Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan leader, liked to think of himself as a modern-day Simon Bolivar. Proclaiming his social and economic reforms the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, Chavez reveled in his populist image as a fighter against Western imperialism and elitism, a stance almost as heroic as Bolivar’s 19th century republicanism in opposition to the Spanish Crown.
That Chavez could make a creditable comparison between himself and the independence genius of South America was a result of his personal charisma, state-sponsored propaganda and populist policies, such as insanely low fuel prices. Only towards the end of his rule did the obvious economic damage of his ‘revolution’ become apparent to the majority. With one of the highest murder rates in the world, declining food security and political stagnation, Venezuela is becoming a failed state. Only Chavez’s ability to command the good faith of the people prevented a government overthrow.
Whilst Chavez was no Bolivar, people miss his ability to command a degree of order, his belligerence against American interference in the affairs of Latin America and his sweeping gestures of support for the people.
Maduro has the potential to reverse the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ of his mentor and precipitate intervention from a foreign power that would undermine the independence and sovereign integrity that Simon Bolivar won for Venezuela with such ruthless determination. It is his choice whether to precipitate further bloodshed.
USAID has been involved in Bolivia since the 1960s, contributing to educational, infrastructural and agricultural development which have in turn yielded jobs in one of South America’s poorest countries. The expulsion of USAID is a result, says Morales, of its desire to “conspire against the Bolivian people”.
He follows a path well-trodden by Chavez who frequently accused the Americans of meddling in the internal affairs of Latin American countries and made similar symbolic gestures against American “imperialism”.
The argument of the US conspiring to influence the politics of Latin America has some credence of course because, in the not too distant past, America was heavily involved in funding right-wing generals and paramilitary groups against what its leaders and intelligence community saw as dangerous communists.
Bolivia serves as a good example. In 1964, the CIA helped fund and organise a coup that saw General Rene Barrientos overthrow the centre-left nationalist government of Victor Paz. US Special Forces subsequently helped Barrientos solidify his power base by suppressing leftist peasant insurgencies. Barrientos died in a helicopter crash in 1969 and was succeeded by Alfredo Ovando, who had played a key role in the 1964 coup himself.
Times had changed, however, and Ovando had taken a sharp turn to the left. Soon after taking office he nationalised American oil operations in Bolivia and invited noted socialist intellectuals into his government. The US could not stand for it and they began to agitate for political change in Bolivia by backing home-grown insurgents. This at a time when Che Guevara and other communist revolutionaries began to see Bolivia as a perfect destination for their brand of socialism.
After Guevara’s death in 1967, and with pressure against his rule mounting, Ovando retired in 1970 only to be succeeded by an even stauncher socialist, Juan Jose Torres. Torres, Ovando’s right-hand man, and another person of military experience, would not be cowed by the Americans despite a CIA-backed coup attempt in 1970. It would take a second coup in August 1971 to overthrow Torres with Hugo Banzer, another general, lifted to supremacy with American blessing. Subsequent attempts at a counter-coup were quashed with American assistance.
Scepticism towards America is understandable in South America. Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War and a democratic transition of some kind in most Latin American countries, the Americans have sought to re-engage with their southern neighbours on a more positive footing. Aside from USAID, the Americans have waived their claims to considerable debt repayments which Bolivia and its bordering states defaulted during the economic crises of the 1990s. Trade ties are also deepening. Barack Obama is meeting with President Nieto in Mexico this week to try to bolster cross-border economic relations.
Morales, meanwhile, threatens to isolate Bolivia with needless intimidation. He has already had the constitution amended to enable him to serve another term (something Chavez also did), angered the indigenous groups he always reminds people he hails from, and driven away foreign investment by the unprofitable nationalisation of key industries.
Morales does not have the charisma of Chavez; nor does he have the Venezuelan oil money. Instead, he is becoming a laughable figure preying on people’s fears of a resurrection of America’s historical role in the region, without recourse to facts. The only people he can harm are the Bolivians themselves.