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The Fire Down Below

December 08, 2002
By Raffique Shah

FOR the discerning eye in those among us who lived through the tense years of the Cold War, the events in Venezuela are playing themselves out in classical State Department styling. With international eyes focused on the showdown in Iraq where the Americans are clearly setting the stage for yet another invasion, this time to unseat Saddam Hussein and replace him with a White House-friendly regime, not many people outside of South America and some Caribbean countries are bothered about the seemingly permanent state of unrest that has gripped Caracas. And even here many believe that Hugo Chavez looked for his troubles, so let him fend for himself.

Few people recall that here was a young rebel who defied the odds of a coup-maker and won some 80 per cent of the popular vote in two successive elections. Or that in the process, he all but annihilated the traditional parties that had controlled Venezuela's politics for decades, sharing between them the spoils of an oil-rich nation in which the bulk of its citizens live in squalor. He was seen as the strongman who would deliver the downtrodden from a state of persistent poverty. He would stop runaway corruption that has bedevilled resource-rich countries like his own, Nigeria, Angola and Brazil, to name a handful, in which the leaders looted the treasuries in a most vulgar manner.

Yet, in a short time we saw this immensely popular president being faced with protests against his rule. Firstly, there were the middle-class housewives, usually representative of the old order trying to resuscitate the parties that protected their interests at the expense of the mass of the population. Then there were the "colonels", meaning mainly high-ranking officers in the armed forces, who started their assault by speaking out publicly against Chavez, and later actually pulling off a short-lived palace coup.

Later, powerful trade union leaders threw their weight behind the protestors. They summoned their members to march against Chavez. Over the past few days they have conducted a general strike. Independent BBC reports coming out of Caracas spoke of limited support for the strike. Thus far, Chavez has managed to hold on to office by using a clever blend of tactical moves and draconian measures against his opponents. He used the National Guard to seize control of the Caracas metropolitan police, a tool in the hands of one his most bitter opponents, the city's Mayor Alfredo Pena. Last Thursday, he ordered armed personnel to take over one of over forty oil tankers in Maracaibo on which the captain and crew had joined the strike. And he has declared the national oil company a strategic asset, using that to put it under some measure of military control.

In the midst of it all, the OAS has intervened. The organisation's head, Cesar Gaviria, has been in Caracas for some time now trying to work out an accommodation between the president and his opponents. The latter are calling for a referendum on Chavez's presidency, which the OAS seems to be inclined towards. But the seemingly indefatigable president has met all the challenges with the courage and wiles of a professional military officer, again, cleverly blended with populist support from the barrios where the poor stand to benefit most from his radical approach to the re-distribution of that country's immense wealth. Many see him as a dictator-in-the-making. For many more, he is a saviour.

Realistically, Chavez's chances of survival, of remaining President, are not good. I started this column pointing fingers at the State Department, an arm of the US government that supervises the subversion of governments that are deemed as dangerous to US interests. The CIA is usually over-active in such countries, often equipped with generous budgets that allow for opponents of the regime to acquire both the tools of resistance and considerable sums of money in their bank accounts. There are those who believe that the CIA no longer exists, or if it does, it has gone "clean". Perish that thought. Especially when you are looking at a country whose oil supplies are critical to the US economy, Venezuela and Mexico being the two "biggies" in the business that lie close to America.

In the past, these agencies have used an almost textbook approach to destabilizing a "hostile" government. The business sector and conservative politicians are their "weapons of choice" these days: they always were. But time was when the military, through its senior officers who were "recruited" while they studied in the US, were the first line of offence. Note that whenever a strike is called in Venezuela, central Caracas promptly shuts down. I won't be surprised if the striking "colonels" have been generously compensated for their brazen defiance of military norms. And many trade unionists, like the military, have been properly groomed by the CIA to do the dirty work of sabotaging the economy by politically motivated strikes.

For those who believe that the picture I'm painting is a flight of fancy of an "old leftist", they should read what happened in Guyana when Cheddi Jagan's PPP first came to power in that country in the 1950s. One of the first CIA officers to expose the Agency's modus operandi was Phillip Agee, who wrote the book "Inside The Company". In that "diary" of events when he was posted in South America, he noted the Agency's "victory" in Guyana when Jagan was removed from office the second time around. During the Cold War, both Russia and America moved aggressively to subvert governments they did not approve of, or those of strategic interests that appeared to be going astray.

That scenario is precisely what is being currently played out in Venezuela. Chavez may be popular, and he does seem to still control support of the masses. But he has come up against "Predator V" whose appetite for oil is insatiable. So Venezuela's vast reserves are critical to the US, just as three-million-barrels-a-day of Iraqi oil would dampen prices of crude. In the end, it's the interests of America and Americans that count. Forget the starving masses of South America or elsewhere, and forget countries that don't have oil.

Chavez, poor fella, faces a most uncertain future. And while the assault appears to come from the mass of Venezuelans, a closer examination will reveal the bloody hand of the CIA, always ready to wreak havoc and shed blood-in America's interest, of course. The saving factor for Chavez is that in both Brazil and Equador, populist politicians have come to power via elections. America now faces a wild fire "down below". Maybe that will work in Chavez's favour.

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