[OPE-L] Knocking over Dominos in Latin America?

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon May 30 2005 - 07:54:54 EDT

With all of the attention that we have paid to the situation in
Venezuela, we haven't discussed to any extent the ongoing
developments in Bolivia.  There are important similarities:
the struggle for land reform and indigenous rights and the
special economic resources available in each nation (natural
gas in Bolivia; oil in Venezuela).  Note that while there are
demands being made on the Bolivian government, the movement
is oganized independently of, and in important ways in opposition
to, the state.

In solidarity, Jerry

    Venezuela:  Knocking over Dominos in Latin America
Recent demands by the people of Bolivia for their
government to "take the same path as Venezuela" revelas the
powerful resonance of the "Bolivarian revolution" throuhout
Latin America.  As Venezuela depeens this process of
social, economic, and political transformation it is
increasingly unlikely that the people of Latin America will
tolerate their unresponsive governments.  It is equally
unlikely that the Cold War mentality of Washington will
tolerate the threat of a good example.
  By: Sarah Wagner—Venezuelanalysis.com
Published: 26/05/05
On Monday, May 16th tens of thousands of Bolivian
Indigenous descended from the shantytowns surrounding La
Paz, the capital, demanding that the government of Carlos
Mesa increase royalties on foreign transnational
corporations from 18% to 50%.  By the time the march
ended that night in a shower of tear gas, rubber bullets
and water hosing, their demands had changed. 
Protesters, known as the “Pact of Unity,”[1] were back on
the streets on Tuesday, but now they demanded the outright
nationalization of gas and oil companies, the closing of
Congress and the impeachment of the President.
The protests continue under their new battle cry for
accountable government, and an oil policy that ensures that
the country's vast natural gas reserves – the second largest
in Latin America – will be used to respond to the social
needs of the Bolivian people.
It is not a new demand. In October, 2003, hundreds of
thousands of Aymará and Quechua Indigenous and poor
Bolivian miners took to the streets to protest the
privatization of natural gas and water companies and the
decision to build a natural gas pipeline that would export
the natural resource through Chile. Then-Vice President
Carlos Mesa condemned the violence of what came to be known
as the October rebellion of 2003, and replaced
former-President Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada. 
Yet Mesa has followed in his predecessor's footsteps,
continuing to court the United States and international
lending institutions and pushing through the privatization
of the country's natural gas and water companies.
Guillermo Aruguipa Copa is a member of Bolivia's largest
political party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), and part
of the Commission of Economic Development in the Bolivian
Congress.  He says Bolivian’s no longer distinguish
Mesa from Sánchez. "The Bolivian people are demoralized.
Mesa has the same ‘people of confidence’ that Sánchez
had.  Many of the people who make decisions in Mesa's
government came from the Sánchez's government."
What little political stability was left in the country
came close to collapsing in March when Mesa, once again
proving to be more of a US ally than a public servant of
the Bolivian people, refused to sign the Hydrocarbons Law
arguing that it would scare away foreign investment. 
The law, which would impose a 32% tax on energy
corporations (maintaining the 15% royalties) and require
that they renegotiate their contracts with the government,
was initially supported by protestors.  But Mesa’s
intransigence emboldened them, radicalizing their
demands.  In the face of mounting protest, Mesa held
up his resignation as a means of blackmailing protesters
into accepting his decision.
The 157-member Bolivian Congress prolonged the façade of
stability in this "ungovernable" Andean nation by
unanimously rejecting Mesa's resignation offer. 
Protests were quelled using a legislative loophole that
opened space for the President of Congress, Hormando Vaca
Díez, to pass the law without Mesa’s signature on May
While Mesa avoided both the legacy of infuriating his
neoliberal allies and (at least temporarily) of meeting the
same fate as Goni, it is important to emphasize that the
Bolivian people, disillusioned with their government, were
able to force its hand and achieve the passing of the law.
Aruguipa, spells out the political climate, assuring that
"the people are mobilized….they are demanding that the
government of Carlos Mesa takes the same path that Chávez
Since the election of Hugo Chávez Frías in 1998, Venezuelan
democracy has evolved from an elitist privilege to a
tangible instrument.  Based on popular participation
and inclusion, it has empowered the previously marginalized
majority and is changing the complexion of Venezuelan
society and politics.  Riberg Díaz works at
Venezuela’s state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.
(PDVSA) in the state of Zulia.  “We are fulfilling the
very important job of consolidating what social justice,
equality, peace and true democracy mean,” he says. 
“The workers [in Zulia] are not just putting in an eight
hour day; they are defending the sovereignty and security
[of PdVSA] and their participation” in el proceso (as
Venezuela’s revolutionary process is known).
Realizing that a country cannot have a democracy with its
masses plagued by illiteracy, unemployment and
malnutrition, the Bolivarian government last year alone
dedicated over 3.7 billion dollars to empowering,
educating, nourishing, curing and employing Venezuelans.
Through educational missions, illiteracy has all but been
eradicated and hundreds of thousands of people are taking
advantage of opportunities to earn a high school or college
degree.  Co-ops, micro-credits and endogenous
development programs have mitigated crushing under and
unemployment.  Barrio Adentro, a program that
exchanges Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors, has given
millions of Venezuelans free access to health care in their
own neighborhoods.  Over 10 million Venezuelans shop at
Misión Mercal, the government subsidized grocery stores,
where they buy high-quality basic food staples at discounts
of up to 50 percent.
Far from your average dose of populism designed to meet the
peoples' immediate needs and garner votes, Chávez is
pursuing a strategy aimed at turning Venezuela from an
oil-rich country of the global South to a sovereign state
in which the people reap the riches of their natural
resources.  It is a goal that resonates inside and
outside of Venezuela.
In order to ensure that the bulk of oil profits reach
Venezuelans citizens instead of remaining in the pockets of
corrupt and exploitative national elites transnational
corporations, the Bolivarian government announced last
month that it will reestablish its sovereignty over its oil
industry by finally implementing the 2001 Hydrocarbons Law.
The Hydrocarbons Law stipulates that any foreign investment
in the oil sector must be in the form of a joint venture
instead of a service agreement.  It limits foreign
companies to a 49% stake in any project, reserving at least
51%, the majority, for PdVSA.  And it raises royalties
(the money to be paid to the government before a foreign
company subtracts its expenses) from 1% to 16% for
extra-heavy crude production in the Orinoco belt and from
16.6% to 30% in the rest of the country[2]. 
The law calls for Venezuela's tax agency Seniat to
investigate all 32 service agreements the government
currently has with foreign oil companies and to take legal
action against any transnational who has committed tax
fraud or breeched it's contract.  According to
Minister of Energy and President of PdVSA Rafael Ramírez,
90% of the corporations involved have either falsified
documents enabling them to declare losses and thus did not
pay taxes or simply did not pay taxes and royalties,
causing combined losses of US$3 billion in taxes and $1
billion in royalties.  Additionally, it has recently
come to light that several of these transnationals have
broken their contracts by increasing production, up to
double the quota stipulated in their contracts, mixed heavy
and lighter crude and did not comply with their
responsibilities to invest in PdVSA.
The Threat of a Good Example
Venezuela is a country that has simultaneously been branded
by Washington as a member of the "axis of subversion" and
held up by Leftists as exemplary of a democracy transformed
from elite-dominated to participatory and inclusive.
 Such contradictory international sentiment reflects
the domestic polarization of those who love Venezuela’s
charismatic leader, and those who hate him.  However,
polarization in Venezuelan politics, both nationally and
internationally, is far from a 50/50 split.  Pegged by
Datanálysis, a polling firm traditionally linked to
opposition party Democratic Action, as having a 71%
national approval rating, Chávez' popularity has never been
Internationally, as the idea of the "socialism of the 21st
century" reverberates through Latin America and as the
Bolivarian version of social justice further resonates with
the vast majority of Latin Americans, calls to emulate
Chávez have grown stronger.  They reverberate from
Mexico City, where prospective presidential candidate Lopez
Obrador threatens to challenge US economic dominance, to
Uruguay, where Tabaré Vazquez broke the 170 year two-party
dominance in Uruguayan politics to usher in what is
hopefully expected to be a shift to a socially-oriented
Yet it would be erroneous to buy into sweeping
generalizations asserting that the influence of the
Bolivarian Revolution has given rise to a political shift
to the Left in Latin America.  It is frequently
postulated that three-quarters of Latin American countries
are governed by "leftist" leaders based on the mere fact
that they ran on leftist tickets or belong to parties
traditionally associated with the Left.  The people of
Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru voted for
leaders who spouted anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal
campaign promises—platforms that were far more radical than
the policies they implemented once elected.  This is
illustrated by the riots in Ecuador and Bolivia, Peruvian
President Alejandro Toledo's 4% approval rating, the poor
showing of Lula’s Workers’ Party in recent regional
elections; and the hordes of Mexicans, numbering in the
hundreds of thousands who gathered in the Zocaló to voice
their support for López Obrador.
The current social unrest across the board in Latin America
reflects the people's disgust with their elected leaders’
deceit.  Prior to Chávez, Latin Americans demanded
change, better wages and working conditions, social
services and educational opportunities.  With Chávez’s
arrival, they have a concrete example to emulate and are
holding up Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution as a model for
change for their own countries.
“We don't have anything,” notes Aruguipa, “therefore, there
is no other path than to recuperate our strategic
resources.”  “This is key for our future generations,”
he continues, “this is why I believe that we are
strengthened by the different interventions that Chávez has
done.  This strengthening is seen everywhere in
Bolivia:  in the Congress as well as in the reunions
of different social organizations.”
The Bolivarian revolution’s accomplishments have forced
Latin American Presidents and presidential candidates to
walk a thin line between professing to follow Chávez'
example in order to avoid alienating their bases, and not
pissing off Washington.  As illustrated by Rumsfeld's
and Rice's failed efforts to isolate Venezuela during their
recent Latin American tours, it would appear that Latin
America is prioritizing its political ties with Caracas
rather than with Washington.
But Venezuelan oil worker Riberg Díaz PdVSA Zulia cautions
that it is not Chávez's style but rather the success of the
“Bolivarian revolution” that resonates with people around
the world.  "The CIA and Bush say that Chávez has
influence.  That is not true.  It is the
Revolutionary Movement that has the influence.  Other
movements take the Bolivarian Revolution as a point of
reference. And the Bolivarian Revolution has influenced on
an international level, not only in Latin America, but in
Spain, in France, in Iraq and in Iran…Every day the people
are assuming a greater consciousness, a greater commitment
to Latin America, to the world, to peace and to the
exploited," Díaz asserted passionately.
This is precisely what makes Chávez so dangerous to
Washington. Oftentimes Washington's attacks on the
Bolivarian Revolution are written off as US concern for the
lifeblood of its economy:  oil, and without doubt the
geopolitical importance of Venezuelan oil for the American
economy cannot be underestimated.  Venezuela's oil
reserves, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, consist of
78 billion barrels, in addition to 1.2 trillion barrels of
super heavy crude. However this is a reciprocal
relationship:  the US depends on Venezuela’s ability
to churn the oil out just as Venezuela depends on the US’
ability to consume it.
Nevertheless, Chávez' control over one of the world’s most
important geopolitical resources, is not what makes him
dangerous. The Venezuelan President and his Bolivarian
Revolution are feared by Washington and others because of
the example it is setting to other countries. And US policy
has always endeavored to squash alternatives.
Why else would the US have invaded Grenada, a tiny island
of 100,000 people?  It has never been what one would
call a geopolitical goldmine.  Why was Haiti, the most
impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere invaded by
US-led forces in 2004?  Why during the 1960s-1980s did
the CIA train and fund Guatemalan police forces to murder,
torture and disappear 200,000 of their countrymen and why
was the same pattern repeated in El Salvador, Argentina,
Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, among others?  Why
did Washington invade Panama in 1991?  Why have they
enforced a forty-five year world-wide embargo on the Cuban
people?  Why did they invest millions of dollars in
destroying Nicaragua's peaceful Revolution, it's Christian
based communities, it's poetry workshops and it's literacy
The rationale lies in preventing an example.  In The
Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War
(2004) Greg Gandin argues that the ideological battle
during the Cold War was not between capitalism and
communism, but rather between two kinds of democracy: 
one stagnant and tepid and the other vibrant with the
possibility to change the social fabric of society. The US
brought this battle to any country that attempted to
implement the latter; US governments have been bribing,
killing and squashing any form of sovereignty or resistance
since the inception of the Monroe Doctrine.
The Cold War is over, yet this battle between democracies
continues.  Since Mesa took office in 2003 in Bolivia
there have been close to 900 (and counting) protests, and
the direction the Andean nation will take is far from
clear.  Indications that Evo Morales is "the natural
leader of Bolivia," in the words of Aruguipa and is ready
to lead Bolivia are questionable.  Morales and the
MAS' wide-reaching social movement want to increase
royalties on transnational corporations to 50% in addition
to the 32% tax.  However, Morales' recent discourses
seem watered down and out of touch with the marches and the
fiery protests of the people and the MAS leader's calls to
end road blockades between principle cities and leading out
of the country have not been heeded.  This has not gone
unnoticed. Natural leader or not, in the words of one MAS
leader, Román Loayza, "the bases are by-passing us. 
We want to march for more royalties, but the people want
nationalization.  And for that we will
struggle."  Dionisio Nuñez, a MAS Congressman,
concurs. "We are going to fight against the law," he
affirmed.  “The marches have to continue because in
Congress not all the senators and deputies defend the
people.  Sometimes they defend the multinationals.”
The Bolivian peoples' demands now revolve, not around
increased royalties or taxes as MAS advocates, but rather
advocate outright nationalization and even expropriation –
without compensation.  They argue that transnational
corporations have pillaged Bolivia's natural resources and
exploited and impoverished its people.  Raising taxes
is seen as small potatoes.  "The people have a right
to nationalize and expropriate," affirms Jaime Solares, the
leader of Bolivian Workers Central, affirming that "the
people no longer believe in neoliberalism."
While the United States would like to isolate Chávez, Cuban
President Fidel Castro, Bolivia’s protestors and anyone else
who tests the status quo, they fail to recognize that as the
Bolivarian Revolution deepens, it is unlikely that the Latin
American people will tolerate unfulfilled campaign
promises.  In the context of the achievements of the
Bolivarian model, protests and discontent are likely to
increase until elected leaders prove themselves worthy of
the democratic rhetoric they champion by bringing concrete
results and deep change.
Washington, through indirect (and probably direct) support
for the short-lived April, 2002 coup and the oil industry
shutdown, has tried to overthrow Chávez and destroy the
Bolivarian Revolution.  They failed.  Now the
success of the Bolivarian Revolution is reverberating from
Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego and the voices of the Latin
American people are demanding change louder than
ever.  What will Washington's next move be?  Will
it be sufficient to snuff the flame of inspiration, example
and hope that the Bolivarian Revolution has ignited in
millions of hearts in Washington's “backyard.”Chávez isn't
alone," affirms Evo Morales. "The people of Latin America
support him.  That is the new reality."

[1] The Pact of Unity included organizations such as the
Federation of United Neighbors of El Alto (FEJUVE-El Alto),
the Regional Workers Central of El Alto (COR-El Alto), the
Public University of El Alto, the Departmental Workers
Central, the Confederation of Original Peoples, the
Federation of Peasants of La Paz "Tupaj Katari," the
Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the teachers unions of El
Alto and La Paz, coca growers, and miners, among others

[2] In addition to the increase in royalties, the
Hydrocarbons Law lowered taxes from 67% to 50%. 
Foreign companies will not longer be paid in US dollars,
but rather Bolívares, Venezuela's currency and expenses
such as clothing, vehicles and food can no longer be
charged to PdVSA accounts.
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