Venezuela, South America, and the return of the oligarchs

John Wight
John Wight has written for newspapers and websites across the world, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal. He is also a regular commentator on RT and BBC Radio. John is currently working on a book exploring the role of the West in the Arab Spring. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnWight1
© Jorge Silva
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s declaration of a state of emergency in the country he has led since the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013 marks a seminal moment not only for Venezuela but the entire region.

That the South American subcontinent is in the throes of an assault by conservative and reactionary political forces, after a period during which leftist ideas were predominant, is now beyond dispute.

The objective of this assault is to roll back the leftist current inspired by Hugo Chavez when he came to office in Venezuela in 1998. Of indigenous heritage himself, Chavez survived a coup attempt in 2002 that was supported by the US. His sudden death in March 2013 came after a two-year battle with cancer and ever since questions over whether the cancer that killed him was naturally occurring or was the result of poisoning haven't gone away.

Prior to Chavez’s death, President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was ousted by the Honduran military and sent into exile in 2009. In 2012, Paraguayan President, Fernando Lugo, was forced out of office when the country’s senate initiated impeachment proceedings. Ecuadorean President, Rafael Correa, has already survived one coup attempt by his country’s military in 2010 and the situation within Ecuador remains tense. Meanwhile, since Chavez’s death, Argentina’s former president, Cristina Kirchner, has been indicted by the country’s federal court on a charge of defrauding the state during her time in office. Finally, and most recently, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has been suspended from office pending a trial on the charge of manipulating the budget - proceedings which Rousseff and her supporters have labeled a coup.

What each of the aforementioned leaders have in common is that they supported Hugo Chavez’s vision of a continent free of US political and economic domination, and had and have sought to redistribute wealth and resources to the poor, especially the subcontinent's indigenous peoples who for generations have been marginalized, left to wallow in poverty and regarded as second, even third class citizens.

Venezuela’s current President, Nicolas Maduro, was one of Chavez’s closest allies and supporters. He took over the presidency pledging to continue radical reforms that his predecessor initiated and inspired. Under the aegis of the Bolivarian Constitution, its achievements are a matter of record.

The mass literacy program initiated by the Chavez government, in cooperation with Cuba, was the biggest and most ambitious ever undertaken, its success acknowledged by UNESCO in 2005, when it declared Venezuela ‘illiteracy-free territory’. Cuba also played a key role in the establishment of health clinics throughout the country, designed to provide free healthcare to the poor.

Meanwhile, according to the UN – measured against life expectancy, health and education - the quality of life of Venezuelans improved at the third highest rate in the world under Chavez between 2006-11. Additionally, poverty was cut from 48.6 percent in 2002 to 29.5 percent by 2011. Venezuela also had the lowest rate of income inequality of any country in Latin America and the Caribbean at the time of Chavez’s death in 2013.

In order to achieve such outstanding results, the Chavez government waged war against the country’s economic elite within, seizing the assets of over 1,000 companies, and also without, nationalizing oil fields that were owned by US oil giants Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips. He also demanded a larger share of the revenue from other international oil corporations operating in the country.

Price controls were introduced in order to ensure the affordability of basic necessities, which along with free education, healthcare and the constitutional right to a home ensured that the Bolivarian Revolution was a beacon of hope to the poor and marginalized - not just in Venezuela, but throughout the region and across the wider Global South.

When it came to foreign policy, Chavez proved a formidable foe of US hegemony, taking every opportunity to denounce the history of Washington’s role in subverting democracy, human rights and national sovereignty throughout Latin America, and to educate the Venezuelan people on the history of US imperialism. He sought and forged closer ties with Cuba, China, Russia and Iran – i.e. countries that also opposed and challenged US domination – and embarked on numerous initiatives throughout the region to foment closer economic, political and cultural integration.

The fruits of this policy remain in place with the existence of the free trade economic bloc under the auspices of Mercosur, the economic, political and cultural integrationist project knows as ALBA, and the pan-Latin American television and media network, Telesur. Prior to his death, Chavez had ambitions to set up a regional development bank in order to end dependence on the IMF and World Bank, and a regional energy market.

Since Maduro came to office, the global economic climate has combined with a determined campaign conducted by the aforementioned oligarchs and their supporters to plunge Venezuela into an economic, social and political crisis of which the 60-day state of emergency, just declared, is the latest chapter.

Inflation has skyrocketed, there is a shortage of basic goods on supermarket shelves, which Maduro has blamed on an orchestrated policy by his political opponents of hoarding food supplies in order to foment social unrest. Caracas now holds the onerous distinction of being labeled the world’s most violent city.

The major factor responsible for the economic crisis that has engulfed the country has been the sharp decline in the price of oil. For an oil-dependent economy such as Venezuela, ruled by a government committed to investing in and raising the expectations of the poor, the prospect of what at present is a social crisis erupting into social convulsion is all too real.

If the Maduro government is unable to weather the storm of growing opposition it is currently facing and falls, in its place will come an alternative committed to reversing the reforms carried over the past 15 years and returning Venezuela to its ‘rightful owners’. If and when such a day comes, the sound of champagne corks popping within the US State Department will threaten to smash the windows.

Former Cuban president, Fidel Castro, once described a revolution as “a struggle to the death between the future and the past.”

In 2016, South America is hurtling back in time at a truly frightening speed.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.