Obama & Venezuela : finally some good news?


Richard Moore

We are getting clear signals of a major shift in US policy toward Chavez and Morales, a complete turnaround from the Bush administration:

Chavez won his referendum on lifting term limits for elected officials on Feb. 15 by a solid 54% at last count, with a 70% turnout. State Department spokesperson Gordon Duguid stated that, “For the most part this was a process that was fully consistent with democratic process.”

A similar response came out of the State Department following the Jan. 25 vote on Bolivia’s new constitution. Approved by 61%, the vote culminated a reform process that nearly tore apart the nation and left several dead in its wake due to the violent opposition of anti-Evo factions. The day after the vote, Wood congratulated the Bolivian people on the referendum and stated, “We look forward to working with the Bolivian Government in ways we can to further democracy …” When asked if he believed the referendum furthers democracy, he replied, “A free, fair, you know, democratic process certainly does contribute positively.”

These quotes are from this article, and I verified them on an official State Department website:

New Attitude in the White House?
State Department calls Bolivian and Venezuelan referendums “democratic.”
     By Laura Carlsen
This is a very interesting development. It’s the first clear departure from Bush’s foreign policy, and indeed from long-standing US foreign policy. I’m very happy to see this new attitude from Washington, but I’m even more surprised by it. Chavez and Morales represent a systemic challenge to the global financial / capitalist regime, and they are proud to say so, and clear about their socialist agenda. These leaders are expropriating their natural resources, turning back the tide of privatization and IMF debt-domination, creating a regional banking system, and are actively promoting regional cooperation self-reliance. Their influence, within their own countries and throughout the region, will only be enhanced by a favorable nod from Washington. Why is Washington apparently undermining its own traditional “interests” in the region? 

This seems to be another China scenario, vis a vis Nixon’s famous visit. As with China before, these heretofore ‘anti-American’ regimes are being accepted as fait accompli. Regime-change has become too problematic, and more is to be gained by pursuing cooperation, trade, and investment opportunities. Chavez recently announced that Venezuela would once-again open up bids for drilling by foreign oil companies, and that could very well be the trigger event, a significant concession by Chavez, that opened the door for Washington’s new stance.

If this interpretation is correct, then I am very happy to put my first gold star on Obama’s report card. Well done! – even if only as an agent of those with real power, and on the advice of their deep-game strategists. Regardless of what else happens, room is being opened up for an upsurge of popular energy and progressive change in South America. If the fear of intervention is past, and the covert support of local opposition elements is over, then the lid will be off the Bolivarian Revolution — it is likely to spread within the region.

Chavez and Morales are the dynamic and colorful champions of the Bolivarian project, but the movement began in the rural grassroots, and remains firmly rooted there. Both leaders rode to power on the backs of popular movements, and both have been faithfully using their office to nourish and empower the movements. Their constituency is not only their electoral power base, it is also where their personal identities lie, as the first heads of state in the region with indigenous roots. This is what our democratic systems are supposed to deliver, but seldom do — leaders who clearly embody the will of their constituencies, whose hearts are with the people.

The Bolivarian movement is not your usual political phenomenon, where some faction, such as as steel workers or dairy farmers, organizes itself so as to increase its bargaining power within ‘the system’. Rather, it is a grassroots-based democratic process that is unfolding and evolving. It is not seeking advantage for a faction, rather it is seeking to transform society so that it serves the needs of the people, and reflects popular will. It is more a cultural and economic movement, with a coherent agenda, than it is a political movement in the usual influence-seeking sense. Chavez champions the agenda domestically and internationally, but the agenda emerges from the common-sense needs and understanding of its constituency.

We need to remember that South Americans have lived through centuries of severe imperialist exploitation, leading right up to the era of the disappeared and the ravages of globalization and IMF debt bondage. They understand that resources are their wealth, and ever since Columbus they’ve seen their wealth being carted off to foreign shores while most of them lived in poverty. The heart of their economic agenda is sovereignty over national resources, and the organization of the economy around the needs of the people, rather than the interests of foreign investors. Chavez and Morales have scored significant successes in pursuing these objectives and their efforts are continuing. 

There is also a regional dimension to the agenda. People understand that dependence for development on Northern investors, credit, and markets is just that — a dependence — and it always ends up benefitting the wealthy North while the South remains dependent. The people are aware that their continent is rich with land and resources, and they understand that regional economic cooperation and exchange offers a more promising focus for sound economic development. In the wake of neoliberalism, this self-reliance sentiment is particularly strong, and Chavez has been very pro-active in promoting mutual-benefit exchanges in the region, paying down IMF debt, and in encouraging the development of cooperative regional infrastructures.

At the base of the Bolivarian movement lies it’s source of strength — a shift in popular consciousness, a growing sense of democratic empowerment, rooted in grassroots initiatives and reinforced by the election and the achievements of its political champions. There is a spirit of We the People, with an agenda, a sense of common purpose. As programs are implemented, and people see their lives improve, the sense of empowerment, and participation, is strengthened further. A cultural transformation is underway, and a culture of democratic empowerment is emerging, among the growing Bolivarian constituency.

In harmony with this transformation, Chavez has expressed the desire for the governance process itself to be eventually decentralized to the local level, rather than centralized in Caracas. And the focus of his development programs have been at the grassroots, with his misione projects, supporting the establishment of co-ops, making education and medical care available, and supporting community-initiated projects. 

I’ve gone into some detail here about the Bolivarian phenomenon because it is important to get a feeling for the depth and strength of the movement, its basis in the grassroots and in cultural transformation, and the good sense of its agenda based on the realities of regional circumstances. The current conditions and the historical experiences of other South American countries parallels that of Venezuela and Bolivia, with downtrodden rural populations and the ravages of neoliberalism. With the scepter of US sanctions no longer threatening the movement, the Bolivarian spirit and agenda is likely to spread among similar constituencies in the region. Meanwhile Chavez does what he can to promote this trend by working toward regional cooperation at the government level.

How things will develop over time is impossible to predict, but there is a plausible scenario that emerges from these considerations. Let us suppose that the Bolivarian spirit does catch on widely in the region, that people look at what’s happening in Venezuela and Bolivia and see that path as a way forward for themselves. If that happens then there would likely follow other electoral victories, based on grassroots mobilization, and again bringing in movement champions who are in a real sense ‘of the people’. We can of course expect Chavez to continue to pursue regional cooperation, and with other champions in office those initiatives would increase in momentum and manifest in concrete institutional arrangements. 

Given the agenda of the movement, with its emphasis on regional self-reliance, the natural tendency of these developments would be toward the emergence of a South American Union (SAU), comparable superficially to the EU, but different in fundamental ways. Whereas the EU bases its economic strategy on success in the global market, a Bolivarian SAU would be aiming toward a substantial degree of regional self-sufficiency. Whereas power in the EU is concentrated in the center, the unelected members of the European Commission, the SAU would more likely be a framework for voluntary collaboration among sovereign states. Whereas EU policy, ever since the Maastricht Treaty, has been dominated by the interests of financial elites, Bolivarian policy would continue to be rooted in the grassroots consciousness that is its strength and essence.

By giving the nod to Chavez and Morales, Washington is creating the room for such a scenario to unfold, but it is not a scenario they would would like to see develop very far. A self-reliant South America, shepherding its resources based on its own needs, and maximizing its economic activity internally, is a very unattractive scenario for the financial elites who call the shots in Washington. Such a region would offer few lucrative opportunities for outside investors, and would generate minimal activity in global markets. This is the last thing Washington wants to see. This would be systemic anti-capitalism at its worst, and on a continental scale. Perhaps more threatening, it would also be an inspiration to other regions.

Later in the article we read,

There have been some other not-so-good signs though. … Clinton and her second in command, James Steinberg, have on occasion described the continent as a “playing field” where a supposed lack of leadership on the part of the United States recently must be corrected so as not to cede ground to Hugo Chavez. 

When they say “not to cede ground to Hugo Chavez”, I think it is clear that what they really mean is “not to permit the Bolivarian Revolution to continue on its current path”. Again, the China scenario becomes relevant. Containment, economic isolation, and provocations of various kinds had not brought about regime change in China. Indeed such pressures strengthened the hold of the regime and reinforced its ideological orientation. And China, by virtue of its size, resources, and industrious population, would eventually become a power to contend with, despite attempts to stifle it from the outside, and despite some bungling by the regime itself. 

China traditionally sees itself as the Central Nation, not an exploitive imperialist power, but the recognized hegemon of its region. If forced to rely on its own resources, China would have pursued this traditional role, and it could have led to a formidable Asian block, largely self-sufficient, and ideologically opposed to the West. By opening up trade and investments, a ‘path of least economic resistance’ was created for China. With its low-waged, disciplined workers, industrialization and the mass production of goods for lucrative Western markets was an opportunity too good to pass up. Ideology was abandoned, and now China finds itself entangled in the global market system, dependent on the health of distant Western economies, rather than being the stable Central Nation of its region. Thus do economic arrangements lead to geopolitical outcomes.

In the case of Venezuela, the hostility of the Bush administration, including even a coup attempt, served only to strengthen the Bolivarian movement, and encourage its emphasis on regional integration and cooperation. By opening the door of economic friendship, once again a path of least economic resistance is created, and once again it involves serving lucrative global markets. But this time the tempter is not industrialization, but rather the over-exploitation of natural resources. 

Nixon’s visit was well timed, at a point where growth in global trade was rapidly expanding. The path of least resistance for China was clear. The current friendship signals to Chavez and Morales are also well-timed, at a point where resource scarcities are rapidly becoming yet-another global crisis. Exploiting resources for export into a seller’s market offers a clear path of least resistance. 

The hand of economic friendship and cooperation, offered by Washington, will presumably be followed-up by related concrete proposals. Most likely reasonable terms for credit, without IMF-style conditions, reasonable rates of return on development projects, not the old sweetheart deals made with proxy dictators, and commitments to take deliveries at agreed prices and agreed quantities, avoiding the volatility of global markets. Such friendly help from the outside would introduce a counter economic force, working against empowerment through local self-reliance and cooperation. At a local level, the counter force offers easy gains. At the national level, the counter force leads toward a dependence on foreign markets rather than the development of sustainable local systems, as we have seen with China.

As I see it, the success of the Bolivarian Revolution in the long run will depend on the depth and strength of the cultural transformation and sense of democratic empowerment that is emerging at the base of the movement. Democratic empowerment, the sense of being collectively in charge of your own destiny, is a very powerful cultural force, able to trump what might otherwise appear to be economic advantages. That is why indigenous, sustainable societies have always fought to retain their independence and their self-sufficient ways, despite the carrots and sticks of ‘civilized’ invaders.

Washington’s shift in strategy is surely an attempt to co-opt the radical vision of the Bolivarian Revolution, by lending an overly helpful hand in the pursuit of its immediate objectives. It’s a standard strategy, often used and often successful, whereby economic expediency is gradually transformed into systemic dependency. At the same time, the shift provides a unique opportunity for the cultural revolution represented by Bolivarian socialism to take root and spread. There is hope for an outcome along Bolivarian lines, but the centrifugal forces are also strong. The financial folks generally win their deep games.

Chavez has been using oil revenue to fund the movement’s projects, and now centrifugal market forces (low oil prices) are driving him to invite in new foreign investment. Such engagement with the markets is sensible if a viable, regionally-oriented economy can be developed, without a lingering dependence on the markets and foreign investments. Bolivarian success depends on the movement’s ability to transform  society and economic arrangements in alignment with its agenda of regional self-reliance. 

The centrifugal forces are perhaps most problematic as a barrier to expanding the movement to other countries. Brazil, for example, has entered into a long-term contract to grow sugar cane, to be turned into biofuel for the market created by US government-mandated biofuel content in gasoline. This not only benefits Brazil’s balance of trade, but it also creates a strong constituency among nouveau-riche growers to continue the arrangement. Brazil is following a path of least resistance and developing a systemic dependency on the ongoing market inflows. Its rural constituency is divided among those who would identify with their compatriots in Venezuela, and those who grow sugar cain.