Aug 2, 2004
After a year-long legal battle, Venezuelan courts last month allowed a recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez to go ahead. The vote is scheduled for August 15.
U.S. President George Bush called for an "honest and open" vote. He said that "for the credibility of the current government, they must welcome observers, and they must not interfere with the referendum process."
It's ironic that these words should come from a man who himself became president under questionable circumstances, without actually winning the popular vote. By those standards, Chavez is certainly a more legitimate elected official than Bush is. Chavez has won two presidential elections, in 1998 and 2000, both times with a clear majority of the popular vote.
Venezuela is part of Latin America, however – what U.S. imperialism has long considered its "backyard." So Bush's close interest in that country's affairs is neither surprising nor anything new. In fact, this very referendum wouldn't be happening if it hadn't been pushed by the Bush administration.
The U.S. has been after Chavez practically from the day he was elected president. Bush backed a coup attempt against him in April 2002. Chavez survived it, thanks to masses of poor and working-class people who poured into the streets in support of him, and army officers who then remained loyal to him. Eight months later, the managers of the state-run oil industry organized a strike. Oil production, the country's main source of income, stopped for two months. That's when the Organization of American States (OAS), pushed forward by the U.S., forced Chavez to agree to a referendum campaign against him, even though his term ends in 2006.
Why is the U.S. after Chavez? From the beginning, Chavez showed the U.S. that he had every intention to continue the past relationship between the two countries. He has continued to make new contracts with U.S. oil companies. He has continued to sell Venezuela's oil in the North American market.
But Chavez creates a problem, none the less, for the U.S. He has a popular base among the urban poor in shanty-towns and the poor peasants in the countryside. As part of maintaining his populist image, he has made defiant gestures against the U.S., such as striking a friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro and visiting Saddam Hussein when Bush was preparing to attack Iraq. He ordered the Venezuelan army to repel the U.S.-backed Colombian army, when the Colombians entered Venezuela in pursuit of Colombian rebels.
As a major supplier of oil to the U.S. market, Venezuela is important for U.S. corporations. Any act of independence on the part of the Venezuelan government, no matter how small or symbolic, can be intolerable to the U.S. – especially when the whole region is so explosive. Eighty% of the population lives below the poverty level and there is ongoing war in neighboring Colombia. So the U.S. wants to show all the governments in the region that it will not accept anything but complete submission.
Will Chavez survive the recall? Polls say that it's likely. That would be no surprise, given that his opponents – the big bosses, oil executives fired by Chavez, some union bureaucrats and the Catholic Church – are almost as much at odds with each other as they are with Chavez.
If Chavez stays in power, however, it is certain that the U.S. will continue to target him. For the big bully has to show everyone on the block who's the boss.