by Gary Olson
27 February, 2006
Mirror of http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2006-02/27olson.cfm
Here is today's multiple choice question: Who recently provided
1.15 million gallons of low-cost heating oil to thousands of poor
and working class families in seven East Coast states, including
25,000 people in Philadelphia, and did so with the words,
"No one should be forced to sacrifice food, shelter, or medicine
to stay warm"?
a.) King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
b.) Felix Rodriquez
c.) George W. Bush
d.) Oprah Winfrey
e.) 10 major U.S. oil companies.
The correct answer is "b" and Rodriquez is the CEO of Citgo, a
subsidiary of Venezuela's state-run oil company, Petroleos de
Venezuela SA (PDVSA). On behalf of Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez, he also distributed free heating oil to dozens of homeless
shelters from Maine to Delaware.
Venezuela, with the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East
and the world's fifth largest oil producer, also sold oil at far
lower costs to fifteen poor nations in the Caribbean and Central
America. Even Native Americans in Maine were recipients, and Chief
Bill Philips of the Micmac tribe thanked Pres. Chavez: "He is a
fellow Native from the Americas, and we appreciate Chavez trying
to bring low-cost heating oil for our elderly."
The 10 U.S. oil companies did not respond to requests to help the
poor. Just one of them, Exxon, reported record profits of $36
billion in 2005.
Can the twice democratically-elected Chavez be the same fellow
that Pat Robertson wants the CIA to assassinate, Secretary of
Defense Rumsfeld has likened to Adolf Hitler; and official and
semi-official types have placed on the White House "enemies list,"
labeled a "red devil," as "lethal as Osama bin Laden," and a
"madman"? Further, the U.S. supported a unsuccessful military
coup against Chavez in 2002 and Condoleeza Rice has called the
Venezuelan government a "major threat to the region."
Assuming for the moment that preventing Pennsylvanians from
freezing to death hasn't prompted this venomous rhetoric, what
could account for it? Perhaps the answer lies in some evil deeds
done by Pres. Chavez back in Venezuela. What mischief has he been
up to there?
The challenges are daunting in Venezuela where 80% of the
population is poor and some 1 million children scratch out a bare
subsistance in the major cities. After four decades of indifferent
upper-class rule, Chavez, a 51-year-old former army paratrooper,
was elected president in 1998 and again in 2004.
According to Washington-based economist Mark Weisbrot, "The
tangible improvements for those living in Caracus' poor barrios
have been noticed in the rest of Latin America, a region with the
most outrageously unequal income distribution in the world." Here
are a few highlights of his tenure:
* For the first time time, universal health care is official
state policy and peasants are living longer due to accessible
* Elementary schools are providing three free meals a day to all
students, drawing some million new students to school.
* misiones (missions/government projects) are extending vital
social services like literacy training, food subsidies, and
rudimentary health care to the poor.
* Indigenous Venezuealans, homosexuals and women are now
protected in the constitution.
* Land reform is redistributing idle land to landless peasants.
* Operation milegro (miracle), a joint venture with Cuban
doctors, has restored eyesight to thousands of blind people in the
Venezuelan elites, who despise Chavez and call him a "monkey,"
have tried mightily to sabotage the economy for eight years but it
grew at a respectable nine percent in 2005, the highest in the
Venezuelan oil has made this possible but only Chavez acted on the
clearly subversive and radical notion that his country's vast
resources should be used to benefit the country's people and even
those beyond its borders.
Oil was nationalized in 1976, but according to all accounts the
oil bureaucracy operated as a "state within a state," refusing to
function on behalf of the citizens. The system remains imperfect
but Chavez finally excercised effective control over PSVSA in
2001. State oil profits were over $25 billion last year and the
petrodollars are now staying home in the form of high social
spending, faithfully reflecting social ownership of this natural
resource. Something must be working because his approval rating
stands at 77%, the highest in the Americas.
And of course this begins to explain why Chavez is viewed as a
threat, as a "virus" that might "infect" others. An alternative
development model where the citizens, not private U.S. foreign
investors, are the primary beneficiaries of government policy is
feared by U.S. elites. As Latin American expert Prof. Rosa Maria
Pegueros observes, from Washington's perspective the real threat
is that if Chavez succeeds, he may "create an eqalitarian society
that has the power to resist United States hegemony."
Who knows where this virus may appear next. To help it spread, I'm
filling my tank at the Citgo station from now on.
Gary Olson, Ph.D. is chair of the Political Science Department at
Moravian College in Bethlehem,PA. Contact:firstname.lastname@example.org
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