By BENJIE OLIVEROS
Part 1 of 2
Much has been written about America’s bombing and eventual occupation of Iraq, as well as its occupation of Afghanistan. Recently, the US announced its pivot to Asia, which would translate into deploying 60 percent of its naval vessels and troops overseas to the region. For a while, Central and South American countries, popularly called Latin America, were almost left on their own. This somehow opened the doors for the election of progressives in government such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Dilma Vana Rousseff of Brazil, among others.
It would be remembered that during the 70s and 80s, the US, in an effort to protect its backyard against the rise of the Left, deposed left-leaning heads of state such as Salvador Allende of Chile and installed and propped up dictators in the region such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina, General Carlos Humberto Romero of El Salvador, Hugo Banzer of Bolivia, the Somozas of Nicaragua, among others. Thousands of activists disappeared, became victims of death squads, or were imprisoned.
However, by the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s when George H.W. Bush, who owns an oil company, rose to power, the US trained its guns on oil-rich Middle East. It was a time when erstwhile socialist countries had began dismantling its socialist structures and policies and the US was in need of an enemy to justify its ever-increasing military budget. This supposed enemy took the form of “Islamic militancy and terrorism” in the Al-Queda. Thus began US efforts to corner the richest sources of oil in the region.
Today, while tens of thousands of US troops and “defense contractors” are still in Afghanistan and Iraq, and US Pres. Barack Obama has announced plans to pivot to Asia, the US could not help but train its sights on Venezuela.
Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporting country in the world, with the largest proven oil reserves at an estimated 296.5 billion barrels (20% of global reserves) as of 2012. It is the biggest headache to the US in the region, especially when Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer last year, was elected president. Chavez, who the US tried to depose through sponsoring a coup d’ etat in 2002, was an advocate of Bolivarianism, which aims for Latin American integration, and what he calls as Socialism of the 21st century. He also openly criticized and challenged US aggression overseas and tightened government control over the operations and revenues of the state oil company. Chavez exerted efforts to galvanize Latin American unity to counter US efforts to control the politics, trade, investments, and resources in the region. The US did succeed in deposing Chavez during the April 11, 2002 coup, which installed wealthy businessman Pedro Carmona. But the mass protests that followed caused the resignation of Carmona and the reinstallation of Chavez.
The hallmark of the Chavez presidency from 1999 to 2013 was his economic and social policies. Right after his election, the Chavez government supported the formation of 100,000 state-owned cooperatives and 30,000 communal councils. To solve the problem of malnutrition, Chavez imposed a price ceiling on food products and supported domestic production. Between 1998 to 2006, malnutrition-related deaths went down by 50%.
Government spending on education was increased from 3.14 % of GDP during the Caldera government in 1998 to 5.1 % in 2006 to the current level of 6.9 % of GDP. (The Philippines spends a mere 2.3 % of GDP on education.) As a result, today 95.5% of adults and 98.5% of youth in Venezuela are literate and 95% of children complete their primary school.
Likewise, government spending on health increased from 1.6% of GDP in 2000 to 7.7% in 2006.
Poverty decreased from 50% in 1998 to 25% in 2012, according to World Bank estimates. Inequality has also declined, as evidenced by the Gini Index, which fell from 0.49 in 1998 to 0.39 in 2011, one of the lowest rates in the region.
The minimum wage has increased annually by 10 – 20 percent. The unemployment rate hovered between a high 18% in 1999 to 8.2 in 2011.
Thus, during the presidential election of July 2000, Chavez won with 59.76% of the votes. During the December 2006 elections, he got 64% of the votes. When Chavez died in 2013, the US saw the opportunity for another attempt at “regime change.”
When Chavez died, his vice president Nicolas Maduro Moros took over as interim president until the latter won in a special election in April 2013. President Maduro, a former bus driver and trade union leader, was elected to the National Assembly in 2000 before serving in various posts in the Chavez government. His government is now being confronted by intensified attacks and demonstrations being led by the opposition.