July 6, 2007 -- I FIRST met Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's flamboyant president, after one of his earlier trips to Iran. With a few colleagues, we dined at an Italian restaurant in Paris.
The conversation touched on a range of topics, but two themes dominated. The first was his "determination" to end poverty in Venezuela. "There is no need for anyone to be poor in a country as rich as ours," he asserted as he sipped his Chateau Lafitte. "Give me four years, just give me four years!"
The second main theme was Chavez's claim that the Catholic Church, prompted by "wealthy oligarchs," was trying to sabotage his social revolution.
Chavez claimed to be the ideological heir of Simon Bolivar, the father of Latin American liberation from colonial rule, and recalled his hero's commitment to "secular government." Bolivar had said that while the individual was free to have whatever faith he wished, the state should have no religion. As for society, its sole religion should be freedom within the rule of law.
In that context, Chavez was particularly critical of the theocratic system established by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He said he admired the Iranian revolution and had fallen in love with Iran's natural beauty and cultural richness - "ah, those roses in Isfahan!" - but was uneasy about the mullahs' attempts to impose their version of Islam on all Iranians.
Well, Chavez has had eight years - twice as much as he had demanded in that Paris restaurant.
Thanks to rising oil prices, Venezuela has garnered something like $180 billion net in oil export revenues. That income has been topped by $30 billion worth of government borrowing. That means a total of $210 billion, not taking into account the government's other revenues from taxes and custom duties.
Yet, under Chavez, Venezuela's public debt (domestic and foreign) has risen from $21 to almost $47 billion. His own government's reports show a steady rise in the number of people below the poverty line. Despite a $5 billion bonanza from the seizure of foreign funds from the Venezuelan Central Bank, the government last year issued bonds worth $4 billion to cover a looming budget deficit.
What happened? What did Chavez do with the unprecedented wealth that came to Venezuela under his stewardship?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that Venezuela leads Latin America in capital flight. Over the last eight years, Venezuelans have transferred something like $70 billion to foreign (mostly American) banks. Chavez has also spent billions helping Cuba and distributing free or cut-price oil in several countries (including some U.S. areas). During his visit to Iran last week, he extended that generosity to the Islamic Republic by promising to supply cut-price gasoline to meet a shortage that has already caused riots throughout the country.
It's clear that, somewhere along his trajectory, Chavez decided to cast himself in the role of a "fighter against Yankee Imperialism." With that decision made, all other considerations became secondary. The elimination of poverty could wait for another day. As for Bolivar's philosophy, it could be twisted to suit the new "heroic discourse."
To be sure, Chavez has set up something he calls a "Bolivarian alliance" in Latin America. But the regimes he has managed to attract - Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia - are more anachronistic communist set-ups than Bolivarian constructs. (Indeed, the Islamic Republic has now joined the "Bolivarian" alliance - added proof that the exercise is more motivated by anti-Americanism than by genuine Bolivarian values.)
In his visit to the Islamic Republic, his sixth in eight years, Chavez set aside his Bolivarian flag. He went on Khomeini's tomb to pray for the bloodthirsty theocrat, under whose rule more than 1.5 million Iranians died in war and government repression. Chavez described the Khomeinist system as "political spirituality" and a model for mankind as a whole. He was especially enthusiastic in his praise of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seems determined to push the Middle East into a new period of conflict.
If the Islamic Republic's state-owned media are to be believed, Chavez also endorsed Ahamdinejad's bid to become leader of the so-called nonaligned movement, and to head it into a new campaign aimed at "the destruction of the American Imperialism." "With you in the lead," Chavez said, "we shall defeat the United States and its allies wherever they are."
Ahmadinejad and Chavez traveled to southern Iran, where a giant petrochemical complex has been under construction for years. Walking hand-in-hand and exchanging sentimental phrases, the couple visited Asaluyeh - one of the most deprived areas of Iran's poverty-stricken Deep South. There, Chavez spoke of " the toiling masses' right to a better life."
Yet part of his visit had been cancelled to avoid construction workers who've been on strike since April. (One grievance: They hadn't been paid for six months.) Several of their leaders have been arrested by the secret police and shipped to unknown destinations.
Asaluyeh workers are frequently beaten up by thugs working for government owned companies and their French partners. The majority of Asaluyeh's 60,000 workers are poverty-stricken individuals who have come from all over Iran to earn a living for families left behind - families they often are not allowed to visit for months on end.
A recent Shiraz University study described conditions at Asaluyeh sites as "akin to slave labour camps." The average six-day working week can run into 70 hours; most workers, hired on a daily basis, get no paid holidays at all. They live in overcrowded huts provided by employers, who charge up to half of the average wage as rent. Food and other necessities are also available only in company-owned shops, often at prices twice higher than the average in the province.
Bolivar insisted on the separation of religion and state and sided with the poor. He wanted Latin America to seek allies among the Western democracies, not the potentates of the Orient.
Bolivar wanted Latin America to compete with the United States by enhancing its own freedoms, improving its educational system, achieving economic growth, and developing its culture. He did not believe that seeking the destruction of he United States was a worthy goal for any sane person, let alone a nation.
Cheap and banal anti-Americanism, the last refuge of every scoundrel, does not a Bolivarian make. Chavez, a Bolivarian? The workers in Asaluyeh know better.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.