Venezuela before Chavez

Here’s a headline in the New York Times: Venezuela, Strong Voice of the World’s Poor and the subhead says, “It Is Using Its Wealth to Back Its Policies.”

The article describes Venezuela as “a rich neighbor in a poor corner of the world,” and says that while “Venezuela is implementing a $54 billion domestic development plan aimed at redistributing national wealth and reducing dependence on raw materials exports, it has also committed $3 billion, or 10 percent of its gross territorial product, in loans or other assistance to Latin America, the Caribbean and international organizations.” The president has nationalized the oil and mining industries previously controlled by American companies and supports Latin American integration. “The notion of a united Latin America has been the unfulfilled dream of statesmen here since the time of Simon Bolivar,” the report concludes.

This article, which appeared on August 15, 1976, is referring to  the first administration of Carlos Andres Perez (1974-79). After two other elected presidents came and went, Perez was elected to a second term beginning in 1989.  But then oil prices fell and when Perez imposed austerity measures Venezuelans rioted. A certain army colonel later attempted a coup against the Perez government:  Hugo Chavez.

Chile and Chávez

Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan president, with Chile's Sebastian Pinera at a summit in Caracas two years ago

Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan president, with Chile’s Sebastian Pinera at a summit in Caracas two years ago.

Chile has declared three days of mourning and President Sebastián Piñera will fly to Caracas this Friday for the funeral of Hugo Chávez.  Piñera said that while he had his disagreements with Chávez, he admired the Venezuelan leader’s “courage and valor.”  One can only speculate what the conservative entrepreneur and flamboyant leftist really thought of each other, but somehow the two managed to keep bilateral relations on an even keel.

It didn’t start out that way. After winning the presidential run-off vote early in 2010 Piñera told foreign correspondents in Santiago that he had deep differences with the way public issues were handled in Venezuela.

“These differences are profound and have to do with the way democracy is conceived and implemented, the way the model of economic development is carried out, and many more,” he said. Chávez reacted by saying, in essence, that Piñera’s comments were what one might expect from a wealthy businessman.  “I think he is one of the richest in Chile and among the richest in the hemisphere,” he said. “We do not get involved in Chilean matters, so they should mind their own business.”

Chile’s rightwing Union Democratica Independiente (UDI), which forms part of the Piñera government’s political coalition, staged a walk-out when the Chamber of Deputies held a minute’s silence for Chávez Tuesday evening.  UDI leader Gustavo Hasbún said that while party members voted to hold the homage they refused to take part.

“We have always maintained that [Chavez’s government] was a disguised dictatorship which permanently violated human rights and freedom of expression,” he said.


Cancer care in Cuba

CIMEQ, the Havana hospital where Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is undergoing cancer treatment.

CIMEQ, the Havana hospital where Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is undergoing cancer treatment.

The Centro de Investigaciones Médico Quirúrgicas, CIMEQ (, the Cuban hospital treating  Hugo Chavez, is the subject of articles by Reuters and the Associated Press and both news agencies observe there is little outward sign of the Venezuelan leader’s presence there. The hospital has a wing for foreigners and VIPs and its website ( lists 16 medical services, including 24 different cosmetic  surgical procedures.

Another option offered to paying cancer patients is a regime of alternative treatments by the La Coronacion travel agency in Havana. Billed as “the first Touristic Package designed to provide homeopathic natural oncological treatment in Cuba,” the agency offers 7, 15 and 21-day stays that include accommodation at the Hotel Club Acuario, transfers, a medical consultation and a combination of four nutritional and homeopathic remedies

One of these products is Vidatox 30CH, a medication derived from scorpion venom produced by the Cuban state biotechnology company Labiofam.  According to Labiofam’s web site (, “the venom  from the Cuban scorpion Rhopalurus junceus has been shown to have antitumoral and antimetastatic activity on solid tumors” and “represents a potential therapeutic alternative for the treatment of neoplastic disease in humans.”


A Chilean view of Venezuela

Andres Velasco, who was finance minister during Michelle Bachelet’s government (2006-2010), is sometimes mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. Now a visiting professor at Columbia University, he recently published an opinion piece on Project Syndicate comparing the presidential campaign of Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles to the “no” campaign against General Augusto Pinochet’s one man presidential plebiscite in 1988.

Some background:  many Chileans who fled the country during the Pinochet regime received political asylum in Venezuela. Back then Venezuela was one of the few countries in the region with free elections and civilian-led governments, while Chile and most of its South American neighbors were ruled by military dictators. The center-left Concertacion coalition which governed Chile for two decades after Pinochet left the presidency had good relations with Hugo Chavez, and even Sebastian Piñera’s conservative administration manages to do the same.

Bachelet, one diplomat told me, had “a soft spot for Chavez.”  According to some accounts, her government was leaning toward supporting Venezuela’s 2006 bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, but ultimately opted to abstain.  The following year the Iberoamerican Summit was held in Santiago, where Chavez repeatedly tried to interrupt the Spanish prime minister’s speech, prompting King Juan Carlos’s famous utterance, “why don’t you shut up!”  This and other incidents over the past few years served to erode Chilean views of the Venezuelan leader and Velasco’s judgement is one of the harshest yet.  He writes

The campaign headquarters of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles feels and looks a lot like the headquarters of the “No” campaign against Chile’s military dictator of a quarter-century ago, Augusto Pinochet.

Back then, very few people outside Chile thought that a ruthless dictator could be removed through the ballot box.

But the democratic opposition prevailed in the 1988 plebiscite, and Pinochet had to go.

Today, many in the global chattering classes are similarly sceptical that Venezuela’s political opposition can unseat the demagogic populist Hugo Chavez in the country’s presidential election on October 7. After all, Mr Chavez, who has governed Venezuela since 1999 and is in his third presidential term, maintains an iron grip over much of the country’s media and keeps an open wallet to pay for popular support.

To read Velasco’s article: