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Monday, July 12, 2004

Published on Monday, July 12, 2004 by CommonDreams.org

Venezuela and Saudi Arabia: A Tale of Two Countries
by Medea Benjamin

This is a tale of two countries.

The first is Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist theocracy
that, according to the U.S. State Department, whips
and beheads political dissidents; doesn't allow women
to vote; squashes political protest; amputates the
hands of thieves; regularly censors the press; and has
been linked by numerous reports to the Al Qaeda
terrorist network that was behind the 9/11 attacks.

The second is Venezuela, a republican democracy where
elections are hotly contested and closely scrutinized
by international observers; political rallies
regularly draw hundreds of thousands of partisans into
the street; an independent press routinely criticizes
top government officials; and a presidential recall
referendum will take place on August 15.

Both are major oil exporters to the United States. One
is being singled out for criticism and the other is
being shielded from it by the Bush administration. Can
you guess which is which?

In the nearly three years since the 9/11, attacks the
Bush administration has been criticized for failing to
hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the support provided
by wealthy Saudi families to Al Qaeda and madrassas --
the schools that train Saudi youth to hate America.

During that same period, the Bush administration
stepped up its verbal attacks on Venezuelan President
Hugo Chavez. Moreover, the Bush administration's
involvement in removing democratically elected
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti earlier this
year heightened fears in Venezuela that President Bush
will try to intervene in Venezuela -- after all, the
Bush administration was the only government in the
hemisphere that approved of the 2002 coup.

Making matters worse, the National Endowment for
Democracy (NED) -- a group funded by the U.S. Congress
-- has financed Venezuelan opposition groups,
including some who participated in the April 2002
coup, to recall President Chavez. This is a potential
violation of Venezuela's election laws and the NED's
own charter. Regardless, it is illegal in the U.S. for
political candidates to accept money from foreign
governments and we should abide by the same standard
in other countries.

Though Venezuela continues to cooperate with the U.S.
military on anti-drug and anti-terrorist operations,
and is making business deals with multinational
corporations from Chevron-Texaco and ExxonMobil to
Ford, the Bush administration still wants Chavez out.

By way of contrast, the Saudi royal family spends
millions every year on lobbyists and public relations
specialists to court presidents and members of
Congress. It has an especially cozy relationship with
the Bush family. According to Bob Woodward's new book,
Plan of Attack, the Saudi government promised
President Bush it would press OPEC to increase
production quotas and lower the cost of oil before the
November elections in the United Statesā€¹a goal it has
partially achieved.

President Chavez hasn't helped his relationship with
the United States by making fiery anti-imperialist
speeches and insulting President Bush. But Venezuela
is no Saudi Arabia. By mobilizing millions of poor
Venezuelans to actively participate in politics for
the first time, Chavez's presidency is in fact the
result of a greatly revitalized democracy.

For nearly half a century, Venezuela was governed by
two parties that took turns controlling the federal
government. Corruption and cronyism were rampant.
Tapping into widespread discontent, Chavez was elected
by landslide majorities in multi-party elections in
both 1998 and 2000 by running on a platform of more,
not less, democracy.

In 1999, after a year-long constitutional assembly, a
majority of the country voted for a new constitution,
which extended new rights to women, children and
indigenous groups. Amnesty International applauded the
new constitution, calling it "an important and
significant step forward in terms of human rights."
The new constitution also included the provision that
allows for a special recall referendum of the
president -- something no other country in the Western
Hemisphere allows.

When it comes to elections, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia
are like night and day. Saudi Arabia has a feudal
monarchy; Venezuela has the most closely watched
electoral democracy of any country in the Western
Hemisphere.

Under the supervision of Jimmy Carter and the
Organization of American States, Venezuelan voters
will go to the polls on August 15 to decide whether
they want to recall President Hugo Chavez from office
-- two years before his six-year term officially ends
in 2006.

Of course, nothing bothers Venezuela's upper classes
more than being out of power. Chavez's presidency
interrupted the gradual privatization of Venezuela's
state oil company, which generates much of the
country's wealth. Chavez is today spending tens of
millions of dollars more on educational programs to
teach millions to read and on healthcare for those too
poor to afford it.

As he campaigns toward the August 15 recall
referendum, President Chavez might do do well to cool
his anti-Bush rhetoric, which not only hurts his
relationship with the United States but also hurts his
standing with swing voters.

At the same time, the U.S. government should recognize
that Venezuela is certainly a more reliable friend
than Saudi Arabia. Congress should investigate whether
any National Endowment for Democracy funding went to
2002 coup leaders or violated local election laws. And
for its part, the Bush administration should publicly
proclaim its support for electoral democracy in
Venezuela -- even if that means that Chavez finishes
his term and is re-elected in 2006.

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of Global Exchange, a
human rights organization that has led human rights
and election monitoring delegations to more than 20
countries worldwide.

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