Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S.

Review by Fred

Nikolas Kozloff, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

While Hugo Chávez has yet to define the “socialism for the twenty-first century” that he has vowed to create in Venezuela and enable elsewhere in the Americas, he has shown us a credible first step: a political and economic project meant to redistribute wealth and power downward and southward, from the privileged to the poor, and from the U.S. to the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

As inequality continues to grow both within and between the countries of the Americas, this projected redistribution, a political project made credible by Venezuela’s enormous oil reserves, has given Chávez and Chavismo a global resonance, accompanied by substantial lists of friends, clients and enemies. In Venezuela, these lists have been lengthened by another dimension of the Chavista project, the consolidation of political power in the hands of the presidency.

Power, of course, is at the heart of any significant redistribution, and oil (for the moment, at least) is at the heart of Chávez’s power. Hence the appropriate subtitle of Nikolas Kozloff’s new book on the political trajectory of the Chávez presidency, Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S.

Kozloff is principally interested in power, and is at his best when writing about the oil industry and the political uses to which it has been put in Venezuela. It is in this context that an oil expert and one-time leftist guerrilla named Alí Rodríguez emerges, second only to Chávez, as the book’s hero. In 1999 Rodríguez became Chávez’s first Energy Minister; in 2001 he became Secretary General of OPEC, probably as a reward to Venezuela for its role in resuscitating the comatose oil cartel; and following the short-lived anti-Chávez coup of 2002, he was named President of the state oil company, PDVSA. In the wake of PDVSA’s determined effort to oust Chávez from office, the savvy President apparently considered Rodríguez to be the only political player capable of reining in the oil company’s independent power. Within a year of his appointment, Rodríguez had faced down a work stoppage called by an alliance of PDVSA’s management and corporatist union, stabilized the company’s daily operations, and brought it, for the first time, under reasonably firm government control.

Though this story has been told before, Kozloff tells it well and makes a convincing case for the key role played by Rodríguez throughout the Chávez presidency. Kozloff argues that Chávez’s earlier role in strengthening OPEC by helping (with his own example) to enforce production quotas, his successful determination to bring PDVSA more firmly under governmental control, and his subsequent strategic use of Venezuela’s plentiful oil resources to forge regional alliances that may one day produce a genuine South American community, were all guided by Rodríguez. This story is at the core of the narrative and key to Kozloff’s analysis of how Chávez has maintained himself in power.

The story, of course, is subject to different interpretations. There have been other influential pro-Chávez actors in the oil industry -– the influential energy theorist, Bernard Mommer, for example. But no matter how you slice the story, Kozloff is quite right to argue that oil, its control, and its international price fluctuations are crucial to whatever political, economic and social changes Chávez would like to bring about in Venezuela. These factors are so crucial that some critics –- including many on the left –- have argued that the current oil boom, rather than any structural redistribution, is funding the country’s impressive health, welfare and education programs, along with the state institutions that have facilitated the increased political participation of the poor. If that turns out to be the case, when oil prices fall, so will the institutions of welfare and participation. The “socialism for the twenty-first century,” say some of those critics, may have more to do with Chávez’s concentration of political power than with any redistribution of wealth.

One wishes that Kozloff had taken some time to discuss this criticism from the left. Travelers to and residents of Caracas now recount scenes of opulence in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods that rival those of the 1970s when suddenly wealthy Venezuelans became known as the people who traveled the world and bought two of everything: the “dame dos” (“give me two”) of the Miami tourist shops. Since Kozloff is presenting a general overview of Chávez’s years in power, and his own reaction to Chávez as a complicated political animal, it would have been interesting to see him tackle this contradiction head on.

Kozloff’s immediate reactions to events are, for better or worse, a central part of this book. He has written a narrative history of Chávez’s political trajectory and at the same time, stepping back a bit, a narrative history of his own interest in and evaluation of Chávez and his project.

This creates some difficulties for the reader because Kozloff doesn’t so much put himself in the story as tell us where he was and what he was thinking as the story was unfolding somewhere else. A style that worked for masters like John Reed and George Orwell meets with less success when the up-front story (Chávez vs. Empire) is a fascinating one, and the author’s experiences are on the order of, “Prior to my studies in England, I studied Latin American history at the University of Miami. There I became aware of the activities of the Southern Command.”

More difficulties emerge in Kozloff’s frequent steps to the side to present brief synopses of events outside of Venezuela or equally brief profiles of other Latin American leaders. One understands that he is trying to give us a more complete picture of the political moment, but I’m afraid these valiant attempts to broaden the story result in more confusion than clarification. The book’s conversational, informal narrative tends frequently to decompose into a string of anecdotes -– or worse, a string of sidebars –- in which it becomes hard to extract the analysis of key events from the chatty background.

But distractions aside, Kozloff has done us a service by recounting the recent history of the politics of Venezuelan oil and by showing us how savvy political actors have succeeded in guiding that history, though not, of course, precisely as they choose.

Review by Fred Rosen North American Congress on Latin America