PetroCaribe’s Oil to the Poor: Chavez’s Legacy in Haiti and Latin America

Kim Ives – Haiti Liberte

of thousands of Haitians spontaneously poured into the streets of
Port-au-Prince on the morning of Mar. 12, 2007. President Hugo Chavez had just
arrived in Haiti all but unannounced, and a multitude, shrieking and singing
with glee, joined him in jogging alongside the motorcade of Haiti’s then
President René Préval on its way to the National Palace (later destroyed in the
2010 earthquake).
            There, Chavez announced that
Venezuela would help Haiti by building power stations, expanding electricity
networks, improving airports, supplying garbage trucks, and supporting
widely-deployed Cuban medical teams. But the centerpiece of the gifts Chavez
brought Haiti was 14,000 barrels of oil a day, a Godsend in a country that has
been plagued by blackouts and power shortages for decades.

            The oil was part of a PetroCaribe
deal which Venezuela had signed with Haiti a year before. Haiti had only to pay
60% for the oil it received, while the remaining 40% could be paid over the
course of 25 years at 1% interest. Under similar PetroCaribe deals, Venezuela
now provides more than 250,000 barrels a day at sharply discounted prices to 17
Central American and Caribbean countries, including Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras,
Jamaica, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.
            The cost of the program is estimated
at some $5 billion annually. But the benefits to, and gratitude from,
PetroCaribe recipients are huge, particularly during the on-going global
economic crisis. In short, Caracas is underwriting the stability and energy
security of most economies in the Caribbean and Central America, at the same
time challenging, for the first time in over a century, U.S. hegemony in its
own “backyard.”
            Washington’s alarm over and
hostility to PetroCaribe is layed bare in secret diplomatic cables obtained by
the media organization WikiLeaks. Then U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson
rebuked Préval for “giving Chavez a platform to spout anti-American slogans”
during his 2007 visit, said one cable cited in an
which debuted in June 2011 a WikiLeaks-based series produced by Haïti Liberté and The Nation.
            Reviewing all 250,000 secret U.S.
diplomatic cables which were later released, one realizes that Sanderson wasn’t
the only U.S. diplomat wringing her hands about PetroCaribe.
            “It is remarkable that in this
current contest we are being outspent by two impoverished countries: Cuba and
Venezuela,” noted U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay Frank Baxter in a 2007 cable
released by Wikileaks. “We offer a small Fulbright program; they offer a
thousand medical scholarships. We offer a half dozen brief IV programs to
‘future leaders’; they offer thousands of eye operations to poor people. We
offer complex free trade agreements someday; they offer oil at favorable rates
today. Perhaps we should not be surprised that Chavez is winning friends and
influencing people at our expense.”
            We can now expect the Washington’s
“contest” with Venezuela to escalate dramatically as it attempts to take
advantage of the Bolivarian regime’s vulnerability during the transition of
power. Already Vice President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chavez asked Venezuelans to
make his successor, has sounded the alarm. “We have no doubt that commander
Chavez was attacked with this illness,” Maduro said on Mar. 5, repeating a
suspicion voiced by Chavez himself that Washington was somehow responsible for
the fatal cancer he contracted. “The old enemies of our fatherland looked
for a way to harm his health.”
            Maduro also announced on national
television on Mar. 5 “that a U.S. Embassy attache was being expelled for
meeting with military officers and planning to destabilize the country,” the AP
reported. A U.S. Air Force attaché was also expelled.
            In short, just as the imperative to
secure oil has driven the U.S. to multiple wars, coups, and intrigues in the
Mideast over the past 60 years, it is now driving the U.S. toward a major new
confrontation in Latin America. With Chavez’s death, Washington sees a long
awaited opportunity to roll back the Bolivarian Revolution and programs like
PetroCaribe. In recent years, Chavez has led Venezuela to nationalize dozens of
foreign-owned undertakings, including oil projects run by Exxon Mobil, Texaco
Chevron, and other large North American corporations. The future of the
hydrocarbon resources in Venezuela’s Maracaibo Basin and Orinoco Belt, recently
declared to be the world’s largest, will soon reveal itself to be the central
economic and political issue, and hottest flashpoint, in the hemisphere.
            In the case of Haiti, Hugo Chavez
often said that PetroCaribe and other aid was given “to repay the historic debt
that Venezuela owes the Haitian people.” Haiti was the first nation of Latin
America, gaining its independence in 1804. In the 19th century’s
first example of international solidarity, Haitian revolutionary leaders like
Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Alexandre Pétion provided Francisco de Miranda and
Simon Bolivar, South America’s “Great Liberator,” with guns, ships, and
printing presses to carry out the anti-colonial struggle on the continent.
            And this was the dream that inspired
Hugo Chavez: a modern Bolivarian revolution sweeping South America, spreading
independence from Washington and growing “21st century socialism.”
PetroCaribe was Chavez’s flagship in that “contest,” as Ambassador Baxter
called it.
            Ironically, it was former Haitian
president Jean-Bertrand Aristide who first foiled U.S. election engineering in
Latin America in December 1990, but his electoral victory was cut short by a
September 1991 coup. Hugo Chavez was the next Latin American leader to
successfully carry out a political revolution at the polls in 2000. His people
defeated the U.S.-backed coup that tried to unseat him in April 2002. Due to his
strategic acumen, his popular support, and the goodwill created with
PetroCaribe, Chavez’s prestige grew in Venezuela and around the world during
his 13 years in power up until his death today, which will bring a huge tide of
mourning across Latin America.
            The eulogies will be many, but
former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who personally knew and worked with
Chavez, made a prescient observation in January that stands out:  “In my opinion, history will judge the contributions
of Hugo Chavez to Latin American as greater than those of Bolivar.”
In the case of Haiti, Hugo Chavez often
said that PetroCaribe and other aid was given “to repay the historic debt that
Venezuela owes the Haitian people.”