Monday, August 29, 2005

Robertson v. Chevron 

We continue to be shocked and awed by the Rev. Pat Robertson's unrepentantly leftist -- dare we say Chomskyesque? -- analysis of the war in Iraq, even though he inexplicably chose to couch it in a call for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, the democratically-elected president of Venezuela:
I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop . . . . We have the Monroe Doctrine, and we have other doctrines that we have announced, and without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don’t need another 200-billion-dollar war to get rid of one strong-arm dictator. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.
Although we are primarily intrigued by the implicit subtext of Mr. Robertson's remarks, we certainly sympathize with those commentators -- including, perhaps understandably, Mr. Chavez himself -- who have chosen to focus on the explicit text instead. A British MP has called for Robertson to be banned from the UK under recently-proposed laws, introduced by Tony Blair and aimed at radical Islamic clerics, that would allow the government to deny entry to advocates of terrorism. And Mr. Chavez suggested today, at a meeting of the OAS, that Venezuela might demand Robertson's extradition, and possibly take the issue to the United Nations should the US refuse to cooperate.

So what exactly is the problem with this Chavez fella, who enjoys a downright Clintonesque 70% approval rating among his own people? Richard Gott of the Guardian explains:
Today's high oil price has much to do with increased demand from China and India, and from the Iraq war, but the spadework that has given Opec fresh credibility was put in by Chávez. Soon he will be helping to show the new Iranian president, using the Venezuelan example, how to increase the revenues of a state-owned oil company and channel them into programmes to help the poor.

Chávez is widely popular today, but for much of his presidency he has been a contested, even a hated figure, arousing widespread discontent within Venezuela's traditional white elite. Yet although his rhetoric is revolutionary, his reforms have been moderate and social democratic. He criticises the policies of "savage neo-liberalism" that have done so much harm to the poorer peoples of Venezuela and Latin America in the past 20 years, yet the private sector is still alive and well. His land reform is aimed chiefly at unproductive land and provides for compensation. His most obvious achievement, which should not have been controversial, has been to channel increased oil revenues into a fresh range of social projects that bring health and education into neglected shanty-towns.

The hatred that he arouses in the old opposition parties, which have seen their membership and influence dwindle, lies more in ideology and racial antipathy than in material loss. Some opponents dislike his friendship with Castro, his verbal hostility to the United States, and his criticisms of the Catholic church, and some people still have a residual hostility to the fact that he staged an unsuccessful military coup in 1992 when a young colonel in the parachute regiment. Many Latin Americans still find it difficult to come to terms with the idea of a progressive military man. But mostly they are alarmed by the way in which he has enfranchised the country's vast underclass, interrupting the cosy, US-influenced lifestyle of the white middle class with visions of a frightening world that lives beyond their apartheid-gated communities.

Over the past few years this anxious opposition has made several attempts to get rid of Chávez, with the tacit encouragement of Washington. They organised a coup in April 2002 that rebounded against them two days later when the kidnapped Chávez was returned to power by an alliance of the army and the people. They tried an economic coup by closing down the oil refineries, and this too was a failure. Last year's recall-referendum, designed to lead to a defeat for Chávez, was an overwhelming victory for him. The local opposition, and by extension the United States, have shot their final bolt. There is nothing left in the locker, except of course assassination.
In the course of wondering whether Mr. Robertson's outburst should be catalogued under "business" or "pleasure," our revered colleague Billmon explains why every option but assassination is doomed to failure:

Maybe Pat thought he could shake something loose with a little fascist hatemongering -- or at least draw attention to the fact that America's fourth-largest supplier of oil is run by a charismatic, enormously popular leader who (gasp!) builds health clinics for the poor and (horror!) distributes land to tenant farmers, even as he (shudder) promotes workers' cooperatives, and (outrage!) squeezes taxes out of giant oil companies . . . .

This is, perhaps, related to signs that Condi Rice isn't going to let the Iran-Contra primitives who dominated Latin American policy during Shrub's first term take another crack at overthrowing Chavez. Robertson's pal Otto Reich, who was foisted upon Condi at the NSC after his recess appointment as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America expired in 2003, left the administration last year. Reich's successor (and ideological body double) at State, Roger Noriega, announced his resignation last month . . . .

If I where a cynic I might suggest this sudden outbreak of rationality has something to do with the fact that Ms. Rice's old employer, Chevron, is having its financial balls squeezed hard by Chavez -- and has responded with its own policy of appeasement.

Chavez is demanding billions in back taxes, has massively hiked royalties, ordered some operations converted into joint ventures and started paying for services in Venezuela's rapidly depreciating currency, the bolivar. Chevron's reaction? Munich on the Orinoco:

"The oil industry is a long-term industry, and you can't have an attitude of 'in and out,' '' says Ali Moshiri, 52, Chevron's Latin America exploration and development chief. "We have to go where the oil is.''
Indeed. But that won't do much good if Chavez makes good on his threat to cut off oil exports to the United States -- which he swears he will do if the Bushistas don't stop fucking with him. So Chevron reportedly has been lobbying Washington to do just that. I guess when you name a supertanker after someone, you figure you're entitled to have your calls returned.

Bottom line: Thanks to soaring oil prices, Chavez has managed to escape the trap that usually awaits leftist Third World leaders who won't dance to the IMF's tune or kowtow to the global superpower, but who also don't want to make the great leap forward into Stalinist repression and communal poverty. For the moment at least, he doesn't have to worry about capital flight, or economic strangulation or "structural adjustments." Not as long as he's got his hands on the spigot that keeps the go juice flowing . . . .

You can see why the right wingers are getting a little hysterical about the guy. He's holding all the high cards, and they know it. Assassination is the only trick that hasn't been played. Thus do our warriors for democracy in the Middle East reveal their true colors in Latin America -- by embracing the functional equivalent of the Brezhnev Doctrine.
We cannot predict whether Mr. Chavez will persevere in the office to which he was elected. We do, however, harbor a sneaking suspicion that, in the unlikely event that Mr. Bush is forced to choose between the continued well-being of Chevron and the continued liberty of Mr. Robertson, we can probably expect to see the Rev. Pat delivering his next few sermons from the dock in Caracas.

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