Pilger on Venezuela


Richard Moore

    The social movements are now a decisive force in every
    Latin American country ...

 The Rise of America's New Enemy
 By John Pilger
 t r u t h o u t | Perspective

 Thursday 10 November 2005

I was dropped at Paradiso, the last middle-class area
before barrio La Vega, which spills into a ravine as if by
the force of gravity. Storms were forecast, and people
were anxious, remembering the mudslides that took 20,000
lives. "Why are you here?" asked the man sitting opposite
me in the packed jeep-bus that chugged up the hill. Like
so many in Latin America, he appeared old, but wasn't.
Without waiting for my answer, he listed why he supported
President Chavez: schools, clinics, affordable food, "our
constitution, our democracy" and "for the first time, the
oil money is going to us." I asked him if he belonged to
the MRV, Chavez's party, "No, I've never been in a
political party; I can only tell you how my life has been
changed, as I never dreamt."

It is raw witness like this, which I have heard over and
over again in Venezuela, that smashes the one-way mirror
between the west and a continent that is rising. By
rising, I mean the phenomenon of millions of people
stirring once again, "like lions after slumber / In
un-vanquishable number", wrote the poet Shelley in The
Mask of Anarchy. This is not romantic; an epic is
unfolding in Latin America that demands our attention
beyond the stereotypes and clichés that diminish whole
societies to their degree of exploitation and

To the man in the bus, and to Beatrice whose children are
being immunized and taught history, art and music for the
first time, and Celedonia, in her seventies, reading and
writing for the first time, and Jose whose life was saved
by a doctor in the middle of the night, the first doctor
he had ever seen, Hugo Chavez is neither a "firebrand" nor
an "autocrat" but a humanitarian and a democrat who
commands almost two thirds of the popular vote, accredited
by victories in no less than nine elections. Compare that
with the fifth of the British electorate that re-installed
Blair, an authentic autocrat.

Chavez and the rise of popular social movements, from
Colombia down to Argentina, represent bloodless, radical
change across the continent, inspired by the great
independence struggles that began with Simon Bolivar, born
in Venezuela, who brought the ideas of the French
Revolution to societies cowed by Spanish absolutism.
Bolivar, like Che Guevara in the 1960s and Chavez today,
understood the new colonial master to the north. "The
USA," he said in 1819, "appears destined by fate to plague
America with misery in the name of liberty."

At the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001,
George W Bush announced the latest misery in the name of
liberty in the form of a Free Trade Area of the Americas
treaty. This would allow the United States to impose its
ideological "market", neo-liberalism, finally on all of
Latin America. It was the natural successor to Bill
Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement, which has
turned Mexico into an American sweatshop. Bush boasted it
would be law by 2005.

On 5 November, Bush arrived at the 2005 summit in Mar del
Plata, Argentina, to be told his FTAA was not even on the
agenda. Among the 34 heads of state were new, un-compliant
faces and behind all of them were populations no longer
willing to accept US-backed business tyrannies. Never
before have Latin American governments had to consult
their people on pseudo-agreements of this kind; but now
they must.

In Bolivia, in the past five years, social movements have
got rid of governments and foreign corporations alike,
such as the tentacular Bechtel, which sought to impose
what people call total locura capitalista - total
capitalist folly - the privatizing of almost everything,
especially natural gas and water. Following Pinochet's
Chile, Bolivia was to be a neo-liberal laboratory. The
poorest of the poor were charged up to two-thirds of their
pittance-income even for rain-water.

Standing in the bleak, freezing, cobble-stoned streets of
El Alto, 14,000 feet up in the Andes, or sitting in the
breeze-block homes of former miners and campesinos driven
off their land, I have had political discussions of a kind
seldom ignited in Britain and the US. They are direct and
eloquent. "Why are we so poor," they say, "when our
country is so rich? Why do governments lie to us and
represent outside powers?" They refer to 500 years of
conquest as if it is a living presence, which it is,
tracing a journey from the Spanish plunder of Cerro Rico,
a hill of silver mined by indigenous slave labor and which
underwrote the Spanish Empire for three centuries. When
the silver was gone, there was tin, and when the mines
were privatized in the 1970s at the behest of the IMF, tin
collapsed, along with 30,000 jobs. When the coca leaf
replaced it - in Bolivia, chewing it in curbs hunger - the
Bolivian army, coerced by the US, began destroying the
coca crops and filling the prisons.

In 2000, open rebellion burst upon the white business
oligarchs and the American embassy whose fortress stands
like an Andean Vatican in the centre of La Paz. There was
never anything like it, because it came from the majority
Indian population "to protect our indigenous soul". Naked
racism against indigenous peoples all over Latin America
is the Spanish legacy. They were despised or invisible, or
curios for tourists: the women in their bowler hats and
colorful skirts. No more. Led by visionaries like Oscar
Olivera, the women in bowler hats and colorful skirts
encircled and shut down the country's second city,
Cochabamba, until their water was returned to public

Every year since, people have fought a water or gas war:
essentially a war against privatization and poverty.
Having driven out President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in
2003, Bolivians voted in a referendum for real democracy.
Through the social movements they demanded a constituent
assembly similar to that which founded Chavez's Bolivarian
revolution in Venezuela, together with the rejection of
the FTAA and all the other "free trade" agreements, the
expulsion of the transnational water companies and a 50
per cent tax on the exploitation of all energy resources.

When the replacement president, Carlos Mesa, refused to
implement the program he was forced to resign. Next month,
there will be presidential elections and the opposition
Movement to Socialism (MAS) may well turn out the old
order. The leader is an indigenous former coca farmer, Evo
Morales, whom the American ambassador has likened to Osama
Bin Laden. In fact, he is a social democrat who, for many
of those who sealed off Cochabamba and marched down the
mountain from El Alto, moderates too much.

"This is not going to be easy," Abel Mamani, the
indigenous president of the El Alto Neighborhood
Committees, told me. "The elections won't be a solution
even if we win. What we need to guarantee is the
constituent assembly, from which we build a democracy
based not on what the US wants, but on social justice."
The writer Pablo Solon, son of the great political
muralist Walter Solon, said, "The story of Bolivia is the
story of the government behind the government. The US can
create a financial crisis; but really for them it is
ideological; they say they will not accept another

The people, however, will not accept another Washington
quisling. The lesson is Ecuador, where a helicopter saved
Lucio Gutierrez as he fled the presidential palace last
April. Having won power in alliance with the indigenous
Pachakutik movement, he was the "Ecuadorian Chavez", until
he drowned in a corruption scandal. For ordinary Latin
Americans, corruption on high is no longer forgivable.
That is one of two reasons the Workers' Party government
of Lula is barely marking time in Brazil; the other is the
priority he has given to an IMF economic agenda, rather
than his own people. In Argentina, social movements saw
off five pro-Washington presidents in 2001 and 2002.
Across the water in Uruguay, the Frente Amplio, socialist
heirs to the Tupamaros, the guerrillas of the 1970s who
fought one of the CIA's most vicious terror campaigns,
formed a popular government last year.

The social movements are now a decisive force in every
Latin American country - even in the state of fear that is
the Colombia of Alvaro Uribe Velez, Bush's most loyal
vassal. Last month, indigenous movements marched through
every one of Colombia's 32 provinces demanding an end to
"an evil as great at the gun": neo-liberalism. All over
Latin America, Hugo Chavez is the modern Bolivar. People
admire his political imagination and his courage. Only he
has had the guts to describe the United States as a source
of terrorism and Bush as Senior Peligro (Mr. Danger). He
is very different from Fidel Castro, whom he respects.
Venezuela is an extraordinarily open society with an
unfettered opposition - that is rich and still powerful.
On the left, there are those who oppose the state, in
principle, believe its reforms have reached their limit,
and want power to flow directly from the community. They
say so vigorously, yet they support Chavez. A fluent young
anarchist, Marcel, showed me the clinic where the two
Cuban doctors may have saved his girlfriend. (In a barter
arrangement, Venezuela gives Cuba oil in exchange for

At the entrance to every barrio there is a state
supermarket, where everything from staple food to washing
up liquid costs 40 per cent less than in commercial
stores. Despite specious accusations that the government
has instituted censorship, most of the media remains
violently anti-Chavez: a large part of it in the hands of
Gustavo Cisneros, Latin America's Murdoch, who backed the
failed attempt to depose Chavez. What is striking is the
proliferation of lively community radio stations, which
played a critical part in Chavez's rescue in the coup of
April 2002 by calling on people to march on Caracas.

While the world looks to Iran and Syria for the next Bush
attack, Venezuelans know they may well be next. On 17
March, the Washington Post reported that Feliz Rodriguez,
"a former CIA operative well-connected to the Bush family"
had taken part in the planning of the assassination of the
President of Venezuela. On 16 September, Chavez said, "I
have evidence that there are plans to invade Venezuela.
Furthermore, we have documentation: how many bombers will
over-fly Venezuela on the day of the invasion . . . the US
is carrying out maneuvers on Curacao Island. It is called
Operation Balboa." Since then, leaked internal Pentagon
documents have identified Venezuela as a "post-Iraq
threat" requiring "full spectrum" planning.

The old-young man in the jeep, Beatrice and her healthy
children and Celedonia with her "new esteem", are indeed a
threat -the threat of an alternative, decent world that
some lament is no longer possible. Well, it is, and it
deserves our support.


"Apocalypse Now and the Brave New World"

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