Mérida, January 21st 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – A tense diplomatic exchange between Chilean President-Elect Sebastian Piñera and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez this week highlighted the political differences between the two leaders on a continent where the terms of economic integration and relations with the United States are in hot dispute.
In a press conference on Monday, Piñera, a Harvard-educated, multi-millionaire businessman, outlined his differences with Chavez, a vociferous opponent of U.S. imperialism who advocates regional integration based on cooperation rather than the free market.
“The differences are deep and they have to do with the form in which democracy is practiced and conceived, how the model of economic development is conceived, and many more things,” said Piñera.
Indeed, Piñera’s campaign promise to partially privatize Chile’s state-owned copper company stood in stark contrast to Chavez’s nationalization of strategic industries and trading of Venezuela’s oil on favorable terms to help countries end their dependence on U.S. capital and loans for development.
Chavez responded on Tuesday during the inauguration of a new, public cable car skyway in Caracas. “We do not mess with the Chileans, and their new government should not mess with us,” he said. “The least we can ask for is respect for the sovereign Venezuelan people, as well as for the people of Chile.”
Regarding Piñera’s victory with 52% of the vote in last weekend’s run-off election against the center-left candidate Eduardo Frei, Chavez commented, “It is not recommendable that such a rich man be president of a country, but the Chilean people know what they’ve done, and we respect that.”
Piñera’s election deposed the center-left coalition that governed the country with pragmatic, social-democratic policies since the end of the fascist dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in 1989. It also countered the progressive shift in South America that was marked by the election of eight left-leaning presidents over the past eleven years.
Chavez expressed concern that the election of a right-wing president in Chile could strengthen an “offensive” aimed at “restoring the neo-liberal project on the continent.”
“I hope that Mr. Piñera does not try to convert Chile into another platform for attacks against Venezuela,” Chavez said, alluding to the October 30th Colombia-U.S. military pact which granted the U.S. military diplomatic immunity and expanded access to seven Colombian bases.
Chavez said the pact was a threat to regional stability and he accused the U.S. of teaming up with its right-wing allies in the region to spy on and plan military interventions against his and other progressive governments.
Piñera’s political allies include former members of the Pinochet government who teamed up with other U.S.-backed, right-wing dictatorships and neo-liberal client regimes on the continent to crack down on leftists through secret police, torture facilities, and planned assassinations in the late 1970s.
The U.S.’s main ally on the continent, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, has repeatedly thwarted efforts at integration, most recently by neglecting to join the South American Defense Council and not attending discussions of Colombia-U.S. military cooperation in the meetings of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
Piñera’s administration could potentially drive this reactionary wedge deeper into the continent.
On Wednesday, Piñera responded to Chavez, saying, “I respect all countries and governments, but I also have the right to express my opinion. What I have said is that the form in which we want democracy in Chile and the model of economic development in Chile is very distinct from the formula that President Chavez is implementing in Venezuela.”
Among those who congratulated Piñera for his victory were Uribe and other right-wing presidents in the region, including Alan García of Peru and Felipe Calderon of Mexico. Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of Chavez’s strongest anti-imperialist allies also congratulated Piñera.
Morales expressed hope for renewed diplomatic relations, which have been severed for decades. “I respect the democratic vocation of the Chilean people,” he said.