Dear Prime Minister Harper,
I know that you are extremely busy researching that book you plan to write about hockey, but I hope you can spare a few minutes to read this letter and to consider the heartfelt advice that it offers. I was moved to write you when I heard the news that Canada’s foreign policy would soon be shifting to focus more attention on Latin America, and now I see that you have even taken a break from the hockey writing to travel some of the region, visiting Colombia, Chile, Barbados and Haiti. It is high time Ottawa, and people in Canada generally, paid more attention to the fact that there is more than one America. I’m not regurgitating a John Edwards talking point here; I’m talking about the fact that the Americas are in fact a diverse region that stretches from Patagonia at the southern tip of Argentina all the way to Canada’s arctic islands.
Mr. Prime Minister, the best way for you and the rest of us to learn about the exciting developments taking place in Latin America is for you to immediately extend a long overdue invitation for Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez to visit Canada. This guy is arguably the most popular leader down there, and certainly the most influential. It’s high time he came to Ottawa so we can all find out how he does it. So, with respect for your time, and with a nod to high school English teachers everywhere, I will limit myself to presenting the three key reasons why Hugo needs to get an invite from 24 Sussex Drive ASAP.
First and foremost, this Hugo fellow has been in power for over 8 years and he just keeps getting more popular, winning election after election by ever-wider margins. In December 1998, Chavez was elected with 56% of the vote; last December, he was re-elected with 63% despite implementing all sorts of socialistic policies and – believe it or not – openly advocating for something he’s calling “socialism of the 21st century”. He’s also easily survived a recall referendum, won another one to adopt a new Constitution (something Canada’s had so much trouble getting consensus on) and even managed to rename the country, making it the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
I admit that your electoral job in Canada is harder, in part because you have to convince the majority that they should support you despite your ideology and policies that cater to a small minority of corporate interests. Chavez does have the unfair advantage of being able to “buy votes” by massively increasing spending on social programs, health and education for the country’s poor majority. Nevertheless, surely “Canada’s new (minority) government” can learn something from Chavez’s popularity with the voters, lest you give way to a new “new government” in Ottawa.
Secondly, you and Hugo, despite decidedly different relationships with President Bush, have in common the fact that your countries are key suppliers of energy to the United States. Canada and Venezuela have the biggest energy reserves this side of Russia and the Middle East, and the U.S. economy couldn’t function without this steady supply of oil, hydropower and natural gas. The reserves that Chavez controls are a bit like Canada’s tar sands – enormous and “dirty,” or very energy-intensive to extract.
Canada could potentially learn something from Venezuela’s oil politics, too. Since Chavez has been in power, he has been steadily increasing sovereign control of oil revenues and has chipped away at foreign oil companies’ profits in order to fuel all that aforementioned social spending. Canada, in contrast, has imposed precious few conditions on tar sands investors and seems only too willing to ensure the US government that this source of energy will be theirs for the wasting, no strings attached. Chavez has been attaching huge strings to the more than 1 million barrels of oil that Venezuela provides to the US everyday, for instance threatening to cut off the entire supply indefinitely should he be assassinated by a disciple of Pat Robertson or anyone else.
Finally, Chavez could give Canada some lessons on foreign policy. You are always talking about how you want Canada to be a factor on the world stage and to be respected by the international community. Venezuela has in recent years become a major factor in international affairs, and won respect by providing real humanitarian aid. While Canada can’t even live up to its aid pledge of .7% of GDP, Chavez has been spreading the wealth around his region and even North America. For instance, through its subsidiary Citgo, Venezuela has been providing cheap heating oil to poor and disadvantaged Americans; in cooperation with the Cuban government, Venezuela has been helping fund free eye operations for thousands of Latin Americans; they have also been providing cheap oil to impoverished and long exploited regional allies like Nicaragua and Haiti; and Venezuela has even begun building an alternative to predatory World Bank policies with the “Bank of the South.”
Also on the world scene, Chavez has won friends and influenced many people in the Arab World, in the Middle East and Central Asia by vocally opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by loudly condemning Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon last summer. Canada’s maple leaf has been, in contrast, painted increasingly blood red by your government’s shamelessly “un-measured” backing of Israeli occupation and by your hawkish rhetoric about the counter-insurgency in Kandahar. You should have seen the reception the kids of Port-au-Prince gave this guy when he visited Haiti – it was like he was bringing the Stanley Cup to a high school in Kingston! In sharp contrast, most Haitians view Canada as being guilty of an old-style coup against their elected president back in 2004. When you are in Haiti, perhaps you could visit the impoverished residents of Cité-Soleil or another besieged slum and find out from the people themselves what they think of recent Canadian foreign policy.
So there you have it, Steve, the case for inviting Hugo Chavez to Canada. In lieu of an official state invite, some determined members of “civil society” or other pesky activists in Canada might decide to organize an unofficial “people’s visit” by Mr. Chavez. This happened in Great Britain, when opponents of your good friend and foreign policy co-thinker, Tony Blair, hosted Chavez in London last year. The Venezuelan leader rode the huge wave of anti-war sentiment in England and was warmly received by the Mayor of London, among others.
Whether it gets done through official channels or not, it’s high time to bring the Bolivarian Revolution, in the person of its elected leader, to Canada for all of us to learn from their experiences.
Derrick O’Keefe Vancouver, British Columbia