DESPITE its widespread levels of poverty, Venezuela has some notable similarities to Scotland, writes Brian Wilson.
When Venezuela votes on 7 October, the world should be watching with an unusual degree of interest, for the certainty is that the ramifications will extend, for better or worse, far beyond the country’s own boundaries. We have our own reasons in Scotland to pay attention.
There are few national leaders who polarise opinion so fundamentally as Hugo Chavez, who will be seeking re-election for the third time since he gained power in 1998. For his admirers, he is the poor kid who took on American imperialism and survived.
He is the beacon of hope not only for Venezuela but all of Latin America. He is the saviour who will deliver them from the grinding poverty of the shanty towns.
To many others, Chavez is the demagogue who discovered democracy only after trying to subvert it. He is the anti-Christ who has squandered Venezuela’s fabulous oil wealth on vanity projects at home and abroad, his failings concealed by the rhetoric of Bolivarian socialism. A substantial proportion of those who hold these views have already decanted to Miami and more will follow if Chavez wins again.
Scotland, as it happens, has its own close ties with Venezuela and these can be summed up in three words – “oil”, “whisky” and “music”. There would undoubtedly also be sympathy for the fundamentals of Chavez’s vision even if, from this distance, the finer points of ideology and delivery are more difficult to pass judgment upon.
Venezuela is the world’s fifth biggest consumer of Scotch whisky. Go into a restaurant, not just the fancy ones in the country, and there will be a bottle of Buchanan’s on the table at the start of the meal and it will be empty by the end.
It says something about Chavez’s somewhat erratic priorities that he has tried hard to alter this habit by declaring Scotch to be “the drink of the oligarchs” and urging good Bolivarians to consume rum instead (although to no visible effect).
But oil – which has drawn many of our North Sea companies to the Maracaibo Basin – is really the key to why Venezuela is so significant and, paradoxically, why Chavez is in power. The country has been producing the stuff for more than 60 years. It possesses the largest known oil reserves in the world. Yet the poverty which existed, and still exists, in Venezuela represents an unanswerable indictment of how that wealth was abused and distributed. It was a scandal waiting to explode.
I first visited Venezuela in the late 1990s, just after Chavez had been elected for the first time. The country had been ravaged by floods. Because the infrastructure was so poor and the housing so pathetically inadequate, thousands of people died when their dwellings were simply swept from the mountain-sides. It was an outrage which reaffirmed the need for a revolutionary response, albeit through the ballot box.
One of Venezuela’s saving graces was its long democratic tradition; imperfect no doubt and manipulated from Washington, but, by Latin American standards, a precious asset. And the inconvenient fact was that Chavez, a military man, had headed an unsuccessful coup in 1992 in an effort to seize power. It was a measure of the deep social division that, less than a decade and a prison sentence later, he was able to reinvent himself as elected president.
As his radical intentions became clear, the Americans did not waste time in trying to get rid of him. In 2002, Chavez briefly fled the country when he was himself faced with a coup. Within three days, he was back, saved by the Venezuelan attachment to that democratic tradition. Many who disliked his rule were not prepared to see it usurped by force and the whole thing foundered in farce when his self-appointed successor turned up at the presidential palace only to be refused admission. He then beat a hasty retreat to Miami via Bogota while Chavez returned in triumph from Havana.
Ever since, the Americans have had to co-exist with Chavez, and therein lies much of his wider significance. They need Venezuelan oil and have to do business with the country. Meanwhile, Venezuela supplies cheap oil to Cuba in return for tens of thousands of doctors and teachers spreading healthcare and literacy in the remotest corners of the country. It is a trade which will end immediately if Chavez’s opponent is elected on 7 October, an opening signal that the right is back in power.
There are various contributing factors to the democratisation of Latin America over the past 30 years; not least the fall of military rule in Argentina after the Falklands War. But there is no doubt that Chavez’s success in facing down American hegemony has encouraged others to believe that the “third way” is indeed possible – elected, left-wing governments which cannot be removed by US-sponsored strongmen, as happened so often in the past.
Chavez is no paragon and there are legitimate questions about why Venezuela, in spite of its oil wealth, still has a lower growth rate than other Latin American countries. While his missions in favour of the poor have delivered much, the rate of change has been too slow. If he loses, it will be because too many of his erstwhile followers have lost faith. Whether they would be any happier with a wealthy member of the former elite who was up to his neck in the 2002 coup is another question.
The most recent Scottish link with Venezuela has its origins in the wonderful movement called “El Sistema” which long predates Chavez but has been embraced by him. It was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu who believed in the power of music to transform lives in the poorest places, and to offer an alternative to crime and drugs. El Sistema is above politics and has survived all changes. At its apex, it is represented by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which has made triumphant appearances at the London Proms and Edinburgh Festival.
Richard Holloway was inspired by the idea of applying the same vision in Scotland and the result is the Big Noise project in the Raploch area of Stirling, where hundreds of youngsters now receive musical tuition and form their own orchestra.
It is a fabulous success story and there are plans for a second project in the Govanhill area of Glasgow. But it also throws up questions and challenges, which are as relevant in here as in Venezuela, where some 350,000 children are involved in El Sistema.
Tackling poverty and its roots requires to be the first priority of any government, not an optional extra once the needs of the prosperous have been taken care of. It is easy for us to endorse that doctrine at a safe distance, but more difficult to embrace it at home – and if you doubt that, just check out what is happening to free music tuition in your local school.