Walter Gordon/ Massey Symposium
University of Toronto, 15 March 2006
Good evening students, professors, friends. I want to thank the Walter Gordon Foundation, the Master of Massey College and the Organizing Committee for the special honour of inviting me here tonight.
Throughout most of its history, there has been very little interest in North America about Venezuela except as a supplier of oil. With the election of Hugo Chávez in 1999, all this changed. He ushered in the Bolivarian Revolution, founded on ideas expounded in the 19th Century by Simón Bolívar, the great The Liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Perú. Its basic principles are: that natural resources are for the benefit of all citizens, the state is guardian and promoter of civic and social human rights, and the citizens are fundamental protagonists in political life. Its foreign policy is based on Latin American and Caribbean integration and solidarity. With the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela has become the most exciting, innovative, and progressive developing country in the world.
What is the context of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution?
Why is Mr. Danger so opposed? What has been the role of the Venezuelan elites? What has the Chávez Government achieved? And, is there a cautionary tale for all democracies? What is the context of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution? On June 1, 2002 in a speech at West Point, US President George Bush made an unprecedented assertion that the US has the right to overthrow any government in the world that is seen as a threat to its security.  This may have been startling news to the world including Canada, but not to Latin Americans. Since 1846 the United States has carried out no fewer than 50 military invasions and destabilizing operations involving 12 different Latin American countries.  Yet, none of these countries has ever had the capacity to threaten US security in any significant way.  The US intervened because of perceived threats to its economic control and expansion. For this reason it has also supported some of the region’s most vicious dictators such as Batista, Somoza, Trujillo, and Pinochet.  To this scenario, President Bush’s administration has added unprecedented militarization  plus arrogant political interference that surpasses historical precedents.
Never has US – Latin America relations been more abysmal. As one analyst has stated, “Only under Bush has Latin America found itself as estranged from the US as it is today, a result of Bush’s… shrill regional policy which has brought alienation to unprecedented heights.”  The Bush administration does not accept the democratically expressed will of the Venezuelan people.
They have clearly chosen President Hugo Chávez and his government in nine free, transparent and internationally observed elections and referenda, during the seven years since he was first elected. President Bush supported the 2002 bloody coup against the government of President Chávez, financed and supported a devastating oil lockout that cost the country $14 billion in export revenues and numerous opposition maneuvers, disturbances and a recall referendum. And they continue to finance the opposition there.  Recently, his administration has stepped up its aggressive stance against Venezuelan democracy. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has compared President Chávez with Hitler and US Director for National Intelligence John Negroponte stated that Venezuela is the main security challenge in this Hemisphere  US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice told a Senate committee last February 16th that Venezuela is “a particular danger to the region” and that she is “working with others to try and make certain that there is a kind of united front ” against Venezuela.  To this President Chávez has responded by saying; “Mister Danger, you form your front and we will form ours.”
Why is Mr. Danger so opposed?
The main reason behind President Bush’s aggression towards this small country that has minimal armed capacity is quite obvious: oil. The United States has become increasingly dependent on oil imports and feels that its security is threatened. Venezuela is the 5th largest oil exporting country in the world and is sitting on the largest oil reserves in the hemisphere and perhaps, of the world.  It supplies the US with 1.2 million barrels daily; supply that has not been in any danger of stopping – until President Bush came along. Indeed, it has been a very convenient trading arrangement for both countries. The insecurity of the United States, real or imagined, has lead it into invasions and armed conflict in the Middle East to shore up its supply of oil. Given the rhetoric and actions of its leaders, is it any wonder that President Chávez should question the intentions of the United States towards him and his government?
There is also another reason for the Bush administration’s aggressive stance towards Venezuela. President Chávez has made possible a new political and economic reality in his country that directly challenges globalization and neo-conservative policies (or neo-liberal as they are referred to in Latin America) pushed by the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and the profit drive of multinational corporations. The so-called Washington Consensus consisting of privatization of public services, deregulation, lifting of tariffs, unrestricted investment flows and free access of large corporations to public contracts and domestic markets, were measures foisted onto Latin American government by making them conditions of international loans and even by threats. 
Touted as instruments of development, they have been a spectacular failure by almost any indicator.
Between 1960-80, income per person in Latin America grew by 82% whereas in the next 20 years, it grew only by 9% and in the last 5 years, it has grown by only 1%. 
In just one decade, the number of poor increased by 14 million. 
From 1990 to 2002, US banks and multinational corporations remitted $1 trillion in profits, interest payments and royalties from Latin America 
In the 1990s, more than $178 billion of state-owned industries were privatized, more than 20 times the value of privatization in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  None of his could have occurred without the willing collaboration of Latin American elites and their satellite middle classes. Venezuela, in particular, has the most Americanized middle class in the continent by virtue of the penetration of the oil industry early on.  The sham 40 year elite-driven democracy left oil rich Venezuela in 1998 with
80% of its population in poverty, 
75% of arable land in the hands of 5% of the population ,
crumbling schools and hospitals, 
70% drop out rate, 7% illiteracy rate 
and 60% to 70% of the people without access to basic medical care.  In the last 25 years, oil-rich Venezuela had the largest increase in poverty in Latin America. 
What has been the role in all this of the Venezuelan elites?
In Western society, we are used to associating middle class struggles with progressive, liberal, democratic movements, with the historic “bourgeois” revolutions against ancient regimes. It comes as a shock to see the Venezuelan middle classes – less than 20% of the population- fiercely fighting in an ugly racist manner for their unearned privileges against the very poor majority of their own country.  A far-sighted study of Venezuela’s elites in the 1960’s  by US sociologist Frank Bonilla has the insightful title of The Failure of the Elites. It details how oil companies and others in the US community in Venezuela acted as a socializing agent to produce leaders for Venezuela in business, politics, the armed forces, and the police.  Thus, Venezuela’s elites lost the capacity to operate as instruments of national affirmation the more they became partners with US foreign capital and multinationals. As one Venezuelan aptly stated: “Their country is money.”  Bonilla describes an elite whose perspective was totally devoid of a role for the mass of the people; that had little or no sustained contact with them and in no sense felt pressured to meet the needs of the population.  Analysts observing the Venezuelan situation ten years later described the majority of the population as “spectators to politics, marginal recipients subject only to the bounty of election campaigns.”  As historian Eric Hobsbawm indicates, the French Revolution’s most formidable legacy was that it set up models and patterns of political upheaval for the general use of rebels anywhere. Likewise, Venezuelans have set up a model of electoral revolution for participatory democracy that has reverberated throughout Latin America and indeed, the entire developing world. This is a “peaceful” revolution, or as we Venezuelans affectionately call it, “la revolution bonita”, the pretty revolution, which is now a viable and visible alternative, a new model. It challenges US hegemonic ideology promoted by the neo-conservatives who control all the state powers in the US.
What has the government of President Chávez achieved?
By using oil revenues for the public good, the government of President Chávez has done what previous elite-dominated governments failed to do: provide for the basic political, economic, and social needs of the population. Oil revenue is now used for universal health services, education at all levels, clean water, food security, micro credits, support for small and middle range industry, land distribution and deeds for de-facto owners  worker cooperatives, infrastructure, such as roads and railways and support for independent community radio. Most importantly, there is promotion of citizen participation in all government programs including policy consultation.  This has never been done before in Venezuela and is rare throughout the developing world. The marginalized spectators are now political protagonists.  As President Chávez has asserted: “Si queremos acabar con la pobreza hay que darle poder a los pobres.”(If we want to get rid of poverty we must give power to the poor.) 
This is very different from the taint of “populism” where people are no more than beggars in a patronage relation to leaders. 
This reflects the views of philosopher Jurgen Habermas who sees public discourse and participation as the essence of democracy in a pluralistic world. 
The results have been spectacular:
Venezuela has been declared free of illiteracy by UNESCO 
Infant mortality has been significantly lowered  70% of its citizens previously marginalized now have free health services in their community  Almost half the population is studying 
Poverty has dropped to 37% in 2005  And, as for the economy it grew by 9.4% in 2005, the highest in Latin America, with most of this growth occurring in the non-oil sector (increased by 10.3% while the oil sector increased 1.2%).  President Chavez’s foreign policy is based on the idea of Latin American integration as urged long ago by Simón Bolívar. Venezuela is trading oil for goods, oil for physicians with Cuba, and investing in joint ventures with its neighboring nations. It has given preferential oil prices to impoverished Caribbean countries has set up PetroSur –a consortium of state oil companies- and TeleSur, a regional TV that will allow Latin Americans to broadcast to each other unmediated by CNN. The achievements of its domestic policies and the solidarity-based foreign policy of the Chávez government take on profound significance in contrast to the effects of the Washington Consensus, which created unprecedented loss and misery in the region.  President Chávez is fulfilling his promises to his people and this is reflected in his electoral victories and consistently high opinion poll ratings, which any other elected leader would envy. The latest poll by a US firm indicates that 6 out of 10 Venezuelans will vote for him in the coming December elections. The 80% of the population that had been left in poverty now have become a serious constituency of the government. What Venezuela has accomplished in so short a time, is a testament to political will, massive popular participation and the investment of national income in the needs of its people and those of the region. The bedrock of the Venezuelan government is its Constitution, created by an elected constitutional assembly, with widespread public consultation and ratified in a referendum. Lauded as the most progressive constitution in Latin America, it has some elements that make it unique in the world.  It guarantees the rights of women as well as children; full rights over land, culture, and language to Aboriginal peoples, includes environmental rights, and enshrines public participation. It also guarantees social human rights such as the right to health care, education, work, and food. And thus, it has given the state a role not just as guardian, but also as a promoter of civic and social rights. It is unique in that it recognizes the right of housewives to social benefits, it specifically uses both female and male nouns and pronouns thereby asserting the active role of women, and it gives constitutional parity to all international human rights treaties signed by Venezuela.
This is the very same Constitution that the leaders of the 2002 coup suspended with the support of President Bush. No government is perfect, certainly not one like Venezuela’s that has inherited a weak, inefficient state bureaucracy, which is battling underdevelopment, which is struggling to maintain the rule of law amidst a culture of corruption and where key and powerful elements of civil society are anti-democratic and are backed by the powerful US superpower.  Nevertheless, government of President Chávez has not once suspended constitutional guarantees despite extreme provocation of a coup d’etat, irresponsible media calls to violence and racism, crippling lockouts and street riots. And while rights abuses may occur, as they do in the region, Venezuela’s record on human rights is excellent compared to Colombia, Peru, Honduras or México and other neighboring countries.  They are certainly not in the league with those committed by the US. In Venezuela, there are no illegal political prisoners, no secret prisons, no displaced populations, no practice of torture, no illegal detentions, and Venezuela has invaded no country.
There is no reputable human rights organization saying that human rights abuses are worse under the government of President Chávez nor that it has carried out any systematic repression of political dissent. In fact, with the support of the International Development Bank, Venezuela is undergoing a comprehensive judicial reform to modernize and correct a judicial system that had long been disreputable.  As for Mr. Danger, acting more as an autocratic leader of an empire than as an elected president of a great republic, he has shown little respect for human rights even those of his own fellow citizens and has disregarded fundamental international agreements and principles. The UN Commission on Human Rights has denounced the prison at Guantanamo Bay and called for its closure. The appalling photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib prison shocked Americans and others alike yet no high-level officer has been held accountable. Europeans discovered that the US has used their air space to fly prisoners to secret prisons in Eastern Europe to be tortured  and the US Attorney General has stated that it is all right for President Bush to order torture of prisoners and widespread wiretapping of US citizens. The Bush Administration seems to violate with impunity international law and the fundamentals of due process such as habeas corpus, the right to an attorney, or trial by peers. As Paul Craig Roberts, a former Reagan Assistant Secretary of State has said, “ The Bush Administration… asserts the power of indefinite detention based on its subjective judgment about who is a threat. An American government that preaches freedom and democracy to the world claims the power of tyrants as its own” 
The world’s democratic leaders are not doing much to defend the very principles that are the lifeblood of democracy and peace. It seems that only President Hugo Chávez has had the courage to warn the world that Mr. Bush is indeed, Mr. Danger. The majority of Venezuelan citizens are judging President Chavez’ government, not by some ideal concept of democracy, revolution or socialism, but by the wasteland of their recent history. Neither are they following any model from Russia, China or even Cuba. The previous supposed democracy was only a façade for plunder and abuse by wealthy upper classes that reaped the benefits of the nation’s immense oil wealth caring very little for the impoverished majority. In contrast, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is distinguished by eager citizen participation, which closes any gulf between politicians and the people they are to serve and it is the foundation for the socialism of the XXIst Century that Venezuelans hope to develop. And now for the cautionary tale for democracies. Here is the morale of the story: when a country’s elites disengage from the majority of the population, they fail to lead and will find that the majority will go their own way. Despite the best efforts of Mr. Danger to derail them, the humble Venezuelan people are going their own way and they deserve the chance to determine their destiny in a peaceful and democratic manner.