Book Review: Hugo Chávez, by Nikolas Kozloff


11-07-06, 10:03 am

Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. By Nikolas Kozloff Palgrave Macmillan, 2006

Kozloff's book is a good introduction to Chávez and is generally positive in its treatment of the man and his movement. Unfortunately, Palgrave Macmillan has chosen to market it as if it were a series of exposes in the tradition of the National Enquirer. The book jacket asks 'Is Hugo Chávez the Messiah?' 'Is George W. Bush afraid of him?' The publisher's press release tells us that Chávez is moving to 'control post-Castro Cuba' and this book will give us an 'expert analysis of this complicated and dangerous man.'

After that come on, I was prepared for a right wing assault on Chávez and his policies. The book, however, turns out to be a reasoned historical presentation of Chávez's rise to power and the social context which produced him-- i.e., the racist pro-US Venezuelan elite and its alliance with US imperialism in an effort to keep the vast majority Venezuelans in poverty and substandard living conditions so that it can live a privileged first world life of luxury and comfort while the people struggle in third world conditions of squalor.

'A damning United Nations report in the early 1960s concluded,' Kozloff writes, 'that Venezuela has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world.' The publisher's marketing department should not have promoted a scholarly book this way, especially as there is nothing in the book that resembles the statements and claims I quoted above from their promos.

Chávez believes one of the reasons for the poverty in his country is the implementation of the Washington Consensus by the IMF and the World Bank. 'The consensus,' the author states, ' stressed deregulation, privatization of state industries, implementation of austerity plans and trade liberalization.' In other words, it was a major instrument of class warfare utilized by US Imperialism and its allies in the Venezuelan ruling class.

It should also be noted that the people are supposed to just passively accept the consensus, but if they don't the US provides training and support for the military (the School of the Americas is just one example) to be used to repress any social movements that threaten US hegemony.

Chávez came to power as a result of elections in 1998 in which he won '56.2 percent of the vote, the largest margin won by any candidate in the nation's history.' If the word 'democracy' refers to anything at all then it refers to what the Chávez government represents in Venezuela. Yet, as we all know, the Bush administration and the US media constantly treat Chávez as some sort of authoritarian undemocratic tyrant. Bush can only dream of having the type of popular support for his policies as Chávez has for his.

Kozloff recounts the now familiar story of the 2002 coup attempt against the Chávez government, carried out by business interests and elements of the military close to the US, and how massive public demonstrations, as well as loyalist military factions, restored Chávez to power after two days. He and his party the MVR (Movimiento Quinta Republica) then consolidated power through national and regional state elections that left him with a solid majority.

A new popular constitution was adopted which has an article (115) that states that 'private property must serve the public good and general interest.' The government can give compensation and then expropriate any company that violates this article. This article has been used against both foreign companies and members of the Venezuelan elite and is one of the most progressive, and most hated, laws enacted by the Chávez government. One of the reasons for Chávez success is the support he has in the military. The Venezuelan military is unique in South America in not having an officer caste made up almost exclusively of upper class elements from the ruling elite. 'Indeed,' the author points out, 'in Venezuela most of the senior officers come from poor urban and rural backgrounds.' They are sympathetic to Chávez both because he shares their social background and because his policies are popular with the people.

Another source of Chávez's success and popularity is due to the oil riches for which Venezuela is justly famous. The high oil prices since Chávez took office has allowed him to fund many programs to help the poor. 'Oil wealth' has been 'channeled into social programs for education, healthcare, and job creation.'

Chávez has been greatly influenced by the thought of Simon Bolivar and even calls his project the 'Bolivarian Revolution.' Bolivar, the great South American liberator who led the struggle for independence from Spain, envisioned a large republic made of what are today Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Panama. Chávez wants to bring about closer alliances with this block, both economically and politically, as a way to counter balance U.S. domination in the region. Needless to say, the U.S. considers this to be a real threat to its 'national interests' (code for U.S. corporate interests).

Another ideal Chávez has picked up from Bolivar is concern for the well being of the indigenous peoples of the area. Having effectively destroyed the independence of indigenous cultures and peoples in its own territory the US now exports its anti-Indian policies to South America where it colludes with both local and international capital to oppose the rights of the indigenous peoples. Indian's demands for autonomy and respect for their native territories and land and mineral rights pose problems to big American multinationals and their plans to exploit the oil and other natural resources of the region.

Kozloff writes that, 'Washington views the Andean region as the 'hottest' area in Latin America, because of emerging indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador.' The author also reports that 'In the post- 9/11 world, the United States has equated indigenous movements with terrorism.'

This is an amazing statement. That the U.S. government considers the local Indian peoples in Latin America as 'terrorists' when they resist oil drilling by American companies in their forests and agricultural areas is truly outrageous and is a cynical and hypocritical use of 9/11 in support of corporate greed.

Kozloff cites the following as evidence: 'In a December 2004 report issued by the U.S. National Intelligence Council entitled 'Global Trends 2020-- Mapping the Global Future,' the government depicts both indigenous activism and Islamic radicalism as threats to U.S. national security.' The common link between Indians and Islamicists is, of course, the presence of oil in the regions where they live.

Are Latin American indigenous people really a threat to U.S. interests? Only if 'threat' means democratic control of their own lives and 'interests' mean 'corporate interests.' An indigenous legislator from Bolivia, Ricardo Diaz, is quoted as saying, 'It's true that indigenous peoples are a threat, from the point of view of the political and economic powers-that-be but we aren't because our struggle is open, legal and legitimate.' Anyway, how could open and legal struggle be a 'terrorist threat' to the U.S. How can anyone take the pronouncements of our government seriously when it makes such claims?

Pedro Ciciliano, an anthropologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico says that the U.S. intelligence report is 'exaggerated and fraught with errors typical of U.S. intelligence based on biased information. Indigenous people can be considered a threat, because they are poor and are pressing for their rights, but they don't represent a terrorist threat.' I think both Diaz and Ciciliano give away too much by using the word 'threat.' I, at least, want to claim that no one, and certainly no people, asserting their legitimate rights can pose a threat to U.S. interests. U.S. interests are the interests of the American people and only a U.S. government that has abandoned those interests can assert that it is 'threatened' by the rights of others.

This book documents many other struggles besides those going on in Venezuela. There are sections dedicated to the revolutionary movements and people's fight backs in Columbia and Bolivia, as well as progressive developments in Brazil and Argentina. If you only have time to read one book on Hugo Chávez this one would be a good choice.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at