IT WAS YET ANOTHER public relations coup for Venezuela: Vila Isabel, the samba club sponsored mainly by the Venezuelan government, won the parade competition in Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval last week. A float with a giant likeness of Simon Bolivar, combined with thousands of ornately costumed participants parading down the avenue, trumpeted the winning theme: Latin American unity.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just last month called for "a united front" against Venezuela, continuing a long-term policy of trying to isolate the country. But Washington has been spitting into the wind. Venezuela's influence in the hemisphere has continued to rise while the U.S. has succeeded only in isolating itself more than at any time in at least half a century. It might be worth asking why.
First, Venezuela is a democracy — despite the best efforts of the Bush team to use President Hugo Chavez's close relations with Cuba's Fidel Castro as evidence to the contrary. Its elections are transparent and have been certified by observers from the Organization of American States, the Carter Center and the European Union. Freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly and of association prevail, at least as compared with the rest of the hemisphere.
In fact, most of the media remains controlled by the opposition, which attacks the government endlessly on all the major TV channels. It is the most vigorous and partisan opposition media in the hemisphere, one that has not been censored under Chavez.
Like all of Latin America, Venezuela has governance problems: a weak state, limited rule of law, corruption and incompetent government. But no reputable human rights organization has alleged that Venezuela under Chavez has deteriorated with regard to civil liberties, human rights or democracy, as compared with prior governments. Nor does the country compare unfavorably on these criteria with its neighbors in the region. In Peru, the government has shut down opposition TV stations; in Colombia, union organizers are murdered with impunity.
From a Latin American point of view, Venezuelans should have the right to choose their own president — even one who sometimes insults the American president — without interference from the United States. And Chavez's anger at Washington, from Latin Americans' point of view, appears justified. U.S. government documents released under our Freedom of Information Act indicate that Washington not only supported but was involved in the military coup that temporarily overthrew Venezuela's elected government in April 2002. Here in Washington, there is a "Monty Python" attitude toward the coup: "Let's not argue about who killed who." But in Latin America, a military coup against a democratically elected government is still considered a serious crime. To top it off, Washington continued to finance efforts to recall Chavez and, having failed miserably, still regularly presents him as a threat to democracy in the region.
With oil at nearly $60 a barrel, Venezuela has used its windfall proceeds to win friends in the hemisphere, providing low-cost financing for oil to Caribbean nations. When Argentina needed loans so that it could say goodbye to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela committed $2.4 billion. Venezuela bought $300 million in bonds from Ecuador. Washington has historically had enormous influence over economic policy in Latin America through its control over the major sources of credit, including the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Venezuela's role as a new "lender of last resort" has reduced that influence.
Chavez's opposition to the "Washington consensus" on economic policy has fallen on sympathetic ears in a region that — since 1980 — has suffered its worst long-term economic failure in a century. Over the last 25 years, income per person in Latin America has grown by a meager 10%, according to the IMF. This compares with 82% from 1960 to 1980, before most of Washington's economic reforms were adopted. And Venezuela's government has kept its promise to share the oil wealth with the poor. The majority of the country now has access to free healthcare and subsidized food, and education spending has increased substantially.
Meanwhile in the U.S., while Vila Isabel was winning the Rio Carnaval, Connecticut became the eighth American state to participate in the program by which Citgo Petroleum Corp. provides discounted heating oil for poor people. Citgo is owned by the Venezuelan government. In the contest for the hearts and minds of the hemisphere, Venezuela is clearly winning.