By Matthew Vadum and Ana Maria Ortiz
Venezuela’s Marxist strongman Hugo Chavez is the kind of anti-American that certain kinds of American leftists swoon over. In September 2006, he stood before the United Nations General Assembly in New York City to insult President George W. Bush, who had stood at the same podium the day before. He called Bush “the Devil” and made the sign of the cross, adding “and it smells of sulfur still today.” Chavez held up Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, a book by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky, a radical critic of U.S. foreign policy, and urged his audience to read it. Within days the book had jumped to the top 10 in sales at the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites, and its publisher, Henry Holt, ordered a reprinting.
Chavez’s UN speech followed a six-week round-the-world trip to a dozen countries. He met with Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko and called for a strategic alliance between the two countries. He met with Vladimir Putin and purchased $3 billion in Russian arms, including fighter jets, military helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. He also visited: Iran, where he voiced support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran-financed Hezbollah; Vietnam, where he fondly reminisced about its struggle against the U.S. in the 60s and 70s; Cuba, where he held hands with an ailing Fidel Castro who sent thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers to Venezuela in exchange for oil at much-reduced rates; China, where he struck yet more deals; and Syria, where he promised another strategic alliance to free the world of U.S. domination. The speech in New York was a high point in Chavez’s campaign to bait the United States and elevate his own world profile.
Castro Imitator Backs FARC
Chavez fancies himself a revolutionary leader, protégé and presumptive successor to Castro, who announced last month he was stepping down after a half-century in power. A leader of the anti-imperialist cause, “Chavez is the piper leading the most strident anti-Americanism to parade through Latin America since the Bay of Pigs invasion,” noted Venezuelan writer Ibsen Martinez.
Since becoming president in 1999, Chavez has called for political upheaval in Latin America and flirted with violent anti-government guerrilla movements in neighboring Colombia, with which Venezuela shares a porous 1,300-mile border. He has given tacit support to the Communist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) and angered Colombia by urging it to stop calling FARC “terrorists.” Calling FARC and ELN “true armies,” Chavez described them as “insurgent forces that have political and Bolivarian goals, and here [Venezuela] that is respected.”
Periodically Chavez proposes to mediate FARC disputes with Colombia and has offered to negotiate the return of hostages that FARC has seized. Colombia says FARC is currently holding some 750 people hostage, including three Americans. Recently Chavez helped negotiate the release of two hostages, but the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe asked him to stop. “Any person who openly aligns himself with one of the parties could not be a mediator,” Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, told London’s Financial Times. Chavez also has threatened neighboring Guyana, making claims to three-quarters of its territory.
Experts estimate that FARC may take in from $200 million to $400 million annually from the illegal drug trade, but Chavez refuses to allow U.S. drug surveillance flights in Venezuelan airspace. However, he has allowed Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas terrorists to open offices in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.
In Latin America, Chavez has vigorously promoted a new coalition of anti-American governments. He is urging left-wing governments in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and the Caribbean island nations of Antigua, St. Vincent and Dominica to join Venezuela and Cuba in an alliance he calls the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. This grand design is an alternative trade agreement meant to challenge the hemispheric free-trade agreements negotiated by the United States. Chavez also urges investors to withdraw their funds from U.S. banks, and last month, he acted on his promise to curtail oil supplies to the U.S. by ordering government-owned Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) to cut off crude oil sales to ExxonMobil, which is fighting his regime’s seizure of its assets. Reacting to the Bush Administration’s support for ExxonMobil, Chavez lashed out: “If the economic war continues against Venezuela, the price of oil will reach $200. Venezuela will take up the economic war, and more than one country is inclined to join us.”
Chavez calls capitalism “savagery” and rejects free-market prescriptions to lift less-developed nations out of poverty. Instead he preaches the gospel of redistribution, promising to build a workers’ utopia similar to the supposed paradise created by his friend, Castro, to whom he reportedly speaks daily by telephone. Last year, he nationalized firms in Venezuela’s petroleum, communications and electricity sectors, and last month, he vowed to have the government seize food producers and distributors that “hoard” products to sell at “inflated” prices. He demands that banks contribute a percentage of their profits to his social programs and threatens to seize any that fail to make loans at favorable rates for homes, farms and small businesses.
Chavez likens himself to Simon Bolivar, the great liberator who led the movement to free Latin America from Spain in the early 1800s. Chavez even renamed the nation the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” when he took power, and he retains power by mobilizing support from among poor, black and indigenous Venezuelans, holding out the promise that they are key elements in a new national culture he is creating.
His Socialist reforms are wreaking economic havoc. The World Bank ranks Venezuela as the second-worst country in the Americas for the control of corruption, above only Haiti. Venezuela’s more than 22% inflation rate is the highest in the Western Hemisphere. Its currency has lost half its value in the past year and given rise to a thriving black market for dollars. To stem the hemorrhaging, Chavez prohibited overseas money transfers and has ordered his nation’s media outlets not to mention the underground currency market.
U.S. Leftists Love Chavez
Clearly, Hugo Chavez is a man only American leftists could love—and they do. U.S. activists such as anti-war campaigner Cindy Sheehan say Chavez is a well-intentioned idealist who wants to help the poor and that he is indeed a modern-day Bolivar.
In early 2006, Chavez met in Caracas with Sheehan, whom he calls “Mrs. Hope.” Following a photo-op-filled visit, Sheehan urged the world to help bring down “the U.S. empire” and declared she would rather have Chavez in the White House than President Bush: “Hugo Chavez also wants to finally realize Simon de Bolivar’s vision of a united South America which can be together stronger to live more peacefully with the U.S. and stand in solidarity against the constant meddling of all of our regimes in their affairs.…George [Bush] is a reverse Robin Hood and even steals from our grandchildren’s future to further enrich the already obscenely rich of the present. I would rather live under a President like Hugo who tries to improve living conditions in his country than someone like George who is demolishing our social structures and making the poor, poorer.”
Of course Bolivar was no Socialist, notes James M. Roberts writing for the Heritage Foundation: “Bolivar would be embarrassed to see Venezuelans being oppressed by the same kind of Latin American caudillo (strongman) from which he fought to free them two centuries ago. Bolivar championed a unified South America and strong constitutional government to provide the same freedom, equality and prosperity that he saw developing in North America.” The real Bolivar “opposed precisely the type of one-party, personalized, dictatorial rule that is embodied by Hugo Chavez.”
It’s also hard to imagine Bolivar condoning the Venezuelan president’s attacks on civil liberties and the free press (it is now illegal to “practice” journalism in Venezuela without joining the National College of Journalists and holding a journalism degree). These acts of repression have stirred up opposition from the country’s middle and professional classes, including university students, artists and intellectuals and small and large business owners who protest his rule. In December, voters pushed back, handing Chavez a startling defeat by rejecting in a 51%-to-49% vote changes to the constitution that would have increased the president’s power. But that has not dampened the enthusiasm of some Americans for Hugo Chavez.
Sheehan is only one of the many Americans who eagerly voice their support for the “Bolivarian revolution.” They all seem to find their way to Caracas for meetings and photos with Chavez:
l Brenda Stokely, president of AFSCME Local 215 in New York City, addressed a rally in Caracas in 2004. “President Chavez is trying to provide poor people with healthcare, education and decently paid jobs,” said Stokely. “Anyone opposed to that either has their head under a rock or has no respect for human beings that live in poverty.”
l After visiting Venezuela, Oakland, Calif., community organizer Mamie Chow said, “You can’t question what’s happening here. It’s so uplifting.”
l “Venezuela has become a major source of interest for social visionaries in the United States,” said Larry Birns, director of Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, a leftist advocacy group.
Many U.S. lawmakers buy into the idea that Chavez is a social democrat. Sen. Chris Dodd (D.-Conn.) has defended Chavez as a democratically elected president. When coup-plotters briefly ousted Chavez from power during a 48-hour period in April 2002, Dodd attacked the Bush Administration for not denouncing them. Rep. John Conyers (D.-Mich.) and 12 other Democrats in Congress wrote a letter to Bush the following year complaining that the United States was not doing enough to protect Chavez.
In 2004, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio) signed another joint letter endorsing Chavez’s re-election and calling on President Bush and Congress to look upon Venezuela “as a model democracy.” Other signers included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, actor Ed Asner and the Marxist writers Howard Zinn and Naomi Klein. In 2006, Rep. Brad Sherman (D.-Calif.) reminded the international terrorism panel of the House Committee on International Relations that Venezuela traditionally had “a strong free press and respect for important freedoms.” But in May 2007, Chavez pulled the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television and the popular cable TV station went off the air despite mass protests in Caracas. Sherman, who became chairman of the House subcommittee last year, admits to being troubled by Chavez’s actions and his association with sponsors of terror, but says that the U.S. government must be patient in dealing with him.
Chavistas in Hollywood
Then there’s the Hollywood glitterati.
Chavez’s regime enjoys enthusiastic support from actors Danny Glover, Kevin Spacey, Sean Penn, Ed Asner, singer Harry Belafonte and supermodel Naomi Campbell, who South American newspapers report is having a romantic affair with Chavez (a claim Campbell denies). Campbell speaks of her “amazement” at the “love and encouragement” that Chavez pours into social-welfare programs. Oscar-winner Spacey praises Venezuela’s support for film-making. A $13 million government-owned movie studio provides Venezuelans a valuable opportunity to “make films about their own country and their own culture,” said Spacey. “I think every country should have this.”
Last year, Chavez’s compliant congress returned Hollywood’s favor by approving $20 million in financing for two films by Glover, who has had business dealings with Chavez for years. Glover is a frequent visitor to Venezuela. On a trip there two years ago he said he was “excited to get back to the United States to talk about what is happening [in Venezuela], knowing that you are in a transformative stage and that you are the architects of your own destiny.”
Co-chairman of far-left Vanguard Public Foundation in San Francisco, Glover also serves on the advisory council for La Nueva Televisora del Sur (“The New Television Station of the South”), also known as teleSUR. Aiming to be a (more) left-wing alternative to CNN, the station has been broadcasting from Caracas since 2005. Rep. Connie Mack (R.-Fla.) observes that teleSUR, “the Chavez-funded network … has teamed up with Al-Jazeera to spread anti-democratic messages across Latin America.”
Of course, no survey of left-wing celebrity can fail to take notice of singer Harry Belafonte and actor Sean Penn. After making a pilgrimage to Venezuela in 2006, Belafonte told Chavez: “No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush, says, we’re here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people … support your revolution.” Penn took a look at the Chavez-crafted constitution of Venezuela, which gives the president the power to rule by decree, and concluded that it was “a very beautiful document.”
Chavez seems to have only one vocal detractor in Tinseltown, and she hasn’t been in any box office smashes lately. Cuban-born actress and singer Maria Conchita Alonso, whose family left Cuba when Castro seized power, says Chavez is “a totalitarian dictator” who has long plotted to make himself president for life. The former Miss Venezuela is producing and starring in a film, Two Minutes of Hate, about the events of April 11, 2002, when Chavez sent snipers to crush a peaceful protest march. “Nineteen died, and more than 100 were hurt,” she says. And Alonso takes issue with press reports that, she says, understate the financing Danny Glover is actually receiving from the Venezuelan government. “The word in Venezuela is that Danny got $30 million, not 20, and that there are three movies they will shoot,” she told Fox News’s “Hannity and Colmes” last May.
Chavez can cause trouble around the world because he controls one precious commodity: oil. Venezuela is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer. Oil generates 80% of the country’s export revenue and half of the government’s income. And more oil is likely to be discovered in the country’s interior. Some experts think Venezuela eventually could rival Saudi Arabia in total oil reserves.
As the world price of oil has soared past $100 a barrel, Chavez has enjoyed “windfall profits” that he is lavishing on government social programs, which reinforces his political support among the country’s poor. Venezuela’s state-owned oil company is required to spend 10% of its investment budget on social programs, an estimated $7 billion in 2005.
Petroleos de Venezuela SA has been described as a “black box” because it is believed to also fund Chavez’s overseas political ambitions. Oil exports revenues fuel Chavez’s petro-diplomacy. They make possible political overtures to China and Iran, which have been invited to invest in oil exploration and refining in Venezuela. They allow Venezuela to take the lead in structuring regional Latin American trade agreements that undermine U.S. efforts to promote free trade. And they support a Venezuelan foreign-aid program that purports to help poor Americans who live in 16 of the United States. The real target of this ingenious program of “public diplomacy” is George W. Bush.
Chavez Tool Joe Kennedy
The agent of Chavez’s foreign aid program to Americans is former Rep. Joe Kennedy (D.-Mass.). Kennedy heads a nonprofit called Citizens Energy Corporation, which he founded in 1979 to provide discounted home heating oil to low-income people in Massachusetts. Elected to Congress for six terms (1987-1999), Joe Kennedy returned to Citizens Energy full-time in 2002, after his plan to run for governor of Massachusetts fizzled.
Citizens Energy Corporation (2005 assets: $58.3 million) has undertaken a number of social ventures to raise funds by marketing energy, but it is best known for the charitable help it gives eligible families, providing them with an annual one-time delivery of 100 gallons of heating oil, the principal fuel used in New England to heat homes. Kennedy’s group has won praise for working with heating-oil dealers and state and federal agencies to provide fuel delivery to those in need. But, starting in 2005, the group became a tool of Chavez’s efforts to win public support from ordinary Americans for his regime.
Kennedy rarely mentions Chavez publicly, but the television and radio messages that advertise his charitable program are paid for by Venezuela by way of the CITGO oil company, which also provides most of the discounted heating oil. The Boston Globe reported that Rep. William Delahunt (D.-Mass.) helped broker the deal. In the ads, Kennedy invites those who need help to call 1-877-JOE-4-OIL, and he thanks “our good friends in Venezuela” for helping shivering Americans. In one ad, Kennedy pontificates: “Our own government cut fuel assistance. And the Big Oil companies with oil and money to burn all said ‘no’ when we asked for help—all but one. CITGO, owned by the Venezuelan people, is donating millions of gallons to non-profit Citizens Energy.…Some people say it’s bad politics to do this. I say it’s a crime against humanity not to, because no one—no one—should be left out in the cold.”
Now in its third year, the CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program expects this winter to have delivered 112 million gallons of fuel at a 40% discount to 224,000 U.S. households and 250 social-service charities.
How is CITGO connected to Hugo Chavez? Houston-based CITGO Petroleum Corporation is a U.S. corporation once known as Cities Service. It was purchased by Occidental Petroleum in 1982, which sold it to the Southland Corporation, the owner of the 7-11 convenience store chain, in 1983. In 1986, Southland sold a 50% share of the company to the national oil company of Venezuela, which bought the other half in 1990. By the late 1990s, CITGO was refining and distributing oil and operating almost 15,000 retail gas stations in the U.S., more than any other company. No one much cared about the company’s ultimate owner.
But in 1999, Hugo Chavez, who had tried to seize power in a failed 1992 coup attempt, managed to be elected president of Venezuela on the strength of his demagogic attacks on the faltering then-government. As president, he visited CITGO’s Lake Charles, La., refinery and Houston offices in 2000, where he explained how his government would handle Venezuela’s national oil company. The Oklahoma-born head of CITGO and the Venezuelan civilian running the parent company were fired. Their replacements would be Venezuelan army generals. Chavez offered Houston’s rattled oil men soothing words, urging them not to worry and reminding them that George Washington and Simon Bolivar were generals too.
The Kennedy charity is another public relations ploy. It’s designed to win sympathy for Chavez, and it’s working, at least in some quarters. For instance, media critic Jeff Cohen, founder of the watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), urged Americans to buy CITGO gas to back up “a democracy with a president who was elected on a platform of using his nation’s oil revenue to benefit the poor.” That’s the same argument Kennedy used when he berated a Wall Street Journal reporter who inquired about the motives behind the heating-oil deal. Kennedy has said he is impressed that Chavez is socializing his nation’s oil profits and alleviating poverty, a claim refuted by prominent researchers in Latin America who conclude that poverty has been reduced a mere 0.1% (and that government help is often conditioned on support for the Chavez regime).
The heating-oil deal with Kennedy is but one example of Venezuela’s “public diplomacy” campaign in the U.S. Public diplomacy is the effort to generate favorable public opinion by ostensibly non-political means, and Venezuela’s efforts seem to compare favorably to the U.S.’s. While the Clinton Administration shut down the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, Chavez was opening the Venezuela Information Office (VIO) in Washington, D.C., in 2003.
According to John J. Miller in National Review, VIO moved aggressively to improve Venezuela’s image, contracting with the firm Patton Boggs for lobbying help, buying ads in the Economist, New Yorker and Roll Call, and hiring staff from Global Exchange, the far-left activist group responsible for violent demonstrations at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999.
Global Exchange seems to be spearheading much of Venezuela’s U.S. propaganda campaign. In 2008, it will be offering 13 “reality tours” of Venezuela. Lasting from 10 days to two weeks, the tours are on such topics as “Women’s Rights and Leadership in the Bolivarian Revolution,” “Community-Based Organizing and the Bolivarian Revolution,” and “Afro-Venezuela: The San Juan Cultural Festival.” According to Global Exchange, “Venezuela is at the center of a new, progressive model of socioeconomic development that is shaping Latin America’s future.” For between $800 and $2,500, an American can see Chavez’s revolution in action.
An indication of the Global Exchange outlook is evident in the views of JoJo Farrell, who directs the Reality Tour Program. In an op-ed last fall, he applauded the Chavez government for not renewing Radio Caracas Television’s broadcast license. The false story that “Chavez was silencing the station due to their opposition to his policies” continues “to be perpetuated in the U.S. media today,” Farrell claimed. The real reason, according to Farrell, was the station’s “role” in the attempted 2002 coup against Chavez.
Farrell isn’t the only American who thinks the American public isn’t getting the real story about what’s going on in Venezuela. Princeton Prof. Cornel West, who makes a living denouncing his native land as racist and patriarchal, said reality tours are essential because “we in the United States have so many lies about President Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution.” West said he visited in 2006 “to see the democratic awakening taking place.”
Established in 1988, Global Exchange reported assets of $1,561,689 and income of $4,173,190 in 2005. Its funding comes from foundations and from organizing reality tours to places such as Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and North Korea.
Let no one assume that Global Exchange is led by well-intentioned dupes. Its founding director is Medea Benjamin. Born “Susie Benjamin” to an affluent family, she changed her first name to that of the enraged woman in the Greek tragedy who seeks revenge against her husband by murdering her children. Benjamin’s own vengeance against America has led her to support murderous dictators across the globe. She is an ardent pro-Castro advocate, having once lived in Cuba and married a pro-Castro Cuban. For years she led guided tours to Cuba. After returning from her first trip to Cuba in the early 80s, Benjamin told the San Francisco Chronicle that Cuban life “made it seem like I died and went to heaven.” In the 80s, Benjamin helped form the Institute for Food and Development Policy (IFDP), which sent aid to the Marxist Sandinistas ruling Nicaragua. Benjamin is also a co-founder of Code Pink, the anti-war feminist group that disarms critics by frivolously dressing in pink, which disguises its deadly serious political ideology.
Stupid to Ignore Chavez
It may seem far-fetched to expect a revival of revolutionary Marxism either at home or abroad. All eyes today are focused on terrorism and radical Islam. By contrast, the American friends of Hugo Chavez seem caught in a time warp, spouting foolish left-wing rhetoric to justify the buffoonish behavior of their hero. But Venezuela’s head of state is no fool, and his country’s main export is not bananas. We do well to pay attention to his schemes and devices.