Mayor of London Says Hands Off Venezuela

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, accused the Bush administration in the United States of trying undermine democracy in Venezuela. Mr Livingstone points out that, since the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998, Venezuela has held more free and fair elections and referendums than any other country in the world.

By Ken Livingstone - Morning Star
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United States Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, recently compared Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, to Adolf Hitler. His thinly veiled suggestion was that, having been legally elected, President Chavez is now supposedly a threat to democracy in Venezuela.

In reality, Venezuela today is one of the most democratic countries in the entire world. Since President Chavez was first elected, with 56.2 per cent of the vote, at the end of 1998, there have been at least eight national votes in Venezuela.

These were:

* A national referendum in April 1999 on whether to convene a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution - won by Chavez supporters.
* The election of the constituent assembly to draft a new constitution in July 1999 - Chavez supporters won 95 per cent of the seats.
* The referendum on whether to adopt the new constitution in December 1999 - won by Chavez supporters with 71.9 per cent of the vote.
* A second presidential election in July 2000 under the new constitution - won by Hugo Chavez with an increased majority of 59.76 per cent of the vote.
* Election of the national assembly under the constitution in July 2000 - Chavez supporters won a big majority of the seats.
* A national referendum in August 2004 on whether or not to remove Chavez from  power - won by President Chavez with 59.3 per cent of the vote.
* Local and regional elections throughout the country in October 2005 - Chavez supporters won control of 80 per cent of local authorities and 20 out of 22 provincial governments.
* National Assembly elections in December 2005 - these were boycotted by the opposition and so Chavez supporters won every single seat.

International observers confirmed that each of these votes was conducted fairly and democratically. Far from Chavez reducing democracy, it is unlikely that any country in the world has seen so many free and fair elections and votes in such a short space of time.

The problem George Bush's administration has with Venezuela has nothing to do with any supposed reduction in democracy. On the contrary, Bush's problem is that the outcome of Venezuela's democratic process has been to empower the Venezuelan people to start to take control of their country's resources in order to improve the quality of life for the great majority of the population.

For decades the beneficiaries of the country's enormous oil wealth were the United States and a very narrow section of the Venezuelan society while two thirds of the population lived below the poverty line - less than $2 a day in 1995. Now for the first time in the country's history, through the government of President Chavez the poorest people in Venezuela have started to take control.

In a series of vast social programmes, funded by oil revenues, Chavez has shown what could have been done. Illiteracy has been eliminated, free health care has been provided to 7.5 million people for the first time, thousands of Cuban doctors are working in the slums previously deprived of virtually all public services, hundreds of thousands of people who did not complete primary, secondary or university education are being given the chance to do so, under-cultivated land is being redistributed, people in the shanty-towns are being given title to their homes, the prices of basic foods are being controlled and help is being given to countries throughout the Caribbean with cheaper oil and free eye treatment programmes.

Instead of welcoming these social advances, the Bush administration has been deeply involved in a series of attempts to overturn the democratic process in Venezuela. Each of these has backfired spectacularly.

In April 2002, an attempted coup failed when the plotters lost control of the armed forces amid gigantic mobilisations in support of Chavez. In consequence, at the present time supporters of the US have lost control of the army.

In December 2002 and early 2003, a lock-out organised by the management of the oil industry did enormous damage to Venezuela's economy, but finally collapsed as the entire top management was sacked for being absent from their posts beyond the period allowed for in law. As a result, the oil industry came under the direct control of the government, and its revenues were redeployed to fund the country's social programmes.

In August 2004, the opposition got enough signatures to force a referendum on removing Chavez from office. However, despite opposition control of all of the private broadcasting media, the referendum was roundly defeated. Since then nearly every elected office in the country has been won by Chavez supporters.

The great majority of the people of Venezuela continue to live in very harsh conditions but it is hugely encouraging to see, at the start of the 21st century, a government committed to the democratic and social transformation of one of the most important countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

They should be allowed to carry out the democratically expressed wishes of their people without further interference from George Bush's administration. London will certainly be extending the hand of friendship to Caracas, Venezuela's capital city, and we will make clear our support for their right to determine their own future.

Morning Star