Friday, September 02, 2005

Santa Claus and the Grinch

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been throwing his oil largesse around Latin America in an attempt to create one Latin America, much like his hero Simon Bolivar and guerilla great, Che Guevara. President Bush is none too happy. Slate's Alexandra Starr explains the Chavez strategy:
As oil prices have spiraled to record levels, Chávez has used his oil wealth to become a mac daddy in Latin America. Venezuela holds the largest estimated oil reserves outside the Middle East, and Chávez has long supplied cheap petroleum to Cuba in exchange for medical doctors and physical-education teachers. Recently, he's been extending his oil largess throughout the region. When Ecuadorean protesters vandalized pipelines and pumping machinery earlier this month, Chávez announced that Venezuela would ship oil free of charge to ensure the Andean country didn't fall behind on shipments to its customers. In June, 13 Caribbean nations signed on for cheap credit for oil imports. And Chávez recently inked deals with Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay that will supply those countries with cut-rate petroleum. Venezuela has also bought millions of dollars of Argentine and Ecuadorean debt. Since both countries are in the economic doghouse, these purchases appear to have been made with an eye toward potential political, rather than economic, returns.

The Venezuelan government insists it is acting out of altruism, but Chávez is obviously trying to build a counterweight to traditional U.S. influence in the region. Part of his motivation no doubt stems from his visceral dislike of the United States and capitalism, which he decries as "the road to hell," but Chávez also wants to fulfill what he perceives as a historical imperative. One of Chávez's heroes is Simón Bolívar, who liberated swaths of South America from Spanish rule in the early 1800s and unsuccessfully attempted to unite most of the region under one government. Chávez's ambition to extend the reach of his so-called Bolivarian revolution could well be his modern version of the independence hero's vision. To be sure, the vast majority of Latin Americans have no interest in seeing a replica of Cuba or Venezuela emerge in their countries, but Chávez's generosity is coming at a critical moment: There is widespread resentment in the region over the reforms of the 1990s that failed to improve the lives of the vast majority of Latin Americans. Chávez's oil wealth and populist rhetoric could win over more adherents.
Starr, "a former political correspondent at BusinessWeek, was an Organization of American States fellow in Caracas, Venezuela, from 1995 to 1998," doesn't seem to be a fan of Chavez or his ambitions to unite Latin America.
Chávez's increasing prominence in the region seems to have prodded the United States to pay more attention to Latin America. That's a positive development: Washington largely ignored the region after the Sept. 11 attacks, even as countries like Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia descended into political and economic crises.
But her veiled fear for the people of Latin America if they fall under the sway of Chavez is misguided. Latin America has been largely under control of the United States ever since the Monroe Doctrine. Today, it's largely a neo-colonial dependency of the United States as the neo-liberal market reforms have not made them more prosperous but poorer and more in need of investment, which when it yields profits goes to foreign investors rather than into the local and regional economies.

Latin America's is certainly in need of another model of economic and political development, it will be interesting to see if Chavez's influence along with Lula's in Brazil can reimagine it as a democratic socialist continent. I'm not too hopeful, as the United States would never ever allow that project to succeed.