Bush team blinks as Venezuela advances

News Analysis Venezuelan President Chavez asked Feb. 25, “If not capitalism, then what? I have no doubt, it’s socialism. … But what kind?” Change is the rule now in Venezuela, and the forces of popular struggle there are causing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to look over her shoulder. Hugo Chavez himself is coming under similar pressures.

In a Washington Post interview March 25, Rice observed, “When it comes to Venezuela we have our differences. Nobody wants to be an enemy of Venezuela or of its leadership. … We can have good relations with Venezuela at any time.” That’s new. At her confirmation hearing on Jan. 18, she identified Chavez as a “negative force.”

Since then, U.S. government spokespersons have kept up a drumbeat of denunciations, culminating March 23 in a scolding from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld for Venezuelan arms purchases. Reportedly the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID have been sending $5 million annually to opposition groups in Venezuela.

Likely as not, public protestations of tolerance and friendship from Rice testify to a grudging appreciation for Venezuelan power. Venezuela is building a network of diplomatic, financial, and trade ties with China, Iran, Cuba and Brazil.

Faced with hostile paramilitary operations, kidnappings, drug dealings, and assassinations coming from neighboring Columbia, Venezuela is also strengthening its military. Spokespersons for the neighborhood-based Bolivarian Circles allude to closing “ranks in a civil-military unity in which the people and the military defend the revolution.”

Venezuela’s social and economic achievements, particularly in the areas of health and education, are perceived as a threat by Washington, which fears other countries will follow its example.

Vice-President José Vicente Rangel announced March 15 that Venezuela will fulfill its so-called “Millennium Goals” — including eradicating hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, and improving maternal health — three years ahead of schedule. According to Rangel, “This has to do with the policies of the state. … In 2004, we had 20 percent of the budget allotted to education.”

Revolutionary ferment, however, puts restraints on President Chavez too. On March 18 he heard from “revolutionary fronts” of peasants gathered at a regional congress in Alto Apure. “Compañero President: These tasks are crucial for constructing a new country inside a new world. [We come] together in defense of national sovereignty, against imperialism, and for a true agrarian revolution.”

Until now Venezuela’s land reform law of 2001 has touched only public lands. But according to an announcement March 14 from the National Land Institute, the Chavez government will now open up underused holdings of five large landowners to poor farmers.

And representatives of indigenous people are protesting concessions given to international coal mining corporations. Communities along the frontier with Columbia and in the western state of Zulia are particularly affected. Indigenous people, ecologists and youth groups marched March 29 on the presidential palace in Caracas against plans of “the empire” mediated through “regional lackeys and the World Bank.”