Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The day after: Analyzing the results and the political future of Venezuela

Monday, December 03, 2007
The day after: Analyzing the results and the political future of Venezuela
by Miguel Octavio

A Chavez blow up doll lies on the victory platform that was never used in downtown Caracas

I have a case of electoral hangover. It was tense last night, but the tiredness can’t be justified by the short hours of sleep, it is more associated with the tension and expectations of last night. I feel tired, but there is also certain exhilaration with the victory. Thus, it is time to take stock and look at the meaning of what happened yesterday and what may mean to the future of Venezuela:

The Results: It is my understanding that the No lead is wider than what was reported by the CNE, between 4 to 5% points. Curiously, there have been no more reports from the Electoral Board since the first one last night, once again proving what a joke the best electoral system in the world has become. A full 24 hours after the polls closed and we do not know officially even what abstention was like, other than unofficial numbers. Thus, it would seem premature to say anything about the numbers in detail. When they are available I will do that.
However, at first glance it would seem from the polls that the NO should have won by more than what was reported if abstention was truly around 44-45%. I am hearing that this was in fact the case and that as part of the agreement with the military and Chávez, the first report was supposed to show a small difference, which will widen as the remainder 10% of the vote is counted.

Behind the Scenes: Multiple reliable sources are saying that having Chávez accept the results was no easy task. In fact, a good source told me that at some point the CNE President almost announced a Si victory by a slim margin, which was stopped only because General Baduel threatened to come on stage and call the fraud if she did this. In the end the military and Baduel prevailed in defending institutionality. Baduel and the military reportedly played a key role in forcing Chavez to accept his defeat or otherwise the military will call it a coup.

Chavez in some sense acknowledge this last night, when he refereed to his “dilemma” and the fact that he no longer had one. Chavez tacitly admitted that he had known the results for three hours and that the results created a dilemma for him and that even if he tried to refer to the Electoral Board as an independent institution, in the end it was his decision. He went as far as mentioning that he even had long consultations with his Ministers and the Cabinet.

In a country with true independent institutions, whether or when to announce a result should have nothing to do with the Executive branch. The Electoral Board may have the courtesy of informing the winners and losers right before the announcement, but Chávez clearly proved why there are no independent powers in Venezuela and why institutionality is so weak: he fails to recognize where he should stop meddling and interfering with independent branches of power. It was not his dilemma, he was interfering with institutions.

It also shows why our democracy is weak.

If the military has to act at each tough junction in our democratic life in order to restore institutionality, it means that our politicians do not yet understand what a functional democracy should be and act like.
This lack of institutionality extends to the CNE which acted in a very partisan way during the campaign and which last night did little to restore complete trust in its functions by unnecessarily delaying the release of the results and barring the way of the totalization room to the witnesses of the No vote. This was totally undemocratic and in violation of the law. Moreover, the long times to report suggest either they are not doing their job or the automation system is useless. In a country with true institutionality, everyone should be asking for their resignation. They performed poorly and by doing so, continued raising suspicions about their biased role in the process.

Chavez’ Speech:

Not gracious at all. First of all, he should not have extended himself so much. He should have said he recognized the victory of the No and not go into more details, least of all when after one hour he said that he would keep it short. Those abroad should remember that while Chavez was speaking, all TV and radio stations were forced to carry his speech. The supporters of the NO, the winners in this race, were egoistically denied watching their own side celebrate.
Chávez also tried to turn the loss into a victory, which is valid, but certainly not very believable for a man used to winning elections handily. The voters said they did not like his proposal, the voters rejected his socialism, the voters rejected his indefinite reelection, but Chavez still said that he would not remove one comma from his proposal and there will be other times for that fight. Thus, Chavez was showing how he likes to impose his will without discussion, rather than use the tools of democracy: negotiation, discussion and concession in order to reach a consensus. He cannot accept an opinion different than his; he cannot admit different ways of accomplishing things. Despite the evidence of the No victory, he plans to continue to push his project intact, which may be his demise.

It was good of Chávez to accept his defeat. I confess I never believed he would. In fact, I still think he may surprise us in the days ahead. Recall how the days after the April 2002 events Chavez was contrite after coming back. He apologized to everyone, he spoke of a consensus, he asked for forgiveness, only to come back with vengeance to stop any investigation of what happened those days, to destroy PDVSA and its workers and return back to his Cabinet the same political operators that were with him during the days leading up to the tragedy of April 2002.

Thus, as Baduel suggested last night, Chávez is likely to push the whole agenda of Constitutional reform using other means. In fact, as was discussed numerous times, most of the things in the Constitutional reform proposal did not need to be there. Many were somewhat irrelevant except to have Chavez have more control of the institutions, but economically and socially he still has an Enabling Bill to pass many of the proposals rejected by the voters via decrees, which require no approval or even being known by the people.
Clearly, Chavez did not see last night’s votes as a rejection of what he proposes but a temporary setback for his plans. That is bad news, as he will certainly will try to press it forward again in the future.

Why the No won:

There were numerous factors.

First, the proposal was not only clearly illegal but became more and more complex and questionable as time went on. Voters had rejected the indefinite reelection from day one, but other parts of their proposal were attractive to some sectors because of their populist content. However, the administration always seemed to be in a rush and as more components were added, the sense that Chavez and the Assembly wanted to push it through without discussion became dominant. To many, the proposal was long, complex, and unnecessary and in the end raised more doubts than it created answers.
The students played a key role in the process. The student movement got involved at levels orders of magnitude above what they had done in the last nine years on concerns over the future of their autonomous universities and the cancellation of the concession for RCTV. The students were well organized, had a wide reach and had a message of conciliation, which was truly important. Even more importantly, they have families and Chavez did nothing but insult their kids.
The state of the economy also played a key role. There have been shortages since June, which have only accentuated in the last few months. Despite claims by the Government that milk supplies will be normalized shortly, to this date it has simply not happened. Add to that the periodic disappearance of various items; some of them permanently, other sporadically and there is a widespread belief that something is not right with the Government.
Inflation has also played an important role. While Government ministers continued to say the new financial transaction tax would have no effect on inflation, the CPI reached a whopping 4.4% level for the month prior to the election, with food inflation topping 7% for the month of November alone! Chavez should fire the genius that came up with the idea of this tax immediately before the referendum. So should be those in the economic team that have managed to screw things up so badly.
In the end Chávez has two problems in terms of managing the economy: Management and Ideology.

Management because his team is always picked on the basis of absolute loyalty to the revolution and not ability or even knowledge.

Ideology, because his infinite belief in an incompetent and corrupt public sector, combined with scaring away investment while trying to increase the supply of goods are simply incompatible. Thus, the Government continues direct assistance programs, which create demand, but supply can only be satisfied via imports. The day oil drops, even by a small margin, the whole system will simply collapse.

The opposition political parties played a significant role only in that once they felt the tide created by the students, they fell in step with them, letting them take the lead and joining them. In the end, only Escarrá did not publicly call to go out and vote, about all other political groups calling for people to go vote NO, creating more momentum than expected for the No.

Podemos, Baduel and Chavez’ former wife also played a significant role, particularly in giving credibility and validity to voting against Chavez even if you were Chavista. Baduel seems to have player a larger role within the military, Podemos in driving out the vote and Mrs. Rodriguez playing the role of victim In the end going forward, it is Baduel who clearly seems to have the larger role. He played it right and won.

The implications of the victory:

First of all it was a great victory, this can never be minimized, no matter how rough things may be going forward. There are many edges to the victory. First, it was a victory for institutionality even if it was rocky at some points. This is the main victory achieved yesterday, as the loss will impose a limit in what Chavez can and not do going forward, even if he tries.
Second, there is an important victory in knowing that it is possible to defeat Chavez. That is very important, as up to now Chavez has had an image of invincibility whether by honest vote or not, that has now been destroyed with the victory of the NO. Chávez tried to turn the referendum on the reform into plebiscite on his rule, he lost it. This is very significant. With 44% abstention, 28% of the population voted for the SI, 28% of the population voted for Chavez, that is precisely the number of hardcore Chavismo in polls. 72% of Venezuelans did not support Chavez or his reform.
The implications of this are very significant. For the opposition, it will mean that abstention and participation will be much more important in the future. People will no longer say they are not participating because Chavez will cheat or it is hopeless. This will become a significant difference in the future (Even if there was cheating in the end!)
For Chavismo the victory of the NO is also very significant. To begin with, it is no longer taboo to go against Chavez. You may go do it and if the Government does not create a new Tascon/Chavez list, it may encourage others in the future to go and vote against the President.
But more importantly, to those that hold important positions within Chavismo, there is also an important message implied: Chavez is not there forever and if one day Chavismo has to leave Government they may be called to account for themselves and their actions and decisions in power (As well as their wealth!)
But even more significantly, Chavez has been weakened by the loss. It is my belief that in the upcoming days Chavez will continue to press his agenda forward as he stated it yesterday. Some of his supporters at high level will follow him, other will not. This may create a deep division within Chavismo, as those that have their own personal ambitions and understand that Chavez lost with his proposal, will decide to split from his side and start their own movements. In the end, the balance of how many are left on his side will decide how strong he is in the end.
Chavez could only gain strength by doing exactly what I don’t expect him to do: Reach out to all Venezuelans to establish a common agenda. That is not his style, as he has proven over and over and proved once again last night saying that his proposal had not been approved “For now”, trying to relive events and a phrase relevant in a different context, which happened long ago and which, while relevant to him personally, are not considered by most Venezuelans to be part of their history, least of all to the students protesting in the streets who were still young kids when Chavez staged his bloody coup in 1992.
To these students, it is the reality of what is happening today that matters and as Baduel said in his Op-Ed Saturday:
“Venezuelan society faces a broad array of problems that have not been addressed in the eight years Mr. Chávez has been in office, even though the present Constitution offers ample room for any decent, honest government to do so. Inflation, threats to personal safety, a scarcity of basic supplies, a housing shortage and dismal education and health care are problems that will not be resolved by approving this so-called reform.”
That is reality also for the students and their families and not a now irrelevant fight between Chavez and Carlos Andres Perez or Accion Democrática.
Baduel is calling for a Constituent Assembly in the belief that the results of the referendum require a new National Assembly in which all parts are represented. Others believe this is unnecessary and that Chavez can be recalled under the 1999 Constitution in 2009. Chavez will likely try to press his socialist agenda, very similar to the proposed reform, but via the enabling Bill as he can’t introduce another Constitutional reform. The latter will in the end determine how the future of Venezuelan politics develops. Given the deterioration of the economy, Chavez may be playing a losers game, as dissatisfaction by the voters will only grow in the upcoming months and his popular support as well as that of those that surround him, may vanish, leaving him almost alone, holding a losing hand.


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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Gustavo Coronel: A possible political scenario for Latin America, 2007-2012

Gustavo Coronel: A possible political scenario for Latin America, 2007-2012

Most of the political scenarios for Latin America are drawn in traditional ways, using mostly politically correct ingredients. Because of this cautious approach some possible futures for the region remain insufficiently discussed. One of them has to do with the region becoming the site of active destabilizing plots against the United States. We all know that anti-American sentiment in Latin America has been growing during the last ten years, although not as strongly as advertised by some interested parties. In fact, Latinobarometro and Pew, two credible polling agencies dealing with the Western Hemisphere have recently shown (1) that, even in Venezuela, the U.S. is viewed favorably by over 55% of the population and that the attacks of President Hugo Chavez against this country are rejected by 75% of the population.

Still, there is no doubt that there are strong efforts being made by some Latin American political leaders to harass the United States. If these efforts intensify and take root, Latin America could become a geopolitical hot spot in the mid-term.

The starting point of the anti-U.S. Alliance.

Essentially the current threats against U.S. national security originated about nine years ago with the political alliance between Fidel Castro, the Cuban dictator and Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan strongman. This is a symbiotic relationship that has been providing Fidel Castro with money and Hugo Chavez with brains.

The strategy chosen by this alliance is based on two facts and one very partial truth. The two facts are: extreme poverty and extreme inequality in the region. The very partial truth is that these two afflictions are the result of U.S. exploitation of the region’s natural resources aided by the systematic political intervention of this country in the internal affairs of the countries of the hemisphere. To blame our own misfortunes and inadequacies on someone else has been an old and proven method to gain adepts and to stir hate and xenophobia among Latin American societies. This is what Fidel Castro has done for the last forty years and this is what he has recommended to Hugo Chavez , a line of action that the Venezuelan strongman has embraced with enthusiasm.

Hugo Chavez’s strategies.

To do this he has been aided by significant amounts of money derived from oil exports. During the last nine years about $220 billion of oil money have entered the Venezuelan national treasury while national debt has tripled to about $65 billion.

This amount of money has been mostly spent in three areas: (a), social programs of a temporary nature, really handouts, to the Venezuelan poor; (b), the acquisition of weapons; and (c), subsidies, donations and promises to Latin American countries in order to consolidate political alliances and establish political IOU’s. At least $40 billion have gone into the third category, an amount roughly equivalent to 2-3% of Venezuela’s yearly GDP during the last nine years.

As a result of these strategies the Fidel Castro/Hugo Chavez axis has been able to make some progress in its political objectives of eroding the political standing of the United States in the hemisphere and, even, of gaining supporters in the U.S. political scene. By financing the presidential campaigns in several countries they have been able to help Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and Rafael Correa win the presidencies of Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. At the same time they saw their favored candidates Ollanta Humala, in Peru, and Andres Lopez Obrador, in Mexico lose close elections while remaining politically strong, especially Lopez Obrador. In parallel Hugo Chavez’s major injection of money into Argentina has helped President Nestor Kirchner to join the anti-U.S. club, a move for which he did not need strong incentives.

This is all well known although generally perceived with indifference, sympathy, and tolerance or, even, amusement, in hemispheric political circles. Many celebrate secretly the harassment of such a strong power by smaller, weaker countries.

Others are sitting on the political fence, receiving political and material benefits by playing one side against the other. Still others have a weak spot in their ideological hearts for authoritarian regimes and resent the hard sale of democracy being done by the U.S. all over the world. A few even laugh at the colorful antics of President Chavez and have a hard time taking him seriously.

However, political harassment of the United States represents just one aspect in a possible wider plan. Later stages might include actual economic aggression and, even, physical action against the northern “empire”. For the time being the main efforts are directed towards the consolidation of the alliance. To do this:

• Chavez is providing money to members of the Armed Forces of Bolivia and to city mayors, in order to increase political control over these important Bolivian sectors (2);

• Chavez could be funneling money into Argentina to promote the candidacy of Mrs. Cristina Kirchner (3);

• The aid given by Chavez to Nicaragua already amounts to about $500 million and, if he follows through in his promise, will include the financing of a $2 billion refinery;

• The economic ties of Venezuela and Ecuador are increasing via the oil industry, although President Correa’s ideology already includes a significant component of resentment against the United States.

• Chavez is conducting a strategy of alignment with political sectors in the United States that oppose the current government policies. For some of these sectors the desire to erode the current administration has proven greater than their love for democracy. The enemy of their enemy has become their friend (4).
Almost all of these strategic initiatives by the Castro/Chavez alliance show an alternative, unfavorable outcome.

• Bolivia is in the threshold of a major political crisis, due to the reluctance of important sectors of the country to roll over and play dead to Morales’s pretensions to impose the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly model that ended with the Venezuelan democracy becoming an authoritarian regime.

• Mrs. Kirchner, even if she won, as it seems to be the case, might decide to go her separate ways. She has already given some indications that Argentina should not become a simple pawn of Castro/ Chavez in the struggle for hemispheric political leadership. Recent events have convinced her that Chavez’s support probably represents a kiss of death for her political future.

• In Ecuador, Correa is already looking at the Bolivian political turmoil with caution, as he does not want to repeat Morales’s errors and realizes that Chavez’s success in Venezuela has been due to his deep pockets rather than his charisma. Correa does not have the money or the charisma of Chavez.

• In the United States the individuals and groups that support Chavez are doing so out of personal material or political interest and have been largely rejected by public opinion.

It seems improbable that the alliance of these countries, almost entirely based on money and resentment against the United States, could last for long.
What if this alliance falters?

The main motors of the anti-U. S alliance, Castro and Chavez, understand that this strategy of progressive political harassment of the United States might not succeed. The defeat of Lopez Obrador in Mexico robbed them of a major ally in this strategy. In power Lopez Obrador would have promoted illegal immigration into the U.S. creating numerous points of social and political conflict along the weak U.S.- Mexican border. As it stands today The United States has several ways to weaken Castro/Chavez strategies. In fact, the imminent death of Fidel Castro has practically eliminated much of the brain component of this axis. Hugo Chavez is in need of an alternative plan.

The alternative is an alliance with fundamentalist groups or countries that share Hugo Chavez’s resentment against the United States. This explains the approximation of Hugo Chavez to Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Both leaders have an anti-U.S. global alliance as one of their main objectives. Their main weapon is oil or, rather, what they can do to the international oil market, in case they decided to suspend exports of this resource. Some 4 million barrels of oil per day would be out of the supply system, causing a major disruption in the world’s economy. They figure that in such a situation they have less to lose than the United States and its industrialized allies.

But oil is not their only weapon. They also have a political weapon to resort to. It has to do with the concerted action of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and FARC, assisted by violent indigenous groups such as those in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador and socially turbulent groups like the illegal immigrants already living in the United States.

By promoting the action of these groups against the United States and its Latin American and European allies these groups can do much harm to global political stability. In this scenario one the main promoters of this action would not be located in the Middle East or in the Far East but in Latin America. This would be the first time in history, as far as we can tell, that a Latin American political leader becomes a major threat to world stability.

In summary.

Political scenarios based on traditional assumptions such as the existence of a dormant and orderly hemisphere and on the existence of international bodies like the Organization of American States, where political controversies and imbalances can be rather easily adjusted, do no longer seem to fit Latin American reality. Violent scenarios with global implications should also be considered. Scenarios are not only attempts at visualizing the future but, also, warning signals that will serve to act now, in order to mold desired outcomes.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Venezuela's Chavez: A Caudillo by Any Other Name

For those of you that aren't familiar with the word "caudillo", the closest explanation is a strong leader that rules for many years with excessive power.

Venezuela's Chavez: A Caudillo by Any Other Name
*By Tracy Dove, Ph.D
Editor, The Russia News Service August 26, 2007

The news coming out of Venezuela these days is entertaining to say the least, and any Woody Allen fan will recognize in Hugo Chavez an anti-hero image reminiscent of Allen's 1970's film parody in Central America, Bananas. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, as it is now officially called, is run by a president who believes in re-distributive socialism and regular reinforcement of the cult of personality. This week, Chavez has announced the decision to move the nation's clocks 30 minutes forward to provide for more sunlight when the Bolivarian proletariat wakes from its dreams of floating island platforms, North Korean parades and lot and lots of oil. So who is this Chavez- wielding the peoples' sundial- and has there ever been anything like him in the past?

Most certainly; Chavez belongs to the genre of South American Caudillos that once ruled the 19th century republics of the continent and most often met with fiery and untimely ends. In Venezuela, we are reminded of the corrupt and ridiculously self-important president Cipriano Castro who ruled the country from 1899 to 1909. Castro was one of the strongmen who gathered the thugs and the disaffected peasantry and trained them into a formidable army which was then marched on Caracas in October of 1899 to overthrow the presidency- which was conveniently vacated for the purpose once Castro's forces defeated government troops.

Not unlike Chavez today, Castro proceeded to change the constitution to fit his personal vision of what government should be; he threatened the opposition and had its leaders assassinated before having himself re-elected the official head of state in 1904. Properly secure in power, Castro lived a life of luxury by way of executive order and was quick to slap the peasantry into obedience when they frequently rebelled. Besides plundering the state treasury, Castro nurtured bad relations with most states around him and thumbed his nose at the European banks that loaned his country money. Already in 1902 he had defaulted on debts owed to the colonial powers, and these responded by sending warships to blockade the country's ports and occasionally fired on shoreline fortifications to remind Castro what the cost of money was.

Remember, this was 1902 and the heyday of new European imperialism, and the American President didn't appreciate having British, Italian and German warships in the hemisphere that was clearly demarcated as colonial-free by the 1828 Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt didn't quite know what to do with Castro, just as our current Bush administration is baffled about what to do with Chavez. But the situation became dire when intelligence reports suggested that Germany was looking for new colonies in the region, and Roosevelt reluctantly sent American warships to Venezuela to scare off the vultures, thereby legitimizing Castro and inadvertently postponing the payment of his debts to Europe.

But Roosevelt was nobody's fool, and he didn't contract malaria in the jungles of Brazil to let himself be led around by the nose by some illegitimate cowboy sitting in Caracas. In 1904, Roosevelt addressed the US Congress and added a stipulation to the Monroe Doctrine that would allow the US- as part of its policing power of the Western hemisphere- to intervene in the internal affairs of the American states if bad government there led to the imperial takeover of them by any colonial power. This so-called "corollary" to the famous doctrine was one of the spurious arguments employed in arguing for Kennedy's doomed Bay of Pigs operation in 1962.

(Venezuelan) Castro didn't last much beyond the next round of creditors' disillusionment with the financial situation in the Caracas banks; in 1907 he was forced to accept arbitration in regard to the debt, and Venezuela was forced to sign on the dotted line of repayment. Ill with syphilis due to his obvious social recklessness, Castro left for Paris in 1908 to seek treatment for the disease, which opened the door for his best friend- the Vice President Juan Vicente Gomez- to overthrow Castro's rule. The deposed leader spent the rest of his miserable life in Puerto Rico trying to re-overthrow Gomez, who had learned to multiply the excesses of the Castro regime for his own term in office, which lasted until 1935.

The difference today is obvious in Chavez' Venezuela; firstly, el Supremo is widely popular in Venezuela, and he really is spending the oil revenues on the people. Secondly, Chavez looks healthy and might not need to leave for any western hospitals anytime soon. Cuban doctors are certainly caring for Chavez, whose designs on the clocks may seem absurd, but it is right to point out that Afghanistan, India, Iran and Myanmar also have half-hour increments off of Greenwich Mean Time- so the intention of the Ministry of the Popular Power of Science and Technology, as it is called, might be well-credited for allowing Venezuela's 27 million to wake up happier to the sunshine- as dictated by Caudillo Hugo Chavez.

*Tracy Dove, editor of The Russia News Service, is a Professor of History and the Department Chair of International Relations at the University of New York in Prague.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Misreading Venezuela

Excellent article!

Gustavo Coronel: Misreading Venezuela

Contrary to what Americans hear constantly from the media, Venezuelans have a poor opinion of their president, Hugo Chavez, and a positive opinion of Americans and the United States.

As a senior Venezuelan currently living in the U.S. while keeping up-to-date with Venezuelan affairs (I am also a former member of the Venezuelan congress), I have come to accept that Venezuela generally merits little attention from U.S. society, except in three or four areas: baseball players, beautiful women, oil and the antics of Hugo Chavez.

Hugo Chavez’ September 2006 UN speech in which he called President Bush a “devil” and spoke aggressively against the United States, helped to push Chavez and Venezuela, even if negatively, onto the American consciousness. Due to this speech, millions of U.S. citizens felt curious enough to do some research on Chavez and learned, for example, that Citgo, the chain of corner gas stations, is really a major oil company owned by the Venezuelan government and being used by Chavez to make inroads into American domestic politics. Americans also learned that Chavez loved Saddam Hussein and now calls Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe "brothers." However, few still know that his buddies in the U.S. include:

• actor Danny Glover, who received $18 million from Chavez to make a movie. Glover has been known to compare Chavez to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.;

• Joseph Kennedy Jr., who runs Citgo's distribution of “cheap” Venezuelan fuel oil for Chavez in the northeast;

• Jesse Jackson, who was decorated by Chavez in Venezuela;

• Ramsey Clark, a famous anti-war activist from the Vietnam era and one of the lawyers who defended Saddam Hussein;

• Don King, the boxing promoter;

• Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war activist; and

• Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt.

The intense propaganda machine installed by Chavez in the U.S. (that costs the Venezuelan Embassy well over a million dollars per year) is trying to sell U.S. public opinion on the idea that Hugo Chavez is universally loved by Venezuelans while the United States is bitterly hated.

In fact, neither of these two claims is correct, judging by all credible polls, both in Venezuela and outside the country. In Venezuela the most professional and respected polling company, Hinterlaces, produced its poll for the month of June, with a 95% reliability. Some of the results are quite interesting:

• Hugo Chavez is rejected by 43% of those polled and approved of by 39%;

• Attacks against the U.S. by Chavez are rejected by 75% of participants and approved of by 14%;

• To give money away to other countries, as Chavez is doing from the Venezuelan oil largess, received the support of only 9% of those polled, while 87% rejected it;

• The pretense of Chavez to re-elect himself indefinitely by modifying the existing constitution is rejected by 63% of those asked and approved of by 19%.

• 81% of Venezuelans would generally like to see new political leadership in the country.

According to the survey by Hinterlaces, the political style of Hugo Chavez is starting to rub Venezuelans the wrong way, since he is increasingly being perceived as a dictator. A poll conducted by a reputed Chilean company, Latinobarometro, in January 2007, indicated that Venezuelans clearly prefer democracy to any other political system. This poll also revealed that Hugo Chavez had a very low approval rating in Latin America, only better than Cuba's Fidel Castro and Peru's Alan Garcia. The highest ranked Latin American leader in this poll was Brazil's Lula da Silva, followed by Chile's Michelle Bachelet, Colombia's Alvaro Uribe and Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, while Hugo Chavez, Alan Garcia and Fidel Castro were at the very bottom of the ladder.

Pew Global Attitudes Poll, issued in June 2007, surveyed the views on the U.S. in 47 countries, including Venezuela. While it is true that the U.S. image in Latin America has deteriorated, the clear majority of respondents in countries such as Mexico, Peru and, yes, Venezuela, expressed a positive opinion about their northern neighbor. In fact, it might come as a surprise to many Americans that more Venezuelans (56%) thought favorably about the U.S. than did the British (52%), the Swedes (46%) and the French (39%). While 71% of Venezuelans enjoyed U.S. music and movies, only 63% of the British shared their enthusiasm. At the same time, 76% of Venezuelans professed admiration for U.S. science and education, while 74% of the British did. Venezuelan opinion of the U.S. was much more favorable than that of most European countries.

The picture Venezuelans have formed of Hugo Chavez and of the U.S, according to these polls, is not the picture Hugo Chavez's propaganda machine in Washington is trying to sell to American public opinion. The positive sentiment that Venezuelans have about the United States appears to be culturally driven, not political. Not since the times of Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt and President Kennedy, a team that made possible the end of dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere and the success of the Alliance for Progress, have there been warm relations between the political leadership of both countries.

The U.S. should consider taking the initiative to work with the Venezuelan people, through organizations of civil society, to promote the conversion of more Venezuelans into productive citizens. The Venezuelan population is highly dependent on a paternalistic, authoritarian state and cannot prosper without a critical mass of self-starting citizens. Such an initiative could create new good will for the U.S. in my country.