"For two days now in parliament Treasurer Peter Costello has attacked ALP signatories of our sign-on invitation for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to visit Australia", Kiraz Janicke from the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network told Green Left Weekly on February 15. "But Costello's attacks have been both ridiculous and factually inaccurate."
The treasurer's initial February 13 sortie was an attempt to deflect attention from Labor's criticism that PM John Howard's comments regarding US Senator Barack Obama, a contender for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, had harmed Australia's alliance with the US. Costello told parliament: "I would have thought that the leader of the opposition, who is so concerned about the US alliance, would not have his own senators inviting to this country a man who calls the US president a genocidal killer and who went to the UN General Assembly and ... called the president of the United States the devil."
Costello called on Labor leader Kevin Rudd to discipline party members who had signed on to the invitation, including former ALP president Warren Mundine. Other signatories include a broad range of left-wing parliamentarians, trade unionists, writers and social-movement activists.
"Costello's comments either show profound ignorance about the situation in Venezuela or are an attempt to deliberately mislead people", Janicke said. Costello told parliament that Chavez had "threatened" to nationalise the oil industry — but it has been nationalised since 1975. Janicke also told GLW that the treasurer had picked out Venezuela's January inflation rate of 18.4% and deliberately concealed the fact that inflation has fallen sharply since 2003.
She pointed out that the country's GDP is growing at 8% (compared to Australia's 2.1%). Janicke added that the government's anti-poverty programs and Venezuela's economic growth "have seen households below the poverty line fall from 55.8% in 1997 to 37.9% in 2005".
An article in the February 16 Australian noted that Costello's "contempt for Chavez's economic management isn't universal, if this report from the Reserve Bank's Monetary statement is any guide". The bank's statement noted: "Despite Venezuelan equities recording large falls on several days last month ... Venezuelan equities remain 120 per cent higher than their levels at the start of 2006, and over 450 per cent higher than at the start of 2003."
Costello continued to use the Chavez invitation to attack Labor on February 14. The Melbourne Age reported that Costello "sought to embarrass Tasmanian Labor MP Duncan Kerr over a lecture on Bolivarian socialism under Mr Chavez".
Costello said: "We are entitled to know where this motley, ragtag left-wing crew would take this country if they ever got their hands on the levers of power and brought the Bolivarian dictators' ideas for inspiration to Australia."
"Venezuela has one of the most democratic systems in the world, and President Hugo Chavez has far more support from his people than Peter Costello or John Howard have in Australia", Coral Wynter told GLW. Wynter, who along with Jim McIlroy worked in GLW's bureau in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, said that Chavez had been re-elected in December with over 63% of the vote — "a level of popular support that Costello and Howard could only dream about". In all, Chavez has faced eight elections or referenda since he was first elected in 1998, "and has increased his backing from the people each time".
[The invitation to Chavez can be viewed at <http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org>.]