London, February 2002. A tiny, dark and intense woman waited at the end of a lecture until I was alone, brought her face strangely close to mine and whispered, “President Chavez needs you. Right now. To Caracas. Right now. You must come to see him.”
President Who? All I knew about this Hugo Chavez guy was that he was an Latin-American jefe, led a bungled coup and was filled with a lot of populist bullshit and a lot of oil.
And I also knew that no one at BBC Newsnight was going to blow the budget for me to fly to South America to talk about a nation that 92 percent of our viewers couldn’t find on a map and wouldn’t want to.
“Send me an email.”
“There will be a coup. March 15.”
“The Ides of March. I like that. Aren’t there always coups down there?”
“They’ll kill him, undo everything. He needs you to stop it, he wants to explain it to you because he knows you understand.”
Actually, you’d be surprised at the amount I don’t understand at all. “So talk.”
She did – for four hours – and wore me down into submission. But back at Newsnight I looked like an idiot when March 15 came and went with just a little gunfire in Caracas.
Three weeks later, the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was kidnapped and held hostage by the head of Venezuela’s Chamber of Commerce. Suddenly the BBC had to get me on a plane.
When I got to the Presidential Palace, Chavez was already back at his desk, though the bullet holes in the palace’s walls weren’t yet filled in.
Chavez told me that he'd agreed to be taken hostage by gunmen on the condition that his staff and their trapped children would be allowed to escape. He was bundled into a helicopter, and when it swerved out to sea he assumed he would be pushed out: “I was calm. I was ready.”
So who was behind it?
Chavez gave me information on US military attachés who had met with the plotters. While I couldn’t verify any specific US directive to seize him, I didn’t have to: I had grinning photos of George W Bush’s new US Ambassador, Charles Shapiro, congratulating Chavez’ kidnappers.
The question was, why? Why the need to eliminate Chavez, by coup, by bullet, by propaganda, embargo, or, as we later discovered, by screwing with Venezuela’s vote count?
No doubt that for Bush’s oil-o-crats, Chavez’ doubling the royalties paid by Exxon and Chevron was worth the price of a bullet; but it was no more than the amount that Sarah Palin would seize from the oil companies when she ruled Alaska. So what was it?
The answer was in the movie Network.
“AM I GETTING THROUGH TO YOU, MR. BEALE? The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now THEY MUST GIVE IT BACK!Chavez had defied gravity, overpowered the tide. Venezuela earned billions in petro-dollars from the USA – but then, Chavez refused to “give it back”.
“It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity. You are an old man who thinks in terms of national and peoples. THERE ARE NO NATIONS. There are no peoples. There is only ONE HOLISTIC SYSTEM OF SYSTEM, one vast and immense, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars. Electro-dollars. Multi-dollars. IT IS THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM OF CURRENCY which determines the totality of life on this planet. Am I getting through to you? ”
Third World nations are not supposed to keep the dollars paid to suck out their oil and mineral blood. For every dollar US consumers pay the Saudis for their oil, about $1.24 is given back as Saudis return the funds by purchasing US Treasury debt or hunks of US banks, CitiCorp for one.
In 2005, the US spent $227 billion in Latin America, sapping its properties and resources. But the money turned right around and, added to the funds sent to Miami by Latin America’s elite, immediately became a $379 million loan to the US Treasury and financiers.
Argentina leant the US at 4 percent interest, then had to borrow its own money back at 16 percent – the whirring wheel, this grinder, left school teachers in Buenos Aires hunting in garbage cans for food. Riots followed and – in Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and elsewhere – this led to tanks in the street, currency collapse, crisis and the “rescue” by the IMF. Rescue meant forcing the mass sell-off of state industries, from oil to water systems, to the crushing of labour unions and to swallowing the whole bottle of poisons kept by the elite of the Northern Hemisphere for just such occasions.
And that was the plan. Literally. I've held the proof in my hands, about five thousand pages of financial agreements, all labelled “confidential” and “not to be distributed except by authorised persons”, which bore benign titles like “World Bank Poverty Reduction Strategy, Argentina.”
Why would the IMF, World Bank and the bankers not want to make their wonderful plans for reducing poverty public? It was for the same reason the finance ministers who signed the documents didn’t even tell their own presidents: they were in fact “reduce-to-poverty” plans, complete resource surrender.
For these deliberately bankrupted nations, it was sign or starve. Until Hugo Chavez came along. Early on, Chavez withdrew $20 billion of Venezuela’s money leant to the US Federal Reserve, to create a giant micro-lending programme for his citizens. Then he went a step too far, establishing what the Wall Street Journal called, “a tropical IMF”.
In 2000 and after, when the IMF and banks moved to financially strangle these nations by making their debts unsalable, Hugo Chavez would roll up in his oil-gilded chariot. He effectively underwrote Argentina’s debt, providing 250million dollars worth of loans, and assistance to Ecuador. After Enron seized Argentina’s water system and Occidental seized Ecuador’s oil fields, Argentina’s President Nestor Kirchner, followed by Ecuador’s Correa, told US banks to go fuck themselves. And the IMF, too.
Then there was the big one: Brazil. The World Bank/IMF “Poverty Reduction Strategy” for Brazil required the nation to close its publicly-owned banks, to sell off its vast oil properties, to give away its power industry and, to please the new foreign owners, slash wages and pensions. But with Chavez prepared to back up its new President, Lula Ignacio de Silva, the mighty little man from the Socialist Workers Party could tell the IMF to stick it where the free market don’t shine.
For the first time in contemporary history, resource states refused to give back the money received for their resource. At Chavez’ funeral, Lula, former President Ignacio de Silva of Brazil, praised this as Chavez’ most revolutionary act.
Now, instead of billions flowing North, Latin American capital was staying in Latin America. It is delicious irony that the European and American financiers, fleeing from the economic conflagration they’d ignited in their home countries, are loading their loot onto planes for Brazil. And that Venezuela’s central bank made a mint on its intra-continental loans.
And so, a coup was called for.
In 2002, Chavez’ oil company chief, Ali Rodriguez, told me: “America can’t let us stay in power. We are the exception to the New Globalisation Order. If we succeed, we are an example to all the Americas.”
That you were, Hugo Chavez. That you are, Venezuela. And all the Americas are ready.