Whether you admire him or hate him, Venezuela's recently re-elected president, Hugo Chavez, is starting to attract a lot of attention in Australia, and around the world. The man who calls US President George Bush "the devil", and the "new socialism for the 21st century" that he and his government are creating in Venezuela, are stirring hope in the hearts of many people — and fear in a few.
The Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network's (AVSN) invitation to Chavez to visit Australia in 2007 is therefore generating a lot of interest. Those who have signed the invitation to Chavez so far include: Senator Kerry Nettle (Australian Greens), Warren Mundine (ALP National President 2006), Wayne Berry (ALP Speaker in the ACT Legislative Assembly), John Pilger (independent journalist and film-maker), Gavin Marshall (ALP Senator, Victoria), Dr Meredith Burgmann (ALP President of the NSW Legislative Council), Jack Mundy (environmentalist), Lee Rhiannon and Sylvia Hale (Greens NSW MLCs), Sam Watson (Murri activist), Simon Cocker (secretary, Unions Tasmania), Dave Robinson (secretary, Unions WA), Reverend Alex Gator, Tim Gooden (secretary, Geelong Trades Hall), Phillip Adams (broadcaster and Republican of the Year 2006) and many more.
Others, however, seem frightened by the prospect of giving Chavez a hearing in Australia. In a January 22 article titled "Left's new saint no angel", the Hobart Mercury's columnist Greg Barns, for example, tried to discredit Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution and the campaign to bring Chavez to Australia.
Barns, a former adviser to PM John Howard who has since joined the Australian Democrats, claimed that "Hugo Chavez is no great advocate of freedom and democracy" and described the invitation to Chavez to visit Australia as "nauseating" and "pompous". How Barns reconciles that with the fact that Democrat Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja has signed the invitation is anyone's guess.
Melanie Barnes, an activist in the Hobart AVSN committee, told Green Left Weekly: "While I was in Venezuela for the presidential elections in December, I saw plenty of evidence of the immense steps Venezuela has taken to reduce poverty and improve the lives of the majority of Venezuelans. Chavez's resounding electoral victory, with 63% of the vote, was endorsed as free and fair even by the Organisation of American States."
Since his re-election, Chavez has pledged to nationalise strategic industries and speed up the construction of a new type of economy that puts people's needs and environmental sustainability before corporate profit. "The introduction of free health care and education, justice for indigenous people, tens of thousands of cooperatives and community control of local affairs — to name just some of the gains of this peaceful and democratic process led by Chavez — are way ahead of what we have here in Australia", Barnes said, adding that "people here deserve an opportunity to hear about Venezuela's revolution from Chavez himself".
Alongside investing the nation's oil wealth in social programs, which has resulted in more than 10% reduction in poverty in the last decade (as reported by the World Bank), the Chavez government is now moving to replace the infamously corrupt police force and state bureaucracy with new structures in which power comes from below, from the self-organisation of the people. As well, freedom of speech is becoming a reality, with an explosion in the number of newspapers, TV programs and radio stations run by and for poor communities.
George Bush, with his agenda of war and neoliberalism, has accepted an Australian government invitation to visit here in September as part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meetings. In contrast, progressive people are inviting Chavez, a spokesperson for peace and social justice, to visit this year.
In the meantime, the AVSN has invited Barns to attend a meeting in Hobart in early March to hear Venezuela's Charge d'affairs in Australia, Nelson Davila, speak about the developments in Venezuela and the need for solidarity with that revolution.
to sign or download the invitation to Chavez to visit Australia.]