed PetroCaribe, a framework designed to facilitate the supply of its oil products to neighboring Caribbean states under preferential conditions, which at the time of writing had 18 members. Through these two channels the Venezuelan government has opened up autonomous policy space in the region, to some extent overcoming the constraints identified above. Venezuela has, largely through ALBA and PetroCaribe, become an important source of funding in the region. Oil supply agreements, signed between Venezuela and several members of both frameworks, permit countries to defer payment on set portions of their oil bill and use the capital obtained for government spending. Crucially this capital is obtained without the macroeconomic conditionality and policy prescriptions associated with World Bank or IMF loans. PetroCaribe agreements, for example, state that “member nations of the group are allowed to defer payment of 60% of their oil bills to Venezuela for 25 years, at 1% interest, in addition to a 90-day grace period on all payments, and a two year initial grace period on the credit facility.”2
This credit facility offers an alternative to IFI loans, while maintaining small Caribbean nations’ ability for autonomous decision making, which is considered critical in the post-colonial context. Specifically, credit provision has enabled Jamaica and Antigua to delay recourse to IMF loans, and put them in a better negotiating position so, I was told in August 2011 by Norman Girvan, former Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States, “they were able to make an easier deal.” Venezuela, under the current administration, has also purchased billions of dollars’ worth of bonds issued by the Argentine government, enabling the country’s early exit from all of its IMF debts and associated policy prescriptions.
As a result of this mechanism, PetroCaribe funding to the Caribbean now exceeds both EU and U.S. aid by a wide margin, with only remittances from the Caribbean diaspora exceeding it in funding to the signatory states.3 For Dominica, Venezuela is now the “single largest creditor…surpassing traditional sources of credit such as regional development banks and the IMF.” Venezuela is owed 27.7% of the country’s total debt, which grew 12.6% in 2011 alone, to $8.8 billion.4 Such figures inevitably raise concerns that the agreement is increasing debt levels in the region and developing dependence on Venezuelan largesse. Barbados’s Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, has stated that his country would not join because he “would not permit the present generation of Barbadians to consume oil now to be paid for by succeeding generations of Barbadians.”5 However, the deferred portion of the bill does not constitute debt in the orthodox sense, as it is kept by the Caribbean partners and can be spent as capital towards any project deemed socio-productive, or saved to accrue interest to offset the bill, as has been the case in Guyana. The domestic opposition sees the PetroCaribe scheme as Chávez “giving away” oil irresponsibly. However, the amount is relatively small and sustainable. Supply to PetroCaribe members, including Cuba, peaked in 2009 at an average of 196.4 thousand barrels daily, which constituted only 7% of total Venezuelan oil exports that year, and operates under market prices in accordance with Venezuela’s OPEC membership.6
Due to a high level of dependence on imports, Venezuela has also been uniquely able to position itself as a regional alternative to North American and European markets. This dynamic has, again, been apparent within both ALBA-TCP and PetroCaribe. In 2008, the PetroCaribe framework was augmented with a “compensatory exchange mechanism” via which oil bills from Venezuela could be offset by the export of domestically produced goods and services. The Venezuelan market is particularly important for Caribbean countries who suffer from poor terms of trade with the North due to dependence on primary commodity exports, the continued use of tariff and non-tariff barriers by developed nations, and the erosion of colonial trade preferences. For example, up to 90% of Guyanese rice exports per annum were going to EU countries when, in 2000, the Overseas Territories (OCT) loophole was closed, resulting, I was told by the Guyanese Ambassador to Venezuela, in a “50-60%” drop in prices. When the compensation mechanism was announced, the then-president of Guyana, Jagdeo Bharrat, actively sought a better deal with Venezuela through the PetroCaribe framework. The resultant export of both rice and unprocessed paddy has seen Venezuela become the single largest importer of Guyanese rice, replacing Portugal.7
In the case of ALBA countries, a strategic reorientation towards intra-regional trade, and particularly export to Venezuela, has reduced dependence on the United States and subsequently its ability to constrain autonomous action. For example, when Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008 following his alleged involvement in separatist actions in the Santa Cruz Department, Washington retaliated by excluding Bolivia from the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Agreement (ATPDEA). Bolivia lost its U.S. tariff advantages, which was a particularly painful blow to its textile industry. Chávez immediately offered them a market under “the same or better conditions” that Bolivia had enjoyed with the United States. As a result, says the Bolivian Ambassador to Venezuela, in 2010 Venezuela “imported almost 50 million dollars in textiles alone, or nearly double that which [Bolivia] used to export to the USA” annually.
The purchase agreement was supported by initiatives by both governments to facilitate small and medium sized businesses’ entry into the regional market. A fund was established in the Bank of ALBA to provide short-term interest-free credit to Venezuelan importers in order to purchase Bolivian textiles, paired with a fund in the Bolivian national development bank to provide small textile producers credit to purchase raw materials. This agreement therefore not only minimized the impact that U.S. market sanctions could have over autonomous decision making by the Bolivian government, but also created direct relations between regional producers and consumers.
These patterns are part of a wider renewed focus on South-South trade, both within the region and with extra-hemispheric partners. However, the United States remains the region’s single most important trading partner. The objective is not to be “anti-American,” rather to reduce the U.S. ability to exert controlling influence over its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors by creating alternatives to the dollar in international trade. One way in which this was achieved was through the PetroCaribe mechanism and similar counter-purchase agreements with other regional allies. As direct non-market transactions, they circumvented the use of the dollar, thereby avoiding its automatic privileging in international trade, and avoiding the transaction costs associated with its use.
This concept was extended by the ALBA’s virtual common currency, the Unified Regional System for Economic Compensation (SUCRE). The SUCRE is essentially a series of clearing accounts between Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador that allow the countries to trade freely without transaction costs. Accounts are balanced every six months with one hard currency transfer. The value of trade conducted via the SUCRE in its first year of operations, 2010, was just over $8 million. It grew exponentially, to almost 100 times that the following year ($172,905,344).8 Though the SUCRE’s value was originally set against the dollar ($1 to XSU1.25), and it is typically used as the convertible currency to make balancing payments, in the long term the intention is to no longer use the dollar at all. The direct and deliberate countering of U.S. economic hegemony that the SUCRE represents has been of particular importance to Ecuador, whose macroeconomic policy options have been constrained by a prior administration’s decision to dollarize the economy in 2001. In fact, the mechanism was largely designed by Ecuadoran economists, and of the $170 million traded in 2011, $140 million was for Venezuelan purchases from Ecuador (mainly tuna).9
As we have seen, Chávez’s time in office saw an unequivocal reassertion of the state as economic actor throughout the region. This dynamic was particularly felt in the crucial energy sector. In Venezuela, governmental control of the state oil industry was consolidated, while both Bolivia and Argentina nationalized hydrocarbons with investment and technical assistance from Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), via agreements with YPFB and Enarsa, state owned gas and oil companies in Bolivia and Argentina respectively. Even in centrist or center-right Caribbean nations, Venezuelan investment has enabled state-owned oil companies and agencies to supply oil products directly to their population, “to effectively intervene in their markets to minimize retail prices” in the energy sector which had previously been “dominated by foreign companies.”10
Where state energy companies or agencies did not exist prior to PetroCaribe, they have been formed to facilitate the direct import of oil products from PDVSA. These can take the form of joint ventures with the PDVSA subsidiary PDV Caribe. Venezuelan credit and grants have also been used to fund improvements in energy infrastructure; that is namely the capacity of the member countries to store and refine oil, and in turn to generate and distribute energy. Central to this scheme has been investment in the Cienfuegos refinery in Cuba and at the Kingston refinery which now almost exclusively refines Venezuelan crude. The refinery is run by Petrojam Ltd, a mixed state enterprise in which Jamaica Oil Company owns a 51% stake and PDV Caribe 49%. This reassertion of state control over energy resources is seen as a fundamental facet of PetroCaribe’s “new oil geopolitics…at the services of our peoples not at the service of imperialism and big capital.”11
The right and power of multinationals to dictate domestic policy has been systematically undermined, both through a reassertion of the state as economic actor and in the tenets of the TCP which we briefly touched on earlier. This offers a stark contrast to the World Trade Organization’s policies such as Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), which consistently privilege corporate interests, and/or offer beneficial “loopholes” for developed nations. This has been possible through the creation of new regional forums in Latin America and the Caribbean, in which members’ interests are not subordinate to those of more powerful nations. For example, in the TCP, economic asymmetries between members are recognised and therefore tariff reductions do not have to be reciprocal, disregarding the “most favored nation” principle. In addition, ALBA has no supranationality; it is best described as a framework for cooperation rather than an integration body in the orthodox sense. All programs and agreements are optional, flexible, and voluntary, thereby protecting the national autonomy of members.
Though statist in its organization, ALBA facilitates continual dialogue through presidential and ministerial summits, which have also been attended by international observers. Non-member countries are also represented in the council for social movements, whose proponents include groups such as the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement. ALBA proved to be the first in a series of new regional spaces, catalysed by massive rejection of the FTAA proposal—a rejection led by Chávez—and culminating in the formation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which was put together as an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS), and includes all the countries of the Americas except the United States and Canada. In this way, lessened economic dependence has resulted in increased diplomatic autonomy from the United States.
There are those who argue that Venezuelan projects in the region created new constraints, replaced one set of dependencies with another. But this is not the case. Though he was a catalyst for and investor in regional development, Chávez avoided constructing a position of power or privilege for Venezuela. This is evident in the lack of conditionality attached to credit mechanisms and the fact that the controlling stake of each mixed state enterprise was maintained by the partner country. Though oil wealth put Chávez in a unique position to invest in regional projects, these were not unilaterally devised or constructed; the TCP came from Bolivia, SUCRE is an Ecuadoran concept, and of course ALBA social programs were exported from Cuba. However, these ideas were made a reality by the capacity for rapid implementation that oil largesse afforded. Such apparently altruistic actions led many to question Chávez’s motives. It is important to point out that these frameworks and counter-purchase agreements have also helped reduce Venezuela’s dependence on the United States as a market and refining destination for oil. The volume of Venezuelan oil exported to the United States decreased from 1,500,000 barrels per day in 2008, to 1,166,000 bpd in 2011, a drop of 334,000 barrels per day. This can, in part, be attributed to the diversification of markets in Latin America (190 bpd to PetroCaribe, plus supply agreements with Argentina among others). This is in addition to securing crucial imports without financial outlay, specifically agricultural commodities, which are often then provided to the Venezuelan population at low cost through state owned agencies such as the supermarket chain Mercal.
Under the last ten years of Hugo Chávez’s Presidency, Venezuela’s foreign policies resulted in an opening up of autonomous policy space in Latin America and the Caribbean. What was begun in 2004 with the rejection of the proposed FTAA continued into the post-crisis conjuncture, when Chávez was instrumental in creating a new regional financial architecture to limit the power exerted by Washington-based IFIs. PetroCaribe credit provided funds for capital expenditure, without imposing macroeconomic conditionality. In addition, guaranteed oil supplies allowed the small and energy dependent nations that made up its membership to move beyond reactive policies and look to longer term socio-productive investment.
Venezuela’s concurrent strategy of sourcing imports from the region offered primary-commodity-dependent economies some opportunity to diversify their markets and baskets, with better terms of trade than offered by the United States or ex-colonial metropoles in Europe. Chávez also took the bite out of attempted control via market sanctions, as was clearly demonstrated in the Bolivian example.
These regional imports often took the form of non-market exchanges and counter-purchase agreements within PetroCaribe, ALBA, and beyond. Combined, they arguably represented a strategic de-linking from international trade and finance systems, specifically from the U.S. dollar. As such, these frameworks have lessened both the dependence on, and influence of, the United States in the region, protecting countries’ ability to act autonomously and not follow the dictates of Washington. Chávez effectively undermined U.S. economic power by offering alternatives to the hegemony of the dollar, with the SUCRE in particular offering a concerted challenge. Lessened economic dependence in turn allowed for greater diplomatic autonomy from Washington, demonstrated in its strategic exclusion from the newly formed CELAC. The various new regional initiatives provide space to build development strategies and devise economic policies, beyond the constraints of “market-friendly” logic. This allows for a reassertion of the state as an economic actor and service provider, within a culture of regional cooperation. Though the Venezuelan state is not operating outside of capitalism per se, from the initial rejection of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2001 the Chávez government demonstrated that there are alternatives beyond the policy prescriptions of the neoliberal era, and what’s more, facilitated their use throughout the region to mutually beneficial ends.
1. Colin Powell cited in Katharine Ainger, “Trading Away the Americas,” New Internationalist, Issue 351, November 1, 2002, available at newint.org
2. “Venezuela: Two Countries Hold Out Against Cheap Loans and Barters,” Countertrade & Offset, 26:15 (2008)7
3. Sir Ronald Sanders, “The Chavez Effect: A life belt for the Caribbean,” Kaieteur news online, July 27, 2008, available at kaieteurnewsonline.com
4. Andrés Rojas Jiménez “Deuda dominicana con PDVSA aumentó durante 201,” El Nacional, February 16, 2012, available at elnacional.com
5. Wendell Mottley, Trinidad and Tobago’s Industrial Policy 1959-2008 Kingston. (Randle, 2008) 157.
6. This data, and all data not otherwise cited, elaborated from PDVSA annual reports, 2009-2011.
7. Guyana Rice Development Board, “Guyana Rice Development Board Annual Report 2010,” 2011.
8. Consejo Monetario Regional del SUCRE, “SUCRE Informe de Gestión 2011,” 2012.
10. Curtis Williams, “Venezuela Urged to Fast-track Petrocaribe Initiative,” Oil and Gas Journal, 102 (2004):26.
11. Hugo Chávez Frías, Petrocaribe, Towards A New Order in Our America, (Colecciones Discursos, Ministerio de Poder Popular para Comunicación.)
Stephanie Pearce is a doctoral candidate at the School of Politics & International Relations, Queen Mary College, University of London. Her research focuses on the role of countertrade in Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution.”
Read the rest of NACLA’s Summer 2013 issue: “Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?”
James Bloodworth, when he isn’t applauding Obama’s murderous drone attacks on Pakistan, occasionally takes time out to complain about leftists supporting the Venezuelan government. He claims that Venezuela has become a “nightmare” and that, despite elections that he appears to acknowledge are clean and transparent, Venezuelans are, nevertheless, “living under tyranny” because of the government’s “unwillingness to tolerate dissent”.
Bloodworth says that he supported the Chavista movement when a US backed coup violently ousted Hugo Chavez in 2002. “I have no trouble remembering which side I was on” he claims – very dubiously as I’ll explain.
Bloodworth doesn’t remember that Leopoldo Lopez was among the leaders of that coup. This video shows Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles (a state governor who ran against Maduro in April of 2013) supervising the illegal “arrest” of a Chavez government minister during the 2002 coup. Bloodworth objects to Lopez’s arrest for leading protests over the past few weeks that are clearly aimed at repeating what happened in 2002, but Bloodworth never considers an incredibly obvious point. Lopez would have been locked up for decades (if he were lucky) had he participated in the violent overthrow of the UK or US governments. If not for the Venezuelan government’s unusually high tolerance for dissent, Lopez and Capriles (his “moderate” ally) would never have been around to lead protests, much less hold public office as Capriles now does. One can only shudder at what their fate would have been in the USA after participating in a briefly successful coup. Chelsea Manning has been locked up for years and openly tortured simply for exposing human rights abuses and embarrassing the US government. Manning will not be leading violent protests or holding public office (even if she wanted to) any time soon.
Bloodworth also forgets (or more likely doesn’t know or care) that Human Rights Watch (HRW) utterly disgraced itself during the 2002 coup. He takes HRW assessments of Venezuela at face value but does not recall that during the 2002 coup HRW failed to denounce the coup, failed to call on other countries not to recognize the Carmona dictatorship, failed to invoke the OAS charter, and did not call for an investigation of US involvement. Thankfully, most governments in the region denounced the 2002 coup at once, exactly as HRW would have done had it not been penetrated by US State Department officials and other elites as Keane Bhatt recently noted.
Bloodworth’s effort to dismiss the Venezuelan government’s record on poverty alleviation is pitifully inept. He considers only the 2007-2011 period to argue that Venezuela’s record is unimpressive compared to Brazil, Uruguay and Peru. Does he not recall that Hugo Chavez first took office in 1999? Could somebody who claims to have opposed the 2002 coup be that ignorant? The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) found that from “1999 to 2010 Venezuela achieved the second highest rate of poverty reduction”. Extreme poverty fell by 70% during Hugo Chavez’s time in office. The 2002 coup and related efforts to overthrow the Chavez government severely disrupted progress for about 2 years or the economic gains might have been even better. Bloodworth might know this if he had actually opposed the 2002 coup as he claims he did.
Predictably, Bloodworth promotes the most cherished dogma of Venezuelan government opponents over the past 15 years: the myth of the voiceless opposition. The Carter Commission exploded this myth very effectively last year – without really trying to and in very polite language. It examined TV news media during crucial weeks of the April, 2013 Presidential election that pitted Henrique Capriles against Nicolas Maduro. It found a 57% to 34% edge in coverage for Maduro over Capriles by simply totaling minutes of coverage on the major networks. That finding alone refutes the myth of the voiceless opposition but it gets worse for people who peddle this myth. Three quarters of Capriles’ coverage was in the private news media which (the Carter Commission found) had nearly three times the audience share (72% to 24%) of the state news media where Maduro received most of his coverage.
Bloodworth has nothing to say about Maduro government opponents spreading falsified images of the protests through social media – a tactic they could rely on the private media to deploy on a massive scale in 2002. The most anti-democratic faction of the opposition claims that media coverage of their protests is now inadequate and that is enough for Bloodworth to completely agree. Similarly, one of the sources Bloodworth uncritically cites about Venezuela’s economy is Moisés Naím, one of the architects of the brutal austerity polices of the early 1990s that ultimately led to the Caracazo uprisings in which up to 3000 people were murdered by Venezuela’s security forces. Does Bloodworth not know this about Naím, or just not care?
In order to claim that violent deaths are more numerous in Venezuela than Iraq, Bloodworth ignores peer reviewed scientific studies (published in 2006, 2008 and 2013) showing that anywhere from one half to only one twelfth of violent deaths are captured in Iraq by standard data collection methods. He also appears oblivious to scholarly research suggesting that Venezuela’s murder rate may have been falling since 2008.
Perhaps worst of all, Bloodworth completely ignores the decisive defeat the opposition received in December’s municipal elections which the opposition worked very hard to frame as a referendum on Maduro’s government. The results were easy to understand if one looks beyond the reactionary talking points about Venezuela’s economy that Bloodworth mindlessly parrots. The economy has not gone into recession since Maduro was elected despite the spike in inflation. Moreover inflation is not a direct measure of living standards. Many of the poorest countries in the world have very low levels of inflation (Mali, Rwanda, Chad among others).
Additionally, despite serious economic problems in 2013 poverty fell from 21.6 to 19.6%, extreme poverty from 6.3 to 5.5%, unemployment from 5.9% to 5.6%
It is not really foreign supporters of Maduro’s government whom Bloodworth attempts to dismiss, it is the majority of Venezuelan voters.