The reaction of most mainstream US politicians to Hugo Chavez’s recent rhetorical flourish during his speech at the United Nations where he called George Bush the devil certainly showed the world how much of a threat the Washington powermongers consider his Bolivarian revolution to be. From the liberal Nancy Pelosi of California to the far-right, Chavez’s comparison provoked a virtual flood of angry criticism. Interestingly enough, the White House did not issue a denial, leaving it open to speculation as to whether or not Chavez’s characterization of Mr. Bush was more accurate than previously acknowledged. At any rate, the point I’m trying to make here is that Hugo Chavez does not really seem to care what the politicians in Washington and their backers in the boardrooms of the US think about him. Furthermore, by adopting this attitude and expressing it at forums like the UN, Mr. Chavez has vocalized the sentiments of millions of people the world over.
Yet, his words matter little when compared to his actions to subvert the neoliberal/neoconservative agenda of Washington and its cohorts. It is these actions that strike at the heart of the Empire and which have drawn the true wrath of those whom interests they attack. The latest example of this is the stalemated campaign between Guatemala–Washington’s choice for a temporary Security Council seat at the UN– and Venezuela. Whether one is discussing Chavez’s campaign to reinvigorate OPEC or his land reform actions in the Venezuelan countryside, revolution that Chavez has named after the Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar has angered Washington, Wall Street and many a rich landowner. In addition, Chavez has frustrated many corporate hacks used to buying of Third World politicians.
It is this revolution that author Nikolas Kozloff explores in his recently released book, Hugo Chavez, Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the US. A somewhat frequent visitor to the nation as a grad student and researcher, Kozloff intertwines personal observations and experiences in Venezuela with an intelligent analysis of the meaning of Chavismo to the poor and indigenous people of Venezuela and other countries of Latin America. Something of an anti-authoritarian leftist, Kozloff is at first hesitant to give Chavez much credit for the popular movement against the neoliberal governments that ruled Venezuela prior to Chavez. However, as he investigates the changes and as the movement takes root, he writes quite positively about the changes in the Venezuelan political and economic landscape. Never, however, does the prose become a sycophantic apology for anything Chavez.
Kozloff traces the life of Chavez from an impoverished rural region of Venezuela into the military, jail and into electoral politics. While relating Chavez’s political development, the author reminds the reader that Chavez’s background is not that different from many Venezuelans. It is, however, quite different from the circumstances of those that ruled the country until Chavez’s election in 1992. As one reads the book, it becomes clear that Chavez has not forgotten his roots and, as he has developed politically, has discovered some of the fundamental reasons for the poverty he and so many of his countrymen and women live(d) in. Naturally, as his understanding developed, Chavez’s politics turned leftward. Also, quite naturally, as his politics turned left, the opposition to the man and the movement he represents has become more vocal and willing to consider extralegal means to rid themselves of him.
One of those attempts was made in 2002, when various members of Venezuela’s elite took over the seat of power on April 11. The coup lasted barely twenty-four hours. Soldiers loyal to Chavez refused to follow the orders of those officers who were involved in the coup and took back the Presidential Palace while hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters rallied in the streets. Kozloff’s description of this event and the oil "strike" led by sectors of the oil industry wanting to hold on to industry agreements that opposed to using oil profits for Chavez’s plans to help the poor (and not share said profits with foreign companies and their Venezuelan accomplices) provide a clarity to events that have never been adequately explained in the US mainstream press.
Acknowledging Chavez’s growing role in world politics, Kozloff examines his government’s foreign aid programs that emphasize barter instead of cash and tend towards highlighting the solidarity of those nations and peoples taken advantage of by the US-led neoliberal campaign. In a chapter titled "The Chavez-Morales Axis," Venezuela’s campaign to include the indigenous populations of the Americas in the Bolivarian revolution championed by Chavez and Morales is described. According to Kozloff, much of Chavez’s interest in the plight of the indigenous stems from his mixed heritage and the consequent empathic understanding he derives from his experiences related to that heritage.
Kozloff’s book, which was recently received the wrath of a reviewer in the New York Times Business Section because of its leftist slant, is a worthwhile survey of the current political situation in Venezuela and its relations with the rest of the Americas. The supposedly leftist slant is not a detraction, even for those skeptical individuals who would approach this book with negative preconceptions regarding Mr. Chavez. Indeed, this particular take is the appropriate viewfinder from which his government should be examined. The book’s one drawback is its brevity, although it is also that aspect that makes it a good introduction to the politics and the personality that make Hugo Chavez and his supporters the force for change that they are.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: email@example.com