This is a tale of two neighbors, Venezuela and Colombia, their leaders, and how they are treated by the world's most powerful nation, the United States.
President Barack Obama once called Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez "a force that has interrupted progress in the region," a statement that defies any notion of reality and smacks of deliberately disingenuous or woefully ignorant regard for history. Chávez has never invaded or menaced any country in the region. He has actually been the leading figure in promoting cooperation among Latin American and Caribbean nations.
The United States, on the other hand, has intervened in, attacked, invaded or occupied countries in the region no less than 55 times. It has overthrown or helped to overthrow democratically elected leaders in Guatemala, Guyana, Ecuador, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Bolivia and Haiti, and unsuccessfully attempted to do so in Costa Rica, Jamaica and, as you're about to see, Venezuela. Washington has also meddled in elections in no fewer than 11 different Latin American and Caribbean nations.
Washington has armed, trained and funded forces backed by American business interests and local economic elites as they ruthlessly crushed the hopes of the impoverished and repressed masses in nearly every single country in Latin America. Which country, Venezuela or the United States, acts more like "a force that has interrupted progress in the region?"
While it is true that Hugo Chávez demonstrated an increasingly authoritarian leadership style that alarmed even sympathetic observers, he was elected by the Venezuelan people not once, not twice, but three times in elections that were deemed legitimate by international observers and that went uncontested by the losers. Former US President Jimmy Carter called the Venezuelan electoral process "the best in the world," while decrying the American system as "one of the worst" due to "the excessive influx of money."
It is the very apex of hypocrisy that the United States would berate Venezuela over its democratic shortcomings, especially when you consider George W. Bush's so-called 'stolen election' of 2000 and the fact that the Bush administration supported a very undemocratic coup against Chávez in 2002. It failed miserably, and Chávez was swept back to power on a wave of popular support after a two-day absence in which he says he was nearly assassinated.
Back in charge, Chávez continued with the sweeping reforms of the "Bolivarian Revolution" that made him a hero to millions of impoverished Venezuelans and a villain to the country's oligarchs and their friends in Washington and on Wall Street. In a nation where millions of poor people had never seen a doctor or dentist in their lives, Chávez reduced poverty by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent. He imported thousands of Cuban doctors, dentists and medical professionals to treat Venezuelans for free, resulting in plunging infant mortality rates. He instituted land reform to help small farmers and landless peasants. Illiteracy was nearly eliminated (there are EU countries with lower literacy rates than Venezuela) by making public education-- including university-- free for everyone. He made food more affordable by establishing government-supported community stores that sell good for well below the market price. He provided employment to countless Venezuelans through worker cooperatives and small business loans.
US leaders from both political parties demonize Chávez and his populist reforms because many of the changes-- especially nationalizing the assets of foreign corporations-- threaten Washington's and Wall Street's interests and profits. But Venezuela's human rights record is far cleaner than that of its neighbor Colombia, which enjoys Washington's full support. The Colombian government, military and paramilitary forces are, by far, the worst human rights violators in the Western Hemisphere. But billions of US taxpayer dollars are poured into Colombia, where the armed forces and paramilitary death squads commit gruesome atrocities, like a series of chainsaw massacres in which hundreds of innocent civilians were slaughtered.
The Colombian army recently murdered more than a thousand innocent boys and young men, luring them with false promises of employment and then executing them at point-blank range for bonus pay and extra vacation days. Brutal Colombian military officers like Maj. Alirio Antonio Urueña Jaramillo, who tortured old women before stuffing them in coffee sacks and chopping them up with chainsaws, have received training in kidnapping, torture, assassination and democracy suppression at the US Army School of the Americas.
American corporations like Coca-Cola, Chiquita, Occidental Petroleum and Drummond Coal have all recently borne responsibility for the torture and murder of labor unionists and other innocent civilians in Colombia and Guatemala who have stood between them and maximum profits. These companies paid paramilitary death squads to brutally crush labor unrest. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians have been displaced by the violence, many of them deliberately, so that multinational mining corporations could get their hands on resource-rich lands.
In 2007, the CIA learned that Colombia's army chief, Gen. Mario Montoya, was working closely with terrorist groups, one of which was headed by one of the country's leading drug traffickers. Gen. Montoya and his paramilitary allies carried out an operation in Medellin in which guerrillas and civilians alike were hacked to pieces and buried in unmarked graves. Montoya was far from the only prominent Colombian with links to paramilitaries; a former foreign minister, a state governor, the national police chief and several lawmakers have all been implicated. Still, Colombia receives some $700 million each year in US aid, the most of any country outside the Middle East.
Unlike Colombia, there are no death squads in Venezuela. But unlike Hugo Chávez, who nationalized much of Venezuela's petroleum industry and was frosty towards Washington, Colombian leaders have flung their nation's doors wide open to foreign investors. That is why Chávez is vilified while Colombia is lavished with billions of dollars in US aid.
Fed up with American imperialism, Latin America has increasingly turned to Venezuela for friendship and opportunity, which further threatens Washington's hegemony. Chávez's Petrocaribe alliance, which provides long-term loans at 1 percent interest to purchase Venezuelan oil, counts 18 regional nations as members. Chávez used Venezuela's oil wealth not only to raise living standards for millions of Venezuelans but also to assist the poor right here in the United States-- Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, has been providing free home heating oil to around half a million low-income Americans in 25 states every year since 2005. Citgo's December 2011 announcement that it would renew the program came just in the nick of time: three weeks later, Congress and the Obama administration slashed the federal government's heating assistance program by 25 percent, leaving a million households literally in the cold. How dare we demonize Chávez as an enemy of the United States when his government is keeping hundreds of thousands of Americans from possibly freezing to death each and every winter?
Far from being the disruptive, dictatorial force that Washington claims, Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" has been an inspiration to tens of millions of Latin Americans who yearn for more just societies. That's why a whole wave of democratically elected leftist governments have swept into power across the region: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras all elected progressive governments during the 2000s. Tellingly, leaders of those nations have been labeled "dictators," "communists" and even "madmen" by the United States. Progressive leaders like "Mel" Zelaya in Honduras, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador are continuously vilified for pursuing a divergent developmental path from the one favored by Washington and Wall Street. This makes them a threat in the eyes of American elites. But it also makes them heroes in the eyes of countless millions of long-suffering Latin Americans.
-Brett Wilkins is the editor of Moral Low Ground and has traveled extensively throughout Latin America.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com