Sometimes you hear a stray sentence on the news that makes you
realise you have been lied to. Deliberately lied to; systematically
lied to; lied to for a purpose. If you listened closely over the past
few days, you could have heard one such sentence passing in the
night-time of news.
Ingrid Betancourt emerged after six-and-a-half years – sunken and
shrivelled but radiant with courage – one of the first people she
thanked was Hugo Chavez. What? If you follow the news coverage, you
have been told that the Venezuelan President supports the Farc thugs
who have been holding her hostage. He paid them $300m to keep killing
and to buy uranium for a dirty bomb, in a rare break from dismantling
democracy at home and dealing drugs. So how can this moment of
dissonance be explained?
Yes: you have been lied to – about one
of the most exciting and original experiments in economic
redistribution and direct democracy anywhere on earth. And the reason
is crude: crude oil. The ability of democracy and freedom to spread to
poor countries may depend on whether we can unscramble these propaganda
Venezuela sits on one of the biggest pools of oil left
anywhere. If you find yourself in this position, the rich governments
of the world – the US and EU – ask one thing of you: pump the petrol
and the profits our way, using our corporations. If you do that, we
will whisk you up the Mall in a golden carriage, no matter what. The
"King" of Saudi Arabia oversees a torturing tyranny where half the
population – women – are placed under house arrest, and jihadis are
pumped out by the dozen to attack us. It doesn't matter. He gives us
the oil, so we hold his hand and whisper sweet crude-nothings in his
It has always been the same with Venezuela – until now.
Back in 1908, the US government set up its ideal Venezuelan regime: a
dictator who handed the oil over fast and so freely that he didn't even
bother to keep receipts, never mind ask for a cut. But in 1998 the
Venezuelan people finally said "enough". They elected Hugo Chavez. The
President followed their democratic demands: he increased the share of
oil profits taken by the state from a pitiful one per cent to 33 per
cent. He used the money to build hospitals and schools and subsidised
supermarkets in the tin-and-mud shanty towns where he grew up, and
where most of his countrymen still live.
I can take you to any
random barrio in the high hills that ring Caracas and show you the
results. You will meet women like Francisca Moreno, a gap-toothed
76-year-old granny I found sitting in a tin shack, at the end of a long
path across the mud made out of broken wooden planks. From her doorway
she looked down on the shining white marble of Caracas's rich district.
"I went blind 15 years ago because of cataracts," she explained, and in
the old Venezuela people like her didn't see doctors. "I am poor," she
said, "so that was that." But she voted for Chavez. A free clinic
appeared two years later in her barrio, and she was taken soon after
for an operation that restored her sight. "Once I was blind, but now I
see!" she said, laughing.
In 2003, two distinguished Wall Street
consulting firms conducted the most detailed study so far of economic
change under Chavez. They found that the poorest half of the country
have seen their incomes soar by 130 per cent after inflation. Today,
there are 19,571 primary care doctors – an increase by a factor of 10.
When Chavez came to power, just 35 per cent of Venezuelans told
Latinobarometro, the Gallup of Latin America, they were happy with how
their democracy worked. Today it is 59 per cent, the second-highest in
For the rich world's governments – and especially
for the oil companies, who pay for their political campaigns – this
throws up a serious problem. We are addicted to oil. We need it. We
crave it. And we want it on our terms. The last time I saw Chavez, he
told me he would like to sell oil differently in the future: while poor
countries should get it for $10 a barrel, rich countries should pay
much more – perhaps towards $200. And he has said that if the rich
countries keep intimidating the rest he will shift to selling to China
instead. Start the sweating. But Western governments cannot simply say:
"We want the oil, our corporations need the profits, so let's smash the
elected leaders standing in our way." They know ordinary Americans and
Europeans would gag.
So they had to invent lies. They come in
waves, each one swelling as the last crashes into incredulity. First
they announced Chavez was a dictator. This ignored that he came to
power in a totally free and open election, the Venezuelan press remains
uncensored and in total opposition to him, and he has just accepted
losing a referendum to extend his term and will stand down in 2013.
that tactic failed, the oil industry and the politicians they lubricate
shifted strategy. They announced that Chavez was a supporter of
Terrorism (it definitely has a capital T). The Farc is a Colombian
guerrilla group that started in the 1960s as a peasant defence network,
but soon the pigs began to look like farmers and they became a foul,
kidnapping mafia. Where is the evidence Chavez funded them?
1 March, the Colombian government invaded Ecuador and blew up a Farc
training camp. A few hours later, it announced it had found a pristine
laptop in the rubble, and had already rummaged through the 39.5 million
pages of Microsoft Word documents it contained to find cast-iron
"proof" that Chavez was backing the Farc. Ingrid's sister, Astrid
Betancourt, says it is plainly fake. The camp had been totally burned
to pieces and the computers had clearly, she says, been "in the hands
of the Colombian government for a very long time". Far from fuelling
the guerrillas, Chavez has repeatedly pleaded with the Farc to disarm.
He managed to negotiate the release of two high-profile hostages –
hence Betancourt's swift thanks. He said: "The time of guns has passed.
Guerilla warfare is history."
So what now? Now they claim he is
a drug dealer, he funds Hezbollah, he is insane. Sometimes they even
stumble on some of the real non-fiction reasons to criticise Chavez and
use them as propaganda tools. (See our Open House blog later today for
a discussion of this). As the world's oil supplies dry up, the desire
to control Venezuela's pools will only increase. The US government is
already funding separatist movements in Zulia province, along the
border with Colombia, where Venezuela's largest oilfields lie. They
hope they can break away this whiter-skinned, anti-Chavez province and
then drink deep of the petrol there.
Until we break our
addiction to oil, our governments will always try to snatch
petro-profits away from women like Francisca Moreno. And we – oil
addicts all – will be tempted to ignore the strange, dissonant
sentences we sometimes hear on the news and lie, blissed-out, in the