Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

A challenge to Chavez's rule

Bangkok Post - November 29th 2006

Venezuela's democratic opposition has united behind a single candidate, Manuel Rosales, to challenge the incumbent populist maverick Hugo Chavez in the presidential election scheduled for this Sunday

By CHARLES TANNOCK AND FERNANDO GERBASI

In Venezuela's presidential election set for Dec 3, those opposed to the rule of incumbent Hugo Chavez have joined forces behind candidate Manuel Rosales, whose presidency would represent an entirely different sort of government for Venezuela, one that would seek to undo the demagogic legacy of Mr Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution.

Since his election in 1998, Mr Chavez has made confrontation and incitement to violence his primary political tools. He has engaged in blatant cheque-book diplomacy by giving away, with little to show for it, Venezuela's oil resources to countries like Cuba. Venezuela's oil reserves are vast, but they should not be squandered on foreign adventures disguised as economic integration.

Mr Chavez seeks to buy regional influence, but mostly he props up ideological cronies like Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, and some as far afield as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Belarus's Aleksander Lukashenko.

For many years, Venezuela had excellent relations with its neighbours, without having to buy their friendship. But Mr Chavez unjustifiably vilified many of them including neighbouring Colombia, which is one reason why his push to gain for Venezuela the Latin American seat on the United Nations Security Council was recently blocked.

A Rosales presidency will end Venezuela's isolation by a cabal of radicals and encourage domestic and foreign direct investment in the country. Indeed, the next government will need, above all, to kick-start the economy in a sustainable way to create a positive climate of job creation, which is the only lasting remedy for the poverty Mr Chavez has sought to exploit.

Under Mr Rosales, Venezuela's relations with its biggest trading partner, the United States, would also be re-established in a climate of mutual respect. President Chavez has opposed free-trade agreements and has proposed a mutant trade association he calls ALBA, (American Bolivarian Alternative).

A Rosales presidency would return Venezuela to normal trading relations, which means enthusiastic participation in the Andean Pact, the Group of 3, and Mercosur. Mr Rosales will establish a joint public and private sector commission to negotiate all future bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, including proposed pacts with the European Union and the United States.

But it is within Venezuela itself that a Rosales government would make its most profound changes. Instead of spending money on armaments, as Mr Chavez has done, Mr Rosales plans to redistribute 20% of Venezuela's national oil revenue directly to citizens in the lowest income groups. People who previously depended on various government handouts, which were often allocated on the basis of political favouritism, would be empowered to decide directly for themselves how they spend the resources provided to them by the state.

After more than a century of oil production in Venezuela, which possesses the world's fifth largest reserves (and the largest gas reserves in Latin America), the state is rich, but the people remain tragically poor.

The new government would be strongly committed to ending this unacceptable state of affairs. Instead of arming citizen militias with AK-47 rifles for the war with the US that Mr Chavez's paranoid fantasies envision, a Rosales government would give the people scholarships to study.

It would aim to spread throughout the country the successful model developed in Zulia whereby students from poor backgrounds are admitted to local private universities as a result of schemes drawn up with the regional government. Forty-four thousand students are currently part of the Jesus Enrique Lossada programme, which would be implemented throughout Venezuela.

Private property would remain the foundation for ensuring a prosperous economy, ruling out the current practice of land seizure by the state without compensation. Experience elsewhere demonstrates that government-imposed revolutionary co-management of enterprises will not solve Venezuela's economic problems.

Indeed, Mr Rosales rejects outright the calls to establish a new socialist world order that Mr Chavez recently issued on a trip to London. The new government would reaffirm the fundamental right to private property, and would set about issuing legal title to ownership in the form of deeds to rural and urban dwellers. The state would hand over permanent ownership of land to those who are entitled to it by virtue of living and working on it.

The biggest challenge facing any Rosales presidency in Venezuela would be to end the climate of insecurity that prevails throughout the land. Poverty and unemployment contribute to rampant criminality. Today, thuggery begins in the office of the presidency. If Venezuela is to reform, change must start at the top.

Fernando Gerbasi, Venezuela's former vice-minister of foreign affairs, is Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies and International Relations of the Universidad Metropolitana.

Charles Tannock is Vice President of the Human Rights Sub-committee of the European Parliament.