Friday, March 10, 2006

Twenty-First Century Bolívar


Hugo Chávez’s calls for Latin American unity against the U.S. continue to resonate, according to Mark Weisbrot’s “The Failure of Hugo-Bashing”:

IT WAS YET ANOTHER public relations coup for Venezuela: Vila Isabel, the samba club sponsored mainly by the Venezuelan government, won the parade competition in Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval last week. A float with a giant likeness of Simon Bolivar, combined with thousands of ornately costumed participants parading down the avenue, trumpeted the winning theme: Latin American unity.

Weisbrot then examines why Chávez, the Nasser of South America (or the Bolívar of the 21st century, if you prefer), is such a popular figure in South America nowadays. First, Venezuela under Chávez is still a functioning democracy, or at least hasn’t followed Peru’s authoritarian path or descended toward Colombia’s narcotics-fueled chaos yet.

Second, the U.S. countered its usual democracy-promotion language by publicly endorsing, and possibly even aiding, the anti-Chávez coup in 2002.

Finally, cash-rich Venezuela has become the new favorite lender for neighbors being squeezed by the International Monetary Fund or other U.S.-influenced institutions:

With oil at nearly $60 a barrel, Venezuela has used its windfall proceeds to win friends in the hemisphere, providing low-cost financing for oil to Caribbean nations. When Argentina needed loans so that it could say goodbye to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela committed $2.4 billion. Venezuela bought $300 million in bonds from Ecuador. Washington has historically had enormous influence over economic policy in Latin America through its control over the major sources of credit, including the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Venezuela's role as a new "lender of last resort" has reduced that influence.

If oil dropped back to $40/barrel, much of Chávez’s current advantage would evaporate; but meanwhile, Weisbrot ends on an ominous note:

... While Vila Isabel was winning the Rio Carnaval, Connecticut became the eighth American state to participate in the program by which Citgo Petroleum Corp. provides discounted heating oil for poor people. Citgo is owned by the Venezuelan government. In the contest for the hearts and minds of the hemisphere, Venezuela is clearly winning.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

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