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Publication date: 12/28/2001

U.S. cooking up a coup in Venezeula?

By Conn Hallinan
Special To The Examiner

THERE is the smell of a coup in the air these days. It was like this in Iran just before the 1953 U.S.-backed coup overthrew the Mossedeah government and installed the Shah. It has the feel of 1963 in South Vietnam, before the military takeover switched on the light at the end of the long and terrible Southeast Asian tunnel. It is hauntingly similar to early September 1973, before the coup in Chile ushered in 20 years of blood and darkness.

Early last month, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department held a two-day meeting on U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Similar such meetings took place in 1953, 1963, and 1973, as well as before coups in Guatemala, Brazil and Argentina. It should send a deep chill down the backs of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the populist coalition that took power in 1998.

The catalyst for the Nov. 5-7 interagency get-together was a comment by Chavez in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. While Chavez sharply condemned the attack, he questioned the value of bombing Afghanistan, calling it "fighting terrorism with terrorism." In response, the Bush administration temporarily withdrew its ambassador and convened the meeting.

The outcome was a requirement that Venezuela "unequivocally" condemn terrorism, including repudiating anything and anyone the Bush administration defines as "terrorist." Since this includes both Cuba (with which Venezuela has extensive trade relations) and rebel groups in neighboring Colombia (to whom Chavez is sympathetic), the demand was the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet.

The spark for the statement might have been Sept. 11, but the dark clouds gathering over Venezuela have much more to do with enduring matters -- like oil, land and power.

The Chavez government is presently trying to change the 60-year-old agreement with foreign oil companies that charges them as little as 1 percent in royalties and hands out huge tax breaks. There is a lot at stake here. Venezuela has 77 billion barrels of proven reserves and is the United States' third-biggest source of oil. It is also a major cash cow for the likes of Phillips Petroleum and ExxonMobil. If the new law goes through, U.S. and French oil companies will have to pony up a bigger slice of their take.

A larger slice is desperately needed in Venezuela. Although oil generates some $30 billion each year, 80 percent of Venezuelans are, according to government figures, "poor," and half of those are malnourished. Most rural Venezuelans have no access to land except to work it for someone else, because 2 percent of the population controls 60 percent of the land.

The staggering gap between a tiny slice of "haves" and the sea of "have nots" is little talked about in the American media, which tend to focus on President Chavez's long-winded speeches and unrest among the urban wealthy and middle class. U.S. newspapers covered the Dec. 10 "strike" by business leaders and a section of the union movement protesting a series of economic laws and land reform proposals, but not the fact that the Chavez government has reduced inflation from 40 percent to 12 percent, generated economic growth of 4 percent, and increased primary school enrollment by 1 million students.

Rumblings from Washington, strikes by business leaders, and pot-banging demonstrations by middle-class housewives are the fare most Americans get about Venezuela these days. For any balance one has to go to local journalists John Marshall and Christian Parenti. In a Dec. 10 article in the Chicago bi-weekly In These Times, the two reporters give "the other side" that the U.S. media always go on about but rarely present: The attempts by the Venezuelan government to diversify its economy, turn over idle land to landless peasants, encourage the growth of co-ops based on the highly successful Hungarian model, increase health spending fourfold, and provide drugs for 30 to 40 percent below cost.

But the alleviation of poverty is not on Washington's radar screen these days. Instead, U.S. development loans have been frozen, and the State Department's specialist on Latin America, Peter Romero, has accused the Chavez government of supporting terrorism in Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. These days that is almost a declaration of war and certainly a green light to any anti-Chavez forces considering a military coup.

U.S. hostility to Venezuela's efforts to overcome its lack of development has helped add that country to the South American "arc of instability" that runs from Caracas in the north to Buenos Aires in the south, and includes Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. Failed neoliberal economic policies, coupled with corruption and authoritarianism, have made the region a powder keg, as recent events in Argentina demonstrate. And the Bush administration's antidote? Matches, incendiary statements, and dark armies moving in the night.

Examiner contributor Conn Hallinan is a journalism lecturer and provost at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His column appears every other Friday.

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