The Colombian oligarchy is obsessed with the supposed “Venezuelan threat”. Not content with making unfounded allegations of Venezuelan support for the FARC and ELN, or accusing the Venezuelan military of border violations (when the Colombians are often the guilty party), they are now pressing for intervention in the neighbouring Republic by the Organisation of American States (OAS) through the application of its “Democratic Charter”.
The most rancid sectors of the oligarchy
The Charter commits member states to take action against governments that come to power by military coup or which violate democratic norms. In mid-April the Colombian Senate adopted a motion proposed by Conservative Senator Enrique Gómez Hurtado calling for application of the Charter against the Venezuelan Government of President Hugo Chávez. In this he was echoing the desires of Washington which supported the abortive coup against Chávez two years ago, but the Bush administration knows that such a move would at present encounter serious opposition from several Latin American countries such as Brazil and Argentina.
In the circumstances even Uribe’s Government felt obliged to disown the Colombian Senate’s initiative, declaring that Colombia had no intention of making such a proposal. Moreover the Lower House of the Colombian Parliament approved a motion presented by Gustavo Petro of the Polo Democrático condemning the Senate’s attempt to meddle in Venezuelan affairs.
In Venezuela President Chávez rejected the motion as a product of “the most rancid sectors of the Colombian oligarchy” and added that if the Democratic Charter were to be applied to any country, the USA would be a good place to start. The fact of the matter is that Venezuela today is far more democratic than Colombia, and Chávez’ Bolivarian Revolution is seen as a threat in Bogotá and Washington not because of any alleged violation of OAS norms but because it offers hope of social justice and a progressive alternative to neo-liberalism.
The Second International Solidarity Meeting
From 13-15 April delegates gathered in Caracas for the Second International Meeting in Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution, to celebrate the second anniversary of the popular and military uprising of 13 April 2002 which defeated the short-lived reactionary dictatorship installed 48 hours earlier. As the Venezuelans say now, “Every 11th has its 13th!” - every fascist coup will be smashed by the people. This unprecedented event has been conveniently forgotten by the international media, but its significance could scarcely be greater.
Since the defeat of the coup, and more especially since the defeat of a second attempted coup - the opposition paro, or strike/lockout of December 2002-February 2003, which attempted to paralyse the economy by shutting down big business including the vital oil industry - the transformation of Venezuela has gone into fast forward. Those who dismissed the Bolivarian revolution as demagogy or mere reformism should take another look: this is the most profound transformation in Latin America since the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua.
Land reform becomes a reality
Those of us who stayed on in Venezuela after the conclusion of the Solidarity Meeting in Caracas were taken into the interior to see what the Bolivarian process is doing for those outside the capital. In the llanos, the vast tropical plains extending down to the River Orinoco and across into the similar region of Colombia, “Land and Freedom” - Tierra y Libertad, the classic slogan of Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican revolution - is becoming a reality for thousands of landless labourers.
We visited new agricultural cooperatives where the enthusiasm of the members was as contagious as the commitment of public officials and technicians was impressive. In Sabaneta, Barinas State (Chávez’ home district), Cuban technicians are helping to create a state-of-the-art sugar mill and develop irrigation works with ecologically sustainable techniques to produce sugar, rice and other crops.
But agrarian reform is not limited to the llanos: we were flown by helicopter into the mountains of Lara State, where farming cooperatives produce cheese, vegetables, strawberries and other temperate fruits; and in a tropical area near the coast east of Caracas we visited another new mixed-farming cooperative in Chaguaramal, Miranda State. So far this cooperative has incorporated 144 families, some of them from urban areas, reflecting the Government’s aim of re-settling the countryside, encouraging the people to leave congested urban slums and restore the regional balance of the country’s development as well as promoting agricultural self-sufficiency in a country which imports 70% of its food.
Although decreed in November 2001, Chávez’ Land Law (Ley de Tierras) could not be implemented in practice until after the opposition’s two great defeats of the coup and the paro. But from 6 February 2003 to the end of December over 2,262,000 hectares (about 5.6 million acres) were distributed to over 116,000 families, figures which continue to rise rapidly.
All this has been achieved in the face of vicious landlord hostility: in five years of Chávez’ Government 84 peasants and land reform technicians have been murdered by sicarios, mainly in opposition-controlled States. The violence is not on a Colombian scale since the military defends the revolutionary process and prevents the organisation of large-scale paramilitary units, but the escuálido (“squalid”) opposition remains a threat and will stop at nothing.
Education, health and a new economic model
In the past year education, health and housing programmes have also taken off. To communicate a sense of urgency and also to bypass bureaucracy, most of these programmes have been labelled “Missions”: the Robinson Mission (for literacy), the Ribas Mission (to incorporate the poor into secondary education), the Sucre Mission (for access to higher education), the Barrio Adentro (“Into the Neighbourhoods”) Mission (health care), etc. The Robinson Mission has already taught 1.2 million adults to read and write, and the Barrio Adentro Mission, with the help of Cuban doctors and nurses, has established thousands of clinics in shanty towns and remote rural communities, providing basic health care for thousands of Venezuelans who previously could not afford it.
Most important, the Vuelvan Caras Mission - a term virtually impossible to translate - connects all the other missions and programmes in a project to transform the nation’s economic, social and cultural structures by promoting “poles of endogenous development” using local resources, sustainable techniques and cooperative organisation, with public support and investment derived from oil revenue. This is also the model for the ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which Venezuela is proposing in place of the ALCA, the US-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Add to all this the fact that the IMF itself recently predicted that Venezuela would lead the Western Hemisphere with 8.8% GNP growth in 2004, and it is easy to see why Bogotá and Washington are worried. They and their mouthpieces in the corporate media continue to insist on the hypothesis of a recall referendum against Chávez, but it seems likely that the opposition did not collect enough valid signatures for a referendum. Towards the end of May opposition supporters will have the chance to confirm doubtful signatures, and if they have enough then there will be a referendum in August (which Chávez would probably win anyway). But the real issue is far more important than technical details of referendum procedure: it is the emergence of a new socio-economic model right next door to Washington’s favoured Colombian client.
David Raby is research fellow at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Latin American Studies.
This article was previously published in the Colombia Solidarity Campaign Bulletin.