Tens of thousands of Haitians spontaneously poured into the streets of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, on the morning of March 12, 2007. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez had just arrived in Haiti all but unannounced.
A multitude, shrieking and singing with glee, joined him in jogging alongside the motorcade of Haiti’s then President Rene Preval on its way to the National Palace (later destroyed in the 2010 earthquake).
There, Chavez announced that Venezuela would help the impoverished Caribbean half-island by building power stations, expanding electricity networks, improving airports, supplying garbage trucks, and supporting widely-deployed Cuban medical teams.
But the centerpiece of the gifts Chavez brought Haiti was 14,000 barrels of oil a day. This was a godsend in a country that has been plagued by blackouts and power shortages for decades.
The oil was part of a PetroCaribe deal that Venezuela had signed with Haiti a year before. Haiti had only to pay 60% for the oil it received. The remaining 40% could be paid over the course of 25 years at 1% interest.
Under similar PetroCaribe deals, Venezuela now provides more than 250,000 barrels a day at sharply discounted prices to 17 Central American and Caribbean countries.
The cost of the program is estimated at US$5 billion annually. But the benefits to, and gratitude from, PetroCaribe recipients are huge, particularly during the on-going global economic crisis.
In short, Caracas is underwriting the stability and energy security of most economies in the Caribbean and Central America, at the same time challenging, for the first time in over a century, US hegemony in its own “backyard”.
Washington’s alarm over and hostility to PetroCaribe is laid bare in secret diplomatic cables obtained by the media organisation WikiLeaks.
Then-US ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson rebuked Preval for “giving Chavez a platform to spout anti-American slogans” during his 2007 visit. This was revealed in one cable cited in an article that debuted in June 2011 as part of a WikiLeaks-based series produced by Haiti Liberte and The Nation.
Reviewing all 250,000 secret US diplomatic cables that were later released reveals Sanderson was not the only US diplomat wringing her hands about PetroCaribe.
“It is remarkable that in this current contest we are being outspent by two impoverished countries: Cuba and Venezuela,” noted US ambassador to Uruguay Frank Baxter in a 2007 cable released by WikiLeaks.
“We offer a small Fulbright program; they offer a thousand medical scholarships. We offer a half dozen brief IV programs to ‘future leaders’; they offer thousands of eye operations to poor people.
“We offer complex free trade agreements someday; they offer oil at favorable rates today. Perhaps we should not be surprised that Chavez is winning friends and influencing people at our expense.”
We can expect Washington’s “contest” with Venezuela to escalate dramatically. It will try to take advantage of the Bolivarian government’s vulnerability during the transition of power after Chavez passed away on March 5.
Already, interim president Nicolas Maduro, the United Socialist Party candidate for presidential elections on April 14, has sounded the alarm.
Maduro announced on national television on March 5 “that a US Embassy attache was being expelled for meeting with military officers and planning to destabilise the country,” Associated Press reported. A US Air Force attache was also expelled.
In short, just as the imperative to secure oil has driven the US to multiple wars, coups, and intrigues in the Middle East over the past 60 years, it is now driving the US toward a major new confrontation in Latin America. With Chavez’s death, Washington sees a long awaited opportunity to roll back the Bolivarian Revolution and programs such as PetroCaribe.
In recent years, Chavez has led Venezuela to nationalise dozens of foreign-owned undertakings, including oil projects run by Exxon Mobil, Texaco Chevron, and other large North American corporations.
The future of the hydrocarbon resources in Venezuela’s Maracaibo Basin and Orinoco Belt, recently declared to be the world’s largest, will soon reveal itself to be the central economic and political issue, and hottest flash point, in the hemisphere.
In the case of Haiti, Chavez often said that PetroCaribe and other aid was given “to repay the historic debt that Venezuela owes the Haitian people”. Haiti was the first nation of Latin America, gaining its independence in 1804.
In the 19th century’s first example of international solidarity, Haitian revolutionary leaders provided Francisco de Miranda and Simon Bolivar, South America’s “Great Liberator”, with guns, ships and printing presses to carry out the anti-colonial struggle on the continent.
And this was the dream that inspired Chavez: a modern Bolivarian revolution sweeping South America, spreading independence from Washington and growing “21st century socialism”. PetroCaribe was Chavez’s flagship in that “contest”, as the US ambassador called it.
Ironically, it was former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide who first foiled US election engineering in Latin America in December 1990, but his electoral victory was cut short by a September 1991 coup.
Chavez was the next Latin American leader to successfully carry out a political revolution at the polls in 1998 and 2000. His people defeated the US-backed coup that tried to unseat him in April 2002.
Due to his strategic acumen, his popular support, and the goodwill created with PetroCaribe, Chavez’s prestige grew in Venezuela and around the world during his 13 years in power until his death, which brought a huge tide of mourning across Latin America.
The eulogies are many, but former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who personally knew and worked with Chavez, made a prescient observation in January: “In my opinion, history will judge the contributions of Hugo Chavez to Latin American as greater than those of Bolivar.”
[Abridged from Canada-Haiti Action Network.]
Green Left Weekly is giving away five double passes to a special screening of Underground: The Julian Assange Story at 6.45pm, Cinema Nova in Melbourne on March 22.
The screening is organised by WikiLeaks Australian Citizens Alliance (WACA). Following the screening there will be a lively discussion with Robert Connolly (director), Sam Castro (WACA Co-founder), Greg Barns (Australian Lawyers Alliance), Daniel Matthews (WikiLeaks Co-founder). All attendees will also receive a DVD package, including behind-the-scenes featurettes, a copy of the screenplay, production photographs, tracks from the score, an extract from Suelette Dreyfus’s eBook and a link to stream the director’s commentary.
To go in the draw, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and phone number by 6pm Wednesday, March 20.