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Why Venezuela is Unthinkable in Canada

by Dru Oja Jay

Using oil revenues, Venezuela has built thirteen new tuition-free Bolivarian universities, from which 187,000 students have graduated since 2003. Photo: YVKE
Using oil revenues, Venezuela has built thirteen new tuition-free Bolivarian universities, from which 187,000 students have graduated since 2003. Photo: YVKE

"A journalist," economist Mark Weisbrot wrote last year, "can say almost anything about Chávez or his government and it is unlikely to be challenged, so long as it is negative." Canadians need only turn on their radios or TVs to confirm that this truism persists, even after the death of Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez.

To Canadian journalists, it's obvious that Chavez was a dictator, an autocratic man who fooled millions into voting for him and made a mess of his country. So obvious, that they don't need to cite evidence. Stateside, the hate has long reached a frothy fever pitch. Newsweek was not outside the norm when it compared Chavez to Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin in a news story.

So what makes Chavez, four times elected President of Venezuela, so hateable? It can't be any of the things that are usually listed (with almost no evidence or context): corruption, authoritarianism, economic disorder. Because the US and Canadian media tolerate and encourage these qualities in allies like Saudi Arabia, BahrainColombiaPhilippines and Haiti, about which relatively little ink has been spilled.

Chavez, it is frequently observed, represented one of the strongest voices of opposition to US wars and its domineering foreign policy. International diplomacy was wary of confronting the military and economic superpower in the room. Invigorated by high oil prices, Chavez flouted convention and said what no one was saying but many were thinking. He made alliances and led efforts to strengthen regional trading, loosening the American grip on South America. His presidency cleared the way for the "pink tide" of left-wing governments on the continent. That's why the American establishment hated Chavez.

In Canada, the establishment's visceral and irrational response has more psychologically complex underpinnings. It comes down to a failure of imagination. Venezuela forces pundits and leaders uncomfortably close to thinking two thoughts which are unthinkable in Canada: that oil revenues and society's wealth might be used for the common good, and that Canada might have a foreign policy substantially independent of the US.

Canada and Venezuela both have very large oil reserves, but the similarities end there. Canada has a large, established middle class and high levels of individual material wealth, while Venezuela still has widespread, deep poverty and a tiny ultra-rich elite.

Looking at the records of the two countries since Chavez was first elected, it's easy to sympathize with Canadian elites. Looking at anything other than a twisted caricature of Venezuela must be a painful and confusing experience.

In Canada, governments are hell-bent on making university more expensive. The Quebec government paid its police force $29.6 million in overtime and other costs to battle students protesting tuition hikes, arresting thousands. At the same time, Canada's Conservative government spent $458 million in 2011 alone on expanding prison capacity.

A few years earlier in 2007, Venezuelan authorities spent $56 million to convert a former penitentiary into a university. Since 2003, they have built thirteen new universities and established hundreds of campuses offering courses across the country. 187,000 people have graduated from these tuition-free universities, which offer a range of degree programs. Notably, they teach the country's Indigenous languages.

A recent press release stressed the inclusiveness of the new network of universities. “Indigenous people, disabled persons, those of sexual and gender diversity; men and women who for a long time were excluded from the university subsystem today graduate with dignity, with humanity.” UNESCO now ranks Venezuela fifth overall in university enrolment.

Government-established "missions" have taught 1.75 million Venezuelans how to read since 2003, leading UNESCO to declare the country an “Illiteracy Free Territory” in 2005.

In Canada, income inequality and poverty are increasing. Since 2004, Venezuela has cut the amount of people living in poverty in half, and reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty by 70%. 

Canada's Liberals and Conservatives have been cutting arts, publishing and filmmaking budgets for years. In Venezuela, the government is building a film studio, increased funding for cultural activities, and has established bookstores in most cities where a variety of books can be bought for a few pennies, making them accessible to the poor.

Canada recently eliminated the successful Cooperative Development Initiative. Venezuela has financed the creation of tens of thousands of worker-owned enterprises, and has supported factory occupations, land reclamations and democratization of workplaces.

Canada does not label Genetically Modified foods, despite polls showing that 80 per cent of Canadians favour such labels. Venezuela banned GM crops in 2006.

Canada has the highest emergency room wait times in the developed world and its health care system faces a war of attrition fed by attempts at privatization. Venezuela is rapidly expanding health care services to the poor, and is training thousands of new doctors with assistance from Cuban medical schools.

Mounting evidence shows that Canada's most recent federal elections involved significant fraud which may have affected the outcome of the election, though no one has yet been punished or held accountable. In Venezuela, governments with healthy margins of victory have instituted a network of over 19,000 neighbourhood assemblies, to which billions of dollars have been disbursed to help fund local projects managed by the democratically-run assemblies.

So why can't Canada have similar benefits?

It starts with economic choices. Canada subsidizes oil and gas - one of the country's most profitable industries – with $1.4 billion per year in federal tax breaks. Venezuela has raised its royalty rates from 1% to 33%, and has increased tax rates. Oil-rich Alberta, by contrast, charges a 1% royalty for extraction projects until all capital costs are paid off, which amounts to a massive secondary subsidy.

It's hardly controversial to say that oil companies run the government in Alberta, and now the Federal Government. Many Albertans are strangely proud of the extent to which they give away their natural resources. Few bother to argue that it couldn't be different. In Venezuela, oil companies regularly are forced to pay higher taxes, or have their assets seized, but they keep coming back as long as the oil is flowing.

Canada's brief attempt at a state-owned oil company, PetroCanada, was privatized in 1990 and bought by tar sands giant Suncor in 2009. Venezuela's national oil company, PDVSA, has provided the revenues for most of the projects listed above. PDVSA has also instituted participatory decisionmaking in many of its workplaces, and supports many worker cooperatives through contract work.

Omission is the principle technique Canadian media have used to cast Chavez as an authoritarian. For example, when the CBC recently reported that Chavez's government did not renew the broadcast license of a major TV station, they left out the fact that this TV station had been a significant backer of a military coup that temporarily removed Chavez from office in 2002. In 2003, the "opposition," as they are charitably referred to, staged a managers' strike at PDVSA, crippling the country's economy for months.

Would a military coup and economic sabotage be tolerated in Canada? In fact, Conservatives and Liberals alike have been clear that these sorts of activities, should they occur, are terrorism.

Canada does not have to contend with military coups or elite-led economic sabotage. Hopefully it won't have to. But given that we don't have to worry about anything like that, what's to stop us from doing some good with the wealth we're currently giving away to the ultra-rich? The first step is to think the unthinkable.

Dru Oja Jay is co-author of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada's development NGOs from idealism to imperialism, and writes frequently for the Media Co-op, where he is an editor-at-large. He lives in Montreal.

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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
Montreal
Member since January 2008

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Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

1207 words

Comments

Digging Deeper

Thank you very much to Dru for this important article, which conveniently includes links to back up some statements. Chavez definitelly gets a beating from the mainstream media, however, there are certain organizations, such as the Human Rights Watch, that are very critical of Chavez and his policies as well. Now, as far as I've heard, HRW is a very reputable NGO exposing many human rights abuses. So I'd like to bring up some of the points that it made about Cahvez in its critical report, found here: http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/03/05/venezuela-chavez-s-authoritarian-legacy

  • In recent years, Venezuela consistently voted against UN General Assembly resolutions condemning abusive practices in North Korea, Burma, Iran, and Syria.
  • The National Assembly passed legislation prohibiting organizations that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” from receiving international funding.
  • In 2008, the president had representatives of Human Rights Watch forcibly detained and summarily expelled from the country after they released a report documenting his government’s violation of human rights norms.
  • Under Chávez, the government dramatically expanded its ability to control the content of the country’s broadcast and news media. It passed laws extending and toughening penalties for speech that “offends” government officials.
  • In 2004, Chávez and his followers in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, adding 12 seats to what had been a 20-seat tribunal, and filling them with government supporters. The packed Supreme Court ceased to function as a check on presidential power.

I acknowledge all of Chavez's achievements in raising the living standards of millions of Venezuelans, extending democratic participation, etc., but we need not to ignore the more  contested aspects of his governance.

Media Freedom in VZ

Hi Klaipėda,

Yeah, the media point keeps coming up. I think that the first thing to note is that in Canada and the US, the ruling class doesn't have to deal with media which lie about, belittle and dehumanize them on a regular basis, so we don't really know how they would react to that. What's striking to me about the HRW report is the behaviour of the media. Portraying female politicians as "cabaret dancers," portraying the president as a dog, etc. That, without mentioning (and HRW does not) the role of RCTV and Globovision in the military coup that temporarily removed Chavez and the elected legislature from office.

Given all that context, it's hard to judge what the right thing is for the government to do. Treat media freedoms as sacrosanct no matter what? Selectively attack on a principled basis? From the HRW report, what seems to be the case is that they go after the extreme, dehumanizing examples of media coverage and attempt to make an example of them. Certainly, this is beyond what is acceptable for people who believe in a strong, free media. Is it a neccessary step in order to form a more tenable democratic media environment, an abuse of power, or an rash, irresolute and impatient course of action? Probably some combination of all of those. 

I don't know what I would do if I were in the Venezuelan government. It's not a position I envy, though it's an effort I admire.

Down with all the bolivarian hypocrites!

As leftists mobilize their sickening efforts to whitewash history once again, now that they have Chavez as a new martyr for their cult of personality, it is no time to be apologetic with this social-democratic readjustment of capitalism under loud “revolutionary” rhetoric.

It is sickening to see how fast leftists can go from denouncing the oil industry and its consequences on the lives of human and non-human communities to admiring the same oil oligarchs once it redistributes some of its wealth into social programs. To follow the train of thought of these intellectual acrobats, the tar sands would be so much better if only it financed social programs.

“Alternative journalists” like to parasite the indigenous when the opportunity presents itself, something the bolivarians have learned to do to near perfection, but the indigenous are long forgotten when the socialist benefactors boot step on their faces. Ask the indigenous opposing infrastructural mega-projects in Bolivia, those opposing Oil extraction in Ecuador, ask the Pemon people in Venezuela if the 21st century socialism has made life better for them. Ask them if they rather their land being usurped for Chinese oligarchies instead of “Yankee Imperialsim”... The Pemon people have repeatedly stood up to the Venezuelan Bolivarian Army invading to forcefully end the “illegal mining” that Pemon communities have been forced into for survival on their own lands for centuries. When do you hear about this from the “alternative media”? Most likely chavismo sympathizers will paraphrase their favorite populist indigenous hypocrite, Evo Morales, “They are all beeing manipulated by Yankee spies and paid by the CIA”. You mean the same Yankees financing Venezuela's social programs through beeing their #1 customer for crude oil?

Many questions come to mind... Now that the Canadian State is selling off usurped land to Chinese mining interests, all we need is to elect a real socialist alternative to funnel royalties towards social programs to make it all good?

The Plan Nord royalties could be used to finance free education, as Gabriel Nadeau Dubois proposed last spring... And we can see how free education has benefited the colonization of those who already have access to it within the land dominated by the Canadian State.

Are prisoners of the overcrowded Venezuelan death camps they call prisons better off now that the national guard are crushing their riots with Russian and Spanish weapons instead of American ones?

How fast do bolivarian sympathizers go from denouncing international prison complex engineering firms like SNC-Lavalin when they build walls in downtown Toronto but then turn a blind eye when their favorite populist hypocrite and similar regimes openly support and collaborate with some of SNC-Lavalins' best friends and customers like Ghaddafist Lybia? How fast do they go from denouncing militarization from right leaning States but then seem to have no problem when their favorite pseudo-revolutionary militarized regime loudly supports bloody dictatorships like Syria and China.

Down with all the bolivarian hypocrites!

We will see you on the opposite side of the barricades!

 

-another anarchist

PS. If you need references, turn off Telesur and blow your mind

Yeah!

"Total liberation" sounds great! Sign me up. We'll be politically pure, and get everything done at the same time. I might need some help with the whole explaining how that works part.

In the mean time, I don't agree with your sarcastic refrain. Is there one historical precedent where "all at once or not at all" worked practically, on the ground?

If democratic control over natural resources as a commons is not a step towards the posibility of respecting indigenous sovereignty and the needs of the earth, then what is? If there's a better first step, what is it?

use whats left of your imagination

Obviously you are not capable of addressing the very serious problems I pointed out about the bolivarian model which you are actively supporting. Instead you try and dodge these questions by talking about things you haven't spent 15 minutes thinking about as if your apology of chavism wasnt enough.

Instead of blindly supporting atrocities you should start by considering the communities living the consequences of oil extraction. With your double standards your capable of denouncing the oil extraction killing communities in Alberta but your love for crass socialism is more important than the indigenous and mestizo communities surrounded by oil extraction in Venezuela; people who cant fish anymore like they had for centuries, which have their lands contaminated, towns destroyed and relocated, who are dying of cancer, who's children die before birth or who give birth to children with malformations, etc. Know how your model of “democratic control” calls these people when they get fed up and fight back? It calls them terrorists.

The worst part about people like you is that you know better, but choose this path because its easier than exercising whats left of your own imagination.

Wow.

You seem to know a lot about me. Have we met?

You write articles remember?

You write articles remember? which should express your views and analysis? This is the internet btw, a few clicks are enought to find the wepages you dedicate to yourself.

Back to the point..

All you did in your article is repeat the same crap that has been heard over and over from Chavez and his cronies. I challenged your position with the real life consequences of ressource extraction and statist "alternatives", I exposed the double standards of such a position and all you do is to try and troll the discussion away from its point. Your silence on the issues speaks for itself. It speaks of your disreggard for the lives of the people living the consequences of the model you're defending. If your not even going to try and defend your article then why dont you just flush it into oblivion where it belongs?

It's a lot easier

It's a lot easier to dole out abuse when you're responding to things I didn't say. I'm curious how well this tactic of making a bunch of uncharitable assumptions about peoples' writing and then attacking them is working out for you? Win many converts to total liberation that way?

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