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Raffique Shah


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Let's not be used as a pawn against Chavez

December 03, 2006
By Raffique Shah

Today, the people of Venezuela go to the polls to elect a president. The election is of significance to Trinidad and Tobago because Venezuela happens to be the country closest to us. More than mere geopolitics, under President Hugo Chavez, that country has taken a leading role in hemispheric affairs as well as being a more-than-minor player in global politics. As the fifth biggest oil producing country in the world, Venezuela is also strategically poised to influence the Caribbean, as it did with the Petrocaribe initiative and several bilateral trade and aid agreements with member states of Caricom.

Based on surveys conducted in the run-up to the election, Chavez seems to hold a comfortable lead over his opponents and is expected to win handsomely. Not surprisingly, though, Chavez's popularity among the mass of poor people and the divided middle classes, is not viewed favourably by Washington. Under President George Bush, US agencies have been fanning the flames of military intervention, having failed to unseat Chavez in a protest-led coup a few years ago.

Bush and his associates have made it clear they would prefer that Venezuelans not elect Chavez. In their warped interpretation of democracy, the United States, not the people of a country, must determine who should be president or prime minister.

We saw it in elections in Palestine last year, when Hamas defeated the PLO to take control of that Parliament. To date, Hamas representatives remain unrecognised by the US and Israel. Before that, it was the Iranian people who incurred Bush's wrath by electing Ahmadinejad over his more moderate opponent.

The US State Department also openly expressed opposition to presidential candidates like Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Interestingly, all of those opposed by the Bush administration have won. Indeed, the people of Central and South America have moved significantly to the left while Bush remains bogged down in Iraq with no exit strategy.

A few weeks ago I read where the opposition in Venezuela, whose candidate Manuel Rosales, has the backing of the entrenched rich, has already mapped out its post-election strategy. First, its activists have been asked to mobilise heavily to ensure a high voter turnout. Then, no doubt anticipating a Chavez victory, there is a call for protests against the fairness of the election to start from the day after the polls close. Afterwards, who knows where they would want to take their CIA-dictated agenda? We in T&T need to guard against them using our country as a base for their anti-Chavez, and by extension, anti-democratic, activities. In fact, Prime Minister Patrick Manning may be unaware of talk out there that Chavez's opponents and Washington have already decided on this; it's yet another reason why we need to pay close attention to the election and to our national security.

If Chavez wins, it won't be because he's the more handsome man in the race, or because he thumbs his nose at Washington. It's because he has delivered to the poor what generations of previous rulers from the Democratic Action (AD) and Social Christian (COPEI) parties failed to do.

Tertiary education, once the province of the rich, is now catering for 350,000 students in a unique system, not unlike the concept of our own UTT. Adult literacy and access to primary and secondary education are close to being universal. Chavez has swapped oil with Cuba in return for thousands of doctors spread across the "barrios", bringing health care to those who need it. Most of all, the oppressive poverty that stalked the ordinary people in that oil-rich country, is being systematically addressed. Chavez has made a difference, hence his popularity.

In the 1998 presidential election he polled 3.67 million votes to his opponent's 2.6 million. By 2000, when there was another election, he increased his votes to 3.75 million against 2.35 million for Cardenas. A recall referendum in 2004 saw him get the nod from 5.8 million Venezuelans with 3.9 million wanting him out. In contrast, when Bush "stole" the US presidential election in 2000, he polled fewer votes than Al Gore. The Carter Center and the OAS will have hundreds of observers at today's election, which, hopefully, will proceed without incident.

When votes were being counted after one election at which Jimmy Carter was himself present, he said of the Venezuelan exercise: "I might project results that will be much more satisfactory than they were in 2000 in Florida." That was when there were lingering doubts over what transpired in that state that gave Bush the edge over Gore. Bush has no moral or other authority to pronounce on the Venezuelan election: that is for the Venezuelan people to do.

Chavez's Bolivarian revolution has not affected us adversely. If anything, Chavez has reached out to us in the Caribbean in a way no previous Venezuelan president has. For that alone he deserves our impartiality if not our support. It's the least we can do for a country that is of future strategic interest to Trinidad and Tobago.