CARACAS, Venezuela — To get a good sense of America in the world, it helps to look from the outside in. This week, I traveled to Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez and address the National Assembly. Here’s how America appears to many of its neighbors to the South.
Chavez has been elected twice by large majorities. He is a populist champion of the poor in Venezuela. Riding the oil boom — Venezuela sits on the largest oil reserves of any nation in the hemisphere — he’s seeking to gain a higher percentage of oil profits for his country. He is an ardent nationalist, challenging what he considers U.S. domination of the hemisphere. He has even embraced Fidel Castro, who has made U.S. presidents froth for over 45 years.
Chavez’s brash independence irritates the Bush administration. Don Rumsfeld recently traveled through Latin America proclaiming Chavez a threat to stability, suggesting that he was working to destabilize Bolivia. The defense secretary offered no evidence for the charge. Last week on TV, Pat Robertson, the zealous right-wing minister who is a key political ally of President Bush, said if Rumsfeld is right, the United States should “assassinate” Chavez, which would be cheaper than waging another $200 billion war to overthrow him, as in the Iraq fiasco.
Robertson’s chilling words echoed across the world. Bush did not rebuke him. The FCC, so quick to react to a bared breast in a Super Bowl halftime, did not open an investigation. Rumsfeld dismissed Robertson’s statement, noting that assassination is against the law. Robertson later apologized, sort of, suggesting that kidnapping would do just as well as murder.
Most Americans would dismiss these words as the loony ravings of a right-wing zealot. But consider how this looks from Caracas, or Santiago, or Managua. The Bush administration denounces Chavez as a threat to stability. The same administration proclaims it will act preemptively with military force, covertly or overtly, to eliminate potential threats “before they have formed,” in Bush’s words. It has unleashed the CIA, used high-tech weaponry to “take out” suspected terrorists, and demonstrated, in Guantanamo and elsewhere, that its agents are prepared to trample laws and treaties.
Throughout the hemisphere, decades of U.S. intervention — the gunboat “diplomacy” of the early 20th century, the CIA’s notorious wars against elected presidents in Guatemala, Chile and Nicaragua, the assassination plots against Castro — ensure Robertson and Rumsfeld’s words are taken very seriously.
In Venezuela, the Bush administration is already seen as implicated in the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. The Bush White House rushed to recognize the coup leaders one day after they announced Chavez had been deposed, only to discover that the Venezuelan people would defend the democracy that the U.S. administration scorned. Prudence alone makes Chavez take the threat of the president’s close political ally very seriously.
America cannot change its history in the hemisphere nor erase the well-founded suspicions that history creates. But it can change the future. Venezuela is our neighbor and should be our friend. Chavez is elected by his people. Venezuela is our fourth-largest source of crude oil. It borders on Colombia and is vital to the ongoing war on drugs.
We need to move from a big stick to a good neighbor policy. Over the past two decades, democracy has spread across Latin America, but so have poverty and inequality. The policies that we’ve enforced — the “Washington consensus” — have failed to work for most poor and working people in the region. Bolivia is unstable not because of Chavez, but because of the policies pursued by Washington and the International Monetary Fund.
Chavez announced a proposal to provide low-cost heating oil to poor communities, schools and hospitals in the United States. With oil prices reaching $70 a barrel, and gas prices exceeding $3 a gallon, and winter on the horizon, this is a plan that I and the whole world can endure.
Americans have to choose — assassination or engagement, the big stick or the good neighbor. Too many people looking at America from the outside think that choice has already been made the wrong way. It is up to us to prove them wrong.