MANAGUA – Emboldened by high international oil costs and dwindling levels of traditional foreign aid for Central America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has found fertile ground in the region to expand his sphere of influence northward.
Neither criticism in Nicaragua over the Sandinista government’s mysterious handling of Venezuelan aid nor right-wing political concerns over the implications of partnering with Chávez’s expanding “socialist revolution” has deterred the cashstrapped governments in Central America from buddying up to the openhanded South American leader.
Tapping Venezuela’s abundant oil reserves, which Chávez claims are enough to supply all of Latin America and the Caribbean for the “next 100 years,” the Venezuelan leader has appeared more generous than ever in his quest to answer social and economic needs in the region, while buying support for his “Bolivarian Revolution.”
Guatemala, six months into the socialdemocratic government of President Alvaro Colom, recently signed on to Chávez’s PetroCaribe oil initiative, lured by the promise of being supplied with discounted petroleum and funding for social projects, such as a new hospital. Honduras, too, recently signed up with PetroCaribe and appears to be next in line to join the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), Chávez’s leftist trade and cooperation bloc aimed at countering U.S. influence in Latin America.
Even the Costa Rican government, despite the sharp ideological differences between President Oscar Arias and Chávez, has strengthened its longstanding ties with Venezuela by signing on to PetroCaribe and benefiting from other social programs, such as “Operation Miracle,” which performs free eye surgery on people who don’t have the resources to afford new vision (Tico Times, July 4).
In Nicaragua, the Venezuelan government has already donated between $205 million and $520 million, depending on various unverifiable statements by President Daniel Ortega, Chávez’s closest comrade in the region. While the amount of money Chávez has given to the Ortega government has been a source of confusion and contention, there are some clear results that have benefited most Nicaraguans: new roads, a subsidy on urban transportation and an end to the blackouts that had plagued the country for the past two years.
Costa Rican political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís, a Central American relations expert at the Latin American Faculty on Social Sciences (FLACSO), says Chávez is helping to meet some of the many needs in Central America, especially related to energy, petroleum and health projects. Though Solís says there is a “twist” to accepting Venezuelan aid, in that it implies supporting Chávez’s revolutionary project, he points out that the South American leader has not conditioned his aid by requiring other governments to sign up for ALBA or pledge written support for anything specific.
Solís says other countries, in particular the United States, have traditionally placed more conditions upon foreign aid than Chávez has.
“Chávez is taking advantage of the needs in Central America and Latin America by offering help to a region that needs lots of help,” Solís told The Nica Times this week in a phone interview from San José, Costa Rica.
Solís says the Venezuelan aid has been particularly welcome in Costa Rica, which many aid organizations no longer consider to be a poor country in need of foreign assistance.
Even in really impoverished countries, such as Nicaragua and Honduras, which are still considered a priority for foreign donors, traditional aid flows are less than they were several years ago, and funding is often given only for specific projects and under strict conditions. Seldom is foreign aid available for much-needed infrastructure projects such as energy production.
During the July 19 anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution in Managua, Chávez announced to the multitude of Sandinista supporters in attendance that Honduran President Mel Zelaya was going to enter his country into the ALBA club, making Honduras the sixth country to join the leftist alliance, which now includes Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Yet in making his announcement, it was not clear if Chávez was simply jumping the gun or rather pressuring Zelaya to join.
“Zelaya … wants to enter ALBA; this is historic news,” Chávez told the July 19 crowd, including Zelaya, who was sitting next to Chávez on the podium and didn’t respond to the announcement. “Zelaya, I don’t know if I am being imprudent (in announcing this).
But you have given me a sign. The government of Honduras, President Zelaya has said that he has intentions, he has the will to incorporate into our Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our America.”
Though Zelaya has not yet said whether Honduras will officially join ALBA, Chávez acted as if it’s already a done deal.
“Now that another Central American country is entering, (ALBA) is truly important; it is a totally new geo-political space because, as we know, the world is changing,” Chávez said.
In El Salvador, meanwhile, U.S. intelligence reports already claim Chávez is funding the 2009 presidential campaign of the former Marxist-guerrilla group-turn-political party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) – an allegation that Chávez and the FMLN deny.
Salvadoran political observer Facundo Guardado, a former FMLN insider, told The Nica Times earlier this year that he has no doubt that if the FMLN wins the elections – as the polls predict they will – El Salvador’s new government will join ALBA and sign onto Chávez’s socialist revolution with the same fervor that Ortega has exhibited in Nicaragua.
Guatemala, meanwhile, has not expressed public interest in ALBA, but that country’s recent adherence to PetroCaribe marks a warming to Chávez that wasn’t displayed by the previous administration.
In the United States, where some in the government are already leery of Chávez and his expanding push for regional influence, the expansion into Central America is raising some eyebrows.
Americas watcher Michael Shifter, the vice president for policy analysis for the Inter-American Dialogue, a leading U.S. think tank on Latin America, says he thinks Central America could become “the biggest challenge the next U.S. administration will face in this hemisphere.
“The region is getting battered from all sides,” Shifter says. “The risks to the modest democratic progress made in recent years are enormous. This is indeed fertile ground for Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution.”
Shifter says it’s not surprising that Chávez is moving quickly to take advantage of Central America’s economic woes by making deals with the various governments throughout the isthmus. It’s also not surprising, he said, that Central America is going along eagerly, despite any political or ideological hesitations these governments might have once had.
“The surprise would be if any of them turned down Chávez’s deal,” Shifter says. “For cash-strapped governments, pragmatic considerations trump everything else. “For the next U.S. administration, the situation in Central America will have a degree of urgency that not many people in Washington now realize,” the analyst predicts. “The fact that Chávez has his sights set on Central America, and could well gain political ground there, makes it an even greater challenge for the United States.”
While much of Central America is waiting to see what Chávez will give them, in Nicaragua, people are wondering what Chávez has already given.
Since President Ortega incorporated Nicaragua into ALBA on July 11, 2007 – less than 24 hours after his swearing-in as president – the government has dealt with the issue of Venezuelan aid in spiritual terms, as an almost mysterious force that shouldn’t be questioned by laymen.
Ortega talks of ALBA and PetroCaribe in wistful, religious terms, calling the two cooperation agreements modern examples of the love preached by Jesus Christ.
But perhaps Transportation Minister Fernando Martinez best summed up the Sandinista administration’s handling of ALBA by gushing at a recent public rally, “ALBA performs miracles!”
ALBA, like any miracle-performing entity, has also spawned its fair share of skeptics. Francisco Aguirre, president of the National Assembly’s Economic and Budget Commission, who theoretically holds a position that would entitle him to understand how ALBA works, only shrugs when asked to explain the nature of Venezuelan aid.
“ALBA is a mystery enveloped in a cloud of fog wrapped in an enormous enigma,” he told The Nica Times in May.
Ortega, who wields enormous control over the various government authorities – including the Comptroller General’s Office – has managed to skirt the issue and deter others from investigating the matter. A recent attempt by the Sandinista Renovation Movement to get the Comptroller General’s Office to audit Venezuelan aid fell flat when their request was rejected based on a technical argument over how the request was worded. Similar attempts to force Ortega to show his hand have also failed.
During the July 19 speech, Ortega acknowledged there are lingering doubts about Venezuelan aid, but said he only has to answer to his people, which, so far, he hasn’t.
“I want to be accountable to the people, not to the oligarchs or the empire,” Ortega said. The president then went on to explain, in broad and unclear terms, that Venezuela is investing $205 million in Nicaragua in various social programs. Ortega’s accounting, however, was very different from the $520 million he said Venezuela was giving Nicaragua last May, raising even more doubts about ALBA aid.
Asked if he understands the issue of Venezuelan aid any better after Ortega’s July 19 accounting “to the people,” Aguirre, of the economic commission, says simply, “It remains a mystery.”