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Petroleum and progress

By Rodrigo Acuña - posted Friday, 13 June 2008


In early 1999, I was in Havana, Cuba.

On television one night was a news story summarising a speech by Hugo Chávez Frías, Venezuela's new incoming President, who was visiting the island.

Based on what I heard, I was not impressed and my Cuban friend thought him rather humorous - and not in a comradely spirit.

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Chávez seemed too rhetorical and eager to talk up his commitments to the poor. Compared to Fidel Castro, a master of the Spanish language known for demandingly long speeches, Chávez - it seemed - had much to learn about the art of rhetoric.

Throughout Latin America, little was know about him beyond his leading a progressive-nationalist section of the military in a failed coup back in 1992.

By late 1999 a clearer picture was emerging. Chávez challenged the notion that Venezuela should sell its oil to the US at low rates, and petitioned others in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to increase theirs.

The average price (calculated annually) went from US$12.28 in 1998 to US$17.47 in 1999, which Gregory Wilpert - an analyst of the Chávez administration - describes as "one of the largest non-war related increases of the past decade".

Washington, naturally, was far from happy about this expression of liberty - as any student of history might expect.

During the first half of the 20th century, the US owned close to 100 per cent of Venezuela's petroleum and mining industries, and support for dictators like Vicente Gómez and General Pérez Jiménez underpinned those holdings.

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When Venezuela came under democratic rule, nationalising its oil in 1976, almost every government engaged in shameful corruption, human rights abuses against critics, and sold the country's oil at bargain prices - particularly to the US for which Venezuela is its fourth largest supplier.

Chávez's administration, although far from perfect, nor immune from problems of corruption, has attempted to address Venezuela's huge inequalities, its relationship with the US, and forge unity among Latin American countries.

Regrettably, many of these developments go unreported in the media.

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First published in ABC's Unleashed on May 19, 2008.



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About the Author

Rodrigo Acuña is a PhD candidate in International Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. A recipient of Benchmark Prize in Hispanic Studies by the University of New South Wales, he was also runner up for Open Prose in the Unsweetened 2007 Literary Journal. He writes regularly on Latin American affairs and has presented seminars at various Australian universities on political developments in Venezuela, as well as other Latin American countries.

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