February 23, 2007

Chavez comes to town


The flamboyant Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has made his second visit to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, leaving heated discussion in his wake. The Venezuelan leader, no stranger to controversy, last Saturday visited a number of projects on which his country is co-operating with St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He also signed Venezuela’s regional co-operation initiative, with three regional leaders, Prime Ministers Baldwin Spencer, Roosevelt Skeritt and Ralph Gonsalves of Antigua, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines respectively.

Naturally in a society as small and politically polarised as ours, Chavez’s visit aroused strong emotions on both sides of the political fence. His fiery rhetoric, red tunic and rapport with crowds endeared him to the enthusiastic supporters of the governing ULP who perceive in him many of the qualities they admire about their own populist leader, Dr. Gonsalves.{{more}}

For those on the other side of the fence, the very name Chavez is anathema to them. Most of the rest of us however, are attempting to assess the significance and impact of Chavez’s visit in a more dispassionate way.

There are no doubt positive returns to St. Vincent and the Grenadines from its growing friendship with Chavez’s Venezuela. That oil-rich neighbour and its generous leader are helping our country in several tangible ways, especially in the area in which it has the greatest capacity to do so, in energy. Thus we have so far benefitted from cheaper cooking gas (the so-called “Labour gas”) under the terms of the Petrocaribe initiative, a programme assisting several Caribbean countries. Chavez has also pledged Venezuela’s support to SVG’s ambitious effort to construct an international airport at Argyle while Vincentian students currently pursuing studies in Venezuela, are the recipients of scholarships from that country.

No one can doubt the value of these initiatives, whatever their views on Chavez. But in spite of this there is some distinct disquiet or discomfort somewhere. Opponents of Dr. Gonsalves seem equally resolute in opposition to Chavez, accusing him of being a dictator, tyrant and, yes, communist. They accuse him of trying to use his oil money to influence other regional leaders and worry about a Chavez-Castro-Gonsalves axis.

Their fears will no doubt have been strengthened by last weekend’s visit. But the visit was not just about Chavez and Gonsalves. The leaders of Antigua and Dominica, along with Dr. Gonsalves signed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americans (ALBA). This initiative, signed by Venezuela and Cuba in December 2004, is promoted as an alternative to the stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), first advanced by the USA as THE future of trade in the Americas (Cuba excepting) but which they have now parked aside in favour of bilateral free trade pacts.

The FTAA itself was a source of great worry to many hemispheric countries fearing that it would entrench and deepen US economic hegemony over the entire western hemisphere. Even large nations like Brazil and Argentina expressed serious reservations and CARICOM made no secret of its grave concerns. ALBA is the Venezuelan response but it too has been met with some skepticism.

The major sources of concern over the Venezuelan connection seem to lie in the fear that any alliance with Chavez would be perceived in Washington as a hostile act, under President Bush’s infamous doctrine of “Who is not with me, is against me”. But to reduce our sovereign right to develop relations with any country to whether it pleases President Bush is betraying the national interests. Relations with Venezuela and co-operation with that country must be judged on their merit and not whether it pleases or displeases a third country.

The United States trusts itself to manage its strong business relationships with both Venezuela and communist China for the ultimate good of their people. Cannot we be trusted to manage our relationship with Venezuela?

The debate must examine ALBA and PetroCaribe in the context of our needs and development. We must learn to eschew biases and ignore propaganda and deal with the facts. We must remember that for all his idiosyncrasies, Chavez is a democratically elected leader whose Parliament, wisely or unwisely, has given him a free hand to promulgate decrees just as the 1989 one-party Parliament here gave Sir James Mitchell a free hand on Ottley Hall.

For all that is said and done, Venezuela and Chavez are making tangible contributions to our country’s development. Maybe those who worry about upsetting our northern friend and neighbour should encourage that power to do more to assist in a tangible way with our country’s development.