I don't usuallytake the advice of rightwingers. But I did this time. After receivinginflamed email messages from dozens of angry rightists that I shouldget the hell out of the USA and go to Venezuela, I accepted theirchallenge and flew to Caracas.
"Would you like me to start a fund to ship your ass down there, Comrade Cohen?"
What had provoked the often-abusive emailers was my 2005 Internet column urging U.S. residents to buy their gasoline at Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company. Icalled for a Citgo BUY-cott, to protest Bush's interventionist foreignpolicy while supporting innovative anti-poverty programs in Venezuela. (Last winter, Citgo started a program that provided discounted home-heating oil to low-income families in the U.S.)
"Hey moron, if you hate America so much and love Venezuela, why don't you go there?"
I'mglad I listened to the conservative chorus. In late June, I headed toVenezuela with a fact-finding delegation sponsored by the respectedU.S. human rights group, Witness for Peace. The grueling trip coveredmuch ground and all sides of Venezuela's social/political landscape. Itis a complex country, headed by sometimes volatile President HugoChavez, a leftist and harsh Bush critic who was first elected in 1998.
Assoon as I returned home, I headed to the nearest Citgo to fill up mytank -- more committed than ever to send a few dollars towardVenezuela's poor.
"You, sir, are as un-American as they come."
Fordecades, Venezuela's vast oil wealth had been squandered and hoarded byits light-skinned elite, while most Venezuelans -- largely ofindigenous, African and mixed descent -- lived in dire poverty. Today,oil revenue from Citgo and elsewhere is funneled into social programs(called "missions") to benefit the country's poor majority. They'rereminiscent of FDR's New Deal programs. . .born of our economic bust.But Venezuela's missions are fueled by a boom -- a boom in oil pricesthat is likely to persist for years.
"Because of Chavez, communism is thriving in South America."
Fromwhat I could see, capitalism is thriving. Foreign oil interestscontinue to profit handsomely from Venezuelan petrol, but they now paya fairer share of taxes and royalties. So do the 80 McDonald'srestaurants in Venezuela, which were briefly shut down last year overalleged tax cheating.
Multinationalcompanies and the old elite are doing fine in today's Venezuela. Sowell that some Venezuelan leftists denounce Chavez -- despite his talkof building "21st century socialism" -- as a tool of corporateimperialism.
Likeother oil-exporting countries, Venezuela in the past allowed itsdomestic productive economy to atrophy. Besides oil, it produced little-- with food largely imported. Today, people in poor areas areorganizing themselves into productive and agricultural co-ops,supported by low-interest government loans. We visited a federal bankthat underwrites women-run businesses nationwide.
Myguess is that if Chavez succeeds in Venezuela -- a big "if" in acountry of endemic corruption, poverty and crime, in the backyard ofthe U.S. superpower -- its economic system will end up looking morelike Sweden than Cuba.
What'snot debatable is that the poor have found hope in the Chavezadministration -- which is why he's perhaps the most popular presidentin our hemisphere. So popular that Chavez critics in the U.S.government and Venezuelan opposition concede that they won't be able todefeat him in December when he seeks reelection.
"The trouble with all you liberals is that you're anti-American and hate democracy."
Participationin democracy is booming in Venezuela under Chavez. That's partly due topolarization, but also because so many poor people feel empoweredenough for the first time to get active in politics. A massive 2005Latinobarometro poll conducted in 18 Latin American countries showedthat Venezuelans are among the top in preference for democracy over allother forms of government, in satisfaction with how their democracy isfunctioning, and in belief that their country is "totally democratic."
"The oil money never gets to the poor. . . . You must have been paid by Chavez to write what you wrote."
AcrossVenezuela, it's hard to miss the new investment in public education.Schools are being upgraded in urban and rural areas and are required tooffer free breakfasts and lunches, arts, music and after-schoolactivities. Unlike the U.S., these are well-funded mandates. Illiteracyhas been virtually wiped out, according to UNESCO, thanks to adulteducation that has penetrated the poorest neighborhoods.
Inpoor communities, federally-subsidized stores called "mercals" sellfood at half the market price. In the capital of Caracas, thousands ofgovernment-funded soup kitchens offer free lunches every weekday to theindigent; our delegation was headquartered in a church that served 150free lunches per day. Across the country, new housing is being built toreplace shantytown "ranchos" that so many Venezuelans live in.
Thousandsof free ("Barrio Adentro") medical clinics have been built insideneighborhoods that never had doctors before -- so many clinics that youcan spot them from the highway. These are staffed largely by doctorsfrom Cuba; in return, Cuba receives Venezuelan oil. When we asked acommunity leader how local residents reacted to the Cuban doctors, heexplained that most Venezuelan doctors won't serve in poor barrios:"People in our community don't care whether the doctors are French,German, Canadian, Mexican or Cuban -- as long as they're here to help."
"Go to Venezuela and kiss up to the anti-American dictator."
IfVenezuela is a dictatorship, it must be the first in world history inwhich the opposition controls most of the media. And the first in whichdemonstrations occur regularly outside the presidential palace(organized by various groups, especially low-income activistscomplaining about broken promises and government inefficiency).
Dissentis alive and well in Venezuela. Any casual viewer can see anti-Chavezcriticism all over TV, the country's dominant medium and largely in thehands of conservative business interests. The opposition used its poweron TV to support a short-lived military coup in 2002 (strike 1), anemployers' oil lockout in 2002-3 (strike 2) and a failed recallelection in 2004 (strike 3). Chavez won nearly 60% in the recall vote-- which was monitored closely by international observers.
Effortsto bring down Chavez -- through democratic and undemocratic means --have been supported by the Bush administration. Which makes it ironicthat the American Family Association, a U.S. religious ultra-rightgroup, has organized a Citgo boycott on the basis of its Internet hoax:"Venezuela Dictator Vows to Bring Down U.S. Government." The headlinetends to reverse reality; Chavez has made no such vow. But AFA truebelievers have targeted my email inbox for months with the hoax.
"Try Jesus. If you don't like Him, the devil will always take you back.. . . .What terrorist group are you affiliated with?"
If youthink the U.S. is politically polarized, you haven't been to Venezuela.Clinton's impeachment by the religious right over sex is child's playcompared to what's gone on in Venezuela, where Chavez has survivednear-death experiences at the hands of a conservative opposition thathas never accepted his presidency.
ColumnistPaul Krugman talks of a "New Class War" in our country. In Venezuela,it's old-fashioned class war. Political and media confrontation betweenChavez and the opposition is vicious, personal and bare-knuckled. Whileindependent human rights monitors in Venezuela complain about isolatedcases of government intimidation of opposition figures and journalists,they scoff at claims that democracy is in jeopardy or that dictatorshipis coming.
Today,Chavez is popular (his approval ratings dwarf Bush's), rambunctious inwhipping up his base against both domestic opponents and Bush, andprone to hyperbole in his hours of extemporaneous speaking each day. Hehas waged a war of words against U.S. Empire and Bush, whom he calls"Mr. Danger." But that's polite in light of Secretary of DefenseRumsfeld having compared Chavez to Adolph Hitler. Or Rev. Pat Robertsonhaving called for Chavez to be assassinated.
"Youcan write your articles about how great he [Chavez] is, but I know, aswell as other true Americans, that he is not a good man and he doesneed to be taken out of power as soon as possible."
To me,the issue is less about Chavez than about the social initiatives hisgovernment has unleashed. When I first wrote about Venezuela 14 monthsago, I urged a simple economic action: filling up at Citgo so that ourmoney at the pump helps Venezuela's poor instead of Middle Eastoiligarchs. That remains a good idea.
Nowadays,I also urge political action: that we contact Congress to demand thatthe U.S. stay out of Venezuela's political contest. That's up toVenezuelans to decide. Not us. The U.S. should stop its efforts to backthe conservative opposition and cease all ("National Endowment forDemocracy") funding of Venezuelan groups.
Andfinally, I want to join my rightwing critics in one recommendation: Goto Venezuela. If you can arrange it, examine the social transformationsfor yourself. Study Spanish there. See the decades of poverty, neglectand corruption that led to the election of Hugo Chavez -- and whetherhis government is improving things.
There'san added bonus for anyone who can get down there: gasoline at 18 centsper gallon. Expect to hear Venezuelans complaining that the price istoo high.
JeffCohen is a writer, lecturer and media critic who founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986. His latest book, "CableNews Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media," will be released in September, 2006, and can bepre-ordered at www.jeffcohen.org