President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela recently subsidised cheaper bus fares for poor people in London. Now the man who was once removed from his post in a coup that lasted hours and was backed by the United States is pushing forward with the battle for the moral ground in the third world. The following article describes this interesting policy:
Natalie Obiko Pearson and Ian James, The Associated Press
CARACAS, VENEZUELA - Laid-off Brazilian factory workers have their jobs back, Nicaraguan farmers are getting low-interest loans, and Bolivian mayors can afford new health clinics, all thanks to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Bolstered by windfall oil profits, Chavez's government is now offering more direct state funding to Latin America and the Caribbean than the United States. A tally by The Associated Press shows Venezuela has pledged more than $8.8 billion in aid, financing and energy funding so far this year.
While the most recent figures available from Washington show $3 billion in U.S. grants and loans reached the region in 2005, it isn't known how much of the Venezuelan money has actually been delivered. And Chavez's spending abroad doesn't come close to the overall volume of U.S. private investment and trade in Latin America.
But in terms of direct government funding, the scale of Venezuela's commitments is unprecedented for a Latin American country.
Chavez's largesse tends to benefit left-leaning nations that support his vision of a Latin America with greater independence from the United States. But he denies the two countries are in a competition.
"We don't want to compete with anyone. I wish the United States were 100 times above us," Chavez told the AP in a recent interview. "But no, the U.S. government views the region in a marginal way. What they offer is a pittance sometimes, and with unacceptable pressures that at times countries can't accept."
U.S. aid tends to be low-profile, constrained by strict guidelines and often distributed through other institutions so that recipients may not know it's from the U.S. government. Venezuela offers money with few strings attached and a personal Chavez touch that aid experts say generates more good will dollar for dollar.
Clay Lowery, the U.S. Treasury Department's acting undersecretary for international affairs, argues that the U.S. plays a larger role than reflected in its aid figures.
The United States, for instance, drove Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank debt relief deals totaling $7.5 billion over the past three years in Latin America, he said.
"Who is the biggest financier of the IDB? The United States. Who is the biggest financier of the World Bank? The United States is. We don't count those," Lowery said. "We're basically engaged on a multilevel, multi-prong approach."
Still, as the Chavez effect gains ground, there are signs the U.S. is responding to the challenge.
The U.S. Navy medical ship Comfort is on a four-month, 12-country voyage to Latin American ports and has already treated more than 80,000 patients with free vaccinations, eye care, dental checkups and surgeries aboard the converted oil tanker.