When Hugo Chavez was elected President in 1998, the Clinton administration maintained a “wait and see” policy. Venezuela had been a faithful servant to US interests throughout the twentieth century, and despite the rhetoric of revolution spoken by President Chavez, few in Washington believed changed was imminent.
But after Chavez followed through on his first and principal campaign promise, to initiate a Constitutional Assembly and redraft the nation’s magna carta, everything began to change.
The new Constitution was written and ratified by the people of Venezuela, in an extraordinary demonstration of participatory democracy. Throughout the nation in early 1999, all Venezuelans were invited to aid in the creation of what would become one of the most advanced constitutions in the world in the area of human rights. The draft text of 350 articles, which included a chapter dedicated to indigenous peoples’ rights, along with the rights to housing, healthcare, education, nutrition, work, fair wages, equality, recreation, culture, and a redistribution of the oil industry production and profit, was ratified by national referendum towards the end of 1999 by more than 70% of voters.
Elections were immediately convened under the new constitutional structure, and Chavez won again with an even larger majority, around 56%. Once in office in 2000, laws were implemented to guarantee the new rights accorded in the Constitution, and interests were affected. Venezuela assumed the presidency of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), with oil at approximately $7 USD a barrel. Quickly, under Venezuela’s leadership, which sought to benefit oil producing nations and not those supplied, oil rose to more than $25 USD a barrel. Washington was uneasy with these changes, but still was « waiting to see » how far the changes would go.
CHANGES WASHINGTON DISAPPROVED
In 2001, the Bolivarian Revolution proposed by President Chavez began to take form. The oil industry was in the process of being restructured, hydrocarbons laws were passed that would allow for a redistribution of oil profits and Chavez was recuperating an industry – nationalized in 1976 –