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lunes, diciembre 05, 2005

Things Are Heating Up in Venezuela

Thousands of low-income families in Boston and New York will not have to shiver through the winter, thanks to Venezuela. Through its U.S. subsidiary Citgo, the Latin American country will distribute 12 million gallons of heating oil to eligible residents at a 40% discount. The agreement, brokered on the U.S. side by Rep. William Delahunt of Massachusetts, will save U.S. families an estimated $10 million in heating costs.

Sounds good, no? But read the U.S. media coverage of the heating oil program, and you might not be so sure. ABC News titled its article “Give Thanks to America's 'Nemesis': Cheap Oil for America's Poor” with the subtitle “Hugo Chavez Spreads Tidings of 'Petro-Diplomacy,'” and ominously wrote that Chávez “has threatened to stop exporting oil to gas-guzzling America saying he's against its imperialist ways.” (Actually, he merely warned that the oil supply would stop if the U.S. were to assassinate him.) For readers unfamiliar with Chávez, the Cape Cod Times describes him as “a Venezuelan president known for stormy relations with the Bush administration” and cites a think tank claim that “Chávez is practicing ‘petro-diplomacy’ to show his country's might.”

The Boston Globe informs us that “Critics have described Chávez as a democratically elected leader who governs in an undemocratic manner” and “Human rights groups have accused Chávez of curtailing press freedoms and of stacking the country's judicial system with sympathetic judges.” Furthermore, says the Globe, “Critics” (the same ones?) “said Delahunt should not be working so closely with Chávez, an outspoken leftist,” going so far as to ask Delahunt “if he was subverting State Department policy toward Chávez” (no, responded Delahunt, he was looking after the urgent needs of his constituents). Even Canada’s national public broadcaster, the CBC, labeled him “Venezuela's controversial president” and said that “His offer was seen as an attempt to embarrass the Bush administration.”

Reading all this, one might become suspicious of Venezuela’s gift. Who is Hugo Chávez, and why should he care about the plight of low-income families in the U.S.?

If Chávez is concerned about the poor of the United States, perhaps it is because his trajectory to power has been propelled by the poor of Venezuela. By the late 1990s, Venezuelans had been held in the grip of an oligarchic “democracy” for four decades, with the two dominant political parties trading off power. In the 1980s and ‘90s matters worsened, as the ruling parties further impoverished the population by weakening labor laws and implementing structural adjustment policies. The number of Venezuelans living in poverty exploded from 18% in 1980 to 65% in 1996, the largest increase of any Latin American country in those years. Finally, the Venezuelan people said enough was enough, and began to demand change.

Radicalized by the nation’s rampant poverty and growing popular uprisings, Chávez led a coup against the government in 1992. The coup failed, but won him a mass following, who in 1998 elected him President. Under his leadership, Venezuela has begun to change its economic priorities. A series of government programs known as “missions” promote adult education from literacy up to college, provide free accessible healthcare in thousands of villages and barrios, offer subsidized food and basic goods, train people to set up cooperative e enterprises, and more: the missions’ collective goal is the elimination of poverty in Venezuela. In international economics, Venezuela under Chávez has rejected the advice of the IMF and vehemently opposes the FTAA, while advancing its own “multipolar” form of globalization.

But Chavez has also made enemies, in his own country and in the U.S., where the ruling class abhors the threat of a good example. Thus it is that top U.S. officials constantly claim that Chávez is “governing undemocratically”, and are currently trying to block a sale by Spain of patrol boats and military carriers to Venezuela for use in fighting drug trafficking along the coast. (For his part, Chavez relishes the Bush administration’s attacks, turning each one into fodder for his fiery nationalist and anti-imperialist rhetoric/speeches.)

Venezuela’s gesture may generate goodwill in the hearts of those receiving the oil, but the heat is unlikely to thaw relations with the U.S. government. The oil-rich nation is demonstrating an economic model that is extremely threatening to corporate leaders and the U.S. regime.

Is it socialism? Maybe, maybe not. But it is a model that does not regard boosting stock prices as the goal that transcends all others, a model that doesn’t trumpet the “free market” as the cure for all ills, a model that puts people before profits. The doctrine nowadays dictates that any such experiment must quickly self-destruct, because “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal, corporate-driven economy.

Yet, horror of horrors, thus far the Bolivarian model not only has not fallen apart, it now is stepping in where the U.S. model, apparently, has failed. That failure is reflected in the fact that Northeastern families lack affordable heating oil in the first place, due to efforts to break down the “welfare state”, shrinking U.S. government Grover Norquist-style.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was created in 1982 to assist low-income households who must spend a large percentage of their income on heating costs, forcing them to choose between heat and other necessities such as food or health care. Due to high fossil fuel prices spurred in part by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it’s predicted that families will have to spend up to 50% more on heating costs this year. But while energy costs have soared, the money Congress allocates to LIHEAP has actually fallen since 1985, and its funding for this year is in doubt.

Seeing that the federal program would not be enough, a group of U.S. Senators sent a letter to major oil companies asking them to donate a bit of their record profits to help families through the winter. Only one company responded: Citgo. According to the Cape Cod Times, executive director David Fox of the advocacy group Campaign for Home Energy Assistance “said Delahunt's effort to strike a deal with Venezuela . . . highlighted the federal government's disinterest in helping low-income residents get through the winter.”

''’Our objective is simple: to help people of limited means through the winter,’" said CITGO head Felix Rodriguez, as quoted in the Boston Globe. '’'No one should have to choose between heat and medicine or food.’" This attitude is a far cry from most multinational oil companies, who see high prices as nothing but an opportunity for more profits.

Of course, Venezuela’s economic approach is hardly perfect either. Poverty is still rampant in Venezuela, though it’s fallen slightly since Chávez took office. The nation’s dependence upon oil exports is another problem, both for Venezuela’s own economy and for the globe; while Bostonians’ immediate need for heating oil cannot be questioned, in the long run we need to transition away from fossil fuels. Though Venezuela, unlike the U.S., has ratified the Kyoto Protocol regulating greenhouse gas emissions, the oil-producing nation is hardly helping to reduce demand for petroleum, which would be very much against its own interest.

But Venezuelans are finding – or building – their own path towards alternative economic, political, and social systems, which may end up being a model for all the rest of us. We here in the U.S. have a responsibility to end our government’s destructive attempts to interfere in Venezuela, to ensure that Venezuelans are free to choose their path.

If you would like to support Citgo’s efforts, find a station at http://www.citgo.com/CITGOLocator.jsp.

yes, he did ride to popularity on the votes of venezuela's poor... which should make you ask the question, why is he spending millions of dollars on someone else's "poor"? shouldn't you fix your own poverty problems before trapsing around supposedly trying to fix those of the richest country in the world? which naturally leads to the cynical conclusion that he's buying influence. if I were venezuelan I'd be pretty pissed off that my leader was using my oil money to play international political power games.
Buying influence, hardly -- if he wants to buy influence, he should be giving money to influential (rich) people, not poor people.

Buying positive publicity? Yep, absolutely -- Venezuela is milking this gesture for everything it's worth, full-page NYT ads and all. So? Isn't every government that engages in international humanitarian gestures doing it to make themelves look good? Didn't every country that send aid to victims of the Asian tsunami or the Pakistan earthquake brag about how much they were sending? I don't see where that's a major problem if the gestures themselves are genuinely filling a need.

Finally, on "fixing your own problems first": if everyone took this advice to heart, no nation would every provide humanitarian assistance to any other nation. There are good reasons for engaging in international goodwill & solidarity gestures.

That said, is this the best use of PDVSA funds? I really can't say. Though it's not that much money, relatively speaking. See here for PVSA'a audited finanical statement (thanks to Oil Wars.)

If I were Venezuelan, I would applaud the heating oil program, but be concerned about the amount of funds going into upgrading the military. But that's just me.
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