Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Latin America Solidarity News 28th Jan 2007

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Events and Notices


Free screening of “Viva São João”, by Andrucha Waddington, with
Gilberto Gil, Dominguinhos and others, at the Wellington Botanic Gardens, on Thursday,
22nd February 2007. This event is being organized and promoted by the Cuba Street Carnival Trust in
conjunction with the Embassy of Brazil in Wellington and the NZ Film Archive.

When: Thursday 22nd February, 2007, from 9pm
Where: The Dell, Wellington Botanic Garden, Main Entrance, Tinakori Road
How much? Free... Come along and bring your friends!
NB: In the event of bad weather, the screening might be cancelled. Please check on the following:
Summer City Website -; Wellington City Council Website; Newstalk ZB 1035 am or call the Summer City hotline - 801 3500

¡Salud! 2nd and 3rd March 7pm

Follow up the Cuba Carnival (26-28th Feb)
and find out what puts Cuba on the map in the quest for global health and see SALUD …
At New Zealand Film Archive, 84 Taranki St, Wellington (entrance off Guzhnee St)
Discussion following screening of film incl issues over community health in NZ.
Further information contact Paul Bruce Tel 972 8699
or NZ Film Archive Tel 384 7647
¡Salud, 93 minutes,is produced and directed by Academy Award nominee Connie Field
(The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter; Freedom on My Mind) and co-produced by Gail Reed.

If you too want to be a "revolutionary tourist'' and ``join the wave of
backpackers, artists, academics and politicians on a mission to
discover if Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, really is forging a
radical alternative to neo-liberalism and capitalism" check out the
three solidarity brigades that the Australia Venezuela Solidarity
Network are organising this year including the first one for May Day
Habana Blues
World Cinema Showcase film festival is featuring a Cuban film - Habana Blues - in this year’s festival.
A captivating love letter to life on the ‘crazy isle’ of Cuba, Habana Blues follows a group of musicians struggling to make the big time. If that sounds like Buena Vista Social Club: the Return, be aware this is fiction – these young stallions play a vibrant hybrid of soul and rock, and their goal in life is to leave behind the politics of their impoverished island. Ruy and Tito are the Mick and Keith of the band who spend their days flogging everything from cigars to sombreros out of the back of Tito’s delicious red ‘52 Chevy. When their long-awaited break arrives in the guise of Spanish record producer Marta, their lives are thrown into turmoil by the tantalising prospect of a one-way ticket to Spain. For once they’ve left Cuba, they can never return.

World Cinema Showcase - Auckland - March 15 - April 4, 2007
World Cinema Showcase - Wellington - March 29 - April 11. 2007
World Cinema Showcase - Christchurch - April 12 - 25, 2007
World Cinema Showcase - Dunedin - April 19 - May 5, 2007

Telecom 39th Auckland International Film Festival, July 13 - 29, 2007
Telecom 36th Wellington Film Festival, July 20 - August 5, 2007
Telecom 31st Dunedin International Film Festival, July 27 - August 12, 2007
Telecom 31st Christchurch International Film Festival, August 2 - 19, 2007


Dozens of laid-off workers looted and set fire to the Genesis
Feliz Tex S.A. garment plant in Guatemala City on the afternoon
of Jan. 20. The workers came to the plant to demand their
severance pay. Finding no one at the factory, the workers decided
to seize apparel and machinery in compensation. Within minutes
unit of the National Civil Police (PNC) arrived and dispersed the
crowd with tear gas, but before they left the workers started a
fire; firefighters spent two hours putting it out. No arrests
were made.

The plant was a maquiladora (tax-exempt assembly plant producing
for export) apparently owned by a Korean company. There are more
than 300 apparel-producing maquiladoras in Guatemala, employing
about 100,000 workers, mostly impoverished women. Some 20 of
these plants closed down in 2006, leaving 5,000 people without
work. [Prensa Libre (Guatemala) 1/21/07;

Venezuela's Chavez Sets Oil Fields Takeover for May:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced the government’s planned takeover of the Orinoco belt oil fields, and the re-nationalization of the electricity sector at an international press conference yesterday. He also responded to U.S. President George W. Bush’s “concerns” over Venezuelan democracy.

Ecuador won't recognize Occidental claim:
Two-year-long dispute with the Los Angeles-based company led Ecuador to cancel its contract with Occidental, which produced about 100,000 barrels of crude daily in Ecuador, and seize its facilities.

Chávez in charge
By Richard Gott

Hugo Chávez is a man in a hurry, and this week's decision by the Venezuelan
national assembly to grant him additional powers foreshadows the radical
changes that are in the pipeline. President for the past eight years, Chávez
has only just begun to scratch the surface of the gigantic revolutionary
project that lies ahead. There have been obvious successes. Unprecedented
sums of oil money have been diverted towards the country's poor majority,
funding education and health programmes, and providing cheap food. The
results are already on show. A freshly mobilised and alert population is
beginning to flex its muscles, taking part in political decision-making
through a myriad local councils and ad-hoc committees operating at many
levels. Nothing like this has happened in Latin America since the Cuban
Revolution nearly half a century ago. It is riveting stuff.

Yet all this energy and excitement has been channelled through new
institutions, financed directly by the oil revenues, and essentially
unmonitored. Again, this is a revolution in progress. At the same time, much
of the old, pre-revolutionary Venezuela still remains. The country's
traditional infrastructure is plagued by bureaucracy and corruption, the
twin-headed disease inherited from the Spanish colonial era. Bureaucrats,
and that means public servants in every ministry and ancient state entity,
exist to ensure that nothing ever gets done, while corruption exists to
lubricate their powers of inaction. What is true of the state is true of
private industry as well. So this week's "enabling" legislation will give
greater powers to the executive at the expense of the legislature, with the
hope that Chávez will be able to push through some necessary changes. At
some stage, the new institutions and the old bureaucracies will have to be

Is this road to dictatorship or the path to reasonable reform? The nature of
the problem is familiar to political scientists, and certainly not new to
Latin America. Where should the balance fall between the executive and the
legislature? Each country makes its choice, and revolutions provide an
opportunity for the balance to be changed.

Allowing the Venezuelan president to issue executive orders is nothing new.
It is permitted under the constitution of 1999, as under the previous
constitution. Chávez's recent predecessors availed themselves of a similar
facility from time to time, notably when dealing with economic and financial
matters. Even Thomas Shannon, the US diplomat in charge of Latin America,
admitted in an unusually friendly comment that the enabling law was nothing
new. "It's something valid under the constitution (and) as with any tool of
democracy, it depends on how it is used."

So what is important here is a change in the nature of government rather
than a madcap scheme to seize private assets, soak the rich, and nationalise
everything in sight by presidential decree. Perhaps the most significant of
the planned reforms is the provision of finance and teeth to the "communal
councils" springing up in their thousands all over the country. The future
"socialist democracy" of Venezuela will depend more on these grassroots
expressions of the popular will than the national assembly in Caracas. Since
the opposition parties foolishly boycotted the assembly elections, the
entirely pro-Chávez assembly has a rather limited use.

For most of the past eight years, Chávez has moved ahead in response to the
actions of others. The attempted coup d'etat of 2002, the oil strike of
2003, and the recall referendum of 2004 all led to an acceleration of the
revolutionary process. Now he is advancing under his own steam. We know that
he wants to retain the commanding heights of the economy, the traditional
ambition of Latin American nationalists as well as old-fashioned social
democrats. That means oil and gas and electricity, and telecommunications.
We know that he hopes to extend the land reform, the essential first step
towards rural development. We know too that he wants to improve tax
collection and to do something about gross inequality, the untackled evil
throughout Latin America except in Cuba. We also know that he is hostile to
unbridled capitalism, and has made friendly remarks about cooperatives and
other ways of organising the private sector.

Yet the Venezuelan future is still interestingly uncertain and opaque, for
the simple reason that Chávez is not a dictator and has never shown the
slightest sign of wanting to become one. He has no blueprint that he seeks
to impose on the country. He wants to extend press freedom, for example, not
to reduce it, and, while curbing the power to make money of irresponsible
press barons like Marcel Granier of RCTV, he has also put state funds into
the development of community radio and television stations, as well as more
ambitious projects like Vive, the new cultural channel, and Telesur, the
international news channel. These new lines of communication already provide
fresh opportunities for popular participation, the ultimate safeguard of his
regime and the source of all future programmes and policies.

Bolivia's Morales: 'This little Indian won't be leaving office'
by Federico Fuentes

.............A poll published in the main La Paz daily, La Razon, a
year after Bolivia's powerful indigenous movement took
control of parliament, showed that Morales's approval
across the major cities was 59% -- higher than his
historic 53.7% vote in the December 2005 elections. The
rate was higher in the countryside, where Morales's
main support base is.

This reflects the support that Bolivia's national
revolution, led by Morales and with Bolivia's
indigenous people as its core, has among the Bolivian
masses, who, having regained their spirit and dignity
are fighting to liberate Bolivia and decolonise its
racist state structures.

A year of indigenous power

This strong support is in large part due to the
progress made on one of Morales's key election promises
-- the nationalisation of hydrocarbons. Having
overthrown two presidents in their struggle to regain
control over their natural resources, particularly gas,
over 90% of Bolivians approved when Morales sent the
military into the gas fields on May 1 to return control
of hydrocarbons to the state.

Six months later after intense negotiations, which
resulted in the resignation of hardline pro-
nationalisation hydrocarbons minister Andres Soliz Rada
and a war of words between the Bolivian government and
Brazil's state oil company Petrobras, 44 new contracts
were signed. The new rules meant that the state gained
control over hydrocarbons, from below the ground
through to the end of the industrialisation phase, and
the corporations were to become service providers. The
state would receive 82% of the revenue, which the
corporations previously took for themselves.

The government also successfully renegotiated a
doubling of the price for gas sold to Argentina, and
hopes to do the same soon with Brazil.

The result -- nearly US$1.3 billion in revenue from gas
(an increase of $635 million). Combined with a growth
rate of 4.3%, a reduction of parliamentary salaries by
50% and macroeconomic stability, the government has
been able to use this strong economic position to begin
to deliver on some of its promises, reversing the
impact of neoliberalism in Bolivia.

Morales has personally traveled around the country to
redistribute the gains from the gas nationalisation.
These include (with substantial help from Cuba and
Venezuela) 2000 Cuban doctors, 20 new hospitals, a
literacy campaign in which 73,000 out of 300,000
participants have already graduated, the Juancito Pinto
annual bonus for all school children under the age of
10 to help cover the costs of schooling, and tractors
as part of the government land reform plan.

This high level of support has also allowed the
government to move forward with its "agrarian
revolution", violently opposed by the large landowners
who have begun to set up paramilitary groups.

Challenges ahead

While there were some important gains made in
implementing the government's economic plans over the
past year, its key political plank -- the Constituent
Assembly -- remains stalled by the opposition.

According to Morales, the Constituent Assembly "is the
best democratic instrument ... to profoundly change our
country. It is the best instrument to unify, to
integrate our national territory." He added that the
assembly is "the hope of Bolivians to patent the
necessary structural transformations, and the changes
in the economic and social sphere".

Three other key challenges the government faces are
pushing forward with the industrialisation of gas and
mining to maintain and further improve economic
stability, better management at the microeconomic level
in order to ensure more resources and redistributed
wealth reach those sectors and regions that need it
most, and better coordination in the face of the rise
of a new opposition.

Morales noted that still pending in the process of
nationalising hydrocarbons was obtaining 50%-plus-1 of
the shares in companies operating in Bolivia, and the
refoundation of the state oil company YPFB, which is
still not in a position to carry out the
industrialisation of gas. The increased revenue from
the nationalisation, as well as help from Venezuelan
state oil company PDVSA, through the newly formed joint
project Petroandina, will allow the government to move
ahead on these tasks, Morales said.

Morales also used his one-year anniversary to announce
the "second nationalisation" of the mining industry.
Last year, mining exports equaled $1.1 billion, of
which only 1.5% went into state coffers. Morales
proposed that at least half of this now go to the
state, while the exportation of raw minerals will be
limited to give primacy to Bolivia's industrialisation.

To help this, the government proposed recovering
ownership of the Vinto tin smelter, sold off illegally
under previous neoliberal governments. The Morales
government has already begun to rebuild the state
mining company Comibol, having integrated 5000 ex-
cooperative miners into the company.

National Coalition for Change

In order to ensure better management of the state
apparatus, particularly in the opposition-controlled
regions, as well as coordination among the social
movements and their representatives in parliament and
the Constituent Assembly, Morales initiated the
National Coalition for Change on January 23.

The coalition is to involve 16 national social
organisations -- including indigenous, campesino and
workers' organisations -- and will "coordinate the
social power of the social movements with the executive
and legislative power and the constituent delegates,
and will fundamentally define the political,
revolutionary, democratic and cultural line", explained
the president of the lower house of parliament, Raul

This coordination is necessary to confront the rise of
a new opposition, based in the pro-business civic
committee of Santa Cruz and the prefectures of the four
eastern departments (states) referred to as the "half
moon". Raising the banner of autonomy in order to
maintain its hegemony over the east, the Santa Cruz
elite (tied to the gas transnationals and the US) have
attempted to mobilise the predominately white middle
and upper classes against the Morales government.

Stressing the need for social stability, furthering
economic improvements and defending autonomy within a
clear framework of national unity and control of
essential areas -- such as natural resources, police
and taxes -- will be crucial to isolating this new
opposition and winning over and consolidating large
sections of the middle classes and the armed forces to
supporting Bolivia's revolution.

Similar structures are to be established at the
departmental (or state) level from February, which
along with departmental delegates selected by the
national government will help in coordination and
organisation at this level. Such coordination has been
impeded because six out of nine prefectures are
controlled by the right.

On January 24, the three opposition parties in the
Senate united to elect one of their own as president of
the upper house, National Unity senator Jose
Villavicencio. This revival of the "mega coalition" of
the neoliberal parties that sustained the previous
governments is one more part of the oppositions plan to
block Morales's attempts to lead a democratic and
cultural revolution.

That day, Bolpress reported that other official sources
said this new opposition directorate would ask for the
revision of the parliamentary session that passed the
new agrarian reform law. Villavicencio has also
announced that the Senate would review another bill in
that session relating to cooperation with the
Venezuelan military on Bolivian soil.

In response, Morales was quoted by the Bolivian
Information Service on January 24 as saying that "the
right, the neoliberals, the auctioneers have united,
but there is no need for us to protest".

"The experience we have is that there are social forces
who are demanding their rights. Within this framework I
am sure that the people will identify if [the Senate]
works against this process of change."

Morales recalled how the opposition had tried to block
the passage of the agrarian reform law, as well as the
ratification of the gas contracts, by boycotting the
Senate, and argued that "it was the mobilisation of the
people that unblocked the Senate".


Tens of thousands of Mexicans filled Mexico City's huge Zocalo
plaza on Jan. 31 in the first large demonstration against the
center-right government of President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa,
who took office on Dec. 1 and now faces popular anger over a
dramatic rise in the price of corn and other staples [see Update
#884]. "Without corn, there's no country," the marchers chanted.
"We don't want PAN, we want tortillas." (The initials of
Calderon's National Action Party, PAN, form the Spanish for

At the demonstration the organizers proclaimed the "Declaration
of the Zocalo," which called for "broad social unity" to achieve
a "new social pact," including renegotiation of the agricultural
sections of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); an
emergency program to increase production; restrictions on price
increases; punishment for hoarders; an emergency wage increase; a
push to create jobs; and an end to repression of social
movements. One participant was the sociologist Pablo Gonzalez
Casanova, a former rector of the Autonomous National University
of Mexico (UNAM). Asked by reporters if the movement could turn
back Calderon's neoliberal economic policies, he answered: "We're
going to win, because now we are in a stage where neoliberalism
doesn't fool anyone.... The whole world knows clearly that
neoliberalism is one of the great lies of humanity...."

The march was called by a broad coalition of 150 labor unions and
campesino and farmer groups. The coalition included labor
federations like the National Workers Union (UNT) that split from
the old Congress of Labor (CT), which is dominated by the
formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); but
another important component was PRI-affiliated groups like
National Campesino Federation (CNC). The march organizers
insisted that the demonstration would not be partisan and barred
political speeches. But many protesters waited in the Zocalo for
the arrival of a second march around the same demands; this one
was led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the center-left coalition
candidate who narrowly lost the July 2 presidential race to
Calderon, according to electoral authorities. [La Jornada
(Mexico) 2/1/07]

The Costs of Rising Tortilla Prices in Mexico
Enrique C. Ochoa

Spurred by the increasing use of corn for ethanol,
tortilla prices in Mexico have skyrocketed by more that
50 percent in many regions. Mexicans protested these
sharp increases, forcing the government of Felipe
Calderon to publicly promise to punish speculators and
to call for increased corn imports. Calderon also
negotiated a pact with the largest tortilla producers
to cap the price of tortillas at 8.5 pesos per
kilogram - a 40 percent price increase. However few
consumers will benefit from these efforts. Instead,
WALMART, the large corporations that dominate the
industry, and the U.S. transnational companies that
supply Mexico with corn are likely to be the

The tortilla price hikes and the government's responses
will be shouldered by Mexico's poorest consumers and
producers. Tortilla prices have increased by more than
10 times the recent increase in the minimum wage. In
some states a kilogram of tortillas accounts for as
much as one-third of the daily minimum wage. Increasing
imports is likely to further devastate Mexican corn
producers, who have been especially hard hit since the
1994 implementation of NAFTA.

The Mexican government has not always been willing to
sacrifice the poor for giant corporations. In the
Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century, Mexico's
working classes demanded social justice. Successive
Mexican administrations responded by granting land to
the landless and subsidizing the production of
tortillas. As Mexican governments sought to transform
the economy through industrialization and large scale
agriculture, peasant and worker resistance led to the
creation of a government agency with a chain of stores
to keep basic food prices within the reach of
consumers. This agency established a minimum producer
price and purchased staple grains directly from small
producers. While the goal was not to eradicate poverty
or challenge the market system, this authoritarian
responsiveness provided a basic security net for
millions of Mexicans.

These social policies were greatly weakened by Mexico's
economic crisis of the 1980s and the U.S.-inspired
response. Social programs were slashed and food
subsidies eliminated as private businesses were hailed
as the solution to Mexico's economic ills. This has led
to a virtual abandonment of the countryside. Mexico's
farm employment has been reduced by 30 percent since
the implementation of NAFTA. According to a study the
International Relations Center, between 1999 and 2004
the price paid Mexican corn farmers fell by about half
as U.S. imports flooded Mexican markets. While for
centuries Mexico's campesinos have produced maize and
other basic staples, their lands are increasingly
privatized or abandoned and are forced to migrate in
search of better opportunities.

Among the major beneficiaries of the government
policies in the 1980s and 1990s, and of recent price
hikes, is the Mexican tortilla giant Grupo MASECA
(GRUMA). Founded in 1949, GRUMA pioneered an industrial
process of making corn flour and tortillas. When
subsidies to maize and tortillas plummeted, GRUMA
thrived as Mexican President Carlos Salinas diverted
state corn stocks away from smaller subsidized tortilla
factories and to the ready-mix tortilla industry, such
as GRUMA, openly favoring them as more efficient

GRUMA's dominance of the Mexican market stimulated its
international expansion. GRUMA controls approximately
65 percent of the overall Central American corn flour
market. In the U.S., with Mission and Guerrero as their
key brands, GRUMA controls about 70% of the tortilla
market in Southern California. It operates 13
industrial plants in the U.S including the largest
tortilla factory in the world in Rancho Cucamonga.
GRUMA has benefited from its strategic alliance with
Archer Daniel's Midland, one of the world's largest
agribusinesses and a key recipient of U.S. corn

WALMART, Mexico's number one private employer and
leading retailer, also stands to gain from the price
hikes. In its nearly 800 stores, WALMART has not
raised the price of tortillas as much as other
retailers. Its dominance of the market allows it to
undersell smaller stores thereby attracting more
customers. Smaller and national retailers are likely
to be the casualties, enabling WALMART to consolidate
its monopolistic hold over the Mexican market.

The current crisis provides an opportunity for
agribusiness to strengthen their dominance of the
Mexican countryside. Several large producer
organizations and biotech firms have called on the
government to authorize the planting of genetically
modified corn to increase yield in Mexico. In the
search for a quick fix, however, such a policy would
deepen Mexico's food dependence.

The lack of food sovereignty has had disastrous
consequences for Mexicans. According to Laura Carlsen
of the International Relations Center, the Mexican
government recently reported that 12.7 percent of
children under age five are chronically malnourished.
In the countryside, the percent is nearly double. The
increases in the price of tortillas, heightens the risk
of malnutrition. Hector Bourges Rodriguez, the
director of Nutrition of the National Institute of
Medical Sciences and Nutrition, reports that tortillas
are the one food item in the Mexican diet that deliver
the greatest amount of nutritional components.
Increasing the price could lead to the further
deteriorization of the Mexican diet.

The recent price increases of tortillas in Mexico,
therefore, are not mere market adjustments. They have
profound implications for who controls Mexico's basic
food staple. Long-term solutions to price increases
must be rooted in policies that increase Mexico's food
sovereignty and give more control to local campesino
producers and consumers. Short-term panaceas that
benefit WALMART, GRUMA, and U.S. agribusiness will not
improve the standard of living of the average Mexican;
instead, they may lead to greater malnutrition and

*Enrique C. Ochoa is a professor of History at the
California State University, Los Angeles and the
2006-07 Weglyn Chair of Multicultural Studies at Cal
Poly Pomona. The author of Feeding Mexico: The
Political Uses of Food Since 1910 (2000), he is
currently writing a book on the tortilla industry in
Mexico and Los Angeles.

Chavez a threat to democracy, US intelligence chief says:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez exports a form of "radical populism" throughout Latin America that poses a threat to democracy, the top US intelligence official said Tuesday. John Negroponte, during hearings on his nomination to become deputy secretary of state

Viva Chavez: Venezuela is the hip new socialist utopia

Leftists are flocking to see a country being transformed, writes Rory
Carroll in Caracas

TO SCEPTICS, they are naive Westerners who would not recognise
communist tyranny if it expropriated their sandals.

"Malodorous, left-wing, US and European peace creeps armed with Mom's
credit card and brand new Birkenstocks," sneered the American Thinker,
a right-wing magazine.

To the Venezuelan Government, however, they are valued friends who are
witnessing first-hand the positive changes sweeping the slums and
countryside and who return home, a volunteer army of ambassadors, to
spread the good news.

Meet the revolutionary tourists, a wave of backpackers, artists,
academics and politicians on a mission to discover if Venezuela's
President, Hugo Chavez, really is forging a radical alternative to
neo-liberalism and capitalism.

>From a trickle, a few years ago, there are now thousands. They travel
individually and on package tours, exploring a purported left-wing
mecca, and their ranks are set to swell now Mr Chavez is accelerating
his self-styled revolution after last month's landslide re-election.
"Socialism or death - I swear it," he said last week, and declared
himself a communist.

"It's just amazing being here. There is so much vibe and passion,
there is truly a sense of revolution," gushed Lucy Dale, 20, a
university student from Chicago on a 17-day trip. "I want to return to
do volunteer work."

Global Exchange, a San Francisco group that doubles as a travel agent,
organised trips for almost 500 Americans last year, five times the
2003 figure, said Jojo Farrell, its Venezuela liaison worker.

>From Britain, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign plans to send at least
six delegations this year, mostly trade unionists. "Interest is
growing significantly," said Andy Goodall, co-ordinator of the
Wolverhampton-based group.

Visitors tend to shun the Caribbean beaches in favour of tours to
agricultural co-operatives, shantytown medical clinics and adult
literacy programs.

"We saw healthy, happy, well-dressed children taught by well-qualified
teachers who get paid a decent salary. These are opportunities that
did not exist for poor people before Chavez," said Kate Young, who
travelled with the Rotary Foundation.

Others hail Caracas and its alliance with other left-wing governments
for loosening the US's traditional grip on the region.

"We need checks and balances to US unilateralism, and any good North
American would laud Chavez for doing that," said Clif Roberts, a
Californian writer who stayed on in Venezuela after attending a poetry

Visiting celebrities such as the actor Danny Glover, the singer Harry
Belafonte and the anti-Iraq war activist Cindy Sheehan, echo the

Many enthusiasts set up solidarity groups when they return home and
record their impressions in blogs, amplifying the message sent out by
Venezuela's embassies and information offices.

The aim is to correct alleged mainstream media distortion depicting Mr
Chavez as an autocratic megalomaniac.

"The UK media is very disappointing, always a negative slant," said
Rod Finlayson, 62, a British union official who was thrilled by the
nationalisations and cultural events. "Bach in the slums. Stuff you
could only dream about."

Dreaming, say some critics, is the problem. Instead of investigating
complexities, such as the corruption and mismanagement undermining
some social programs, visitors sleepwalk through government spin and
never hear allegations that Venezuela's oil bonanza is being wasted or
that democracy is being smothered.

Mr Finlayson said his delegation ignored such voices because the goal
was to express solidarity, not investigate. But the group did
encounter some Chavez critics: walking through a wealthy district of
Caracas, it was pelted with eggs.

Some groups, such as those travelling with Global Exchange, meet
opposition figures and hear claims that Mr Chavez is hoarding power by
collapsing his movement into a single socialist party, not renewing
the licence of an opposition-aligned TV station and plotting to
abolish limits on terms of office.

"I was encouraged by what I saw in Venezuela but the focus on one
person as the source of hope strikes me as unfortunate," said Sarah
Gelder, an editor of the Seattle-based magazine Yes!.

Another left-wing journalist, Monica Vera, hailed the country as a
progressive beacon but voiced unease: "I just hope it continues on
that track."

Last Saturday Mr Chavez vowed to replace municipal governments with
councils inspired by the Paris Commune, France's shortlived experiment
with radical socialism in 1871.

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