A U.S. traveler in Venezuela may recall the Will Rogers observation: “God must love poor people; he made so many of them.” The poor are the natural constituents and enthusiastic boosters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The frequent target of bellicose U.S. rhetoric and actions, Chavez has dared to chart a path of independence for his country, refusing a free-trade agreement with the U.S. Though Chavez has been elected to office several times by decisive majorities, the Bush administration persists in calling him a dictator.
Venezuela’s huge petroleum reserves and the rising price of oil have allowed Chavez not only to pay off his debts to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund but to help his neighbors become debt free as well. Chavez has made no secret of his desire to build a Latin American common market, independent of U.S. control, which will eventually be strong enough to negotiate rational trade terms with the European Union, the North Americans and others.
The Venezuelan oil industry was nationalized in 1976, decades before Chavez took office. But for the first time, the Venezuelan government is investing most of the profits in projects that benefit the poor majority of Venezuelans, instead of the already wealthy few.
In community after community, urban and rural, the excitement is palpable. New homes and schools are being built, new clinics and infrastructure. Through government-funded community councils, ordinary citizens are being consulted about political and financial decisions. In the “new geometry of power,” as several Venezuelans described it, politicians are not dictating civic projects. The people themselves are prioritizing the needs of their communities and then helping to bring them about.
Real democratization – one that includes the traditionally disenfranchised majority – is struggling to become a reality in Venezuela. The only wars being fought here are against illiteracy, poverty and disease. Hope is in the air. Everyone is talking about “the process” of converting their country from a near-feudal state to a more egalitarian society. “We’re making a new road,” said the mayor of the mid-sized city of Carora, “rather than the traditional mode of government by and for the few.”
Carora Mayor Julio Chavez, no relation to the president, said “One of my objectives from day one was to reduce the role of the mayor.” In Carora, which pioneered the community council concept, one hundred percent of government funds are allocated by community councils, not by the mayor’s office. He has to make his budget requests to the council.
Is the Venezuelan social experiment idealistic? Yes. Is “the process” proceeding without glitches? No one I met here made that claim. Is this radical social transformation now underway a threat to the United States? Not at all. In fact, as hard as it is for Americans to accept, we could learn from the Venezuelan example.
United States foreign policy has always been motivated by a missionary mentality. But it’s time to vary the missionary position. From the Manifest Destiny that drove the U.S. to seize half of Mexico, to Woodrow Wilson to Henry Kissinger and up to the present moment, the United States has always inflicted its ideological will on others, however violently, in the name of the greater good. Our near-religious certainty about our own apparently unlimited “best interests” allows the U.S. to justify, at least to itself, interference in the internal affairs of other countries, including many in Latin America. Unfortunately and not coincidentally, our government tends to replace the populist socialism it fears with the much greater evils of dictatorships, torture and genocide in places such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. The list is long and tragic.
In 1823 President James Monroe declared that Europe had no right to interfere in Latin America. Not long after the enunciation of the Monroe Doctrine, South American independence fighter Simon Bolivar presciently predicted that “… the United States is destined to plague the Americas with misery in the name of liberty.”
As many Latin American countries undertake a dramatic shift from U.S.-imposed neo-liberal economic and political structures to new, more independent forms of democratic socialism, the United States finds itself on the wrong side of history. The American experience – North and South – shows that capitalism only ever benefits a small minority, leaving many millions struggling to meet their basic needs. Bush and Cheney speak for that powerful minority. They view the attempt by Latin nations to re-invent themselves from corporate satellite feudal states to genuinely egalitarian democracies as a threat to their old hierarchical corporate model of governance.
These days the U.S. tends to bypass diplomacy in favor of violence. Is this a cause or an effect of our overdeveloped military capabilities? We tend to declare “war” on things: communism, terrorism, drugs, or various villains du jour, like Manuel Noriega or Saddam Hussein. If it is true that a man who raises his fist is a man who has run out of ideas, then it is clear that the Bush-Cheney foreign policy has been mentally bankrupt from the start. They have spurned negotiation for saber rattling and invasions. “You are either with us or with the terrorists,” is an unhelpful Manichean simplicity meant to intimidate countries, but instead merely alienates them. When Condoleeza Rice declared Chavez “a negative force in the region,” was she speaking as the U.S. Secretary of State or as a once and future board member of Exxon-Mobil?
An American traveling in Venezuela is struck by the dramatic difference in the tone of public discourse. The powerful, prosperous United States is dominated by the language of fear and belligerence. Part of the problem is that we have moved back into Plato’s cave, except that the shadows we mistake for reality are the flickering figures on our television screens. We are literally out of touch with reality, in our own country and the rest of the world. Encouraged by political opportunists, we worry about terrorism, rising gas prices, foreign enemies and economic collapse
Compared to average Americans, many Venezuelans have little, except this new, energizing hope. But that turns out to be a lot. We should not just respect and encourage the Venezuelan experiment, but perhaps find a way to adapt it for our own peace of mind. We must reclaim the rhetoric of hope. Idealism has been the traditional bedrock American strength.
Death by paranoia is a bad way to go.
JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger 2006). He lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia.