[OUTLOOK]A real crusader for reform“Just before the September 11 attacks, Washington was considering its options. The EHMs (economic hit man) had failed; was it time to send in the jackals?” This passage is from a book by John Perkins called “Confession of an Economic Hit Man,” a memoir of what he describes as a career spent helping Washington use economic pressure to get foreign leaders to do its bidding. According to Mr. Perkins, the “jackals” ―the real “hit men,” who take stronger action ―were sent in when the economic “hit men” of appeasement and intimidation failed. When even the jackals failed, he says, military force followed. According to Mr. Perkins, Venezuela was spared by the distraction of Saddam Hussein.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently launched a unique reading campaign in his country. Mr. Chavez is urging his people to read “Don Quixote,” to “feed ourselves once again with that spirit of a fighter who went out to undo injustices and repair the world.” The government went so far as to print and distribute a million free copies of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic ―a deluxe edition, with illustrations and a prologue by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago.
As the world’s fifth largest producer of oil, Venezuela depends on it for 80 percent of its export revenue and half of its budget. But Venezuelans do not benefit equally from the oil money. Forty percent of the population is in absolute poverty, unable to afford basic education and medical services. Meanwhile, the middle class dreams of paying for vacations in Florida with the money they would somehow get from the oil industry. When the Korean economy was bailed out by the International Monetary Fund, Korean citizens contributed their gold rings for the economy. But in Venezuela, 300 people were killed in an “IMF riot” in 1989, when the country had to tighten its budget as a result of falling oil prices and its inability to pay back its foreign debt.
Since 1976, Venezuela’s oil industry has been run by the state. With 40,000 employees, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) is the world’s largest oil company. Corrupt executives and union leaders have colluded to bring it under their control. Its per-barrel drilling cost is more than triple that of Western companies, and its profit from the sale of a dollar’s worth of oil fell from 71 cents in 1981 to 39 cents in 2000.
Whenever there was an attempt to hold an executive accountable for poor management and replace him, the union would oppose it. When the government pursued a project to subsidize the poor with oil profits, PDVSA initiated a campaign to oust the president, with the backing of elements of society that had vested interests and were intoxicated by the “black gold.”
Mr. Chavez is an eccentric character. He confessed to the Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez that he had once made up his mind to fight for revolution after witnessing the tragedy of farmers-turned-soldiers torturing farmers-turned-guerillas. But he decided instead to work within the political system.
After he became president, his policies met with strong resistance, from strikes to protests to a coup attempt. But he has overcome every crisis with the support of the public. In 2004, there was a referendum on the question of recalling Mr. Chavez. It was Mr. Chavez himself who proposed the referendum bill, at the risk of his own dismissal from office.
Oil always attracts foreign influence. About 20 percent of American petroleum imports come from Venezuela. Mr. Chavez initiated a high-oil-price policy by limiting production in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), arguing that it didn’t make sense for oil to be cheaper than water or soft drinks, considering the refining costs. When major petroleum companies conspired with PDVSA executives to instigate privatization, he placed a 50-percent cap on participation by foreign capital.
Mr. Chavez has called Fidel Castro “brother,” and has criticized the United States for invading Afghanistan. He also irritated Washington by becoming the first head of state to visit Iraq after the first Gulf War. Don Quixote mistook a windmill for a giant, but Mr. Chavez might be mistaking the giant for a windmill. Mr. Chavez’ affection for Don Quixote of La Mancha does not deserve retribution by way of economic “jackals,” or military force, for that matter. His public appeal, which might be respected as a matter of majority rule in the developed West, has been dismissed as silly populism. This brazen prejudice is an instance of regional and racial discrimination, which may be the kind of fascism we have grown comfortable with.
To celebrate the 400th anniversary of “Don Quixote,” its first unabridged edition in Korean has been published this year. The book includes beautiful illustrations from the 1863 French edition. Though there are so many injustices left to be corrected in this country, we are already tired of immature reform fighters who imitate “Don Quixote.”
* The writer is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Joseph Chung