by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Panama City, Panama
February 26, 2007
HUGOTOCRACY, BUSHMANIA AND FIDELISMO
PANAMA CITY, Panama, Feb. 25, 2007 - Is President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela going to be Latin America's next Great Liberator, or will he drown his people in a petroleum-filled River Styx of debt and dismay?
A few days before U.S. President George W. Bush starts on the last-refuge road trip of lame-duck presidents - the Latin American state visit - analysts have chosen sides on the resurgence of Left-leaning governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and perhaps Paraguay, and the allegedly more reactionary regimes of the United States, Mexico, Colombia, and - some claim here - Panama.
Venezuela will not be a stop on the President's junket, but Hugo Chavez and his nationalization of foreign firms, local and national electoral reforms, suppression of criticism by politicians and the press, anti-Semitism, his tv shows and unlimited media access, his use of oil wealth to court OPEC friends and - by spending $4 billion last year - his bid to be the world's largest arms buyer, will be an item for quiet discussion at all of Mr. Bush's stops.
I've tried to focus my own view of the leader of the country where my wife and I honeymooned, where the people embrace a joie de vivre and, in the past, felt a true friendship for America, but my own thoughts were usurped by a "think piece" that left me saying, "Ummm, I should have said that."
The OpEd in Panama's Spanish-language daily La Prensa is called "The Uncertain Road of Venezuela," and was written by one Carlos Sabino, a university teacher who works with a group called the Liberty Foundation.
Sabino questions whether the open-ended reliance on oil riches as a panacea for domestic and foreign troubles is really enough to enable Chavez-style socialism to succeed down the road. He also reveals the "dirty little secret" of Venezuela: whether Hugo Chavez likes it our not, his population is held captive by the whims of the United States and its economy. One gathers that Americans can live with or without Venezuelan oil, and can jawbone the alternative energy spigot as needed to build political opposition to Chavez.
Just last week, in meetings with Panama's President Martin Torrijos, President Bush reminded Torrijos - and, by inference, the rest of the region - that plentiful, sometimes underpriced products including sugar and palm oil can be used as alternatives to fossil fuels. It's a new twist in American bargaining power against OPEC: a plethora of articles, studies and seminars show U.S. consumers know that making gasoline from corn, grass cuttings, McDonald's deep-fried grease or small trees and shrubs may cost more than oil from OPEC, but say that if they make America less reliant on Arabs and Venezuela, so be it.
But a larger question is whether his "Hugotocracy," in the "personalismo" form of Marxist-Leninism practiced by Fidel Castro in Cuba, is winning friends in the region. With each photo of Hugo smiling next to a Fidel propped up in his bed, Venezuelans should wonder if Hugo has picked the wrong horse to whip as he criticizes the United States.
Even the greatest apologists for educational, health, or social reforms in Castro's Cuba will probably admit that it came at the cost of a generation of indenture to the former Soviet Union, an erosion of creative and personal liberties, a huge entrepreneurial "brain drain," and a bare treasury that subsidized armed struggles in Angola or Mozambique, instead of vitamins for kids in Havana.
"What happens to Chavez when he is no longer able to feed those millions who are dependent upon making their living through petroleum?" Sabino asks.
He continues: "How does he answer the people when they see that their buying power is reduced because of inflation, and the depreciation of their currency? This their situation which will arise later, or perhaps sooner, when they have learned the reality of the course of 'revolutions' such as in Bolivia which today supports Venezuela. If Chavez has chosen this moment to consolidate his dictatorial power, it is very possible that he is able to establish in his country, a regime similar to his Cuban supporter, a classic totalitarian socialism; if he can't make this happen, or if public opinion people turn against him, it is possible to open a path to (internal) conflict of a magnitude unimaginable."
For now, the leaders of traditional Latin powerhouses like Argentina make overtures to Chavez if only to look like fence sitters back home - and to assure better oil prices for their consumers. Meanwhile, Chavez is dangling the carrot of refinery projects at the other end of his oil stick at the Dominican Republic and other English-speaking Caribbean states, apparently to further diversify his influence in the region.
History recalls that two generations ago, companies such as Esso-Creole Petroleum and Sinclair Venezuela Oil were among those nationalized by Venezuela, and that, three generations ago, Haiti's President-for-life" Francois ("Papa Doc") Duvalier rose to power by promising social change and appealing to Haitian's cultural pride. Seen through the lens of Mr. Sabino;s article, those events suggest Venezuela, too, will face a crisis of nationalism; note, please that today, Haiti is in worse shape than ever.
On one hand, Chavez is gathering to himself the military and diplomatic trappings of the former Soviet Union, while telling his people, as Sabino says, that they are to have have a socialist regime "a little more like the Swedes and Norwegians." But a little more like Cuba and Haiti" is the more likely result, I believe.