The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is extending his authority by presidential decree formally ratified by Venezuelan MP´s. He has announced that he will use his new powers to initiate a period of "maximum revolution" and turn Venezuela into a socialist society.
He promises to;
Of course, the US is highly critical of this plan. John Negroponte (US state department), described the development as "radical populism" that poses a threat to democracy. A rather hypocritical statement since the US has always been happy to act to destroy democratic movements in South America - preferring instead to install dictatorships who employ CIA trained death squads to ensure that the US can turn a good profit. Chavez is already in the US´s bad books because in 2001 he oversaw a large rise in taxation on foreign oil companies working in Venezuela, many of whom are US based.
The nationalisation plans have targeted companies such as CANTV (communications) and Electricidad de Caracas (utilities) who have US stakeholders. His plans to increase state control of oil and gas companies affects the US because Venezuela supplies the US with oil and has the largest reserve of natural gas in South America. Chavez also intends forcing oil companies such as British Petroleum, Exxon Mobil and Chevron to state-controlled joint ventures.
His moves to increase taxation on the rich are also unpopular with.... the rich. They are worried that he will seize second homes (poor babies) in his bid to deal with homelessness and social exclusion. Chavez responded to criticisms of his plans by noting "Nobody should allow themselves be imbued with fear. If anybody should be scared, we should be scared of capitalism, which destroys society, people and the planet."
He kinda has a point.
Chavez has threatened to expel US Ambassador William Brownfield following his statement on Venezuelan radio that "every government in the world is obliged to carry out nationalisations in a legal and transparent way and offer fair and prompt compensation." Chavez responded by confirming that he did not intend to pay the market price for the shares in nationalized industries because companies still owed significant sums of money to the Venezuelan government and workers. He also warned the Ambassador that his meddling in Venezuelan affairs constituted a breach of the Geneva conventions.
However, some westerners have welcomed the changes. Thousands of western tourists known as "sandalistas" (in a pun on "Sandinista", the democratic socialist revolutionaries of Nicaragua who were replaced with a violent dictatorship during a bloody revolution sponsored by the US) have flocked to the country to visit the slums rather than the beaches. These tourists return with tales of agricultural cooperatives, shantytown medical clinics and adult literacy programmes. To them it seems clear that the life of the poorer Venezuelan has been immeasurably improved by the reforms.
On the downside, there are frequent claims of corruption and many fear that increasing the president´s powers will result in the demise of democracy in Venezuela. Chavez has announced that he will not renew the licence of the second largest media company, Radio Caracas Television, when it expires in March. Chavez stated "No media outlet will be tolerated here that is at the service of coup-ism, against the people, against the nation, against national independence, against the dignity of the republic". Freedom of the press is clearly important in a democracy, but there was an attempted coup in 2002 which was apparently funded by the media tycoons Chaves wants to shut down and was conducted with high level support from the US State Department.
Elliot Abrams (a senior director of the National Security Council for democracy, human rights and international operations - honestly) knew all about the planned coup and supported it. This upstanding gentleman was previously convicted for misleading Congress on the Iran-Contra affair in which the US bought arms from Iran to sell to the Contras to be used against the government of Nicaragua. Otto Reich (George Bush´s key policy-maker for Latin America)had numerous meetings with the plotters. Reich previously ran the Office for Public Diplomacy for Reagan, reporting to the infamous Colonel Oliver North who was convicted by congress for his role in the Iran-Contra affair.
So is Chavez the defender of his people, or the enemy of democracy? Or both? He was re-elected with a landslide victory in 2006 in which he received 68 percent of the votes cast. There were some claims of corruption, but comparitively few. When he won he stated "It´s another defeat for the devil (George Bush) who tries to dominate the world. Down with imperialism. We need a new world."
Whatever your view it is clear that the US criticisms of Chavez are based on pure self-interest, not on the protection of democracy. Their policies have not changed one bit and they will happily take down a democratically elected government if it gives them more control over foreign oil reserves. If they had their way, the Venezuelan poor would lose the free public healthcare, education, clean water etc that Chavez has provided, but the US would get cheaper oil. That is clearly more important than the lives of hundreds of thousands innocent civilians.
Here´s Chavez giving his views on Bush.