President Hugo Chavez and the Rise of Black Indian Power

by William Loren Katz on January 21, 2007

In early December, 2006 Hugo Chavez won a landslide election as President of Venezuela with more than 61% of the vote, exceeding previous vote totals, and carrying all 23 of Venezuela states. His victory surpasses popular U.S. Presidents. Not only has he won high office twice before, but in 2004 he defeated a recall election by a whopping 59%. And during his Presidency his embattled regime has foiled efforts to overthrow him through strikes and armed conspiracies — which he claims were orchestrated by the U.S. State Department. At home the landslide victory has driven his foes from hate to accommodation “Chavez is not a dictator,” said Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition paper TalCual, and a key advisor to Manuel Rosales, the losing candidate. “But he’s not a Thomas Jefferson either,” Petkoff hastily added. 1

“Chavez is getting stronger as an unintended consequence of war and globalization,” said Harvard Professor of Latin American history Kenneth Maxwell. In the last five weeks candidates leaning more to President Chavez and Fidel Castro than President Bush were elected to head the governments of Brazil, Ecuador, and Nicaragua; and before that Chavez favorite Nestor Kirchner, twice jailed by the military dictatorship, was elected in Argentina. The political thinking of Chavez — thanks to NAFTA, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan — is gaining adherents. Earlier this year Juan Evo Morales Ayma was elected Bolivia’s first indigenous President, so the role of people of color also is rising in the Americas.

Many who approve Chavez’s policies and even applaud his confrontational approach to President Bush wince at his rash rhetoric and his description of Cuba’s one-party system as a “revolutionary democracy.” In his September address to United Nations General Assembly, the day after Bush spoke, Chavez famously said “the Devil came here yesterday” and “it smells of sulfur today.” The U.S. media used his provocative metaphor to dismiss and bury his illuminating talk. The mildest criticism was that he had failed to show proper deference or common courtesy to his host country’s titular head. Media sources did not acknowledge that Chavez won occasional applause, and some delegates even smiled or laughed at his anti-Bush jibes. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, who had earlier called Bush a “dimwit,” said Chavez’s comment was an “insult to the devil.” But after he was elected President of Ecuador, Bush called Correa to congratulate him.

The mainstream media has consistently failed to mention Chavez’s public assertions that through its CIA agents, secret funds, and connections to rich Venezuelans, the Bush administration has sponsored plots to have him removed from office, and these include assassination attempts. Chavez has chosen to deal with these threats with brash metaphors.

For its part the Bush administration has long reacted to Chavez with sputtering fury. Yet today the President of Venezuela sits more comfortably than ever atop a fourth of the world oil supplies — equal to that of Iraq. Venezuela supplies a fifth of US oil needs, and continues to be Chavez’s leading customer.

The State Department has cast Chavez as a tyrant in the class of Saddam Hussein, or a Marxist, or a ferociously anti-American clone of Castro. Lately, the characterization has been downgraded to “populist” – intended as a sharp criticism. Actually, his “Bolivarian” revolution springs from multicultural grass roots that pre-date the foreign invasion of the Americas that began in 1492, centuries before Karl Marx, Castro, Hussein or populism.

Like four-fifths of Venezuelans today, Chavez was born of poor Black and Indian parents. Since the days of Columbus, descendants of the Spanish conquerors have claimed the privilege of governing Latin America. They have effectively barred Indigenous people from high office. Chavez stands as a direct challenge to white domination of South American governments.

Chavez is not only proud of his biracial legacy, but has been using oil revenues to help the poor of all colors improve their education and economic standing. He also has flatly rejected Bush administration efforts to isolate Cuba, counts Castro a friend, and has repeatedly accused the U.S. of meddling in his country, in Cuba and around the world. He has pointed to the history of interventions by the United State that began with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Latin Americans, particularly those of his economic and racial background, are increasingly walking to polling booths to register their view throughout Latin America.

Chavez rules a country where three percent of the population, mostly of white European descent, own 77% of the land. In recent decades millions of hungry peasants have drifted into Caracas and other cities, to live in barrios of cardboard shacks and open sewers. Chavez wants to reverse poverty, provide jobs, provide education and health care, and redistribute vacant lands. He has begun to transfer fields from giant unused or abandoned haciendas to peasant hands, and though landlords have responded with alarm, he has promised further distributions.

Chavez’s “21st century socialism” has repeatedly held out an olive branch to its capitalist foes, and keeps an open-market system. Though foreign oil companies continue to pull in large profits, he does insist corporations pay back taxes and higher royalties. Once they walked away with about 84% of Venezuela’s oil profits, but he has demanded 30% of those profits. Banks and credit card companies report large increases in deposits and loans.

  1. New York Times, December 5, 2006, A3.

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