Venezuela and Saudi Arabia: A Tale of Two Countries

The U.S. avoids criticzicing Saudi Arabia in spite of its autocratic government and Al Qaeda links, at the same time that attacks Venezuela, the most closely watched electoral democracy in the Western Hemisphere

This is a tale of two countries.

The first is Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist theocracy that, according to the U.S. State Department, whips and beheads political dissidents; doesn’t allow women to vote; squashes political protest; amputates the hands of thieves; regularly censors the press; and has been linked by numerous reports to the Al Qaeda terrorist network that was behind the 9/11 attacks.

The second is Venezuela, a republican democracy where elections are hotly contested and closely scrutinized by international observers; political rallies regularly draw hundreds of thousands of partisans into the street; an independent press routinely criticizes top government officials; and a presidential recall referendum will take place on August 15.

Both are major oil exporters to the United States. One is being singled out for criticism and the other is being shielded from it by the Bush administration. Can you guess which is which?

In the nearly three years since the 9/11, attacks the Bush administration has been criticized for failing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the support provided by wealthy Saudi families to Al Qaeda and madrassas — the schools that train Saudi youth to hate America.

During that same period, the Bush administration stepped up its verbal attacks on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Moreover, the Bush administration’s involvement in removing democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti earlier this year heightened fears in Venezuela that President Bush will try to intervene in Venezuela — after all, the Bush administration was the only government in the hemisphere that approved of the 2002 coup.

Making matters worse, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) — a group funded by the U.S. Congress — has financed Venezuelan opposition groups, including some who participated in the April 2002 coup, to recall President Chavez. This is a potential violation of Venezuela’s election laws and the NED’s own charter. Regardless, it is illegal in the U.S. for political candidates to accept money from foreign governments and we should abide by the same standard in other countries.

Though Venezuela continues to cooperate with the U.S. military on anti-drug and anti-terrorist operations, and is making business deals with multinational corporations from Chevron-Texaco and ExxonMobil to Ford, the Bush administration still wants Chavez out.

By way of contrast, the Saudi royal family spends millions every year on lobbyists and public relations specialists to court presidents and members of Congress. It has an especially cozy relationship with the Bush family. According to Bob Woodward’s new book, Plan of Attack, the Saudi government promised President Bush it would press OPEC to increase production quotas and lower the cost of oil before the November elections in the United States‹a goal it has partially achieved.

President Chavez hasn’t helped his relationship with the United States by making fiery anti-imperialist speeches and insulting President Bush. But Venezuela is no Saudi Arabia. By mobilizing millions of poor Venezuelans to actively participate in politics for the first time, Chavez’s presidency is in fact the result of a greatly revitalized democracy.

For nearly half a century, Venezuela was governed by two parties that took turns controlling the federal government. Corruption and cronyism were rampant. Tapping into widespread discontent, Chavez was elected by landslide majorities in multi-party elections in both 1998 and 2000 by running on a platform of more, not less, democracy.

In 1999, after a year-long constitutional assembly, a majority of the country voted for a new constitution, which extended new rights to women, children and indigenous groups. Amnesty International applauded the new constitution, calling it “an important and significant step forward in terms of human rights.”  The new constitution also included the provision that allows for a special recall referendum of the president — something no other country in the Western Hemisphere allows.

When it comes to elections, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia are like night and day. Saudi Arabia has a feudal monarchy; Venezuela has the most closely watched electoral democracy of any country in the Western Hemisphere.

Under the supervision of Jimmy Carter and the Organization of American States, Venezuelan voters will go to the polls on August 15 to decide whether they want to recall President Hugo Chavez from office — two years before his six-year term officially ends in 2006.

Of course, nothing bothers Venezuela’s upper classes more than being out of power. Chavez’s presidency interrupted the gradual privatization of Venezuela’s state oil company, which generates much of the country’s wealth. Chavez is today spending tens of millions of dollars more on educational programs to teach millions to read and on healthcare for those too poor to afford it.

As he campaigns toward the August 15 recall referendum, President Chavez might do do well to cool his anti-Bush rhetoric, which not only hurts his relationship with the United States but also hurts his standing with swing voters.

At the same time, the U.S. government should recognize that Venezuela is certainly a more reliable friend than Saudi Arabia. Congress should investigate whether any National Endowment for Democracy funding went to 2002 coup leaders or violated local election laws. And for its part, the Bush administration should publicly proclaim its support for electoral democracy in Venezuela — even if that means that Chavez finishes his term and is re-elected in 2006.

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of Global Exchange, a human rights organization that has led human rights and election monitoring delegations to more than 20 countries worldwide.

This article was originally published by Common Dreams on July 12, 2004