ON August 15, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez formally announced his plans to institute radical changes in the country’s Constitution. Chavez has been saying for some time that the proposed changes are essential if the country is to “head straight towards socialism”. His critics, mainly from the West, have chosen to focus on one aspect of these changes – that of abolishing the two-term limit on the presidency. The other, more important, constitutional changes include giving the government the power to speedily expropriate private property and to promote cooperatives and state enterprises.
The goal of achieving comprehensive land reforms has been a priority of the Venezuelan government. Since his emphatic victory in last December’s presidential elections, Chavez has nationalised the telecommunication and power sectors. He has also made Western energy giants agree to revenue-sharing terms that are unprecedented in the hydrocarbon sector.
In his weekly television address, Allo Presidente, in mid-August Chavez told the Venezuelan people that the new constitutional reforms were aimed at building a “Bolivarian democracy” by increasing people’s power an d participation in the running of the government.
One of the radical changes he has proposed is to give local “communal councils” a big role in decision making at the state level. Organised communities will be the primary nucleus of the government.
After the National Assembly approves the draft of the new Constitution, it will be voted upon in a national referendum. The results seem to be a foregone conclusion as Chavez’s popularity hovers at around 70 per cent. Once the new Constitution is approved, the government will start financing the local councils directly from the national budget. “The new proposal means that from now on a part of the national resources will be assigned to the organised communities,” Chavez said in his television address. According to him, each community would be made up of a communal council, with the association of several communal councils making up a commune.
Chavez rebutted allegations from the Opposition and some Western governments that his moves were aimed at eliminating private property and enterprise. He said “several types of property including private property” would be recognised in Venezuela. The new Constitution will recognise four forms of property – social, collective, mixed and private. This is aimed at expanding state and popular control over the economy while retaining a role for private enterprise.
Chavez scoffed at criticism about the move to remove curbs on the term of the President. He told Western media representatives in Caracas that there were no limits on the terms of Presidents in Europe. “They are making a big deal because we are allowing people to decide on something which has existed in Europe for centuries,” he said. He pointed out that Venezuelans, unlike Western citizens, could vote frequently on important economic and political issues. “Here if you want to change a single comma in the Constitution you cannot do it without the approval of the people in a national referendum. It is the people who are in charge here. I wish they would do that in Europe. I wish they would consult the people about the economic and political systems there.”
The aim of the Constitutional reforms is to consolidate “the power of the people” by strengthening the state’s power over the country’s natural resources. “The proposals aim to finish off the old hegemony of the conservative oligarchy and give birth to a new, humanist, socialist system,” Chavez said. Before he announced his plans for new constitutional reforms, he had argued forcefully for the consolidation of all left-wing and progressive forces under a single banner. With this goal in view, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) was launched formally earlier this year.
Chavez indicated that the old established parties of the Left would have to either give up their independent identities or sit in the Opposition. Many of the cadre from the Venezuelan Communist Party, the Party of Socialist Revolution, and the National Union of Workers have already joined the PSUV, leading to splits in their organisations. The PSUV claims a membership of five million and will hold its inaugural conference later this year.
GOOD REGIONAL TIES
Since his re-election, Chavez has kept his focus on foreign policy and the importance of having friends and allies in the region. He has proposed that all the left-wing parties in the region coordinate their activities. The United States has described Chavez as Latin America’s most dangerous “individual of concern”. Having failed to oust him through a coup sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the George W. Bush administration is now trying to discredit the Venezuelan leader.
Today, Chavez, who regards Fidel Castro as his role model, is counted among the tallest leaders in the region. Giving him company are Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. Together they are trying to build a new America that would be free of the malignant influence of the U.S.
Venezuela, along with Cuba, had formed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) in 2004 to counter the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). After the election of more progressive governments in the region, ALBA membership has grown. Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua have also entered into a People’s Trade Agreement, or Tratado de Comercio de los Pueblos (TCP). More underdeveloped states in the region are queuing up to join these groupings, which aim at integrating the region’s economy. Venezuela has been liberal in giving aid to needy countries, underlining the fact that unlike other free trade groupings such as the FTAA, profit-making or market economics is not the driving force behind ALBA. If Chavez has loosened his purse strings, Cuba, too, has chipped in by devoting a considerable amount of its medical and agricultural know-how for the benefit of the poor in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Other countries opposed to Washington’s hegemonic style are also getting involved. Iran has got “observer” status in ALBA and has made substantial investments in Nicaragua and Venezuela. It recently signed investment and trade deals with Ecuador. Iran and Venezuela will be jointly building an oil refinery in Syria capable of refining 140,000 barrels a day. The project is expected to cost $1.5 billion.
Another important foreign policy initiative of Chavez has been the PetroCaribe. Under this programme, Venezuela supplies heavily subsidised oil to energy-starved Caribbean nations. Many of these small island nations in the region would have been economically devastated had Venezuela had not stepped in.
Chavez has announced plans to build an underwater pipeline connecting Venezuela to Haiti, Puerto Rico and Cuba and has told the Caribbean countries that they need not worry about their energy needs in “this century and beyond”. He recently said that if Latin America “truly unites, the grandchildren of our grandchildren will have no energy problems.” Another of Chavez’s proposal, one that he had spoken about extensively at the Havana Non-Aligned Movement summit in 2006, was the creation of an alternative to international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In the June 2007 ALBA summit, Venezuela proposed the creation of the Banco del Sur (Bank of the South). The Bank, unlike the IMF, will not charge usurious interest rates or impose harsh conditions for granting loans to developing countries.
Venezuela has become the biggest provider of aid to the Caribbean and Latin American region, pushing the U.S. to second place. This year itself, Venezuela pledged to provide more than $8.8 billion in aid, funding and financing energy projects. In contrast, about half of the U.S. aid to the continent is earmarked for military and police programmes in countries friendly to the U.S. Chavez helped Argentina pay off its debt to the IMF by buying $5.1 billion in Argentine bonds.
Venezuela, while conducting its high-profile diplomacy, is also taking care to shore up the country’s defences. Chavez has said on several occasions that he fears a military invasion by the U.S.
Recent statements by top Bush administration officials about Chavez and Venezuela have only served to substantiate this threat perception. The U.S. has several bases in the region. The government in neighbouring Colombia is one of the closest military allies of Washington and U.S. forces are deployed on the ground there.
In 2006, the U.S. Navy carried out a large exercise off the Venezuelan coast under the code name “Operation Partnership of the Americas”. Ominously, the Spanish Navy had carried out large-scale military exercises near Venezuela 11 months before the coup attempt in 2002.
The U.S. has had a penchant for invading countries in the region. The Dominican Republic, Grenada and Panama have been victims in the past 50 years. The Bush administration, with its doctrine of using pre-emptive force, is viewed as the most unpredictable U.S. administration in decades.
To be prepared for all kinds of threats, be it a Washington-sponsored counter-revolution launched from a neighbouring country or a full-scale U.S. military invasion, the Venezuelan government has imported one million AK-103 rifles from Russia to arm its self-defence forces. Among its other big-ticket purchases from Russia are 53 dual use helicopters and 24 Sukhoi (SU-30) fighters. A factory to produce Kalashnikov rifles is being set up with Russian support in Venezuela.
The Bush administration had refused to provide spares for U.S.-supplied military equipment such as the F-16s, effectively grounding them in the process. It has also prevented Venezuela from sourcing supplies of sophisticated arms from U.S. allies such as Spain. While Washington has been complaining loudly about Venezuela’s arms purchases, Venezuela’s neighbours realise that this is being done only to combat the threat from the North.